Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 722d–731b

By © Achim Raschka / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Just as this dialogue has gone on for more than a hundred pages before actually getting to any laws, so a “preamble” may be used as a good tool to set the stage for a code of laws. In fact, the legislator ought to use these tools regularly as a way of prepping the citizens for obedience without slavishness. Of course there ought to be a good deal of discretion when it comes to the use of a preamble (not every law needs a long justification), but the default ought to be to provide an attractive explanation and defense of the laws.

And so, 140 pages into the text, Cleinias encourages the Athenian to get to whatever it is he wants to say:

But let’s not was any more time delaying, sir. Let’s get back to our theme and make a fresh start… until the entire preface has been adequately put together. (723e)

The Athenian agrees that they’ve said all they need to about the authority of the gods, families, etc. (though these topics will come up again) and suggests that the only thing left for the preamble is to explain the best way to prioritize the balance between soul, body, and property. The discussion that follows hits each of these, beginning with the soul, then moving to the body, and finally ending with property (children, wealth, etc.).

Few people would disagree that care for the soul is the second most important endeavor man can set upon—after honoring the gods. And yet, the average person is more likely to be in the process of damaging his own soul than he is to be caring for it:

…hardly a man among us honours it [the soul] in the right way: he only thinks he does. You see, nothing that is evil can confer honour, because to honour something is to confer marvellous benefits upon it; and anyone who reckons he is magnifying his soul by flattery or gifts or indulgence, so that he fails to make it better than it was before, may think he is honouring it, but in fact that is not what he is doing at all. (727a)

Everyone thinks they are morally improving themselves and benefiting their souls. But, on closer examination, what we find is that the common wisdom about moral improvement is little more than self indulgence wrapped up in the language of pop psychology. There are any number of ways that this increasing depravity reveals itself in our lives, including (but not limited to):

  • Blaming others for our own faults while holding ourselves guiltless;
  • Indulging in pleasures contrary to the established laws;
  • Refusing to accept the pain that might come with obeying an established law;
  • Valuing physical beauty over virtue.

It is always easier for us to blame others for our sins and to justify our disobedience to the established laws than it is to give up an illicit pleasure in favor of a licit pain. And yet, true virtue requires us to self-sacrificially obey the established authority (who in turn has the responsibility of outlining virtue and vice). Worst of all, when we do succeed at breaking the law in the name of pleasure, we find that we are more miserable than before. In a sense, by means of our vice we have passed beyond the stage of “judgment” and jumped straight into “punishment” because of the severe damage we have done to our souls. So we are obligated to do our best to avoid this wretched condition by fully submitting ourselves to the laws.

Just as we should work to take care of our souls, so we should work to take care of our bodies. The Athenian has an interesting approach to that—the soul ought to strive for the greatest possible virtue, but the body should not work for such an extreme. In fact, the body ought to strive for a balance:

…the body which achieves a mean between all these extreme conditions [health/beauty/strength and sickness/ugliness/weakness] is by far the soundest and best-balanced, because the one extreme makes the soul bold and boastful, while the other makes it abject and grovelling. (728e)

This is also true of money—we need to have enough to live on but not so much that it corrupts us or tempts those around us. We especially ought to be concerned about the effect of excess money on our children. We must be careful not to let our concern for our body replace our concern for virtue. This can mean giving our bodies too much attention (vanity) or too little (asceticism). Both take our eyes off of true virtue and force us to think more about the body than its third place position merits (after the gods and the soul).

In the same way, we must have a balanced view of our children such that they see the virtue of modesty as their true heritage, rather than any material wealth we might leave behind. We ought not neglect our children, but we ought to care for them. The best way we can do this at the end of the day is by setting a good example:

The best way to educate the younger generation (as well as yourself) is not to rebuke them but patently to practise all your life what you preach to others. (729c)

In addition to caring for our children, we also have responsibilities to others in the state—both other citizens (including friends and family) and visiting foreigners. In each case, a proto-Golden Rule ought to dominate:

And as for friends and companions, you will find them easier to get on with in day-to-day contact if you make more of their services to you and esteem them more highly than they do, and put a smaller value on your own good turns to your friends and companions than they do themselves. (729d)

This is even more true of foreigners, who lack the web of social relationships that provide us with legal and cultural protections. They especially ought to be respected and cared for, and again this is best done by example.

Taking a holistic view of all these relationships and the virtue that ought to suffuse them brings us back to the question of personal morality. The beginning of this is honesty:

Truth heads the list of all things good, for gods and men alike. Let anyone who intends to be happy and blessed be its partner from the start, so that he may live as much of his life as possible a man of truth. (730c)

We can hardly expect to live the life of virtue if we can’t be honest about ourselves and the world around us. Those who know the truth and choose to lie and those who simply make up stuff without knowing the truth are both outside the realm of virtue (the latter are also idiots, according to the Athenian).

Yet honesty is only a starting place—virtue must be not only self-aware, it must be evangelical. That is, virtue must spread itself around both by setting the example itself and by seeking out and exposing wickedness. Those who refuse to spread the wealth of virtue are active hindrances to the moral development of the state and ought to be censured (though without suggesting that they do not possess the virtues themselves).

More on these virtues in the next post.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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