Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 731c–738b

“Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma—The Choice between Virtue and Vice,” by Frans Francken the Younger, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


At some point, any theory of justice will have to deal with the question of what to do with those who are unjust. So long as societies are full of people (and so long as the eschaton has not been immanentized), there will be both chronic and occasional lawbreakers challenging the established order. The Athenian argues that before we can get into the specifics of what ought to be done with such people, we need to make sure that our own internal lives are in order. Before we can respond to their injustice, we must be sure that our response is not based on our own injustice:

Every man should combine in his character high spirit with the utmost gentleness… (731c)

This gentleness is to be based on pity for those who commit injustice, for in a very real sense they know not what they do:

… the first thing to realize here is that every unjust man is unjust against his will. No man on earth would ever deliberately embrace any of the supreme evils, least of all in the most precious parts of himself [the soul]… in general, the unjust man deserves just as much pity as any other sufferer. (731c)

This is not to say that all unjust individuals are alike—some are “curable” and some are not; it is, however, to say that the root of injustice is the same everywhere: ignorance of the good.

At this point, Plato gives us one of his most insightful statements in any of his works:

The most serious vice innate in most men’s souls is one for which everybody forgives himself and so never tries to find a way of escaping… It is [true] to say that the cause of each and every crime we commit is precisely [the] love of ourselves, a love which blinds us to the faults of the beloved and makes us bad judges of goodness and beauty and justice, because we believe we should honour our own ego rather than the truth. (732a)

The source of all crime is not just an ignorance of the good, it is a confusion of “the true good” with “myself.” We find it difficult even to know this is a problem, because our emotions get out of balance and we get wrapped up in physical pleasures and pains and forget that there is a transcendent good beyond ourselves.

Yet not all is lost. These same misguided pleasures and pains can point us back in the right direction, away from ourselves and toward the highest good:

That is why we should praise the noblest life—not only because it enjoys a fine and glorious reputation, but because (provided one is prepared to try it out instead of recoiling from it as a youth) it excels in providing what we all seek: a predominance of pleasure over pain throughout our lives. (733a)

This is not to say that the relationship between virtue, vice, pleasure, and pain is simple. In fact, when we examine the individual life we see how it is that the choice of vice (which looks to lead to pleasure) can appear reasonable. And yet on reflection, we further see that in the long run those who chose vice have done themselves such severe damage that they lose the little pleasure they had hoped to receive and gain nothing but misery and a bad reputation in its place.

To sum up, the life of physical fitness, and spiritual virtue too, is not only pleasanter than the life of depravity but superior in other ways as well: it makes for beauty, an upright posture, efficiency and a good reputation, so that if a man lives a life like that it will make his whole existence infinitely happier than his opposite number’s. (734e)

All this is what we gain from the good life, to say nothing of the transcendent joy that comes from living a life of virtue.

Having finished the preamble, the Athenian now begins to consider the nuts and bolts of the new state. This quite reasonably involves a discussion of geography and demographics. Directly related to this will be a consideration of the leadership and the code of laws.

The first consideration is that of the overall health of the citizen body. As a rancher or shepherd culls the herd of sick and weak animals, so the legislator must take steps to remove the “uncurable” elements from the state:

To purge a whole state, for instance, several methods may be employed, some mild, some drastic; and if a legislator were a dictator too he’d be able to purge the state drastically, which is the best way. (735d)

This drastic step is usually not a possibility, so milder measures must be taken (grudgingly, if I’m interpreting the Athenian correctly). The Athenian uses different examples (farming, water treatment) to make the same point: some people simply cannot be allowed to corrupt the state.

In a post–totalitarian regime world, this passage obviously should give us pause. Particularly in a world under the shadow of Christian thought, which says that God Himself came to save the undesirables and that all of us are ultimately undesirable, we ought to push back a bit here. And, perhaps most of all, in a nation and a culture that claims to value dissent and disagreement we ought to hesitate to “purge” society of the people who are causing problems.

With all those caveats given, Plato is still surely saying something that every viable political entity must do in one way or another. Whether we’re talking about a nation dealing with traitors and criminals or a local church excommunicating someone, there must be both a means and a rationale for the act. And while I think Plato goes too far, I also think we have to be careful not to overreact and consequently leave legitimate institutions no means of defining and defending their own boundaries. We should be careful not to exclude or expel someone because they are different, but we should also be careful not to tie our own hands to the point where it is impossible to deal with someone who is dangerous. Fortunately, this passage is vague enough that we can go on without having to get too hung up in the weeds that grow from our cultural knowledge of totalitarianism.

Assuming we’ve got some kind of set citizen body, what we find is that land and population must be accounted for simultaneously. One of the goals must be to eliminate potential conflict over scarce resources. This means that at the same time we must have a small population, a land large enough for everyone, and a citizen body that is virtuous enough to work hard on their property and generous enough to be willing to give it away for the good of the state. The ideal number of households here is 5,040, since it is divisible by every number between 1 and 10:

Everyone who legislates should have sufficient appreciation of arithmetic to know what number will be most use in every state, and why. (737e)

While I can appreciate the idea that legislators should have a basic understanding of math (is there anything that would help more with our national debt than that?), I find Plato’s use of arithmetic somewhat suspect… But then again, we’re not done with it yet. We’ll pick up with what these households are to do next time.


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

5 Responses to “The Laws: 731c–738b”

  1. gabe

    “…it is, however, to say that the root of injustice is the same everywhere: ignorance of the good.”

    Ain’t buying it!, No sirree!!!

    Plato appears to be somewhat schizophrenic here. above quote would indicate that Plato believes that all that is necessary is to “inform”, or instill in, an individual some notion / understanding of the good.
    Yet surely even in Plato’s time there were innumerable examples of persons that simply did not care for the good and chose to pursue their own ends. while we may argue that this is because they STILL did not know the good, it actually represents a circular argument.
    It may also be seen as a vestigial precursor of the modern notion of the “poverty & ignorance” theory of anti-social / criminal behavior. Are we not too familiar with the results of the deployment of that theory as the operative mode of social intervention
    No, clearly, there are some people, who recognizing the good, CHOOSE to act otherwise. Think of any one of many corrupt politicians of financiers. did Bernie Madoff NOT know the good. Plato may wish to invest this dialectic with a certain subtlety – “Ah, the poor man simply does not know what is good for him.”
    How does this differ from the modern Progressives (proto-totalitarian) notion / proselytizing about thier version of the Good. All who disagree with them are ipso facto ignorant of The Good. Yet, can we not admit of the possibility (read any daily newspaper) that some people simply choose to do evil things.

    Later Plato then does a bit of an about face. Well we will have to excommunicate those who are not curable. Wait a minute – I thought all they needed was to be informed. Like Progressives of today, why not just *nudge* them. Apparently, reality interposed itself and Plato recognized that some people are simply not redeemable.

    I suspect that Plato’s confusion, if that be what it is, derives from his position on “Ideals” If only we could attain the ideal – in this case, the Ideal of The Good.
    I say, this philosophical device of the Ideal has compelled Plato to advance a notion of human irresponsibility that is belied by the facts of human intercourse. It was just as true in his time as it is today.

    • Coyle Neal

      Exactly right–though in fairness it’s not Plato’s fault. It’s not like anyone has a totally satisfying answer to the problem of evil, though I happen to like the Augustine/Edwards approach…

      Excellent comment!

      • Coyle Neal

        Yep-Jonathan Edwards. He worked out Augustine’s theory of evil (without having read Augustine–though of course they were working with the same source materials 🙂 )

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: