Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 761e–768e

Third century BC Greek road. Photo by Heinz-Josef Lücking, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Having discussed the military and its public duties across the whole state (not so much its responsibilities in warfare) and several categories of public works officials, the Athenian discusses the role of the “country-wardens” in the court system. While some of the specifics of their job is a bit obscure, the overall point is clear enough:

The Country-Wardens are to be no exception… for giving way to boot-lickers they must be publicly disgraced. (762a)

“Rural” must not be allowed to equal “unjust.” In fact, justice must rule in every part of the state no matter how sparsely populated it happens to be. Nor should the obscure corners of the state be allowed to become havens from lawsuits or a means by which people can escape justice.

The key to keeping the countryside virtuous is the idea that the country-wardens must set the examples themselves. At the very least, this means showing up for work—anyone who abandons his post even for a day without permission will have his name listed

…in the market-place as a deserter from his post; if [it is so listed], he will have to bear the disgrace of having turned traitor to the state, and anyone who happens to meet him will be entitled to give him a beating if he wants to, without being punished for it. (762c)

There is no legal equivalent, to the best of my knowledge, with regard to our contemporary county commissioners…

The punishment here is so harsh in part because of how far these country-wardens are from the supervision of the Guardians of the Laws and in part because this is the lowest level of public official and the place where those who will eventually become Guardians themselves cut their teeth in administration:

No one will ever make a commendable master without having been a servant first; one should be proud not so much of ruling well but of serving well—and of serving the laws above all… and secondly, if we are young, those who are full of years and honour. (762e)

This small office is where future rulers learn that their job is first and foremost to serve the state, and second to serve the aged and elderly—those who cannot care for themselves. Given how scattered these country-wardens are and their schedule for rotation, this is also how the leaders get to know the whole state well—a necessary component for all who wish to lead.

From the country-wardens, we turn to the city-wardens and the market-wardens. The former are charged with the care of the public works built by the military and with ensuring that the water coming into the city is pure and that the roads going out of the city are clear for communication. Because each of these tasks is both time-intensive and somewhat specialized, only the highest property class is to be eligible for this office. Again, this office is chosen by a combination of election, lot, and supervision by the Guardians of the Laws.

The latter, the market-wardens, are chosen in the same way as the city-wardens and charged with care of the market, the temples, and the public works within the city. There is some confusion here given that we seem to have three offices associated with public works, but the best I can tell it looks something like this:

1) the military builds roads, the water works, etc.;
2) the city-wardens maintain the system outside the city;
3) the market-wardens maintain the system inside the city.

Or perhaps the Athenian wanted overlapping layers of responsibility to make sure the work got done.

More interesting, as an aside we get a note about participation in government:

Voting is compulsory for all in every election, and anyone who fails in his duty and is denounced to the authorities should be fined fifty drachmas and get the reputation of being a scoundrel. Attendance at the assembly (the general meeting of the state) is to be optional, except for members of the first and second property-classes, who will be fined ten drachmas if their absence from such a meeting is proved. (764a)

The poor are excluded from mandatory attendance because they cannot afford the day off of work. In Athens and in Plato’s imaginary state, they too had trouble getting people interested in democracy. If you want to think more about this, I highly recommend Aristophanes’s excellent play The Wasps that tackles these issues from the perspective of its absurd extremes.

Having dealt with the lower officials of the state, the Athenian now turns to what he considers the truly important offices: those in charge of education and justice. Of the two, education is the most important since it is the civilizing force of the nation.

The day-to-day work of education involves officials in charge of local gymnasia and competitions (athletic and academic). These officials are to be elected, but only from a pool of specialists who know the subject matters in question and only by a body of directly interested citizens. This section isn’t as complicated as it appears at first glance (no doubt in part because the translator does a good job of cleaning it up for us)—the overall point is that all education has two components: intellectual and physical. Each of these has two further components: instructional and competitive. There should be specialists in charge of each of these combinations of components who are capable of passing civilization on to the next generation.

In charge of all education is what the translator calls the “Minister of Education.” This office is to be filled by a man over the age of fifty who has (legitimate) children—preferably sons and daughters, but at least some children. This office should be filled by the man who is without dispute the best citizen of the state, since he has the greatest responsibility of any official:

Any living creature that flourishes in its first stages of growth gets a tremendous impetus towards its natural perfection and the final development appropriate to it… Man is a “tame” animal, as we put it, and of course if he enjoys a good education and happens to have the right natural disposition, he’s apt to be a most heavenly and gentle creature; but his upbringing has only to be inadequate or misguided and he’ll become the wildest animal on the face of the earth. (766a)

This official is to be chosen for five years from the Guardians of the Laws by the gathered officials of the state (excluding the council) by secret ballot, but only after scrutiny by the Guardians.

If the most important offices of the state are those concerning education, the most important institutions are the courts:

Of course, any state without duly established courts simply ceases to be a state. (766d)

We cannot live the best life as a state, or even perhaps a good life as a state without education; but we cannot have a state at all without at least an attempt at the pursuit of justice. And so courts must be fair; the officials must be qualified; and there must be a tiered accountability system that considers as many aspects of the case in question as possible.

Some of the language surrounding the courts will sound odd to us until we remember that at this point, there is little in the way of separation of powers. Most Greek states had some form of jury, but our equivalent of a judge would often be provided from the ranks of currently serving officials (or chosen by lot from the jury itself). Courts that didn’t use juries would likewise often be presided over by a public official acting as a judge. What we see in the Athenian’s outline of a court system is the attempt to blend the Greek jury system, public officials, and judicial expertise. The goal of this confusing system (even by Greek standards the Athenian’s outline is somewhat Byzantine) is the pursuit of truth and justice in the courtroom.

And with this outline, the Athenian thinks we may now proceed to specific legislation. We’ll pick up with that in the next post.


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

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