Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 769a–775a

Marriage of Hercules and Hebe, from an Apulian vase.


Having established the role of some of the officials of the state, the Athenian moves on to specific legislation beginning with that governing the family. This is directly related to the previous discussion of the leadership of the state, given that tomorrow’s leaders are currently being reared by families. This means we need to have clear and well-structured laws governing family life and education (the two are not really separate categories of law in any case).

In fact, educating future leaders well is especially important when we remember that government is an ongoing process, rather than a once-and-for-all proposition:

First of all, the legislator will want to write his laws and make them as accurate as he can; then as time goes on and he tries to put his pet theories into practice—well, do you think there’s any legislator so stupid as not to realize that his code has many inevitable deficiencies which must be put right by a successor, if the state he’s founded is to enjoy a continuous improvement in its administrative arrangements, rather than suffer a decline? (769d)

The example of painting given by the Athenian is a bit strange to us, because we don’t really think of a painting as something that needs to be “touched up” over time to keep it from fading—in fact, the very idea of redoing the faded colors on a work of great art is anathema to most art lovers today. Greek painting, however, was very different. In addition to creating new works of art, Greek artists also had the responsibility of renewing faded colors on old works, keeping them looking fresh and new. This is what we must do when we raise new legislators. They must be able both to see what the original intent behind the law was, while simultaneously renewing, modifying, and improving it for their own times—just as artists do with faded colors. The original vision of the law is to be embraced even as the means are to change over time and as the generations pass.

Lest we’ve forgotten, the Athenian reminds us of the vision:

Our aim in life should be goodness and the spiritual virtue appropriate to mankind… No man, whoever he is, should ever be found valuing anything else, if it impedes his progress—not even, in the last resort, the state. Rather than have the state tolerate the yoke of slavery and be ruled by unworthy hands, it may be absolutely necessary to allow it to be destroyed, or abandon it by going into exile. (770c–d)

That last line might be a bit more than is strictly wise to say to the young. Still, there could be worse lessons than “virtue is central” to pass on to the next generation.

We should note that although Plato does make provision for the necessary changes that states have to go through, such change in the laws is by no means to be easy. In fact, once a rule is on the books officially (which should require a long and careful process) it can only be changed by means of unanimous consent. That is, absolutely everyone involved in the state must agree—all officials, all citizens, and the gods (via their oracles).

If the verdict [of changing a law] is unanimously in favour, then they may amend, but never in any other conditions whatever; the law will be that the opposition must always win the day. (772s)

Which really means that the laws will not change, because there is no disaster so severe that absolutely every person will vote the same way.

The laws governing families, in addition to aiming at virtue, are to be based on the dual foundations of religion and math. Specifically, that magic number 5040 (the ideal number of families in our imaginary state) is to be the sum of all families and tribes in the state. Each division within this overall number of households is to be given its own god or demigod along with all the attendant rites and equipment. Sacrifices will be held twice per month—once regionally and once locally:

This arrangement is intended to ensure, first, that we enjoy the favour of the gods and heaven in general, and secondly… that we should grow familiar and intimate with each other in every kind of social contact. (771d)

Again, Plato is making little of whether the gods in question are actual gods (though Paul Elmer More has some interesting things to say about that), the point here is the role of religion as the cultural and social glue that holds society together. Along with math.

From the religious and arithmetic foundations of the state, we now turn to the specific laws that govern the family.

As with several other laws, the Athenian gives us something of a preface to the marriage laws in which he argues that the point of marriage is balance. This is not a contradiction to the earlier statements arguing that the goal is virtue. Marriage is the act of teaming up with someone to pursue virtue, which means that when considering a marriage partner we need to find people who will offset our defects and supplement our strengths. The rich ought to marry down financially to keep themselves grounded and to keep wealth from accumulating in the hands of the few; while the poor ought to marry up financially in order to better themselves and their families. Likewise the talkative ought to marry the quiet, the stubborn the flexible, the “phlegmatic with the headstrong,” and so on (773). All of this contributes not only to individual virtue, but to the overall health of the state:

One general rule should apply to marriage: we should seek to contract the alliance that will benefit the state, not the one that we personally find most alluring. Everyone is naturally drawn to the person most like himself, and that puts the whole state off balance, because of discrepancies in wealth and character; and these in turn generally lead, in most states, to results we certainly don’t want to see in ours. (773c)

So far, we are still dealing with the preface—the Athenian’s idea that the beautiful ought to marry the ugly is explicitly a guideline rather than a law. As is, presumably, the rule means that before entering into marriage, the couple ought to know each other well and so give full disclosure of all pertinent details, to the point where this communication is the very purpose for dating (“young people’s recreation”). And by “dating,” Plato means that young people “should dance naked” (772a). Here at least, times seem to have changed significantly.

We finally get to our first true law governing marriage with the establishment of a maximum age for singleness: thirty-four. Anyone who is still unmarried when they turn thirty-five is to be fined yearly in proportion to his income. If he refuses to pay, the fine is multiplied by ten—and if there is a conspiracy of bachelors where the tax collectors refuse to collect the fine, they then owe that amount to the state. And if that’s not enough, those who refuse to marry are to be socially ostracized, losing all public respect and no longer able to hold positions of honor in the state.

And just to reinforce the fact that virtue is to be central to marriage, the Athenian functionally forbids dowries. To be sure, they are not technically outlawed, but any substantial dowry is accompanied by an equivalent tax. Were it not for the inclusion in this passage of the bride’s male relatives as the ones who arrange marriages for her, we could probably see something of an equalization of the genders in these passages on marriage. As it is, Plato’s Laws are still remarkably progressive given when he was writing.

More on marriage next time.


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

2 Responses to “The Laws: 769a–775a”

  1. Frank

    Somewhere around 773, my version reads: “Every man shall follow, not after the marriage which is most pleasing to himself, but after that which is most beneficial to the state.” That’s similar to the quote above.

    Plato wasn’t one for pick-up lines, was he? “Hey Baby, wanna go do something for the good of the State?” What happened to romance?


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