Having briefly covered slavery and women’s rights, the Athenian returns to the laws governing the family and the raising of children. As the note points out, both the English and (especially) the Greek are obscure at points in this passage. But in the context of Plato’s overall corpus the point is clear enough: the family too—including the act of procreation—must fall under the authority of the law. We do not get to have a private place where we can hide our vice. To that end, the Athenian suggests that there will be some kind of female “guardians” charged with keeping an eye on marriages to be sure that they are not only being fruitful, but taking steps to raise the best children possible:
The bride and groom should resolve to present the state with the best and finest children they can produce. Now, when human beings co-operate in any project, and give due attention to its planning and execution, the results they achieve are always of the best and finest quality; but if they act carelessly, or are incapable of intelligent action in the first place, the results are deplorable. (783e)
And so the bride and groom both ought to approach marriage and procreation with the highest sense of duty.
If they have the appropriate number of children (the exact number is not stated), then after a decade of marriage the family is relieved of its responsibility to the state and the authority of the female guardians over the married couple comes to an end. If they do not have children after ten years, especially if they are actively avoiding having them, they are to divorce and remarry with a more “productive” partner. If they refuse, female guardians are to intervene and take their case to the Guardians of the Laws proper, who are to levy social and cultural pressure to compel the couple to separate and remarry in the name of the state.
As loathsome as this passage is (truly one of the worst in the Laws even accounting for translation difficulties), it is interesting to note that at the very least even the Guardians of the Laws seem not to have the power to forcibly divorce a married couple—and adultery itself is to be severely punished. What’s more, the birth and growth of children are celebrated publicly by the state in the local temples, and it is admitted that most of what goes on in the home is far beyond the scope of the civil law to govern—even when it undermines virtue itself (788a). Plato does not analyze this for us, but I feel like there’s a dissertation on the legal role of the family for an aspiring grad student in there somewhere…
From the law concerning the creation of children, the Athenian moves on to raising and educating them. The goal of education is to make “our souls and bodies as fine and as handsome as they can be” (788c). This means that exercise must begin early—even to the point of exercising the bodies of infants in the womb. That’s not really an extreme Greek version of baby yoga (you can look that up on your own time), it’s rather the Athenian’s requirement for appropriate prenatal care. The mother ought to get proper exercise, proper nutrition, and the right kind of rest. Once the baby is born, exercise (of the infant’s limbs), nutrition, and rest are still in order and should be managed under the supervision of a professional. The Athenian goes so far as to say that constant motion is the idea, not in the sense of extreme motion, but in the sense of a gently rocking boat. After all, we know that this is what calms a child and puts him to sleep, in the same way constant moderate motion soothes a turbulent soul and settles the passions, putting the infant on the right track to become a balanced and virtuous citizen.
If anything, the weak link in the “pregnant mother/baby exercise program” is going to be the father, which is why the law should encourage such action rather than leaving care of children totally up to the parents. Fortunately, most men will be reasonable about this and adopt good childcare programs on their own initiative.
At this point, I’m the parent of a fairly young child so I’ll leave commenting on Plato’s accuracy here to those of you who have done it better and longer than I have.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.