Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 791d–800b


“How far,” the translator’s heading asks, “should a child be humoured?” The answer is “not very far at all.” More specifically, the Athenian states:

I belong to the school of thought which maintains that luxury makes a child bad-tempered, irritable, and apt to react violently to trivial things. At the other extreme, unduly savage repression turns children into cringing slaves and puts them so much at odds with the world that they become unfit to be members of a community. (791d)

Balance in all things, especially in raising children, is the rule the Athenian lays out for parents. And I think we can go ahead and say that like all rules for parents, this guideline is a good one exactly until it meets the real world—at which point all bets are off. I happen to think it is true that good parenting means loving your children rather than abusing them, while simultaneously disciplining your children appropriately rather than always indulging them. And I suppose that in a sense that involves some kind of balance on the part of the parent. But I also think it’s true that you can have a parent who does everything right and still raises a wicked adult, and a parent who does everything wrong and still raises a virtuous human being. Providence ultimately governs here as much as our effort. But as I said in the last post, I’m happy here to defer to those of you who have been parenting longer than I have.

The Athenian gives us a brief digression on why this topic merits so much attention. A lot of child rearing does not involve direct legislation but rather is focused on custom and tradition. And yet, the relevance of custom to the law can hardly be denied. Custom can go places the law can’t begin to touch; it shapes us far more than the civil code could ever hope to. The Athenian goes so far as to say that it forms

the bonds of the entire social framework, linking all written and established laws with those yet to be passed. (793b)

Which is why custom must at least be mentioned—it is so central to society that if it goes wrong, it is the equivalent of pulling the beams out of a house.

The Athenian now passes to the education of children aged four through seven. This is when true discipline becomes necessary. Even at this early age the games that children play are to be focused on virtue—which is why children ought to be raised out in public. They should be brought to the public squares (temples and market places) to be watched by their nurses under the supervision of the twelve female magistrates.

School begins at the age of six, at which point children are separated by gender, though this is not to be an absolute separation:

The males should go to teachers of riding, archery, javelin-throwing and slinging—and the females too, if they are agreeable, may attend any rate the lessons, especially those in the use of weapons. (794d)

With the proper training, both men and women can be made proficient in the use of anything in either hand. The Athenian here implies that human beings are naturally ambidextrous, and that it is only social convention that makes us favor one hand over the other. As a left-hander, I promise you this is nonsense.

Beyond that, education at this level will involve physical and cultural training. Physical training is subdivided into dancing and wrestling. Between these two activities, strength and grace (presumably two components necessary for virtue) are developed in children. At least, that seems to be what the Athenian is aiming at. This part of the Laws appears to be unfinished.

What does not seem to be unfinished are the Athenian’s thoughts on the dangers of changing established educational practices.

I maintain that no one in any state has really grasped that children’s games affect legislation so crucially as to determine whether the laws that are passed will survive or not. If you control the way children play, and the same children always play the same games under the same rules and in the same conditions, and get pleasure from the same toys, you’ll find that the convictions of adult life too are left in peace without alternation. But in fact games are always being changed and constantly modified and new ones invented, and the younger generation never enthuses over the same thing for two days running. They have no permanent agreed standard of what is becoming or unbecoming either in deportment or their possession in general; they worship anyone who is always introducing some novelty or doing something unconventional to shapes and colours and all that sort of thing. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that this fellow is the biggest menace that can ever afflict a state, because he quietly changes the character of the young by making them despise old things and value novelty. (797b–c)

This entire section could be held up as the conservative screed of Plato. If at times he sounds like a Rousseauean radical, at other times he says “Change…except in something evil is extremely dangerous” (797e).

As with any conservative worth his salt (if we’re at least temporarily calling the Athenian a conservative), tradition does not exist for the sake of tradition. The good tradition is that which begins with good games played by children and leads to virtuous actions taken by adults. This means that changes introduced into childhood games lead to adults of a very different sort. Of course, it doesn’t always automatically follow that any change makes worse citizens. We just have to admit that we are playing with fire when we deviate from what we know into something new.

So our position is this: we must do everything we possibly can to distract the younger generation from wanting to try their hand at presenting new subjects, either in dance or song; and we must also stop pleasure-mongers seducing them into the attempt. (798e)

The best way to do this is by making music and dance (notice we’ve transitioned from games into music and dance) divine in nature. We decide what will be best for the cultural development of the young, and then declare those things to be divine and punish any who deviate or introduce new techniques or trends into the society.

And yet, this creates a paradox that we have to acknowledge, even if we can’t resolve it. In order for games/music/dance/etc. to have the desired effect on society, it must be divine in nature so as to be untouchable by innovation. And yet, when we design these games/music/dance/etc. and codify them into law, they are quite obviously not divine in nature, since we have designed them. We’ll see much more of Plato’s religion in book 10, but we should at least note how challenging it is to live in a world without an externally revealed religion. Which isn’t to say that life is easy for those with an inspired text, just that this particular difficulty isn’t one that Christians have to face nearly as directly as the Athenian does.


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

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