Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 800c–808c

“The Horseback Ride,” by William Adolphe Bouguereau, Berkshire Museum, Massachusetts


In the last post we saw the challenge the legislator faces when it comes to weaving a solid and unchanging conservatism into the fabric of the law. How do we convince the people to go along with so obvious a farce, even to the point of believing that man-made law has become divine? The answer is through the regulation the arts:

…a poet should compose nothing that conflicts with society’s conventional notions of justice, goodness, and beauty. No one should be allowed to show his work to any private person without first submitting it to the appointed assessors and to the Guardians of the Laws, and getting their approval. (801d)

The problem is that however solemn and virtuous the laws happen to be, so long as there is some buffoon mocking society from the sidelines we can never really expect people to be serious about the good life. Consequently, we need to regulate the language, piety, theology, and content of the arts in order to avoid this pitfall.

This is especially important when we remember how critical environmental factors are to the development of a person. Children who are raised with the right sorts of music will develop taste for virtuous music, while those who are raised with popular drivel will hear good music and think “that’s boring and rigid and I want what’s contemporary, rather than what’s old.” (Which is why my child will be raised on a strict diet of ’80s hair metal and AC/DC.)

Along the same lines, each gender is to stick to the music appropriate to it:

So an elevated manner and courageous instincts must be regarded as characteristic of the male, while a tendency to modesty and restraint must be presented—in theory and law alike—as a peculiarly feminine trait. (802e)

Someone needs to write a paper classifying contemporary music according to its Platonic genders and virtues…

With all of that said, we should note that the Athenian is giving us an example of a model law. It may be the case that rather than recapitulating the strict censorship of the Republic, here in the Laws such restraints are types and guidelines rather than formal regulations. The problem is, the Athenian transitions back into actual laws without telling us where the model stops and the proposed regulations begin; and he certainly speaks as if these “model” laws are to be enforced.

At this point, we get something that is half digression/half theological focus. The Athenian jumps from music and the arts into the general role of leisure in human life. For a modern reader, this is not necessarily a leap at all—most of us classify “arts and entertainment” as something we do with our down time anyway. That was partially true of the Greeks as well, though it was also the case that some of the things we consider leisure (poetry, for example) was considered central to the life of the state. Whatever we put into the category of “leisure,” the Athenian makes the point that in a sense, all of life is lived with this category as the goal. Just as the point of war is to establish peace, so the point of the regular work we do is to carve out leisure time. The problem is, so many people misuse this “leisure” that they might as well not have it in the first place:

But in cold fact neither the immediate result nor the eventual consequences of warfare ever turn out to be real leisure or an education that really deserves the name—and education is in our view just about the most important activity of all. (803e)

Leisure ought to be our opportunity to pursue virtue and worship God. The reality is that it often becomes our time for self-indulgence when we give our appetites free reign. This is another reason regulation of the arts is so important—if we are going to spend our leisure time indulging in them, they really should be worth being indulged in. Music, poetry, etc., ought to focus us on the Transcendent Good. If we do that in the right way, it might be that the gods will respond with further instructions as to how we are to live the best possible life. When we do this, we begin to see how

…to win the gods’ good will and live the life that their own nature demands, puppets that they are, mostly, and hardly real at all. (804b)

It is interesting to note that the person who lives the life of virtue sees something of the reality of Providence and concludes that he is little more than a puppet. And while the Athenian is quick to dismiss this (for now) as idle meandering into theology, it is worth noting the difference between the low view of man that results from a pagan glimpse of human nature, and the high view that Christians have when they see this same truth:

But when once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power – so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit…

How comes it, I ask, that their confidence never fails, but just that while the world apparently revolves at random, they know that God is every where at work, and feel assured that his work will be their safety? When assailed by the devil and wicked men, were they not confirmed by remembering and meditating on Providence, they should, of necessity, forthwith despond. But when they call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service,–when the godly think of all these things they have ample sources of consolation….

In one word, not to dwell longer on this, give heed, and you will at once perceive that ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness. (Calvin, Institutes, I.17.11)

Seeing Providence for the Christian leads to the “highest happiness,” rather than Megillus’s conclusion that the human race has “a very low rating indeed.” Anyway, like the Athenian we should get back on topic.

To recap, leisure is ultimately to be focused on the good. The point of leisure is not to make us like cows, with no purpose in life beyond sleeping, eating, and reproducing. It is rather to give us greater opportunities for virtue. And while I suspect that the Athenian goes a bit too far with his complete condemnation of sleep (“Asleep, a man is useless; he may as well be dead,” 808b); there is still a ringing denunciation of contemporary American culture here. A culture that focuses on entertainment as an end in itself should expect to get exactly what it deserves.

Which means we need a clear idea of how we should  be using our time. The Athenian suggests drawing up a schedule to use to regulate our day—something the state can not do for us, given that each household will be different. It is worth noting that the head of the household is to work harder and longer than everyone else—slaves and servants included. No leisured aristocracy in this state!

As one final note for this post, education in our state is to be compulsory, “because they [children] belong to the state first and their parents second” (804d). This is to include women, who must be allowed to reach their full potential:

…the state of affairs in our corner of Greece, where men and women do not have a common purpose and do not throw all their energies into the same activities, is absolutely stupid. Almost every state, under present conditions, is only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement. (805a)

So much could be accomplished with so little effort, if only someone would lead the way.

More on education next time.


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

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