Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 822e–832d

Doe hunting. By Niobid Painter – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), own work, 2008-06-07, CC BY 2.5.


The transitional program between the educational system for young children and the more serious training for older children/young adults is the activity of hunting. This will no doubt sound odd to modern Americans, who—if they hunt at all—do not do so as a part of their formal schooling. The same is true to some extent for the Athenians, since this type of activity was not so much a required practice as it was an informal right of passage that virtuous citizens ought to pursue on their own. Still, in their time as in ours the law is to have something to say about proper versus improper hunting. Specifically, hunting is to point toward virtue by honing the senses, exercising the limbs, and pitting man against beast in a sort-of one-to-one trial (this further serves as training for war). The kinds of hunting that rely on traps, teams of hunters working in tandem, or openly enslaving others (not obviously something we usually think of as “hunting,” but certainly a type of “hunting of men”) are to be forbidden. Likewise the religious conventions and sacred places are to be respected.

With that, we turn now to the topics of sports and war—then as now two closely related categories. For the Greeks, athletics had a religious component (which is one of the reasons the emperors of Rome after Constantine banned the Olympic Games). Because we want these to be regular activities, the Athenian argues that we might as well make every day of the year some kind of holy day. The first eleven months are for the gods of the heavens, while the twelfth is for Pluto and his underworld gods:

Men of battle should feel no horror for such a god as this—on the contrary, they should honour him as a great friend of the human race. The union of body and soul, you see, can never be superior to their separation (and I mean that quite seriously). (828e)

The Athenian does not here work out the implications of this statement, but we can see why someone like Plotinus will have a claim on being the true heir of Plato centuries later.

The overall point of there being 365 festivals a year seems to be that every day there will be some form of athletic activity—activity that is religious and holy, and so cannot be evaded.

This desire for regular activity translates from sports to war as well:

Although on the score of leisure-time and abundance of all necessities our state has no rivals at the present day, it still has to live the good life, just like the individual person; and the first requirement for a happy life is to do yourself no injury nor allow any to be done to you by others. (829a)

Our state, as we saw earlier, is positioned in a place where it has few natural enemies and should not really expect to be either the target of or tempted by aggressive expansion. If the educational system does its job, the state should be sufficiently restrained that it does no injury to anyone else. Yet, there will always be enemies out there who wish to harm the state, and so

the difficulty lies in becoming strong enough to be immune to injury—and the one and only thing that brings such immunity is complete virtue… if [a state] adopts the ways of virtue, it can live in peace; but if it is wicked, war and civil war will plague it… [this] means that each and every citizen must undertake military training in peace-time, and not leave it till war breaks out. (829b)

Once a month the state is to have a national training day, where all citizens (all of them: men, women, and children) should gather to train in the military arts regardless of weather and other conditions. This should be a full-on spectacle, with military games, awards for valor, and speeches by prominent public heroes. As we would expect, the speeches given are to be strictly regulated and restricted to those who 1) have great personal virtue in service to the state; and 2) have demonstrated themselves to be faithful and loyal to the program of virtue the state is pursuing.

The goal of this training is to produce a state full of the best citizens possible. A state, as it were, full of athletes. But just as athletes don’t make their event their first exposure to training, so we need to exercise the people of the state in virtue. Of course, in this particular instance exercising them in virtue means having them engage in physical exercise and military training.

Unfortunately, such training does not come naturally to the state. There will always be opposition to such a regimen, especially flowing from two sources built into human nature:

The first is a passion for wealth which makes men unwilling to devote a minute of their time to anything except their own personal property. This is what every single citizen concentrates on with all his heart and soul; his ruling passion is his daily profit and he’s quite incapable of worrying about anything else. Everyone is out for himself… (831c)

Greed is so built into human nature that business trumps not only war, but most other pursuits as well.

The second opposition comes from the power of faction (to use Madison’s term). That is, when one party comes to power in a state, they always prefer their hold on power to cultivating virtue in the citizen body. This includes the military virtues, because a citizen body that is capable of defending itself has recourse if the governing faction does something unpopular. Fortunately, the Athenian thinks that the state we’ve been describing avoids both of these pitfalls:

However, the political system which we are now establishing by law has avoided both of them. Our state enjoys unparalleled leisure, the citizens live free of interference from each other, and I reckon these laws of ours are quite unlikely to turn them into money-grubbers. (832d)

When he puts it like that, maybe having to run laps and do military drills once a month doesn’t sound quite so bad.


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

Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: