Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 832e–837e


The Athenian has been explaining how military and athletic education ought to be focused on virtue and ought to help shape the next generation for leadership and service. Even the footraces must be a part of this, which means that runners need to be armed. Running for the sake of running has no value for the state, but running as a type of military training contributes to the overall health and virtue of society and ought to be done by men and women alike. The same is true of wrestling and horse racing.

So much for the easy stuff. Now for the laws governing sex.

The problem of sex is ultimately one that only the gods can solve, and they’ve stayed pretty quiet on the matter:

It’s a point on which it is difficult to convince people, and God himself is really the only person to do it—supposing, that is, we could in fact somehow get explicit instructions from him. Since that’s impossible, it looks as if we need some intrepid mortal, who values frankness above all, to specify the policy he believes best for the state and its citizens, give a firm “no” to our most compelling passions, and order his audience of corrupted souls to observe standards of conduct in keeping with, and implied by, the whole organization of the state. There will be no one to back him up. He’ll walk alone, with reason alone to guide him. (835c)

In some sense, this problem is one of our own making. We’ve established athletic events where young men and women are thrown together to engage in strenuous physical activity with a maximum of social contact. Will it be any surprise that passions which are already overly strong in even older people will be virtually impossible to restrain?

The goal, again, is a law that pursues virtue rather than a law that either creates unnecessary restraint or that encourages the wrong sorts of relationships. If our state is to have the right kinds of laws building the right kinds of relationships and focusing these passions in virtuous directions, we need to have a clear understanding of the nature of love and friendship.

We’ve already got a problem when we try to explain or understand something like love or friendship: this is inherently an irrational thing that doesn’t really understand itself. To simplify a bit, the Athenian argues that “love” is really an increase in intensity of “friendship”:

When two people are virtuous and alike, or when they are equals, we say that one is a “friend” of the other; but we also speak of the poor man’s “friendship” for the man who has grown rich, even though they are poles apart. In either case, when the friendship is particularly ardent, we call it “love.” (837a)

Friends or lovers who are radically different will have a “violent and stormy friendship” (837b) and will not often be mutually affectionate. When equals are friends, the relationship can be much more temperate, but also much more lasting. On rare occasions, however, we find a friendship that takes the best of both of these kinds of friendships and forms a “third kind,” which itself can be classified by motivation. One sort of “third category” will desire only bodily fulfillment. Friendship in this case becomes a means to a sexual end. For the better sort of such friendship, however,

physical desire will count for very little and the lover will be content to gaze upon his beloved without lusting for him—a mature and genuine desire of soul for soul. (837c)

Virtue, rather than sex, is the desired focus of these friendships.

To summarize what we have so far, the factors we have to examine when asking about friendship include:

1) the objective nature of the differences between the individuals in the relationship (equals or nonequals);
2) whether the passion is reciprocal or one-way;
3) the nature and intensity of the passion between them;
4) what exactly each party wants out of the relationship.

The first of these is largely passed over, only interesting to the Athenian so far as it affects the second and third categories. In these, if the passion is reciprocal, then the ideal is a friendship that is a balance of deep affection and calm which focuses each on virtue, which gives us the fourth category. And at this point we have arrived at the sorts of friendships that we ought to be encouraging with our legal system.

We will begin to see what this looks like in practice in the next post.


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

2 Responses to “The Laws: 832e–837e”

  1. Frank

    Once again, not the sort of thing I’d expect in a book entitled “Laws.” I’m thinking Dr. Laura doesn’t need to worry about competition from Plato.

    • Coyle Neal

      Ha! I hadn’t thought of that particular parallel. I’ve been seeing the Laws as more of a pre-game for Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics…
      But maybe your analogy works better.


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