If, as we saw in the last post, the law is to encourage the right kinds of friendship and love, it also has to discourage the wrong sorts. This is a tricky area of law, and it has to be approached carefully. Fortunately, we have a guide that sets the pattern the legislator ought to follow:
…even nowadays most men, in spite of their general disregard for the law, are very effectively prevented from having relations with people they find attractive. And they don’t refrain reluctantly, either—they’re more than happy to… When it’s one’s brother or sister whom one finds attractive… Most people feel not the faintest desire for such intercourse. (838a)
The popular view of incest is, counter-intuitively, to be our guide in framing the laws concerning sexual morality. The reaction against this is so strong, that for all intents and purposes a legislative action forbidding the act is little more than an afterthought. This is because a cultural taboo is built into us by the religious authorities (even the gods themselves) and reinforced repeatedly by the wider culture. The Athenian points to Oedipus and the tragedy that befell him as an example. Nobody looks at him and asks “what’s the big deal?” There is a lesson here for all laws that are intended to restrain the baser passions:
When the legislator wants to tame one of the desires that dominate mankind so cruelly, it’s easy for him to see his method of attack. He must try to make everyone—slave and free, women and children, and the entire state without any exception—believe that this common opinion has the backing of religion. He couldn’t put his law on a securer foundation than that. (838d)
The problem, as we’ve seen earlier, is how to turn what is at least on some level the act of a clearly human legislature into a practice the people will accept as having been divinely revealed—especially when said law involves functionally forbidding all sexual pleasure outside the activity of procreation. That this law is a “natural law” which tempers our inner desires and helps prevent the negative personal and social results of bad sexual behavior (adultery) while building up the positive results of good sexual behavior (love between a husband and wife) are all points in its favor, but not proof of its divine origin. So how on earth are we supposed to convince people that the gods desire them to restrain their natural appetites?
We have some advantage already in the education system established, both in the virtuous arts being promoted by the state and the physical exercise program everyone participates in. It is always easier to resist the passions in the large sense when we are already exercising our physical bodies (contrary to our inner laziness) and hearing good things from the stage and in the classroom will help a lot as well. But the real key to this kind of cultural shift is happiness.
If they win this battle [against the dominance of the physical pleasure of sex] they’ll have a happy life—but so much the worse for them if they lose. That apart, the fear that the act is a ghastly sin will, in the end, enable them to tame the passions that their inferiors have tamed before them. (840c)
The result of the virtuous life is not a joyless and dour existence but is rather a happiness that surpasses the mere physical pleasure being pursued when sex is used as its own end. On the other hand, the life where sex becomes the central driving force is a life that is worse that beastly—not even the animals live like that! Part of our obligation is to present these opposing view and to clearly highlight the attractiveness of the one against the other.
Of course, that’s all in an ideal world. In an imperfect world we might have to settle for the second best law, which just says that we ought to work people so hard they don’t have much time for that sort of indulgence—and when they do it ought to be kept as private as possible. This way, even if people aren’t convinced that the life of virtue is the happiest life, at least they’ll have
respect for religion, the ambition to be honored, and a mature passion for spiritual rather than physical beauty. (841c)
Which is close enough for government work, since this will allow us to pass two laws governing sex:
1) It is only to take place within the context of a heterosexual marriage;
2) It is to be as private and secret an act as possible.
And with that, we move from sex to food. Please note my restraint in never once dropping a Michael Scott reference…
We’ve already established the practice of communal meals. The particular method used is less relevant for our purposes—the big question has to do with where the food comes from in the first place. If we look around the Greek world, we see that many states get their food from both agriculture and fishing. Our state will have something of an advantage in that it will rely entirely on agriculture, which means that the law will have something to say about the practices governing life on the farm.
The first law of the land is: don’t move the fence.
No man shall disturb the boundary stones of his neighbor, whether fellow-citizen or foreigner… Far better that a man should want to try to move the biggest stone that does not mark a boundary, than a small one separating friend’s land from foe’s. (842e)
My temptation was to read something of the American West or English Common Law into this regulation, but it’s better if we remember that land allocation in this state was done at the founding, confirmed by the gods, and supported with the full power of the legislator. So it’s not so much that the Athenian was anticipating the range wars as it was defending the authority of the laws.
A related set of laws governs disputes between neighbors. And here the law does start to resemble the Old West, where we see the punishment for bee rustlers (the John Wayne movie they never made: Apiarists at High Noon!), letting cattle graze on other farmer’s land, etc. All of these laws fall under the jurisdiction of the country wardens (can we call them marshals?) and are to be judged fairly. However, it is better not to offend others in the first place:
The frequent repetition of such injuries makes feelings run high, so that relations between neighbors become intolerably embittered. That’s why everyone should do everything he can to avoid offending his neighbor… Hurting a man is all too easy, and we all get the chance to do that; but it’s not everyone who is in a position to do a good turn. (843c)
Justice requires that we repay the damage we do to others, but it’s better just not to do damage in the first place.
Today’s reading ends with a discussion of water law, which the Athenian says has been done so well by existing Greek states that he’s simply going to leave the existing practices in place. This means among other things respect for downstream water rights (sort-of), sharing water in times of drought, and being careful how irrigation and aqueduct systems are constructed.
More on agricultural law next time.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.