Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 859d–864c

Photo by Michael Sheehan – Ignition Key – 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye. CC BY 2.0.


As the translator’s note points out, we’re now moving into a stretch of the Laws that is notoriously obscure, in terms of both content and language. And of course, if we’re trying to understand “justice” and its relationship to morality in the public sphere, we’re on difficult ground anyway. When we add to that the fact that we’re having a discussion about the nature of punishment, it looks like we’re going to have a shipwreck on the rocks of inconsistency—an inconsistency that begins with agreement:

When we talk about justice in general—just men, just actions, just arrangements, we are, after a fashion, unanimous that all these things are “good.” (859d)

Such goods should include things that are done to us by the state. But, the Athenian points out, what if we are talking about a punishment that is executed against an individual? Now, in a sense we understand that it is a good thing when society punishes the wicked. But is that the same thing as saying it is “good” for me to be punished if I am the wicked person in question?

Our ruling was, I think, that the temple-robber and the enemy of properly established laws would suffer a “just” death. But then, on the brink of establishing a great many such rules, we held back. We saw ourselves becoming involved with penal suffering of infinite variety and on a grand scale. Of all sufferings, these were particularly just; but they were also the particularly shocking ones. Thus, surely, one minute we shall find “just” and “good” invariably turning out to be the same, and the next moment discover they are opposites… This is the source of the inconsistency in the language of the ordinary man: he destroys the unity of the terms “good” and “just.” (860b)

This is not a problem unique to Plato, it is simply a classical version of the challenge to Christianity that asks how a God who creates an eternal hell out of His justice can simultaneously be said to be wishing good for those who are sent there. Where the Christian finds this problem wrapped up in the nature of God, the Athenian drops it squarely on human nature by tying it to the relationship between human responsibility and human choice.

The Athenian begins by asserting a line familiar to readers of the Republic:

all wicked men are, in all respects, unwillingly wicked… I allow that no one acts unjustly except against his will. (860d–e)

If we accept this statement as a naked declaration of truth, it would seem that we no longer have any grounds for passing laws. After all, we can hardly punish someone for performing an action against his will! We do have the option of modifying the statement and saying that there are some evils that are committed involuntarily and some that are committed voluntarily, and consequently we have two categories of law (the former with lighter sentencing and the latter with stiff penalties). But this would be intellectually dishonest, and we must not have our legal code built upon dishonesty.

Instead, we need to reorient ourselves and our view of human actions to resolve this problem of the will in a way consistent with how we intend to use the law. Specifically, we’ve already seen that the fundamental point of the law is to teach:

We may use absolutely any means to make him [the lawbreaker] hate injustice and embrace true justice—or at any rate not hate it. But suppose the lawgiver finds a man who’s beyond cure—what legal penalty will he provide for this case? He will recognize that the best thing for all such people is to cease to live—best even for themselves. By passing on they will help others, too: first, they will constitute a warning against injustice, and secondly they will leave the state free of scoundrels. (862e)

In short, the Athenian takes our normal ideas about laws concerning involuntary actions and makes them central to the way the entire law operates. If I steal your car, (genuinely) mistakenly thinking that you had left it out for anyone to take, in that case the law steps in and compels me to return the “stolen” property, possibly with some form of restitution. The point of that law is not punishment, but rather to help me see my error, correct the imbalance done to society, and come away the better for it. In the same way, were I to commit murder, the job of the law is to, by any means necessary, help me to come to loathe the injustice in my own soul that led me to such an action and help me cease to be that sort of person.

Once we begin to see the law in this light, we find that we need a different view of the nature of the soul. Instead of using the language of “voluntary” versus “involuntary,” we start to ask about the characteristics that drive us to break the law in the first place. The Athenian gives what I assume is a partial list of these motivations to vice, which include

1) anger and fear;
2) pleasure (falsely understood);
3) simple ignorance (such as not knowing the law)
4) “double” ignorance with power (being ignorant but actively thinking they are wise and having the power to follow through on their ignorance)
5) “double” ignorance without power (being ignorant but actively thinking they are wise while lacking the power to follow through on their ignorance, as with children)

Each of these five categories, in turn, will either drive the criminal to act in the public view or in secret behind the scenes. Overall this should give us ten categories of laws to deal with, all based on the motivation that led to the crime. And though there is some reference back to this scheme through the next few books, the Athenian does not hold consistently to it.

Taking this outline of our motivations as a starting point, the Athenian gives us a brief description of injustice that seems to sum up how he thinks we ought to approach the law:

My general description of injustice is this: the mastery of the soul by anger, fear, pleasure, pain, envy and desires, whether they lead to any actual damage or not. (864a)

The law, then, becomes a rule by which we measure the orientation of our souls and a means of correction when that orientation is askew. And once again we see where there is simultaneously a great deal of similarity to and deviance from the Christian view of the revealed Law. Calvin writes about Galatians 3:24 and explains one function of the law:

the law, by displaying the justice of God, convinced them that in themselves they were unrighteous; for in the commandments of God, as in a mirror, they might see how far they were distant from true righteousness.

As with Plato’s view, the law shows us where our characters have departed from the divine standard (though, of course, Calvin means the law found in scripture, not the laws passed by the civil government). So there is some similarity here. And yet, there is also a great difference, for in the Christian view the law contains within itself no corrective power—only grace can do that. Calvin continues:

They were thus reminded that righteousness must be sought in some other quarter. The promises of the law served the same purpose, and might lead to such reflections as these: “If you cannot obtain life by works but by fulfilling the law, some new and different method must be sought. Your weakness will never allow you to ascend so high; nay, though you desire and strive ever so much, you will fall far short of the object.” The threatenings, on the other hand, pressed and entreated them to seek refuge from the wrath and curse of God, and gave them no rest till they were constrained to seek the grace of Christ…. The law, in short, was nothing else than an immense variety of exercises, in which the worshipers were led by the hand to Christ.

Here, Plato and Christianity must part ways.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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: