Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 864d–869e

Maria Villa shoots her rival in a fit of passion


Having examined the role of the will, the Athenian now returns to the question of specific laws—in this case dealing with murder. Prior to any trial, but especially prior to those for capital crimes, competence must first be established. If it is determined that the individual was insane, then simple restitution will apply in all cases except that of murder. In that case, the individual in question is what the Bible would call “ceremonially unclean.” In the Old Testament this would involve a sacrifice and possibly a period of exclusion from the temple, depending on the reason for the uncleanness. In the Athenian’s state, purity is restored by either a year in exile from the state or two years in prison in the state.

A similar rule applies when considering “involuntary homicide,” the category of law we call “manslaughter.” While the Athenian lays down a complex web of rituals and regulations that explore the various types of manslaughter (including circumstances, who was murdered—slaves vs citizens vs foreigners), the core concern is hinted at by this passage:

A killer [manslaughterer] must keep clear of his victim for all the seasons of an entire year, by staying away from the dead man’s usual haunts in the whole of his native country… If a man obeys this law without demur, the deceased’s next of kin, who will take note of his compliance with these requirements, will grant him pardon and will be entirely correct to live on peaceable terms with him. (865e–866a)

We’ve already seen the concern for ceremonial purity, here we see the additional concerns that there be a sense of guilt on the part of the offending party, a respect for the family of the deceased, and forgiveness and reconciliation between the parties in question. The goal, after all, is a life of virtue, and this life requires that there be unity and harmony between members of the state, so reconciliation must be pursued. Likewise the virtuous individual will mourn even the evils he unintentionally commits.

The category of law that stands between “voluntary homicide” (murder) and “involuntary homicide” (manslaughter) is the kind of homicide that is committed in a moment of anger, a “crime of passion.” As much as Plato might look down on the passions in his body of writings overall, he has the Athenian give a surprisingly nuanced amount of leeway to their place in the law:

If someone kills a free man by his own hand, but the deed is done in anger, we must first make an internal distinction within this type of crime. (866e)

Specifically, we must determine:

1) Whether there was prior intent to kill;
2) Whether there is regret after the fact.

This in turn means that there are different types of crimes of passion, both of which fall “somewhere midway between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary'” (867a). Crimes of passion which involve stewing in one’s anger until it bursts forth into murder “resemble” voluntary murder, while crimes of passion which involve spur of the moment rage resemble involuntary murder. And yet, resemblance is not equivalence:

It is therefore sometimes difficult to categorize murders done under the influence of anger, and to know whether to treat them in law as voluntary or involuntary. The best course, which corresponds most closely to reality, is to classify them both under what they most resemble, and to distinguish them by the presence or absence of premeditation. (867b)

Premeditated crimes should be punished more harshly; unpremeditated crimes should be punished less severely.

Both categories of crimes of passion are to be punished through a combination of exile and demonstration of remorse, with distinctions between the victims and the criminals (slave vs citizen vs foreigner) again being brought into consideration. In this case, however, two additional factors are brought into play.

First, the question of recidivism becomes relevant.

If a returned exile of either category is ever again overcome by anger and commits the same offence, he must go into exile and never come back. (868a)

The person who commits a crime of passion and takes no steps to try to improve his temper and see that it doesn’t happen again has learned nothing from his punishment and has no place in the virtuous state.

Second, crimes of passion between family members receive special attention. If a parent kills a child or one sibling kills another in a fit of anger, the punishment is similar to those described above (exile, purification, etc.). But, if a child kills a parent, that is an especially heinous sin and so merits special punishment. If before the death of the parent, the parent announces his forgiveness of the child the case is to be treated as just another manslaughter out of respect for the dying parent’s wishes. But:

If he is not let off, the perpetrator of such a crime will be indictable under many laws. He will be subject to the most swingeing [enormous] penalties for assault, and likewise for impiety and temple-robbery—he has plundered the shrine that is his parent’s body, and deprived it of life. Consequently if one man could die many times, the murderer of his father or mother who has acted in anger would deserve to die the death over and over again. In this single case no law will permit a man to kill: not even in self-defence, to save his own life, may he kill his father or mother, who brought him into the world. The law will instruct him to put up with all manner of suffering before he does such a thing. But what other penalty than death could the law appropriately lay down for this criminal? (869b–c)

The murder of a parent is so monstrous that it simply cannot be tolerated for any reason whatsoever. One aspect of the entire thrust of our education system should be to drill into us an honor and respect for our parents such that we could never lift a hand against them. And so to kill a parent is to not only commit a crime against them as individuals, but to sin against the state and the civilization as a whole. Parricide, then, becomes the point of transition into the Athenian’s discussion of homicide proper.


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

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