Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 870a–874d

The murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Photo by Wayne77. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Having dealt with the differing shades of manslaughter, the Athenian now focuses his discussion on the laws that relate to “voluntary homicide,” that is, murder proper.

Our next task is to speak of voluntary murders, which are premeditated and spring from sheer injustice—the lack of control over the desire for pleasure and over one’s lusts and jealous feelings. (870a)

Murder is ultimately an action that reflects pure wickedness in the soul. And yet, it does not exist in a vacuum; we can examine the reasons people commit murder and determine that there are specific underlying causes.

The chief cause is lust, which tyrannizes a soul that has gone wild with desire. This lust is most usually for money, the object of most men’s strongest and most frequent longing. (870a)

This lust for money, in turn, is built upon a false idea of what is required to live the good life—a false idea built upon an incorrect education, itself based on the high esteem in which wealth is held by Greek and barbarian alike.

The best and the noblest policy for all cities to follow is to tell the truth about wealth, namely that it exists to serve the body, just as the body should be the servant of the soul. (870b)

Greed is not the only cause of murder, however, we must also consider ambition, jealousy, and cowardly fear. With all these possible sources for murder, how can we hope to stop its commission?

The tool most commonly used against our regular temptations to commit murder must be the idea of justice in the next life. That is, the murderer will be reincarnated as a murder victim. The Athenian makes no comment as to whether or not he actually believes in reincarnation, he simply notes that we ought to use the story to try to dissuade people from the crime (I assume in a way similar to the myth of the metals). In most cases, that should be enough to prevent murder. But because it will still happen occasionally, we must have a category of law set up to deal with it.

It is the legal obligation of the family of the victim to bring suit against the murderer—if the appropriate family member fails to do so, he himself is the equivalent of a murderer and is to be prosecuted accordingly.

Likewise, there are different categories of law that come into play depending on circumstances and the nature of the crime. The person who plans a murder but has someone else carry it out is still guilty, but may be buried in his native land rather than being an exile even in death. Unlike the manslaughterer, the status of the murderer and of the victim (citizen, slave, or foreigner) is irrelevant. Murdering a slave is just as much a crime as murdering a citizen and is to be punished in the same way. And as we would expect, the murder of a family member is to be especially abhorred, even if it is difficult to add additional punishment beyond the death penalty. Instead, the Athenian suggests that the murder of a family member desecrates the whole state:

If a man is convicted of such a murder… the court-assistants and the officials shall execute him, and throw him out, naked, at a specified place where three roads meet outside the city. All the officials, on behalf of the entire state, must take a stone and throw it at the head of the corpse, and thus purify the entire state. After this, they must carry the corpse to the borders of the land and eject it, giving it no burial, as the law instructs. (873c)

This category of murder alone seems to require a public blood purification, given how horrendous the evil that caused it must be.

If a murder is committed and the murderer is not known, then a trial is still to be held where “the murderer” is tried in absentia and convicted. If he is ever revealed, then his trial has been held and he may be executed.

In my limited experience, any extended discussion of the legal category of murder at some point will touch on the question of suicide. In the Athenian’s view, there are legitimate reasons for suicide that do not merit punishment or require shame. These include:

1) obedience to a legal decision by the state;
2) being “forced by the pressure of some excruciating and unavoidable misfortune”;
3) having “fallen into some irremediable disgrace that he cannot live with.” (873d)

If none of these circumstances apply and the suicide is a result of cowardice or an attempt to thwart fate, then public shame needs to be brought upon the deceased. They are still buried in the state, but in an unmarked grave.

The Athenian also notes that killing someone in self-defense or out of vengeance for a particularly heinous personal attack does not count as “murder” and may be excused by the courts.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Athenian’s discussion of murder is the trial of animals and inanimate objects who cause the death of a human being. While I assume that this trial is merely a ritual one, the Athenian doesn’t explicitly say so and I like to think that his sense of justice was so great that he insisted on a full trial and public execution of the neighbor’s swimming pool, the shark at the beach, or any of the other objects and animals that can lead to the death of a human being.


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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