Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 874e–879b


If we watch enough television, we eventually start to wonder why heroic lawmen (with established reputations as an excellent shot) don’t just shoot the bad guy in the leg on a regular basis. Sure there would be paperwork, but that is almost universally better than what usually happens instead. The Athenian’s law code has something to say about that too—what are we to do with the legal category of “wounding”? It is interesting that so much time is spent on what might appear to be a bit of legal ephemera; yet it is in this section that Plato gives what may be the central theoretical passage of the Laws. In the preamble to the law on wounding, the Athenian states:

It is vital that men should lay down laws for themselves and live in obedience to them; otherwise they will be indistinguishable from wild animals of the utmost savagery. The reason is this: no man has sufficient natural gifts both to discern what benefits men in their social relationships and to be constantly ready and able to put his knowledge to the best practical use. (875a)

Aristotle said this in a slightly different way: man outside of society is a beast. In the Athenian’s view, a single person in solitude is an animal lacking the internal means to live as anything more than a brute beast. It is only when we live in society that we are able both to see what sorts of things lift us above the animals into the good life, and to apply that knowledge to the real world. There are two aspects of human nature that keep us from achieving this potential:

The first difficulty is to realize that the proper object of true political skill is not the interest of private individuals but the common good. This is what knits a state together, whereas private interests make it disintegrate. If the public interest is well served, rather than the private, then the individual and the community alike are benefited. (875b)

In other words, when we try to make a go of it by ourselves, we can never see beyond our own self-interest. And yet it is the common good, not the private interest, that binds a state into a whole. A state that tries to be nothing more than an aggregate of selfish interests is unraveling its own fundamental fabric.

This, however, is not the only problem:

The second difficulty is that even if a man did get an adequate theoretical grasp of the truth of all this, he might then attain a position of absolute control over a state, with no one to call him to account. In these circumstances, he would never have the courage of his convictions; he would never devote his life to promoting the welfare of the community as his first concern, making his private interests take second place to the public good. (875b)

Even if we do see that the common good is better for us as individuals in a society, were we to find ourselves in a place of authority where we have the chance to make that vision a reality we will be unable to do so. Rather than seizing the chance to live out that vision of the good, we instead default to our basic selfish natures:

His human nature will always drive him to look to his own advantage and the lining of his own pocket. An irrational avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure will dominate his character, so that he will prefer these two aims to better and more righteous paths. Blindness, self-imposed, will ultimately lead the man’s whole being, and the entire state, into a morass of evil. (875c)

The failure of a leader to take full advantage of his opportunity to turn power in the direction of virtue is not the fault of circumstance or individual failure or conspiracy or any of the other boogeymen we like to point to in politics. The failure is an inevitable result of human nature.

But, we might ask, is it really true that all human beings are bound for such failure? Might there not be a few here and there who can rise above their own original sin and lead the way virtue demands?

But if ever by the grace of God some natural genius were born, and had the chance to assume such power, he would have no need of laws to control him. Knowledge is unsurpassed by any law or regulation; reason, if it is genuine and really enjoys its natural freedom, should have universal power: it is not right that it should be under the control of anything else, as though it were some sort of slave. But as it is, such a character is nowhere to be found, except a hint of it here and there. That is why we need to choose the second alternative, law and regulation, which embody general principles, but cannot provide for every individual case. (875d)

The man who does not need the law is a supernatural creation who lives outside of society in any case—the “god” who lives with the beast outside the state in Aristotle’s view. Such a creation is rare and, if such a person existed, would have to live outside the state in any case since binding a good man by the law is the equivalent of enslaving reason to something that is by definition lesser (since in Plato’s view all things are lesser compared to reason). So we have no choice but to live under the rule of the law; it is the second best option after the rule of the truly virtuous man is taken off the table.

If that is all preamble, what does the law have to say about “woundings”? As with murder, the law is broken down into the categories of “voluntary” and “involuntary,” with “wounding done as a result of anger” acting as a sort of in-between. And again, different classes of society are taken into account, while the wounding of a parent is considered an especially wicked crime. Ritual purity and the preservation of families (by court-ordered adoption) are also covered. But unlike the law governing murder, wounding is such a broad class of actions that

it is hardly feasible to produce laws oneself to cover every case, serious or trivial; one can scarcely leave the courts no discretion at all about the fine or punishment that ought to be imposed… (876a)

Some laws of course must be established, but by and large the courts will have to have a great deal of discretion.

This leads to a different problem: some courts have jurors who are well-educated, thoughtful, and generally just. Others have jurors who are just there for the money and the show, don’t pay any attention to the “boring” parts, and vote according to who is the prettiest. (Not Plato’s words, but I think that’s a fair summary.) The differences between these two types of juries are caused by differences in education, and they must be accounted for when deciding how much leeway to give the courts in deciding cases. The more virtuous jury ought to have more discretion, the less virtuous ought to be kept on a short chain.

More on injury next time.


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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