Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 879c–887c

“Youth and Old Age Meet Near a Church”


As we round out the laws concerning personal injury, we come to the category of “assault.” The introductory note points out that we can only understand this category if we keep in mind the social conventions that involve deference and respect by one class of people for another (usually the younger for the elderly, but also involving gender, citizenship status, etc.). For example,

Age is always very much more highly regarded than youth, and this is so both among the gods and among men, if they intend to live in security and happiness. Therefore, the assault of an older man by a younger in public is a disgusting sight, and the gods hate to see it. No young man who is struck by an old man should ever make a fuss, but put up with his bad temper, and so establish a claim to similar respect when he himself grows old. (879c)

As in all things, justice takes into account the nature of the people involved and how they engage in regular social life. This means that when it comes to assault, we are not only obligated not to commit an assault in the first place, we are also obligated to intervene when we see one in progress. It is, the Athenian thinks, a shame that we have to write this down in the first place, but we do given that

Some laws, it seems, are made for the benefit of honest men, to teach them the rules of association that have to be observed if they are to live in friendship; others are made for those who refuse to be instructed and whose naturally tough natures have not been softened enough to stop them turning to absolute vice. It will be they who have prompted the points I am just going to make, and it is for their benefit that the lawgiver will be compelled to produce his laws, although he would wish never to find any occasion to use them. (880e)

The Athenian notes that the death penalty is not actually “extreme” relative to the crime of assaulting one’s own parents and that threats of punishment of the afterlife should be sufficient deterrents. Unfortunately, the sort of person who is likely to assault his parents is not going to be moved by threats of eternal judgment, and so we have to make the penalties in this life as extreme as possible (really, they should approximate eternal damnation) so that even the worst sorts of people will think twice before committing the crime.

Book 10 of the Laws begins what is considered some of Plato’s most thoughtful religious discourse. The point of transition between violent crimes and theology for Plato is private property:

Now let’s state a single comprehensive rule to cover acts of violence. It will run more or less like this. No one may seize or make off with other people’s property, nor use any of his neighbour’s possessions, without getting the permission of the owner. Contempt for this principle has always been (and still is and always will be) the source of all the evils just mentioned. (884a)

Such contempt is especially vile when it is targeted at the property of the state and even worse when it results in the theft or destruction of the property of the gods. The Athenian has already dealt with the category of theft from the temples, here he digs into the root of that crime as typified by its expression in blasphemy. To say this another way, impiety is the basic reason people either steal from a temple or speak ill of the gods:

No one who believes in gods as the law directs ever voluntarily commits an unholy act or lets any lawless word pass his lips. If he does, it is because of one of three possible misapprehensions: either, as I said, he believes (1) the gods do not exist; or (2) that they exist but take no thought for the human race, or (3) that they are influenced by sacrifices and supplications and can easily be won over. (885b)

That is, atheism, deism, and superstition drive the most contemptible sins.

And yet, we cannot simply decree that “the gods want us to obey” and hope that the atheists will be reformed. If we are to involve the gods in our laws, we have to give a good case for them—the “preamble” to religious legislation must be written in such a way that it wins over the majority of atheists, deists, and the superstitious over and against the rhetorical powers of the opposition.

At this point, Cleinias argues that this case should be easy to make, given the obvious argument from the order of nature and the universal human agreement that the gods exist. The Athenian responds that Cleinias is assuming that the true motivation for atheism is the human desire to embrace a degenerate lifestyle and that all of us deep down know that the gods exist. The reality is that behind arguments against the existence of the gods is a rigorous materialism that denies the existence of any transcendent reality. Where the Athenian looks at the sun and the moon and sees evidences of divinity—even actual divinities—the atheist sees molecules and matter as they have cohered randomly over time. To respond to this position, then, is the job of the following preamble, which we will cover in the next post.


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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