Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 903c–910d

Lady Justice


Assuming that the Athenian has won the logical side of the argument over whether the gods exist and whether they are concerned with our day-to-day lives, he now tells us that we need to adjust our perception of the world if we want to deal fully with the problem of evil. Namely, we need to understand that:

The supervisor of the universe has arranged everything with an eye to its preservation and excellence, and its individual parts play appropriate active or passive roles according to their various capacities. These parts, down to the smallest details of their active and passive functions, have each been put under the control of ruling powers that have perfected the minutest constituents of the universe. Now then, you perverse fellow, one such part—a mere speck that nevertheless constantly contributes to the good of the whole—is you, you who have forgotten that nothing is created except to provide the entire universe with a life of prosperity. You forget that creation is not for your benefit: you exist for the sake of the universe. (903c)

We see a picture of this when we see workers going about their professions—an architect works to build the best possible building and doesn’t really expect the hammer to complain that it is being used to pound nails. Instead, what we see is that good hammers get used more, while defective ones are relegated to inferior tasks, or thrown away completely. In the same way, we need to realize that “your position is the best not only for the universe but for you too, thanks to your common origin” (903d). As the work goes on, the souls that have aligned themselves or been aligned with good (reason) are moving toward perfect virtue; those which have aligned themselves with evil are moving away from virtue.

Once we realize that, we see how providence works in the world. Given that all people have the potential for good and for evil and that we all have the agency within us to choose one or the other,

[God] contrived a place for each constituent where it would most easily and effectively ensure the triumph of virtue and the defeat of vice throughout the universe. With this grand purpose in view he has worked out what sort of position, in what regions, should be assigned to a soul to match its changes of character; but he left it to the individual acts of will to determine the direction of these changes. You see, the way we react to particular circumstances is almost invariably determined by our desires and our psychological state. (904c)

And so we see that the Athenian has created a scheme which attempts to account for both the sovereignty of God in the world and the free will of human beings (though Plato did not use those terms, of course). God creates the circumstances in which every advantage is given to us, and then we choose how we reacted based on the internal state of our souls. Those circumstances and our choices are overall a part of the tapestry that defines the whole universe as it moves toward ultimate virtue. Small choices are those which we make “horizontally,” that is, as they move us around in space—whether to live in Nebraska or the Ukraine is a relatively small decision in the grand scheme of things. Large choices move us toward heaven or hell as we become more or less virtuous.

All of this leads to the conclusion that we cannot judge someone based on their small, horizontal life—someone who is successful in this world might very well be so full of injustice that he is already in the netherworld existentially and is only awaiting the synchronization of his body with his soul.

Finally, how do we respond to those who agree with everything we’ve said so far—that the gods exist and that they care—but think they can be bought off with ritual sacrifice? This, the Athenian argues, is to completely misunderstand the nature of the gods. They are the source and defenders of virtue, who fight for us and through us in the perfection of the universe. The idea that they would take a bribe in return for overlooking our intentional sins is a systemic failure to understand the character of the gods and their role in the world.

There’s probably a book to be written on the flip-side of what the Athenian is arguing. So far at least in the Laws, he has been pretty clear that there are good and evil forces in the world, but he has spent almost no time on the evil forces. No doubt the good gods cannot be bribed, but he does seem to leave the door open for evil gods who might be more open to supporting vice.

And with that, the Athenian has completed his responses to the young people who oppose traditional religion and is now ready to discuss the punishment of those who despite the best efforts of the lawgiver remain recalcitrant in their impiety.

Having established the truth about the gods, the Athenian now argues that these proofs ought to be supported with the power of the state. For that matter, the laws of the state are what really count anyway—the proofs are just there to soften them in the minds of the thoughtful who might be tempted by license. The law is to provide for the punishment of blasphemy, usually by imprisonment in one of the three state prisons—one in the city for average criminals, one for those who need correction (“reform centers”), and one out in the countryside for those who have become pariahs by their extreme or continued impiety. This, however, is to be rare—most correction should be handled by the first two types of prisons and involve little more than a brief stay in the joint.

This categorization of prisoners shows that we have to take into account the sort of person who is committing the blasphemy in the first place. As we’ve seen, there are different motivations for committing crimes, when it comes to impiety we need to realize that not all who are impious are guilty of the same things, and some may not need to be punished at all:

Consider first a complete atheist: he may have a naturally just character and be the sort of person who hates scoundrels, and because of his loathing of injustice is not tempted to commit it; he may flee the unjust and feel fondness for the just. (908c)

This sort of person may on the surface in every way look like the truly just man with a proper view of the gods. The sort of blasphemy he is likely to commit will probably not go beyond thoughtless words or careless mockery. Some kinds of atheists, however:

besides believing that all things are “empty of” gods, he may be a prey to an uncontrollable urge to experience pleasure and avoid pain, and he may have a retentive memory and be capable of shrewd insights. (908c)

This sort of person is much more dangerous, as his impiety is likely to turn into charlatanism or even demagoguery. He is the type who is likely to show up at the local religious institutions citing holy texts in clever ways in an attempt to drum up support. He “deserves to die for his sins not just once or twice but many times” (908e).

The reform prisons are for the former, the gulag is for the latter.

Finally, for these laws to have any effect at all, they must be uniform for all people and at all times and places in the state. This means that private religious practice must be strictly forbidden. If we leave this to private individuals, emotion and circumstance will dominate religion rather than reason. People will build shrines and worship gods based on dreams, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and turns of fortune in the marketplace. Something so important that the state is willing to execute people who use it badly simply cannot be left to individual passions.


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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