Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 920d–926d

A family gathers to hear the last will and testament.


From the laws regulating prices and trade the Athenian turns to the laws governing the economic relationships of the marketplace. The rule here is fairly straightforward: contracts should be honored so long as they are not illegal, forced, or interfered with by accident. If there is a dispute over the fulfillment of the contract, it should be settled privately if possible, by neighbors acting as arbitrators, or ultimately by the courts if private reconciliation is impossible.

These rules of fairness apply to the craftsmen and contractors of the state. Namely, their prices and services should be fair, honest, and equitable. But this fairness goes both ways—the workers must be paid fairly and not publicly shamed or disdained. They have a legitimate place in the state and are not to be trod upon by the wealthy or middle class.

And speaking of properly caring for craftsmen, we must remember to appreciate the military and those who exercise the “craft” of warfare:

Those fine men who safeguard the whole state either by exploits of valour or by military expertise must be accorded honour—but honour of the second rank, because the highest honour should be given first and foremost to those who have proved conspicuously conscientious in respecting the written regulations of the good legislator. (922a)

Soldiering is a critical part of the state, and we must pay and honor the military accordingly. On the other hand, the military must do its job and serve the state well so that it is worthy of the honors paid to it. In any case, we have to remember that serving in combat is not the highest possible honor—that is awarded only to virtue and obedience to the law.

From economic regulations the Athenian moves on to laws governing the family. If it seems curious that the Athenian begins with a discussion of death and wills, I think that it is because the Athenian has the idea that a “family” is a single unit that stretches over time from the past into the future through generations, rather than being no more than a cluster of individuals living in the here-and-now. The place where we see this confusion over the nature of the family arise most is in the matter of wills, when the elderly can become cranky about giving their possessions to whomever they want, and if the rest of the family doesn’t like it that’s just too bad! The legislator is to respond:

I, as legislator, rule that neither you nor this property of yours belongs to yourselves, but to your whole clan, ancestors and descendants alike; and your clan and its property in turn belong, even more absolutely, to the state. (923b)

The goal seems not to be so much to establish the absolute ownership by the state of all things as to prevent someone from coming along and taking advantage of the elderly in a moment of weakness and so depriving the whole family of its legacy. (If you want to read about an example of this on a truly stupendous scale, check out a biography of Huguette Clark or some of the attendant news coverage.)

Whatever we think of the specific application of the laws, I think there is something to the idea that we ought to reflect on the unity of family, property, and law and whether our society has gone too far in the other direction. I do think the individual is worth more than the Athenian seems to suggest, but I also think the individual is not quite the god the modern world seems to think he is.

The Athenian goes through a number of regulations about wills, including how to handle disbursement of estates when there is no will (the courts will decide). The overall point of these regulations seems to be that all of the children are cared for and that the estate is distributed fairly. Individuals are given some flexibility in how they bequeath their goods, but the state is charged with maintaining justice.

The problem we run into is that justice involves both respecting the wishes of the deceased and the needs and desires of the living, in each case without damaging the family’s past reputation and future needs. Especially when a will requires an undesirable marriage, the state needs to maintain a degree of flexibility in applying the law to those who still have to deal with this life. I don’t know how well these laws would work in practice, but it seems to me that the Athenian has done a decent job of trying to balance the various factors in play.

More on this subject 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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