Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 932e–942a

A witch creating a potion. By, CC BY 4.0.


What is the purpose of criminal justice in the state? In today’s reading, we get a summary and recapitulation of the reasons the state has for punishing criminals. These include:


In other words, exactly the same possible foundations for a criminal justice system that you will find discussed today. But unlike our modern approach, which tends to want to emphasize one or two of them, the Athenian insists that all four are necessary:

All these reasons and considerations make it necessary for the law to aim, like a good archer, at a penalty that will both reflect the magnitude of the crime and fully indemnify the victim. The judge has the same aim, and when he is faced by his legal duty of assessing what penalty or fine the defendant must pay, he must follow closely in the legislator’s footsteps; and the latter must turn himself into a sort-of artist and sketch some specimen measures consistent with his written prescriptions. (934c)

And although the Athenian doesn’t say it, I suspect we could add on the disclaimer that we have to give today: the only foundation for a society’s criminal justice system that actually succeeds in the real world is the one we’re currently not using.

The rest of today’s reading involves what the translator calls “Miscellaneous Laws”, and as far as I can tell that’s correct. For example: the law that should govern nonfatal witchcraft. Sometimes, spells are cast or poisons are used not to murder but to incapacitate or even just to cause a run of bad luck. The problem is that we’re not very good at telling “true malicious witchcraft” from “charlatanry parading as malicious witchcraft” from “the totally innocuous.” It may be that an enemy went down to the local voodoo hut (they have those, right?) and hired someone to cast a spell against me. But the fact that money exchanged hands in no way guarantees that the person casting the spell knows what he’s doing. It may also be the case that I’m having a run of bad luck, and because the other day a little old lady cursed at me when I cut her off in traffic I assume that black magic has been used against me—when in reality it’s just a run of bad luck that everyone has. The point is, the law must take this all into account and respond with justice depending on the results of an investigation into the circumstance.

Since we’re on witchcraft, we might as well discuss lunacy. The insane must be cared for by their own families, but this care is to be private. Any family that fails to take care of its own mentally unwell members receives a stiff fine from the state. To have the insane wandering the streets is bad for the state overall and obviously bad for them as well.

What is also bad for the appearance of the state is having people with short fuses or no self-control going off half-cocked and either berating or belittling their fellow citizens:

In gratifying his ugly emotion, anger, and in thus disgracefully stoking the fires of his fury, the speaker drives back into primitive savagery a side of his character that was once civilized by education, and such a splenetic life makes him no better than a wild beast… (935a)

When we give in to anger or petty name-calling, we regress to a state of barbarism. Those who witness such interactions are just as guilty and ought to be punished as well. Which means that anyone who has ever even ridden on the Metro in Washington, DC, has just been called a barbarian. This principle is to be reflected in our popular entertainment as well—comedies based on spite or anger are to be strictly forbidden and their creators run out of the state. This discussion of anger is picked up by Plato’s Middle Platonist successor Plutarch in his excellent little dialogue “On the Control of Anger.” If you haven’t read it, you should. (The same could be said about anything written by Plutarch.)

Other people who are to be run out of the state are beggars, who are probably (but not absolutely certainly) responsible for their own poverty. Given how well-built the educational system is and how hard our virtuous citizens should be used to working, the idea of anyone falling completely into poverty is beyond the pale for this state. Therefore, we can assume that if they are begging it is because they are lazy or wicked, and so ought to be exiled.

The Athenian then lays out a few rules for the judicial process itself. The point of the regulations governing witnesses, jurors, and lawyers is that justice, rather than sophistry, ought to be both the goal and the process in the courts. Whether the Athenian is successful in attempting to establish this goal of course is debatable—I don’t know that punishing defense attorneys for giving fraudulent arguments is actually just, but it is certainly something we’ve all thought about from time to time. (And if you haven’t, let me recommend to you The People vs. O.J. Simpson.)

Even diplomats are to be under the law, though with advance notice having been given to the states that sent them.

The final law for today’s reading involves the theft of public property, which is “uncivilized.” If a foreigner or slave does it, he is to be fined, since “he can probably be cured” (941e). But if a citizen steals something that belongs to the public despite his education and pedigree, he is to be executed because clearly there is no hope for him.

More miscellaneous laws 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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