Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 960c–966b

The wisest men of the city comprise the Nocturnal Council, which meets to study virtue.


We saw in the Leviathan the idea that a state is poorly built if it is not built to last—if it is not some kind of “mortal god.” The Athenian repeats a similar idea at the beginning of today’s reading:

…even when you have achieved or gained or founded something, you have never quite finished. Only when you have ensured complete and perpetual security for your creation can you reckon to have done everything that ought to have been done. Until then, it’s a case of “unfinished business.” (960c)

“Politics” is not something about which we can ever truly say “mission accomplished.” It is always a work in progress, until we have finally reached the point where virtue is secured not just in the present, but for all future generations. It is not enough for the state to be at peace for all time, it must be good:

That is precisely the situation we want to see in our state and its citizens—not merely physical health and soundness, but the rule of law in their souls and (more important than all that) the preservation of the laws themselves. (960d)

In order to guarantee such a good outcome, the state requires a body of officials to ensure that the proper ends are at all times being pursued. This body of officials, the “Nocturnal Council,” is to be made up of

1) The ten oldest Guardians of the laws;
2) Everyone who has won an award for service to the state;
3) Those observers who had traveled abroad;
4) Each official in the above ranks will also select a younger companion (over the age of thirty) to join as well.

As the note points out, the “nocturnal” part of the Nocturnal Council has sinister connotations to the modern ear, yet the Athenian’s reasoning is simply that late at night there will be no conflicting obligations and the council will be free to have extended discussions.

But what will the Nocturnal Council actually do? Just as the soul in the body is the point of intersection and synthesis of all that we are, the point where reason, experience, and the sense come together and are shaped into our thoughts and actions, so the Nocturnal Council is to be that which governs the “soul” of the state. Even more: the Nocturnal Council is to embody the soul of the state by being that institution which keeps the goal of virtue always in the front of public life. The lack of such an institution is why other states have failed so spectacularly. Even when they have a good beginning, that beginning is lost when the next generation forgets its purpose or when dissenting voices arise with other goals in mind. Most states of course don’t even have a good beginning, and instead have a multitude of actors who all have their own limited purposes that drive their actions. Is it any wonder that no one really knows what “justice” means?

And so the Nocturnal Council is to be the institution which is most closely associated with “virtue,” specifically with the virtue of “reason.” The council is to study virtue systemically and holistically. This means that virtue is to be studied both as a unity and in all its diverse applications—including studying how virtue can be “one” and “many” simultaneously.

In addition to its dedication to virtue, the Nocturnal Council is to teach what it learns to others by word and by example:

…what role should the expounders, teachers and lawgivers—the guardians of the rest of the community—play when a criminal needs enlightenment and instruction, or perhaps correction and punishment? Should they not prove better than anyone else at giving him a full explanation and description of the effects of virtue and vice?… Where there are no efficient and articulate guardians with an adequate understanding of virtue, it will be hardly surprising if the state, precisely because it is unguarded, meets the fate of so many states nowadays. (964c-d)

Most Americans, having spent anywhere between twelve and sixteen years in the educational system, are aware that “being a good person” and “being able to explain things” are not necessarily the same skill set. When the subject to be taught is something as complicated as virtue and its dual nature, we see that there is a double hurdle the Nocturnal Council has to overcome if it is to do its job well. That, of course, is in addition to its own responsibility to continue its study of virtue. What tools does this council have at its disposal to help with its task?

We’ll pick up the subject there in the final post on Plato’s 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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