Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 926e–932d

“Orphans,” by Thomas Kennington, Tate Gallery, London


Just as the state is to be just and moral in caring for the effects of the deceased (sometimes even against their own wishes), so the state is to care well for those who cannot care for themselves. Namely, orphans.

The effect of this [good laws governing estates] will be to give our orphan children a sort of second birth. We have already described the training and education they should all receive after their first; after this second and parentless birth we have to see that these children who have had the ill luck to be bereaved and made orphans are to be pitied as little as possible for their misfortune. (926e)

The Guardians of the Laws are to, in a sense, step into the roles of the parents and see that these orphans are well cared for. The Athenian reminds us that orphans are not to be pitied but rather are to be loved and the difficulties of their circumstances mitigated as much as possible.

Lest we think this is merely some proto–nanny state rhetoric, the Athenian charges the Guardians to remember that they are not the ultimate authority here—the departed parents, the whole of the state, the full weight of the tradition, and the gods themselves are watching to be sure that they do their jobs and treat orphans well. Because so much of a child’s education and upbringing is already run by the state, no specific charge needs to be laid down on the Guardians, who will pattern their care for orphans after their own upbringing. All they need is a reminder of the harsh punishment that they will receive if they dare to abuse the most defenseless people in the state.

In other words, the state is to exercise maximum generosity in the face of maximum public scrutiny in its care for orphans. The way we might say this today is that the state is to provide for foster care, but keep an eye on things to be sure that foster children are well treated by their families.

What about “orphans” who have living parents but have themselves been disinherited? We’ve already seen some of the Athenian’s objections to this practice in the strictest sense—the parent is a custodian for the family, not an absolute owner who may do as he pleases with “his” property. But the constitution of our best state provides for further difficulties: the number of households is absolutely fixed, theoretically the dispossessed child must leave the state all together rather than establishing his own household, which makes that action by a parent a significantly bigger affair. As a result, disinheritance is something that cannot be done by only one person—the whole clan must be involved. The child in question gets a trial and a chance to reply (if he’s old enough), and the whole clan votes. If he is voted out, he becomes an “orphan” so that he doesn’t have to leave the state and will be placed with another family.

If a husband and a wife wish to divorce, this is to be allowed so long as a few conditions are met:

1) Divorce is to be under the supervision of the courts, with the court in question being made up of ten men and ten women;
2) Even divorce is to be focused on the good of the state, which means:
3) It is to be followed by remarriage for the purposes of continuing to raise children.

Clearly, “no-fault” divorce is not on the Athenian’s radar. The death of a spouse reflects a similar ethic, with remarriage being required if no children have been produced yet. If children are produced of “mixed” status (that is, the child is born of a citizen and a slave, or of two slaves with different owners), the Athenian outlines the different possible statuses of the children. This passage feels unfinished, but the implication is clear enough: citizenship may be earned, but it is not guaranteed by blood. Clearly this is one of those places where Christianity had much to add to the way we do politics…

From time to time, the elderly will lose enough of their faculties that they begin to squander their goods but not so many of their faculties that they are completely incapable of caring for themselves. In such cases, the courts may judge them to be under the care of their adult children.

Whether the elderly have become senile or not, they are due the fullest possible respect from their children. This includes having them in our homes in their old age (something which has obviously been lost from modern American culture) and respecting them so much that they are considered to be a direct conduit of divine blessing. In the Athenian’s view, the true story of Oedipus (at Colonus, not Rex) is one of children disrespecting their parents and receiving their just punishment from the gods.

So, as we said just now, we must reckon that the most precious object of worship a man can have is his father or grandfather, weak with age, or his mother in a similar condition, because when he honours and respects them God is delighted. (931d)

The elderly are more listened to by the gods and so it is not only pious but in our best interests to see to their needs.


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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