Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 942b–949e


The Athenian has already discussed compulsory military service in his state, in today’s reading he outlines some broad areas of law governing how that service is to be conducted:

Military service is a subject on which we need to give a great deal of advice and have a large number of regulations. The vital point is that no one, man or woman, must ever be left without someone in charge of him; nobody must get into the habit of acting alone and independently… (942b)

There must be no Achilles, whether he is off sulking in his tent or charging into battle on his own is irrelevant. The unity of the state on the battlefield is what is essential to victory:

In short, we must condition ourselves to an instinctive rejection of the very notion of doing anything without our companions; we must live a life in which we never do anything, if possible, except by a combined and united action as members of a group. No better or more powerful or efficient weapon exists for ensuing safety and final victory in war, and never will. (942c)

The idea that we ought to be free from control must be stamped out, both psychologically and culturally. This was certainly true in Greek combat, where holding the line against the enemy was the only way to win in hoplite battle (see A Storm of Spears by Christopher Matthew or Men of Bronze edited by Donald Kagan). The question is whether what the Athenian is saying here about warfare (where his contemporary Greeks would not have disagreed) is what he really wanted to say about the polis as a whole (where they, like the modern reader, would certainly have recoiled in shock at the extreme statements). In either case, when questions of violating these numerous military regulations arise, the people most qualified to judge are the soldiers themselves. And so the juries in such cases are to be made up of members of the military.

With that said, caution must be the rule of the day when we charge someone with cowardice—the Greek way of showing “cowardice” was to drop one’s weapons and flee the battlefield, thus endangering the whole army by leaving a gap in the battle line that the enemy could then exploit:

Naturally, everyone who brings a prosecution ought to be very wary of inflicting an unjustified punishment, whether in cold blood or by accident. Justice is said—and well said—to be the daughter of respect, and both are the natural scourges of falsehood. So in general, we must be careful not to offend against justice… (943e)

We must be careful to discriminate between cowardice and misfortune—in other words, intent must be determined. If someone lost their weapons, rather than actively abandoning them, they should not be punished for cowardice.

For those who are cowards, the Athenian regrets that the legislator doesn’t have the divine power necessary to transform the man who has fled battle into a woman:

But what we can do is to reward him for saving his skin by giving him the closest possible approximation to such a penalty: we can make him spend the rest of his days in utter safety, so that he lives with his ghastly disgrace for as long as possible. (944e)

I’m not entirely sure what to do here, given that Plato clearly thinks women can be as courageous as men (he famously equalizes them in the Republic, and to some extent maintains that equality as we’ve seen in the Laws). It may be that the underlying principle is that whatever the culture considers the lifestyle of a coward is what ought to be made prominent in the life of one being punished for cowardice. I don’t know that there’s much of a modern cultural equivalent, given that courage in battle is a virtue most Americans have never had to develop.

Who, under the constitution of the new state, watches the watchmen? That is, if a public official abuses his office, who is in charge of prosecuting him? This is where the Athenian introduces what he believes to be the single most vital office in the state: the Scrutineer.

The point is this: a state has many crucial parts that prevent it from disintegrating… Now the office of Scrutineer is the single most crucial factor determining whether a state survives or disintegrates. If the Scrutineers are better men than the officials they scrutinize, and display irreproachable impartiality and integrity, the entire state flourishes and prospers. (945d)

These individuals must be morally above reproach, since it is their job to keep an eye on all the officials of the state and prosecute them if necessary. (The Scrutineers may be challenged in their decisions, so they are not above reproach or punishment either.) These offices are filled by people over the age of fifty (apparently this office is open to women) through a complex method of nomination, election, and lot. This complexity is intended to weed out the unworthy from this most important of positions. These officials alone receive special burial rites intended to highlight the importance of their service to the state.

Today’s reading ends with rules about oaths in court and refusal to pay incidental taxes. If someone refuses to do their financial duty to the state, the state has the physical power to enforce its laws. Even in our day that’s mostly uncontroversial (though we might argue about whether it is starting to ask too much of us, but that is a different question).

The point about oaths, however, is more intriguing. The Athenian basically argues that because atheism is so rampant these days, we can no longer simply rely on someone’s oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court.

The climate of opinion about the gods has changed, so the law must change too, and a legislator who knows his business ought to abolish the oaths sworn by each side in a law-suit. (948d)

Instead, only tangible evidence should be allowed in court and should form the basis of the opinion of the jury. The strength of the evidence, not the tear and force behind the oath, must be what determines justice in the state.


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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