Plato’s Laws: the Relationship between Theology and Law

Written by on May 7th, 2014. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Politics, about Plato Laws Greek

|||Plato, and Thomas L. Pangle. The Laws of Plato. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.|||

Plato Discussing Philosophy The gods, blessed one, are what these people first assert to exist by art–not by nature but by certain legal conventions, and these differ from one place to another, depending on how each group agreed among themselves when they laid down their laws. They claim that the noble things by nature are different from those by convention, and that the just things are not at all by nature, but that men are continually disputing with one another and are always changing these things, and whatever changes they’ve made at a given time are each at that time authoritative, having come int being by art and by the legal conventions, but not, surely, by any nature. Laws, 889e.

The answer to the question of why theology and a belief in the gods is necessary for the “second-best” city is complicated. It is complicated because any answer must account first for the validity of the theology and second that such a theology must effect not only the way in which laws are enacted and obeyed, but also how those laws are enforced. That is, for theology to be considered necessary for city-making, it must be shown a true source of right-rule, either directly or indirectly. Piety must not simply be a convention through which social behavior is ordered according to opinion, but a reverence for something true by which our actions either conform or do not conform to virtue and the participation in the Good.

Therefore, while the discussion in Book X begins with the simple need to formulate legal customs “concerning acts of violence in general,” there is a natural (and needed) move to defend why “violence in general”1 is inappropriate, and to order violence against the sacred as the most offensive. Somehow, also, the lesser offenses of insolence are wrong not simply of themselves, but through the predication that insolences against the sacred is wrong—for Soul “drives all things in heaven, on earth, and in the sea through its motions.”2 If a city is to be ruled by a law, which is a particular custom created in reference to and in recognition of a universal Law, then the basis for such Law is found not through the simple enactment of regulation, but in the conformity of regulation to the actuality of the world. Hence, the need for theology within the city is less a need for religion than a need to recognize that “soul or souls are evidently the causes of these things,” and that “souls good with respect to every virtue we will declare they are gods–whether they order the entire heaven by existing within bodies, as living beings, or in whatever way and however they do it.”3 The function of ceremony within the city, particularly religious customs and rites, is to encourage a population who has not (or cannot) understood through reason that the “the primal generation of all things” moves “according to what is the same in the same way, in the same place, around the same things, toward the same things, and according to one proportion” and that such a thing is “characterized [by] Intelligence.”4 That is, religion, especially as it relates to the laws, is a formalization of right behavior grounded upon a recognition of things-that-are: to behave impiously is to indirectly deny reality—most often on account of ignorance.

It is no surprise, then, that the Athenian stranger explains to us that “no one who believes in the gods according to the laws has ever voluntarily done an impious deed,”5 except by some misunderstanding of who or what the gods are (misunderstandings which are a disbelief in god, a belief in the indifference of god to the affairs of men, or that the gods easily change their minds). For the gods are only denied when their purpose within the framework not just of the city but of being itself is misunderstood. The need to give an account of god is less the need to prove his existence than the need to show that the fabric of reality, so to speak, is by nature rational and therefore understandable. And because of the rational nature of reality the greatest insolences come about through the greatest denials or ignorance of the most primary causes, which is of soul (since soul is the “intelligence” through which reality generates), and of which the greatest soul(s) is/are the god(s). Because of this, the purpose of law (and indeed what Law is) is to recognize in custom what could be called the rational principles of reality. The Laws to which the best regime (this is true for the best as well as the “second-best” regime) conforms are the rational Laws which govern reality, particularly those expressible by number. Ultimately, then, to philosophize rightly—to attempt to understand the world honestly—is the highest form of piety.6

If atheism is false—if souls exist and the world is rational and intelligible—then the primacy of nature and chance over art is false as well. Art as the ordering principle precedes nature (φύσις), just as the soul as the ordering principle precedes the body. The claim that by some admixture of motion the heavenly bodies and the earth came together, soulless, and generated all the world including the growing and the ensouled, denies that the intellect participates in truth (that art is of truth); more so, such a position implies that the formation of art is not inherent in the world but something enacted by men for their benefit—nor is art in common with nature, but a contrivance to steer, or correct, or control it. Law then, being a craft understood through and enacted by art does not posit or relate to a true thing. It is no difficult step from here to suppose that the purpose of law is to enact one’s will and that justice is nothing more than victory or power. Instead, since souls are prior to bodies, art and law must be prior as well. The argument for the priority of the soul, then, is the single most important proof for the inclusion of the sacred in law making, since it returns the intellect and the philosophers recognition of a rational reality, at the focal point of law-making.

It is clear through the relationship of the soul as the organizing and intelligent principle that the intellect is central to the correct understanding not only of laws but of all reality. What is less clear is how virtue relates to a rational world. The degree to which virtue rather than intelligence is the primary characteristic of soul is difficult to ascertain. It is further unclear whether, by the reduction of reason to mean (roughly) in-conformance-with-reality, virtue is simply the correct action and reaction to the world-as-it-is. Since a description of virtue is “an explanation of what sort of person one should be oneself if one is to lead the most noble life,”7 which is, of course, a life most in harmony with nature and intellect. When asked the question of which soul is the “master of heaven and earth” we are told that “if…the entire path and motion of heaven and of all the beings in it has the same nature as the motion, revolution, and calculation of Intelligence, and proceeds in a kindred way, then it is clear that one ought to affirm that the best soul supervises the entire cosmos and drives it along such a path.”8 The intelligence of the world is manifest through its inherent rationality and the intellect acts correctly when it recognizes the Intelligence of the world. Virtue, it seems, is the correct action or reaction to matters of the intellect, which manifest themselves in human action through the ordinary titles of virtue such as moderation, prudence, courage, and justice. To have a correct reverence for virtue and the intellect and its relation to reality is to have piety. Piety is to recognize the formative and essential qualities of the world and submit oneself to intellect through virtue. The manifestation of piety is through the formalization of correct behavior into ritual or rite, which are the sacrifices to the gods and the observances of ceremony. While it is not necessary to impose a particular or specific ceremony, it is nevertheless important that all ceremonies are in harmony with the intelligible world and promote behavior in its participants that is in accord with the recognition of that harmony. Hence, piety is not so much the submission of the will to another power, but the harmonization of the will with the actuality of an intelligently ordered world through which we act virtuously when we are in accord and viciously when we are in variance of it.

While intellect, virtue, and piety all interrelate with each other in so far as they are separate aspects of the recognition of reality—the first being the recognition that reality is rational, the second being that we have an obligation to act in accord to that rationality, and the third being the conforming of the will to the first two—music is not related directly to intellect, virtue, or piety. That is, if one were to have, so to speak, all of intellect, virtue, and piety, then music would be unnecessary.9 The arts would be implicitly understood and there would be no need to learn, so to speak, what one has failed to notice about the world—that it is rational and expressible in terms of the intelligible. So what then is the importance of music? Music is the mediator between the rationality of the world and our ability to engage the world as rational through virtue. Music is supremely pedagogical and as such it is responsible for teaching not simply to the young, but to all citizens about intelligibility, virtues, and piety (but especially the young since they are the most vulnerable). Music is essential to the second best city precisely because the city does not participate fully in virtue and piety, since its citizens often deny reality through ignorance. If music is the mediator between reality and the laws of the city which aim to promote behavior in conformity to reality, then music in the second best city is a most somber and serious activity, a prerequisite, as it were, to even law making itself, since good laws are made only after one is taught what is noble and virtuous. Through the art of music men learn the various arts by which intellect and virtue are allowed to flourish. And by that learning man binds himself to the need of virtue and piety for which the laws and the customs of the city are established. With the knowledge of the arts, which are music, man exposes himself to the intrinsic rationality of the world to which the natural world conforms by nature, and to which man now because of his reason is able to choose to conform. In choosing to accept what music teaches (and by safeguarding music so that it may continue to teach correctly) man may gain virtue and remain virtuous through the encouragement and admonition of behavior through the laws.

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  1. Laws, 884a2. 

  2. Laws, 897a. 

  3. Laws, 899b5. 

  4. Laws, 898b1. 

  5. Laws, 885b6. 

  6. It is especially the highest form of piety since it is through philosophy that we come to understand (and therefore are able to become) the most moderate and virtuous. 

  7. Laws, 730b4. 

  8. Laws, 897c3. 

  9. Unnecessary since, presumably, the arts would belong to one in the same way as to a god, not through sweat and practice (an acquiring) but intrinsically and by nature—one would have within oneself all the arts.