Plato's Laws X, 6

This will be the last bit on the tenth book, after which we will move on to the final sixth of the Laws.

The Athenian returns to the idea of 'evil souls,' though not necessarily to 'the evil soul,' in a myth he decides to tell the people in order to enjoin good behavior. This is one of two mechanisms he sets up to try to apply external pressure to people to do right. His argument that no one will do wrong if he or she really believes in the gods, coupled with the proof of the gods, was supposed to eliminate the need for this. He found it embarrassing that people so well brought-up in the paths of righteousness as his colony's citizenry would even need punishments at all. But we're going to get reinforcing, overlapping systems -- which proves, I think, that Plato knows that such an approach will be necessary (and probably not even adequate) over and above right religion and philosophy.

The first system is mythic. In The Republic, a similar myth is proposed for the same reason: social control. However, in The Republic the system was intended for the ordinary people -- the elite Guardian class would understand that it was a myth that was constructed to ease the task of government. Here, the idea is that the myth should be taught to everyone, and they should all be encouraged to believe in it as firmly as they can be convinced to be, at every level of society.  It is, if anything, more important that the executors of the legislator's will be convinced of the myth that says that what they are doing is right and divinely warranted. 

So the myth is simply that our souls are transformed by our actions, and that they shall after death 'find their place' among the souls of the dead. Some of these souls are better, because they did right, and 'their place' is 'higher,' that is, they enjoy a sort of ascension to heavenly realms of the sort that the older stories say are populated by the gods. Worse souls 'sink' 'lower,' closer to the center of the earth, where the old stories say the realm of the unblessed souls lay: think of Achilles' shade in Hades, miserable and angry. 

Wait -- Achilles was a great hero, wasn't he? One of the best? Well, yes; this is part of Plato's problem with Homer. No getting around that, because the Athenian  has to endorse the old stories as part of upholding the ancient ways and civic pride. 

In any case, this is the answer to the 'evidence of our eyes.' Justice will be meted out after death, where we can't see it, but must believe it was done.

Ath. This is the justice of the Gods who inhabit Olympus. O youth or young man, who fancy that you are neglected by the Gods, know that if you become worse you shall go to the worse souls, or if better to the better, and in every succession of life and death you will do and suffer what like may fitly suffer at the hands of like. This is the justice of heaven, which neither you nor any other unfortunate will ever glory in escaping, and which the ordaining powers have specially ordained; take good heed thereof, for it will be sure to take heed of you. If you say:-I am small and will creep into the depths of the earth, or I am high and will fly up to heaven, you are not so small or so high but that you shall pay the fitting penalty, either here or in the world below or in some still more savage place whither you shall be conveyed. This is also the explanation of the fate of those whom you saw, who had done unholy and evil deeds, and from small beginnings had grown great, and you fancied that from being miserable they had become happy; and in their actions, as in a mirror, you seemed to see the universal neglect of the Gods, not knowing how they make all things work together and contribute to the great whole. 

Now one thing I want to say about this higher/lower thing is that it fits very nicely with Aristotle's physics, which transformed but was rooted on the physics of those who came before him. The idea of 'natural place' is key to understanding why this physics was so plausible to the Greeks, and to many who came after Aristotle. 

It was a thing you could prove. There were supposed to be four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. You can encounter these things in nature, and see that they are each quite different from the others. You could see that each one had a natural place, too: light a fire, and the fire goes up toward the heavens. Drop a rock into the water, and it falls through it to a lower place yet. Air stays in between the ground and the heavens to which the fire seems to rush, where lights like fires burn in the sky. 

So what is being proposed about souls is that they are either purifying themselves of base compositions, or taking on such compositions, by their decisions in life. They are becoming lighter or heavier, we might say; but more purely aethereal, or else more weighted with the base elements. They will, after death, find their natural place among the better and worse souls. It's a model that would have seemed very natural to Greeks of the period because it matches how they understand the natural world. 

(Note that the implications here are the opposite of the ones you usually hear, i.e., that this model was 'arrogant' because 'it put earth at the center of the universe.' No, it put earth at the center because (a) the Greeks knew they were on a sphere, having calculated its circumference, and (b) things made of earth always fell towards the center of the sphere, whereas fire ran away from it. The earth wasn't put at the center because it was religiously special, but because scientific observations of the era proved that was where it belonged; and not because it was glorious, but because it was base.)

This myth carries on:

Ath. Perhaps they might be compared to the generals of armies, or they might be likened to physicians providing against the diseases which make war upon the body, or to husbandmen observing anxiously the effects of the seasons on the growth of plants; or I perhaps, to shepherds of flocks. For as we acknowledge the world to be full of many goods and also of evils, and of more evils than goods, there is, as we affirm, an immortal conflict going on among us, which requires marvellous watchfulness; and in that conflict the Gods and demigods are our allies, and we are their property. Injustice and insolence and folly are the destruction of us, and justice and temperance and wisdom are our salvation; and the place of these latter is in the life of the Gods, although some vestige of them may occasionally be discerned among mankind. But upon this earth we know that there dwell souls possessing an unjust spirit, who may be compared to brute animals, which fawn upon their keepers, whether dogs or shepherds, or the best and most perfect masters; for they in like manner, as the voices of the wicked declare, prevail by flattery and prayers and incantations, and are allowed to make their gains with impunity. And this sin, which is termed dishonesty, is an evil of the same kind as what is termed disease in living bodies or pestilence in years or seasons of the year, and in cities and governments has another name, which is injustice.

On this model human beings are not rightly free, but are property of the gods. Some of that property does rightly and well, like a good dog assisting a shepherd. Other dogs fawn upon their masters (i.e., the gods) and pretend to be good, but steal eggs or kill chickens when they think the master isn't watching. The life of the righteous is the life of being a good dog, as it were; which, honestly, good dogs are surely favored by heaven, as everyone knows. I am less confident about how good the analogy is for people and gods, or the divine in general.

In any case, the myth isn't going to be enough either. Neither philosophy nor religion will really ensure obedience to the law. Both are used to reinforce the law. At this point the Athenian has, however, made enough arguments to be able to assert that every sort of lawbreaking is a kind of impiety and blasphemy: and thus, that punishments for any violation of the law should be quite harsh, since blasphemy is a worse crime on this model than even treason.

Ath. After the prelude shall follow a discourse, which will be the interpreter of the law; this shall proclaim to all impious persons:-that they must depart from their ways and go over to the pious. And to those who disobey, let the law about impiety be as follows:-If a man is guilty of any impiety in word or deed, any one who happens to present shall give information to the magistrates, in aid of the law; and let the magistrates who. first receive the information bring him before the appointed court according to the law; and if a magistrate, after receiving information, refuses to act, he shall be tried for impiety... 

There shall be three prisons in the state: the first of them is to be the common prison in the neighbourhood of the agora for the safe-keeping of the generality of offenders; another is to be in the neighbourhood of the nocturnal council, and is to be called the "House of Reformation"; another, to be situated in some wild and desolate region in the centre of the country, shall be called by some name expressive of retribution. Now, men fall into impiety from three causes, which have been already mentioned, and from each of these causes arise two sorts of impiety, in all six, which are worth distinguishing, and should not all have the same punishment. For he who does not believe in Gods, and yet has a righteous nature, hates the wicked and dislikes and refuses to do injustice, and avoids unrighteous men, and loves the righteous. But they who besides believing that the world is devoid of Gods are intemperate, and have at the same time good memories and quick wits, are worse... the other who holds the same opinions and is called a clever man, is full of stratagem and deceit-men of this class deal in prophecy and jugglery of all kinds, and out of their ranks sometimes come tyrants and demagogues and generals and hierophants of private mysteries and the Sophists, as they are termed, with their ingenious devices. 

There are many kinds of unbelievers, but two only for whom legislation is required; one the hypocritical sort, whose crime is deserving of death many times over, while the other needs only bonds and admonition.... let those who have been made what they are only from want of understanding, and not from malice or an evil nature, be placed by the judge in the House of Reformation, and ordered to suffer imprisonment during a period of not less than five years. And in the meantime let them have no intercourse with the other citizens, except with members of the nocturnal council, and with them let them converse with a view to the improvement of their soul's health. And when the time of their imprisonment has expired, if any of them be of sound mind let him be restored to sane company, but if not, and if he be condemned a second time, let him be punished with death. 

As to that class of monstrous natures who not only believe that there are no Gods, or that they are negligent, or to be propitiated, but in contempt of mankind conjure the souls of the living and say that they can conjure the dead and promise to charm the Gods with sacrifices and prayers, and will utterly overthrow individuals and whole houses and states for the sake of money-let him who is guilty of any of these things be condemned by the court to be bound according to law in the prison which is in the centre of the land, and let no freeman ever approach him, but let him receive the rations of food appointed by the guardians of the law from the hands of the public slaves; and when he is dead let him be cast beyond the borders unburied... 

And if a person be proven guilty of impiety, not merely from childish levity, but such as grown-up men may be guilty of, whether he have sacrificed publicly or privately to any Gods, let him be punished with death, for his sacrifice is impure. Whether the deed has been done in earnest, or only from childish levity, let the guardians of the law determine, before they bring the matter into court and prosecute the offender for impiety.

So the best case is someone who doesn't understand the philosophical arguments; he should be sent to prison for five years, and if he still doesn't understand that the gods are real afterwards, he should be executed. However, he might be readmitted to society if he proves to have developed the correct opinions and is able to repeat the myths convincingly. 

The ordinary person who commits offenses is a hypocrite, having affirmed right philosophy and religion and then betrayed it. Death.

The worst sort of all, though, is the one who affirms the teachings but distorts them in practice. People who claim to speak with the dead, or to make prophecies, or to reveal philosophical teachings at variance with the legislator's ("Sophists") are to be imprisoned for life in miserable conditions, and then subjected to the worst sort of public shaming after death. Like Hector until Priam came to beg for him, they are to be left for the birds and beasts to tear apart, beyond the borders of their civic society, without honors of any sort.

In the end, the philosophy and the religion and the myth all turn out to reinforce human-made law and the power of the state. A very sad conclusion to this book, in my opinion; unless, of course, Plato is speaking 'ironically,' and trying to get us all to see through the Athenian how the mechanisms of state power adopt what is truly and righteously highest and best, i.e., philosophy and our relationship to the divine. Unless, that is, the point of the Athenian dramatically is to reveal the way the state steals and distorts the human interest in what is good and true, and turns it into just another set of justifications for its own power.

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