Plato's Laws XI, 2: Of Sound Mind

The second matter from Book XI that draws my attention is the question of disposing of one's property in a last will and testament. Now, before we even look at this we know that the Athenian is going to be interested in preserving a proportionate equality among the 5,040 households. Thus, without reading a word of what he has to say, we're going to expect him to require the citizens to pass their legacy on to their lawful heir, and not to dispose of it as they may prefer. Inheritance is inherently political.

This was a substantial issue during the Middle Ages, for example, when nobility would often donate large holdings to the Church -- with the Church's encouragement -- in return for regular prayers for their souls. The family might have preferred that this not occur as often as it did, but the Powers that Be included the Church, and the Church was eager to receive such donations. The Church and the various royalties were mutually supporting, whereas the royalty often found its greatest practical competitor in the nobility --- though that should not have been true under the form of feudalism; in theory, the nobility and the royalty should have been mutually loyal and supportive, as the nobility grew out of the war band that upheld the king. Yet as time passed, the comitatus who became the Comes and then the Counts, and the Dux Bellorum who became the Dux and then the Duke, had their own competing interests. The kings were on the side of the Church both because the Popes tended to support kings, and because it bled off some of the wealth and power of their chief competitors and most dangerous potentially rebellious subjects. 

So too we will find here.

Ath. we must begin with the testamentary wishes of the dying and the case of those who may have happened to die intestate. When I said, Cleinias, that we must regulate them, I had in my mind the difficulty and perplexity in which all such matters are involved. You cannot leave them unregulated, for individuals would make regulations at variance with one another, and repugnant to the laws and habits of the living and to their own previous habits, if a person were simply allowed to make any will which he pleased, and this were to take effect in whatever state he may have been at the end of his life; for most of us lose our senses in a manner, and feel crushed when we think that we are about to die.

Cle. What do you mean, Stranger?
Ath. O Cleinias, a man when he is about to die is an intractable creature, and is apt to use language which causes a great deal of anxiety and trouble to the legislator.

Cle. In what way?
Ath. He wants to have the entire control of all his property, and will use angry words.

Cle. Such as what?
Ath. O ye Gods, he will say, how monstrous that I am not allowed to give, or not to give my own to whom I will-less to him who has been bad to me, and more to him who has been good to me, and whose badness and goodness have been tested by me in time of sickness or in old age and in every other sort of fortune!

Cle. Well Stranger, and may he not very fairly say so?
Ath. In my opinion, Cleinias, the ancient legislators were too good-natured, and made laws without sufficient observation or consideration of human things.

Cle. What do you mean?
Ath. I mean, my friend that they were afraid of the testator's reproaches, and so they passed a law to the effect that a man should be allowed to dispose of his property in all respects as he liked; but you and I, if I am not mistaken, will have something better to say to our departing citizens.

Two guesses what that 'something better' is, and the first one doesn't count.

It's a fairly intricate set of dispositions, actually, but it preserves the basic point. The original lot, from the 5,040, is to preserved intact to the son who is named heir. Other sons may be adopted off or granted portions of any additional wealth that has been accumulated -- remember that you could get up to four times the original lot before the state instituted its 100% tax, so you might have enough for up to four sons. The other sons may receive that much wealth, but it won't be in land, so they'll need to head off to other countries and colonies to set themselves up. If any of them have managed to set themselves up with lots already, they should not further partake of the patrimony.

Daughters should be married off, and if it happens that a man dies with only daughters, the legislator gets to pick out a good husband for her to take over the family lot. Oh, but this part is pretty ugly, as the Athenian himself admits; but he makes it much uglier by insisting that the marriage be of near-kin if at all possible, cousins or suchlike, in order to keep the wealth in the family. The woman is only consulted, instead of the state, if no suitable kin exist. "[I]f there be a lack of kinsmen in a family extending to grandchildren of a brother, or to the grandchildren of a grandfather's children, the maiden may choose with the consent of her guardians any one of the citizens who is willing and whom she wills, and he shall be the heir of the dead man, and the husband of his daughter."

Now, in fairness, cousin-marriage is much more ordinary in human history than we always understand; and genetics were as yet unknown to science and philosophy alike at the time. Keeping wealth united via cousin-marriage was (and remains, in some places) an ordinary consideration, not an idea that originates with Plato. Marriage-for-love was probably a Medieval innovation, whereas ancient marriage was always a family negotiation -- here the state is entering into the role the father has abandoned by dying before securing his own heir.

Still, the Athenian concludes, Now we must not conceal from ourselves that such laws are apt to be oppressive and that there may sometimes be a hardship in the lawgiver commanding the kinsman of the dead man to marry his relation... Persons may fancy that the legislator never thought of this, but they are mistaken; wherefore let us make a common prelude on behalf of the lawgiver and of his subjects, the law begging the latter to forgive the legislator, in that he, having to take care of the common weal, cannot order at the same time the various circumstances of individuals, and begging him to pardon them if naturally they are sometimes unable to fulfil the act which he in his ignorance imposes upon them.

Forgive us, citizens; we know exactly what we do.

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