Plato's Laws XI, 3: Family Law and More Crimes

This will be the final post on Book XI. There is a lot covered here, but I've decided that mostly we don't need to delve into it because much of it is a set of technical discussions and distinctions we would never consider adopting. A lot of it turns on family law particular to the colony, which even the Athenian admits looks like nothing else anyone in Greece would do because of the basic law that there remain precisely 5,040 households. Thus, being dismissed from a household means exile; you can't just move across town, rent a house, and start earning a living working for the shopkeeper. You're forbidden to move, forbidden to rent, and forbidden to work at the trades. You have to leave the colony and go somewhere with quite different laws in order to make a life. 

One point of interest comes in the discussion of divorce and widowry. Because of the importance of maintaining the precise number of households, we've already seen that married couples who prove unproductive of children will be forcibly separated if necessary. Divorces for irreconcilable differences are also permitted, although there is a negotiation process meant to produce accord that is unlikely to succeed because it involves 20 advocates (ten male and ten female). That's too many people in the room for an agreement to result.

Yet the interesting point comes after divorce is agreed to be in the best interests, and a new partner needs to be selected; or, in the case of widowry, when death has brought about the end of the marriage. The Athenian acknowledges a view of marriage that separates the functions of it by age.

Ath. Those who have no children, or only a few, at the time of their separation, should choose their new partners with a view to the procreation of children; but those who have a sufficient number of children should separate and marry again in order that they may have some one to grow old with and that the pair may take care of one another in age. 

Now you may remember from the discussion we had in our own society of 'gay marriage' that the position of the Church, and many religious people in general, is that marriage is a sacrament and as such has one particular end. A 'sacrament' is a kind of blessing by which God gives people a way of overcoming sinful nature. In the case of marriage, the sin is the sin of lust: marriage regulates lust in such a way as one can live virtuously with one's sinful nature. Lust is brought within a system that allows its expression in a non-sinful way: there are in fact three goods of marital sex according to Aquinas, and all of them are perfectly attained in marriage. The principal end and primary good, reproduction, is perfectly attained only in this way because in this way are children brought into the world in the right position to be supported and loved by their parents, sustained and educated into adulthood, and brought into the community as a fully-formed member. 

For the Athenian, there is no sin, but only vice. It is vicious for citizens to have sex with slaves, for example; he talks about how notorious that is, and how it should be punished by exile of the guilty citizen as well as the slave and their children. Marriage is not a sacrament, since there is no sin; the regulatory function is to be performed by the personal virtue of temperance, rather than by an institution like marriage. One does not give into lust even with one's spouse, in other words; it is the sort of thing that Chesterton celebrated as an advantage of the Church over the virtuous pagans of old.
Christian doctrine detected the oddities of life. It not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions. Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; any one might discover mercy. In fact every one did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe -- that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one. Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy -- that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" -- that was an emancipation.

This was the big fact about Christian ethics; the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and ragged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at a touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned there for a thousand years.
Yet here it is the pagans who have the advantage, because they have admitted a truth about human nature that the Church continues not to do. The institution of marriage is an institution of human nature; and its basic function changes as we age because we change as we age. There are old men who are still driven by lust, but not so many; and the function of marriage transforms, with time, from the care and raising of the youth to the sustaining and comfort of the old. Admitting this second end for marriage is more humane than trying to restrict it to the single end (as the Medieval priests did, having no wives and few children, but observing society from a place of detachment in which support for the elderly was provided by their Orders). 

The Athenian punishes disrespectful or inattentive children with heavy fines, and then returns -- through a frightening leap of logic -- to criminal matters via the need to punish poisoners. He has a careful division of poisoners into kinds that is Kantian in that all of the carefully constructed branches lead to the same conclusion: the sentence of death. One might have taken the reasonable short-cut that poisoning is particularly wicked and thus worthy of death whenever proven, however it was done; but philosophers often love these sort of precise and careful but ultimately practically inapplicable categories. 

There are also rules for lunatics, who are a private matter that the family is bound to control; and a discussion of the various kinds of lunacy, if anyone is interested in ancient Greek opinions on psychology. 

Finally, there is a general admonition against greed and its distorting effects on law and justice. 

Ath. There are many noble things in human life, but to most of them attach evils which are fated to corrupt and spoil them. Is not justice noble, which has been the civilizer of humanity? How then can the advocate of justice be other than noble? And yet upon this profession which is presented to us under the fair name of art has come an evil reputation. In the first place; we are told that by ingenious pleas and the help of an advocate the law enables a man to win a particular cause, whether just or unjust; and the power of speech which is thereby imparted, are at the service of him sho is willing to pay for them. Now in our state this so-called art, whether really an art or only an experience and practice destitute of any art, ought if possible never to come into existence, or if existing among us should litten to the request of the legislator and go away into another land, and not speak contrary to justice. If the offenders obey we say no more; but those who disobey, the voice of the law is as follows:-If anyone thinks that he will pervert the power of justice in the minds of the judges, and unseasonably litigate or advocate, let any one who likes indict him for malpractices of law and dishonest advocacy, and let him be judged in the court of select judges; and if he be convicted, let the court determine whether he may be supposed to act from a love of money or from contentiousness. And if he is supposed to act from contentiousness, the court shall fix a time during which he shall not be allowed to institute or plead a cause; and if he is supposed to act as be does from love of money, in case he be a stranger, he shall leave the country, and never return under penalty of death; but if he be a citizen, he shall die, because he is a lover of money, in whatever manner gained; and equally, if he be judged to have acted more than once from contentiousness, he shall die.

A firm hand to restrain the litigious nature of society! Overall, though I agree that lawsuits can be pernicious if brought for the wrong reasons, I prefer the old Icelandic system from the sagas to Plato's ruthless state.

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