Plato's Laws XII

The final book of the Laws has the feeling of a miscellany. To some degree that has been true of earlier books as well, but at this point the Athenian is bouncing around and returning to say more about topics already covered. There is more about crime here; also, more about military service and the general regimentation of the life of citizens. All citizens, we are told, are to have officers to whom they report. Male and female, young and old, they are to live all of their lives in a military discipline with superior officers ordering their lives.

It's a bit strange to me that the Athenian takes such care about military punishments, which are much less harsh than the ones suggested for other crimes. The military life is supposed to be the ordering principle of the citizenry, in order to defend the state; all of life and education is built around it. Yet while death is the regular punishment for almost any crime, military cowardice is to be punished with fines and dishonor. Even if you abandon your arms and your post, you are not executed.

Ath. If a person having arms is overtaken by the enemy and does not turn round and defend himself, but lets them go voluntarily or throws them away, choosing a base life and a swift escape rather than a courageous and noble and blessed death-in such a case of the throwing away of arms let justice be done, but the judge need take no note of the case just now mentioned; for the bad man ought always to be punished, in the hope that he may be improved, but not the unfortunate, for there is no advantage in that. And what shall be the punishment suited to him who has thrown away his weapons of defence? Tradition says that Caeneus, the Thessalian, was changed by a God from a woman into a man; but the converse miracle cannot now be wrought, or no punishment would be more proper than that the man who throws away his shield should be changed into a woman. This however is impossible, and therefore let us make a law as nearly like this as we can-that he who loves his life too well shall be in no danger for the remainder of his days, but shall live for ever under the stigma of cowardice. And let the law be in the following terms:-When a man is found guilty of disgracefully throwing away his arms in war, no general or military officer shall allow him to serve as a soldier, or give him any place at all in the ranks of soldiers; and the officer who gives the coward any place, shall suffer a penalty which the public examiner shall exact of him; and if he be of the highest dass, he shall pay a thousand drachmae; or if he be of the second class, five minae; or if he be of the third, three minae; or if he be of the fourth class, one mina. And he who is found guilty of cowardice, shall not only be dismissed from manly dangers, which is a disgrace appropriate to his nature, but he shall pay a thousand drachmae, if he be of the highest class, and five minae if he be of the second class, and three if he be of the third class, and a mina, like the preceding, if he be of the fourth class.

Now "death before dishonor" is something I've said myself, and Kant holds to it as well; but it's rare to see it put into practice in a legal code. When he suggested 'transforming a man into a woman' as a punishment, I thought he was going to propose castration or something like that; but no, it really is just stigma and fines. 

There is also a lot more care in the piece to making sure that no one suffers even this punishment unfairly. What if you fell off a cliff, and that's how you lost your arms? That's not the same thing! And what if you were overcome by a mass of enemies, and they stole away your shield and spear in spite of your best efforts? That's not the same thing either! And what if you fell into the sea? Etc. 

Along the way there are regulations for ambassadors, both outgoing and incoming; how long the dead shall be lain out before burying (three days, just to make sure they're really dead and not just in a trance); selecting magistrates; more about lawsuits; competitions for best citizens; and so forth. 

I won't have much to say about this book, but I am going to write one more thing about the discussion of virtue and its various kinds that comes at the end of it. That will be, I think, my final post on the Laws.


J Melcher said...

Grim, thank you for making me aware of these ideas.

Grim said...

You are certainly welcome.