How to be Good
Plato and the Purpose of The Laws.
Sometimes my dog Tim does things that he shouldn’t. Like the time he ate the right shoe of two different pairs. Or when he jumped up and broke the ceiling fan. Or when, just prior to Thanksgiving dinner, he lunged across the table and tried to take the turkey. I think he managed to get a drum stick. So, is Tim a bad dog or a good dog? Does he freely choose to do these heinous things or is he governed by desire and instinct. I don’t know. I’m not a dog.
Normally, we believe that justice hinges on this question — was the unjust act freely consented to or was the actor in some way compelled to do something that she would never have done otherwise. For instance, if I punch you for no good reason, I’m unjust. But if someone is holding my arm and forcing me to punch you, then I too am an unhappy victim of the circumstances. Of course, we can think of many less ridiculous and much more complicated examples.
In Plato’s book, The Laws, the Athenian stranger insists alternatively that all injustices are involuntary and thus not freely willed or chosen (860d). Given that the dialogue is explicitly about what are the best laws for a city and how should they be adjudicated, the Athenian’s position might seem puzzling. For if no one freely chooses injustice, then why do we need laws with the accompanying judgements and penalties?
Implicit in the Athenian’s account is the understanding that we all desire what is good or the best for ourselves. The key in any given situation is knowing what is good. If we make a choice without full knowledge we might well err and do something that is unjust, something that we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. In this instance, we are enslaved or compelled by our ignorance. Tim, for instance, may have genuinely thought that the fan was just a really cool toy that we hid on the ceiling. While, according to this argument, we may not intend to act unjustly, it is nonetheless our responsibility to discern what is good, a task made seemingly Herculean when we realize that for Plato the Good that we are ultimately tasked with knowing is actually the divine.
Fortunately, in this instance, it is all in the name. The nature of the divine or the Good is actually goodness. And counter to what Aristotle may or may not believe, this good is willed for us. In addition, to being innately desirous of what we take to be good, our Athenian lawmaker also notes the divine has ordered everything according to understanding or reason (nous) (892b). As such, the many things of the world might be understood or known by rational beings. Further, they might not be known merely in and as themselves, but also as indicators of the nature of the Good or divine, for the most precise form of vision is to “look at [the] one idea from the many and dissimilar things”(965c).
Just as the structure of the world can serves as an education, the nature of our own creations is to follow suit. For the Athenian, the laws are to serve not as a legal code dictating what is allowed and what isn’t, but more fully as a form of education or a way of understanding what is good. The image of the most just city, which we are reminded repeatedly is a form of a myth and thus not literal, is thus discussed in accordance with the natural progression of an individual human life. Erotic laws for generating children are first, followed by the laws governing education, occupation, until finally, at the end, there are the laws concerning burial. The prescribed laws which often seem to delve into minutiae that we might wish he had left out, form a whole, as does the human life that they are to inform. In other words, the individuals of this “divine” city are surrounded in all of their activities by reminders in the form of laws of the good that they should seek.
Finally, however, the individual meets the limits of the finite world and dies, just as the elderly men having this conversation will. Rather than thinking it was all for not, the three men become energized, planning a new beginning now as friends, united in pursuit of the good. As the Athenian says, “in every case, the end … is not the doing of something; it’s rather when one has discovered a perfect and permanent safeguard for what has been begotten” otherwise, “the whole is unfinished”(960b-c). As they have noted throughout and Aristotle echoes when discussing poetry, all ordered things of the finite world have a beginning, a middle and an end. Having been begotten by the Good, these men expect to complete their education after death. The good that was their beginning will also be their end. The part in the middle is the stuff of our lives (969a), the path that prepares us, better or worse depending on our attention, for the myths that are these laws to be actualized and for the beautiful to become good.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on March 13, 2017.