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PLATO

LAWS, BOOK VIII (835b - 842c)

(Translated by R.G. Bury in Plato, Vol. XI, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984, pp. 147-169.)

The "Laws" is a three-way conversation between an Athenian, a Spartan (Megillus), and a Cretan (Clinias), concerning how they might design an ideal state and what kinds of laws they would create for it. The Athenian is really leading the conversation, and has all the ideas. At this point in the conversation, the Athenian has just finished explaining how they should set dates and ceremonies for holidays, and he is about to address a much more ticklish matter: how to prevent improper sexual interaction among young men and women.
 
 
 

THE ATHENIAN.

[835]... Now as to these and the like matters, it is by no means hard to perceive how they should be given legal regulation, nor indeed would a shifting of their positions cause much gain or loss to the State. But the things which do make no small difference, and of which it is hard to persuade men -- these form a task especially for God (were it possible that orders should come from him): as it is, they are likely to require a bold man who, valuing candour above all else, will declare what he deems best for city and citizens, and in the midst of corrupted souls will enjoin what is fitting and in keeping with all the constitution, and gainsay the mightiest lusts, acting alone by himself with no man to help him save, as his solitary leader, Reason.

CLINIAS.

What is it we are reasoning about now, Stranger? For we are still in the dark.

THE ATHENIAN.

Naturally: but I will try to explain myself more clearly. When in my discourse I came to the subject of education, I saw young men and maidens consorting with one another affectionately; and, naturally, a feeling of alarm came upon me, as I asked myself how one is to manage a State like this in which young men and maidens are well-nourished but exempt from those severe and menial labours which are the surest means of quenching wantonness, and where the chief occupation of everyone all through life consists in sacrifices, feasts and dances. In a State such as this, how will the young abstain from those desires which frequently plunge many into ruin, -- all those desires from which reason, in its endeavour to be law, enjoins abstinence? That the laws previously ordained serve to repress the majority of desires is not surprising; [836] thus, for example, the proscription of excessive wealth is of no small benefit for promoting temperance, and the whole of our education-system contains laws useful for the same purpose; in addition to this, there is the watchful eye of the magistrates, trained to fix its gaze always on this point and to keep constant watch on the young people. These means, then, are sufficient (so far as any human means suffice) to deal with the other desires. But when we come to the amorous passions of children of both sexes and of men for women and women for men, -- passions which have been the cause of countless woes both to individuals and to whole States, -- how is one to guard against these, or what remedy can one apply so as to find a way of escape in all such cases from a danger such as this? It is extremely difficult, Clinias. For whereas, in regard to other matters not a few, Crete generally and Lacedaemon furnish us (and rightly) with no little assistance in the framing of laws which differ from those in common use, -- in regard to the passions of sex (for we are alone by ourselves) they contradict us absolutely. If we were to follow in nature's steps and enact that law which held good before the days of Laïus, declaring that it is right to refrain from indulging in the same kind of intercourse with men and boys as with women, and adducing as evidence thereof the nature of wild beasts, and pointing out how male does not touch male for this purpose, since it is unnatural, -- in all this we would probably be using an argument neither convincing nor in any way consonant with your States. Moreover, that object which, as we affirm, the lawgiver ought always to have in view does not agree with these practices. For the enquiry we always make is this -- which of the proposed laws tends toward virtue and which not. Come then, suppose we grant that this practice is now legalised, and that it is noble and in no way ignoble, how far would it promote virtue? Will it engender in the soul of him who is seduced a courageous character, or in the soul of the seducer the quality of temperance? Nobody would ever believe this; on the contrary, as all men will blame the cowardice of the man who always yields to pleasures and is never able to hold out against them, will they not likewise reproach that man who plays the woman's part with the resemblance he bears to his model? Is there any man, then, who will ordain by law a practice like that? Not one, I should say, if he has a notion of what true law is. What then do we declare to be the truth about this matter? It is necessary to discern the real nature of friendship and desire and love (so-called), if we are to determine them rightly; [837] for what causes the utmost confusion and obscurity is the fact that this single term embraces these two things, and also a third kind compounded of them both.

CLINIAS.

How so?

THE ATHENIAN.

Friendship is the name we give to the affection of like for like, in point of goodness, and of equal for equal; and also to that of the needy for the rich, which is of the opposite kind; and when either of these feelings is intense we call it "love."

CLINIAS.

True.

THE ATHENIAN.

The friendship which occurs between opposites is terrible and fierce and seldom reciprocal amongst men, while that based on similarity is gentle and reciprocal throughout life. The kind which arises from a blend of these presents difficulties, -- first, to discover what the man affected by this third kind of love really desires to obtain, and, in the next place, because the man himself is at a loss, being dragged in opposite directions by the two tendencies, -- of which the one bids him to enjoy the bloom of his beloved, while the other forbids him. For he that is in love with the body and hungering after its bloom, as it were that of a ripening peach, urges himself on to take his fill of it, paying no respect to the disposition of the beloved; whereas he that counts bodily desire as but secondary, and puts longing looks in place of love, with soul lusting really for soul, regards the bodily satisfaction of the body as an outrage, and, reverently worshipping temperance, courage, nobility and wisdom, will desire to live always chastely in company with the chaste object of his love. But the love which is blended of these two kinds is that which we have described just now as third. Since, then, love has so many varieties, ought the law to prohibit them all and prevent them from existing in our midst, or shall we not plainly wish that the kind of love which belongs to virtue and desires the young to be as good as possible should exist within our State, while we shall prohibit, if possible, the other two kinds? Or what is our view, my dear Megillus ?

MEGILLUS.

Your description of the subject, Stranger, is perfectly correct.

THE ATHENIAN.

It seems that, as I expected, I have gained your assent; so there is no need for me to investigate your law, and its attitude towards such matters. but simply to accept your agreement to my statement. Later on I will try to charm Clinias also into agreeing with me on this subject. So let your joint admission stand at that, and let us by all means proceed with our laws.

MEGILLUS.

Quite right.

THE ATHENIAN.

[838] I know of a device at present for enacting this law, which is in one way easy, but in another quite the hardest possible.

MEGILLUS.

Explain your meaning.

THE ATHENIAN.

Even at present, as we are aware, most men, however lawless they are, are effectively and strictly precluded from sexual commerce with beautiful persons, -- and that not against their will, but with their own most willing consent.

MEGILLUS.

On what occasions do you mean?

THE ATHENIAN.

Whenever any man has a brother or sister who is beautiful. So too in the case of a son or daughter, the same unwritten law is most effective in guarding men from sleeping with them, either openly or secretly, or wishing to have any connexion with them, -- nay, most men never so much as feel any desire for such connexion.

MEGILLUS.

That is true.

THE ATHENIAN.

Is it not, then, by a brief sentence that all such pleasures are quenched?

MEGILLUS.

What sentence do you mean ?

THE ATHENIAN.

The sentence that these acts are by no means holy, but hated of God and most shamefully shameful. And does not the reason lie in this, that nobody speaks of them otherwise, but every one of us, from the day of his birth, hears this opinion expressed always and everywhere, not only in comic speech, but often also in serious tragedy -- as when there is brought on to the stage a Thyestes or an Oedipus, or a Macareus having secret intercourse with a sister, and all these are seen inflicting death upon themselves willingly as a punishment for their sins?

MEGILLUS.

Thus much at least you are quite right in saying -- that public opinion has a surprising influence, when there is no attempt by anybody ever to breathe a word that contradicts the law.

THE ATHENIAN.

Then is it not true, as I said just now, that when a lawgiver wishes to subdue one of those lusts which especially subdue men, it is easy for him at least to learn the method of mastering them, -- that it is by consecrating this public opinion in the eyes of all alike -- bond and free, women and children, and the whole State -- that he will effect the firmest security for this law.

MEGILLUS.

Certainly; but how it will ever be possible for him to bring it about that all are willing to say such a thing

THE ATHENIAN.

A very proper observation. That was precisely the reason why I stated that in reference to this law I know of a device for making a natural use of reproductive intercourse, -- on the one hand, by abstaining from the male and not slaying of set purpose the human stock, nor sowing seed on rocks and stones where it can never take root and have fruitful increase; [839] and, on the other hand, by abstaining from every female field in which you would not desire the seed to spring up. This law, when it has become permanent and prevails -- if it has rightly become dominant in other cases, just as it prevails now regarding intercourse with parents, -- is the cause of countless blessings. For, in the first place, it follows the dictates of nature, and it serves to keep men from sexual rage and frenzy and all kinds of fornication, and from all excess in meats and drinks, and it ensures in husbands fondness for their own wives: other blessings also would ensue, in infinite number, if one could make sure of this law. Possibly, however, some young bystander, rash and of superabundant virility, on hearing of the passing of this law, would denounce us for making foolish and impossible rules, and fill all the place with his outcries; and it was in view of this that I made the statement that I knew of a device to secure the permanence of this law when passed which is at once the easiest of all devices and the hardest. For while it is very easy to perceive that this is possible, and how it is possible -- since we affirm that this rule, when duly consecrated, will dominate all souls, and cause them to dread the laws enacted and yield them entire obedience , -- yet it has now come to this, that men think that, even so, it is unlikely to come about, -- just in the same way as, in the case of the institution of public meals, people refuse to believe that it is possible for the whole State to be able to continue this practice constantly; and that, too, in spite of the evidence of facts and the existence of the practice in your countries; and even there, as applied to women, the practice is regarded as non-natural. Thus it was that, because of the strength of this unbelief, I said that it is most difficult to get both these matters permanently legalised.

MEGILLUS.

And you were right in that.

THE ATHENIAN.

Still, to show that it is not beyond the power of man, but possible, would you like me to try to state an argument which is not without some plausibility ?

CLINIAS.

Certainly.

THE ATHENIAN.

[840] Would a man be more ready to abstain from sex-indulgence, and to consent to carry out the law on this matter soberly, if he had his body not ill-trained, but in good condition, than if he had it in bad condition?

CLINIAS.

He would be much more ready if it were not ill-trained.

THE ATHENIAN.

Do we not know by report about Iccus of Tarentum, because of his contests at Olympia and elsewhere, -- how, spurred on by ambition and skill, and possessing courage combined with temperance in his soul, during all the period of his training (as the story goes) he never touched a woman, nor yet a boy? And the same story is told about Crison and Astylus and Diopompus and very many others. And yet, Clinias, these men were not only much worse educated in soul than your citizens and mine, but they also possessed much more sexual vigour of body.

CLINIAS.

That this really happened in the case of these athletes is indeed, as you say, confidently affirmed by the ancients.

THE ATHENIAN.

Well then, if those men had the fortitude to abstain from that which most men count bliss for the sake of victory in wrestling, running, and the like, shall our boys be unable to hold out in order to win a much nobler victory -- that which is the noblest of all victories, as we shall tell them from their childhood's days, charming them into belief, we hope, by tales and sentences and songs.

CLINIAS.

What victory?

THE ATHENIAN.

Victory over pleasures, -- which if they win, they will live a life of bliss, but if they lose, the very opposite. Furthermore, will not the dread that this is a thing utterly unholy give them power to master those impulses which men inferior to themselves have mastered?

CLINIAS.

It is certainly reasonable to suppose so.

THE ATHENIAN.

Now that we have reached this point in regard to our regulation, but have fallen into a strait because of the cowardice of the many, I maintain that our regulation on this head must go forward and proclaim that our citizens must not be worse than fowls and many other animals which are produced in large broods, and which live chaste and celibate lives without sexual intercourse until they arrive at the age for breeding; and when they reach this age they pair off, as instinct moves them, male with female and female with male; and thereafter they live in a way that is holy and just, remaining constant to their first contracts of love: surely our citizens should at least be better than these animals. If, however, they become corrupted by most of the other Hellenes or barbarians, through seeing and hearing that among them the "lawless Love" (as it is called) is of very great power, and thus become unable to overcome it, then the Law-wardens, acting as lawgivers, must devise for them a second law.

CLINIAS.

[841] What law do you recommend them to make if that which is now proposed slips out of their grasp?

THE ATHENIAN.

Evidently that law which comes next to it as second.

CLINIAS.

What is that?

THE ATHENIAN.

One ought to put the force of pleasures as far as possible out of gear, by diverting its increase and nutriment to another part of the body by means of exercise. This would come about if indulgence in sexual intercourse were devoid of shamelessness; for if, owing to shame, people indulged in it but seldom, in consequence of this rare indulgence they would find it a less tyrannical mistress. Let them, therefore, regard privacy in such actions -- yet not the entire avoidance of such actions -- as honourable -- sanctioned both by custom and by unwritten law; and want of privacy as dishonourable. Thus we shall have a second standard of what is honourable and shameful established by law and possessing a second degree of rectitude; and those people of depraved character, whom we describe as "self-inferior," and who form a single kind, shall be hemmed in by three kinds of force and compelled to refrain from law-breaking.

CLINIAS.

What kinds?

THE ATHENIAN.

That of godly fear, and that of love of honour, and that which is desirous of fair forms of soul, not fair bodies. The things I now mention are, perhaps, like the visionary ideals in a story; yet in very truth, if only they were realised, they would prove a great blessing in every State. Possibly, should God so grant, we might forcibly effect one of two things in this matter of sex-relations, -- either that no one should venture to touch any of the noble and freeborn save his own wedded wife, nor sow any unholy and bastard seed in fornication, nor any unnatural and barren seed in sodomy, -- or else we should entirely abolish love for males, and in regard to that for women, if we enact a law that any man who has intercourse with any women save those who have been brought to his house under the sanction of Heaven and holy marriage, whether purchased or otherwise acquired, if detected in such intercourse by any man or woman, shall be disqualified from any civic commendation, as being really an alien, -- probably such a law would be approved as right. So let this law -- whether we ought to call it one law or two -- be laid down concerning sexual commerce and love affairs in general, as regards right and wrong conduct in our mutual intercourse due to these desires.

MEGILLUS.

[842] For my own part, Stranger, I should warmly welcome this law; but Clinias must tell us himself what his view is on the matter.

CLINIAS.

I shall do so, Megillus, when I deem the occasion suitable; but for the present let us allow the Stranger to proceed still further with his laws.

MEGILLUS.

You are right.

THE ATHENIAN.

Well, now we have arrived at this point in our progress, that common meals have been established -- a thing which elsewhere, as we say, would be difficult, but in Crete no one would question its correctness. As concerns the manner of them, -- whether we should adopt the Cretan fashion, or the Lacedaemonian, or whether we can find a third fashion that is better than either, -- this does not seem to me a difficult problem to decide, nor indeed would its decision prove of much benefit, since these meals are now actually established in a satisfactory way.

Next to this comes the question of organising the food-supply, and how to make this fit in with the meals. In other States this supply would include all kinds of food and come from many sources, certainly from twice as many sources as it will in ...