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Plato-From Laws IV-‘As Old Tradition Tells’

‘Le Jardin des Philosophes’ in François-Charles-Hugues-Laurent Pouqueville’s ‘Grèce’ published by Firmin Didot in Paris in 1835.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is taken from Plato’s ‘Laws’, Book IV, paragraphs 716a to 719e. Plato quotes an “old saying” (o παλαιός λογος) on God “who holds the beginning and end and middle of all things.” Plato, ‘Laws’, from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 10 & 11 translated by Robert Gregg Bury (1869-1951). Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. (1967 & 1968), a text in the public domain, digitized and made available by the Perseus Project under a Creative Commons Attribution. Note: ‘Polis’ in Greek means ‘City’ 🤓


…/…ATHENIAN: Let us, then, speak to them thus: — “O men, that God who, as old tradition tells, holdeth the beginning, the end, and the center of all things that exist, § 716 completeth his circuit by nature’s ordinance in straight, unswerving course. With him followeth Justice, as avenger of them that fall short of the divine law; and she, again, is followed by every man who would fain be happy, cleaving to her with lowly and orderly behavior; but whoso is uplifted by vainglory, or prideth himself on his riches or his honors or his comeliness of body, and through this pride joined to youth and folly, is inflamed in soul with insolence, dreaming that he has no need of ruler or guide, but rather is competent himself to guide others — [716b] such an one is abandoned and left behind by the God, and when left behind he taketh to him others of like nature, and by his mad prancings throweth all into confusion: to many, indeed, he seemeth to be some great one, but after no long time he payeth the penalty, not unmerited, to Justice, when he bringeth to total ruin himself, his house, and his country. Looking at these things, thus ordained, what ought the prudent man to do, or to devise, or to refrain from doing?

CLINIAS: The answer is plain: Every man ought so to devise as to be of the number of those who follow in the steps of the God. [716c]

ATHENIAN: What conduct, then, is dear to God and in his steps? One kind of conduct, expressed in one ancient phrase, namely, that “like is dear to like” when it is moderate, whereas immoderate things are dear neither to one another nor to things moderate. In our eyes God will be “the measure of all things” in the highest degree — a degree much higher than is any “man” they talk of. He, then, that is to become dear to such an one must needs become, so far as he possibly can, of a like character; and, according to the present argument, he amongst us that is temperate is dear to God, [716d] since he is like him, while he that is not temperate is unlike and at enmity — as is also he who is unjust, and so likewise with the rest, by parity of reasoning. On this there follows, let us observe, this further rule — and of all rules it is the noblest and truest — that to engage in sacrifice and communion with the gods continually, by prayers and offerings and devotions of every kind, is a thing most noble and good and helpful towards the happy life, and superlatively fitting also, for the good man; [716e] but for the wicked, the very opposite. For the wicked man is unclean of soul, whereas the good man is clean; and from him that is defiled no good man, nor god, can ever rightly receive gifts.

§ 717 Therefore all the great labor that impious men spend upon the gods is in vain, but that of the pious is most profitable to them all. Here, then, is the mark at which we must aim; but as to shafts we should shoot, and (so to speak) the flight of them — what kind of shafts, think you, would fly most straight to the mark? First of all, we say, if — after the honors paid to the Olympians and the gods who keep the Polis — we should assign the Even and the Left as their honors to the gods of the under-world, we would be aiming most straight at the mark of piety — [717b] as also in assigning to the former gods the things superior, the opposites of these. Next after these gods the wise man will offer worship to the daemons, and after the daemons to the heroes. After these will come private shrines legally dedicated to ancestral deities; and next, honors paid to living parents. For to these duty enjoins that the debtor should pay back the first and greatest of debts, the most primary of all dues, and that he should acknowledge that all that he owns and has belongs to those who begot and reared him, [717c] so that he ought to give them service to the utmost of his power — with substance, with body, and with soul, all three — thus making returns for the loans of care and pain spent on the children by those who suffered on their behalf in bygone years, and recompensing the old in their old age, when they need help most.

And throughout all his life he must diligently observe reverence of speech towards his parents above all things, [717d] seeing that for light and winged words there is a most heavy penalty — for over all such matters Nemesis, messenger of Justice, is appointed to keep watch; wherefore the son must yield to his parents when they are wroth, and when they give rein to their wrath either by word or deed, he must pardon them, seeing that it is most natural for a father to be especially wroth when he deems that he is wronged by his own son. When parents die, the most modest funeral rites are the best, whereby the son neither exceeds the accustomed pomp, nor falls short of what his forefathers [717e] paid to their sires; and in like manner he should duly bestow the yearly attentions, which ensure honor, on the rites already completed. He should always venerate them, by never failing to provide a continual memorial, § 718 and assigning to the deceased a due share of the means which fortune Provides for expenditure. Every one of us, if we acted thus and observed these rules of life, would win always a due reward from the gods and from all that are mightier than ourselves, and would pass the greatest part of our lives in the enjoyment of hopes of happiness.

As regards duties to children, relations, friends and citizens, and those of service done to strangers for Heaven’s sake, and of social intercourse with all those classes — by fulfilling which a man should brighten his own life and order it as the law enjoins — [718b] the sequel of the laws themselves, partly by persuasion and partly (when men’s habits defy persuasion) by forcible and just chastisement, will render our Polis, with the concurrence of the gods, a blessed Polis and a prosperous. There are also matters which a lawgiver, if he shares my view, must necessarily regulate, though they are ill-suited for statement in the form of a law; in dealing with these he ought, in my opinion, to produce a sample for his own use and that of those [718c] for whom he is legislating, and, after expounding all other matters as best he can, pass on next to commencing the task of legislation.

CLINIAS: What is the special form in which such matters are laid down?

ATHENIAN: It is by no means easy to embrace them all in a single model of statement (so to speak) but let us conceive of them in some such way as this, in case we may succeed in affirming something definite about them.

CLINIAS: Tell us what that “something” is.

ATHENIAN: I should desire the people to be as docile as possible in the matter of virtue; and this evidently is what the legislator will endeavor to effect in all his legislation. [718d]

CLINIAS: Assuredly.

ATHENIAN: I thought the address we have made might prove of some help in making them listen to its monitions with souls not utterly savage, but in a more civil and less hostile mood. So that we may be well content if as I say, it renders the hearer even but a little more docile, because a little less hostile. For there is no great plenty or abundance of persons anxious to become with all speed as good as possible; [718e] the majority, indeed, serve to show how wise Hesiod was when he said, “”smooth is the way that leadeth unto wickedness,” and that “no sweat is needed to traverse it,” since it is “passing short,” but (he says)

— “In front of goodness the immortal gods
Have set the sweat of toil, and thereunto
Long is the road and steep, and rough withal [719a]
The first ascent; but when the crest is won,
‘Tis easy travelling, albeit ’twas hard.

CLINIAS: The poet speaks nobly, I should say.

ATHENIAN: He certainly does. Now I wish to put before you what I take to be the result of the foregoing argument.


ATHENIAN: Let us address the lawgiver and say: “Tell us, O lawgiver: if you knew what we ought [719b] to do and say, is it not obvious that you would state it?”

CLINIAS: Inevitably.

ATHENIAN: “Now did not we hear you saying a little while ago that the lawgiver should not permit the poets to compose just as they please? For they would not be likely to know what saying of theirs might be contrary to the laws and injurious to the Polis.”

CLINIAS: That is quite true.

ATHENIAN: Would our address be reasonable, if we were to address him on behalf of the poets in these terms?

CLINIAS: What terms? [719c]

ATHENIAN: These: — “There is, O lawgiver, an ancient saying — constantly repeated by ourselves and endorsed by everyone else — that whenever a poet is seated on the Muses’ tripod, he is not in his senses, but resembles a fountain, which gives free course to the upward rush of water and, since his art consists in imitation, he is compelled often to contradict himself, when he creates characters of contradictory moods; and he knows not which of these contradictory utterances is true. But it is not possible for the lawgiver in his law [719d] thus to compose two statements about a single matter; but he must always publish one single statement about one matter. Take an example from one of your own recent statements. A funeral may be either excessive or defective or moderate: of these three alternatives you chose one, the moderate, and this you prescribe, after praising it unconditionally. I, on the other hand, if (in my poem) I had a wife of surpassing wealth, and she were to bid me bury her, [719e] would extol the tomb of excessive grandeur; while a poor and stingy man would praise the defective tomb, and the person of moderate means, if a moderate man himself, would praise the same one as you. But you should not merely speak of a thing as moderate, in the way you have now done, but you should explain what ‘the moderate’ is, and what is its size; otherwise it is too soon for you to propose that such a statement should be made law.”

CLINIAS: Exceedingly true…./…

‘Plato and his disciples in the gardens of the Academy‘, Athens, Greece. Engraving after a painting by Ricard Martí Aguiló (Barcelona, 1858- Barcelona, 1935).


English text source: 🌿 Greek text to be found here: 🌿 About the translator:
Plato-From Laws IV-‘As Old Tradition Tells’

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