Some Theological Notes on Plato’s LAWS 716d-718c

I want to share a brief passage from Book 4 with you all because I think there are some important things one can take away from it, hopefully in helpful ways.

716d-718c is a lengthy section describing how one aims at — and hits — the target of proper relation towards the Gods, spirits, and ancestors. The speaker is the Athenian Stranger, one of three elderly men on a pilgrimage to the cave where, according to one myth, Zeus was born.

Quick note: All of the Laws quotations come from the Tom Griffith translation edited by Malcolm Schofield.

[T]he finest and truest of all principles, in my view — which is that for the good person, in the natural order of things, sacrifice to the [G]ods, contact with them by means of prayers and offerings, and religious observance of every kind is at all times finest and best, the most likely to result in a happy life, and far and away the most appropriate thing for [lim]. For the bad person, by contrast, it’s just the opposite, since the bad person’s soul is unpurified, whereas that of his opposite number is pure. To receive gifts from a polluted source can never be the right thing either for the good [person] or for god, and so, for the unholy, all their labour in connection with the [G]ods is for nothing, whereas for the holy, in all cases, it is time that could not be better spent.

Laws, 716d-717a, with some gender-neutral modifications

One can really tell where Iamblichus gets some of his arguments from in De Mysteriis about prayer, the Gods, and the happy life; but also, Proclus — in the writings on Providence he left behind — discusses the difference between souls that turn towards the body and souls that turn towards the Gods. Souls that turn towards the body are turning towards the mechanistic aspects of the universe and the various Gods who preside over Fate (and its parts) and the spirits that follow in those trains. Souls that strive to order themselves to be in a good state can achieve a connection with the Gods and the Providence that accompanies them, where despite the tumult around them, they have a well-ordered interior that can withstand the worst of what embodiment has to offer. The passage also links to pre-Platonic ideas about religious and ritual purity, specifically the scholarship of A. Petrovic and I. Petrovic that I have described elsewhere on this blog.

In the margins, on to receive gifts from a polluted source can never be the right thing either for the good [person] or for god, I wrote “blood diamonds. ethical consumerism.” My thoughts were divided between the unethical crystals and other tools that many in the religious and occult communities use for ambiance, Instagram posturing, or as symbolic connections to the Gods in ritual, but I was also thinking about this in terms of the appetitive soul. I believe that the Laws is actually about ordering the appetitive soul — while the Republic is about the entire soul itself, the Laws treats the soul in the trenches, with desires and emotions and plights besetting it from all directions. (At some point, as long as my hypothesis is not dashed upon the sharp rocks of generation, I may write another blog post where I highlight specific passages from the Laws and why I think they’re about that, but it won’t be until after I’m done with the reread.) This passage zooms out, in a sense.

This, then, is the mark at which we should be aiming. But with what arrows? And how will we shoot them for maximum accuracy? What are they called? First, we say, honours paid to the Olympian [G]ods and the [G]ods who protect the city, and after them to the [G]ods of the underworld, to whom we assign the even-numbered and the second place and the left side; but what is superior to those and contrasts with them, to the [G]ods first mentioned. That would hit the mark of piety most accurately. After these [G]ods, anyone with any sense will celebrate the rites of the guardian spirits, and after them those of the heroes. These are followed by the rites celebrated, in accordance with law, at the private shrines of a family’s ancestral [G]ods.

Laws, 717a-b

First, let’s look at the image of shooting a target. No matter what progress someone makes, as long as one can put an arrow in the bow, it’s highly likely that the arrow will fly some distance. It may even hit something. This means that effort is never wholly in vain — but the target will be hit by the person who has the best combination of training and talent. Talent is related to the choice of lives on the meadow and the type of life; training is related to the specific circumstances of that life. The choice of lives is constrained by what is within the realm of embodied possibility.

Second, it’s important to notice that the description of who is honored form two triads — the first divine and more universal, the second particular to the embodied context of a soul. First come the Olympian Gods — who, if we think back to the Phaedrus and the delights of the circuit of the twelve Gods, are the “remaining” part of the traditional Platonic triad of remaining, proceeding, and reverting. It is important that the Olympians are named as Olympians. When I say “universal,” I mean Gods organized into a coherent set of relationships with one another; it’s less important that they are the Olympians themselves than to actually apply an orderly name to a group. The “proceeding” ones are the Gods of the city, which in this context is the embodied life. These are Gods who are not specifically named or categorically named beyond being associated with place.

There is a mini-break here between those two groups of Gods and the Gods of the underworld, who are in the “reverting” position. The underworld Gods have a second place, which reminds me of the place after death in Plato’s Myth of Er. It also drives home how Poseidon is present on Olympus in many motifs, but Hades stays below — he separates himself in his kingdom. The language of even, left, and second emphasizes the otherness of that place after death. I, who am left-handed and who have actually had a deep love of even numbers because they are symmetrical ever since I learned how to count, do not take this to be a swipe at being a leftie. Nobody is saying it’s unnatural here.

This is, of course, the triad of Zeus – Poseidon – Hades / Hera – Amphitrite – Persephone.

We then progress to the other triad, which is, again, embodied. We know this because — at least in the two translations I have looked at — the Athenian Stranger is discussing someone who is sensible, which means someone who has situational awareness. We then have a triad of daimones, heroes, and the ancestral Gods. The daimones are the broadest category; the heroes are related to specific peoples and locales; and ancestral Gods are related to specific kinship structures.

We then pass into a section on deferring to parents and honoring the departed. I won’t quote all of it here, but the arguments are:

  1. Pay debts to living parents because we owe them everything and need to honor them.
  2. Respect parents (reminds me of the Delphic Maxim) and know that deviations from respect are punished by Nemesis, the messenger of Justice. Yield to them.
  3. Give parents a proper funeral according to custom, meaning neither flashy nor totally bereft of any of the customary benefits, and do the post-funerary routines and practices that are expected.

This section gave me a lot of trouble at first read. Culturally, I can understand how — at the time it was written — it was likely very quotidian. In 2021, as a person with a very different cultural substrate, I, like many of us, do not have the greatest relationship with my dad, mostly due to how he treated my mother. Others are dealing with far more toxic parents who make even being around them at all unbearable. What makes (a) failed relationship(s) with (a) parent(s) so upsetting is that we love our parents (that is, after all, how human attachment instincts work) and would have preferred that things be different. However, I think that the more important thing here is to move forward nearly a millennium and consider what Proclus and Hermias wrote about family lineages. Hermias wrote that people will incarnate in a family for a reason; Proclus, in one of his essays on Providence, echoes that sentiment, and he even attributes a life to a lineage and to a city, as if we as individual souls are both wholes and parts: “[E]very city and every family constitutes one single living being, more so than every single person, being to a larger degree immortal and sacred. Indeed, one single mayor presides over the city as over one single being, one relative over the family as one whole. And there is a single [life] cycle in common for the city and [one] for the family, <always> making the life and the customs of each of them converge, different ones for different cities and families […]” (p. 113, or, §59 of Ten Problems Concerning Providence in the Steel and Opsomer). If one were to build a modern version of this that fit the customs and realities of many of our situations in the United States and elsewhere, we could focus on this idea of a lineage as a living being.

Furthermore, with reincarnation, how many of our ancestors are still there, and how many have moved on? Example: My midsis had a dream a few years ago that our maternal grandfather came to her and said that our maternal grandmother had reincarnated. When honoring ancestors, I’ve often gotten a strong “feeling” from him (especially when I talk about family drama, where the feeling is generally “my grandfather would hate this and the staring eyes of his photograph make me feel very self-conscious”), but never anything from her. I think that what Plato could be getting at here is more of that reverence for our embodied context. Our parents, then, and the ancestors whom we may honor, are more like living and dead images and instantiations of a lineage whose body is malleable and conceptual. Honoring them is a symbol of honoring that. One could develop new ways of honoring the guest-house, which is where righting the wrongs committed by one’s ancestors comes into play and where a partial shift from parents to the family as a collective body might become more a part of praxis, such that the members have more equality and agency in their relations with one another and with the idea of the lineage itself. Obviously, death rites and remembrance observances for specific family members would still continue. (Edit: It occurred to me while washing dishes after posting this that this would be similar to placing a daimon as ruler over the family, which is similar to the political situation of people under Kronos where daimones were appointed as rulers because no human could ever measure up, which makes this even more elegant.)

Other types of relational ties are given up for the laws to explain in further detail, with more emphasis on duty than on happiness. I am done, however, with the part that I wanted to quickly jot down notes about. Also, in closing, I would like to thank the person I’m co-reading the Laws with for listening to me excitedly ramble while waving my arms up and down and somehow magically not hitting my computer off the tray table.


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