Some Thoughts on the Fifth Delphic Maxim and a Passage from Plato’s LAWS

ἡττῶ ὑπὸ δικαίου
be overcome by justice / yield to Justice

Fifth Delphic Maxim

Over the past month, I have been thinking about justice and people outside of the state because I’m co-reading Plato’s Laws with someone. A few weeks ago, we read a section in Book V where the Athenian Stranger is discussing appropriate conduct towards foreigners:

Foreigners, next: the thing to keep in mind here is that contracts are sacred; in general, dealings with foreigners and misdeeds against them are all more directly the concern of a [G]od who will avenge them, as compared with dealings with citizens. The foreigner, being alone, without friends or kinsmen, deserves greater sympathy from [humankind] and the [G]ods. That is why he who has the power to take vengeance is all the more eager to come to [the foreigner’s] assistance. And the one who holds this power is the relevant guardian spirit or [G]od of hospitality, under the leadership of Zeus the Hospitable. It is of the greatest concern, therefore, for anyone with even an ounce of forethought, to make it his buisness in life to journey to the end of it without committing any misdeed against foreigners. And be it foreigners or fellow-country[people], the greatest of all misdeeds, under any circumstances, is a misdeed against suppliants, since whichever [G]od the suppliant invoked as witness when he got his contractual agreement becomes his spirit-guardian if he is ill-treated; so it will never happen that the ill-treatment someone receives goes unavenged.

Plato, Laws, 729e-730a, trans. Griffith

This passage comes immediately after a section where the Athenian Stranger is going over what a person (a citizen of this city-state) should value. The conduct examined in the Laws is primarily about how people treat one another and come together in a regulated way in order to build the most stable city possible given the initial conditions of its founding. Allegorically, the Laws can be read as looking at the irrational soul, with all of our desires and emotions, and how we measure and order ourselves so that the many-headed beast and lion within us are able to support the rational soul (the immortal part) in her embodiment. The specific laws that are necessary, and the dangers that exist beyond and within the city, are specific to where the city is located and what’s going on, just as the things we each need to be careful about with ourselves are specific to our nature and nurture in our current embodied lives. In this interpretation, visitors to the city are like ephemeral, transient desires in our interactions with the external world, which each have their own reason for being there and that should be respectfully met while they are present. Similarly, some elements of our souls are sacred to specific deities, and these are things that must be honored in appropriate ways.

However, another interesting thing comes up here, and that is related to a straightforward look at the political organization of people. The Laws drives home some of the differences between my society and the environment that Plato was writing in, with its city-state organization and travelers going between cities being foreign. It often comes up in other dialogues when a main character from a non-Athenian city voices reluctance to say or do something because of his foreignness and/or his desire to read the room, and I think it says something important about the difference between justice within the city that takes into account the various stakeholder groups and justice as applied to the stranger, or the principles that underlie concepts like xenia and the general well-wishes at play in texts like Homeric Hymn 34: to Xenoi:

Respect the one who needs hospitality and a home,
you folk dwelling in the steep city of lovely-eyed Hera
at the foot of towering Saidene,
who drink ambrosial water from the golden river,
sweetly flowing Hermus, born to immortal Zeus.

trans. Raynor

The discussion of foreigners got me thinking about citizens and noncitizens in my own country, the United States. Over the past year, I have felt increasing discomfort using xenia for other people who are citizens — those who have the same voting rights and legal privileges and responsibilities that I do — at least in the sense of using it as a unifying diversity, equity, and inclusion term. In society, we have many inequalities, often very dire ones. They are being addressed by political bodies and civic action across the country, such as the battle to ensure that every citizen can vote if le chooses and the movements fighting for change in the way people are treated based on race, religion, disability, caste, cultural background, class, and so on. So many of the arguments used by people who are anti-equality are based on the bigoted idea that the people who want equal rights are not “real” citizens, such as the sentiment behind the current voter suppression legislation. This is why a term that I usually see used for foreigners in the texts I read doesn’t sit right with me. (Note: Xenia is complicated, and while I usually see it used in this way, that’s not all it means; I recommend reading Baring the Aegis’ post on xenia for a fuller picture.) It is like emphasizing that one sees some Americans as not American, but other, when so many of our citizens have spent their entire lives having their backgrounds interrogated. Beyond that, I wonder if applying this to other citizens worsens the pressure to assimilate in order to be seen as “fellow Americans,” that phrase much-loved by presidents as a unity statement, because none of us wants to feel othered.

Instead, I prefer to think of these issues as falling under justice and civic issues. Political action, and the fight for justice, is meant to ensure that our equality as citizens is actually upheld in practice (and that anything wrong with the laws or systems themselves is met with scrutiny and changed). Injustice arises when laws are not made with fairness in mind, when people refuse to abide by the compact (especially due to bigotry), and/or when the government prioritizes injustice over justice. I am sure we can think of dozens of examples of this without even consulting Wikipedia.

Where xenia does come up for me is in thinking about all of the noncitizens I have known, often people with student visas or green cards. One of my college friends was forced to leave the United States when her student-to-worker visa ran out because she was laid off, and she and her fiancée (another college friend) spent years going through immigration turmoil before they could be reunited. This was before marriage equality, and if I remember correctly, they were advised not to marry in their state because the federal government might view gay-marrying a US citizen as conspiring to stay, which could have triggered an actual deportation. That was a terrible situation. Other noncitizens I’ve known have occasionally joked about not jaywalking, speaking out, or doing other things that many US citizens will do without a second thought, but at the core of the joke was anxiety about the precariousness of those pieces of paper. Beyond people I know closely, there are refugees, asylum-seekers, and undocumented people. Many noncitizens are vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse, such as people who have their documents held or who are abused due to not having documents at all. The United States has also, over the past few years, ramped up massive detention complexes, separated families, and allowed immigration officials to carry out atrocious behavior against the detained. Being an advocate for those who are not part of the citizen body is important for those of us who are part of the citizenry, as elected officials pay attention to the aggregate sentiments of those who vote.

And, of course, there is that deeper question of why one is making a distinction at all and the elephant in the room of whether the current division of citizens vs. noncitizens can even be just. Proclus says that creators of stories and myths are trying to communicate truths based on the societies they know and are raised in, which often contain a mixture of the just and unjust; in terms of my current blog post, Plato’s emphasis on the city-state and on the division of citizen/foreigner has set the terms for this entire piece regardless of whether or not that is the best way to approach this issue in 2021. Malka Older, who wrote a hit science fiction series based on the idea of micro-democracies, is an aid worker and academic who has continuously pointed out how the ways we think of citizenship, human migration, and states worsen problems related to everything from basic human rights to the climate catastrophe, and I highly recommend reading her work. This interview is an interesting place to start. Still, even in her ideas, there are distinctions between people who belong to the political faction controlling a district and those who don’t.

What unifies many of these issues for me is the fifth Delphic Maxim. The Greek is ἡττῶ ὑπὸ δικαίου, often translated as “be overcome by justice” or “yield to Justice.” Opsopaus’ Oracles of Apollo: Practical Ancient Greek Divination for Today provides some alternative translations for each of the words, all of which emphasize the importance of yielding to what is fair. One of the alternative ways of looking at Justice is to think about what is truly real, and I like that, too, because it helps me think about whether I have pushed my assumptions far enough and evaluate how shaky or solid my opinions actually are. Opsopaus also writes:

Pythagoreans say that appropriateness in all relations is a principle of justice, for example, of learner to teacher and of the neophyte to one more experience (and both parties must be willing). Of paramount importance is knowing the appropriate time to act (kairos, see Oracle 10 “Know the right time” and Β (beta) in the Alphabet Oracle). In social relations, we should act as though all people share one body and one soul, and therefore strive for the common good. This common life extends as well to nonhuman animals, with whom we should be friendly. Treating people unjustly leads to civil strife.

p. 158

I like the idea of yielding and ensuring that one is acting appropriately. It reminds me of the third speech in the Phaedrus in which Socrates describes an unruly horse that runs after desires without thinking of consequences and the rational soul’s efforts to restrain and tame those non-prosocial impulses. As such, I now think of many issues with this maxim in mind.

However, regardless of the term we use, I think many of us can agree that thinking about this is important, and I hope that this post — jumping off of a passage from the Laws that has been whirling through my head for so many days — presented a useful and interesting perspective.


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