Daily Thought for Feb 4, 2015

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Over the years, I’ve had conversations with different people about the idea of “law”. You can talk about it in terms of politics, religion, justice, even the rules of writing poetry and blogs. My position has always been that laws are useful in the same way grade school is useful: you need clearly defined boundaries until you are are wise enough to make up your own mind. Then, it can be a different story.

One quote I’ve had around for a while is credited to Plato and shows up all over the Internet:

“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” – Laws, Book IX

As a philosophy teacher (at least up until March of 2014), I knew enough to be suspicious of the way that was phrased. I’m a Platonist at heart and I don’t like seeing my guy misquoted. So, I went and found the original reference. Sure enough, it’s different. And not just subtly, enough to make you stop and think.

So, here are two other translations for your consideration:

Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime. This is from a web post titled “Pet Peeves and Plato’s Politics“. He doesn’t cite his translation.

The Internet Classics Archive translates it this way: Laws are partly framed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil.

The key difference between these two and the original, more popular, quote is this: Plato understood the need for law. Yes, there may be times for civil disobedience and even for ignoring laws that are outdated or senseless, but the idea that we don’t need laws wasn’t his point.

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