The Laws: Plato’s Sacred Ethnostate, Part 3: The Sanctity of the Family and Procreation

An ancient Greek family.

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Filial Piety: The Foundation of Social Order

The remainder of this article will show the central role of a kinship, both familial and ethnic, in Plato’s Magnesian regime. Plato cites Homer’s Cyclopes as a metaphor for the family being prehistoric humanity’s first society. In this family, the patriarch rightly rules on grounds of kinship:

The eldest member rules by virtue of having inherited power from his father or mother; the others follow his lead and make one flock like birds. The authority to which they bow is that of their patriarch: they are governed, in effect, by the most justifiable of all forms of kingship. (680e)[1]

Plato goes into lengthy detail on the honor children owe their parents as a sacred imperative, on “the worship of the gods and the services to be rendered to our ancestors” (723e). We frequently find such statements pairing blood and spirit: the highest moral imperatives are those to our kin and to the divine.

It is meet and right that a debtor should discharge his first and greatest obligation and pay the debt which comes before all others; he must consider that all he has and holds belongs to those who bore and bred him, and he is meant to use it in their service to the limit of his powers . . . [to] give to the old people what they desperately need in view of their age: repayment of all that anxious care and attention they lavished on him, the longstanding “loan” they made him as a child. Throughout his life the son must be very careful to watch his tongue in addressing his parents, because there is a very heavy penalty for careless and ill-considered language; Retribution, messenger of Justice, is the appointed overseer of these things. If his parents get angry, he must submit to them, and whether they satisfy their anger in speech or action, he must forgive them; after all, he must reflect, it’s natural enough for a father to get very angry if he thinks he’s being harmed by his own son. (717b–d)

Anyone whose parents live at home with them should venerate and care for them as “living shrines” (931e); care for them is more valuable than prayer to gods, because they might join our own prayers.


Plato adheres to the traditional Greek view that happiness means a prosperous posterity. He assures that there are rewards for those who are pious, namely through fertility: “If a man honors and respects his relatives, who all share the worship of the family gods and have the same blood in their veins, he can reasonably hope to have the gods of birth look with benevolence on the procreation of his own children” (729c). Conversely, wrongdoing hurts one’s line: “we should put our trust in the traditional view of such conduct — that it injures our descendants” (913b–c).

The combination of pious and familial sentiment enable Plato to overcome of the tension between private property and the public good. He no longer advocates the communism he described in the Republic; however, like Aristotle, he sees private property as something like a gift to individuals guaranteed by the state and meant to serve the public interest. As occurred in Sparta, the state will distribute land among the founding settlers and this property must be cherished as that of one’s family and gods:

Each man who receives a portion of land should regard it as the common possession of the entire state. The land is his ancestral home and he must cherish it even more than children cherish their mother; furthermore, Earth is a goddess, and mistress of mortal men. (And the gods and spirits already established in the locality must be treated with the same respect.) (740a)

Kinship is also central to Plato’s subordination of individual interests to those to the community. This is most explicit in the Athenian’s discussion of inheritance, which should be regulated in accord with the interests of the community (especially, to fight a common Greek problem and trend — the tendency for testaments to lead to concentration of property in few hands and the creation of a landless underclass):

I, as legislator, rule that neither you nor this property of yours belongs to yourselves, but your whole clan, ancestors, and descendants alike; and your clan and its property in turn belong, even more absolutely, to the state. . . . I shall legislate with a view to nothing except the interest of your clan and the entire state, relegating (as is only right) that of the individual to second place. (923b)

The statesman legislates not merely for the current generation, let alone a mere aggregate of individuals, but for one’s entire people and lineage, from one’s ancestors to one’s to descendants, in a single unbroken chain.

Marriage and Reproduction: The Family’s Contribution to the Community

Each family father holds his property as a sacred duty in the service of the community. This is part of the wider Greek claim, shared by both Plato and Aristotle, that the family is an institution created not for the mere convenience or pleasures of two consenting individuals, but to promote the community’s well-being and perpetuity. Hence, the Athenian says:

Well then, in heaven’s name, what will be the first law our legislator will establish? Surely the first subject he will turn to in his regulations will be the very first step that leads to the birth of children in the state. (720e)

Raising children for Plato is not some frivolous affair, like whether or not one decides to adopt a hamster or a poodle. He says: “we should become partners in eternity by leaving a line of descendants to serve god forever in our stead” (774a). Like Aristotle, Plato considers children to belong to the community first, and hence education must be compulsory “for every man and boy” (804d).

The lawmaker ought to create conditions in which mate selection can be done in an enlightened way:

When people are going to live together as partners in marriage, it is vital that the fullest possible information should be available about the bride and her background and the family she’ll marry into. One should regard the prevention of mistakes here as a matter of supreme importance — so important and serious, in fact, that even the young people’s recreation must be arranged with this in mind. Boys and girls must dance together at an age when plausible occasions can be found for their doing so, in order that they may have a reasonable look at each other; and they should dance naked, provided sufficient modesty and restraint are displayed by all concerned. (771e–772a)

Men are to marry between the ages of 30 and 35 and women between 16 and 20. Those who fail to do so will pay a yearly fine “of a sum to be specified; that ought to stop him thinking that life as a bachelor is all cakes and ale” (721d). For couples who refuse to have children, female officials are to “enter the homes of the young people and by a combination of admonition and threats try to make them give up their ignorant and sinful ways” (784c). Furthermore: “The Guardians of the Laws must chastise the disobedient as a philistine who has never been trained to appreciate the melodies of the Muses of marriage” (775b). Those found guilty will be officially disgraced, they are not given the normal honors accorded to the old, and they will be banned from attending weddings and baby showers. Elderly unmarried and childless citizens will not have the right to shame disorderly young people, but can be beaten with impunity.[2]

Plato takes a pragmatic view of marriage as aimed above all towards the production and education of children. If a marriage fails to produce children, the citizen “must be obliged to remarry so as to beget sufficient children for his home and for the state” (930b–c). Furthermore: “The minimum acceptable number of children is to be fixed by law as one of each sex” (930c-d). After the child-bearing years, marriage for pure companionship and mutual assistance in old age would also be possible. Adultery is a particularly evil crime in the child-bearing years, but merely a source of shame once a woman is infertile (784e).

Plato is realistic on the supreme power of the sex drive. He sees humans as driven by the cravings for food, comfort, and sex. These impulses must be channeled towards constructive ends by the legislator:

Give a man a correct education, and these instincts will lead him to virtue, but educate him badly and he’ll end up at the other extreme. . . . Our third and greatest need, the longing we feel most keenly, is the last to come upon us: it is the flame of the imperious lust to procreate, which kindles the fires of passion in mankind. These three unhealthy instincts must be canalized away from what men call supreme pleasure, and towards the supreme good. (782d-783a)

In this effort, the legislator uses “fear, law, and correct argument,” as well as appeals to the gods.

Plato is explicit that couples should consider having children in a eugenic and communitarian light, aiming for quality and the public good. He writes: “The bride and groom should resolve to present the state with the best and finest children they can produce” (783d–e). Man and wife should have children in a cooperative spirit and “with a sense of responsibility.” It follows from these premises that citizens should ideally marry to produce the best children, not for selfish reasons such as physical beauty or wealth: “One general rule should apply to marriage: we should seek to contract the alliance that will benefit the state, not the one that we personally find most alluring” (773b).

Plato recognizes that specific bans on marrying particular individuals may be unrealistic and appear ridiculous. Nonetheless: “we must resort to our charms and try to persuade everybody to think it more important to produce well-balanced children than to marry his equal and never stop lusting for wealth” (773e). Plato correctly points out that men and women of similar personality types tend to be attracted to one another. He worries this could be dysgenic, as their coupling would produce children with an even more marked personality type, and suggests the primitive eugenic measure of pairing opposites to produce more balanced children. Plato ultimately suggests that marrying for wealth should be shamed but not illegal. As all citizens will have some property and the society will be relatively egalitarian, he believes men and women will be less likely to marry for wealth. Weddings should be relatively small and not expensive and showy.


Writing in a prescientific age, it’s not surprising that these measures would have been largely ineffective. Plato’s proposals in the Republic are more definitely eugenic and strikingly in line with modern genetic science.[3] The wider principle however, that the decision to have children has a fundamental impact on society, and therefore both the lawmaker and couples should approach the issue according the public interest, producing the best and healthiest children possible, is extremely sound.

Plato is quite impressed by the social taboo against parent-child incest. He believes this shows the power of public opinion to dictate behavior, given that children unanimously hear everyone condemn the practice from their youngest years. Megillus notes: “when no one ventures to challenge the law, public opinion works wonders” (838d). Plato returns to the notion that to enforce laws one should spread the belief that what is illegal is evil not only in the eyes of the state but of religion as well. There should be a taboo against homosexuality “in which the human race is deliberately murdered” and to keep male seed “away from any female ‘soil’ in which we’d be sorry to see a seed develop” (839a). Plato argues this is “a natural law.”

For Plato clearly as with Aristotle, the production of the new generation in appropriate numbers and of the best possible quality is a civic duty: it is incumbent upon both individual citizens to found good families and statesmen to create propitious conditions for this. Bearing children being a sacred duty, Plato’s community can live forever in piety: “The young couple should produce children and bring them up, handing on the torch of life from generation to generation, and always worshiping the gods in the manner prescribed by law” (776b).

Population Policies: The Purging and Exclusion of Undesirables

Following a Cretan policy, Magnesia is to have a relatively diverse founding population of Greeks drawn from various parts of both Crete and the Peloponnesian mainland. The Athenian reacts by observing the pros and cons of this: the lack of linguistic and cultural homogeneity will undermine common feeling and joint action, the only advantage being that it will be easier for the lawgiver to replace their diverse traditions with new ones:

So it won’t be all that easy for the Cretan states to found their colony. The emigrants, you see, haven’t the unity of a swarm of bees: they are not a single people from a single territory settling down to form a colony with mutual goodwill between themselves and those they have left behind. Such migrations occur because the pressures of land-shortage or some similar misfortune: sometimes a given section of the community may be obliged to go off and settle elsewhere because it is harassed by civil war, and on one occasion a whole state took to its heels after being overcome by an attack it could not resist. In all these cases, to found a state and give it laws is, in some ways, comparatively easy, but in others it’s rather difficult. When a single people speaks the same language and observes the same laws you get a certain feeling of community, because everyone shares the same religious rites and so forth; but they certainly won’t find it easy to accept laws or political systems that differ from their own. Sometimes, when it’s bad laws that have stimulated the revolt, and the rebels try in their new home to keep the same familiar habits that ruined them before, their reluctance to toe the line presents the founder and lawgiver with a difficult problem. On the other hand, a miscellaneous combination of all kinds of different people will perhaps be more ready to submit to a new code of laws — but to get them to “pull and puff as one” (as they say of a team of horses) is very difficult and takes a long time. (708b–d)

Morrow points out that, despite their apparent diversity, the settlers will be entirely of Dorian stock, being from Crete or the Spartan-controlled Peloponnese, which is to say populations with a similar culture and experience living under strict laws.[4]

Plato is not in favor of being undiscerning concerning the city’s founding stock. On the contrary, he  argues for a vigorous “purge” of the population through exile or execution, of inferior and crime-prone stock, drawing direct comparisons with animal breeders. He particularly singles out any elements of the poorer classes engaging in egalitarian revolutionary activity as “a disease . . . in the body politic.”[5] In Magnesia, such a purge may be unnecessary if the settlers are very carefully screened for quality. Plato goes into considerable detail:

Anyone who takes charge of a herd of animals — a shepherd or cattle-man or breeder of horses or what have you — will never get down to looking after them without first performing the purge appropriate to his particular animal-community: that is, he will weed out the unhealthy and inferior stock and send it off to other herds, and keep only the thoroughbreds and the healthy animals to look after. He knows that otherwise he would have to waste endless effort on sickly and refractory beasts, degenerate by nature and ruined by incompetent breeding, and that unless he purges the existing stock these faults will spread in any herd to the animals that are still physically and temperamentally fit and unspoiled.

Because humans are not as easily controlled as animals, ideal practices are not always possible:

This is not too serious in the case of the lower animals, and we need mention it only by way of illustration, but with human beings it is vitally important for the legislator to ascertain and explain the appropriate measures in each case, not only as regards a purge, but in general. To purge a whole state, for instance, several methods may be employed, some mild, some drastic; and if a legislator were a dictator, he’d be able to purge the state drastically, which is the best way. But if he has to establish a new society and new laws without dictatorial powers, and succeeds in administering no more than the mildest purge, he’ll be well content even with this limited achievement. Like drastic medicines, the best purge is a painful business: it involves chastisement by a combination of “judgment” and “punishment,” and takes the latter, ultimately, to the point of death or exile. That usually gets rid of the major criminals who are incurable and do the state enormous harm. …

However, in times of difficulty, extreme measures may be required:

When there is a shortage of food, and the underprivileged show themselves ready to follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the privileged, they are to be regarded as a disease that has developed in the body politic, and in the friendliest possible way they should be (as it will be tactfully put) “transferred to a colony.”  (735b–736c)

From this we can surmise that Magnesia would reject any “economic migration” which is not in the interests of the city-state, “on the grounds that the population in the individual cities has exceeded the number that be supported by the land” (707e). Furthermore, Plato demands that all beggars be expelled: “No one is to go begging in the state. Anyone who attempts to do so, and scrounged a living by never-ending importunities, must be expelled . . . so that the land may rid itself completely of such a creature” (936c-d).

Like Aristotle later, Plato observes that a diverse population of subjects, lacking a common identity and solidarity, is easier to rule. Hence, he says of Magnesia’s agricultural slave population: “if the slaves are to submit to the condition without giving trouble, they should not all come from the same country or speak the same tongue, as far as can be arranged” (777d).

Whatever one makes of the specific measures, the broader point is one shared by Aristotle: the composition of the population is a fundamental political issue on which the statesman is empowered to act by whatever means appropriate. In the case of Plato, possible measures vary from a discerning immigration policy to the expulsion of undesirable elements.

[1] Interestingly, this chronology was also followed by Frederick the Great, perhaps due to readings of Plato and Aristotle, writing in one political treatise arguing for fatherly monarchic rule: “It seems probable that family fathers were the first legislators.” Guillaume Durocher, “Enlightened Patriarchy: Frederick the Great’s Principles of Lawmaking,”,  November 9-10, 2016.

[2] I believe this provision shows the nature of a traditional society in which people are sharply policed by elders. A Mauritanian Muslim friend of mine told me that he was shocked when he first came to Europe seeing young people kissing and touching on the train. He thought: “When is an old man going to come over to smack them?”

[3] David Galton observes in a good succinct overview of Greek eugenics: “The Greeks had a profound interest in methods of supplying their city states with the fines possible progeny . . .  Plato’s methods to improve the genetic constitution of the ruling elite class are far more original than those of Aristotle and are in accord with modern genetic theory.” Galton, David, “Greek theories on eugenics,” Journal of Medical Ethics, vol. 24, 1998, p. 263, p. 266.

[4]Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City, p. 11.

[5] Certainly the reasoning here seems quite similar to that of early twentieth-century fascist movements, defined by opposition to Marxism and a desire to biologically purify the body politic.

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