Ancient Philosophy: How Does it Apply to Modern Law?
By Andra Fofuca
When we think of the modern American legal system, we might think of justice, constitutional rights, and sometimes even systematic inequalities. However, when considering one of the greatest justice systems in the world, we must first learn of the historical foundation of legal rights, along with those who shaped them into what they are today. Notably, the Ancient Greeks, especially philosophers, played a major role in establishing democracy and justice in their legal system.
Image credit: Parthenon: Acropolis, by Sam Valadi. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Philosophy, a subject often neglected in modern education, is actually one of the most prominent subsets of the history of legal systems around the world. Certain elements of modern law were adopted from the Ancient Greek legal system, more notably by the common philosophers, Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato.
The Ancient Greek system of law can most prominently be dated to the law of Athens, which was best known as an expansion of the Mosaic Law, otherwise known as the first form of democracy in the world. The law of Athens was the first to employ juries into their system, which consisted of up to 6,000 members in certain cases, and required a majority vote to decide a verdict. This form of law is believed to have started at around 620 BC.
Aristotle, an eminent Ancient Greek philosopher, teacher, and scientist, is best known for his Aristotelian philosophies, which can be found in values and beliefs of modern Western societies. Aristotle’s beliefs in law were apparent: he believed in virtue over any other dominant piece of the human condition. To Aristotle, virtue meant that if one is trusted to do good when a choice presents itself, their ethical beliefs will likely prevail naturally. With this being said, virtue can present itself in terms of law.
Aristotle believed that making laws more lenient could benefit society, as one would be more likely to make good choices without having to be told to do so by higher powers. In regards to the legal system, this philosophy can be translated into a more lenient system. In his teachings, Aristotle referred to those who would breach the boundaries of virtue as ‘intemperate’, and called an instance of these actions an ‘incontinence’. For instance, an intemperate may commit an incontinence by over-drinking.
Though Aristotle’s philosophy has very interesting ideas and can be applied to modern law, it is unfortunately very difficult to test due to trust (that citizens will follow their virtues unconditionally) and acclimation (since people in modern Western civilization are habituated to there being settled laws in their communities). Virtuous laws require risks of elevating crime rates, especially in modern times where technology has advanced these abilities, versus an Ancient Greek society. However, Aristotle’s virtue theory remains relevant to this day and is studied in both philosophy and law classes.
Plato, an Athenian philosopher, believed strictly in the importance of laws, in contrast to Aristotle; he believed that strict laws were the only protection that citizens had against tyranny. Plato’s ideal form of government is aristocracy, which gives power to a small and powerful class of individuals, otherwise known as aristocrats.
Though few aristocrat countries still manage to exist, the form of government is certainly not favored in modern law. The closest possible leaders to aristocracy that the United States had ever had since the 18th century was the Kennedy family, who brought themselves to power through politics. Though Plato’s legal and political opinions are unlikely to prevail in the United States, they remain important to this day due to their effects in history, when aristocracy was prevalent.
Socrates’ philosophies of law differ the most from the three for the reason of foundational beliefs. Plato and Aristotle’s work were influenced by Socrates, in which they represented him as one who is stern about his legal ideologies. If you ask one who does not know of Socrates as a figure in law, but solely as a philosopher of his ideologies, they may say that Socrates hated democracy.
However, in lieu of his opposition to the democratic approach, it may be that he actually loved democracy tremendously. Socrates did not believe in the democratic system that the Athenians had established in 620 BC since he believed that allowing people to vote could result in a legal monstrosity. Socrates thought that whoever was to lead a country or nation should be voted by experts in law and politics, rather than giving anyone the right to do so themselves. This way, believed Socrates, elected officials will do what is best for the country rather than what is best for each individual person. He saw voting as a skill that could not be acquired by anyone, and saw the potential flaws in democracy. In fact, it can even be said that his excessive respect for democracy allowed him to believe this.
Athenian leaders believed that Socrates’ philosophies polluted the minds of Athenians, and sentenced him to death after a vote of 280 to 220 for guilty from the jury in court. In 399 BC, Socrates was sentenced to drink a cup of poisonous hemlock.
His philosophy cannot be applied in the United States, as it would breach the 26th Amendment, which states that any citizen over the age of 18 is permitted to vote. However, it is Socrates’ philosophy in direct relation with his method of death that proves his theories to be circumstantially correct, and shows the potential flaws in the democratic system.
So, how do these philosophies affect our modern law? Though the answer may not be evident by simply reading their stories, these philosophers had a greater effect on modern law than what is shown. The ideas of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates are crucial to study since they can allow us to learn from the errors and successes of the foundation of democracy.
Without bright minds to share their opinions and develop their ideas over time, there would never have been progress in any current legal system in the world. The importance of these Greek philosophers are not only important to the law of the past, but also to the present and the future.
After all, there is a reason why they are still studied to this day, thousands of years later.
“BRIA 26 1 Plato and Aristotle on Tyranny and the Rule of Law.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-26-1-plato-and-aristotle-on-tyranny-and-the-rule-of-law.html#:~:text=.
Leonard, Anya. “Socrates Justice - Law and Disorder.” Classical Wisdom Weekly, 28 Apr. 2020, classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/socrates-plato/socrates-justice-law-and-disorder/.
“Philosophy of Mind of Aristotle.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle/Philosophy-of-mind#ref254723.
“U.S. Constitution: Constitution Annotated: Congress.gov: Library of Congress.” Constitution Annotated, constitution.congress.gov/constitution/.
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