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Religious Practice as Play in Plato’s Laws

Justin Barney

University of Michigan

In Plato’s Laws 7, the Athenian stranger argues that humans ought to live out their whole lives “playing the finest games” (παίζοντα ὅτι καλλίστας παιδιὰς), which he identifies as “sacrificing and singing and dancing” (θύοντα καὶ ᾄδοντα καὶ ὀρχούμενον, 7.803C7-E2). Sacrifice’s inclusion in this list is peculiar, since sacrifice is not an activity that was associated with play or children, as singing and dancing both are. Studies of play in the Laws have not commented on sacrifices’ identification as a kind of play, nor do they focus on a unique feature of these games, which distinguishes them from other examples in the Platonic corpus: they are all instances of religious practice (Gundert, Roochnik, Jouët-Pastre, Kidd). Some scholars of Platonic religion have identified these activities as associated with religious festivals (Morrow, McPherran). They have understood Plato’s designation of religious practices as forms of “serious play” to indicate that such practices are delightful in themselves. While this is one reason for Plato’s classification, these authors do not investigate other connections between religious practices and Plato’s discussion of play throughout the Laws. Nor do they explore why Plato describes religious practices with an oxymoron—play (παιδιά) and seriousness (σπουδή) being directly contrasted throughout the work. This paper highlights several ways in which sacrifice, singing and dancing constitute acts of play. I argue that in the ideal city, both play and religious practice are to be strictly regulated, that each constitutes an activity that accords with reason, and that each therefore produces positive psychological effects and social benefits to the state. Finally, I will argue that religious practice, like other forms of play, produces effects that are discrete from the basic motivation of the typical participant, i.e. to pursue pleasure.

Earlier in Book 7, the Athenian argued that children’s games should be strictly regulated, and warns of the dangers of children who innovate in their play (7.797A7-B4). Likewise, he explains that religious practices should conform to a conservative authority. As citizens participate in “the finest games,” the god and a guardian spirit will make suggestions as to which gods they should honor and when (7.804A3-B4). Furthermore, the Athenian states that by following the suggestions of the gods, humans live their lives in accordance with their nature as “puppets for the most part” (θαύματα τὸ πολύ). Here the Athenian makes a connection between the proper practice of religion and his puppet analogy, as it was developed in Laws 1. The analogy illustrates that humans are motivated by cords that pull at them internally: two iron cords (pleasure and pain) and one golden cord (calculation). In appealing to this analogy, I argue, the Athenian suggests that the performance of religious practices is analogous to a human’s use of “the golden and sacred cord of calculation,” the use of which the city’s strict laws are meant to encourage (645A1).

This latter claim is seemingly undercut by the most basic definition of play in the Laws as an activity which is performed for the sake of pleasure alone. If the performance of religious practices is a type of play, then one might expect their performance to be an instance of following the iron cord of pleasure. But while self-rule consists of following calculation in spite of pulls from the iron cords, virtue is developed through the process of bringing about agreement between one’s three internal cords. So as in other cases of play, religious practice is sought for the pleasure it produces, but because lawmakers ensure that the activity accords with reason, play habituates the practitioner to acting virtuously and produces a social benefit to the state.

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Plato and his Reception

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