Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

17. Laws

The vast Laws is in its way the most extraordinary of all Plato’s later writings, not for its inspiration (which flags) but for its evidence of tireless fascination with things political. Its relation to Republic and Statesman has been much debated. What is clear is that Plato is legislating – through the last eight of its twelve long books – for a second best to the ideal state and ideal statesman of Republic, with greater zeal than Statesman might have led one to expect. Is this because he has lost faith in those ideals, which still seemed alive in Statesman at least as ideals? That view is in danger of overlooking Republic’s own indication that it would be wrong to expect in practice anything but an approximation of the ideal.

And an approximation is precisely what the Laws presents. Communistic institutions are abandoned, but land holdings are to be equalized to guard against the division between rich and poor which Republic saw as the most severe threat to social harmony, and land is to be used as though it were the common property of the whole city. The family is reinstated, but women are not therefore regarded as confined to domestic concerns – they are still to be regarded as half of the city’s whole human resource. Educational provisions are given even greater prominence than in Republic. They deal explicitly with what Republic left largely undiscussed: the irrationality of human nature and the prospects for bringing it under rational control.

If the ideal city of Republic is a community shaped and governed by philosophy, Laws founds the second-best state on religion. The very first word of the whole work is ‘God’, and in one way or another religion not philosophy dominates the discussion. The interlocutors are pious elderly men, two of them from the cultural backwaters of Sparta and Crete and without any prior experience of philosophy at all. Together with a more philosophically sophisticated Athenian Stranger they are engaged on a journey to the shrine of Zeus on Mount Ida in Crete, making this the only Platonic dialogue set outside Athens. The city whose constitution and laws they are represented as establishing is to be a theocracy; and the first thing its original settlers are to understand is the need for all their conduct to be governed by consideration of divine justice. In a famous anti-Protagorean phrase they are instructed that ‘God is the measure of all things’ (see PROTAGORAS §3)

It is already clear by this stage (Book IV) that what Plato has in mind here is not undiluted traditional religion. The theological vocabulary employed is mainly the language of Orphic and Pythagorean rationalized religion; and by theocracy Plato indicates that he means the rule of reason as embodied in law. Moreover, when the Athenian Stranger turns next to consider the principles of legislation, he introduces a novel idea which perhaps constitutes the most interesting proposal in the dialogue. It is the notion of a ‘prelude’ to a law, which is the attempt the legislator should make to persuade citizens, albeit not always by rational means, of the necessity of the prescriptions of the law itself. Here is a theme which relates interestingly to conceptions of reason, necessity and persuasion found in several other dialogues, notably Republic and Timaeus. In due course the Athenian Stranger will give a reasoned justification of the religious assumptions which underpin his whole approach to legislation. In Book X, presented as an extended ‘prelude’ to laws against impiety, Plato imagines an atheist challenge to the whole religious framework of his enterprise, and in response develops an unequivocally philosophical argument for a natural theology which posits soul as divine first cause of motion and change in the universe.

Plato seems to have wanted two things above all of the discourse he developed in the Laws: first, that it should reflect and embody a sense of a transcendent moral framework for political and social existence; second, that it should be capable of being persuasive –because inter alia generally intelligible – to a population at large, not to just an intellectual elite. As he judged the matter, it was religious discourse, reformed and redirected as necessary, which could most palpably meet these two requirements.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Laws. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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