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Fall 2010, Plato part 1: The Laws of Plato and the rule of Law

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Posted on October 7, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



An Essay by Victor Nuovo, Middlebury College professor emeritus of philosophy

1. The Laws of Plato and the rule of Law

Author’s note: This is the first of a series of essays or reflections about a book written two and a half millennia ago by Plato, the great philosopher. It is titled “Laws” and is his last and longest work. According to a reliable tradition, when Plato died, in 347 BCE, he had finished a draft of the whole work; it was edited and published posthumously by Philip of Opus, Plato’s secretary, a member of Plato’s Academy and a philosopher.

The Laws is Plato’s last and longest work. He completed it shortly before his death in 347 BCE. Inconsistencies and duplications suggest that he was unable to finish the final editing of it. His secretary, Philip of Opus, edited and published it posthumously, adding an appendix, the “Epinomis.” Like all of Plato’s published works, Laws is a dialogue. Plato chose to present his thoughts through other characters, some fictional, others real. The characters in Laws are fictional.

The setting is plain. Three strangers meet on a trail leading from Cnossos, an ancient Cretan city, to Mount Ida, the legendary birthplace of Zeus. They are old men. Megillus, the eldest, is from Sparta. Cleinias is from Crete. A third character is identified only as the Athenian Stranger.

It turns out that Cleinias, the youngest, has been appointed to a commission to establish a new Cretan city, and so the companions, all experienced politicians, decide to converse about what sort of constitution and laws might be best for it.

There is reason to believe that the Athenian Stranger represents Plato, who was an Athenian. He dominates the conversation and his voice is unmistakably authoritative. Midway in the conversation, at noon, when the companions are resting in a shaded grove, the Stranger imagines that their conversation will be recorded in a book, and he commends it as a standard textbook on the rule of law and the legislative art.

That recommendation by itself may be sufficient reason to bother with Plato’s Laws. It is as though he were addressing us down through the ages: “Read this book; this is my legacy.”
Plato’s legacy has extended farther than he could have imagined. No one doubts his greatness. He has been aptly described as “one of the most dazzling writers in the western literary tradition.” He is the Shakespeare of philosophers. How could we not want to read him?

But, if that isn’t enough, the adventurous reader finds that, even after two and a half millennia, there are topics in Plato’s Laws that are strangely familiar and current. The constitution that the three companions frame for Magnesia, the new Cretan city, is mixed, a representative democracy, prescribing the separation of powers and installing checks and balances. Power is never gathered all in one place, and it is everywhere regulated.

The Athenian Stranger advocates universal education from earliest childhood, even prenatal schooling, and insists that education and higher learning should continue to life’s end. The goal of education is rational self-possession and self-control, of intelligence and passion, of the body also.

He asserts the equality of women and his model constitution includes them in almost all aspects of civil life (with some notable exceptions). He muses that crime is something for which we should be ashamed, for it is a sign of society’s failure; and he insists that punishment should never be vengeful, but corrective. He reflects on the social causes of criminal behavior and argues that no one does evil voluntarily.

He advocates a sustainable economy. He worries about the anti-social consequences of too much wealth or too much power. His stance is anti-imperialist and anti-militarist.

These are the sorts of things one reads about in Plato’s Laws.

There’s more that is perplexing and sometimes troubling. Plato was not a proponent of civil liberties. He was much more concerned about the duties of citizens than their rights. He didn’t favor a free-market economy, and he worried about globalism. He was a bit of a puritan, and not strong on the right to privacy, although he made concessions to it.

Yet he insisted that each of us has an inviolable right to our own person, or what he called the soul. This is the cornerstone of his political theory. We own our individual souls, and accordingly we have a duty to make them perfect, and it is largely in our role as citizens that this duty is carried out.

The fact that all this was written long ago and far away makes whatever is familiar in these themes seem exotic and strange. But stranger still is Plato’s way of weaving together the individual/personal and the political, the practical and the sublimely philosophical. It is enchanting, but Plato uses enchantment only to draw us in, and then almost at once he changes into an intellectual challenger.

He provokes and perplexes his readers, and downright disturbs them. And by this means we are made to reflect on ourselves, we awake to our own political troubles. This brings to mind another of Plato’s abiding lessons: When our politics is not working as well as it might or should, when there is too much dysfunction, when peace and friendliness are scarce, when conflict seems chronic and increasing, we must not seek refuge in our private solitude but look around us and think deeply about government and the rule of law.

Plato learned this lesson well, which is why he wrote the Laws.

The essays in this second series on Plato’s Laws are more connected than in the first. The first set of essays focused on the idea of the rule of law and explored how it takes its seat in the soul and in our public life and the connection between the two. Now, I shall observe Plato as he practices the legislative art, which he likened to the fine art of painting.

The constitution of a civil society is the product of this art, and just as a painting is supposed to be a means of lasting aesthetic delight, so a well-formed constitution is instrumental of lasting justice and public wellbeing.

Each essay takes a part of the picture and tries to fit it in place: the allotment of land, the people, social organization, the fundamental institutions of government, the selection of public officials, the distribution and regulation of power, education, the economy, crime and punishment, religion. Here is an opportunity to reflect on how civil governments are made and made to work best.

Postscript: I hope no one will be satisfied to take what I have to say about Plato’s Laws as sufficient in itself. I hope you will decide to read the book. There are several English translations available: the two most recent ones are by Trevor J. Saunders (Penguin Books) and Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press). Both are in paperback editions. Saunders’ edition is the most instantly readable and engaging, and it supplies many helps for the uninitiated reader. These may be too many, and there is a danger of being carried along by his flowing translation, topical headings and introductions without having to trouble to read Plato for oneself. Besides, Saunders’ translation is excessively interpretative, and in one important instance misleadingly so. He describes the proposed constitution of Magnesia as ideal, which implies something unrealistic and utopian. He had better have used the term “model.” The model constitution outlined in Laws is analogous to a blueprint for a house. The end in view is something real. Pangle’s translation is reliable and without frills, but he makes no accommodation for the novice reader. A prudent reader should read the translations together. An acknowledged classic study of the Laws of Plato is Glenn R. Morrow “Plato’s Cretan City” (Princeton University Press). It sets Plato’s work in its historical context. Laws is not a blockbuster. You must take it up into your hands, read it, study it, and try to master it, and slowly Plato’s meaning will become evident.

Editor’s note: Look for Victor Nuovo’s next essay on Plato’s “Laws” in next Thursday’s Independent.

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