Plato part 1: The Laws of Plato and the rule of Law

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.
“Laws” is among the least read or regarded of Plato’s writings, even though, on account of its length and theme, and especially its author, it must count as a major philosophical work. Perhaps this is because of its style, which is plain and down to earth and occasionally rambling; it is not enlivened by the sublime flights of imagination that we find in some of Plato’s other works. It is less fanciful, less metaphysical, and less theatrical than the “Republic” or the “Symposium” or the “Phaedo.”
And it is a work by an old man, which, to some, may be reason enough to ignore it.
Yet I am strongly drawn to it.
Plato was nearly 80 when he wrote the “Laws.” I am about the same age. I am well acquainted with the passion that moved him to write it: a desire to discover whether a long life has taught one any worthwhile lessons, especially about how to live, and, if so, to leave behind some wisdom, something to redeem the time that one has spent on earth.
Plato was surely self-conscious of his age as he wrote; the theme of old age is a dominant thread running through the whole work.
Like all Plato’s published works, “Laws” is a dialogue. Its three characters are old men experienced in government. They are strangers: Megillus from Sparta, and Cleinias from Crete; the third, an Athenian stranger, is never identified by name. It has been suggested that Plato intended the character to represent himself.
The three men are on an excursion from Cnossos, an ancient city of Crete, to Mount Ida, which was held sacred because it was believed to be the birthplace of Zeus. Minos, the legendary lawgiver of Crete, is said to have visited the mountain regularly to consult with Zeus. The scene is vividly portrayed: it is high summer, the air is sultry, but the path passes through cool cypress groves ‘of wonderful height and beauty,’ and across pleasant upland meadows; the route offers numerous places where travelers can rest and pass their time in pleasant and useful conversation.
The theme of the work is especially attractive to me: the rule of law, which, according to Plato, when properly understood engenders peace and friendliness for all who endeavor to live by it.
The conversation begins abruptly. The Athenian stranger is curious about the purpose of certain Cretan laws that prescribe a regimen of rigorous exercise, training in the use of light weaponry and armor, and the provision that the men of the city eat their meals in common. Cleinias responds that because the Cretan landscape is mountainous and uneven, armed men must make their way over difficult terrain on foot; hence they must be fit and their weapons light. These and a common mess are all customs adapted for war, which is right, because cities, by their very nature, are enemies of each other; a perpetual state of war exists between them. The purpose of civil law is to make a people efficient at war, and, he adds cynically, ‘Peace is nothing more than a name.’
The Athenian stranger picks up on this theme, and on further questioning, Cleinias is forced to admit that not only political communities but all communities of every sort are by nature in a continuing state of war: families are at war against families, and within every household there is chronic conflict between its members. Even the human soul is divided and at war against itself.
These admissions are fatal to Cleinias’ hypothesis about the usefulness of a rule of law designed for war, because if it is true that a perpetual state of enmity exists between nations and communities and even between the parts of the human soul, then to train citizens exclusively in martial arts makes it likely that they will settle all their conflicts through violence. Instead of civil society, civil war will be the rule.
The Athenian stranger, while not denying this grim state of universal enmity, avers that the purpose of the rule of law should be to establish peace, and that the most secure and therefore the best peace of all is one based neither on conquest nor on coercion and domination, but on friendliness and reconciliation. This should be the purpose of the rule of law.
Now, if the rule of law is to accomplish this, it cannot be imposed upon a people from the outside or from above. It must operate within each individual member of society, as a principle of restraint and self-control. All the more so, if the rule of law requires that we make peace with ourselves as well as with others.
Plato adopts a similitude from the art of puppetry. We humans are like ‘puppets of the gods,’ pulled and pushed about in every direction by wires that are hard and steely and inflexible. The puppet’s movements would lack grace and purpose were there not another string that the puppeteer could use to manipulate the rest and create the illusion of an independent self-moving being. In contrast to the others, this guiding wire is supple and flexible, made of gold rather than steel.
The rigid wires represent the passions that, driven by desire, move us this way and that. They incite us to excessive behavior, folly, or worse, to violence and cruelty. The golden wire is reason or intelligence, the principal of self-control and restraint.
By our intelligence we become our own puppeteers; masters of the golden wire that controls the strong rigid forces of the passions. Its usefulness goes beyond individual restraint. By means of intelligent consent, civil societies are created, institutions are designed and authorized to act in behalf of all, laws are enacted, and the rule of law becomes a way of life for all in concert.
It is like Middlebury’s new bridge. The concrete girders were in place but until properly joined they remained dull and lifeless objects, held down by gravity, their only emotion. But the post-tensioning of their internal cords drew them together into a single structure, and the whole now rises up, strong and graceful and self-determined, a wonderful display of intelligence and technical skill!
Editor’s note: Look for Victor Nuovo’s next essay on Plato’s “Laws” in next Thursday’s Independent. Also see the series introduction here.

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