Laws (dialogue)

Laws (dialogue)

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The Laws is Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

's last and longest dialogue
Dialogue
Dialogue is a literary and theatrical form consisting of a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people....

. The question asked at the beginning is not "What is law?" as one would expect. That is the question of the Minos
Minos (dialogue)
Minos is one of the dialogues of Plato, featuring Socrates and a Companion. Its authenticity is doubted by W. R. M. Lamb because of its unsatisfying character, though he does consider it a "fairly able and plausible imitation of Plato's early work." Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns do not even...

(the authenticity of which is disputed). The first question is rather, "Who is given the credit for laying down your laws?"

It is generally agreed that Plato wrote this dialogue as an older man, having failed in his effort in Syracuse
Syracuse, Italy
Syracuse is a historic city in Sicily, the capital of the province of Syracuse. The city is notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the preeminent mathematician and engineer Archimedes. This 2,700-year-old city played a key role in...

 on the island of Sicily
Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

 to guide a tyrant's rule, instead having been thrown in prison. These events are alluded to in the Seventh Letter.

The setting


Unlike most of Plato's dialogues, Socrates does not appear in the Laws. This seems fitting because the dialogue takes place on the island of Crete
Crete
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the thirteen administrative regions of Greece. It forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece while retaining its own local cultural traits...

, and Socrates appears outside of Athens in Plato's writings only twice, in the Phaedrus, where he is just outside the city's walls, and in The Republic, where he goes down to the seaport Piraeus five miles outside of Athens. Instead of Socrates we have the Athenian
Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 Stranger (in Greek, 'xenos') and two other old men, an ordinary Sparta
Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

n citizen (Megillos) and a Cretan politician and lawgiver (Kleinias) from Knossos
Knossos
Knossos , also known as Labyrinth, or Knossos Palace, is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and probably the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture. The palace appears as a maze of workrooms, living spaces, and store rooms close to a central square...

.

The Athenian Stranger, who is said to be similar to Socrates but whose name is never mentioned, joins the other two on their religious pilgrimage to the cave of Zeus
Zeus
In the ancient Greek religion, Zeus was the "Father of Gods and men" who ruled the Olympians of Mount Olympus as a father ruled the family. He was the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology. His Roman counterpart is Jupiter and his Etruscan counterpart is Tinia.Zeus was the child of Cronus...

. The entire dialogue takes place during this journey, which mimics the action of Minos
Minos
In Greek mythology, Minos was a king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa. Every year he made King Aegeus pick seven men and seven women to go to Daedalus' creation, the labyrinth, to be eaten by The Minotaur. After his death, Minos became a judge of the dead in Hades. The Minoan civilization of Crete...

, who is said by the Cretans to have made their ancient laws, who walked this path every nine years in order to receive instruction from Zeus on lawgiving. It is also said to be the longest day of the year, allowing for a densely-packed twelve chapters.

By the end of the third book Kleinias announces that he has in fact been given the responsibility of creating the laws for a new Cretan colony, and that he would like the Stranger's assistance. The rest of the dialogue proceeds with the three old men, walking towards the cave and making laws for this new city which is called the city of the Magnetes (or Magnesia).

Topics


The questions of the Laws are virtually limitless:
  • Divine revelation, divine law and law-giving
  • The role of intelligence in law-giving
  • The relations of philosophy, religion, and politics
  • The role of music, exercise and dance in education
  • Natural law and natural right


The dialogue uses primarily the Athenian and Spartan (Lacedaemonian) law systems as background for pinpointing a choice of laws, which the speakers imagine as a more or less coherent set for the new city they are talking about.

Comparisons to Plato's other dialogues


The Laws is similar to and yet in opposition to the Republic. It is similar in that both dialogues concern the making of a city in speech, and both cities are copies after the life of gods. The city of the Laws is described as "second best", not because the first best is the city of the Republic, but because it is the city of gods and their children. The city of the Laws differs in its allowance of private property and private families, and in the very existence of written laws, from the city of the Republic, with its communistic property-system, community of wives, and absence of written law. Also, whereas the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and many young men, the Laws is a discussion among old men, where children are not allowed and there is always a pretence of piety and ritualism. All in all, while the Laws is more similar to the Republic than any other dialogue, they are so different that the Laws needs to be considered in its own right, as Plato's most serious and comprehensive contribution to political philosophy.

Traditionally, the Minos
Minos (dialogue)
Minos is one of the dialogues of Plato, featuring Socrates and a Companion. Its authenticity is doubted by W. R. M. Lamb because of its unsatisfying character, though he does consider it a "fairly able and plausible imitation of Plato's early work." Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns do not even...

is thought to be the preface, and the Epinomis
Epinomis
The Epinomis is a dialogue in the style of Plato and traditionally included among Plato's works. Today it is widely considered spurious because of its contents and because already some ancient sources attributed it to Philip of Opus.-Title:...

the epilogue, to the Laws, but both may be spurious.

In The Laws, Plato takes a harsh view of homosexual relations, and proposes to legislate against them. This differs from the stance taken by Aristophanes in the Symposium and is in stark contrast to the Phaedrus
Phaedrus (Plato)
The Phaedrus , written by Plato, is a dialogue between Plato's main protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus, an interlocutor in several dialogues. The Phaedrus was presumably composed around 370 BC, around the same time as Plato's Republic and Symposium...

, which presents pederasty in a positive light.

Comparisons to other works on Greek law


Plato was not the only Ancient Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 author writing about the law systems of his day, and making comparisons between the Athenian
Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 and the Lacedaemonia
Lacedaemonia
Lacedaemonia may mean:*Laconia, a modern prefecture of Greece*The ancient region of Greece of the same name; see Laconia *Lacedaemonia, the name borne by the city of Sparta from Late Antiquity to the 19th century....

n/Sparta
Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

n laws. Notably, the Constitution of the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians, long attributed to Xenophon
Xenophon
Xenophon , son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates...

 (another of Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

' pupils) and the Constitution of the Athenians
Constitution of the Athenians
The Constitution of the Athenians is the name of either of two texts from Classical antiquity, one probably by Aristotle or a student of his, the other attributed to Xenophon, but not by him....

, probably by Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, have also survived.

Some centuries later Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 would also devote attention to the topic of Ancient Greek law systems, e.g. in his Life of Lykurgus. Lykurgus (or: Lycurgus
Lycurgus (Sparta)
Lycurgus was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, who established the military-oriented reformation of Spartan society in accordance with the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi...

) was the legendary law-giver of the Lacedaemonians. Plutarch compares Lycurgus (and his Spartan laws) to the law system Numa Pompilius
Numa Pompilius
Numa Pompilius was the legendary second king of Rome, succeeding Romulus. What tales are descended to us about him come from Valerius Antias, an author from the early part of the 1st century BC known through limited mentions of later authors , Dionysius of Halicarnassus circa 60BC-...

 introduced in Rome around 700 BC.

Both Xenophon and Plutarch are stark admirers of the Spartan system, showing less reserve than Plato in expressing that admiration.

See also


Political content
  • List of classics of political philosophy – List of writings (similar to the Laws) on political philosophy.
  • Mixed government
    Mixed government
    Mixed government, also known as a mixed constitution, is a form of government that integrates elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. In a mixed government, some issues are decided by the majority of the people, some other issues by few, and some other issues by a single person...

  • The Open Society and Its Enemies
    The Open Society and Its Enemies
    The Open Society and Its Enemies is an influential two-volume work by Karl Popper written during World War II. Failing to find a publisher in the United States, it was first printed in London by Routledge in 1945...

    Karl Popper
    Karl Popper
    Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

     attacking a totalitarian
    Totalitarianism
    Totalitarianism is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible...

     undercurrent in Plato's "political" works.
  • The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws, by Leo Strauss
    Leo Strauss
    Leo Strauss was a political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated to the United States...

    .


Other aspects
  • Gymnasium (ancient Greece)
    Gymnasium (ancient Greece)
    The gymnasium in ancient Greece functioned as a training facility for competitors in public games. It was also a place for socializing and engaging in intellectual pursuits. The name comes from the Ancient Greek term gymnós meaning "naked". Athletes competed in the nude, a practice said to...

     and Gymnopaedia
    Gymnopaedia
    The Gymnopaedia, in ancient Sparta, was a yearly celebration during which naked youths displayed their athletic and martial skills through the medium of war dancing...

     – Military exercise, sports and dancing as an educational asset.


Manuscripts
  • Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 23
    Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 23
    Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 23 is a fragment of the ninth book of Plato's Laws, written in Greek. It was discovered by Grenfell and Hunt in 1897 in Oxyrhynchus. The fragment is dated to the third century. It is housed in the Cambridge University Library. The text was published by Grenfell and Hunt in...


External references


Regarding Plato's The Laws
  • Pangle, Thomas L., 1980. The Laws of Plato, Translated, with Notes and an Interpretive Essay, New York, Basic Books.


Other ancient texts about law systems (The text about Lykurgus is in Volume I of the Lives)

Online versions
  • The Laws Rare Henry Cary literal translation from the Bohn's Classical Library (Harvard, 1859), a 19th century nonliteral translation by Jowett.
  • The Laws from the Perseus Digital Library.