Just what are we to do with Plato’s Laws? First and foremost, of course, we ought to do what most people do not: read it. To that end, through the first half of 2016, Nomocracy in Politics will be hosting an online reflection on this much-neglected text. As with our readings of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy and Hobbes’s Leviathan, this project has three goals:
1) To pursue the discipline of reading and thinking carefully about a key work of political theory at least twice a week.
2) To read a book that often is read either only in part or not at all.
3) To read in a communal setting with others interested in reflecting on these same goals. (So please do read along and comment!)
Background Reading Suggestions
In the past decade, scholarship on Plato’s Laws has taken off, largely thanks to the influence of Leo Strauss. Which means there are some excellent books available, if not always affordable.
Plato and His World
- Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
- Xenophon, A History of My Times
- Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers (the Kindle edition is excellent—which is a rare admission from me)
- Plato, The Republic (I prefer the Cornford abridgment, but I suspect many of you will insist on the authorized version, which is also fine); The Statesman; the Epistles (especially VII).
- R. F. Stalley, An Introduction to Plato’s Laws
- M. I. Finley, Politics in the Ancient World
- Mogens Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes
- A. H. M. Jones, Athenian Democracy
- Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens
- Christopher Bobonich, ed., Plato’s Laws: A Critical Guide
- Marcus Folch, The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato’s Laws
- Mark J. Lutz, Divine Law and Political Philosophy in Plato’s Laws
- Leo Strauss, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws
- Seth Bernadette, Plato’s “Laws”: The Discovery of Being
- Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle
- Gregory Recco, ed., Plato’s Laws: Force and Truth in Politics
The goal is to cover about twenty pages of text per week out of the Saunders translation, with posts going up on Nomocracy on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Problems with the Laws
As we read through the Laws, there are two questions that we ought to keep in mind. First, where does this work fit into Plato’s corpus? And second, is Plato a totalitarian?
In terms of where the Laws sits as compared with his other works, even a quick glance shows us that this dialogue stands out from the rest for a number of reasons. Not only is it the last and longest of his works; it also differs widely in tone, style, and (possibly) substance from his earlier writings. It is also either unfinished or unedited, or both. Of course, as with Virgil’s unfinished Aeneid, we have to be careful not to let that last reason become a catch-all excuse for inconsistencies and poor argumentation; but we also cannot ignore the fact that this dialogue has an…unpolished feel to it that most of Plato’s other works lack.
But why is Plato’s Laws so different from his Republic, to pick the work most obviously parallel? Various answers to this question have been given. To list just a few:
- Eric Voegelin argues that the Laws was written for a world from which the philosopher kings had withdrawn.
- Gerhard Muller argues that Plato’s experience in Sicily soured the idealism of the Republic and, when combined with age, led to the grim realism of the Laws, as evidenced by the mediate steps of the Statesman and Epistle VII.
- R. F. Stalley argues that Plato wrote the Laws to convince the common man of the project of the Republic (which was written to the philosophical elites).
- Karl Popper argues that while there are differences of detail, the same spirit is at work behind the two documents—the spirit of totalitarianism.
This last option provides a springboard into the second major question we ought to keep in mind: was Plato a totalitarian? I can’t promise to answer the question of where the Laws fits into Plato’s body of works—that’s too big a question for this sort of forum. But we cannot ignore the question of whether Plato’s laws go too far. Clearly Popper’s challenge to Plato has touched a nerve, given that the Penguin edition includes a long introduction by the translator wherein significant space is dedicated to arguing that Plato was not, in fact, a totalitarian—however much he may at times look like one. And while I tend to agree that Plato was not a protofascist, I can also see where people like Popper are coming from.
All this to say that we should have a fun few months ahead of us.
Thanks again to Peter Haworth and the editors at Nomocracy in Politics for making this project possible!
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.