Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 624a–632d

“A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son,” by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, Portland Art Museum


The setting of the first book of Plato’s Laws will be familiar to readers of the Republic. It begins with a journey from the city to a religious gathering and involves a conversation about the relationship between virtue, the individual, and the state. And yet, very quickly we find that Plato is going in a radically different direction than he had in the Republic. Instead of instructing the young (Plato’s brothers, in the earlier work) we have three elderly gentlemen—Cleinias the Cretan, Megillus the Spartan, and the Athenian Stranger—reflecting on their varied cultures and experiences. Especially notable is the absence of Socrates—unless we are to assume that he is the “Athenian Stranger” in the discussion. As in the Republic, the three agree to use their journey to discuss matters of the highest import, beginning with the question of whether the laws that govern two well-run states (Crete and Sparta) are of human or divine origin. This question is temporarily unanswered. Or at least, it is answered firmly that the laws of Crete and Sparta are divine in origin (from Zeus and Apollo, respectively), but that they were delivered by the human lawgivers Minos and Lycurgus. For now, we’re left with the tension that the source of the law is divine, albeit transmitted by human mediators.

Turning from the origin of the law to its end—it’s telos—the Athenian Stranger asks why it is that the Cretans have made military training so central to their way of doing things. We should note that by directing his military-themed question to the Cretan rather than to the Spartan present, Plato is clearly questioning the purpose of law across the entire Greek world. Sparta was renowned for its blending of political and military offices and maintaining a high-caliber military. Everything said here about the Cretans’ military training and their pursuit of victory would have been exponentially truer in Sparta. (See Paul Cartledge’s excellent work on Sparta for a good survey, or read Xenophon or Plutarch on the same.) The Cretan military system, by contrast, would have been much more akin to what all other poleis in the Greek world had—a sort of communal training that was specialized to the individual city (Cretans tended to be archers and light infantry rather than the heftier hoplites of mainland Greece) and was required of all young men. Cleinias gives a Hobbesean reason for the existence of such laws:

The legislator’s position would be that what most men call ‘peace’ is really only a fiction, and that in cold fact all states are by nature fighting an undeclared war against every other state. If you see things in this light, you are pretty sure to find that the Cretan legislator established every one of our institutions, both in the public sphere and the private, with an eye on war, and that this was the spirit in which he gave us his laws for us to keep up. He was convinced that if we don’t come out on top in war, nothing that we possess or do in peace-time is of the slightest use, because all the goods of the conquered fall into the possession of the victors. (626a)

The goal of the laws that govern our state is dominance—human existence is a war of all against all, and by God we’re going to win. It doesn’t even matter what level of human existence we’re looking at—in this sense, at least, the idea from the Republic that there is a parallel between the state and the individual soul holds true (with the household and the village thrown in for good measure). It just happens to be a parallel of violence and warfare.

The assumption Cleinias is making is that the war we are waging with ourselves is a war where there is a virtuous side and a wicked side. (There are some aspects of the Greek language that make this discussion contingent on vocabulary usage—see the introductory note on page three.) The Athenian Stranger agrees and asks what we are to do in the case of a wicked majority within a state winning the war against a virtuous minority. Here’s where we encounter a clue that perhaps the Athenian Stranger is not Socrates, since he says:

The reason why we’re now examining the usage of the common man is not to pass judgment on whether he uses language properly or improperly, but to determine what is essentially right and wrong in a given law. (627d)

That is most certainly not a line from the Cratylus!

To help us understand the role of law in this universal warfare, the Athenian Stranger shifts the discussion from the majority/minority within the state to the majority (evil) versus the minority (virtuous) within a large family. In such a case, we can more clearly see where the law has a role to play. When there is a dispute within a family, a judge intervenes in the name of the law. Of the possible kinds of judges, we have three options:

  1. The judge who executes the wicked family members;
  2. The judge who forces the wicked family members to submit to the virtuous;
  3. The judge “who will take this single quarrelling family in hand and reconcile its members without killing any of them” (627e–628a).

All agree that the last of these is superior and, in doing so, have agreed that the law is neither merely an exercise of power nor about dominance and victory in war, but rather it exists so that all men of all characters may live together and be turned toward the life of virtue. Reconciliation and harmony, rather than victory, are the end of the law and are in some sense the very opposites of war—they are about peace:

The greater good, however, is neither war nor civil war… but peace and goodwill among men. (628d)

The point of a law—even a law designed to govern warfare—is peace. The realization of this truth must guide our analysis of political institutions. For example, the Athenian Stranger points out that when we reflect on the characteristics of a good soldier, we see that “courage” is not the sole definitive characteristic. In fact, we need a man with the whole spectrum of virtues to be a truly effective soldier. Courage unguided by wisdom and untempered by self-control will always lose to courage working in harmony with all other virtues.

What is the point I am trying to make clear in saying all this? Simply that in laying down his laws every legislator who is any use at all… will never have anything in view except the highest virtue. (630b–c)

A good law (or code of laws) will not take one virtue and make it supreme but will rather encourage the development of the full spectrum of virtue as an organic whole in the life of an individual.

This is not to say, as Cleinias suggests, that the Spartan and Cretan lawgivers failed. The Athenian Stranger is quite clear on this point, suggesting that they both did their work well but that we have failed to read and obey their laws properly. A good lawgiver will produce laws that “achieve the happiness of those who observe them, by producing for them a great number of benefits. These benefits fall into two classes, ‘human’ and ‘divine'” (631d). In order, these benefits include, but are not (I assume) limited to:

Human Benefits

Divine Benefits
Good Judgment

These two lists are not exclusive but rather feed off of each other and point beyond themselves to reason.

The job of the lawgiver is threefold. First, he is to understand the lives of the people and how those lives may best be directed to achieve the human and divine benefits that we all desire, and he is to shape the laws accordingly. Plato uses rather inclusive language in this discussion, suggesting that the lawgiver will be involved “at every stage” of life (631e), making it obvious why people might be quick to see Plato as a totalitarian.

Second, he is to explain to the people exactly how the laws will help us live happy lives and guide them in understanding how their own actions and emotions will help or hinder them in their pursuit of the good life. Again, this is to cover every aspect of human existence, and again we might be tempted to suggest that Plato’s state is unendurable to those who think individual freedom has some value.

Finally, having written the legal code, the lawgiver is to establish guardians to embody the law

so that all these regulations may be welded into a rational whole, demonstrably inspired by considerations of justice and self-restraint, not of wealth and ambition. (632c)

This does not necessarily mean (as Voegelin suggested) that with the departure of the lawgiver the philosopher kings have retreated, leaving only the second-rate “guardians” behind to act—though that is of course a reasonable enough interpretation. It may be that the lawgiver is above even the philosopher kings of the Republic, who are represented here by the guardians—in this case the lawgiver may be the one who originates the myth of the metals. Or it may be that Plato means something else entirely.

The point is that none of this was on the minds of Cleinias or Megillus when they were originally asked about the law codes of their states. So the Athenian Stranger suggests they start over, this time with virtue in mind as the basis for their discussion. Which is where we’ll pick up next time.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

5 Responses to “The Laws: 624a–632d”

  1. Frank

    I’m not sure how the Athenian Stranger (“AS”) got from Clenias’ statements that “all men are always at war with one another” and “every city is in a natural state of war with every other” (626) to the proposition that “each man [should] conceive himself to be his own enemy….” But that doesn’t seem to be a key point of the discussion.

    AS maintains that a legislator will always make laws with regard to the greatest virtue and that virtue is the aim of the lawgiver. Is he saying that virtue is the foundation of law in the sense that laws should be adapted to the virtue(s) of the citizens, or that law should promote the greatest virtue(s) in them, or both?

    • Coyle Neal

      Frank, I’m going to go with both in the sense that virtue should be both the foundation and the telos of the law, the part of your question that might make me hesitate is the “virtues of the citizens” bit. My feel is that Plato would be fine with adapting the laws to enhance virtues already present in the citizen body and encourage the development of virtues that are otherwise deficient, but I don’t know that he would say that the characteristics of an existing citizen body are automatically virtuous and to be codified in law–in fact he from time to time says the exact opposite.

      • Frank

        Thanks, Coyle. I’ve read somewhere that one aspect of the Founders’ genius was in giving Americans (at least of the late eighteenth century) a government adapted to their virtues. Plato’s statements by way of AS – that I asked you about – struck me as possibly getting at the same thing: the best lawgivers take the peoples’ existing virtues as the foundation for their laws.

        Anyway, just curious, and I promise to keep the random questions under control. I’m really looking forward to reading Plato’s “Laws”!

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    Karl Popper is committing a gross error when he transports a modern word back into Classical History. To him, all authority is “totalitarian”. It is about smearing Plato. Leonard Krieger, who has written a pretty comprehensive and complete piece on authority, writes the concept and usage of authority “””underwent change””” in the modern era. (Dictionary of the History of Ideas) The modern word “totalitarianism” was made to fit the modern idea. You can not transport modern inventions back into Classical Antiquity and have it fit! You are doing a grave disservice to our Classical Heritage. I would have absolutely nothing to do with Karl Popper.

    • Coyle Neal

      Mr. Wheeler, good points about not being anachronistic in our thinking–you’re right that that’s a critical objection to Popper.
      And yet, I think Popper is asking the right questions (even if we disagree with his answers). Plato may not have used the word “Totalitarian”, but is he setting up the kind of state that looks more like a Soviet Russia than it does a, well, whichever one you think is better?
      To answer that well, we have to account for Popper (even if we–rightly–ultimately conclude that he’s wrong).


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