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Plato's Laws: Force and Truth in Politics

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Readers of Plato have often neglected the Laws because of its length and density. In this set of interpretive essays, notable scholars of the Laws from the fields of classics, history, philosophy, and political science offer a collective close reading of the dialogue "book by book" and reflect on the work as a whole. In their introduction, editors Gregory Recco and Eric Sanday explore the connections among the essays and the dramatic and productive exchanges between the contributors. This volume fills a major gap in studies on Plato’s dialogues by addressing the cultural and historical context of the Laws and highlighting their importance to contemporary scholarship.

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Introduction

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Introduction

This volume embodies a cooperative, intensive, and comprehensive interpretation of Plato’s Laws, a single, massive dialogue that challenges even the hardiest reader. In general, it is useful to focus on a single dialogue because of the sort of thing a Platonic dialogue is. While Plato’s works certainly deal with common themes in common ways, each dialogue also has something like the integrity of a work of art; it has, so to speak, its own rules. An elaborate dramatic conceit, unique and well-drawn characters, novel images and arguments, all contribute to making the individual dialogue an appropriate object for study. It seemed to us especially appropriate in the case of the Laws—whose mere length sets it apart, as do its unique setting, principal speaker, and fresh take on politics—to undertake a reading in common calculated to bring out what is distinctive about the dialogue.

Sharing the end of reading in common, our essays cover the whole dialogue book by book, and several reflect on it as a whole. Forgoing the aim of complete commentary, the authors were invited to highlight whatever aspects of the text they judged most salient and fruitful. Finally, before final versions were due, authors had access to draft copies of one another’s essays and, to greater or lesser degrees, incorporated responses to one another’s work. All these features, we think, lend the volume an even higher degree of cohesiveness than would come from merely working from a common text. The authors come from diverse backgrounds and even disciplines: philosophy, political science, classics, history, each charting a different path through the vast wilderness of the Laws. While their essays are at least as diverse as their backgrounds, there is nonetheless a theme common to most if not all that can serve as a starting point for introducing the material in this volume.

 

Synopses

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1    Reading the Laws as a Whole: Horizon, Vision, and Structure

Mitchell Miller

My project in this essay is to orient—or, both more precisely and more modestly, to mine the text in order to provide some suggestions as to how one might orient—a reading of the Laws. To that end, I will offer three sets of reflections, guided by these questions: (1) To begin from the negative, what fundamental dimensions and motifs does Plato exclude from the dialogue, indicating that they lie beyond the horizon of relevant possibilities for thought that delimits the Athenian Stranger’s conversation with Cleinias and Megillus? (2) How, positively, does Plato define this horizon itself? That is, with what basic terms, in what basic relations—and conveyed by what allusions, in this case to his earlier major works on polity—does he have the Athenian establish this horizon? (3) Finally, what is the basic force he intends the text of the Laws to have, and what is the structure he has the Athenian Stranger give his discourse as a whole in order that it might have that force?

 

3. The Long and Winding Road Impediments to Inquiry in Book 1 of the Laws

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3    The Long and Winding Road: Impediments to Inquiry in Book 1 of the Laws

Eric Salem

It is dawn or perhaps just before dawn—a good time, we later learn, for discussing regime change, nation building, and legal reform (722c; 951d; 961b). The day promises to be hot and sunny, and since it is, as we also later learn, just around the summer solstice, the day will certainly be very long—long enough, say, for a very long conversation (625b; 683b). Three old men, a Cretan, a Spartan and an Athenian, stand outside the walls of Knossos and ponder the day ahead of them. They will hike together to the cave of Zeus—the well-spring of Cretan laws—and as they hike (and rest, as needed) they will pass the time talking and listening to talk about “regime and laws” (625a–b). Three grand old men, representatives of three great Greek powers, have already taken their stand together outside the walls of the city. And they will now make their way, in speech as well as deed, into the dawning light. They will ascend together from Knossos to the source of Knossos, from effect to cause, from convention to nature.

 

4. Education in Plato’s Laws

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4    Education in Plato’s Laws

John Russon

The basic story of Book 2 of Plato’s Laws is easy enough to tell. The Athenian Stranger, who is discussing the establishment of a good state with Cleinias the Knossian and Megillus the Spartan, argues for the primary importance of education and discusses the importance of song and dance in this context.1 Specifically, he maintains that children will have their adult perspectives formed through their early experiences of pleasure and pain, and that good education primarily involves training children to align their experiences of pleasure and pain with what wise adults would in fact recognize to be noble and ignoble behaviors respectively. Since children are playful by nature, it is through controlling their play that this education will be accomplished. Games, songs, and dances in particular are the structured forms of play in which children will participate in order to become educated into good citizenship (2.659e).2 The communal experience of song and dance, which is the focus of Book 2, will primarily be enacted through three choruses—a children’s chorus, led by the muses, a young men’s chorus led by Apollo, and a Dionysian chorus of adults, including especially old men (2.664c–d). It is the oldest men who, being wisest, will appreciate what the children should learn, and it is their insights—which should be the equivalent of the needs of virtue—that will determine the implicit content of the songs, dances, and games learned by the children (2.659d; 7.797a). The message being communicated will mostly express the importance of maintaining the existing social order, and its central message (its “noble lie,” so to speak—2.663d–e) will be the unity of justice and happiness (2.664b; also, 660e).

 

5. On Beginning after the Beginning

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5    On Beginning after the Beginning

John Sallis

Almost always, it seems, one begins after the beginning. So it is with Socrates when, in the Phaedo, he tells of launching a second sailing, as sailors, in the absence of wind to fill their sails, take to the oars. What prompted Socrates was the recurrent failure of his efforts to grasp things directly and the consequent entanglement in intractable aporias. Thus finally, as he explains, he turned away from things, forsook immediate vision of them, and, instead, had recourse to , seeking to discover therein the truth of things.

Today, too, it is difficult to begin otherwise than after the beginning and in such a way that this posteriority is decisive. For, despite all efforts and claims to the contrary, we continue—we cannot but continue—to draw on linguistic and conceptual resources that originated in the Platonic texts. Even when what is sought is another beginning that would divert thinking from the first beginning, there is no escaping the necessity of reanimating and interrogating the Platonic beginning. Even in the present instance, in which a discourse focused otherwise than on the beginning of a dialogue is inserted into a sequence of discourses, the beginning—in whatever way it is launched—will be made after the beginning. The discourse will not only take as its theme beginning after the beginning but also will enact beginning in such a manner.

 

6. It Is Difficult for a City with Good Laws to Come into Existence On Book 4

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6    It is Difficult for a City with Good Laws to Come into Existence: On Book 4

Michael P. Zuckert

I. Prologue

The subtle action of Book 4 can be appreciated only when it is seen in relation to Book 3. Only at the end of Book 3 does Cleinias divulge to the Athenian that he and nine others have been charged to form a new colony. This is perhaps the most decisive and surprising moment of the dialogue. He seeks the Athenian’s aid in his enterprise. It is an amazing coincidence that one of these three idle talkers about laws actually has the opportunity to legislate. But more amazing is the observation we cannot help but make that Cleinias has been walking with this apparently knowledgeable Athenian since dawn and it is only now, three-quarters of the way to noon, that he divulges to the Stranger his task and only now attempts to enlist the Athenian in the enterprise. That new task sets the tone for the rest of the Laws, but most immediately for Book 4.

 

7. “He Saw the Cities and He Knew the Minds of Many Men” Landscape and Character in the Odyssey and the Laws

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7    “He Saw the Cities and He Knew the Minds of Many Men”: Landscape and Character in the Odyssey and the Laws

Patricia Fagan

The opening discussion of the constitutions of Crete and Sparta in Laws 1 (624a–626b) reveals two features central to the creation of laws, constitutions, and education: they are received from a god through a human intermediary (Zeus through Minos in the case of Crete, Apollo through Lycurgus in the case of Laconia). Second, aspects of the constitution develop out of the interactions of human groups with the terrain they inhabit. The Athenian stranger asks Cleinias, why does your law demand the common messes and the and weapons you employ (625c)? Cleinias replies that their has emerged from the landscape of Crete: it is not flat, so the Cretans do not use horses, but run. When running, light arms like bows and arrows are necessary. So, because of the landscape they inhabit, the Cretans have developed a particular set of military practices and a that supports that military practice. This paper traces a part of the working-out of these two themes, the relation between terrain and political character and the role of the divine in a , in the earlier and central books of the Laws. My discussion begins from the point about the relationship between constitution and terrain. I will examine here the opening of Book 4, where the stranger explains the significance for the development of virtue in the new city, of the city’s having a proper location and the right type of productive land; the new city’s virtue will depend upon her being isolated from other cities and agriculturally self-sufficient. I will discuss this analysis in light of the Cyclopes of the Odyssey, another isolated and agriculturally self-sufficient group, whom the stranger invokes in Book 3 as an example of the most just type of rule. The landscape the Cyclopes inhabit and the landscape the new city will inhabit, I will argue, indicate that the citizens of the new city will, like the Cyclopes, be characterized by hostile and closed-minded stances toward what comes to them from outside. I will turn next to a discussion of how the very opening of the Laws (as I have noted above) points to the crucial necessity of openness to the strange for the creation of laws and constitutions through its mention of the divine and mortal lawgivers of Crete and Sparta. Openness to the strange reveals itself here as openness to the divine, a theme that the Laws pursues through the figure of Dionysus. In the final section of the paper I will examine what I take to be the key features of Dionysus for the Laws: his ability to drive humans to madness in his rites and his violent punishment of cities that refuse to be open to the divine. Plato’s use of the Odyssey and of Dionysus-myth, then, invite us to challenge some of the claims that the Stranger so authoritatively makes about the sources and nature of virtue in a city.

 

8. On the Human and the Divine Reading the Prelude in Plato’s Laws 5

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8    On the Human and the Divine: Reading the Prelude in Plato’s Laws 5

Robert Metcalf

In the opening pages of Plato’s Laws, Cleinias advances the thought that all human beings are “enemies” [] one to another, and each human being to himself, so that, within each of us, there is a war [] being waged of the self against itself [] (626d–e). This thought determines the discussion that follows, insofar as is understood in terms of attaining “victory over oneself” [] (626e) after fighting off [] fears, pains, longings, and pleasures (633c–d), and thus, after “withstanding” [] pleasures rather than being enslaved or compelled by what is shameful [] (635c–d).1 Victory within this of the soul amounts, therefore, to what is superior within us exercising control over what is inferior, and , accordingly, is understood as being able to rule over oneself—the Athenian specifies “those who are good” [] as the ones able to “rule themselves” [] (644b). This polemical orientation toward , and particularly with respect to pleasures and pains, is a theme for which the Athenian has recourse to the lines from Hesiod, quoted also by Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic: “Vice in abundance is easy to get; / The road is smooth and begins beside you, / But the gods have put sweat between us and .”2

 

9. Being True to Equality Human Allotment and the Judgment of Zeus

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9    Being True to Equality: Human Allotment and the Judgment of Zeus

Gregory Recco

At the beginning of Laws Book 6, the Stranger turns to the establishment of the administrative apparatus of the new city, identifying the number and kinds of official positions that are required, as well as the procedures for filling them. While the lawmakers still have as their primary goal to make the citizens good, they must also strive to ensure that the city should be free of faction. Accordingly, after detailing the procedure for selecting the 360 citizens who are to make up the council, the Stranger concludes that “the selection made in this way would achieve a mean between a monarchic and a democratic constitution” (756e9–10). There follows a digression concerning two kinds of equality, already alluded to in Book 5 when the class system of property qualifications was introduced. The thought about proportional equality, giving all their due rather than the same amount, is familiar enough from its various articulations in Plato and Aristotle and elsewhere, but the Stranger’s treatment of the distinction is nuanced and in some ways unclear, and his way of weaving the concerns that motivate it into nearly every corner of the web of official regulations attests to the complexity of the issue. In what follows, I will present the discussion of the distinction; follow out its use in the establishment of the various offices, in the enumeration of their duties, and in the procedures for selecting them; and investigate how the treatment of equality in the city responds to the imperative to keep the constitution to a mean between monarchy and democracy as a means of avoiding faction. The way that these issues are handled raises questions about the meaning of civic friendship, particularly, about whether it is to be understood in the end as a stabilizing necessity or a substantial good.

 

10. The “Serious Play” of Book 7 of Plato’s Laws

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10  The “Serious Play” of Book 7 of Plato’s Laws

David Roochnik

R. G. Bury begins the introduction to his translation of Plato’s Laws by stating that this work “lacks the charm and vigour of the earlier dialogues … [it] is marked also by much uncouthness of style, and by a tendency to pedantry, tautology and discursive garrulity which seems to point to the failing powers of the author.”1 Even without acceding to his suggestion that the inferior quality of this dialogue is due to Plato’s diminished abilities, it is tempting to acknowledge Bury’s description of the work. For the Laws does lack the sparkling density and playful irony of other dialogues. The Athenian is indeed pedantic, and his long-winded discourse is remarkably laborious. Especially for a reader inspired by the endlessly provocative minimalism characteristic of Socrates in so many other dialogues, tackling the Laws is a terrible chore. For above all else, what characterizes the Athenian’s speech is its sustained and relentless seriousness.

 

11. No Country for Young Men Eros as Outlaw in Plato’s Laws

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11  No Country for Young Men: Eros as Outlaw in Plato’s Laws

Francisco J. Gonzalez

The topic of this essay is a part of Book 8 consisting of little more than six pages of the Greek text (835b5–842a10) often treated by interpreters as a digression (“una digresión” [Lisi 2001, 38]) and therefore passed over without much comment.1 Sandwiched between legislation concerning sacred festivals and a discussion of the economic organization of the state, this treatment of how the law is to impose proper measure on erotic desires is indeed technically a digression. Yet even if we did not already know that digressions in Plato are often much more important than what they digress from, an attentive reading reveals that the content of this particular digression so threatens, and in such fundamental ways, the overall project of legislation carried out in the dialogue as a whole that it resembles more a derailment than a digression. Indeed that the discussion should need to digress in order to address the problem of erotic desire is no accident. By the time we reach the end of this short discussion of how to master erotic desire in the citizens, the preferred law is abandoned in favor of a fatally flawed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, persuasion gives way to force, and the founder of the new colony of Magnesia withholds his assent. Indeed throughout this text things seem just not right, out of joint, even rather absurd. My aim in this essay is simply to survey the landscape of this text and draw attention to its many odd features with the ultimate aim of showing how it leaves outside of the law and thus leaves the law itself looking rather ineffectual. The project of legislation will of course need to continue, but now with a disturbing awareness of its limits.

 

12. On the Implications of Human Mortality Legislation Education and Philosophy in Book 9 of Plato’s Laws

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12  On the Implications of Human Mortality: Legislation, Education, and Philosophy in Book 9 of Plato’s Laws

Catherine Zuckert

Plato’s Laws has often been treated as a “late” work in which the philosopher sets out a plan for a city that, unlike the city-in-speech described in the Republic, could actually be put into practice.1 I have argued elsewhere that the interpretation of the Laws as a “late” work not only rests on weak evidence but also ignores the indications of an early dramatic date.2 In this essay I propose to show that reading the Laws as literally putting forth a legislative proposal ignores the inquiring, if not, strictly speaking, philosophical character of the content as well as the implications of the dialogical form of the work.3

For example, in his well-known account of Plato’s Penal Code, Trevor J. Saunders complains that “Plato was not a tidy legal draftsman.”4 But in making such an observation Saunders misconstrues the character of the discussion of penal legislation in Book 9 of the Laws in two important respects. First, neither “Plato” nor, to be more precise, his Athenian Stranger claims to be drafting laws. Both are inquiring what the best and most necessary laws would be. At the beginning of Book 9 the Athenian explicitly states, “it is fortunate for us that there is no necessity for us to legislate, but that by inquiring about every regime, we try to discern how the best and most necessary would come into being.… For we are becoming lawgivers, but we are not lawgivers yet” (857e–858a, 859c). Second, in the Laws Plato is not legislating for a citizen body or even writing directly to readers. He is relating the conversation an anonymous Athenian has with two old Dorians, one of whom has responsibility along with nine other Knossians to legislate for a new colony. In describing the Athenian’s attempt to show the Dorians what they need to know in order to draft better laws, Plato is showing how the Athenian tried to educate them. By treating the contents of the last four books of the Laws as a “penal code,” Saunders obscures not only the quasi-philosophical character of the inquiry but also the complicated relation of philosophy to law and education dramatized in the dialogue.5

 

13. “A Soul Superlatively Natural” Psychic Excess in Laws 10

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13  “A Soul Superlatively Natural”: Psychic Excess in Laws 10

Sara Brill

Early on in the lengthy prelude that is to be delivered to the would-be atheist, the Athenian makes a statement about soul whose ambiguity and profundity beg comparison with that fateful description of the good from Republic 6 as (509b). If, observes the Athenian, soul can be shown to be generated prior to things like fire and air, then “it would be most correct to say it to be (892c).1 As the adverbial form of , means primarily “differently from;” when used in conjunction with a genitive it can indicate “above,” and this specification to its kind of “difference from” recommends the adverb’s use to indicate “especially,” “pre-eminently” or as Bury renders it, “superlatively.”2 To claim that is is to suggest that exists as both surpassingly and superlatively natural, which is to attribute to soul a deeply ambiguous relationship to nature.

This is a fruitful ambiguity, and one that is in keeping with the general tenor of the discussion of soul in Book 10. The Athenian’s characterization of the soul as exceedingly natural is contingent upon both a conception of and a demonstration of soul’s generation, a showing of its priority with respect to genesis. This approach implies a relation between and genesis made explicit in the Athenian’s summary of the atheist’s conception of as [generation or coming-to-be of things primary] (892c). As the prelude continues, the Athenian does not expressly challenge this general formulation of ; instead, he attempts to reconfigure the atheist’s conception of the relationship between and by asserting that soul is the primary cause of all motion. In doing so, the Athenian attributes to soul generative capacities whose magnitude and scope blur the distinction between psychology and cosmology.

 

14. Property and Impiety in Plato’s Laws Books 11 and 12

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14  Property and Impiety in Plato’s Laws: Books 11 and 12

Eric Sanday

At the end of the project traced out in Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger asks what it would take to arrive at an end of the lawgiving.1 In this essay I focus on the way in which the problem of ending relates to the ongoing incompleteness of political community in the so-called “second-best” city that is the subject of the dialogue. I propose in this chapter that the character of the city as second best implies that its very incompleteness is necessarily constitutive of its health, and that the success of the lawgiver will hinge on the city’s ability to live with and allow for the ongoing breakdown of its project. It is my contention that the problem of incompleteness governs the concluding books of the Laws, and that interpreting these books in light of this problem allows us to understand the function of the Assembly () introduced in Book 12, which the Athenian refers to as the “perfect and permanent safeguard” of the city they have generated. Key to the reading I will offer is the recognition that impiety extends beyond the limits of personal belief, as identified in the Book 10 reference to the young, and is rooted in the material foundations of life in the city, especially in property, contracts (), and other institutions first introduced in Book 11.

 

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