The Laws is one of Plato's late dialogues. It discusses political and ethical issues.

Dramatic context

Three elderly men, an unnamed Athenian, Kleinias from Crete, and Megillus from Sparta, are heading from Cnossus to the Idaean cave, where, tradition has it, Zeus was offering advises to his son Minos on matters of legislation. The Athenian visitor holds the leading role in the discussion: voluble, adroit and experienced (on a par with Plato himself), he criticizes the Dorian legislation system that his naïve and less versed interlocutors represent, and in parallel he examines the development of political societies. By the end of this introductory exchange, Kleinias praises the fortunate chance of being advised by two representatives of foreign cities; and that because, as he reveals, he is one of the ten commissioners appointed to establish the law of Magnesia, a new city being founded in Crete.

Date of composition

The Laws are accepted as the last work of Plato, even though its length (it is his longest work) suggests that its composition took place in parallel with that of other dialogues. Most scholars think that Plato wrote most of the Laws after 360 B.C., that is, after Plato's withdrawal from Syracusan politics. Plato left behind a draft of the Laws, which was copied out -but probably not extensively edited- by his student Philip of Opus.

Structure of the dialogue

a) Introduction: The basis of right legislation.

1st - 2nd Books: The critique to the legislation systems of Sparta and Crete, and the right education.

3rd Book: Conclusions from the history of legislation and government of political societies.

b) The legislation of Magnesia. i) Introduction: Preliminaries to legislation.

4th Book: The geographical position of the city, the population (its composition and occupations), and the right method of law-making.

5th Book: The rules of the moral conduct of life, the administrative divisions of the city, and the distribution of land.

ii) The legislative code. 6th Book: Organs of government, and the statute of marriage. 7th Book: Education. 8th Book: Physical activity, military training, patterns of sexual behaviour, and economy.

9th Book: Serious crimes, and the principles of criminal law.

10th Book: The law against impiety, and principles of theology.

11th Book: Crimes of private law.

12th Book: Crimes of public law, control over the magistrates, and the Nocturnal Council.

(Epinomis: The education of the Nocturnal Council).

Basic points

a) Moral education as the means to regulate political life.

Education aims at the rational orientation of pleasure and pain. Education can start early in the form of singing and dancing - two activities that foster harmony and rhythm (653b1-654a8). Its long-term aim is to inculcate the virtues of good judgment, self-control, justice and courage in the right hierarchical order (631c5-632b1). The Spartan and Cretan educational systems are negative examples, for they have focused excessively on courage in their attempt to confront pain (633c8-634c9). Concerning politics, if bad education fails to confront the pleasures alluring the monarch or the people (as it was the case with Persia and Athens), then the monarch or the people acquire excessive power, and thus break the balance of political life (694a3-701d4). Therefore, the primary condition for the establishment of a lawful city is the coordination between the bodies of power, that is, between the monarch and the people.

I call ‘education’ the initial acquisition of virtue by the child, when the feelings of pleasure and affection, pain and hatred, that well up in his soul are channeled in the right courses before he can understand the reason why. Then when he does understand, his reason and his emotions agree in telling him that he has been properly trained by inculcation of appropriate habits. Laws 653b1-6.

b) The law is the product of a superior intellect.

Rulers should run public or private affairs in obedience with the element of immortality inherent in them, that is, by making use of the law (713e8-714a2). In preparing the criminal law, the legislator must meet the following challenge: given that every unjust act is always involuntary, he must discriminate between the injury committed involuntarily, and the unjust act that results from the composition of the doer's soul. In keeping with that distinction, the law-giver must pass the appropriate sentences as to atone the damage suffered by the victim, and to cure the unjust soul of the committer (861a8-863a2). With regard to the implication of the law, the legislator must not only compose the law proper, but also a preamble to it, thus aiming both at threatening and persuading (720e7-722a6) - just as the good doctor does:

in this way he himself learns something from the sick and at the same time he gives the individual patient all the instruction he can. He gives no prescription until he has somehow gained the invalid’s consent; then, coaxing him into continued cooperation, he tries to complete his restoration to health (720d4-e2).

c) God is a soul superior to (but compatible with) the human soul.

Out of the ten kinds of motion, superior is the one which can move itself, that is, the motion that characterizes every living being, and hence every being with a soul (894c3-895c13). If the name of this self-generated motion is "soul" (895e10-896a2), and if this motion is necessarily the original cause of every other motion (894c4-8), then it is clear that the soul is the cause of every cosmic movement there is (896d10-e2). And insofar as it is possible that there exist at least two souls in the universe, "that which does good, and that which has the opposite capacity" (896e4), it is the sustenance of order that betokens the existence of one or more souls of the best kind (898c1-8), and therefore the existence of one god or more (899b3-c1).

The soul which is ruling the universe, as a divine mind, guides everything to happiness, thus exhibiting its virtue; by the same token, man, as a rational being, can comprehend the existence of god or gods behind the determinism of the universe (899a7-899c1; sp., 899b1-2, c1):

Everyone can see its [the sun's] body, but no one can see its soul—not that you could see the soul of any other creature, living or dying. Nevertheless, there are good grounds for believing that we are in fact held in the embrace of some such thing though it is totally below the level of our bodily senses, and is perceptible by reason alone. So by reason and understanding let’s get hold of a new point about the soul (898d3-e3).
Author: Ilias Georgoulas
  • Bury, R.G, Plato with an English Translation vols. X-XI, Laws. Cambridge (Mass.) London, 1926.
  • Bobonich, C. ed. Plato's Laws:A Critical Guide. , Cambridge, 2010.
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Saunders, T.J. Plato, The Laws. Harmondsworth, 2004.
  • Stalley, R.F. An introduction to Plato’s Laws. Oxford, 1983.
  • Taylor, A.E. Plato. The man and his work. New York, 2001.
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