(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Plato’s three great political treatises, Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), Politikos (later period, 365-361 b.c.e.; Statesman, 1804), and the Laws, are undoubtedly unsurpassed in their influence on political thought. The first two represent Plato’s attempt to argue for and describe the political body and the ruler that would be the best or ideal, and there is a serious question as to whether he believed these ideals to be possible. Some hold that the Republic represents Plato’s attempt to sketch the form or idea of the state—stateness itself, as it were—along with the art of ruling itself. The Statesman further examines the art of ruling. The Laws sketches a state that is second best, one in which Plato no longer considers the rule of a philosopher-king, either because he no longer thought it possible or because it represented an unrealizable ideal. His concern, rather, is with the rule of law.

Western democracies generally hold that a government of laws is superior to one of people because of the arbitrary rule that may occur when tyrants are in power. People, however, must interpret the laws, for laws do not speak for themselves. Thus, in his presentation of the ideal state, Plato described the training and qualifications of rulers who would combine wisdom and morality with experience, so that given any problem of governing, they would arrive at the correct solution. Why should this type of rule have been considered better than the rule of laws? A law, broadly speaking, is a command issued in general terms by a ruler, or by those empowered to rule, for the regulation of the conduct of the members of society. When it is held that someone has broken the law, the person’s act must be fitted under the general law, as interpreted by properly constituted authorities. A wise person, moral in character, who, through training (education) and discipline, has attained knowledge of the good and who has spent many years in the practical application of that knowledge in governmental positions is best suited to sit in judgment of particular cases and come to decisions. For Plato, proper rule by laws demanded the ideal ruler.