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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.
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In the Laws, an Athenian stranger, thought by some scholars to represent Plato himself rather than Socrates, dominates the conversation. In the opening books, a discussion, reminiscent of many in earlier dialogues, ensues of the virtues, their importance to the good life, and the role of education in training citizens to rule themselves and to obey their rulers. The Athenian stranger inquires of Megillus whether he thinks that the program in Sparta to train the young to be courageous is adequate. Although much stress is put on endurance and resistance to pain, there is little, if any, preparation for resisting improper pleasures, especially flattery. Furthermore, in their educational scheme the Spartans have confused temperance with prohibition, by banishing revelry in all forms. Conviviality may be a benefit to the state when properly managed. In fact, the notion of “proper management” is the key to the temperance, and gaining knowledge of it a major feature of a correct education.
People are pulled from within by pleasure and pain, and the way in which they are pulled results in virtue or vice. The way in which people are pulled can be determined by their use of reason in directing their will to control their passionate nature or their enslavement to the demands of their desires. It is the role of education to prepare people to use their reason, so that their acts will be virtuous and not vicious. If children are observed carefully, and their instincts toward virtue are molded into suitable habits so that they learn to do that which they ought to do—by loving what ought to be loved and hating what ought to be hated—then education will be properly administered in the city. As in the Republic, Plato advocates as part of the program of education the correct use of music, and, again, he stresses imitation of the good as the standard by which it should be judged.
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In book 3 of the Laws, the Athenian stranger turns to an analysis of legislation, one that occupies him for much of the remainder of the dialogue, and he begins by considering the origin of governments. Recounting the legend of the destruction of civilization by the Deluge, he describes the rise of society again on a simple, pastoral level. People lived by custom, remembered from the “old days,” and practiced the virtues that they inherited from their parents. Legislation began when the various communities discovered the differences in their customs and vied with one another to be the best. By arbitration, it was decided which were best, and the communities were united into city-states, from which federations were formed. Yet Sparta and two of its neighbors had broken their federation in recent times because they lacked the wisdom to remain united. Unless legislators endeavor to plant wisdom in states and banish ignorance, not only federations but also the state itself will be ruined. The stranger points out many examples of states that have come to ruin because of excesses rather than improper management.
Persia, he claims, fell because of the servitude of the people. When the most important principle of rule, that of the wise over the ignorant, is practiced as it ought, there exists a rule of law over willing subjects. When there is rule by compulsion, as in Persia, then the government will fall. On the other hand, too much freedom can also lead to the destruction of a state. The stranger refers to the fall of Athens as a case in point. Interestingly enough, in the light of his criticisms of certain poetical practices, he traces the downfall to excesses in music. He claims that at first the music was listened to in an orderly fashion and in silence, but the poets themselves introduced noisy innovations that led to noisy confusion. In addition, freedom was replaced by license, and equality proclaimed in all things, so that the view expressed by “It’s all a matter of taste” replaced norms in morality as well as etiquette. The democracy that had consisted of educated persons in the role of judges degenerated to a situation in which anyone was qualified. When freedom becomes excessive, when taste takes over, then reverence is lost and authority ignored; both the rulers and the laws are disobeyed.
In discussing a state that is well governed, Plato, in the Laws, indicates that he has modified the position on democracy he put forth in the Republic, in which he stated that it was next to tyranny as the worst of states. It is true that there he presented a picture of mob rule in which license and no moral laws prevailed. That conclusion was the main feature of a democracy when discussed in the Republic. In the Laws, he holds that when democracy is combined with monarchy, it is possible to join features that make for a well-governed state: friendship and wisdom with freedom. The Athenian stranger holds that legislation should aim to accomplish three things: ensure the freedom of the city, promote harmony so that the city is at one with itself, and foster understanding. Cleinias, who is to found a colony for Crete, asks the Athenian stranger to develop his views on legislation further so that he may profit by them.
Speaking rather generally, the Athenian stranger claims that it is preferable for a legislator to make laws in a state ruled by a young tyrant (king) with a good memory, one who is quick at learning, courageous, noble, and temperate. Because people tend to imitate their ruler, such a ruler is more likely to be obeyed and the laws of his kingdom are more likely to be the best. Besides, because he is more likely to honor the laws, he should rule, for where the law is subject and has no authority, there the state is on its way to ruin. Thus Plato, in the Laws, subscribes to the second-best view, for he goes on to say that where the law is above the ruler, there the state has the possibility of salvation. He stresses, as he did in the Republic, that the gods should be imitated, and he urges that legislators not give two rules for one point of law.
The Athenian stranger develops this point further by advising legislators to define clearly the terms of their laws so that there will be no ambiguity. This will be the true sense of moderation. When the laws are made, legislators should use both persuasion and command in framing them. The persuasive efforts will create good will on the part of the citizens who will be required to obey the laws.
It is important to realize the kinds of laws Plato is talking about. Legislators are described as framing laws to fit what ordinarily is called a constitution. (Plato is not always clear about this point, but the text supports such a view.) Both Niccolò Machiavelli, in his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (1531; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, 1764), are indebted to Plato as they argue for a constitution written by a stranger (as does Plato), sanctioned by the gods, and consented to by the people.
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In the fifth book, the Athenian stranger gives practical advice for the securing of a virtuous state. Next to the gods, people should honor their souls and then their bodies. They should live moderately, avoiding excesses, with regard to both their mental and physical activities. Those in society who are guilty of wrongdoing, if they appear curable, should be treated gently and with forgiveness. If, however, some citizens in the state are beyond cure or are incurably evil, they must be purged. Plato, again stressing the view that evil is a kind of disease of which punishment is the cure, argues for rehabilitation over vengeance; but when rehabilitation appears fruitless, then the state should put away those who are of no good to themselves or others. Oddly enough, from Plato’s viewpoint, because no person ever does wrong knowingly, an incurable person would appear to be one who no longer can learn anything.
The state that the Athenian stranger plans would be small in size and population. The property would be divided among the citizens as fairly and justly as possible, and great effort would be made to keep the population constant. In the best state, the stranger proclaims, property would be held in common (as in the Republic), but if it must be held privately, then the owners should be taught that they owe their possessions to the state and that basically the property belongs to the whole citizenry. The city-state should be neither too wealthy nor too poor, for the excesses of both are dangerous to civic welfare. The laws should protect the city from these extremes by limiting wealth so that no one through property shall gain undue power.
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In the ensuing books, Plato continues to stress education, and he points out that a crucial function of it is to help transmit and enforce the customs (favorable) that have been developed in society. Laws are only a skeleton of the rules that govern a state. Between the “spaces,” custom binds and knits the country, providing a ground for proper management of oneself. Custom can bring about reverence for the law by instilling in the young a respect for it. It is well to frown upon changes in the law, to make it difficult for changes to occur, for stability in the law is reflected in a satisfied people. Only the good is to be stressed. Plato was so concerned about the disquieting effect that “wrong” music can have on the populace that he advocated laws to control music, dancing, poetry, and eulogies. He advocated censorship of plays and other literary works for the youth. The Athenian stranger knows that the young will imitate the characters they watch on the stage and read about; only if these are presented with a high regard for morality can the imitation be safe. As in the Republic, Plato advocates that mathematics be taught, especially arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, and astronomy.
Because men and women are to be together in their education, some precautions must be taken to prevent promiscuity. In book 8, the Athenian stranger discusses love, pointing out that there are three types that become confused and that must be carefully distinguished by the laws. The three types are love of body, which leads to wantonness; love of soul, which enables one to search for virtues and for a kindred soul with whom to live chastely; and a mixture of the two. It is the second that is to be favored by the state; the others are to be forbidden. However, how will it be possible to enforce a law in support of the love of soul? Just as incest is not practiced because the customs and mores are such that it is held to be the most vile of crimes, so a similar attitude can be established regarding other vile unions. By combining the fear of impiety with a love for moderation, sexual temperance will be looked upon as a victory over base pleasures, and sufficient incentive will be provided to encourage obedience to the law. In addition, hard work will get rid of excess passion.
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Although the Athenian stranger finds it hard to believe that there will be crimes in his proposed state, he recognizes the need for criminal law. It is here that Plato once more declares punishment to be a form of rehabilitation, designed to cure or improve the criminal. It is interesting that Plato considers the robbing of temples to be a capital offense, punishable by death if committed by one who has been educated and trained. In A Treatise on the Social Contract, Rousseau reveals Plato’s influence when he urges a similar punishment for this kind of crime.
Because Plato accepts the Socratic view that no person does wrong knowingly and that punishment should be a cure, he feels obligated to discuss the sources of crime. He finds it in three major aspects of people’s makeup. The passions, as the lowest element of the soul, may drive people to act without reason’s guidance. However, to act without reason’s guidance is tantamount to slavery, and people who are slave to their passions may perform all sorts of crimes. Related to this is the fact that people who seek pleasures find that by persuasion and deceit they are led to pursue them, often to their ruin. Lastly, ignorance itself is a cause of crime. Socrates had found that he was proclaimed the wisest person in Athens because he knew that he did not know anything, whereas his fellow citizens were ignorant of their ignorance and fooled themselves into thinking that they knew. It is the conceit of wisdom that leads the ignorant person astray, causing the individual to commit crimes. The degree of the conceit is matched by the seriousness of the crime.
The Athenian stranger proclaims that laws are necessary for humankind because without rules to guide them, people would be no better than savage beasts. This position influenced Rousseau, who held that society would make a person of virtue out of a creature who, acting from instinct rather than reason, was little better than a savage beast. No person is able to know what is best for all of human society. A philosopher-king is hardly possible; thus, law and order must be chosen so that good people may be led to a good life, and those who refuse to be instructed, curbed.
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In the final book (book 10) of the Laws, the Athenian stranger argues that as long as the gods are held in esteem, crimes of impiety will not be committed frequently. To the question of what can be done with those who do not believe in the existence of the gods, the stranger proposes to prove their existence. He does so with a proof that shows that the soul is prior to the body, and that because the spiritual nature of the soul is the same as that of the gods, they too must exist. The proof rests on the soul as a source of motion. Briefly, this proof may be demonstrated as follows: Some things are in motion; others are at rest. Motion itself is of several types: spinning on an axis, locomotion, combination, separation, composition, growth, decay, destruction, self-motion and motion by others, and change of itself and by others. Change of itself and by others is actually the first in terms of superiority, with self-motion and motion by others second. The “self-moving” principle is identified with life. Not only is the soul defined, in essence, as that which can move itself, but also it is the source of motion in all things. The body is essentially inert and has no moving power of its own; rather, it has motion produced within it. As the source of motion, the soul is prior in time to that which is moved by it. The body, which is moved by the soul, must be later than it in time. Not only is the soul the author of movement in and of the body, but of all bodies, including heavenly ones (planets, for example). Soul or spirit must exist prior to and concurrent with the heavenly bodies to have put and kept them in motion. Therefore the gods, who are spirits with spiritual qualities unencumbered by bodies, must exist.
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Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.
Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.
Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.
Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.
Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.
Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.
Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.
Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.
Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.
Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.