Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.04

Robert Mayhew (trans.), Plato: Laws 10. Clarendon Plato Series.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2008.  Pp. vi, 238.  ISBN 9780199225965.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Lewis Trelawny-Cassity, Binghamton University (
Word count: 2365 words

Despite the Laws' purported "frigidity,"1 length, and lack of polish, new translations and works of scholarship on it continue to appear.2 To this revival of scholarship, Robert Mayhew adds a helpful work, Plato: Laws 10, which consists of a short introduction, a new translation, and a commentary on Book 10 of the Laws.

The introduction does a fine job of situating Book 10 within the Laws as a whole, covering a lot of important material that a reader neglecting the earlier books of the Laws should be acquainted with before approaching the theology of Book 10.3 The translation accompanying the commentary is clear, accurate, and readable, and it is handy to have the text and commentary in one volume. Mayhew's commentary is "philosophical" in intention: that is, it points out philological or historical details only when necessary and is focused primarily on clarifying and analyzing the arguments of Laws 10. The chief strength of this work is the accuracy and lucidity with which Mayhew explicates and summarizes Plato's arguments, for Mayhew has the ability to articulate the sometimes obtuse arguments of Laws 10 without oversimplifying them or leaving out important steps. The chief flaw of this work is the fairly narrow range of scholarship that Mayhew chooses to cite.4 While an analytical commentary is not the best place to rehash academic debates extensively, a more direct engagement with differing perspectives would be helpful for substantiating Mayhew's own views on Plato. As Vittorio Hösle notes, most disagreements about Plato are based not on a dispute of this or that particular passage, but rather "on contrasts regarding more general hermeneutic principles."5 Since there are a variety of hermeneutic principles that one may use to sort out some of the troubling sections of the Laws, commentators would do well to sketch, however briefly, their opponents' views before presenting their own.6 Despite this drawback, beginning and seasoned Platonists alike will benefit from Mayhew's commentary.

In the introduction, Mayhew forthrightly declares his guiding interpretive principle: "I take the Athenian to be pretty much a 'mouthpiece' for Plato" (p. 1). While some might balk at such an interpretive claim, I have no bone to pick with Mayhew about it, especially concerning the Laws.7 The introduction also brings up Mayhew's understanding of Plato's view of religion, which is the main topic of Book 10. On the one hand, Mayhew sees the theology of Book 10 as "the filter through which must pass traditional Greek religion" and that it puts "demands or limitations on Magnesian civic religion" (pp. 5-6). Here, Mayhew rightly highlights the fact that the Laws, like the Republic, is a part of Plato's purge of traditional Greek religion. On the other hand, Mayhew notes in the commentary that in the Laws, "Plato is being simultaneously radical and reactionary" (p. 58). While it is true that Plato is radical in his critique of traditional religion, Mayhew needs to go to greater lengths than he does to show that Plato is a "reactionary" rather than a moderate reformist. The answer to this question hinges on whether the regime of the Laws is an actual set of laws to be imposed or a dialectical engagement with the historical circumstances of Plato's time (see 9.857e3-6). If the Laws is an actual set of laws to be imposed, then scholars like Mayhew and Karl Popper might be right in warning us against Plato's attack on the open society. But if other recent interpreters of Plato, sometimes dubbed "chastened utopians,"8 are right, then the Laws could be best viewed as a work intended to reform and guide Greek politics rather than radically reconstitute it on transhistorically valid principles. On this view, one might interpret the deep interconnection between politics and religion in Magnesia as more of a concession to the views of everyday fourth-century Greeks, whom Plato is seeking to engage and enlighten, rather than an example of Plato's willingness to adopt the practices of the Inquisition, so long as it is run by the right people. 9

In situating his own view in the introduction, Mayhew starts from the 1870 commentary on Laws 10 by the American preacher Tayler Lewis, a somewhat odd point of departure. Lewis, who "reads Plato by the light of Christian Revelation," thought that Plato's theology would prove an antidote to the materialism of his day and perhaps even aid in instilling "a conviction of sin" and "belief in a personal Redeemer."10 Juxtaposing his own reasons for presenting the theology of Plato with Lewis', Mayhew raises worries about the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America and radical Islam in Europe, and writes that "a careful reading of Laws 10 might serve to make clearer and underscore the drastic consequences of taking seriously the idea that politics and religion should be intimately connected" (p. 10). Here Mayhew, in implicit agreement with Lewis, seems to think that if Plato were alive today, he would probably be a partisan of the religious right. This seems to be misleading in some respects, for Plato's analysis of the human propensity to religiosity along with the disastrous effects of such religiosity if it is not moderated by reason, political control, and naturalistic theology has as much or more in common with a liberal reformer like Spinoza as it does with the views of Taylor Lewis or contemporary fundamentalists. Furthermore, as John Cleary notes, it is not entirely clear "that the Greeks had a notion of the individual as being free from interference from the state, whose function it was to protect that freedom,"11 so one needs to be careful when attempting to perform the important task of bringing Platonic political philosophy to bear on current issues.

Mayhew's translation does a good job of achieving his goal of producing "a translation as close to the Greek as possible without straying (too far) from acceptable English" (p. v). As Mayhew himself notes, his translation is "closest in spirit to Thomas Pangle's" (p. v). Because Mayhew's principles of translation are so similar to those of Pangle, there isn't much room for Mayhew to make clear-cut improvements. Here is a comparison of a passage selected at random (886a2ff).

Mayhew: "First, there's the earth and the sun and the stars and the whole universe, and the beautiful, orderly procession of the seasons, divided into years and months; and then there's the fact that all Greeks and barbarians believe the gods exist."

Pangle: "First, there's the earth, the sun, the stars, and all things, and this beautiful orderliness of the seasons, divided into years and months. Then there's the fact that all Greeks and barbarians believe the gods exist."

Aside from one or two minor differences, the translations are hard to distinguish. Both works are readable in their own right and serve as good trots for those of us who need such help. Mayhew, however, occasionally deviates from literalness in translation, which sometimes has confusing results. For example at 886b7-9, Mayhew translates megistê phronêsis as "greatest wisdom." Usually Mayhew translates phronêsis with the fairly standard "prudence." The translation of "greatest wisdom" covers up the difference between prudence and wisdom, but context as well as principle seems to call for maintaining the distinction here. At 893c2, Mayhew would probably do better to translate chora as "space" rather than "place," thus maintaining the distinction between the Platonic chora and the Aristotelian topos, the term which commonly lays claim to the translation "place" and is less abstract and more local than "space."12 At 897b1, Plato uses the word proslambanein to refer to the soul joining with nous and at 897d5 he uses it to describe Kleinias and Megillos joining with the Athenian. Mayhew's translations of "joins with" and "taking on" are fine in terms of readability, but using different words for the same Greek term obscures the parallelism that Plato introduces here between the actions of soul and the actions of the interlocutors. There are a few other picky points one might make, but overall Mayhew does a fine job of translating the Greek.

The main value of this work is the commentary. Mayhew breaks down the text into manageable sections and then dissects these smaller sections into their constituent subsections. The commentary does a good job of referring to the Greek when necessary and referring the reader to relevant sections of the Laws, other Platonic dialogues, and some of the secondary literature. I will focus on one section of the commentary that could be improved by paying more attention to the drama of the dialogue (887c6-888a8) and one section of the commentary that displays Mayhew's considerable analytical abilities, the section of the dialogue which contains the proof of the priority of soul to body.

One subject that is taken up in the Laws is whether the lawgiver should engage heretics in rational discussion or simply lay down laws for their punishment. There are at least two interconnected puzzles in Plato's analysis of this question. First, why does the Athenian repeatedly mention thumos (anger) in this discussion? Second, why does Plato equivocate on whether the heretics have good arguments for their position? In analyzing these problems, Mayhew quickly dismisses "those interested in esoteric readings of Plato" and argues for the view that Plato believes the interlocutors "have every right to be angry" at the heretics and that the arguments offered by the heretics are not "sufficient arguments" (pp. 71-73). The esoteric view which Mayhew takes up only to dismiss without citation or inclusion on his bibliography appears to be that of Thomas Pangle's essay "The Political Psychology of Religion in Plato's Laws." It seems to me to be generally objectionable to refer to a work without citing it, but especially so here, as Pangle seems to make better sense of the prevalence of thumos in this passage. Whereas Mayhew explains the presence of thumos in this passage by mentioning that there might have been students in the Academy "inclined to approach such impious youths in anger" (p. 71), Pangle's discussion notes how anger is necessary for punishment (see 5.731b-d) but needs to be restrained in order to engage in true dialogue (dialegomenoi, 10.888a6). Heretics need either rational conversation or vindictive punishment, depending on the nature of their affliction, but one needs to know how to deal with one's anger in order to both assess the heretics' illness and deal with it. Whereas Pangle's dramatic reading of the texts shows how Plato explores the tension between open Socratic dialogue and the political necessity of punishing those who threaten the state's existence, Mayhew's reading covers over this problematic tension, which is surely central to the Laws. It is unfortunate that Mayhew doesn't attack Pangle's "esoteric" position in detail; while Pangle's dramatic reading of the text does much to supplement Mayhew's more analytic approach, I think that Mayhew is more than capable of pointing out some places where Pangle's interpretation gets off track. Criticizing Pangle's interpretation of the Laws would certainly make a much better point of departure for elaborating Mayhew's own general interpretive position than the nineteenth century commentary of Tayler Lewis.

One especially strong point of Mayhew's commentary is the discussion of Plato's arguments for the priority of soul to body. Over the course of this argument the Athenian Stranger makes the questionable claim that if soul is prior to body "then wouldn't what is related to soul necessarily come into being before what belongs to body, since soul itself is older than body" (892a7-b1). Mayhew points out that this "may be an invalid, and anthropomorphic, inference" known as the fallacy of division (pp. 130-131); that is, even if one granted that a self-moving motion, which we can call "soul," were needed to get everything going, there is no clear reason why all of the parts of soul, such as memory or opinion, must necessarily exist prior to all bodies. Mayhew charitably gives Plato a chance to respond by saying that perhaps only some aspects of the soul are prior to body (p. 131), but he is right to note the profound ambiguity that surrounds the discussion of the priority of soul in Book 10. "Is it the Form of Soul or the essence of soul or an abstraction from all the individual souls, or what?," Mayhew rightly asks, noting, "Plato is unclear about all this in the Laws" (p. 126). I would go even further than Mayhew does in this criticism, for Plato seems to deliberately exploit the ambiguity of the meaning of soul (either the first self-moving motion, or something like a human soul, which perceives, wishes, and deliberates), and he never clearly indicates how these two senses of soul are linked. When Plato wants to show that the soul is older or prior to any physical body, he drops the human characteristics of soul, and when he wants to show that the gods care for us, he treats the first self-moving motion as though it were a human soul possessing human characteristics. In addition to providing an illuminating discussion of Plato's problem with the fallacy of division, Mayhew's discussion of 893b5-894e3, a passage troubling to anyone who even glances in its direction, is something that any scholar of the Laws will want at her elbows when working through this text. Mayhew's application of the Timaeus to explicate parts of this dark section of the text is sober and compelling.13

Mayhew's commentary is a work that will prove helpful to scholars seeking a clearer understanding of the arguments of Book 10 of Plato's Laws, even if they disagree with him about why it is necessary to study Plato's final work. With a view towards the rise of religious fundamentalism in the 21st century, Malcolm Schofield, in contrast to Mayhew, has recently suggested that "Plato's concern that the religion shaping the life of a society should be rational religion may be something that social and political theorists need to take seriously again."14 Yet whether one is for rational religion or against it, Laws 10 remains essential reading, for it is there that Plato shows that true clarity about religion can only be achieved when both atheists and the pious can speak freely and listen openly to one another, something which neither party often wants to do.


1.   Mayhew notes that Lucian makes a joke about the Laws' "frigidity" in the Icaromenippus (p. v).
2.   The entirety of the Laws has been translated into English by Saunders (Penguin, 1970) and Pangle (Chicago, 1980). There are more recent translations into French by Brisson and Pradeau (2006) (BMCR 2007.06.09) and into German (books I-VII) by Schöpsdau (1994, 2003) (BMCR 2005.07.49).
3.   It might seem hermeneutically suspect to study the theology of Magnesia in separation from the specific political institutions which that theology is intended to support or legitimate, to say nothing of the dangers of separating the dialogical process which leads up to such a theology from the theology itself. The Laws, however, allows for such an approach, as the proof of the existence of the gods according to law is declared by Kleinias to be "just about our finest and best prelude on behalf of all the laws" (887b8-c2).
4.   The biggest bibliographic omission is Platon: Nomoi X by Peter Steiner (Akademie Verlag, 1992). This work, which contains a German translation and facing Greek text along with an 86 page commentary, is an important supplement to Mayhew's work, especially in regards to how some European scholars (such as K. Gaiser) take up the Laws. Thomas Pangle's essay "The Political Psychology of Religion in Plato's Laws" (The American Political Science Review. Vol. 70, 1976: 1059-1077), which is devoted to the interpretation of Laws 10, would also be a helpful bibliographic addition, as would Gerard Naddaf's "Plato: The Creator of Natural Theology" (International Studies in Philosophy 36 (2004), 103-127), which does a nice job of placing Laws 10 in its proper historical context. Seth Benardete's Plato's "Laws" (Chicago, 2000) perhaps deserves inclusion as well.
5.   See "Platonism and its Interpretations--The Three Paradigms and their Place in the History of Hermeneutics"(2003),
6.   For instance in Reading Plato (Routledge 1999), Thomas Szlezak argues, following Gaiser, that one must be acquainted with the "unwritten theory of principles" in order to understand Laws 10 894a1-8, p. 62.
7.   Christopher Gill's view is probably more accurate: "The Athenian Stranger is to be understood not so much as Plato's voice as the voice of this distinctive project," that is, "the challenge of trying to carry out a philosophical project in terms that non-philosophers from non-philosophical cultures could understand and agree with," "The Laws--Is it a real dialogue?" in Plato's Laws : From Theory to Practice (Academia Verlag, 2003), p. 44.
8.   In "Platonic Quandaries: Recent Scholarship on Plato" (Annual Review of Political Science, 2006: 127-141) Danielle Allen identifies a group of scholars, "Chastened Utopians," who like Karl Popper, see Plato as having attempted to "intervene in the politics of his day. In contrast to Popper, however, Ober (1998), Monoson (2000), and Euben (2003) do not see Plato as an antidemocratic imposer of tyranny . . . [instead] their arguments cluster around a case for qualified idealism," p. 129.
9.   As Leo Strauss has noted, the legal system of Magnesia would probably be more tolerant to persons of questionable religiosity, such as Socrates, than classical Athens was, The Argument and Action of Plato's Laws (Chicago, 1975), p. 2. For a description of how classical philosophers worked to clarify the beliefs of their societies see Nicomachean Ethics 1145b2-7.
10.   Plato Against the Atheists (Harper and Brothers, 1870) pp. ix, xiv.
11.   John Cleary, "Popper on Freedom and Equality in Plato" Polis, Vol. 22. No.1, 2005, p.110.
12.   Steiner gets this right in his translation, whereas Pangle also translates chora as "place," Platon Nomoi X, pp. 41, 144.
13.   Seth Benardete has an interesting discussion of this passage that focuses more on how the various motions can be interpreted in terms of soul and mind rather than kinesthetics, Plato's "Laws," p. 300.
14.   Plato: Political Philosophy (Oxford, 2006), p. 326.

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