Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.22 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.22

Milena Bontempi, Giovanni Panno (ed.), L'anima della legge: studi intorno ai Nomoi di Platone. Filosofia e politica.   Milano:  Polimetrica, 2012.  Pp. 179.  ISBN 9788876992322.  €21.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Hernández de la Fuente, UNED (

By way of background: the last remarkable attempt to adapt and reinterpret philosophically the old model of the polis to the new era after the Peloponnesian war was no doubt Plato’s Laws, written around 350 B.C. In a sort of last call to socio-political reformation of both citizens and community under the auspices of divine Law and Proportion, and within the frame of Plato’s philosophical system, this dialogue, the only one in which Socrates does not feature, is concerned with the comprehensive legal code for the new and ideal Cretan city of Magnesia. The interpretation of this complex dialogue, whose authenticity was questioned during the 19th century, has given rise to long and fruitful discussion in academia. The problematic connection between its political proposals and those previously expressed in the Republic has been the cornerstone of modern criticism of Platonism. The differences between conceptions of the ideal city in the two dialogues were attributed to the events of the presumed biography of Plato in the influential interpretation of Wilamowitz. One of the better-established approaches considered the Laws a practical application of the theoretical principles of the Republic, a view that, together with the exegesis based on Plato’s biography, came to have wide acceptance in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. The Republic would be just a theoretical paradigm, while the Laws would represent the practical political project of the Academy, the best possible realization of the best city.1 Others have tried to encyclopaedically and meticulously examine every passage of the Laws in search of supporting evidence for diverse theoretical approaches:2 the bibliography is enormous in each case, and the last decades have witnessed a blossoming of new readings of the Laws, especially from the point of view of Greek religious and literary traditions.3

Against this background, we should welcome a collective volume edited by two reputable Platonists, Milena Bontempi and Giovanni Panno,4 which consists of six contributions, a preface, and an introduction. It opens with the well- known simile of the marionette in Laws 654a: different strings pull the man as a marionette. Only one of them – the Golden one, the string of reasonable logismos, meaning the nomos – is able to pull him upwards towards the ultimate Good. In our view this simile could be aptly understood to be the leitmotiv of this collection of essays: the insistence on tradition – what Gilbert Murray called "the Inherited Conglomerate" – and especially religious tradition, in order to understand Plato’s Laws. We should recall here the pioneering attempts by O. Reverdin (La religion de la cité platonicienne, Paris 1945) and V. Goldschmidt (La religion de Platon, Paris 1949) in this respect. Fortunately, the question of the interaction between law and religion in the Laws has become topical in current academic discussion. The basic topic would be then an “indagine sulle origini” (p.11) regarding the concept of law and, in the light of tradition, the quest for the best possible law, which is, for the first time, in the Laws, the centre of the socio-political community.

The introduction to this volume, starting with some interesting remarks on the unity and variety of the Laws with respect to the diverse traditions combined in it, places all the contributions in context. According to the editors, the opening question of the dialogue (“Strangers, was a God or some man supposed to be the author of your laws?”), the simile of the Golden string, and the pilgrimage to the cave of Zeus by three elderly people, an Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan, suggest a connection with the religious tradition. Stemming from an examination of the mythical idea of an inspired legislator who makes new laws for the community, such as Minos or Lycurgus,5 it seems that in the absence of such divine men, only nomos can guarantee a balanced, stable, and virtuous community (875a-d), which aims at the improvement of the soul through continuous education of individuals at all stages of their lives. In view of the then-current state of human affairs and the level of spread of ethical and philosophical knowledge, the laws save men from a chaotic state, deriving either from the primitive abuse by the stronger or from the excesses of democracy. It seems preferable to trust only a solid and inspired legal system, an almost immutable order strongly dwelling on the “tradizione patrie” (p. 17), on the written or unwritten nomos typical of sacred law. Sacred law (ta hiera), the legal dispositions that regulate diverse aspects of religious cult, was related to divine matters (ta theia) and was consistently a part of ancestral or traditional law (ta patria) that resisted being codified in written form, precisely because it was perceived as stemming from the divine world.

Let us briefly examine now the bipartite thematic structure of this volume. A first section with three contributions deals with the nature of the law from its origin and intention to its realization in the political community. The first of these contributions, by Giorgo Camassa, analyses the difficulty of reforming the legal system in Greece in the historical context of transition to written laws, the precedent of Pythagorean politics as an esoteric activity, and the concept of legislation as divine utterance, all as background to the Laws’. In the second, Milena Bontempi examines the limits and measures of law-giving as a way of distributing space and functions in the polis. The etymology of nemein is applied in this interpretation both to legislation and music, and to measuring and reckoning (logismos), in order to define the notion of community proposed by the Laws. The third contribution, by Federico Zuolo, deals precisely with the feasibility of the ideal concept of political community stated in the Laws. The question is of course linked to the compatibility of the Laws with the project of the Republic. Its starting point is the classification of three possible relationships between the two works analysed by André Laks (1990 onwards), according to which the Magnesia of the Laws might be a completion, a fulfilment, or a revision of the kallipolis of the Republic. The coexistence of the three possibilities leads to a series of paradoxical results pointed out in this chapter: no single interpretation seems plausible without taking into account the independence of values and facts in Plato’s global political thought. We might greatly benefit from this joint reading of Laws and Republic, which very interestingly poses the question of the continuity between both works by emphasizing the ambiguities of continuity.

The second section of this volume contains three contributions dealing with the limits of the law in relation to individuals and, especially, with the enforcement of the law in Plato’s Laws. The first of these contributions, by Linda M. Napolitano Valditara, focuses on the concept of virtue and, especially, of courage. Laws I-II includes a thorough discussion of the means by which courage is acquired and citizens are trained not only to resist pain but also to manage pleasure and desire, in a symposiac context, as a key element for the political improvement of the community through the education of every single individual. In order to examine the practical and civic ethic of these books, Napolitano compares the notion of courage here with the precedents in Thucydides and in the Laches. The citizen’s courage is proven in “a war going on in us”. As the well-know text of the Laws goes, “the first and best of all victories is the victory of oneself over oneself; and being defeated by oneself is the most shameful and at the same time worst of all defeats” (626e). The next contribution, by Giovanni Panno, takes into consideration the enforcement of criminal law in this dialogue (the so-called Platonic “Penal Code”, as Saunders would put it), especially in Book IX. Focusing always on the continuous education of individual souls, Platonic law tries to convince from the start and, consequently, laws are preceded by persuasive preludes. Coercion, however, is also necessary, and the Laws shows as well a certain re-education of the individual in a very characteristic ambivalence, combining freedom and authority in what, according to Malcolm Schofield, could be considered a "mixed constitution".6 Thus education and coercion are deeply entwined in the dialogue. The last contribution in this section presents an interesting reading by Mauro Farnesi Camellone of the crimes of asebeia, “offenses committed against the gods, whether by word or deed” (885d). No doubt these are the least understandable laws from the modern point of view; but, as Leo Strauss already has shown, they were fundamental for Plato’s project and demonstrate the importance of religion in the Laws. The section on the proofs of existence of the gods and the whole treatment of religion in some selected passages from Book IV to Book X are adduced by Farnesi as evidence of the city’s guidance by the divine nous. The assimilation of impiety and anarchy is an immediate consequence: he who sins against the gods no doubt does injustice against the city.

All in all, the character of the Athenian Stranger and his project for Magnesia seem to move among tradition, religion, and philosophy, to play “con i paradossi temporali della fondazione e del mito” (p. 20). Realism and idealism are intertwined. The Athenian begins to play the fiction of law-making and ends up being invited, after all, to remain in Crete as a true legislator. In that way, the Laws represent a remarkable combination of both philosophical literature and reality. One can notice the conservative legislative pragmatism of the dialogue, stemming from traditional Greek religious and political notions and, at the same time, the attempt to innovatively adapt the old system of the polis to new ethical and philosophical views. On the one hand, the enforcement of the rule of law appears through several political and sacral institutions in a way reminiscent of archaic Greek religion (e.g. the Nocturnal Council and the reuse of the purification and oracle tradition of sacred laws). On the other, the elaborated theology of the Laws postulates an astral religion and a mathematical-musical foundation for this best possible State, perhaps following the old notions of Pythagorean politics.

The essays collected in this book do not intend to present a detailed account of the philosophical proposal and practical applications of the Laws but rather to discuss the very notion and spirit of law in this dialogue. By the law of the soul, paraphrasing the title of the volume, is also meant the law of the city, both of which must tend to the divine nous. The endeavour of philosophical nomos, briefly summarizing the contributions to this volume, is to educate the individual citizen in order to recognize what the Good for the individual means and, from there, the political Good.


1.   See for example A. Laks, “Legislation and Demiurgy: On the Relationship Between Plato's Republic and Laws,” CA 9 (1990) 209-29, among other contributions of this author.
2.   The most remarkable scholarly contribution in this sense is, no doubt, the commentary by Klaus Schöpsdau in three volumes: Platon, Nomoi I-III (Göttingen 1994); Nomoi IV-VII (ibid. 2003); Nomoi VIII-XII (ibid. 2011).
3.   E.g. M. J. Lutz, Divine Law and Political Philosophy in Plato’s 'Laws' (DeKalb, Illinois 2012); L. Mouze, Le législateur et le poète. Une interprétation des 'Lois' de Platon (Villeneuve d'Asq 2006); R.B. Clark, The Law Most Beautiful and Best: Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato's Laws (Lanham, 2003).
4.   The latter being one of the most conspicuous young scholars dealing lately with Plato’s Laws. Cf. G. Panno, Dionisiaco e Alterità nelle Leggi di Platone (Milan, 2007).
5.   See my “Mythische Vorbilder des sakralen Gesetzgebers bei Platon (‘Nomoi’ I-IV)”, ZRGG 62 (2010) 105-25.
6.   M. Schofield, “‘The Laws’ two projects” in Christopher Bobonich (ed.), Plato's Laws: A Critical Guide (Cambridge 2010), 12-28.

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