Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.08

Gregory Recco, Eric Sanday (ed.), Plato's 'Laws': Force and Truth in Politics. Studies in continental thought.   Bloomington; Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 2013.  Pp. vii, 248.  ISBN 9780253001825.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Myrthe L. Bartels, Leiden University (


This volume is a collaborative effort to open up new perspectives on Laws. Taken together, the chapters offer a reading of Plato’s last work mostly book by book: apart from the first two chapters, the seventh and the last, each focuses on one of the twelve books. Due to its sheer length and the range of topics covered, Laws is a notoriously difficult text to get a secure grip on. The book-by-book approach has the advantage over a thematic one that it allows for attention to the phases of the argument and to the architecture of the work as a whole. The divisions between the twelve books— Suda reports that they go back to Philippus of Opus, one of Plato’s pupils—often reflect major caesuras in the evolution of the overall argument. The approach adopted therefore has the potential to offer illuminating insights into this obscure text.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that the introduction sets out to identify a theme allegedly “common to most if not all” (1) of the chapters. This theme is the interconnection between freedom or rational politics on the one hand and coercion or deception on the other. Although I agree that freedom, the absence of coercion, and their treatment as political values in their own right, set Laws apart from other Platonic political works and may therefore indeed “bring out what is distinctive about the dialogue” (1), this theme in fact underlies only two of the chapters. Therefore I found the introduction of limited value, all the more because the individual contributions are not discussed in the order in which they appear in the volume. This volume might have contributed more to the scholarly debate on Laws as a whole if the introduction had reflected on, and made explicit, the advantages of the approach adopted, and if it had discussed the contributions one by one, instead of addressing one general theme that does not evidently represent the content of the individual contributions.

In Chapter 1, Mitchell Miller offers a commendable attempt at a synoptic understanding of Laws. He analyzes the text on the basis of two self-referential passages (811c-d and 768d6-8) that suggest that Books 4-12 as a separate unit consist of a beginning, middle, and end. The somewhat oblique reference to a moment at which the precise structure of the whole will become clear (768d6-8) is, according to Miller, resolved by the introduction at the end of the Nocturnal Council as the city’s “mind”, which is occupied by its divine studies. The city is thus a living whole “aspiring for divinity” (27). To my mind, Mitchell conflates the structure of the Athenian’s exegesis of the laws (ἡ διέξοδος τῶν νόμων) with the city described in this exegesis. On the whole, however, Miller’s contribution is insightful and demonstrates successfully how taking the dialogue’s own remarks about its structure can serve as a way to gain purchase on the work as a whole.

In Chapter 2, the second general chapter, Mark Munn argues that Laws responds to concerns of the mid-fourth century, which explains the departure from fifth-century attitudes and themes. A case in point is a more restricted role of ἔρως compared to the discussions in Phaedrus, Symposium, and Republic. Whereas in the fifth century ἔρως was manifest in both sculpture and rhetoric, Plato’s new “city of ἐγκράτεια” (43) reflects the fourth-century disciplining of ἔρως.

In Chapter 3, Eric Salem focuses on Laws Book 1, in particular on the effect that Plato’s choice of the interlocutors and their ideas have on the conversation. Focusing on a number of dramatic moments in Book 1, Salem argues that the Athenian stranger re-educates his interlocutors, Cleinias and Megillus, and that they, although an exact moment of transformation is difficult to identify, are drawn in the direction of “a genuine community of inquiry [into political and human affairs]” (53; cf. 52) from which their cultural background had previously withheld them.

In Chapter 4, John Russon addresses the theory of education in Laws Book 2. According to him, the “manifest story” of education in Book 2 is “quite repressive” (60) but at the same time contains “three conflicts” that allow us to see “a more open conception of freedom and human development” (61). These claims leave one wondering why Plato chose to embed a more open and responsive (71) educational system in an overtly repressive one. The conflicts Russon means to observe seem to arise from a series of mistaken generalizations. For instance, the passage from Book 10 cited on p. 66 is specifically directed to the atheists, that is, to people whom education has failed to mold, and it cannot be taken as evidence for a general view of education as repressive and hence conflicting with the earlier, “spontaneous” notion (63, 64, 67).

In Chapter 5, John Sallis addresses Laws book 3, in particular the role of music in the account of the origin of constitutions. Sallis connects Cleinias’ enumeration (at 677d1-6) of the mythical figures who (re-)introduced musical τέχναι after the destruction of human societies by the great deluge with the famous corruption of the laws through music (at 700a7-701b3) and suggests that “music must have an essential bearing on the makeup of cities” (84), a conclusion that will presumably not meet with much disagreement.

In Chapter 6, Michael P. Zuckert explores how Book 4 exposes the limits of legislation and serves as a prelude for the ensuing legislation. It is the optimistic prospect about what legislation can do that persuades the interlocutors to accept the innovation of the preludes; yet at the same time, the knowledge that law is, after all, command and coercion prepares the external audience of Laws for the more pessimistic main point of Book 4 that it is “difficult for a city of good laws to come into existence” (103).

In chapter 7, Patricia Fagan discusses material from Laws books 3 and 4. She claims to see a parallel between the self-sufficiency and isolation of the Cretan city discussed in Book 4 and that of the Cyclopes in Odyssey 9. This isolation she considers problematic because the opening of Laws shows that laws are received by human intermediaries from gods, and hence “openness to the strange is critical to a city and her laws” (111). But the alleged parallel between the desired isolation of the colony in Laws 4 and the Cyclopes’ ‘society’ fails to convince: Laws 3 likens the scattered settlements on mountaintops to the Cyclopes’ mode of life, not the future colony of Laws 4. Furthermore, the Athenian’s emphasis on a city’s self-sufficiency is motivated by his fear that regular contact with the outside world will introduce morally corrupting practices, and does not corroborate Fagan’s claim that the isolated colony will not meet Laws’ own ideal of a city that is free, intelligent, and a friend to itself.

In Chapter 8, Robert Metcalf discusses the long, sermon-like prelude in Laws book 5. He suggests that, given the “polemical orientation to ἀρετή” (118; cf. 129: virtue as victory over oneself) in Book 1 and the fact that unjust actions appear more pleasant to unjust people, whereas the opposite is true for the just (the “skiagraphic character of pleasure and pain”, 128), a more dialogical, agonistic confrontation as portrayed in Gorgias would have been more persuasive than a non-dialogical sermon. He ends by observing that the prelude’s failure to persuade “raises for us the more fundamental questions” of “what is persuasion, and what sort of persuasion is philosophy . . . meant to accomplish?” (129).

In Chapter 9, Gregory Recco discusses the distinction between two kinds of equality that accompanies the description of the selection of the councilmen in Laws book 6. Although the proposed selection procedure combining these two equalities is allegedly designed to promote civic friendship, Recco thinks it actually produces an “unstable” form of friendship that “falls far short of the organic unity” of Republic book 5.

In Chapter 10, David Roochnik wonders how the Athenian can be so apparently dead serious about human affairs when only divine matters deserve such “blessed seriousness” (149), as we hear in Laws book 7. Roochnik argues that in Laws, “seriousness can be hierarchically stratified”, and the Athenian’s seriousness is in fact a “qualified seriousness” (149), incorporating playfulness, ridicule, and triviality to keep human matters in proper perspective.

In Chapter 11, Francisco J. Gonzalez addresses a “digression” in Laws book 8 (835b5-842a10). Although he rightly observes that the regulation of sexual lust presents the lawgiver with a special challenge, so that the Athenian’s first proposal for a law concerning this issue may not be practicable, Gonzalez erroneously thinks that the law proposed as an alternative “command[s] secrecy and deception” (163). This leads him to the conclusion that the problem of ἔρως “undermined the very foundation” (164) of Laws’ legislative project. Contrary to his claim, the purpose of the second law is rather to attach “shame” (αἰσχύνη) to illicit sex, so that people may be prevented from yielding to lust and becoming well-versed in illegal sexual activities.

In Chapter 12, Catherine Zuckert argues on the basis of a number of well-known passages from Laws book 9 that the dramatic situation (talking to non-philosophers) forces the Athenian to exclude the philosopher from consideration and hence to endorse an account of human nature more pessimistic than might be thought to hold true of Plato in general. At the same time, the Athenian’s education of his interlocutors in lawgiving persuades them that philosophical education of rulers “can have positive political results” (185). The dramatic outcome of Laws is therefore congruous with Republic and Statesman.

In Chapter 13, Sara Brill extracts an account of soul from the lengthy prelude in Laws Book 10 as “endlessly plastic” (204) and therefore in need of the imposition (“prosthesis”) of limits. The city is the locus where the soul receives such prosthetic limits, by laws. Interestingly, such a reading presupposes that “there is no grounding for psychic prosthesis, for psychic health, outside of the particular political and cultural constellations of particular cities” (207).

In Chapter 14, Eric Sanday takes together Laws books 11 and 12. He claims that “institutional impiety” is both “an ineradicable material basis of life in the polis and a resource for its flourishing” (230). Impiety he understands, quite broadly, as “forgetfulness of the sources of one’s being” (215; cf. 216, 221). Property is a source of impiety because it is general, not attached to a particular person. In light of the Athenian’s “attempt to solidify the relationship of the city to its places and times, the abstract and reversible character of property poses a tacitly corrosive incitement that should be read as an institutionalized form of impiety” (221). The function of the Nocturnal Council is to make this inherent reversibility in the city’s foundation irreversible. These claims about impiety seem hard to reconcile with the Athenian’s obvious efforts to eliminate impiety from the envisaged city.

Although the title and Introduction suggest an overall theme of the volume, most contributions do not address “force and truth” in the Laws. The volume offers some interesting ideas, but I found some of its contributions somewhat impressionistic, proceeding on assumptions that seem to have lost sight of the larger project of Laws as a whole and the place of the books within its overall structure.

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