Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.26

Susan Sauvé Meyer, Plato: Laws 1 and 2. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary. Clarendon Plato series.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 361.  ISBN 9780199604081.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Nicholas R. Baima, University of Missouri-Columbia (


Plato: Laws 1 and 2 includes a short introduction, an outline of Books 1 and 2, a new translation of these books, a commentary that discusses the ethical, legal, and psychological issues raised in the text, a helpful bibliography, and a thorough index. Students of Plato will greatly benefit from this book. Indeed, anyone working on the Laws should own this book.

The introduction is brief and follows fairly conventional lines of thinking; readers unfamiliar with the text will find it helpful. The introduction situates the Laws within Plato’s corpus, provides an overview of the entire Laws, offers a description of the characters in the dialogue, and gives a synopsis of Books 1 and 2.

An outline of Books 1 and 2 follows the introduction. The structure of these books is winding and often difficult to follow; the discourse seems to change subjects abruptly, only to continue at a later point in the text. Meyer’s outline provides a useful map for navigating this challenging terrain.

Trevor Saunders (1970) and Thomas Pangle (1980) produced the main English translations of the Laws.1 Both translations have advantages and disadvantages. Pangle’s translation follows a more word-for-word methodology that matches English words and Greek words with precision. However, this sometimes makes for verbose and awkward sentence constructions that fail to capture the meaning of the text. In contrast, Saunders’ translation aims for readability, but it lacks precision; for those readers who lack knowledge of Greek, they will miss out on some of the intricate philosophical points if they use Saunders’ translation. Meyer aims to offer a readable and fluent translation of the text like Saunders, but without sacrificing philosophical and philological nuance. Meyer succeeds on both fronts. Her translation reads much more like an actual conversation than Pangle’s, while still being precise. Additionally, because Meyer offers a line-by-line commentary on the text, she will note if there are any thorny philological issues at stake.

In what follows I will compare translations of three important passages (1, 624a; 1, 644d-e, and 2, 654c), so that readers can get a sense of what to expect.

Laws 1, 624a

Pangle: [Athenian] “Is it a god or some human being, strangers, who is given the credit for laying down your laws?” [Clinias] “A god, stranger, a god—to say what is at any rate the most just thing. Among us Zeus, and among the Lacedaimonians, from whence this man here comes, I think they declare that it’s Apollo. Isn’t that so?” (58 words)

Saunders: [Athenian] “Tell me, gentlemen, to whom do you give the credit for establishing your codes of law? Is it a god, or a man?” [ Clinias] “A god, sir, a god—and that’s the honest truth. Among us Cretans it is Zeus; in Sparta—which is where our friend here hails from—they say it is Apollo, I believe. Isn’t that right?” (59 words)

Meyer: [Athenian] “Is it a god or a human being, Strangers, who get the credit for establishing your laws?” [ Clinias] “A god, Stranger, most assuredly a god! Here on Crete we say it is Zeus, while in Sparta, where our friend here comes from, I believe they say it is Apollo. Isn’t that so?” (51 words)

Meyer’s translation is the most concise and readable. For example, Meyer’s use of the phrase “comes from” is more colloquial and modern than Saunders’s “hails from.” Additionally, Meyer’s avoids Pangle’s longwinded and slightly misleading “to say what is at any rate the most just thing” and replaces it with the terse “most assuredly.”

Laws 1, 644d-e

Pangle: [Athenian] “Let’s think about these things in this way: let’s consider each of us living beings to be a divine puppet, put together either for their play or for some serious purpose—which, we don’t know. What we do know is that these passions work within us like tendons or cords, drawing us and pulling against one another in opposite directions toward opposing deeds, struggling in the region where virtue and vice lie separated from one another.” (76 words)

Saunders: [Athenian] “I suggest we look at the problem in this way: let’s imagine that each of us living beings is a puppet of the gods. Whether we have been constructed to serve as their plaything, or for some serious reason, is something beyond our ken, but what we certainly do know is this: we have these emotions in us, which act like cords or strings and tug us about; they work in opposition, and tug against each other to make us perform actions that are opposed correspondingly; back and forth we go across the boundary line where vice and virtue meet.” (100 words)

Meyer: [Athenian] “Let’s think about it this way. Consider each of us, living beings that we are, to be a divine puppet—whether constituted as the god’s plaything or for a serious purpose, we have no idea. What we do know is that these various experiences in us are like cords or strings that tug at us and oppose each other. They pull against each other towards opposing actions across the field where virtue is marked off from vice.” (77 words)

Meyer’s translation is concise, but still able to capture a number of important nuances. Consider two important differences in her translation of this passage. First, both Saunders and Pangle render the opening line in such a way that is consistent with the puppet metaphor applying to every living creature. But this is not the point of the passage. The point is that the puppet metaphor applies to humans. Meyer captures this subtlety with: “Consider each of us, living beings that we are, to be a divine puppet.” Second, Meyer translates pathē as “experiences,” while Sanders renders it “emotions” and Pangle “passions.” In her commentary she explains that “its scope here is broad enough to include not only the pleasure, pain, and anticipation invoked at 644c6-d1, but also instances of the ‘calculation’ (logismos) introduced at 644d1-2” (p. 179). That being said, I dislike Meyer’s (and Pangle’s) translation of thauma theion as “divine puppet,” since it can suggest that the puppet itself is of divine quality. The intent and emphasis of the passage is that the puppet is under the possession of the gods.

Laws 2, 653a-b

Pangle: [Athenian] “Well, I say that the first infantile sensation in children is the sensation of pleasure and pain, and that it is in these that virtue and vice first come into being in the soul; as for prudence and true opinions that are firmly held, he is a fortunate person to whom it comes even in old age. He who does possess them, and all the good things that go with them, is a perfect human being. Education, I say, is the virtue that first comes into being in children. Pleasure and liking, pain and hatred, become correctly arranged in the souls of those who are not yet able to reason, and then, when the souls do become capable of reasoning, these passions can in consonance with reason affirm that they have been correctly habituated in the appropriate habits. This consonance in its entirety is virtue . . .” (145 words)

Saunders: [Athenian] “I maintain that the earliest sensations that a child feels in infancy are of pleasure and pain, and this is the route by which virtue and vice first enter the soul. (But for a man to acquire good judgment, and unshakable correct opinions, however late in life, is a matter of good luck: a man who possesses them, and all the benefits they entail, is perfect.) I call ‘education’ the initial acquisition of virtue by the child, when the feelings of pleasure and affection, pain and hatred, that well up in his soul are channeled in the right courses before he can understand the reason why. Then when he does understand, his reason and his emotions agree in telling him that he has been properly trained by inculcation of appropriate habits. Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion.” (140 words)

Meyer: [Athenian] “Here’s what I mean. When we are children, the first sensations we experience are pleasure and pain, and it is in our pleasures and pains that virtue and vice first develop in our souls. By the time we are old, we are lucky if we have also developed wisdom and stable true opinions, for these goods and all that they involve complete a person, but it is the virtue that first develops in children that I am calling education. If pleasure and liking and pain and hatred develop correctly in our souls when we are not yet able to grasp the account, and when we do grasp the account they agree with it because they have been correctly trained by appropriate habits, this agreement is virtue in its entirety.” (130 words)

The major difference is that Meyer translates logos as “account,” while Saunders and Pangle translate it as “reason.” In the commentary Meyer explains that “reason” can be misleading because it suggests a faculty and the Athenian’s point is about making correct evaluative judgments that agree with one’s feelings (i.e., pleasure, pain, liking, and hatred). Although Meyer’s translation is more precise, I am skeptical that the use of “reason” here is as misleading as she thinks. The Athenian is differentiating between three different states: feelings (pleasure, pain, liking, and hating), evaluative judgments, and understanding why certain evaluative judgments are correct and why certain feelings are appropriate. However, we are to understand the moral psychology discussed in the puppet metaphor of Book 1, 644d-645a, it is clear that evaluative judgments and understanding are more closely associated with the cognitively robust “golden cord,” while feelings are more closely associated with the “iron cords.” Because the golden cord has cognitive capacities that the iron cords lack, and the iron cords consist of hedonic states as well as what are typically thought of as emotions (e.g., fear and shame), the division between reason and emotion is natural.

Overall, the commentary is excellent. Anyone familiar with the Clarendon Plato Series will know what to expect. Meyer provides a useful guide to main issues of contention in the secondary literature, as well as outlining difficult parts of the text. Although Meyer’s commentary does not stay neutral on these debates, it does appreciate the various stances taken. The bibliography is extensive and includes a variety of different sources.

This is an excellent book. In my opinion, it is currently the best English translation of Books 1 and 2 of the Laws. Meyer’s book will greatly help readers sort out the various difficult and obscure passages that pervade these two books.


1.   Currently available as T. L. Pangle, The Laws of Plato. Translated with notes and an interpretative essay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and T. J. Saunders, Plato: The Laws in J. M. Cooper and D. M. Hutchinson (eds.), Plato: The Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997).

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