Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.49

Malcolm Schofield, Tom Griffith, Plato, 'The Laws'. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. vii, 491.  ISBN 9780521859653.  $84.99.  

Reviewed by Susan Sauvé Meyer, The University of Pennsylvania (


This long awaited new translation of Plato’s longest and latest dialogue should become the standard adopted by those who study or teach the Laws in English translation.

Malcolm Schofield’s introductory materials (30 pp.) and Appendix give a succinct overview of the dialogue’s setting, characters, themes, and intellectual background, along with guidance to the scholarly literature,1 and editions of the Greek text. Schofield’s copious but unobtrusive notes on almost every page of the translation help the reader keep track of and interpret the sprawling argument, as well as its historical and legal context. The translation is by Tom Griffith, with editorial input from Schofield, whose footnotes in turn are informed by input from the translator. I have test-driven this “joint production” over the last fifteen months, using it both for teaching the Laws and in my own work on the dialogue. I have found it to be an excellent volume.

Writing a translation is a difficult art, given the competing goals of precision and accuracy on the one hand and fluency on the other. The tension between these desiderata is intensified by the highly artificial style in Plato’s late dialogues and exacerbated in the case of the Laws by the often unfinished quality of the text. Until the present volume appeared, readers of English generally chose between the faux literalism of Thomas Pangle (1980) and the elegant but often loose translation by Trevor Saunders (1970).2 While there is much to appreciate in Saunders’ translation, he can be maddeningly cavalier or impressionistic on matters of ethics or psychology. For example, he translates δόξα μετ’ ἔρωτός τε καὶ ἐπιθυμίας τούτοις ἑπομένης at 688b3-4 as “strength of mind such that desires and appetites are kept under control.” In addition, he is generally free with the epithet ‘moral’ even where there is no corresponding modifier in the Greek text—a practice with unfortunate vestiges in Griffith and Schofield’s otherwise scrupulous translation.

On matters of idiom, the Griffith-Schofield translation is refreshingly up to date, especially in the forms of address between the interlocutors and in other transitional phrases. I particularly liked “with all due respect” for ἄριστοι and “no offense” for ὠγαθέ (686d), along with “Seriously?” for Πῶς δή (665b), and “shall we call it a day?” for περανοῦμεν καὶ εάσομεν (672e), although my North American ear was confounded by “right in one!” for Ἄρισθ’ ὑπέλαβές (673c) and I suspect that “if he has a real skinful” for ἂν κατακορής τις τῇ μέθῃ γίγνηται (645e) will not wear well. I also wonder whether addressing the hypothetical legislator as “Mr. Legislator” is too juvenile for the self- consciously dignified interlocutors, although the whiff of impertinence I detect in the phrase may also be idiosyncratic to North American usage.

Where Plato’s syntax is complicated or convoluted, the rendering in Griffith-Schofield is unfailingly elegant or at least lucid. In cases where a precise rendering of difficult syntax will not help the reader grasp the sense, Griffith and Schofield rightly opt for intelligibility. A good example occurs in the magisterial overview of a proper law code at 631b-d, in a sentence aptly described by England as “loose jointed.”3 Griffith and Schofield beautifully render the difficult phrase, Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα τὰς ἄλλας προστάξεις τοῖς πολίταις εἰς ταῦτα βλεπούσας αὐτοῖς εἶναι διακελευστέον (631d2-4), as “The next thing is for the citizens to be encouraged to believe that it is to these goods all their other regulations look”—a concise anticipation of the dual tasks of instruction and emotional management ascribed to the legislator in the lines that follow. Later in Book 1, in the famous image of the divine puppets, when the Athenian describes the golden ἀγωγή of λογισμός as τῆς πόλεως κοινὸν νόμον ἐπικαλουμένην (645a1-2), Schofield insists on reading ἐπικαλουμένη as middle (“calls in aid the… law”) rather than passive (“called the law”), 4 and his notes on that passage open up an intriguing possibility that the καλλίστη ἀγωγή two lines later is the operation of the public law, not of the puppet’s golden cord. I am now convinced that this is the correct translation.

Translators regularly face the question of how to render important terms whose semantic range cannot be captured by a single word or phrase in the target language. A good example is the ubiquitous ἀρχή in Book 3, where Griffith and Schofield follow the sensible policy of using a range of English equivalents: “ruling,” “empire,” “ruling body,” and “form of rule.” Arguably the most fraught of such polysemic terms in the study of Plato is καλόν, sometimes used as a generic term of approbation indistinguishable from ἀγαθόν, sometimes contrasted with the latter, and sometimes used in an aesthetic sense. Here too Griffith and Schofield opt for multiple renderings: “admirable” in ethical contexts such as (632a), “good” where the educational merit of choral music is concerned, “fine” when καλόν occurs in conjunction with ἀγαθόν, even once as the hendiadys “fine and good” (670e6), and only occasionally as “beautiful” (668b).

Another difficult term for the philosophical translator is ἀρετή. Plato’s Athenian repeatedly invokes ἀρετή as the legislator’s focus (630c, 688a-b, 705d, 963a). Griffith and Schofield generally eschew the familiar translation “virtue” as well as the less misleading “excellence,” using the latter only where the ἀρετή in question is not specifically or exclusively human. In most other contexts they render it “goodness,” which is unobjectionable. However, they regularly add a modifier not in the Greek, translating ἀρετή as “human goodness,” once as “goodness of mind” (648e3) and often as “moral goodness.” Since historians of philosophy today debate whether the notion of the moral, as opposed to the ethical, applies to the ancients (a legacy of Bernard Williams and Elizabeth Anscombe), the frequent use of ‘moral’ in this new translation will be misleading or a distraction.

In this context, I would like to stand up for the Spartan Women mentioned at 637c2-3, whose “lax morals” (courtesy of Griffith and Schofield) only marginally improves on the sexual innuendo of Saunders’ “easy virtue.” The Greek term translated here is ἄνεσις (contrasted to καρτερία, a prominent theme in the analysis of ἀρετή in Βook 1). When Aristotle elaborates upon this criticism in the Politics (where again the contrast is between ἄνεσις and καρτερία) he does not mention the women’s sexual mores, objecting instead to their luxurious lifestyle and the power they wield over their husbands (1269b13-1270a11).

Griffith and Schofield tend to introduce the epithet “moral” when it is a matter of a person’s ἦθος, a term they regularly and appropriately render as “character” (669c, 837c, 968d). Plato’s use of this term in the Laws is sometimes ambiguous as to whether it invokes character or the behaviour that cultivates it (e.g. 625a5, 695d8-e1, 708c8, 751c9), and on one occasion (637d7) Griffith and Schofield translate ἦθος as “behavior” when I think it invokes character. At 636d-e, the Athenian is making the grand claim that pleasures and pains define the whole domain of legislative theory, “both those in cities and those in individual characters (ἐν ἰδίοις ἤθεσιν)” (636d7, my translation). As I read this phrase, the pleasures and pains “in cities” are objects of pursuit and avoidance, while those “in individuals” are citizens’ feelings of enjoyment or distress at their situation or prospects. The Athenian will refer to the latter under the generic term “pleasures and pains” at 653a-c when he explains that ἀρετή is a matter of loving and hating what one should, and he has the same range of feelings in mind in his earlier remark that a proper legislator will pay close attention to citizens’ emotional responses (631e-632a). These “pleasures and pains” are the stuff of character.

The interplay between the pleasures and pains of character and “those in cities” is a theme that pervades the Laws. Courage and σωφροσύνη are portrayed in Book 1 as endurance (καρτερία) in the face of pains and pleasures or as a battle against them. To lose that battle is (in the Griffith-Schofield translation) to be “less than a match (ἥττων)” for oneself (626e-627a) or for the pleasures and pains (633d-e). Defeat in the case of pleasures is called ἀκράτεια ἡδονῆς at 636c6-7, a phrase that Griffith and Schofield translate: “abandonment of self-control where pleasure is concerned.” They repeat “lack of self-control” for ἀκράτεια at 886a9 and 934a4, even though “self-control” is their consistent translation of σωφροσύνη. While it is arguable that the Athenian treats σωφροσύνη as the opposite of ἀκράτεια (thus Schofield argues in n19 à propos 631c), it would be better to translate with terms that did not prejudge the issue.

Some small points about the translation: In Book 2, where citizens of all ages are required to participate in choral performance, χορεία is typically translated “dance” (654c5, 655b9, d5) even though the Athenian emphasizes that χορεία is a combination of song and dance (ὄρχησις) (654a). There is also the odd switch from rendering τάξις as “order” (653e4) to “control” (665a1) in the thesis that ἁρμονία and ῥυθμός are kinds of τάξις. Finally, in the penal law of Book 9, I am not convinced that Griffith and Schofield have perspicuously captured the Athenian’s distinction between three kinds of “faults” (ἁμαρτανόμενα). The first kind is characterized as Λύπης μὲν οὖν… (864b3) and the second as Ἡδονῆς δ’ αὖ καὶ ἐπιθυμιῶν (864b6). Griffith and Schofield render these genitive phrases as “consists of pain” and “consists of pleasures and desires,” but the Athenian is referring back to the immediately preceding discussion (863a-e), where the pleasures and pains in question are invoked as causes of “faults” (ἁμαρτήματα), not their constituents. The only misprint I noted was “the Spartan Cleinias” on p. 86 n36.

After long neglect, Plato’s Laws is now gaining the attention it deserves. The past twenty-five years have seen the publication of new translations into German, Spanish, and French.5 Scholars working in English are now catching up, with new volumes in the Clarendon Plato Series on Book 10 and on Books 1 and 2,6 and now Schofield and Griffith’s translation of the whole work. I understand that a new Hackett translation of the Laws is in the works, and another Clarendon Volume on Books 3, 4, and 5 is underway. This work in progress, and all other scholarship on the Laws, will be indebted to the guidance and the example provided by Schofield and Griffith, so we may hope for a future in which we are blessed with as many good translations of Plato’s Laws as we are of his Republic.


1.   Which may now be supplemented with Schofield’s annotated bibliography in Oxford Bibliographies Online, September 2016.
2.   T. Saunders, Plato: The Laws (London: Penguin Books, 1970); T. Pangle, The Laws of Plato (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Some users exasperated with both have resorted to R. G. Bury’s 1926 Loeb edition (Plato with an English Translation. Loeb Classical Library, Vols. IX and X, Laws. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
3.   E. B. England, The Laws of Plato, the text edited with Introduction, Notes, etc., 2 vols. (London; Manchester: Longmans, Green & Co. / University of Manchester Press, 1921).
4.   Following A. Nightingale, ‘Plato’s Lawcode in context: Rule by written law in Athens and Magnesia’. Classical Quarterly 49 (1999), 100-22. Schofield defends this interpretation in detail in “Plato’s Marionette.” Rhizomata 4 (2016), 28-53.
5.   K. Schöpsdau, Platon: Nomoi (Gesetze): Übersetzung und Kommentar (Göttingen: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 1994-2011); F. L. Lisi, Platón, Diálogos, vols. VIII et IX; translation into Spanish (Madrid: Gredos, 1999); L. Brisson, and J.-F. Pradeau, Platon: Les Lois: traduction, introduction, et notes, 2 vols. (Paris: Flammarion 2006).
6.   Respectively, R. Mayhew, Plato: Laws 10, translated with an Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and S. S. Meyer, Plato: Laws 1 and 2, translated with an Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

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