This volume is the second installment of Klaus Schöpsdau’s ongoing commentary on Plato’s Laws.1 It includes a German translation, very detailed and comprehensive structural outlines, a perceptive and thorough commentary on the four Books in question, and a comprehensive bibliography, all of which are more than welcome at a time when the Laws seems to be attracting a level of scholarly attention that begins to do justice to the last and longest of Plato’s dialogues.2 As the author states in the preface, the commentary is primarily geared to the content of the work, and linguistic aspects are only dealt with when that is needed in order to ensure its correct understanding. In line with the editorial approach of this series, the volume does not include a Greek text, even though the commentary routinely refers to it and sometimes discusses textual problems that are difficult to follow without the Greek at hand. In this respect, and as stated in the first volume of the commentary (on Books I-III) the author has worked both from the Greek text of Burnet (OCT) and from those of des Places and Diès (in the Budé series), and he has, as a rule, indicated textual differences in the commentary and in the translation. Given the transmission problems of the Platonic corpus in general, and of the text of the Laws in particular,3 a new critical edition is too much to ask for on top of a commentary; nevertheless, as a reader, I would have appreciated the inclusion of a working Greek text with the relevant textual choices incorporated therein.
Although Laws is sometimes thought of as a collection of legal provisions that Plato put forward as an ideal code for the imaginary Cretan city of Magnesia, readers familiar with the dialogue know that it takes Plato four Books of the total twelve to get started on the legal code. It may not be amiss to remind ourselves of the basic outline of the first three Books, including of some basic dramatic features: to begin with, the physical setting of Athens is changed to that of a road on the island of Crete, Socrates is entirely absent, and the conversation between a nameless Athenian and his two interlocutors (the Cretan Clinias and the Spartan Megillus) is a dialogue of a very different kind from what we may have come to expect from Plato. Already in Book I, and for reasons that are made clear in the narrative, the Athenian begins lecturing the other two on the proper organization of the State. Books I and II contain elaborate views on the role of drinking parties and choral singing in a well-arranged society, and Book III is devoted to a sort of comparative history of the forms of government after a universal flood, by which the Athenian establishes his credentials as a political theorist, discussing at length the Spartan, Persian and Athenian approaches to political life. At the end of Book III, Clinias reveals that he has been given the task, along with nine other Cnossians, of composing a legal code for a new Cretan colony to be founded on the island: he is, therefore, only happy to enlist the help of the Athenian and of Megillus for that purpose, especially since the new laws may borrow from the content of foreign legal norms, provided that they are superior to the Cretan ones.
This description is intended to give a taste of the many perplexities that await the first-time reader of the Laws, who may well come with different expectations in matters of law and politics, given what they have encountered in the Plato of the early and middle dialogues, especially from the Republic. Book IV (the first that is considered in the volume reviewed here) sets the stage for the legal code of Magnesia in several ways. First of all, one must note the Athenian’s assertion that the city’s safety
Much has changed, then, since the Republic : as Schösdau carefully reminds us in an introductory section of the commentary to 704a1-715e6 (pp. 137-8), the program of legislation for Magnesia does not need a philosopher, but requires instead the cooperation of a tyrant with an extraordinary lawgiver (708d8-712b7), although the details of such cooperation are not worked out. Perhaps a cross-reference would have been helpful here to Schöpsdau’s explanation, contained in the general introduction to the Laws in the first volume of the commentary (especially pages 126-31), of how the State envisaged in the Laws is an elaboration of the second-best (
I suspect that a justified admiration for Plato’s sheer intellectual power may have driven some scholars to search in the Laws for a philosophical redemption from the totalitarian excesses of the Republic. The question whether such redemption is to be found at all is an old one, and this review is not the place to revisit it. However, Schöpsdau’s clear commentary on the theocratic aspects of the law in Magnesia must be commended. In this respect, the author shows a clear understanding (p. 198) of Plato’s view that the most important and difficult task for the lawgiver of the Laws is “to produce the one moral disposition in the future citizens without which such political constitution and the State built thereon cannot exist”, and of how we are to understand the Athenian’s argument in favor of a religious basis for such common moral position. In the commentary to the famous passage in which the Athenian posits god, and not man, as the measure of all things (716c4-6), the mandatory reference to Protagoras’ “homo mensura” fragment (
As a third and final example of the range and depth of Schöpsdau’s commentary, I would like to make brief reference to an aspect in Book VII, which is devoted to the details of the educational curriculum for the Magnesians. The Athenian elaborates on a large number of issues pertaining to education, which begins inside the womb (789a8-9), and must include, in addition to training in ambidexterity (795c7-d5), carefully regulated instruction in the law, music, dancing, and physical education, as well as mathematics for the selected few (the members of the Nocturnal Council, of course, as Schöpsdau explains on pp. 601-2 with precise references to later passages of Laws beyond the scope of this volume). But the aspect I want to comment upon is that of the conditional admission of comedy and tragedy in Magnesia, in contrast with their famous rejection by Socrates in the Republic, albeit with the proviso that somebody may one day provide a good defense and win a place for them in the well-governed State (607d3-e3). In the Laws, comedy is accepted as entertainment, but remains, as Schöpsdau says, a foreign object ( ein Fremdkörper) in Magnesia’s cultural life: it is left to be performed by slaves and hired foreigners, and never to be taken seriously, learned by heart, or repeated without changes (816e5-10). In this respect, I was intrigued by the reference that the commentary provides to the view that Plato is influenced by analogous Spartan practices, as well as by the precise reference to passages in other dialogues on the dialectical principle that the correct knowledge of a thing includes the knowledge of its opposite, both of which are valuable background on this topic.
The case of tragedy is slightly more complicated. The Athenian approaches the problem by means of an imaginary conversation with tragic poets, who would ask whether they are allowed to enter into Magnesia and produce their works there (817a4-6). The answer from the Athenian comprises three elements: first, the lawgivers are tragedians themselves, and they create the truest tragedy possible by imitating the finest and noblest life in their constitution (817b1-5); second, the tragic poets are competitors with a product that is inferior in principle, since the law is the best tool to accomplish the objectives of drama (817b6-c1); and third, tragedies will need to be shown first to the Magnesian authorities, in order to check that they are not detrimental to the laws in force at that time, in which case they will be allowed to be produced (817d5-8). The commentary shows a keen awareness of the way in which that discussion is presented in the Greek: the question asked by the poets involves the idiom
In addition to the aspects of Books IV and VII that I have touched upon in this review, which are central in the philosophical rhetoric of the Laws as a whole, the commentary is equally thorough on the specific legislative approach to matters such as land distribution in Book V or the court system and the law of marriage in Book VI. Readers who may wish to continue the well-established practice of mining the Laws for specific information about Plato’s views on particular topics of social organization will also find this volume very helpful. As the study of Plato’s last work continues to shed light on it and on the rest of his output, I certainly look forward to the next and last installment of Schöpsdau’s commentary.
1. Schöpsdau, Klaus. Nomoi (Gesetze). Buch I-III. Platon Werke. Übersetzung und Kommentar. Band IX. 2. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994. This first volume of the commentary also contains a general introduction to Laws and a discussion of problems of dating and textual transmission.
2. Among the books not included in Schöpdau’s commentary because they appeared too late, we must note Bobonich, C. Plato’s Utopia Recast. His Later Ethics and Politics Oxford: OUP 2002, and the interesting collection of papers in Scolnicov, S. & Brisson, L. (eds.) Plato’s Laws: From Theory into Practice. Proceedings of the VI Symposium Platonicum Skt. Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2003.
3. On the textual transmission of the Laws see Schöpsdau, op. cit., 143-147, and Lisi, F. L. El Texto de las Leyes, in Lisi, F. L. (ed.) Plato’s Laws and its Historical Significance. Selected Papers of the First International Congress on Ancient Thought, Salamanca, 1998 Skt. Augustin, Academia Verlag, 2001.
4. Schiappa, E. Protagoras and Logos. A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric. Columbia 1991. A second edition has appeared in University of South Carolina Press, 2003.