The publication of these two volumes prepared by the duo Brisson-Pradeau (B-P) completes the Flammarion series of pocket-sized translations of Plato’s dialogues, to which these authors had already contributed other translations both jointly and individually. Plato’s Laws is a challenging text, and the translation by B-P deserves praise for its consistent accuracy and sensitivity to textual difficulties. As far as scholarly readers are concerned, this new translation clearly surpasses its English pocket-sized counterpart by Saunders, in the Penguin series,1 which is almost always very readable but with relatively few notes and sometimes too interpretive to be used on its own. A comparison with the English translation by Pangle2 (the other English translation widely available in paperback) would be less straightforward and falls outside the scope of this review; nevertheless, I would not be surprised if many students of the Laws switch to B-P for reference, instead of to either Saunders or Pangle.
There are good reasons for the switch; B-P have brought their expertise in Plato in general, and in the Laws in particular, to bear onto these two volumes by enriching a very good translation with a large quantity of additional material. The resulting two volumes amount to a veritable treatise on the dialogue in condensed format. This point can be easily illustrated by a quick listing of the main contents for each volume. Volume I: Introduction to the dialogue. Textual Note. Remark on the Notes. Translation of Books I-VI. Notes. Annex 1: Demography and Geography of Magnesia. Annex 2: The Magistrates of the Laws. Annex 3: Currency and Measures. Volume II: Textual Note. Translation of Books VII-XII. Notes. Annex 4: Laws and Preambles: A Catalog. Bibliography. Chronology. Index of Words (General). Index of Proper Names. Index Locorum. As for the graphic design, the covers of the two volumes feature thematically relevant and attractive renditions by Virginie Berthemet of a string puppet and a beehive, respectively, in a publishing mode that contrasts with that of the more austere-looking English language paperbacks.
At 49 small pages, the introduction does not attempt to cover all the topics in the dialogue. Instead, it does a very good job of reflecting the scholarly consensus about the general aspects of the Laws as a political dialogue, and it regrets that too many students of the dialogue seem stuck at this general level and that the contributions about the specifics of the legal code are fewer in number. B-P make several points that deserve mention here, since some of them have been the subject of a scholarly debate which may now be considered as settled, for example: far from being the late work of a worn-out mind, the dialogue evinces a strong theoretical ambition and is in fact the first work of political philosophy stricto sensu (pp. 13-14); the law is for Plato a means to regulate life to its most minute detail, and in this sense it is both a prescriptive and a pedagogical discourse (p. 18-19); Book V is a treatise on practical ethics that seeks to establish virtue in a political community in an enduring manner by means of human intellect alone, as shown by the rest of the dialogue (p. 23-26); the preambles to the laws seek to enhance compliance with the law by creating an inner conviction in the citizens about the goodness of the norms and the unavoidable harm that will ensue from their contravention, thereby combining persuasion and compulsion in a new way, according to the Athenian (pp.45-50). In addition, the introduction contains a structural outline of the whole dialogue (pp. 32-33) which is complemented by the more detailed outlines for each book that appear in the relevant sections of the notes to each volume.
One more thing needs to be said about B-P’s introduction. As already pointed out by Ruby Blondell in her review (BMCR 2003.07.02) of B-P’s Statesman in the same series, B-P endorse the traditional “mouthpiece” theory that that seeks to attribute to Plato himself what is said by Socrates or the main speakers of the dialogues in which Socrates is merely an onlooker or is altogether absent. This theory, despite its obvious textual hurdles, has nevertheless governed the interpretation of the Platonic dialogues for a long time, and has arguably forced Plato students to approach the study of the dialogues in a way that constantly requires the explanation of different and contradictory philosophical positions between dialogues. Even though Plato does not give conclusive evidence for the “unity” or “development” of his thought, the grip of the theory on many scholars is so strong that it can still be considered mainstream. I can only reference again, as Blondell also did in her review cited above, some of the recent attacks on that theory3 that deserve urgent consideration. Perhaps the “mouthpiece” theory is responsible for the problem that B-P themselves allude to concerning the apparent obsession with the general aspects of the Laws and with the question whether or not this dialogue “fits” with the previous ones, especially with the Republic and the Statesman. If this is so, then we should be less concerned with other dialogues, and we should stop trying to elucidate any Platonic system or unity of thought (tempting as it may be in the case of the Laws because of the thoroughness of the material, which seems to relate to so much else that Plato wrote). In my view the most productive reading of the dialogue would be a study the legal code itself that asks questions about its normative topics out of the order in which they are presented, in order to reveal its hidden assumptions and its limitations. It is not really possible to elaborate further on this point within the scope of this book review.
B-P have essentially translated the text by des Places-Diès published in the Budé series, with a few variant readings or elisions in translation (23 in total for this very long text) that do not amount to major departures. Given the uncharacteristic dryness of Plato’s Greek in this dialogue, it would be very hard to produce an exciting translation of the Laws into any language; therefore, we should be content with readability and accuracy, and this is what B-P deliver. By way of example, I would like to look at the famous rough spot in 968c, at the very end of the dialogue, in which the Athenian discusses the regulation of the Nocturnal Council. The Greek is obscure here (
In closing, a few things need to be said about the supplementary material. The notes are abundant and thorough, but defects pointed out in the mentioned review by Blondell of B-P’s translation of the Statesman unfortunately plague also the volumes under review here: the numbering of the notes is sequential, restarts with every book and has no references to translation page numbers or to Stephanus, rendering said notes annoyingly difficult to use for someone working with the Greek text, a different translation, or even this one; there are also references to textual problems that obviously require having the Greek text at hand; finally, works that are mentioned in the notes do not always reappear in the bibliography (against the authors’ statement in V.II, p.387), which must be considered minimal in any event. Of the annexes, I found that the most useful for future in-depth studies of the legal code are Annex 1 (on the Magistrates) in Volume I and Annex 4 (a catalog of laws and preambles) in Volume II. Overall, however, B-P’s is a very useful translation and both a necessary and very affordable addition to the library of all students of Plato.
1. Plato: The Laws. Translated by Trevor Saunders. Preface by R. F. Stalley. Penguin Books, 2004.
2. The Laws of Plato. Translated, with Notes and an Interpretive Essay, by Thomas L. Pangle. New York, Basic Books, 1980.
3. Press, G. A. (ed.) Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield 2000.
4. For this second interpretive direction and a summary of the controversy, see Klosko, G. “The Nocturnal Council in Plato’s Laws“, Political Studies, 36 (1988) 74-88.