BMCR 2011.12.22

Plato’s Laws: a Critical Guide. Cambridge critical guides

, Plato's Laws: a Critical Guide. Cambridge critical guides. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. viii, 245. ISBN 9780521884631 $80.00.


[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in the submission of the review.]

Concomitant with the appearance of Mark McPherran’s Critical Guide to Plato’s Republic 1 Cambridge University Press has published under the editorial supervision of Christopher Bobonich a parallel volume on Plato’s Laws, whose chapters not only – as the editor says – “start fresh lines of inquiry” (1), but also show what has gradually become clear within the scholary community since the late 1990s, namely that the Laws is Plato’s main political work.

The volume gathers eleven contributions by fine scholars, which deal with different problems posed by this very ambivalent text. Even though the essays are not formally divided into groups, the reader will immediately notice the different ‘sections’ of the book, which opens with two contributions to the general interpretation of the dialogue.

Starting with Aristotle’s claim that Plato’s purpose in the Laws was to describe a political system more suitable for actual states and that he later departed from it (Arist. Pol. 2.6, 1265a3-4), Malcolm Schofield discovers in the Laws two projects. The first of them can be found in the description of Magnesia and its institutions from book 5 on (although already announced in book 1): here Plato tries to construct an ideal city close to the Kallipolis of the Republic. The other project, the “more common” one, is on the contrary to be found in the analysis of constitutions of book 3: given the nature of human beings, the best state is the one in which, as the histories of Sparta, Persia and Athens show, the joint action of wise authority and civic freedom contributes to the development of friendship among the citizens. But these projects do not conflict: the more pragmatic is subordinate to the idealizing one (cf. Leg. 853c-d). Analyzing the relationship of the Laws to other dialogues, Christopher Rowe develops a reading of Plato’s last dialogue put forward by Malcolm Schofield.2 The argumentation of the Laws addresses, according to Rowe, a threefold audience: a) Megillos and Cleinias, b) the citizens of Magnesia, c) the philosophically experienced readers. Only the last ones will be able to look for a suitable justification for the assertions made and find it, led by the text itself, in other dialogues. Although Rowe quotes a large numbers of passages as evidence for this claim (a quite detailed comparison of Laws book 4 with the Politicus and the Republic), he is aware of the objections that his interpretation could encounter (namely that there is no actual evidence which justifies it) and he underlines the fact that he is only making an interpretative proposal (45-47).

These very interesting chapters on broader topics are followed by three contributions on the question of virtue in the Laws. Richard Kraut concentrates on the problem of ordinary virtue in the Phaedo, the Republic and the Laws. Although the Phaedo substantiates the claim that ordinary people do not possess real virtue because they lack wisdom, Kraut argues that such people are conflicted, as they have both the conscious belief that virtue is only instrumentally good and the unconscious one that it is good per se. Consistent with this view is the condition of the producers in the Republic, who possess ordinary virtue and are aware that their understanding of virtue must be led by the philosophers. Supplementing the Republic, the Laws focuses on the ordinary virtue and its fragility, even though – according to Kraut – from a rather pessimistic point of view, since “Plato assumes that they (i.e. the citizens of Magnesia) cannot be persuaded of the principal moral thesis of the Republic ” (68). Julia Annas deals with the hoary problem of the significance of the preambles to the laws, which Plato conceives as a solution for the discrepancy between two basic assumptions of the dialogue, that is, that the citizens should be ‘slaves of the laws’ and that they should become genuinely virtuous. Annas rejects three interpretations of the preambles (which see them as forms of rational persuasion, non-rational persuasion, or as an expression of an unreachable ideal which removes any need for law). Through a parallelism with the works of the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo of Alexandria, she suggests that the preambles in the Laws use both rational and non-rational means. Surprisingly enough, Annas does not mention that a similar proposal has been made by Harvey Yunis, who compares Plato’s preambles with the Christian preaching rhetoric.3 Terence Irwin discusses whether the Laws treats morality as internal moral law. Drawing on a definition of natural law advanced by Cicero ( De re publ. 3.27), Irwin analyzes to what extent the Laws takes a position on this doctrine. Plato conceives true law as rational order and stresses that because of natural cognitive and motivational deficiencies human nature without law cannot attain excellence. Now, since for Plato law is supposedly a second-best to knowledge, he does not seem to belong to the tradition of natural law. However, Irwin argues, there is evidence that Plato endorses natural law theory. The soul-puppet analogy of book 1 suggests that “the citizens of Magnesia […] are guided by an internal law that belongs to their reason … and, in so far as they are guided by it, they achieve wisdom” (99). This internal law does not embody the external law, but helps humans to overcome their cognitive and motivational deficiencies.

The contributions of Dorothea Frede, Rachana Kamtekar and Chris Bobonich turn to the topic of ethical psychology. On the basis of her previous works,4 Frede analyzes the dialogue’s first three books in the attempt to offer a sound account of the role of pleasure in it. Frede assumes that, through all his dialogues, Plato does not offer a defined theory of pleasure. He rather treats it, following a “Heraclitean” model (110), as a kind of process (108). This view can be found, according to Frede, also in the Laws. Here Plato simply emphasizes, as the analogy of the puppet illustrates, 1) that “there is quite a bit of flexibility when it comes the interaction between the inner strings” (120) and 2) that there is a frail balance between the psychic forces at work within each individual. This conception would explain the need for continuous ethical education in the form of symposia and religious feasts as it is stressed from book 2 on. In what is probably most complex chapter of the book, Rachana Kamtekar examines the nature and role of non-rational motivations, although she wants her contribution to be an inquiry into the causes that led Plato prescribe the kinds of physical activities that he does. Drawing on the Republic and particularly on the Timaeus, Kamtekar argues for a motivational self-sufficiency of the non-rational soul-parts. Moreover, she argues that this self-sufficiency serves a specific intent, namely to allow the rational part to think and rule without interferences. This drives Kamtekar back to her first question. The aim of physical education is, according to her, quite clear: “it provides the rational part with a pleasing instance of order from which to generalize and ascend; it makes the appetitive part less passive with respect to pain; it cancels out the psychological affections that intellectual training has detached from the opinions associated with them” (147). Bobonich’s chapter represents a sort of counterpart to Kamtekar’s, since he also concentrates on the nature of non-rational motivations in the Laws. In a first part of the chapter Bobonich explains, through brilliant examples, how limited an imagistic interpretation of non-rational motivations is. In a second part he draws on the Timaeus (especially on Tim. 43c4- 44c4) to argue for an interpretation of non-rational motivation as bearer of a propositional content. Eventually he highlights the advantages of his own interpretation over an imagistic one. In the imagistic interpretation: 1) “the relation between reasoning and non-rational motivations becomes oddly manipulative” (169) and 2) non-rational motivations are ineffectual. Moreover, 3) if non-rational motivations can only have imagistic content, then a desire with propositional content must be a rational motivation (which would “reintroduce akratic conflict among rational motivations,” (169) and 4) the imagistic account cannot even explain the actual nature of non-rational motivations.

The last three chapters (in my opinion the finest in this collection) deal with specific topics in the dialogue. Thanassis Samaras considers the role of women and the structure of the family in Magnesia. First of all he analyzes the different models that Plato had in mind while shaping Magnesia. Although many institutions seem to attribute Sparta a prominent role (central education and syssitia), Samaras reiterates his thesis that Plato is drawing most of all on Solonian Athens and that he is, in his own way, an advocate of the so-called ancestral constitution.5 In regard to the question of women, Samaras maintains 1) that Plato was advocate of feminism, if this is to be understood according “ancient” parameters (in a quite simplified way: Plato does not believe in absolute gender equality but asserts that men and women have the same opportunities from a cognitive and moral point of view); 2) that his view on women does not change from the Republic to the Laws. Robert Mayhew provides a thorough examination of Plato’s theology in the Laws, focusing on book 4, 7, 10 and 12. The assertions in book 4 and 7 assume 1) that an integral constituent of god’s nature for Plato is its close connection with reason (cf. Leg. 713a-714a), and 2) “that god is the ultimate standard of orderliness and virtue” (201). The refutation of the atheistic point of view in book 10 corroborates these claims and adds new characteristics (for example, the fact that the gods ( qua souls) exist before the bodies). However, many critical points about the nature of god are never explicitly discussed in the dialogue, such as “the precise nature of the greatest god” and “the relationship between this greatest god and the other gods” (213). Plato’s theology in the Laws is also “vague” (214), because Plato wants it to be so: first of all, because a philosophical theology is not simple and, besides, because a detailed philosophical discussion of theological problem would arouse doubts in the citizens of Magnesia. The volume closes with a contribution of André Laks on the meaning of the Athenian’s claim that Magnesia’s Politeia is the “truest tragedy” ( Leg. 817a-b). It would be impossible to do justice to the richness of its insight within the limits of a review, so it suffices to say, that Laks covers a broad spectrum of texts form Plato through Aristotle to the German Idealism (Goethe and Schelling). Laks’ interpretation is based on the assumption that in the examined passage mimesis does not have a similar meaning as in the Republic. Moreover he argues that “tragedy” in the Laws must be understood politically as well as eschatologically, since “essential” to the context of the dialogue is the assumption, that the tragic peripeteia is nothing “more than the appropriate punishment called for by the offences committed” (226). Lastly Laks suggests that inevitability of punishment must be understood as the necessity for the legislator to have recourse to punishment, since, although the legislator aims at rational persuasion, he cannot avoid dealing with pleasure as intrinsic human motivation.

To sum up: The quality and insight of the contributions are very high, and the range of addressed themes very broad. However, one would perhaps have wished for a more structured organization of the volume, so that it would have been not just a miscellany of contributions but a real guide to Plato’s probably most fascinating (although still under-studied) dialogue.


1. BMCR 2011.08.30

2. Schofield, M. 2003: “Religion and Philosophy in the Laws,” in: Scolnicov, S. – Brisson, L. eds. 2003: Plato’s Laws: from Theory into Practice, Proceedings of the VI Symposium Platonicum, held in Jerusalem, 5-10 August 2001. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 1–13.

3. Yunis, H. 1996: Taming Democracy. Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens, Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 211-226.

4. See for example Frede, D. 1997: Platon: Philebos. Übersetzung and Kommentar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

5. Samaras, T. (2002), Plato on Democracy, New York: Peter Lang.