What is Law in the Minos

The Minos dialogue is the natural introduction to Plato’s Laws. It comes down to us as a dialogue which is Platonic, though it is popularly considered to be apocryphal. The Minos is the natural partner to the Hipparchus: both of which are performed, take place between Socrates and an unnamed comrade, and conclude in an ascent beyond the common opinions of the Athenians. In both dialogues, unusually, the title mirrors the title of a tragedy, by naming someone ancient who has been, perhaps unjustly, judged by the Athenians.

Socrates opens the Minos by asking “What is law, for us?” As is common, the unnamed comrade assumes Socrates refers to particular laws. Instead Socrates compares law to gold. Socrates wants to know law as a whole, the “look” or eidos.

Definition 1: the comrade suggests that law is nothing else but what is lawfully accepted. This definition is quickly rejected on the grounds that speech cannot be the things that are spoken, neither can sight be the things that are seen, nor hearing the things that are heard.

Definition 2: Next the comrade suggests that law is the official opinions and decrees passed by votes: the official opinion of the city. In denying the second definition, Socrates conflates law and justice. Those who are lawful are just, and the unlawful are unjust. The just and the lawful save and protect cities, however some laws are good and others are wicked, though it was agreed before that law is not wicked. This contradiction poses problems for law, yet Socrates admits that law must be some kind of opinion – a true opinion, or the discovery of what is.

Definition 3: Therefore, as proposed by Socrates, law comes to light in the third and final definition. Law wishes to be the discovery of what is, or what possesses being. The key to this exhortation is that law is nothing more than an attempt at discovering being. It is an art, or activity. To what extent is this another kind of inferior definition which Socrates might have rejected? Some laws are written, and others are unwritten. However, law is in need of a justification, a divine justification. The comrade suggests Lycurgus as the sacred lawgiver of Sparta, but Socrates redirects the comrade not to Solon, but instead to Minos, the lawgiver of Crete. Despite the popular opinions of Minos from the tragic poets, Socrates praises Minos, the lawgiver of Zeus’s laws. During his reign, Minos prevented drinking parties, and he delivered the noble laws to Crete, with a view toward education in virtue. However the tragic poets are to be doubted, as they wield great power over opinion. Tragedy being the most soul-alluring and praised by the masses. Socrates dangerously praises a foreign leader, Minos, for a just war waged against Athens and just punishments of sacrifices to the Minotaur. The laws which bring strength to the body and virtue to the soul are to be praised.

The comrade remains unconvinced at the conclusion of the dialogue, and the praise of the Cretan laws is in need of justification, as made explicit in the Laws. Law is fallible, and it varies from city to city, however the existence of law is universal. Every city has laws, and perhaps as the comrade sees them as prescriptive of the ills of human nature. Man is in need of a delineation between punishment and reward. Contemporary social science sees laws as merely infinitely variable, mere products of the particular place and time of each society. Perhaps there is a nature to law, as Socrates suggests. Law is a longing to discover being.

For this reading I used the Agora Edition of “The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues” and edited by Thomas Pangle. This translation was completed by Thomas Pangle.

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