Plato’s Laws, Book I: The Divine Puppet

The first word of the first sentence of Plato’s Laws is “god”. Plato’s Laws (“nomoi”) is one of four dialogues whose titles indicates the subject matter, the others being the Republic, the Statesman, and the Sophist. The later interpolated subtitle can be translated literally as “Acts of Lawgiving”, unlike the Republic, whose subtitle is “On the Just”. The Laws is, therefore, focused on the activity of founding a city, while the Republic, was merely focused on the founding of a “city in speech”.

In Greek, the word nomos implies authoritative custom or “law,” there was no distinction between the social and the political as in the modern sense. The question of “what is law?” is never raised in Plato’s Laws, however it is the central question of the brief spurious dialogue, the Minos, which serves as the natural introduction to the Laws.

Unlike the Republic, the Laws is a performed and not a narrated dialogue. It is a dialogue of action, not of recollection. The characters are two older men Kleinias, the Cretan lawgiver and politician from Knossos, Megillus, a Spartan, and an unnamed Athenian Stranger. Why is the stranger from Athens unnamed? Cicero argues the stranger is meant to represent Plato, Aristotle in the Politics simply refers to the stranger as Socrates. The Greek for stranger is xenos, meaning “foreign guest”.

The setting of the Laws is on the island of Crete. Though Socrates does not appear in the Laws, it is noteworthy to mention the only dialogue in which he appears outside the city of Athens is the Phaedrus, though it has been claimed that Socrates appears outside the city in the Republic when he reluctantly ventures to the home of Cephalus in the seaport of the Piraeus. The entirety of the Laws takes place as a religious pilgrimage from Knossos to the Cave of Zeus, a pilgrimage which mimes the actions of Minos, the founding ruler of Crete, who walked the path every nine years to gain wisdom from Zeus regarding the laws of Crete. The entirety of the laws takes place on the longest day of the year, hence the capacity for twelve chapters.

Unlike the reluctance of Socrates in the Republic, the Athenian Stranger enthusiastically begins the conversation with a question about ‘who is given the credit for laying down the laws of Crete, a god or a human being?’ Kleinias says it is a god – Zeus is the lawgiver of the Cretans and Apollo is the lawgiver of the Laecedemonians, or the Spartans. This is the most just answer, though perhaps not the most truthful answer, as Kleinias claims. The Athenian Stranger responds, inquiring about Minos who traveled to the cave of Zeus every nine years, and suggests the three old men talk on this hot day on the road to the cave of Zeus, the oldest and most important of the Greek religious sites located most likely on Mount Ida, as there are many tall trees with shade (though they never actually arrive at the cave of Zeus in the dialogue). Note that Minos did not have the benefit of conversation on his journey.

As they proceed, the Stranger asks why the Cretan laws ordain common meals, gymnastic training and meals, all parallel to the “city in speech” in the Republic. Note that ‘gymnastics’ comes to us from the Greek word meaning to “strip down”, as the Greeks exercised naked. Truly the Socratic dialogue is a kind of stripping down. At any rate, Kleinias suggests that the Cretan laws have a view toward war. For Minos, the lawgiver, the end of the city is to achieve victory in war. Kleinias defends the Hobbesian view that what is natural is a ‘state of war’. The same holds for the city being the enemy of other cities, neighborhoods of neighborhoods, homes of neighboring homes, and also of the individual. Man is perpetually at war with himself, fighting for victory to overcome himself.

The Stranger denies the Hobbesian view. After all, in keeping in mind the focus of the laws, the greatest judge would deal with an eye toward peace, as in the case of brothers and their father. The distinction is in the difference between friendship and civil war. Therefore, the best lawgiver spreads goodwill toward others and peace. War, a regrettable event, exists for the sake of peace, and not the other way around. The Athenian provides an alternative: the lawgiver gave the laws with an eye toward the greatest virtue, trustworthiness in the midst of danger, rather than the claims of Kleinias.

The remainder of Book I centers on a discussion of laws which mitigate the pleasures, and the characteristics of a good leader -namely courage and moderation, and how the personality of the leader is related to the laws. The Athenian defines education: as “whatever a man intends to be good at,” however he corrects himself to mean the education from childhood in virtue that makes one desire and learn to become a perfect citizen in justice. The good are those capable of ruling themselves, but each person is possessed by pain and pleasure. Over these there is calculation as to which is better or worse, and when this opinion becomes the common opinion of the city, it is called law. To visualize, he invokes the famous image of the Divine puppet, an image of each man who is pulled in a multitude of directions, but man should pursue the golden cord – the sacred pull of calculation – the common law of the city. Man should avoid excess, as in drunkenness and drinking parties, to avoid vice as a kind of Divine Puppet.  The art of politics comes to light as the knowledge of natures and habits of souls – whose business is to care for souls.

One of the chief problems discussed in Book I concerns drunkenness and drinking parties. Why is drunkenness a primary problem for a dialogue concerning the laws? Inebriation is required for the followers of the law, that is, drunkenness inspires a kind of fervor required for followers, a brand of patriotism. Belief is required for the rule of law, as law does not justify itself. Hence the kinship between theology and law, as indicated in the opening lines of the Laws. At any rate, the lawgiver must not be a drunk, for the laws depend upon on a sober lawgiver. Drunkenness is the response to the city being in a natural state of war.

For this reading I used Thomas Pangle’s excellent translation of Plato’s Laws and Leo Strauss writings on Plato’s Laws.

3 thoughts on “Plato’s Laws, Book I: The Divine Puppet

  1. This is a very nice overview. I’d love to get in contact with you – how might I do that? I have a great books project of my own and I’d like to share it with you.


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