Plato’s Laws: Notes on Books II-IV

Book II
In Book II, the Athenian Stranger wishes to explore the question of what is the greatest benefit of a correctly executed drinking party, or at least if there is a greater benefit than considering human nature. He explores the question of education.

What is education? First, we begin in childhood. A young child experiences pleasure and pain, and from these feelings a child learns virtue and vice in his soul. Prudence and true opinion only come later, if a human being is lucky, in old age. If he possesses both, then he is a perfect human. “Education is the virtue that comes into being in children” (653b). To reiterate, pleasure and pain come first, followed by correct reasoning. Together, when these work in consonance (in Greek: sumphonia), the entirety of this consonance in the soul is virtue.

The first education comes from the gods. All other creatures live only in the early childhood phase of pain and pleasure. Humans, instead, have been gifted rhythm and harmony from the gods – a dance in which we take pride in the order of things, hence why the Greek words “chorus” and “joy” share the same root: chara. The goal of the educator is to be knowledgeable of all things fine and noble, so the child may learn the proper dance and song. Music reconciles the philosophers and non-philosophers, providing for a more harmonious civic life. It is possible to enforce the correctness of the laws of antiquity, as in the playful case of Egypt.

When the regime is healthy, the poets look to educate and please the best of men, the most educated. When the regime deteriorates, the poets look to please the lowly and most base of men, and the judges educate the poets. The chorus of the laws follows three lines: the chorus of Apollo, the chorus of the Muses, and the chorus of Dionysus.

They conclude Book II in agreement, that Dionysian wine and drinking parties should be allowed for their educational merits, but should be regulated with an eye toward moderation.

Book III
Book III begins in consideration of the original source of the political regime. As the Athenian notes, it is difficult to gaze over time from the viewpoint of one considering the many thousands of different kinds of cities and where they originally came from. The Stranger devises an account based on a flood in which the noble shepherds, living remotely in the mountains, are the only people left to rebuild humans. They move into the valleys and are living in a kind of “naive simplicity” (679c). Note: the Athenian Stranger’s account of the original of the political regime is slightly different from the account given by Socrates of the origin of the city in the Republic. It is, perhaps, most consistent with the natural city – the “city of sows” which consists of a small group of people, with each man minding his own business in the service of the whole, devoid of private property and war. A city of necessity, without arts and history. Ancestral laws and custom is the only guiding force for this city. The Athenian cites Homer in his description of the Cyclops. The rule of law is paternal, a family monarchy, followed by bigger cities and larger cities with private property and luxuries and war.

Then, they stumble upon the origins of legislation. The leaders, or lawgivers, look at the customs of the different clans and present them to the kings, or monarchs, and they adopt the customs which are most fitting for their cities.

The Athenian Stranger surveys the different Greeks and Barbarian rulers, particularly the Persians. He praises the freedom of speech under Cyrus, as well as the friendship and openness of intelligence, and contrasts the culture with the empire under Cambyses, and the freedoms and friendship were then regained under Darius. Cyrus, for all his praise, failed to understand correct education. He allowed his sons to be solely raised by the women, while the men are away busy with war. Because the Medes are a shepherding people, they need to be raised to be tough herders. However, his son Cambyses was soft and idiotic, while Darius was tough, but then again Xerxes was foolish. The problem was the education.

Book III concludes with Kleinias suggesting that they proceed by constructing a “city in speech” as was done in Plato’s Republic.

Book IV
At the request of Kleinias, the Athenian Stranger begins to construct a city in speech. Curiously, unlike Socrates in the Republic, he begins in the geography of the city – coastal rather than inland, and resembling much of Crete, at Kleinias’s request. The Athenian Stranger is skeptical of cities by the sea, as the sea is a ‘briny and bitter enemy’, bringing trade and riches and foreign customs, all of which challenge the consistency and stability of the laws and virtues of the people.

The Athenian Stranger sets himself down as the legislator, and beckons the other two to guard against his legislating so that it doesn’t challenge their virtue. He gives a notable clue into his project:
“For I assert that the only law correctly laid down is this: one which, just like an archer, aims each time at what alone is constantly accompanied by something noble, one which leaves all the rest aside, even if there is a chance of producing some wealth and some other such things by ignoring the things just mentioned” (705e).

The Athenian does not proceed to set down laws for the city, as there need to be a series of preludes in order for laws to be effective. In order for students to learn they must first have the desire to learn. The people can be molded best through the arousing of the passions by the poet and the theologian. At the conclusion of Book IV, the day has approached midday and they are resting in a shady spot.

The theologico-politico problem has already been explored at points in Books III and IV. To whom do the citizens serve? The gods or the leaders? First, there are pre-requisities for the laws to exist – the people must be molded to want to be virtuous. If not, the city becomes lawless and the lawgiver will fail. How shall we make the people desirous of virtue? Through the messages of the poets and the theologians. The stories of the gods are what humans look to and strive towards. However, they must learn to give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God’, to paraphrase the New Testament. The people must be made to honor the gods, fear their leaders, respect the laws of their cities, and be virtuous citizens. In conclusion, we recall the opening lines of the dialogue, and the words of Avicenna, which note the importance of divine law.

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

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