The Platonic Epinomis: A Sequel to the Laws

The Epinomis is the apocryphal addendum to Plato’s Laws. It may have even been intended as a thirteenth book to the Laws. The title is in reference to it being a sequel to the Laws, and that it occurs “after the laws” (nomoi), or perhaps superseding or “above” the laws, as well. Cleinias, Megillus, and the Athenian Stranger are the principle characters as in the Laws. A secondary title for the dialogue is: “The Nocturnal Council”, a reference to the subject of the text which is a further exploration of education from the Laws (and also from the Republic according to a certain reading of the text).

The dialogue is likely spurious, with some ancient sources suggesting it originated from Philip of Opus, a life-time contemporary and disciple of Plato at the Academy. Philip is said to be the editor of the Laws. Diogenes Laërtius suggests he divided the Laws into twelve books (this is also echoed in the ancient Suda). Philip was associated with a vast array of ancient writings on topics ranging from writing to astronomy, all of which are now lost.

The dialogue is one of two dialogues that takes place definitively outside the city of Athens (the other being the Laws) and the Athenian Stranger and Cleinias are the only two speakers in the dialogue. Although the dialogue does not explicitly state the setting, it is reasonable to assume that it follows on the morning after the day-long discussion during the light of the day in the Laws. Perhaps the dialogue even takes place at sunrise. Since the Epinomis is not explicit in this regard, we are left in the dark. Whereas the Republic takes place over the course of night until sunrise, the Laws takes place outside, during the light of day. The Republic is the discussion of a theoretical city that is impossible, while the Laws is a discussion about laws that can actually be enacted by a city. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the Epinomis continues this public-facing conversation from the Laws.

The dialogue opens with Cleinias suggesting that the three of them (their agreement now being complete) discuss how a mortal man should learn to be wise, as well as “prudent” -the tension between these two themes runs throughout the dialogue, and is playfully attended to by the Athenian Stranger. Now that they have discussed the proper laws for the city in the Laws, the purpose is to touch on the subject of how the rulers will be educated -with particular note to how the “nocturnal council” will judge those who deny the gods of the city. The “nocturnal council” is mentioned twice in Plato’s Laws, a secret council that will meet shortly before dawn. The Athenian Stranger responds that mortal life is short and full of toil, and only a few will likely be happy and fulfilled. Giving an account of wisdom, and how to attain it, is often elusive to the soul, though she believes she can attain it. To what extent is the pursuit of wisdom dependent upon faith? A civil theology becomes the necessary next step which the Athenian Stranger returns to later in the dialogue (i.e. a civil theology that deifies the cosmos, and places the principal god, “Uranus,” as the harbinger of reason and order).

At any rate, the group discusses the various sciences (“arts”) that do not render someone wise so they may dispense with those (such as barley growing or medicine and so on). Then, the Athenian Stranger associates wisdom with a “natural” ability to recall things with ease:

“There still remains, as a claimant to the name of wisdom, a certain strange power, which most people would call a natural gift rather than wisdom, appearing when one perceives someone learning this or that lesson with ease, or remembering a great many things” (976b).

A wise person is a person who is “in tune” with his city, not a witless drudge, but rather a good citizen, a just ruler, a loyal subject, and decorous. Also of importance is the question of number, which the Athenian stranger claims has originated from the heavens and the gods. Number is key to the person who wishes to attain wisdom (appropriate for the theory that Philip of Opus is the true author of this dialogue, as the Academy was known for its emphasis of mathematics). Number comes from the “most high” -or the heavens, or “Uranus.” He says that the origins of counting were from men watching the rotation of the planets (“gods”) and the cosmos (slyly omitting the practical needs for mathematics, such as trade and warfare, which may have been the true origins of counting). A wise man also possesses courage and temperance, as well as the ability to tell the truth. One who has attained these and other important knowledge is a wise man.

Wisdom, for the Athenian Stranger, is associated with the vibrant theodicy he delivers (reminiscent of Hesiod) while prudence is associated with the arts and sciences (i.e. learning the origin of things and how they come to their full being and death). This may be a similar distinction Aristotle draws between theoretical and practical knowledges or sciences. As in the Laws, the theology espoused by the Athenian Stranger is a civil theology. Theology is needed for most people, as it gives an account of the whole as well as a story of human origins. Most people need this kind of wisdom to give grounds to meaning in their lives. It provides a parallel interpretation of wisdom, and people need to be striving toward a certain account of wisdom. As the Athenian Stranger notes elsewhere, without philosophy (“the love of wisdom”) life is tragic. The god of the Athenian Stranger in the Epinomis is a radically separate god, the highest of all beings (“Uranus”) who does not feel pain or pleasure but is the representation of reason and goodness and order. Unlike the Greek terrestrial gods, the Athenian Stranger subtly presents the gods as “nearly invisible” but appearing to men in dreams and at the end of their lives. The additional gods are the stars of the cosmos who should be prayed to.

After a lengthy discussion of theology and the arts, at the end of the dialogue, the Athenian Stranger returns to the question of wisdom, which turns out to be “the greatest part of virtue,” only for the strongest to endure. It is better not to be educated than to be educated improperly, and wise men should be educated to uphold “piety,” which is necessary for the great masses of men, as well as for justification for the city.

In closing, the Epinomis is appropriately the sequel to the Laws as it further clarifies the “nocturnal council” (which is the representation of philosophy in the city), a group of highly educated philosophers who can assess the virtues and vices of the city so the city is in accord with the greatest virtue, which is “piety.” And piety is revealed to be best when it is in obedience to a civil theology. The Epinomis subtly and covertly introduces the teaching of the Republic into the practicable city that is discussed in the Laws (a dialogue which already touches upon the Socratic teaching in the Republic, but which deals with its topic in public and in the light of day).

For this reading I used an internet-based translation via Project Gutenberg.

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