The LAWS is one of Plato’s most difficult books, whose subject is of great significance. In the dialogues, we are able to see Plato’s thought on the relationship between political theory and politics in practice.
Through the dialogue, we also witness the laying out of a new political system (in the new colony city of Magnesia), with his reflection on family, the status of women, rights concerning property and the role of religion in a republic. The dialogue makes use of dramatic details such as oaths, repetitions and hesitations.
The ‘laws’ is a dialogue of three men travelling through the road of Knossos to the mountain caves. The three men are a Spartan, an Athenian named Megillus and a Cretan named Kleinas. The Athenian suggests to the two friends that they could engage in some political conversations on the regime and laws so as to reduce boredom in their journey.
The laws and implications
The laws of Sparta and Crete were presumed to be the best in Greece. The Athenian asks Megillus and Kleinas about these laws. After listening to the setting of the laws, the Athenian disputes the fact that they are the best by convincing the two that the ancestral laws are not all that wise. In his argument, he lays down three things that the lawgiver must achieve in setting out the laws.
These include: ensuring that the city/town upon which he legislates enjoys a substantial amount of freedom, the city and its people are friendly towards each other and that the people are intelligent and capable of making wise decisions.
Kleinas informs the other two that him, together with a few others have been selected to come up with laws to govern a new Cretan colony. He therefore, seeks the ideas of the two on what sort of legislations could be ideal for the new colony.
The Athenian’s contribution to the ‘would be’ laws of the new city is impressive to the Spartan and the Cretan and they therefore recommend him to be part of the team founding the new city called Magnesia.
From the conversation, the emergent main theme is how to establish the rule of law among a people, who naturally do not feel obligated to obey the law. To these people, the rule of law has never existed. It is an alien concept to them and hence; quite challenging to convince them of the benefits of observing the rule.
The Dorian laws, as they were later called, if well implemented would solve the problem of legislation without much a task. These laws made by people to whom divine authority had been conferred would demand absolute obedience from the people. Obedience would be ensured through coercion.
This solution is seen to have worked successfully when applied in Sparta by enabling the city to maintain long stability. The case is not similar in Athens.
In the conversation, the Athenian disputes this predicament of assessing the laws’ success by traditional history. Instead, he proposes a model whereby what ought to be and not to be done is explained to the people first so that they understand why and/ or why not to do or not to engage in activities.
The laws themselves are the ones to explain this to the people so that they are self explanatory. The role of authority, therefore, was only to implement these laws and not to impose laws upon the people. Obedience would be ensured not through coercion but through this understanding of the laws.
To support his argument, the Athenian uses medical analogies, which state that people who disobey and do not conform to laws are sick and suffering from some soul disorder.
Therefore, like any other patient, they deserve treatment. In this case, the legislator is the equivalent of the healer and the citizen is the equivalent of the patient. The Hippocratic physician, unlike the physician’s assistant who does not give detailed and specialised medical care to slave, carefully consults the patient’s (free man) condition with careful study into his symptoms and administers any medication with the patient’s consent.
This similar concept should be applied to the lawgivers, in conducting detailed study of the citizens, analysing what affects them positively or negatively, discussing possible solutions with them, and eventually coming up with a well informed laws which are agreed upon by both the citizen and the lawgiver.
Pangle (86-87) says that the traditional norms and laws to which the Spartan and the Crete give allegiances are challenged. According to the Athen, the laws need rational examination, philosophical view, and revision so that they can meet the demands of reason.
The Athenian’s reasoning is an important message to the young who require to be healed from the indifference they exhibit to death, and also their inability to control and restrain their bodily wants.
The Athenian stranger in another case rejects economic communism and private families. These are the two key institutions that Socrates talks about in his Republic.
For the new city of magnesia, he proposes private ownership of property and families based on traditional principles where women, children and property should be common to everyone to access. The Athenian bases this view on Hippocratic practice which ascertains and justifies one’s strict adherence to reason and understanding, and not compulsion or coercion to following rules and general behaviour.
This philosophical approach by the Athenian to the matters of politics in resemblance to the application in the medical world, only serves to show the readers that philosophy cannot wholly be applied to political matters and work (Baldwin 102-103)
The Athenian also in his reasoning exemplifies the use of magic using drugs, spells, sorceries and fetishist objects in healing. In this case, rational persuasion cannot be achieved. The magic healer cannot explain the significance of the objects used in the process nor the formula behind the working of such processes.
The same way, the lawmaker will and must at times persuade without convincing the people. The people may fail to understand the logic behind following and obeying some rules and therefore they must be persuaded to obey though.
According to Baldwin (102-103), there is no contradiction between the two. The rationality employed by the physician helps reinstate the importance of philosophy and its emphasis and respect of volunteerism, mutual consent between the lawmaker and the citizen in the application of laws.
The extent to which a healer manages to heal his patients with magic is used to show the limits of rationality and does not have to be the case always. Some things must be done without rationality.
At times, this argument fails to hold. The Hippocratic practice is used to represent philosophy and at the same time pragmatism, which is not consistent with philosophy and actually limits it. There is therefore no clear cut distinction between the two.
As much as it reinforces the notion of philosophy, it limits it as well. This is the impression that exists in the real political world that no rule or set of laws or rules can be perfect. The laws cannot totally be delinked with one another. They exist in interplay of the sets at every stage so as to achieve an effective regime with a close resemblance to the rule of law which cannot perfectly exist.
Baldwin, Randal. The Law Most Beautiful and Best: Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws. Lanham, MD: Lexington books, 2003. Print.
Pangle, Thomas. The Laws of Plato. New York: Basic Books, 1980. Print.