109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

Plot:   An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into a bar …. no, sorry, …. walk from Cnossus to Zeus’ shrine on Crete, listening to the nameless Athenian formulate legislation for a new city to be called Magnesia.

Having recognized that his ideas for the ideal society as described in The Republic are unlikely to see the light of day, Plato here addresses a second-best blueprint for his utopia by laying down laws for every aspect of human life, from birth to death and everything in between.

My edition is the Penguin Classic translated by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140442227)

My thoughts:  The last of Plato I will probably ever read, and not too bad an experience, albeit lengthy, and my mind did start to wander by the time I reached the criminal law section. He does not hide behind Socrates any more, but still puts his words into the mouth of this ‘nameless Athenian’. The constant agreement of the other two with Plato’s suggestions becomes tiresome, so I simply learnt to skip their comments (which are mostly just a phrase or two praising or asking for more clarity, on Plato’s ideas).

These ideas, expressed as laws and guidelines to build and maintain his idea of Utopia are a mixed bag when taken from a 21st century viewpoint. On the plus side are his views on the equality of women, where a society which does not train women in the same way as men is “only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement”   (page 294)

while on the negative are his strong views on censorship in the arts, where music and literature are heavily regulated to prevent subversive progress or innovation for the sake of novelty.

“No one shall sing a note, or perform any dance movement, other than those in the canon of public songs, sacred music, and the general body of chorus performances…”   (page 286)

The projected utopia Magnesia is to be formed from 5,040 households, no more or less, at the time of establishment, as that magic number can be divided by all numbers 1-12 (except 11) making it ideal for administrative purposes. Oh, and buying or selling your house or land is a criminal act – you must stick to what you are given – which in theory would make real estate agents at best redundant and at worst criminals 🙂

Wealth and money is generally frowned upon, except for small amounts to pay tradesmen and wages for slaves. This last point I had not heard before, but it could have only been small amounts – maybe to let them buy some food or clothes?

And when selecting settlers from other parts of Crete to embark on this new enterprise, if anyone should not agree to their participation, they would be “gently compelled” 😦

The section on impiety towards the end did revive my interest, as it discussed three kinds of heresy : (i) disbelief in the gods (atheism), (ii) belief in gods who ignore man entirely, and (iii) belief in gods who could be persuaded by prayer or sacrifices to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour, all of which could weaken the morals underlying the community laws Plato was setting down. The argument for refuting all these heresies is based on the primary existence of a soul (actually two souls, one good and one evil) which brings about motion and order in the universe, and from which all else has arisen, and disregarding the supposed atheistic belief that everything in nature has arisen by randomness and chance.

I must confess that after this section, the last 100 pages did not look particularly interesting, and I was content to let the three gentlemen walk on discussing commercial and family laws and other miscellaneous legislation without me.

Favourite lines/passages:

  • Drinking parties are an educational opportunity whereby resisting temptation of further pleasure once mildly inebriated helps build self-control. Indeed, drunkenness is frowned on, and wine is the gift of Dionysus “to help cure the crabbiness of age…. to make us young again…. ready to sing his songs .. with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment”  (page 105)
  • “All the gold upon the earth, and all the gold beneath it, does not compensate for lack of virtue”  (page 190)
  • “An expectant mother should think it important to keep calm and cheerful and sweet-tempered throughout her pregnancy”   (page 277)

Personal rating:  Only a 3. Sorry Plato me old china, and you put so much work into it too.

Also in that year (ish):  Around 349 BC Athens is at war with Macedonia, under the rule of Philip II. The next decade sees Macedonia eventually become the dominant Greek state, while Rome is now the dominant city on the Italian peninsula.

Next :  Adieu Plato (and Socrates), and welcome to the next generation with Aristotle’s musings On the Soul (De Anima)

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2 thoughts on “109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

  1. Yes, but I think his feminist enlightenment is more about making sure everyone does their bit and is not left to their own inevitably subversive ways – he does come across as very ‘big brother’. I think I would have exiled myself from this society.

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