Laws (dialogue)

Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
Transitional & middle dialogues:
Later middle dialogues:
Late dialogues:
Of doubtful authenticity:
Axiochus – Demodocus
EpinomisEpistles – Eryxias
On JusticeOn Virtue
Rival LoversSecond Alcibiades
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The Laws is Plato's last and longest dialogue. The question asked at the beginning is not "What is law?" as one would expect. That is the question of the Minos (the authenticity of which is disputed). The first question is rather, "Who is given the credit for laying down your laws?"

It is generally agreed that Plato wrote this dialogue as an older man, having failed in his effort in Syracuse on the island of Sicily to guide a tyrant's rule, instead having been thrown in prison. These events are alluded to in the Seventh Letter.



The setting

Unlike most of Plato's dialogues, Socrates does not appear in the Laws. This seems fitting because the dialogue takes place on the island of Crete, and Socrates appears outside of Athens in Plato's writings only twice, in the Phaedrus, where he is just outside the city's walls, and in The Republic, where he goes down to the seaport Piraeus five miles outside of Athens. Instead of Socrates we have the Athenian Stranger (in Greek, 'xenos') and two other old men, an ordinary Spartan citizen (Megillos) and a Cretan politician and lawgiver (Kleinias) from Knossos.

The Athenian Stranger, who is said to be similar to Socrates but whose name is never mentioned, joins the other two on their religious pilgrimage to the cave of Zeus. The entire dialogue takes place during this journey, which mimics the action of Minos, who is said by the Cretans to have made their ancient laws, who walked this path every nine years in order to receive instruction from Zeus on lawgiving. It is also said to be the longest day of the year, allowing for a densely-packed twelve chapters.

By the end of the third book Kleinias announces that he has in fact been given the responsibility of creating the laws for a new Cretan colony, and that he would like the Stranger's assistance. The rest of the dialogue proceeds with the three old men, walking towards the cave and making laws for this new city which is called the city of the Magnetes (or Magnesia).[1][2]


The questions of the Laws are virtually limitless:

  • Divine revelation, divine law and law-giving
  • The role of intelligence in law-giving
  • The relations of philosophy, religion, and politics
  • The role of music, exercise and dance in education
  • Natural law and natural right

The dialogue uses primarily the Athenian and Spartan (Lacedaemonian) law systems as background for pinpointing a choice of laws, which the speakers imagine as a more or less coherent set for the new city they are talking about.


Comparisons to Plato's other dialogues

The Laws is similar to and yet in opposition to the Republic. It is similar in that both dialogues concern the making of a city in speech, and both cities are copies after the life of gods. The city of the Laws is described as "second best", not because the first best is the city of the Republic, but because it is the city of gods and their children. The city of the Laws differs in its allowance of private property and private families, and in the very existence of written laws, from the city of the Republic, with its communistic property-system, community of wives, and absence of written law. Also, whereas the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and many young men, the Laws is a discussion among old men, where children are not allowed and there is always a pretence of piety and ritualism. All in all, while the Laws is more similar to the Republic than any other dialogue, they are so different that the Laws needs to be considered in its own right, as Plato's most serious and comprehensive contribution to political philosophy.

Traditionally, the Minos is thought to be the preface, and the Epinomis the epilogue, to the Laws, but both may be spurious.[citation needed]

In The Laws, Plato takes a harsh view of homosexual relations, and proposes to legislate against them. This differs from the stance taken by Aristophanes in the Symposium and is in stark contrast to the Phaedrus, which presents pederasty in a positive light.

Comparisons to other works on Greek law

Plato was not the only Ancient Greek author writing about the law systems of his day, and making comparisons between the Athenian and the Lacedaemonian/Spartan laws. Notably, the Constitution of the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians, long attributed to Xenophon (another of Socrates' pupils) and the Constitution of the Athenians, probably by Aristotle, have also survived.

Some centuries later Plutarch would also devote attention to the topic of Ancient Greek law systems, e.g. in his Life of Lykurgus. Lykurgus (or: Lycurgus) was the legendary law-giver of the Lacedaemonians. Plutarch compares Lycurgus (and his Spartan laws) to the law system Numa Pompilius introduced in Rome around 700 BC.[citation needed]

Both Xenophon and Plutarch are stark admirers of the Spartan system, showing less reserve than Plato in expressing that admiration.

See also

Political content
Other aspects
  • Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 23


  1. ^ Cf. Plato, Laws. Book VIII, 848D. "And if there exist any local deities of the Magnetes or any shrines of ancient gods whose memory is still preserved, we shall pay to them the same worship as did the men of old. ...". A footnote in the Loeb Classical Library 1926 edition, translated by R.G. Bury, says: "The original inhabitants of the site of Clinias's new colony (cp. 702 B, 860 E); they subsequently migrated to Magnesia in Asia Minor".
  2. ^ Hunter, Virginia, "Plato's Prisons", in Greece & Rome journal, v.55, n.2, October 2008, pp.193-201

External references

Regarding Plato's The Laws
  • Kochin, Michael (2002). Gender and Rhetoric in Plato's Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80852-9. 
  • Kenklies, Karsten (2007). Die Pädagogik des Sozialen und das Ethos der Vernunft. Die Konstitution der Erziehung im platonischen Dialog Nomoi. Jena: IKS Garamond. ISBN 978-3-938203-52-1. 
  • Pangle, Thomas L., 1980. The Laws of Plato, Translated, with Notes and an Interpretive Essay, New York, Basic Books.
Other ancient texts about law systems
Online versions
  • The Laws Rare Henry Cary literal translation from the Bohn's Classical Library (Harvard, 1859)
  • The Laws at Project Gutenberg, a 19th century nonliteral translation by Jowett.
  • The Laws from the Perseus Digital Library.

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