Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors

By Ernest Barker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII
The Laws and its Theory of the State

THE GENESIS AND CHARACTER OF THE LAWS

According to the tradition of antiquity the Laws is a posthumous work, published, within a year of Plato's death ( 347), by a pupil and amanuensis, Philip of Opus. This is apparently the reason for some of the gaps, and some of the inconsistencies, which Plato, dying with the work unfinished, had left behind, and his editor did not seek to remove. The plan of the Laws may have occurred to Plato as early as 3 61), when we know, from the Seventh Epistle, that he was engaged with Dionysius the younger on the study of the proper 'preambles' to be attached to laws: its composition may be ascribed to the last ten years of his life, when he was an old man of over seventy.1 The marks of old age are written large in many features of the Laws. Like Prospero in The Tempest -- the last of Shakespeare's plays -- when he breaks his magic staff and drowns his book in the deeps, Plato has come to feel that men, who play their part in 'this unsubstantial pageant', are

such stuff
As dreams are made on.

'Man in his fashion is a sort of puppet of God, and this, in truth, is the best of him' (803 C). He has come to feel that God is everything, and man is a little thing; but along with this deeper sense of religious truth there has also come a certain rigour, and in the last books of the Laws we may hear

Rumores...senum severiorum.

The style, as well as the content, suggests the declining years of the writers.2 There is something of garrulity: there is an increasing

____________________
1
In Book I ( 6 38) B) Plato alludes to the Athenian conquest of the island of Ceos, which had revolted in 3 64) and again in 3 63). He also mentions the Syracusan treatment of Locri Epizephyrii. This may be a reference to the tyrannical rule of Dionysius at Locri during the period of his exile from Syracuse ( 356-3 46)). It follows that Book I was written after 3 63), and possibly after 3 56).
2
The vocabulary, as well as the style, of the Laws is different from that of the earlier dialogues. This has led some writers to pronounce the Laws spurious; but their view has found no acceptance. Others again, while believing that there is a genuine core, have contended that there is a large amount of addition and interpolation by later hands; and they have sought to separate the wheat from the chaff. The attempt is at once unnecessary and unsuccessful. It is only an instance of the constant tendency of German scholars to split ancient writings into Urschrift and Nachschrift.

-338-

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