Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors

By Ernest Barker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
The System of Social Relations in the Laws

GEOGRAPHY AND POPULATION

It is by the foundation of an imaginary colony that Plato seeks to sketch the lines of the law-state and its mixed constitution. The greater part of the island of Crete, in which the scene of the dialogue is laid, is about to found a colony; and the Cretan Cleinias, who is one of the persons of the dialogue, is also one of a commission of ten which has been appointed to superintend its foundation (702 C). The commission has power to make the laws of the colony; and Cleinias begs the Athenian stranger to propound for its consideration a draft or sketch of a code and a constitution.1 The case here imagined was one that often occurred in actual Greek life; and it indicates both the impulse which colonization furnished to political speculation, and the part which such speculation might play in the construction of new States. Modern colonists are apt to carry with them the laws and institutions of some one mother-country from which they have come, and to which they remain attached.2 Greek colonies, as a rule, began a

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1
Strictly speaking, the Laws does not contain the actual plan and specification for the colony, but a rough drawing, which, when the colony is actually founded, may be used as a basis, but modified. This appears, e.g. in 737 D: 'When we have seen the country and the neighbourhood, we will determine the size of the territory and the number of the population actually and in regular form (ἔργῳ καὶ λόγοις); but for the present the argument may advance to (proposals of) legislation (to be considered by the commission) for the sake of obtaining a sketch and an outline (σχήματος ἕνεκα καὶ ὑπογραøη + ̑ς)'. But Plato hardly adheres to this distinction; and much of the Laws is not really in the nature of a rough drawing, but rather in the form of a final plan and specification. This raises difficulties of interpretation, which have exercised German critics: see C. Ritter commentary on the Laws, pp. 140-7. It seems the simplest interpretation to hold that Plato (very naturally, if somewhat inconsistently) alternates between the two views.
2
Yet even in modern times colonies have offered a ground for constitutional experiments and attempts at the realization of an ideal. The fundamental constitutions of the Carolinas (never, it is true, enacted by the colonists, or possessed of legal force in the colonies) were the work of the philosopher Locke. There is something Platonic not only in the scheme, but in its details. 'To prevent the multiplication of laws all statutes were to become repealed at the end of one hundred years by efflux of time, and all manner of comment on or exposition of the Fundamental Constitutions was strictly forbidden' ( Egerton, Origin and Growth of English Colonies, p. 78).

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