Plato: “Laws”, Book One, Preamble, 360 B.C.E.


The Moral Liberal, Classics Library

Plato: “Laws”, Book One, Preamble, 360 B.C.E.


Strangers, let me ask a question of you—Was a God or a man the author of your laws? ‘A God, Stranger. In Crete, Zeus is said to have been the author of them; in Sparta, as Megillus will tell you, Apollo.’ You Cretans believe, as Homer says, that Minos went every ninth year to converse with his Olympian sire, and gave you laws which he brought from him. ‘Yes; and there was Rhadamanthus, his brother, who is reputed among us to have been a most righteous judge.’ That is a reputation worthy of the son of Zeus. And as you and Megillus have been trained under these laws, I may ask you to give me an account of them. We can talk about them in our walk from Cnosus to the cave and temple of Zeus. I am told that the distance is considerable, but probably there are shady places under the trees, where, being no longer young, we may often rest and converse. ‘Yes, Stranger, a little onward there are beautiful groves of cypresses, and green meadows in which we may repose.’

My first question is, Why has the law ordained that you should have common meals, and practise gymnastics, and bear arms? ‘My answer is, that all our institutions are of a military character. We lead the life of the camp even in time of peace, keeping up the organization of an army, and having meals in common; and as our country, owing to its ruggedness, is ill-suited for heavy-armed cavalry or infantry, our soldiers are archers, equipped with bows and arrows. The legislator was under the idea that war was the natural state of all mankind, and that peace is only a pretence; he thought that no possessions had any value which were not secured against enemies.’ And do you think that superiority in war is the proper aim of government? ‘Certainly I do, and my Spartan friend will agree with me.’ And are there wars, not only of state against state, but of village against village, of family against family, of individual against individual? ‘Yes.’ And is a man his own enemy? ‘There you come to first principles, like a true votary of the goddess Athene; and this is all the better, for you will the sooner recognize the truth of what I am saying—that all men everywhere are the enemies of all, and each individual of every other and of himself; and, further, that there is a victory and defeat—the best and the worst—which each man sustains, not at the hands of another, but of himself.’ And does this extend to states and villages as well as to individuals? ‘Certainly; there is a better in them which conquers or is conquered by the worse.’ Whether the worse ever really conquers the better, is a question which may be left for the present; but your meaning is, that bad citizens do sometimes overcome the good, and that the state is then conquered by herself, and that when they are defeated the state is victorious over herself. Or, again, in a family there may be several brothers, and the bad may be a majority; and when the bad majority conquer the good minority, the family are worse than themselves. The use of the terms ‘better or worse than himself or themselves’ may be doubtful, but about the thing meant there can be no dispute. ‘Very true.’ Such a struggle might be determined by a judge. And which will be the better judge—he who destroys the worse and lets the better rule, or he who lets the better rule and makes the others voluntarily obey; or, thirdly, he who destroys no one, but reconciles the two parties? ‘The last, clearly.’ But the object of such a judge or legislator would not be war. ‘True.’ And as there are two kinds of war, one without and one within a state, of which the internal is by far the worse, will not the legislator chiefly direct his attention to this latter? He will reconcile the contending factions, and unite them against their external enemies. ‘Certainly.’ Every legislator will aim at the greatest good, and the greatest good is not victory in war, whether civil or external, but mutual peace and good-will, as in the body health is preferable to the purgation of disease. He who makes war his object instead of peace, or who pursues war except for the sake of peace, is not a true statesman. ‘And yet, Stranger, the laws both of Crete and Sparta aim entirely at war.’ Perhaps so; but do not let us quarrel about your legislators—let us be gentle; they were in earnest quite as much as we are, and we must try to discover their meaning. The poet Tyrtaeus (you know his poems in Crete, and my Lacedaemonian friend is only too familiar with them)—he was an Athenian by birth, and a Spartan citizen:—’Well,’ he says, ‘I sing not, I care not about any man, however rich or happy, unless he is brave in war.’ Now I should like, in the name of us all, to ask the poet a question. Oh Tyrtaeus, I would say to him, we agree with you in praising those who excel in war, but which kind of war do you mean?—that dreadful war which is termed civil, or the milder sort which is waged against foreign enemies? You say that you abominate ‘those who are not eager to taste their enemies’ blood,’ and you seem to mean chiefly their foreign enemies. ‘Certainly he does.’ But we contend that there are men better far than your heroes, Tyrtaeus, concerning whom another poet, Theognis the Sicilian, says that ‘in a civil broil they are worth their weight in gold and silver.’ For in a civil war, not only courage, but justice and temperance and wisdom are required, and all virtue is better than a part. The mercenary soldier is ready to die at his post; yet he is commonly a violent, senseless creature. And the legislator, whether inspired or uninspired, will make laws with a view to the highest virtue; and this is not brute courage, but loyalty in the hour of danger. The virtue of Tyrtaeus, although needful enough in his own time, is really of a fourth-rate description. ‘You are degrading our legislator to a very low level.’ Nay, we degrade not him, but ourselves, if we believe that the laws of Lycurgus and Minos had a view to war only. A divine lawgiver would have had regard to all the different kinds of virtue, and have arranged his laws in corresponding classes, and not in the modern fashion, which only makes them after the want of them is felt,—about inheritances and heiresses and assaults, and the like. As you truly said, virtue is the business of the legislator; but you went wrong when you referred all legislation to a part of virtue, and to an inferior part. For the object of laws, whether the Cretan or any other, is to make men happy. Now happiness or good is of two kinds—there are divine and there are human goods. He who has the divine has the human added to him; but he who has lost the greater is deprived of both. The lesser goods are health, beauty, strength, and, lastly, wealth; not the blind God, Pluto, but one who has eyes to see and follow wisdom. For mind or wisdom is the most divine of all goods; and next comes temperance, and justice springs from the union of wisdom and temperance with courage, which is the fourth or last. These four precede other goods, and the legislator will arrange all his ordinances accordingly, the human going back to the divine, and the divine to their leader mind. There will be enactments about marriage, about education, about all the states and feelings and experiences of men and women, at every age, in weal and woe, in war and peace; upon all the law will fix a stamp of praise and blame. There will also be regulations about property and expenditure, about contracts, about rewards and punishments, and finally about funeral rites and honours of the dead. The lawgiver will appoint guardians to preside over these things; and mind will harmonize his ordinances, and show them to be in agreement with temperance and justice. Now I want to know whether the same principles are observed in the laws of Lycurgus and Minos, or, as I should rather say, of Apollo and Zeus. We must go through the virtues, beginning with courage, and then we will show that what has preceded has relation to virtue.

‘I wish,’ says the Lacedaemonian, ‘that you, Stranger, would first criticize Cleinias and the Cretan laws.’ Yes, is the reply, and I will criticize you and myself, as well as him. Tell me, Megillus, were not the common meals and gymnastic training instituted by your legislator with a view to war? ‘Yes; and next in the order of importance comes hunting, and fourth the endurance of pain in boxing contests, and in the beatings which are the punishment of theft. There is, too, the so-called Crypteia or secret service, in which our youth wander about the country night and day unattended, and even in winter go unshod and have no beds to lie on. Moreover they wrestle and exercise under a blazing sun, and they have many similar customs.’ Well, but is courage only a combat against fear and pain, and not against pleasure and flattery? ‘Against both, I should say.’ And which is worse,—to be overcome by pain, or by pleasure? ‘The latter.’ But did the lawgivers of Crete and Sparta legislate for a courage which is lame of one leg,—able to meet the attacks of pain but not those of pleasure, or for one which can meet both? ‘For a courage which can meet both, I should say.’ But if so, where are the institutions which train your citizens to be equally brave against pleasure and pain, and superior to enemies within as well as without? ‘We confess that we have no institutions worth mentioning which are of this character.’ I am not surprised, and will therefore only request forbearance on the part of us all, in case the love of truth should lead any of us to censure the laws of the others. Remember that I am more in the way of hearing criticisms of your laws than you can be; for in well-ordered states like Crete and Sparta, although an old man may sometimes speak of them in private to a ruler or elder, a similar liberty is not allowed to the young. But now being alone we shall not offend your legislator by a friendly examination of his laws. ‘Take any freedom which you like.’

My first observation is, that your lawgiver ordered you to endure hardships, because he thought that those who had not this discipline would run away from those who had. But he ought to have considered further, that those who had never learned to resist pleasure would be equally at the mercy of those who had, and these are often among the worst of mankind. Pleasure, like fear, would overcome them and take away their courage and freedom. ‘Perhaps; but I must not be hasty in giving my assent.’

Next as to temperance: what institutions have you which are adapted to promote temperance? ‘There are the common meals and gymnastic exercises.’ These are partly good and partly bad, and, as in medicine, what is good at one time and for one person, is bad at another time and for another person. Now although gymnastics and common meals do good, they are also a cause of evil in civil troubles, and they appear to encourage unnatural love, as has been shown at Miletus, in Boeotia, and at Thurii. And the Cretans are said to have invented the tale of Zeus and Ganymede in order to justify their evil practices by the example of the God who was their lawgiver. Leaving the story, we may observe that all law has to do with pleasure and pain; these are two fountains which are ever flowing in human nature, and he who drinks of them when and as much as he ought, is happy, and he who indulges in them to excess, is miserable. ‘You may be right, but I still incline to think that the Lacedaemonian lawgiver did well in forbidding pleasure, if I may judge from the result. For there is no drunken revelry in Sparta, and any one found in a state of intoxication is severely punished; he is not excused as an Athenian would be at Athens on account of a festival. I myself have seen the Athenians drunk at the Dionysia—and at our colony, Tarentum, on a similar occasion, I have beheld the whole city in a state of intoxication.’ I admit that these festivals should be properly regulated. Yet I might reply, ‘Yes, Spartans, that is not your vice; but look at home and remember the licentiousness of your women.’ And to all such accusations every one of us may reply in turn:—’Wonder not, Stranger; there are different customs in different countries.’ Now this may be a sufficient answer; but we are speaking about the wisdom of lawgivers and not about the customs of men. To return to the question of drinking: shall we have total abstinence, as you have, or hard drinking, like the Scythians and Thracians, or moderate potations like the Persians? ‘Give us arms, and we send all these nations flying before us.’ My good friend, be modest; victories and defeats often arise from unknown causes, and afford no proof of the goodness or badness of institutions. The stronger overcomes the weaker, as the Athenians have overcome the Ceans, or the Syracusans the Locrians, who are, perhaps, the best governed state in that part of the world. People are apt to praise or censure practices without enquiring into the nature of them. This is the way with drink: one person brings many witnesses, who sing the praises of wine; another declares that sober men defeat drunkards in battle; and he again is refuted in turn. I should like to conduct the argument on some other method; for if you regard numbers, there are two cities on one side, and ten thousand on the other. ‘I am ready to pursue any method which is likely to lead us to the truth.’ Let me put the matter thus: Somebody praises the useful qualities of a goat; another has seen goats running about wild in a garden, and blames a goat or any other animal which happens to be without a keeper. ‘How absurd!’ Would a pilot who is sea-sick be a good pilot? ‘No.’ Or a general who is sick and drunk with fear and ignorant of war a good general? ‘A general of old women he ought to be.’ But can any one form an estimate of any society, which is intended to have a ruler, and which he only sees in an unruly and lawless state? ‘No.’ There is a convivial form of society—is there not? ‘Yes.’ And has this convivial society ever been rightly ordered? Of course you Spartans and Cretans have never seen anything of the kind, but I have had wide experience, and made many enquiries about such societies, and have hardly ever found anything right or good in them. ‘We acknowledge our want of experience, and desire to learn of you.’ Will you admit that in all societies there must be a leader? ‘Yes.’ And in time of war he must be a man of courage and absolutely devoid of fear, if this be possible? ‘Certainly.’ But we are talking now of a general who shall preside at meetings of friends—and as these have a tendency to be uproarious, they ought above all others to have a governor. ‘Very good.’ He should be a sober man and a man of the world, who will keep, make, and increase the peace of the society; a drunkard in charge of drunkards would be singularly fortunate if he avoided doing a serious mischief. ‘Indeed he would.’ Suppose a person to censure such meetings—he may be right, but also he may have known them only in their disorderly state, under a drunken master of the feast; and a drunken general or pilot cannot save his army or his ships. ‘True; but although I see the advantage of an army having a good general, I do not equally see the good of a feast being well managed.’ If you mean to ask what good accrues to the state from the right training of a single youth or a single chorus, I should reply, ‘Not much’; but if you ask what is the good of education in general, I answer, that education makes good men, and that good men act nobly and overcome their enemies in battle. Victory is often suicidal to the victors, because it creates forgetfulness of education, but education itself is never suicidal. ‘You imply that the regulation of convivial meetings is a part of education; how will you prove this?’ I will tell you. But first let me offer a word of apology. We Athenians are always thought to be fond of talking, whereas the Lacedaemonian is celebrated for brevity, and the Cretan is considered to be sagacious and reserved. Now I fear that I may be charged with spinning a long discourse out of slender materials. For drinking cannot be rightly ordered without correct principles of music, and music runs up into education generally, and to discuss all these matters may be tedious; if you like, therefore, we will pass on to another part of our subject. ‘Are you aware, Athenian, that our family is your proxenus at Sparta, and that from my boyhood I have regarded Athens as a second country, and having often fought your battles in my youth, I have become attached to you, and love the sound of the Attic dialect? The saying is true, that the best Athenians are more than ordinarily good, because they are good by nature; therefore, be assured that I shall be glad to hear you talk as much as you please.’ ‘I, too,’ adds Cleinias, ‘have a tie which binds me to you. You know that Epimenides, the Cretan prophet, came and offered sacrifices in your city by the command of an oracle ten years before the Persian war. He told the Athenians that the Persian host would not come for ten years, and would go away again, having suffered more harm than they had inflicted. Now Epimenides was of my family, and when he visited Athens he entered into friendship with your forefathers.’ I see that you are willing to listen, and I have the will to speak, if I had only the ability. But, first, I must define the nature and power of education, and by this road we will travel on to the God Dionysus. The man who is to be good at anything must have early training;—the future builder must play at building, and the husbandman at digging; the soldier must learn to ride, and the carpenter to measure and use the rule,—all the thoughts and pleasures of children should bear on their after-profession.—Do you agree with me? ‘Certainly.’ And we must remember further that we are speaking of the education, not of a trainer, or of the captain of a ship, but of a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and how to obey; and such an education aims at virtue, and not at wealth or strength or mere cleverness. To the good man, education is of all things the most precious, and is also in constant need of renovation. ‘We agree.’ And we have before agreed that good men are those who are able to control themselves, and bad men are those who are not. Let me offer you an illustration which will assist our argument. Man is one; but in one and the same man are two foolish counsellors who contend within him—pleasure and pain, and of either he has expectations which we call hope and fear; and he is able to reason about good and e
vil, and reason, when affirmed by the state, becomes law. ‘We cannot follow you.’ Let me put the matter in another way: Every creature is a puppet of the Gods—whether he is a mere plaything or has any serious use we do not know; but this we do know, that he is drawn different ways by cords and strings. There is a soft golden cord which draws him towards virtue—this is the law of the state; and there are other cords made of iron and hard materials drawing him other ways. The golden reasoning influence has nothing of the nature of force, and therefore requires ministers in order to vanquish the other principles. This explains the doctrine that cities and citizens both conquer and are conquered by themselves. The individual follows reason, and the city law, which is embodied reason, either derived from the Gods or from the legislator. When virtue and vice are thus distinguished, education will be better understood, and in particular the relation of education to convivial intercourse. And now let us set wine before the puppet. You admit that wine stimulates the passions? ‘Yes.’ And does wine equally stimulate the reasoning faculties? ‘No; it brings the soul back to a state of childhood.’ In such a state a man has the least control over himself, and is, therefore, worst. ‘Very true.’ Then how can we believe that drinking should be encouraged? ‘You seem to think that it ought to be.’ And I am ready to maintain my position. ‘We should like to hear you prove that a man ought to make a beast of himself.’ You are speaking of the degradation of the soul: but how about the body? Would any man willingly degrade or weaken that? ‘Certainly not.’ And yet if he goes to a doctor or a gymnastic master, does he not make himself ill in the hope of getting well? for no one would like to be always taking medicine, or always to be in training. ‘True.’ And may not convivial meetings have a similar remedial use? And if so, are they not to be preferred to other modes of training because they are painless? ‘But have they any such use?’ Let us see: Are there not two kinds of fear—fear of evil and fear of an evil reputation? ‘There are.’ The latter kind of fear is opposed both to the fear of pain and to the love of pleasure. This is called by the legislator reverence, and is greatly honoured by him and by every good man; whereas confidence, which is the opposite quality, is the worst fault both of individuals and of states. This sort of fear or reverence is one of the two chief causes of victory in war, fearlessness of enemies being the other. ‘True.’ Then every one should be both fearful and fearless? ‘Yes.’ The right sort of fear is infused into a man when he comes face to face with shame, or cowardice, or the temptations of pleasure, and has to conquer them. He must learn by many trials to win the victory over himself, if he is ever to be made perfect. ‘That is reasonable enough.’ And now, suppose that the Gods had given mankind a drug, of which the effect was to exaggerate every sort of evil and danger, so that the bravest man entirely lost his presence of mind and became a coward for a time:—would such a drug have any value? ‘But is there such a drug?’ No; but suppose that there were; might not the legislator use such a mode of testing courage and cowardice? ‘To be sure.’ The legislator would induce fear in order to implant fearlessness; and would give rewards or punishments to those who behaved well or the reverse, under the influence of the drug? ‘Certainly.’ And this mode of training, whether practised in the case of one or many, whether in solitude or in the presence of a large company—if a man have sufficient confidence in himself to drink the potion amid his boon companions, leaving off in time and not taking too much,—would be an equally good test of temperance? ‘Very true.’ Let us return to the lawgiver and say to him, ‘Well, lawgiver, no such fear-producing potion has been given by God or invented by man, but there is a potion which will make men fearless.’ ‘You mean wine.’ Yes; has not wine an effect the contrary of that which I was just now describing,—first mellowing and humanizing a man, and then filling him with confidence, making him ready to say or do anything? ‘Certainly.’ Let us not forget that there are two qualities which should be cultivated in the soul—first, the greatest fearlessness, and, secondly, the greatest fear, which are both parts of reverence. Courage and fearlessness are trained amid dangers; but we have still to consider how fear is to be trained. We desire to attain fearlessness and confidence without the insolence and boldness which commonly attend them. For do not love, ignorance, avarice, wealth, beauty, strength, while they stimulate courage, also madden and intoxicate the soul? What better and more innocent test of character is there than festive intercourse? Would you make a bargain with a man in order to try whether he is honest? Or would you ascertain whether he is licentious by putting your wife or daughter into his hands? No one would deny that the test proposed is fairer, speedier, and safer than any other. And such a test will be particularly useful in the political science, which desires to know human natures and characters. ‘Very true.’



Go to Table of Contents


Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of Plato’s “The Republic” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.