by Plato

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The Laws of Plato are essentially Greek: unlike Xenophon's Cyropaedia, they contain nothing foreign or oriental. Their aim is to reconstruct the work of the great lawgivers of Hellas in a literary form. They partake both of an Athenian and a Spartan character. Some of them too are derived from Crete, and are appropriately transferred to a Cretan colony. But of Crete so little is known to us, that although, as Montesquieu (Esprit des Lois) remarks, 'the Laws of Crete are the original of those of Sparta and the Laws of Plato the correction of these latter,' there is only one point, viz. the common meals, in which they can be compared. Most of Plato's provisions resemble the laws and customs which prevailed in these three states (especially in the two former), and which the personifying instinct of the Greeks attributed to Minos, Lycurgus, and Solon. A very few particulars may have been borrowed from Zaleucus (Cic. de Legibus), and Charondas, who is said to have first made laws against perjury (Arist. Pol.) and to have forbidden credit (Stob. Florileg., Gaisford). Some enactments are Plato's own, and were suggested by his experience of defects in the Athenian and other Greek states. The Laws also contain many lesser provisions, which are not found in the ordinary codes of nations, because they cannot be properly defined, and are therefore better left to custom and common sense. 'The greater part of the work,' as Aristotle remarks (Pol.), 'is taken up with laws': yet this is not wholly true, and applies to the latter rather than to the first half of it. The book rests on an ethical and religious foundation: the actual laws begin with a hymn of praise in honour of the soul. And the same lofty aspiration after the good is perpetually recurring, especially in Books X, XI, XII, and whenever Plato's mind is filled with his highest themes. In prefixing to most of his laws a prooemium he has two ends in view, to persuade and also to threaten. They are to have the sanction of laws and the effect of sermons. And Plato's 'Book of Laws,' if described in the language of modern philosophy, may be said to be as much an ethical and educational, as a political or legal treatise.

But although the Laws partake both of an Athenian and a Spartan character, the elements which are borrowed from either state are necessarily very different, because the character and origin of the two governments themselves differed so widely. Sparta was the more ancient and primitive: Athens was suited to the wants of a later stage of society. The relation of the two states to the Laws may be conceived in this manner:—The foundation and ground-plan of the work are more Spartan, while the superstructure and details are more Athenian. At Athens the laws were written down and were voluminous; more than a thousand fragments of them have been collected by Telfy. Like the Roman or English law, they contained innumerable particulars. Those of them which regulated daily life were familiarly known to the Athenians; for every citizen was his own lawyer, and also a judge, who decided the rights of his fellow-citizens according to the laws, often after hearing speeches from the parties interested or from their advocates. It is to Rome and not to Athens that the invention of law, in the modern sense of the term, is commonly ascribed. But it must be remembered that long before the times of the Twelve Tables (B.C. 451), regular courts and forms of law had existed at Athens and probably in the Greek colonies. And we may reasonably suppose, though without any express proof of the fact, that many Roman institutions and customs, like Latin literature and mythology, were partly derived from Hellas and had imperceptibly drifted from one shore of the Ionian Sea to the other (compare especially the constitutions of Servius Tullius and of Solon).

It is not proved that the laws of Sparta were in ancient times either written down in books or engraved on tablets of marble or brass. Nor is it certain that, if they had been, the Spartans could have read them. They were ancient customs, some of them older probably than the settlement in Laconia, of which the origin is unknown; they occasionally received the sanction of the Delphic oracle, but there was a still stronger obligation by which they were enforced,—the necessity of self-defence: the Spartans were always living in the presence of their enemies. They belonged to an age when written law had not yet taken the place of custom and tradition. The old constitution was very rarely affected by new enactments, and these only related to the duties of the Kings or Ephors, or the new relations of classes which arose as time went on. Hence there was as great a difference as could well be conceived between the Laws of Athens and Sparta: the one was the creation of a civilized state, and did not differ in principle from our modern legislation, the other of an age in which the people were held together and also kept down by force of arms, and which afterwards retained many traces of its barbaric origin 'surviving in culture.'

Nevertheless the Lacedaemonian was the ideal of a primitive Greek state. According to Thucydides it was the first which emerged out of confusion and became a regular government. It was also an army devoted to military exercises, but organized with a view to self-defence and not to conquest. It was not quick to move or easily excited; but stolid, cautious, unambitious, procrastinating. For many centuries it retained the same character which was impressed upon it by the hand of the legislator. This singular fabric was partly the result of circumstances, partly the invention of some unknown individual in prehistoric times, whose ideal of education was military discipline, and who, by the ascendency of his genius, made a small tribe into a nation which became famous in the world's history. The other Hellenes wondered at the strength and stability of his work. The rest of Hellas, says Thucydides, undertook the colonisation of Heraclea the more readily, having a feeling of security now that they saw the Lacedaemonians taking part in it. The Spartan state appears to us in the dawn of history as a vision of armed men, irresistible by any other power then existing in the world. It can hardly be said to have understood at all the rights or duties of nations to one another, or indeed to have had any moral principle except patriotism and obedience to commanders. Men were so trained to act together that they lost the freedom and spontaneity of human life in cultivating the qualities of the soldier and ruler. The Spartan state was a composite body in which kings, nobles, citizens, perioeci, artisans, slaves, had to find a 'modus vivendi' with one another. All of them were taught some use of arms. The strength of the family tie was diminished among them by an enforced absence from home and by common meals. Sparta had no life or growth; no poetry or tradition of the past; no art, no thought. The Athenians started on their great career some centuries later, but the Spartans would have been easily conquered by them, if Athens had not been deficient in the qualities which constituted the strength (and also the weakness) of her rival.

The ideal of Athens has been pictured for all time in the speech which Thucydides puts into the mouth of Pericles, called the Funeral Oration. He contrasts the activity and freedom and pleasantness of Athenian life with the immobility and severe looks and incessant drill of the Spartans. The citizens of no city were more versatile, or more readily changed from land to sea or more quickly moved about from place to place. They 'took their pleasures' merrily, and yet, when the time for fighting arrived, were not a whit behind the Spartans, who were like men living in a camp, and, though always keeping guard, were often too late for the fray. Any foreigner might visit Athens; her ships found a way to the most distant shores; the riches of the whole earth poured in upon her. Her citizens had their theatres and festivals; they 'provided their souls with many relaxations'; yet they were not less manly than the Spartans or less willing to sacrifice this enjoyable existence for their country's good. The Athenian was a nobler form of life than that of their rivals, a life of music as well as of gymnastic, the life of a citizen as well as of a soldier. Such is the picture which Thucydides has drawn of the Athenians in their glory. It is the spirit of this life which Plato would infuse into the Magnesian state and which he seeks to combine with the common meals and gymnastic discipline of Sparta.

The two great types of Athens and Sparta had deeply entered into his mind. He had heard of Sparta at a distance and from common Hellenic fame: he was a citizen of Athens and an Athenian of noble birth. He must often have sat in the law-courts, and may have had personal experience of the duties of offices such as he is establishing. There is no need to ask the question, whence he derived his knowledge of the Laws of Athens: they were a part of his daily life. Many of his enactments are recognized to be Athenian laws from the fragments preserved in the Orators and elsewhere: many more would be found to be so if we had better information. Probably also still more of them would have been incorporated in the Magnesian code, if the work had ever been finally completed. But it seems to have come down to us in a form which is partly finished and partly unfinished, having a beginning and end, but wanting arrangement in the middle. The Laws answer to Plato's own description of them, in the comparison which he makes of himself and his two friends to gatherers of stones or the beginners of some composite work, 'who are providing materials and partly putting them together:—having some of their laws, like stones, already fixed in their places, while others lie about.'

Plato's own life coincided with the period at which Athens rose to her greatest heights and sank to her lowest depths. It was impossible that he should regard the blessings of democracy in the same light as the men of a former generation, whose view was not intercepted by the evil shadow of the taking of Athens, and who had only the glories of Marathon and Salamis and the administration of Pericles to look back upon. On the other hand the fame and prestige of Sparta, which had outlived so many crimes and blunders, was not altogether lost at the end of the life of Plato. Hers was the only great Hellenic government which preserved something of its ancient form; and although the Spartan citizens were reduced to almost one-tenth of their original number (Arist. Pol.), she still retained, until the rise of Thebes and Macedon, a certain authority and predominance due to her final success in the struggle with Athens and to the victories which Agesilaus won in Asia Minor.

Plato, like Aristotle, had in his mind some form of a mean state which should escape the evils and secure the advantages of both aristocracy and democracy. It may however be doubted whether the creation of such a state is not beyond the legislator's art, although there have been examples in history of forms of government, which through some community of interest or of origin, through a balance of parties in the state itself, or through the fear of a common enemy, have for a while preserved such a character of moderation. But in general there arises a time in the history of a state when the struggle between the few and the many has to be fought out. No system of checks and balances, such as Plato has devised in the Laws, could have given equipoise and stability to an ancient state, any more than the skill of the legislator could have withstood the tide of democracy in England or France during the last hundred years, or have given life to China or India.

The basis of the Magnesian constitution is the equal division of land. In the new state, as in the Republic, there was to be neither poverty nor riches. Every citizen under all circumstances retained his lot, and as much money as was necessary for the cultivation of it, and no one was allowed to accumulate property to the amount of more than five times the value of the lot, inclusive of it. The equal division of land was a Spartan institution, not known to have existed elsewhere in Hellas. The mention of it in the Laws of Plato affords considerable presumption that it was of ancient origin, and not first introduced, as Mr. Grote and others have imagined, in the reformation of Cleomenes III. But at Sparta, if we may judge from the frequent complaints of the accumulation of property in the hands of a few persons (Arist. Pol.), no provision could have been made for the maintenance of the lot. Plutarch indeed speaks of a law introduced by the Ephor Epitadeus soon after the Peloponnesian War, which first allowed the Spartans to sell their land (Agis): but from the manner in which Aristotle refers to the subject, we should imagine this evil in the state to be of a much older standing. Like some other countries in which small proprietors have been numerous, the original equality passed into inequality, and, instead of a large middle class, there was probably at Sparta greater disproportion in the property of the citizens than in any other state of Hellas. Plato was aware of the danger, and has improved on the Spartan custom. The land, as at Sparta, must have been tilled by slaves, since other occupations were found for the citizens. Bodies of young men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty were engaged in making biennial peregrinations of the country. They and their officers are to be the magistrates, police, engineers, aediles, of the twelve districts into which the colony was divided. Their way of life may be compared with that of the Spartan secret police or Crypteia, a name which Plato freely applies to them without apparently any consciousness of the odium which has attached to the word in history.

Another great institution which Plato borrowed from Sparta (or Crete) is the Syssitia or common meals. These were established in both states, and in some respects were considered by Aristotle to be better managed in Crete than at Lacedaemon (Pol.). In the Laws the Cretan custom appears to be adopted (This is not proved, as Hermann supposes ('De Vestigiis,' etc.)): that is to say, if we may interpret Plato by Aristotle, the cost of them was defrayed by the state and not by the individuals (Arist. Pol); so that the members of the mess, who could not pay their quota, still retained their rights of citizenship. But this explanation is hardly consistent with the Laws, where contributions to the Syssitia from private estates are expressly mentioned. Plato goes further than the legislators of Sparta and Crete, and would extend the common meals to women as well as men: he desires to curb the disorders, which existed among the female sex in both states, by the application to women of the same military discipline to which the men were already subject. It was an extension of the custom of Syssitia from which the ancient legislators shrank, and which Plato himself believed to be very difficult of enforcement.

Like Sparta, the new colony was not to be surrounded by walls,—a state should learn to depend upon the bravery of its citizens only—a fallacy or paradox, if it is not to be regarded as a poetical fancy, which is fairly enough ridiculed by Aristotle (Pol.). Women, too, must be ready to assist in the defence of their country: they are not to rush to the temples and altars, but to arm themselves with shield and spear. In the regulation of the Syssitia, in at least one of his enactments respecting property, and in the attempt to correct the licence of women, Plato shows, that while he borrowed from the institutions of Sparta and favoured the Spartan mode of life, he also sought to improve upon them.

The enmity to the sea is another Spartan feature which is transferred by Plato to the Magnesian state. He did not reflect that a non-maritime power would always be at the mercy of one which had a command of the great highway. Their many island homes, the vast extent of coast which had to be protected by them, their struggles first of all with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and secondly with the Persian fleets, forced the Greeks, mostly against their will, to devote themselves to the sea. The islanders before the inhabitants of the continent, the maritime cities before the inland, the Corinthians and Athenians before the Spartans, were compelled to fit out ships: last of all the Spartans, by the pressure of the Peloponnesian War, were driven to establish a naval force, which, after the battle of Aegospotami, for more than a generation commanded the Aegean. Plato, like the Spartans, had a prejudice against a navy, because he regarded it as the nursery of democracy. But he either never considered, or did not care to explain, how a city, set upon an island and 'distant not more than ten miles from the sea, having a seaboard provided with excellent harbours,' could have safely subsisted without one.

Neither the Spartans nor the Magnesian colonists were permitted to engage in trade or commerce. In order to limit their dealings as far as possible to their own country, they had a separate coinage; the Magnesians were only allowed to use the common currency of Hellas when they travelled abroad, which they were forbidden to do unless they received permission from the government. Like the Spartans, Plato was afraid of the evils which might be introduced into his state by intercourse with foreigners; but he also shrinks from the utter exclusiveness of Sparta, and is not unwilling to allow visitors of a suitable age and rank to come from other states to his own, as he also allows citizens of his own state to go to foreign countries and bring back a report of them. Such international communication seemed to him both honourable and useful.

We may now notice some points in which the commonwealth of the Laws approximates to the Athenian model. These are much more numerous than the previous class of resemblances; we are better able to compare the laws of Plato with those of Athens, because a good deal more is known to us of Athens than of Sparta.

The information which we possess about Athenian law, though comparatively fuller, is still fragmentary. The sources from which our knowledge is derived are chiefly the following:—

(1) The Orators,—Antiphon, Andocides, Lysias, Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Lycurgus, and others.

(2) Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, as well as later writers, such as Cicero de Legibus, Plutarch, Aelian, Pausanias.

(3) Lexicographers, such as Harpocration, Pollux, Hesychius, Suidas, and the compiler of the Etymologicum Magnum, many of whom are of uncertain date, and to a great extent based upon one another. Their writings extend altogether over more than eight hundred years, from the second to the tenth century.

(4) The Scholia on Aristophanes, Plato, Demosthenes.

(5) A few inscriptions.

Our knowledge of a subject derived from such various sources and for the most part of uncertain date and origin, is necessarily precarious. No critic can separate the actual laws of Solon from those which passed under his name in later ages. Nor do the Scholiasts and Lexicographers attempt to distinguish how many of these laws were still in force at the time when they wrote, or when they fell into disuse and were to be found in books only. Nor can we hastily assume that enactments which occur in the Laws of Plato were also a part of Athenian law, however probable this may appear.

There are two classes of similarities between Plato's Laws and those of Athens: (i) of institutions (ii) of minor enactments.

(i) The constitution of the Laws in its general character resembles much more nearly the Athenian constitution of Solon's time than that which succeeded it, or the extreme democracy which prevailed in Plato's own day. It was a mean state which he hoped to create, equally unlike a Syracusan tyranny or the mob-government of the Athenian assembly. There are various expedients by which he sought to impart to it the quality of moderation. (1) The whole people were to be educated: they could not be all trained in philosophy, but they were to acquire the simple elements of music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy; they were also to be subject to military discipline, archontes kai archomenoi. (2) The majority of them were, or had been at some time in their lives, magistrates, and had the experience which is given by office. (3) The persons who held the highest offices were to have a further education, not much inferior to that provided for the guardians in the Republic, though the range of their studies is narrowed to the nature and divisions of virtue: here their philosophy comes to an end. (4) The entire number of the citizens (5040) rarely, if ever, assembled, except for purposes of elections. The whole people were divided into four classes, each having the right to be represented by the same number of members in the Council. The result of such an arrangement would be, as in the constitution of Servius Tullius, to give a disproportionate share of power to the wealthier classes, who may be supposed to be always much fewer in number than the poorer. This tendency was qualified by the complicated system of selection by vote, previous to the final election by lot, of which the object seems to be to hand over to the wealthy few the power of selecting from the many poor, and vice versa. (5) The most important body in the state was the Nocturnal Council, which is borrowed from the Areopagus at Athens, as it existed, or was supposed to have existed, in the days before Ephialtes and the Eumenides of Aeschylus, when its power was undiminished. In some particulars Plato appears to have copied exactly the customs and procedure of the Areopagus: both assemblies sat at night (Telfy). There was a resemblance also in more important matters. Like the Areopagus, the Nocturnal Council was partly composed of magistrates and other state officials, whose term of office had expired. (7) The constitution included several diverse and even opposing elements, such as the Assembly and the Nocturnal Council. (8) There was much less exclusiveness than at Sparta; the citizens were to have an interest in the government of neighbouring states, and to know what was going on in the rest of the world.—All these were moderating influences.

A striking similarity between Athens and the constitution of the Magnesian colony is the use of the lot in the election of judges and other magistrates. That such a mode of election should have been resorted to in any civilized state, or that it should have been transferred by Plato to an ideal or imaginary one, is very singular to us. The most extreme democracy of modern times has never thought of leaving government wholly to chance. It was natural that Socrates should scoff at it, and ask, 'Who would choose a pilot or carpenter or flute-player by lot' (Xen. Mem.)? Yet there were many considerations which made this mode of choice attractive both to the oligarch and to the democrat:—(1) It seemed to recognize that one man was as good as another, and that all the members of the governing body, whether few or many, were on a perfect equality in every sense of the word. (2) To the pious mind it appeared to be a choice made, not by man, but by heaven (compare Laws). (3) It afforded a protection against corruption and intrigue...It must also be remembered that, although elected by lot, the persons so elected were subject to a scrutiny before they entered on their office, and were therefore liable, after election, if disqualified, to be rejected (Laws). They were, moreover, liable to be called to account after the expiration of their office. In the election of councillors Plato introduces a further check: they are not to be chosen directly by lot from all the citizens, but from a select body previously elected by vote. In Plato's state at least, as we may infer from his silence on this point, judges and magistrates performed their duties without pay, which was a guarantee both of their disinterestedness and of their belonging probably to the higher class of citizens (compare Arist. Pol.). Hence we are not surprised that the use of the lot prevailed, not only in the election of the Athenian Council, but also in many oligarchies, and even in Plato's colony. The evil consequences of the lot are to a great extent avoided, if the magistrates so elected do not, like the dicasts at Athens, receive pay from the state.

Another parallel is that of the Popular Assembly, which at Athens was omnipotent, but in the Laws has only a faded and secondary existence. In Plato it was chiefly an elective body, having apparently no judicial and little political power entrusted to it. At Athens it was the mainspring of the democracy; it had the decision of war or peace, of life and death; the acts of generals or statesmen were authorized or condemned by it; no office or person was above its control. Plato was far from allowing such a despotic power to exist in his model community, and therefore he minimizes the importance of the Assembly and narrows its functions. He probably never asked himself a question, which naturally occurs to the modern reader, where was to be the central authority in this new community, and by what supreme power would the differences of inferior powers be decided. At the same time he magnifies and brings into prominence the Nocturnal Council (which is in many respects a reflection of the Areopagus), but does not make it the governing body of the state.

Between the judicial system of the Laws and that of Athens there was very great similarity, and a difference almost equally great. Plato not unfrequently adopts the details when he rejects the principle. At Athens any citizen might be a judge and member of the great court of the Heliaea. This was ordinarily subdivided into a number of inferior courts, but an occasion is recorded on which the whole body, in number six thousand, met in a single court (Andoc. de Myst.). Plato significantly remarks that a few judges, if they are good, are better than a great number. He also, at least in capital cases, confines the plaintiff and defendant to a single speech each, instead of allowing two apiece, as was the common practice at Athens. On the other hand, in all private suits he gives two appeals, from the arbiters to the courts of the tribes, and from the courts of the tribes to the final or supreme court. There was nothing answering to this at Athens. The three courts were appointed in the following manner:—the arbiters were to be agreed upon by the parties to the cause; the judges of the tribes to be elected by lot; the highest tribunal to be chosen at the end of each year by the great officers of state out of their own number—they were to serve for a year, to undergo a scrutiny, and, unlike the Athenian judges, to vote openly. Plato does not dwell upon methods of procedure: these are the lesser matters which he leaves to the younger legislators. In cases of murder and some other capital offences, the cause was to be tried by a special tribunal, as was the custom at Athens: military offences, too, as at Athens, were decided by the soldiers. Public causes in the Laws, as sometimes at Athens, were voted upon by the whole people: because, as Plato remarks, they are all equally concerned in them. They were to be previously investigated by three of the principal magistrates. He believes also that in private suits all should take part; 'for he who has no share in the administration of justice is apt to imagine that he has no share in the state at all.' The wardens of the country, like the Forty at Athens, also exercised judicial power in small matters, as well as the wardens of the agora and city. The department of justice is better organized in Plato than in an ordinary Greek state, proceeding more by regular methods, and being more restricted to distinct duties.

The executive of Plato's Laws, like the Athenian, was different from that of a modern civilized state. The difference chiefly consists in this, that whereas among ourselves there are certain persons or classes of persons set apart for the execution of the duties of government, in ancient Greece, as in all other communities in the earlier stages of their development, they were not equally distinguished from the rest of the citizens. The machinery of government was never so well organized as in the best modern states. The judicial department was not so completely separated from the legislative, nor the executive from the judicial, nor the people at large from the professional soldier, lawyer, or priest. To Aristotle (Pol.) it was a question requiring serious consideration—Who should execute a sentence? There was probably no body of police to whom were entrusted the lives and properties of the citizens in any Hellenic state. Hence it might be reasonably expected that every man should be the watchman of every other, and in turn be watched by him. The ancients do not seem to have remembered the homely adage that, 'What is every man's business is no man's business,' or always to have thought of applying the principle of a division of labour to the administration of law and to government. Every Athenian was at some time or on some occasion in his life a magistrate, judge, advocate, soldier, sailor, policeman. He had not necessarily any private business; a good deal of his time was taken up with the duties of office and other public occupations. So, too, in Plato's Laws. A citizen was to interfere in a quarrel, if older than the combatants, or to defend the outraged party, if his junior. He was especially bound to come to the rescue of a parent who was ill-treated by his children. He was also required to prosecute the murderer of a kinsman. In certain cases he was allowed to arrest an offender. He might even use violence to an abusive person. Any citizen who was not less than thirty years of age at times exercised a magisterial authority, to be enforced even by blows. Both in the Magnesian state and at Athens many thousand persons must have shared in the highest duties of government, if a section only of the Council, consisting of thirty or of fifty persons, as in the Laws, or at Athens after the days of Cleisthenes, held office for a month, or for thirty-five days only. It was almost as if, in our own country, the Ministry or the Houses of Parliament were to change every month. The average ability of the Athenian and Magnesian councillors could not have been very high, considering there were so many of them. And yet they were entrusted with the performance of the most important executive duties. In these respects the constitution of the Laws resembles Athens far more than Sparta. All the citizens were to be, not merely soldiers, but politicians and administrators.

(ii) There are numerous minor particulars in which the Laws of Plato resemble those of Athens. These are less interesting than the preceding, but they show even more strikingly how closely in the composition of his work Plato has followed the laws and customs of his own country.

(1) Evidence. (a) At Athens a child was not allowed to give evidence (Telfy). Plato has a similar law: 'A child shall be allowed to give evidence only in cases of murder.' (b) At Athens an unwilling witness might be summoned; but he was not required to appear if he was ready to declare on oath that he knew nothing about the matter in question (Telfy). So in the Laws. (c) Athenian law enacted that when more than half the witnesses in a case had been convicted of perjury, there was to be a new trial (anadikos krisis—Telfy). There is a similar provision in the Laws. (d) False-witness was punished at Athens by atimia and a fine (Telfy). Plato is at once more lenient and more severe: 'If a man be twice convicted of false-witness, he shall not be required, and if thrice, he shall not be allowed to bear witness; and if he dare to witness after he has been convicted three times,...he shall be punished with death.'

(2) Murder. (a) Wilful murder was punished in Athenian law by death, perpetual exile, and confiscation of property (Telfy). Plato, too, has the alternative of death or exile, but he does not confiscate the murderer's property. (b) The Parricide was not allowed to escape by going into exile at Athens (Telfy), nor, apparently, in the Laws. (c) A homicide, if forgiven by his victim before death, received no punishment, either at Athens (Telfy), or in the Magnesian state. In both (Telfy) the contriver of a murder is punished as severely as the doer; and persons accused of the crime are forbidden to enter temples or the agora until they have been tried (Telfy). (d) At Athens slaves who killed their masters and were caught red-handed, were not to be put to death by the relations of the murdered man, but to be handed over to the magistrates (Telfy). So in the Laws, the slave who is guilty of wilful murder has a public execution: but if the murder is committed in anger, it is punished by the kinsmen of the victim.

(3) Involuntary homicide. (a) The guilty person, according to the Athenian law, had to go into exile, and might not return, until the family of the man slain were conciliated. Then he must be purified (Telfy). If he is caught before he has obtained forgiveness, he may be put to death. These enactments reappear in the Laws. (b) The curious provision of Plato, that a stranger who has been banished for involuntary homicide and is subsequently wrecked upon the coast, must 'take up his abode on the sea-shore, wetting his feet in the sea, and watching for an opportunity of sailing,' recalls the procedure of the Judicium Phreatteum at Athens, according to which an involuntary homicide, who, having gone into exile, is accused of a wilful murder, was tried at Phreatto for this offence in a boat by magistrates on the shore. (c) A still more singular law, occurring both in the Athenian and Magnesian code, enacts that a stone or other inanimate object which kills a man is to be tried, and cast over the border (Telfy).

(4) Justifiable or excusable homicide. Plato and Athenian law agree in making homicide justifiable or excusable in the following cases:—(1) at the games (Telfy); (2) in war (Telfy); (3) if the person slain was found doing violence to a free woman (Telfy); (4) if a doctor's patient dies; (5) in the case of a robber (Telfy); (6) in self-defence (Telfy).

(5) Impiety. Death or expulsion was the Athenian penalty for impiety (Telfy). In the Laws it is punished in various cases by imprisonment for five years, for life, and by death.

(6) Sacrilege. Robbery of temples at Athens was punished by death, refusal of burial in the land, and confiscation of property (Telfy). In the Laws the citizen who is guilty of such a crime is to 'perish ingloriously and be cast beyond the borders of the land,' but his property is not confiscated.

(7) Sorcery. The sorcerer at Athens was to be executed (Telfy): compare Laws, where it is enacted that the physician who poisons and the professional sorcerer shall be punished with death.

(8) Treason. Both at Athens and in the Laws the penalty for treason was death (Telfy), and refusal of burial in the country (Telfy).

(9) Sheltering exiles. 'If a man receives an exile, he shall be punished with death.' So, too, in Athenian law (Telfy.).

(10) Wounding. Athenian law compelled a man who had wounded another to go into exile; if he returned, he was to be put to death (Telfy). Plato only punishes the offence with death when children wound their parents or one another, or a slave wounds his master.

(11) Bribery. Death was the punishment for taking a bribe, both at Athens (Telfy) and in the Laws; but Athenian law offered an alternative—the payment of a fine of ten times the amount of the bribe.

(12) Theft. Plato, like Athenian law (Telfy), punishes the theft of public property by death; the theft of private property in both involves a fine of double the value of the stolen goods (Telfy).

(13) Suicide. He 'who slays him who of all men, as they say, is his own best friend,' is regarded in the same spirit by Plato and by Athenian law. Plato would have him 'buried ingloriously on the borders of the twelve portions of the land, in such places as are uncultivated and nameless,' and 'no column or inscription is to mark the place of his interment.' Athenian law enacted that the hand which did the deed should be separated from the body and be buried apart (Telfy).

(14) Injury. In cases of wilful injury, Athenian law compelled the guilty person to pay double the damage; in cases of involuntary injury, simple damages (Telfy). Plato enacts that if a man wounds another in passion, and the wound is curable, he shall pay double the damage, if incurable or disfiguring, fourfold damages. If, however, the wounding is accidental, he shall simply pay for the harm done.

(15) Treatment of parents. Athenian law allowed any one to indict another for neglect or illtreatment of parents (Telfy). So Plato bids bystanders assist a father who is assaulted by his son, and allows any one to give information against children who neglect their parents.

(16) Execution of sentences. Both Plato and Athenian law give to the winner of a suit power to seize the goods of the loser, if he does not pay within the appointed time (Telfy). At Athens the penalty was also doubled (Telfy); not so in Plato. Plato however punishes contempt of court by death, which at Athens seems only to have been visited with a further fine (Telfy).

(17) Property. (a) Both at Athens and in the Laws a man who has disputed property in his possession must give the name of the person from whom he received it (Telfy); and any one searching for lost property must enter a house naked (Telfy), or, as Plato says, 'naked, or wearing only a short tunic and without a girdle. (b) Athenian law, as well as Plato, did not allow a father to disinherit his son without good reason and the consent of impartial persons (Telfy). Neither grants to the eldest son any special claim on the paternal estate (Telfy). In the law of inheritance both prefer males to females (Telfy). (c) Plato and Athenian law enacted that a tree should be planted at a fair distance from a neighbour's property (Telfy), and that when a man could not get water, his neighbour must supply him (Telfy). Both at Athens and in Plato there is a law about bees, the former providing that a beehive must be set up at not less a distance than 300 feet from a neighbour's (Telfy), and the latter forbidding the decoying of bees.

(18) Orphans. A ward must proceed against a guardian whom he suspects of fraud within five years of the expiration of the guardianship. This provision is common to Plato and to Athenian law (Telfy). Further, the latter enacted that the nearest male relation should marry or provide a husband for an heiress (Telfy),—a point in which Plato follows it closely.

(19) Contracts. Plato's law that 'when a man makes an agreement which he does not fulfil, unless the agreement be of a nature which the law or a vote of the assembly does not allow, or which he has made under the influence of some unjust compulsion, or which he is prevented from fulfilling against his will by some unexpected chance,—the other party may go to law with him,' according to Pollux (quoted in Telfy's note) prevailed also at Athens.

(20) Trade regulations. (a) Lying was forbidden in the agora both by Plato and at Athens (Telfy). (b) Athenian law allowed an action of recovery against a man who sold an unsound slave as sound (Telfy). Plato's enactment is more explicit: he allows only an unskilled person (i.e. one who is not a trainer or physician) to take proceedings in such a case. (c) Plato diverges from Athenian practice in the disapproval of credit, and does not even allow the supply of goods on the deposit of a percentage of their value (Telfy). He enacts that 'when goods are exchanged by buying and selling, a man shall deliver them and receive the price of them at a fixed place in the agora, and have done with the matter,' and that 'he who gives credit must be satisfied whether he obtain his money or not, for in such exchanges he will not be protected by law. (d) Athenian law forbad an extortionate rate of interest (Telfy); Plato allows interest in one case only—if a contractor does not receive the price of his work within a year of the time agreed—and at the rate of 200 per cent. per annum for every drachma a monthly interest of an obol. (e) Both at Athens and in the Laws sales were to be registered (Telfy), as well as births (Telfy).

(21) Sumptuary laws. Extravagance at weddings (Telfy), and at funerals (Telfy) was forbidden at Athens and also in the Magnesian state.

There remains the subject of family life, which in Plato's Laws partakes both of an Athenian and Spartan character. Under this head may conveniently be included the condition of women and of slaves. To family life may be added citizenship.

As at Sparta, marriages are to be contracted for the good of the state; and they may be dissolved on the same ground, where there is a failure of issue,—the interest of the state requiring that every one of the 5040 lots should have an heir. Divorces are likewise permitted by Plato where there is an incompatibility of temper, as at Athens by mutual consent. The duty of having children is also enforced by a still higher motive, expressed by Plato in the noble words:—'A man should cling to immortality, and leave behind him children's children to be the servants of God in his place.' Again, as at Athens, the father is allowed to put away his undutiful son, but only with the consent of impartial persons (Telfy), and the only suit which may be brought by a son against a father is for imbecility. The class of elder and younger men and women are still to regard one another, as in the Republic, as standing in the relation of parents and children. This is a trait of Spartan character rather than of Athenian. A peculiar sanctity and tenderness was to be shown towards the aged; the parent or grandparent stricken with years was to be loved and worshipped like the image of a God, and was to be deemed far more able than any lifeless statue to bring good or ill to his descendants. Great care is to be taken of orphans: they are entrusted to the fifteen eldest Guardians of the Law, who are to be 'lawgivers and fathers to them not inferior to their natural fathers,' as at Athens they were entrusted to the Archons. Plato wishes to make the misfortune of orphanhood as little sad to them as possible.

Plato, seeing the disorder into which half the human race had fallen at Athens and Sparta, is minded to frame for them a new rule of life. He renounces his fanciful theory of communism, but still desires to place women as far as possible on an equality with men. They were to be trained in the use of arms, they are to live in public. Their time was partly taken up with gymnastic exercises; there could have been little family or private life among them. Their lot was to be neither like that of Spartan women, who were made hard and common by excessive practice of gymnastic and the want of all other education,—nor yet like that of Athenian women, who, at least among the upper classes, retired into a sort of oriental seclusion,—but something better than either. They were to be the perfect mothers of perfect children, yet not wholly taken up with the duties of motherhood, which were to be made easy to them as far as possible (compare Republic), but able to share in the perils of war and to be the companions of their husbands. Here, more than anywhere else, the spirit of the Laws reverts to the Republic. In speaking of them as the companions of their husbands we must remember that it is an Athenian and not a Spartan way of life which they are invited to share, a life of gaiety and brightness, not of austerity and abstinence, which often by a reaction degenerated into licence and grossness.

In Plato's age the subject of slavery greatly interested the minds of thoughtful men; and how best to manage this 'troublesome piece of goods' exercised his own mind a good deal. He admits that they have often been found better than brethren or sons in the hour of danger, and are capable of rendering important public services by informing against offenders—for this they are to be rewarded; and the master who puts a slave to death for the sake of concealing some crime which he has committed, is held guilty of murder. But they are not always treated with equal consideration. The punishments inflicted on them bear no proportion to their crimes. They are to be addressed only in the language of command. Their masters are not to jest with them, lest they should increase the hardship of their lot. Some privileges were granted to them by Athenian law of which there is no mention in Plato; they were allowed to purchase their freedom from their master, and if they despaired of being liberated by him they could demand to be sold, on the chance of falling into better hands. But there is no suggestion in the Laws that a slave who tried to escape should be branded with the words—kateche me, pheugo, or that evidence should be extracted from him by torture, that the whole household was to be executed if the master was murdered and the perpetrator remained undetected: all these were provisions of Athenian law. Plato is more consistent than either the Athenians or the Spartans; for at Sparta too the Helots were treated in a manner almost unintelligible to us. On the one hand, they had arms put into their hands, and served in the army, not only, as at Plataea, in attendance on their masters, but, after they had been manumitted, as a separate body of troops called Neodamodes: on the other hand, they were the victims of one of the greatest crimes recorded in Greek history (Thucyd.). The two great philosophers of Hellas sought to extricate themselves from this cruel condition of human life, but acquiesced in the necessity of it. A noble and pathetic sentiment of Plato, suggested by the thought of their misery, may be quoted in this place:—'The right treatment of slaves is to behave properly to them, and to do to them, if possible, even more justice than to those who are our equals; for he who naturally and genuinely reverences justice, and hates injustice, is discovered in his dealings with any class of men to whom he can easily be unjust. And he who in regard to the natures and actions of his slaves is undefiled by impiety and injustice, will best sow the seeds of virtue in them; and this may be truly said of every master, and tyrant, and of every other having authority in relation to his inferiors.'

All the citizens of the Magnesian state were free and equal; there was no distinction of rank among them, such as is believed to have prevailed at Sparta. Their number was a fixed one, corresponding to the 5040 lots. One of the results of this is the requirement that younger sons or those who have been disinherited shall go out to a colony. At Athens, where there was not the same religious feeling against increasing the size of the city, the number of citizens must have been liable to considerable fluctuations. Several classes of persons, who were not citizens by birth, were admitted to the privilege. Perpetual exiles from other countries, people who settled there to practise a trade (Telfy), any one who had shown distinguished valour in the cause of Athens, the Plataeans who escaped from the siege, metics and strangers who offered to serve in the army, the slaves who fought at Arginusae,—all these could or did become citizens. Even those who were only on one side of Athenian parentage were at more than one period accounted citizens. But at times there seems to have arisen a feeling against this promiscuous extension of the citizen body, an expression of which is to be found in the law of Pericles—monous Athenaious einai tous ek duoin Athenaion gegonotas (Plutarch, Pericles); and at no time did the adopted citizen enjoy the full rights of citizenship—e.g. he might not be elected archon or to the office of priest (Telfy), although this prohibition did not extend to his children, if born of a citizen wife. Plato never thinks of making the metic, much less the slave, a citizen. His treatment of the former class is at once more gentle and more severe than that which prevailed at Athens. He imposes upon them no tax but good behaviour, whereas at Athens they were required to pay twelve drachmae per annum, and to have a patron: on the other hand, he only allows them to reside in the Magnesian state on condition of following a trade; they were required to depart when their property exceeded that of the third class, and in any case after a residence of twenty years, unless they could show that they had conferred some great benefit on the state. This privileged position reflects that of the isoteleis at Athens, who were excused from the metoikion. It is Plato's greatest concession to the metic, as the bestowal of freedom is his greatest concession to the slave.

Lastly, there is a more general point of view under which the Laws of Plato may be considered,—the principles of Jurisprudence which are contained in them. These are not formally announced, but are scattered up and down, to be observed by the reflective reader for himself. Some of them are only the common principles which all courts of justice have gathered from experience; others are peculiar and characteristic. That judges should sit at fixed times and hear causes in a regular order, that evidence should be laid before them, that false witnesses should be disallowed, and corruption punished, that defendants should be heard before they are convicted,—these are the rules, not only of the Hellenic courts, but of courts of law in all ages and countries. But there are also points which are peculiar, and in which ancient jurisprudence differs considerably from modern; some of them are of great importance...It could not be said at Athens, nor was it ever contemplated by Plato, that all men, including metics and slaves, should be equal 'in the eye of the law.' There was some law for the slave, but not much; no adequate protection was given him against the cruelty of his master...It was a singular privilege granted, both by the Athenian and Magnesian law, to a murdered man, that he might, before he died, pardon his murderer, in which case no legal steps were afterwards to be taken against him. This law is the remnant of an age in which the punishment of offences against the person was the concern rather of the individual and his kinsmen than of the state...Plato's division of crimes into voluntary and involuntary and those done from passion, only partially agrees with the distinction which modern law has drawn between murder and manslaughter; his attempt to analyze them is confused by the Socratic paradox, that 'All vice is involuntary'...It is singular that both in the Laws and at Athens theft is commonly punished by a twofold restitution of the article stolen. The distinction between civil and criminal courts or suits was not yet recognized...Possession gives a right of property after a certain time...The religious aspect under which certain offences were regarded greatly interfered with a just and natural estimate of their guilt...As among ourselves, the intent to murder was distinguished by Plato from actual murder...We note that both in Plato and the laws of Athens, libel in the market-place and personality in the theatre were forbidden...Both in Plato and Athenian law, as in modern times, the accomplice of a crime is to be punished as well as the principal...Plato does not allow a witness in a cause to act as a judge of it...Oaths are not to be taken by the parties to a suit...Both at Athens and in Plato's Laws capital punishment for murder was not to be inflicted, if the offender was willing to go into exile...Respect for the dead, duty towards parents, are to be enforced by the law as well as by public opinion...Plato proclaims the noble sentiment that the object of all punishment is the improvement of the offender... Finally, he repeats twice over, as with the voice of a prophet, that the crimes of the fathers are not to be visited upon the children. In this respect he is nobly distinguished from the Oriental, and indeed from the spirit of Athenian law (compare Telfy,—dei kai autous kai tous ek touton atimous einai), as the Hebrew in the age of Ezekial is from the Jewish people of former ages.

Of all Plato's provisions the object is to bring the practice of the law more into harmony with reason and philosophy; to secure impartiality, and while acknowledging that every citizen has a right to share in the administration of justice, to counteract the tendency of the courts to become mere popular assemblies.


Thus we have arrived at the end of the writings of Plato, and at the last stage of philosophy which was really his. For in what followed, which we chiefly gather from the uncertain intimations of Aristotle, the spirit of the master no longer survived. The doctrine of Ideas passed into one of numbers; instead of advancing from the abstract to the concrete, the theories of Plato were taken out of their context, and either asserted or refuted with a provoking literalism; the Socratic or Platonic element in his teaching was absorbed into the Pythagorean or Megarian. His poetry was converted into mysticism; his unsubstantial visions were assailed secundum artem by the rules of logic. His political speculations lost their interest when the freedom of Hellas had passed away. Of all his writings the Laws were the furthest removed from the traditions of the Platonic school in the next generation. Both his political and his metaphysical philosophy are for the most part misinterpreted by Aristotle. The best of him—his love of truth, and his 'contemplation of all time and all existence,' was soonest lost; and some of his greatest thoughts have slept in the ear of mankind almost ever since they were first uttered.

We have followed him during his forty or fifty years of authorship, from the beginning when he first attempted to depict the teaching of Socrates in a dramatic form, down to the time at which the character of Socrates had disappeared, and we have the latest reflections of Plato's own mind upon Hellas and upon philosophy. He, who was 'the last of the poets,' in his book of Laws writes prose only; he has himself partly fallen under the rhetorical influences which in his earlier dialogues he was combating. The progress of his writings is also the history of his life; we have no other authentic life of him. They are the true self of the philosopher, stripped of the accidents of time and place. The great effort which he makes is, first, to realize abstractions, secondly, to connect them. In the attempt to realize them, he was carried into a transcendental region in which he isolated them from experience, and we pass out of the range of science into poetry or fiction. The fancies of mythology for a time cast a veil over the gulf which divides phenomena from onta (Meno, Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo). In his return to earth Plato meets with a difficulty which has long ceased to be a difficulty to us. He cannot understand how these obstinate, unmanageable ideas, residing alone in their heaven of abstraction, can be either combined with one another, or adapted to phenomena (Parmenides, Philebus, Sophist). That which is the most familiar process of our own minds, to him appeared to be the crowning achievement of the dialectical art. The difficulty which in his own generation threatened to be the destruction of philosophy, he has rendered unmeaning and ridiculous. For by his conquests in the world of mind our thoughts are widened, and he has furnished us with new dialectical instruments which are of greater compass and power. We have endeavoured to see him as he truly was, a great original genius struggling with unequal conditions of knowledge, not prepared with a system nor evolving in a series of dialogues ideas which he had long conceived, but contradictory, enquiring as he goes along, following the argument, first from one point of view and then from another, and therefore arriving at opposite conclusions, hovering around the light, and sometimes dazzled with excess of light, but always moving in the same element of ideal truth. We have seen him also in his decline, when the wings of his imagination have begun to droop, but his experience of life remains, and he turns away from the contemplation of the eternal to take a last sad look at human affairs.


And so having brought into the world 'noble children' (Phaedr.), he rests from the labours of authorship. More than two thousand two hundred years have passed away since he returned to the place of Apollo and the Muses. Yet the echo of his words continues to be heard among men, because of all philosophers he has the most melodious voice. He is the inspired prophet or teacher who can never die, the only one in whom the outward form adequately represents the fair soul within; in whom the thoughts of all who went before him are reflected and of all who come after him are partly anticipated. Other teachers of philosophy are dried up and withered,—after a few centuries they have become dust; but he is fresh and blooming, and is always begetting new ideas in the minds of men. They are one-sided and abstract; but he has many sides of wisdom. Nor is he always consistent with himself, because he is always moving onward, and knows that there are many more things in philosophy than can be expressed in words, and that truth is greater than consistency. He who approaches him in the most reverent spirit shall reap most of the fruit of his wisdom; he who reads him by the light of ancient commentators will have the least understanding of him.

We may see him with the eye of the mind in the groves of the Academy, or on the banks of the Ilissus, or in the streets of Athens, alone or walking with Socrates, full of those thoughts which have since become the common possession of mankind. Or we may compare him to a statue hid away in some temple of Zeus or Apollo, no longer existing on earth, a statue which has a look as of the God himself. Or we may once more imagine him following in another state of being the great company of heaven which he beheld of old in a vision (Phaedr.). So, 'partly trifling, but with a certain degree of seriousness' (Symp.), we linger around the memory of a world which has passed away (Phaedr.).

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