Laws: Plato’s Second Best State

Plato Laws

The Laws: The Second Best State

The Laws is Plato’s last work on political philosophy. He was still working on it at the time of his death. Plato authored the Republic as a young man of 40 years; and the Laws at 70. It is the work of an old man, disillusioned with the idealism of the theoretical best of the Republic. The Republic is the poetic fight of a young man into a futuristic space, the Ideal state, ruled by the commune dwelling, philosopher kings/queens.   But in his old days he realizes the infeasibility of the Ideal and reconciles to the second best state ruled by laws in the Laws. The Republic is the work of youthful idealism with the futuristic optimism of philosophic rule. But in his lifetime, neither did the philosophers become kings nor did the kings become philosophers. So instead of sticking to the rule of philosophers, he moved on to advocate the rule of the law. The dialogue, the Laws, reflects “a mood of tiredness and resignation”. (Klosko, 198)   In the Republic, the authority of the philosopher king is unlimited by laws or the consent of the governed. This principle, more or less, applies to the authority of the true statesman in the Statesman also. But in the Laws, “no person is exempt from the rule of the law”, as the power corrupts and the absolute power corrupts absolutely”. (Quoted in the Internet Encyclopaedia of philosophy, ttps:// Plato’s search for the desirable form of governance begins with the rule of the philosopher kings in the ideal state, passes through the rule of a true statesman with the mastery of the art of statesmanship and arrives at the rule of the law, under a mixed government.

Therefore he proposes the rule of the laws and places sovereignty in the legal code to be implemented by the combined methods of persuasion and compulsion. The citizens should be persuaded with the convincing reason to obey its commands, i.e. to abide by the laws, as it was in their own best interest. If the persuasion does not work, they should be compelled to follow with the fear of punishment associated with the laws. Plato’s second best state, as described in the Laws, is more democratic than the ideal state of the Republic. The governance is conducted by some sort of representatives. The dialogue, Laws, covers very many dimensions of social life, psychology to metaphysics. There is neither scope nor need to go into their details.  We will limit our concern to only the political dimensions of social life, i.e., the proposed state and its functioning. In Laws, Plato proposes a mixed constitution based on law.  And the law is “an embodiment or expression of reason and an object of knowledge”. (Stalley, 28)

The characters and the Setting

              In the Statesman, Socrates is a peripheral character; in the Laws, he totally disappears. The dialogue is set in the Greek island, Crete. The characters in the Laws are three elderly men from three different city states, Cleinias from Crete; Megillus from Sparta and an unnamed philosopher from Athens (Athenian Stranger), probably a stand-in for Plato himself (Klosko, 198). They discuss the law for a new Cretan colony, Magnesia in their day-long journey from Cnossos to the sacred cave of Zeus, the Cretan God of the law. They are tracing the path, Minos along with his father, would travel every nine years to seek Zeus’s advices for the laws. Minos was an ancient Cretan law giver. The Athenian Stranger is the protagonist, the chief spokesperson. One of the specific attributes of the Laws is the emphasis on a mixed constitution. Plato’s the second best state, i.e. the ideal city in the Laws is far more democratic than the ideal city in the Republic. For such a voluminous conversation it seems to be the longest day of the year. (The Project Gutenberg EBook of Laws, by Plato ( The companions start their conversation at dawn, and arrive at the conclusion in the late evening at the cave, which may be supposed to be the very cave at which Zeus gave his oracles to Minos. They discuss the laws for a new, imagined Cretan colony, Magnesia.  

              Throughout most of the work, the Athenian discourses without interruptions from the other two interlocutors. Disillusioned with the practicality of the idea of the philosopher kings, Plato recommends a rigorous system of education and control with the rule of the law to be implemented by persuasion and compulsion. Plato goes “so far as to advocate the death penalty for the citizens of his state, who fail to be persuaded.” There is neither scope nor the need of going into all the aspects of this voluminous work, we shall confine to the functioning of the state apparatuses and his desired end, which “is the virtue, both for the individual and the state.” Like in the Republic, in the laws too he draws “the analogy between the individual and the state.”  Like the Republic, in the Laws also the aim is to “insure that the reason controls the passion”. In the Republic, it is accomplished by the philosophic rule, in the Laws, by the force of the law, “which is the codification of reason”. (Klosko, 199) The laws once established cannot be easily altered.

An Overview

Like in the Statesman in the Laws too, Plato, overtly-covertly, brings in the myth of the long past age of Cronus in which the Gods controlled the universe. But in the exciting world, the mortal beings were to rule over their likes, so the rule of the law is preferred. The institution of communism is advisable in the ideal state of the Republic, ruled by the more-than human philosophers. In the ideal state of the Laws, his second best state, the institutions of the family and the property regulations become necessary (Book V). In the Republic, the philosopher kings are able to comprehend the public interest and pursue the policies to protect and preserve it. But in the case of ordinary mortals, the rule of law would be necessary to preserve the public interest. Unlike the ideal state of the Republic in which the Guardians live in the communes, in the ideal state of the Laws, all citizens live with their families and take part in the political and economic affairs under the rule of law, the supreme authority.

              The Education

Education gets such a prominent focus in the Republic that many centuries later; Rousseau finds it to be the best treatise on education ever written. Like in the Republic, in the Laws also the education acquires a central position. In the former it is meant to train the Guardians, in the latter it is meant to discipline and order the passion of the citizens. Though the ambit of the citizenship is the privileged, leisured class, who don’t work for their livelihood, the non-citizens do it for them, as they need leisure to perform their political and intellectual functions. It aims at inculcating in would-be citizens (children) the ideas of goodness or the virtue that they would require when they become adults. The good is a predicate that needs a subject, like a good teacher; a good craftsman; a good soldier; good statesman etc. Therefore, “education may be defined as a matter of training to the young to be good at whatever pursuit they will have to follow as adults.”(Stalley, 123)  The commissioner of the education is most important person. He is a prominent member of the Nocturnal Council entrusted with the overall supervision of the functioning of the state apparatuses, which Plato cleverly introduces at the end of the text.

“Plato recommends a comprehensive system of education, which he describes in elaborate details, and which is to embrace all aspects of citizens’ lives from before they are born until they die.” (Klosko, 202) In the ideal state of the Republic, the education is meant for the Guardian classes. Higher education is meant for the select few, in the Laws also. But early education is intended for all citizens. As he feels that the men are basically moved by passions of pleasure and pain, education, in his second best state of the Laws, focuses on these. He emphasizes the habituation and conditioning from childhood as the children can be “molded like wax”, a repetition of his argument from the Republic.  He emphasizes the vulnerability of the young children to the habituation; “because of the force of the habit, it is in infancy that the whole character is most effectually determined”. (Quoted in Klosko, 202) The primary target of education is to convince the child that the good life is also a happy one and that virtue and happiness are intimately related. In the Republic, the education begins at the time of the birth, in the Laws, it begins before the birth. In saying so, he anticipates Aristotle’s views on education of the children, aiming at habituating them to a particular way of thinking, since their conception in the mother’s womb. (Aristotle, Politics)

 Course curriculum of education in the Laws is similar to that of the primary education as in the Republic: the contiguous mobility up to the age of three years; games from three to six and training in various physical activities and gymnastics. Thereafter boys and girls are separated, though their education is very close to each other. From the age of ten the emphasis is on reading and writing skills and from sixteen to twenty training in military skills and arithmetic. (Klosko, 203) Throughout their childhood, the children must be closely watched and supervised. He views a child as a raw creature to be beaten to shape. In his view, “Of all wild things, the child is most unmanageable: an unusually powerful spring of reason, whose waters are not yet canalized in the right direction, makes him sharp and shy, the most unruly animal there is.” (Quoted in Klosko, 204-05) Children would sing the learned songs so regularly that songs become chants and get internalized by the singer.

              Like in the Republic, in the Laws also Plato underlines the importance of musical forms and the education “for the beauty and harmony of the correct moral standards” in the children. As in the Republic, in the Laws too Plato recommends careful and strict scrutiny and the censorship of the poets and artists. He recommends “philosophy to be the only permissible poetry”. (Klosko, 204)

              Like the Republic, in the Laws also, the education is to be state controlled. Plato underlines the theoretical aspect of education in the Republic, in the Laws; he underlines its organizational aspect. The schools are state controlled and the teachers, the salaried state employees. Decision over the course curriculum is the state prerogative. Apart from the formal education in state managed schools, Plato pays attention to parental care also. This moral training in one way or the other continues even after the children become adults. Attainment of virtue, which in the Laws is temperance, is a lifelong process. “Every gentleman must have a time table prescribing what he has to do every minute of his life, which he should follow all the times from the dawn of one day until the sun comes up at the dawn of the next ”. (Laws, 807-e, quoted in Klosko, 205). “Plato insists that people need little sleep, so his citizens will be allowed to sleep only as much as health requires.” (Klosko, 205). One of the objectives of education is to build a public opinion in accordance with the statute of the law.

The Virtue: temperance

Another objective of education is the inculcation of virtue in the future citizens. As men are moved by passion, therefore refraining from passions, i.e. temperance is the virtue. The virtue of temperance is acquired by the guidance of the passion “by the judgements of the reason as enshrined in the law”. (Stalley, 50) This implies that citizens should follow the laws; respect the state institutions and accept the sovereignty of the rule of the law. Plato opines that the unity, freedom and consensus in the state can be established by temperance.

The Social System

The prolonged conversation between the Athenian stranger with Cleinias from Crete and Megillus from Sparta is concerning suitable laws for an imagined, new founded, Cretan colony, Magnesia. It was such a long day that the daylong conversation, en-route to the cave of the Zeus from Knossos in Crete between three elderly people from three different states, fills up 12 long books (chapters) of the voluminous text. The discussion is about a constitution for newly founded Cretan colony Magnesia. It is located 10 miles from the sea so that commercial activities are not encouraged. It is inhabited by 5040 families. “This number is chosen because it is divisible by all the numbers between 1 and 12 except 11 and is therefore a very convenient number if one wants to divide the state into groups of different sizes for different purposes”. (Stalley, 100) Apart from mathematical calculation Plato seems to recommend the desirable size of the state not big enough to affect the mutual affinity among the citizens and their unity. This number remains constant. He is not very explicit about the population control devices to keep the population constant except “to persuade the citizens to maintain a suitable rate of reproduction.” (Stalley 100) Unlike the Republic, in which his state is a collection of individuals, living in communes, he Laws envisages the state to be a union of families.

Magnesia is, bay-and-large, an agricultural society with the modestly fertile land. If it is excessively fertile, there would be surplus production, which would need to be exported and will encourage trade. If it is infertile or less fertile, citizens would be forced to live by trade. The citizens in the ideal state of the Laws, i.ePlato’s second best state, are discouraged from indulging into trade and commerce. The trade and the commerce would be conducted by foreigners or foreign residents. Citizens’ function is limited to political, intellectual and military realms.  

Though Magnesia is a fictitious city (state) but Plato intelligently places his imagery into the historical context of the real world. The city has a particular geographical location and particular historical growth. “Plato’s historical survey is surely fanciful and largely fictitious, but what is striking and original about the Laws is that he makes use of the conclusions that his historical investigation casts upon.” (Klosko, 206) Many governmental and social features of the second best state, the ideal state of the Laws, are derived from the actual states. Plato’s fascination towards Sparta continues from the Republic to the Laws. In the Laws he gives up the idea of communism and allows family and property to the citizens. In it also, like in the Republic, Plato allows women the right to education and participation in political and military activities and may be allowed political rights of holding some subordinate public offices, after the age of 40. Also they can bear arms; ride and participate in the activities of the armed forces. The marital relations will get legal sanction, but would remain under the supervision of the state authorities. In Athens legally the women were under the guardianship of the father; husband and the son during various stages of their life. In the Magnesia of the Law, women’s conditions are improvisation over the existing one. In particular circumstances women are allowed to marry the man of her choice.      

The Economic System

Plato envisages the division of the land of the state into plots of equal value. One plot is allotted to each of the 5040 inhabitant families of the state, which will be inalienable. He proposes allotment of two plots to each family, one nearer the city and the other in the countryside. The task of agricultural production will be based on slave labor. (Stalley, 102; 106-09; 110-11, 120). The produce is divided into three parts: one for consumption of the citizens in the common kitchen, one for slaves and one for the sale to foreign residents. “Plato believes that commerce exacerbates tensions within societies, leading to polarization and civil war.(Klosko, 208-09)

In the Laws, the citizens have the right to property but with a ceiling. A strict record is maintained of the holdings. The property cannot exceed four times the value of their land. The property in excess of the legally sanctioned limit would be confiscated by the state. “Wealth and poverty will be tightly controlled”. (Klosko, 209) The state is divided into four economic classes. The members of the lowest class just own their land and the basic tools and implements needed to work it. The second class owns the property up to twice of the value of the land; the third the thrice of the value of the land and the members of the fourth, the highest class can own the property up to four times the value of their land. (Klosko, 209) In Plato’s second best state, the wealth and poverty of the citizens would be under the strict supervision of the state. The citizens of the state are discouraged from accumulation of wealth and possession of precious metals like silver and gold.

The citizens are expected to devote themselves to the duties of citizenship. They are forbidden from involvement in non-agricultural professions and trades. And agricultural production is based on slave labor. For the other consumption needs of the citizens, the state will arrange “the services of the resident aliens – metics[i] — will work as craftsmen and at other paid trades, including as school teachers. The metics will be enticed into the state by the guarantee of protection and freedom from taxation.” (Klosko, 209). The citizen of the ideal state of Plato’ Laws or his second best state resembles the citizens of Aristotle’s best practicable state, polity, the propertied, leisured class,  described in Politics. The citizens of the Magnesia depending on the agricultural production for their needs, though are not directly involved in the productive activities, but keep strict supervision over the production process carried by the slaves.

The Government   

Like the differentiation statesman in the Statesman from the existing systems of the governments — monarchy-tyranny; aristocracy-oligarchy and the democracy-democracy, the rule of the law in the Laws is also differentiated from these. It is a sort of mixed government combining the virtues of monarchy and democracy on the one hand and the oligarchy and democracy on the other, while discarding their vices. Plato’s critique of democracy is due its extreme form, as it existed in his contemporary Athens, with the absolute supremacy of people’s assembly. Plato considered extreme freedom as detrimental for the health of the state as the extreme power. But the government of Plato’s second best state, i.e., the ideal state of the Laws bears clear influences of Athenian democracy. In a way it is an improvisation over the existing Athenian democratic government. Like the Athenian democracy, “there is an assembly that all citizens who have borne arms are eligible to attend.” (Klosko, 213)  “Participation is required to elect rulers and fill offices, including the Guardians of the Laws, Generals, Cavalry Commanders, and the Council”. (Plato, The Laws, 753d-759d.  Quoted by, Steven Michels, “Democracy in Plato’s Laws” in Government, Politics and Global Studies, Sacred Heart University, winter 2004,, 518)

The Athenian assembly possessed overwhelmingly ubiquitous powers over all the substantial political, constitutional issues. The Magnesian assembly enjoyed fewer powers like electing the council and some officials and the issues concerning peace and war. It also has the right to approve the changes in law, which are very few. To enhance the participation the 360 members of the council elected by the assembly are divided in the committees, each of which sits in a portion of the year. There is also a popular court – actually assembly — which has jurisdictions in “cases involving crimes against the state.”  (Klosko, 213)  

The Administrative apparatuses

The governance of Magnesia, the proposed state in the Laws, has the elements of democracy, as all of its citizens are members of the assembly and entitled to participate in the political affairs. It has the oligarchical elements, as the criterion of the social division and differential electoral rights, is the possession of the wealth. It has the aristocratic elements in the sense that it proposes specific eminence of virtues and defines the law, as the manifestation of the reason. As the state,proposed in the Laws, is the second best state, second to the ideal state of the Republic and introduction of the nocturnal council are indications of his nostalgia of the rule of philosopher kings in the Republic. The organs of the state are: the popular assembly; the council; magistracy and the nocturnal council.  

The popular assembly

All the 5040 citizens including women are entitled to be the members of the assembly. All the citizens participate in the political affairs and are eligible to hold political offices. The assembly of the citizens is primarily concerned with the election of the state officials, i.e. the magistrates. The popular assembly is also entitled to hear the cases of the crimes against the state and the right to deliberate upon any changes in the law.

The Council

The next organ of the state is the  elected council which consists of 360 members, elected by the popular assembly on the oligarchical principle.The worth of the votes of the richer was higher than that of the poorer. It is presented as a sort of proportional representation. Each of the four economic classes, as mentioned above, are entitled to elect an equal number of representatives. This means that each of the four classes, irrespective of its relative size, is entitled to elect  one-fourth (90) of the total 360 members of the council. Obviously the lower classes would be more populous than the higher ones and supposedly the lowest class would be most populous and the highest the least. There is a provision of penalty for the higher classes for abstaining from the elections. but there is no such provision for the lower classes. This shows the importance of the votes of wealthier over the worth of the votes of the poorer.   He claims to unite the democratic principles of equality with the monarchical principles of virtue, which is determined by the possession of wealth, which is an element of oligarchy. To make his arguments convincing, Plato  underlines two  kinds of equality.  One is the equality of numbers, “the arithmetic equality” that treats everyone alike. “The second kind of equality apparently corresponds to Aristotle’s ‘geometric equality’. It consists in giving ‘due measure according to nature’, i.e more to greater and less to lesser.” (Stalley, 117) But the greater weightage of the votes of wealthier suggests that he considers a proportional relationship between the wealth and eminence in virtues. In the Laws, Plato combines both the forms of equality. This means the offices taxation and the distribution of the public revenue is to be assigned not only in accordance with the number or the virtue but also in accordance with the possession of the wealth. “The natural inference is that the use of the vote is supposed to contribute to true equality by assigning greater honor to those of greater worth.” (Stalley, 119)    

The council is entrusted with the appointment of the officials for the supervision of the markets; with judicial function in the cases related with anti-state activities. It acts as the advisory body for any changes in the laws and has power to extend the tenure of residence to the aliens.

The Magistracy

The magistracy in the new state described in the Laws is the backbone of the administration. The magistrates are elected by the popular assembly, as mentioned above. They are responsible for implementing the laws. There are 37 magistrates, elected in three stages. The candidates must fulfill the prescribed age criteria with the lower limit at 50 years and the upper at 70. In the Republic too the lower age limit of the philosopher king/queen is 50 years after the completion of their education. All the citizens are eligible to participate in the elections. The election is held in three stages. 300 candidates are elected in the first stage;  100 out of them in the second and 37 out of them in the third.  Their function is inspection and supervision of the public affairs of the state. The magistrates are the guardians of the law.

The Nocturnal Council

Plato, nostalgically introduces a replica of the philosopher king in the form of the nocturnal council, which holds its meetings in the night and which is entitled to supervise and guide the over all affairs of the state. It consists of 10 senior magistrates out of the 37; the director of education and some priests selected on the basis of their virtues and expertise. This council is above and beyond the law and has the right to guide and direct all the legal institutions. He considers the members of this council as knowledgeable and hence capable of comprehending the public interest. By introducing the nocturnal council, Plato reiterates his view that the law is the object of rational knowledge and is manifestation of reason.“The function of this curious body is to act as the reason of the state by discerning the aims of legislation and means of achieving them”. (Stalley, 7)

By introducing the nocturnal council in the end of he work, Plato seems to persist with his formulation of the superiority of knowledge and its desirability for the art of governance. The members of this council are supposed to be experts and are required to to be involved with the programs of the philosophical studies to update and upgrade their expertise.  The visits abroad by the qualified individuals to observe and learn about them. On their return, they report to the nocturnal council, which uses this information so that the laws of the state may be improved.  The nocturnal council “must fix its gaze on the single subject, to which all institutions of state should be directed namely virtue”. (Stalley, 37) As the aim of the state is to inculcate virtue, the council must develop the ability to comprehend the nature of the virtue and the relations between its fore components, namely wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. (Klosko, 234) To acquire such abilities they must undergo a rigorous programme of higher studies.There seems to be a similarity between the philosophical studies aimed at inculcation of virtues, prescribed for the members of the nocturnal council in the Laws and for the the philosopher- guardian in the Republic.They must know gods and the basics of theological principles.  Re-education of atheists is also the responsibility of elderly, wise men of this council. It is to be noted that atheism is considered such a big danger for society that the death penalty is prescribed for its persistent practice.  

The gravity of the importance of the council can be understood by his concluding pronouncement at the end of the description of the council, once this divine council comes into existence, “the state must be entrusted to it.” (Quoted in Klosko, 235) Earnest Barker has rightly interpreted it as a revamped philosopher  king. (Barker, 406-10) “In the light of these similarities, it seems at least possible that the nocturnal council is meant to play a role in the state  similar to that of the Guardians in the Republic.”  (Klosko, 235) Plato does not provide the clear mechanism of selection of the members of this council except that  they are elevated to the membership of this body “by virtue of holding other offices to which they are elected. The younger members of the council are selected by the older, but again, there is no means provided to make sure they have philosophical ability.” (Kolosko, 237) They do undergo the programs of higher studies but after they are already in the council.

   Political principles of the government

1.   The mixed constitution

Plato envisages a mixed constitution for the new state, the central concern of the Laws, as it differentiates it from the existing constitutions. It seeks “to combine different kinds of political principles within the same governmental structures.” (Stalley, 116) While explaining the complexities of the election to the council on the basis of the economically qualified franchise, the Athenian, in the Laws, remarks, “The election made in this way will be a mean between a monarchic and a democratic constitution – and the constitution should always be between the midway of these”. (Quoted in Stalley, 216) In the Laws, he seeks to do this through a specifically designed electoral process. As we shall see, the weightage of the representation is determined by the property so it is effectively the midway between oligarchy and democracy, instead of between monarchy and democracy, unless he does not consider the possession of wealth equivalent to monarchical virtues. He is opposed to the tyranny of arbitrary power of an individual ruler as well as the mob tyranny. For this Plato devices the systems of the separation of powers and check and balances. Powers are separated with numerous institutions checking others under the overall supervision of the nocturnal council.

He institutes, in the Laws, the democratic principles of popular authority but tempers it “in important ways,especially by assigning many of the most important functions to magistrates.” (Klosko, 221) The magistrates are not given arbitrary powers and are bound by many constitutional restraints. In the mixed constitution, three institutions are underlined as state’s political units – The popular assembly; the council and the magistrates.        

2. The supremacy of the Law

              The philosopher king’s rights are unbound by any law or tradition in the Republic, but in the Laws, the rule of the law is supreme. Though Plato does not dither from his trust in the superiority of the rule of philosopher king but for practical reasons proposes the rule law as he second best option.  The rule of the law applies equally to the ruler and the ruled. “The subjugation is bad for the rulers; the ruled; their children and the future generation”. (Quoted in BK Jha, 186). In the Laws, Plato prefers the rule of law over the rule of men, as not everyone has the ability to comprehend the public interest and those who have this ability, may be swayed away by the self-interest. He views the laws as the manifestation of the reason. “The judgments of the reason, when embodied in a decree of the city, become law”. (Quoted in Stalley, 28) The laws are made by the lawgivers, who don’t implement them. For the implementation of the laws, there is state machinery.

To emphasize the supremacy of the law, Plato says that the state should be in accordance with the constitution and not the other way round.  The government is the agent of the law, neither its master nor the slave. Government acts in accordance with the law, which apply to all alike. Every official in the proposed state would be subject to some kind of judicial control. This doctrine seems to anticipate Montesquieu’s theory of separation of powers. “But Plato does not distinguish judicial and executive power. Most of the officials in the second best state would possess both. Instead the constitution is so arranged that each body of officials is responsible to some other organ of the state. Thus no one should be able to get away with an illegality.” (Stalley, 81) It envisages a detailed legal code drawn up by a legislator or a legislative commission to ensure the protection and maintenance of the public interest. The laws thus laid down are subject to interpretation by the officials but without fiddling with the basic structure of the foundational framework of the legal code. This sounds like the sovereignty of the constitution in modern constitutional democracies. In the modern constitutional states, the constitutional amendments cannot alter the basic structure of the constitution ensured by the provisions of the judicial review.      

 “The Laws presents a despairing conception of human nature” (Klosko, 200). People are carried away with the mundane pleasure and pain. Therefore he entrusted the state with the role of the management of rigorous education in the second best state. “Law is a public calculation of pleasures and pains in the state. It must ensure that individuals derive proper pleasure and pain from the performance of virtuous and non-virtuous actions.” Klosko, 201)

              In the Laws Plato gives up the hope of virtuous rule of the philosopher, capable of comprehending the Idea of Good, because in the existing society, “a man is carried away by enjoyment or distracted by pain, in his immoderate haste to grasp the one or to escape the other he can neither see nor hear aright, he is in a frenzy and his capacity for reasoning is then at its lowest.” (Quoted in Klosko, 201). When the men are not driven by reason but by passion, then such an educational system is instituted by law that inculcates order, harmony and direction in the passions. In Laws he opines that “when men investigate legislation, they investigate almost exclusively pleasures and pains as they affect society and the character of the individual.” (Quoted in Klosko, 201-2) Like in the Republic, in the Laws too, he holds justice as the source of happiness. In the former it is the philosophic rule that insures justice; in the latter he assigns this task to the rule of law. By maneuvering pleasures and pains, he states that the just life is viewed by the citizens as pleasurable. And this is done by a carefully designed educational system, as discussed above.  

        3. The Nocturnal Council

As discussed in the previous section, by introducing the nocturnal council concerned with legislation and overall supervision of the functioning state, in the end of the Laws, Plato creates a replica of the philosopher kings/queens of the Republic. The nocturnal council, consisting of senior guardians of law (the magistrates); teachers and priests acts as a governmental organ also and has been discussed in the previous section. “Plato says that the  laws cannot be ‘safeguarded’ unless some members of the state grab them intellectually as well as by habit.” (Klosky, 234)

 Crime and punishment

In the Laws, Plato propounded a reformatory theory of punishment, which is not meant to harass or harm the criminal to reform him by making him into a good human or to minimize his criminal mentality. One of the objectives of education is to create a mind set against criminal acts.  

  • Capital punishment

The death penalty is prescribed for the serious offenders whose living in the society is considered to be fatal for it, particularly the offenses against the state.. “Capital punishment is prescribed for a wide range of offenses including deliberate murder;; wounding parents, brother or sister with intent to kill; theft of public property;harboring exiles;waging private war; taking bribes and obstructing the judgements of the court.” (Stalley, 137)

  • Monetary punishment

        The monetary punishment is prescribed for a variety of acts, for example, not marrying at the prescribed age in the law. In such cases the amount of the penalty varies according to the economic status of the offender. The richer pay more penalty than the poorer.”For offenses, which involve damage to the interest of, or injury to, another person the general principle is that those convicted should pay compensation plus an additional sum by way of punishment.”(Stalley, 138) While imposing penalty on an accused the care is taken “that no one is fined so heavily that he can not afford to keep the equipment necessary for running the farms and that no one is to be subjected to complete confiscation of property.” (Stalley, 138)

  • Imprisonment

        Imprisonment is stipulated for the citizens who engage in retail trade; for those who strike someone more than 20 years elder to them or for those who obstruct the functioning of the courts by trying to prevent litigants or the witnesses from attending a court. It is also prescribed as an alternative punishment to those who are unable or unwilling to pay the monetary penalty.

  • Corporal punishment

Corporal punishment for offenses like physical assault of parents. Corporal punishment is rarely awarded to the citizens but is widely used against the slaves and foreigners. The citizens are given corporal punishment for assaulting parents. “In a few cases, he would allow third parties to beat offenders with immunity.” (Stalley, 139)  


In book X, Plato has dealt with religion in detail. Like education, the religion is also state controlled. The citizens are not allowed to celebrate religious  festivals, individually. The religious festivals are conducted at public religious places, under the strict  supervision of the authorized priests. In his opinion, he religious values are intimately linked with the portal practice. The form and the character of the religion should be defined and determined by the state. The state has the authority to punish people for irreligiosity. As has been mentioned above, he has prescribed severe punishment for atheism and death penalty for its persistent practice.


The ideal state of the Republic is the theoretical best and that of the Laws is based on practical considerations of the existing conditions in Greece. The state in Aristotle’s Politics seems to be quite influenced by the principles of the Laws.  Despite Plato’s nostalgia with the ideal state of the Republic reflected in the superiority of reason through introduction of the nocturnal council in the end of the text, the Laws takes into consideration the practicability. The influence of the principles of the Laws is visible in Rousseau’s theory of the General will also.  

Ish Mishra is a retired professor of Delhi University

[i] Resident aliens in Greek cities, having some civic rights.

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