The Legacy of Divine Law in Plato’s Laws

Drawing on contemporary scholarship in legal theory and adjudication, I show that Plato’s Laws stands up to these sources, being both enduring and modern in its interpretations. Moving from an understanding of the nature of divine intervention in the Laws, both from a political and a theological perspective, to a comparative analysis of thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, I show that Plato’s last work is as influential and important now than ever. Exploring specifically the relationship between Magnesia’s citizens and the gods, this paper allows for a deeper understanding of Plato’s intentional treatment of religion in his dialogue, Laws.

Introduction

The Laws, commonly thought to be Plato’s last work, and certainly his longest, is a monumental tackling of the problem of the organization of a practical republic, or state. Opposed to the Republic’s idealized utopia; Magnesia is the city outlined in the Laws. It can be thought of as the second best state behind Kallipolis of the Republic. In recent years there has been an increase in the scholarship dedicated to the Laws, most notably, Morrow (1960), Saunders (2004), and Moore (2012), among others. Many of these authors have put forth theses regarding Plato’s thoughts, writing, and motivations behind the political philosophy found in the works we are going to talk about. In much of the canon, the differences between an idealized utopia versus a practical polity as a governing ideology of Magnesia in the Laws is heavily debated. I want to draw our attention to an important caveat of the Laws’ actual text, and that is the system of divine ritual and practice upheld in the courts, in the preambles, and in the laws themselves.

The motivation for my exegesis of this work is that the Laws presents an important stepping stone between divine and human law. In particular, I am interested in the question: does divine law stand the test of time? This question lays the foundation for the analysis of Plato’s legislative structure. Beyond the questions of human virtue, vice, and justice, Plato must ensure, in the Laws, that his ideal regime is compatible with the gods. Ensuring that the people in Magnesia do not fall from grace, alignment with religion and ritual is key to the flourishing of the city. Without proper guidance from the gods, the laws; as in the Laws, or the philosopher-king; as in the Republic, cannot succeed. As argued in Fraistat (2015), the Laws should be understood as an extension of the political ideal presented in the Republic. Notably important here is that the difference between the Republic and the Laws rests in the reference to a kingly ruler (Republic) as opposed to inscribed teachings of philosophy (Laws), as guidance for the city. These teachings of philosophy, the laws, are ordained by the gods themselves. 

Indeed, the scene is set in the first sentence of the Laws in Book One when the Athenian Stranger asks “is it a god, my friends, who in your view should take the credit for your legal arrangements?” (Laws 624a). The pages to follow expand on the role of the gods in human affairs. Through worship, divine ritual, expressions of dance and the arts, as well as the questions of fate and free will, the gods’ choices and actions are expressed in human affairs (Laws 644d). Explicit in the first three books of the Laws is a discussion of the virtues and behavior required of citizens in the city (Laws 633c-d). Plato places limits on the consumption of wine, the enjoyment of pleasures, and the bearing of bodily pain (Laws 674b). Moreover, in the early books, Plato speaks about the education of citizens, especially children, who are to be guided towards correct reason as defined by law (Laws 659c-d). 

Moving past the discussion of vice and the excesses of the “mob of humanity” (Laws 734b), Plato begins to write about the ideal leadership of the city. Making analogies to weaving, medicine, and animal husbandry, Plato synthesizes a personality and disposition of the ideal lawgiver (Laws 734a- 736a). The Laws is roughly broken into two categories of teachings; the preambles, which give a basis for the laws to follow, and the laws themselves, which outline the rules all citizens must follow. The preambles given throughout the first three books aim to provide a starting point for ensuring the city’s stability, which will be legislated in Books Six through Twelve. The purpose of the preambles is for the education of the people, so that everyone in Magnesia can know and understand the duties that will be required of them. The preambles in Book Six deal with selection of officials, religious law and priesthood, protection of the city, and a complicated assembly of rural, urban, and market commissioners; before moving back into a discussion of girls’ education, sporting events, and the regulations on commerce and trade (Laws 754b-768e). Having completed a short summary of these preliminaries, we can now turn our attention to this paper’s claim about the actual laws that govern Magnesia. 

The written laws cover everything from what we now call civil law and criminal law, as well as constitutional law and the Laws’ own version of international law. Importantly, these laws set out directives in a world where divine intervention is not only expected, but welcomed in almost every case. Laws is a dialogue, a conversation between an unnamed Athenian stranger, Cleinias of Crete, and Megillus of Sparta. In the dialogue, Plato outlines the role of the divine in lawmaking by putting forth three unique contributions: First, in the past, judgement was attributed to the gods, as in the case of Rhadamanthys (Laws 948c), but no longer (it is now, and should be in the realm of humans), second, that the laws should require belief in the gods (Laws 885b), and finally, that the gods both exist, and care about the affairs of humans (Laws 885b, Republic 365d-366a). In Section II I will review the history of Plato’s thought, especially as it pertains to the Republic as an earlier form of his idea of the ideal city and its governance. In Section III I will draw a connection to modern international law in American Judicial courts, reflecting on what obligations modern states should require of their people. In Section IV I deepen the analogy to modern laws to include religious arbitration, interpreted from the standpoint of the Laws.  The last point, in Section V, will delve into the enduring legacy of the main ideas of the Laws, specifically as they relate to politics and theology.  

Section II

The Laws contains legislation for a wide range of people who live in its ideal city. Like its predecessor, the Republic, the Laws outlines a city planned deliberately and in accordance with philosophical justice and divine rule (Republic 355c, 590c-d, Laws 643e). From the beginning of the Republic, Plato allows for disagreements among his interlocutors regarding the ideal of justice. The Laws has no such debate. Instead, it is taken as a given that the city the discussants are building will be governed according to historical precedent. This change allows for more flexibility and debate among the participants, and is guided by an understanding of the laws of other cities, such as Athens, for example. This key difference is exemplified by the governance style outlined in the Laws. The Laws’ style of governance is one that is written, as opposed to the Republic’s style which is dictated. 

In the Republic, Plato is keen on keeping the virtues of the kingly ruler center stage. Often referring to prominent men as godlike (Republic 331e), the interlocutors in the Republic are heavily concerned with the approval of their rulers by the gods. Not only do rulers live a life of gods, they also participate in ritual, receiving advice, judgement, and must accept the whim of the gods. Specifically in this argument, those who are unjust garner the wrath of the gods, while those who are just are thought to have a character which is more godlike (Republic 366c). In the Republic, the words for kings and gods are often interchangeable, like for example in the passage 597e. In the Laws this also occurs, notably in 904a, drawing the storyline of the Republic to continuity in one of the later books of the Laws. While the Laws does not focus nearly as much on the character and traits of the kingly ruler, it still contains references to this earlier form of Plato’s thought. 

The selection of judges for courts set up to rule on all kinds of law in Magnesia is of great importance. This is a theme we will return to in later sections of the paper. In some cases, the judiciary will be made up of the guardians of the law, equivalent to lawgivers or statesmen, as in the case of the death penalty. In other cases, judges will be selected by other means. In Book Twelve of the Laws Plato outlines appellate courts, rights of plaintiffs, and the selection of judges for these courts (Laws 956b-e). Rule in these courts is not delegated to the gods and humans have final interpretation of the laws given in the text. The ideal quality of human judges is outlined in Book Six, including a comparison between the quality of judges and the quality of the courts (Laws 766d-767c). The argument moves towards correct selection of judges, which is an important aspect of creating courts that can judge cases that arise from those who break the laws of Magnesia. 

This shift from a godlike kingly ruler in the Republic to careful selection of human judges and laws laid down by humans in the Laws is the key point of my argument in Section II. Other later dialogues, such as Statesman, attribute power to a kingly ruler like the Republic does, and the Laws seems to take a striking divergence from this. In the Laws there is some description of the types of constitutions, but Plato rarely mentions anything other than monarchy and democracy. Much of this discussion is contained in Book Three of the Laws where Plato describes how almost every form of rule is a generalization of monarchy and democracy (Laws 693d). Allow me to draw your attention outside of the primary platonic sources to a (very) recent piece of writing. Various authors have debated the types of constitution that Plato recommends in the Laws, ranging from monarchy to democracy, as we just discussed, and they ultimately arrive at the conclusion that Plato advocates for some form of mixed constitution.

Specifically, in his article The Mixed Constitution in Plato’s Laws; Jeremy Reid analyses Book Three of the Laws (Reid, 2021). He describes how the analyses of the cities of Persia and Athens in Book Three is a weighty investigation that has consequences for the understanding of the evolution of Plato’s thought. The balance between democracy and monarchy is exemplified by ‘unchecked freedom’ on the part of citizens of Athens, which leads to excessive democracy (Reid, 2021). Monarchy on the other hand is characterized by Reid as excessive slavery. The Persians took monarchy to the extreme:

“That by taking away the freedom of the common people too completely, and by placing undue emphasis on the authoritarian element, they destroyed the principle of friendship and cooperation in the state. Once that had been lost, the policy of the rulers no longer has the good of the subjects and the common people in view. Their own rule becomes an end in itself; and they lay waste to cities, lay waste to friendly nations and destroy them with fire, at the merest hint, in any particular situation of some advantage to themselves” (Laws 697c-d).

This passage outlines the importance of good and rational governance. It also hints at a social creed which Plato has been developing and which culminates with the intersection of various plot lines in the Laws at 967d-968a. The idea of rule by kingly philosophers, from the Republic, remains important in the Laws. Yet among citizens, an air of equality is present in the Laws which is not present in the Republic. Many of the political offices in Magnesia are open to all citizens, regardless of wealth (Reid, 2021). Furthermore the Laws advocates for a judicial system which is above all, fair. So long as its citizens behave piously, believe in and worship the gods, and do not break any laws, they will be rewarded by the lawgivers. 

Drawing this section on the Republic and the characteristics of a good ruler to a close, I want to point out that these are exclusively human mandates provided by the Athenian to Cleinias and Megillus in order for them to be able to set out the ideal city. While the city is ordained by the gods and always should be kept in the good graces of the gods, the gods do not rule over it (Laws 948b-e). In fact a precedent is set by the gods at the beginning of Book Twelve that: “None of the sons of Zeus has ever delighted in deception or violence, nor engaged in either of these activities” (Laws 941b). Although specific, this quote is an innovation at the very end of the Laws, placed at the beginning of a chapter which outlines the most general recommendations for the Cretan city. In this case, the gods set an example or precedent for humans, but remain aloof when the time for judgement comes. In the next section we continue our more contemporary analysis with a close look at American domestic courts. 

Section III

Beyond the citizens of Magnesia, the Laws has separate clauses for both slaves and foreigners (Laws 854d). Moreover, the laws inscribe how courts in Magnesia should treat different crimes committed by different people, whether they are citizens or others, and to what standards those people are to be held. Primarily, the laws adjudicate between individuals, and individuals and the state, however, the state in the Laws is not the stanchion of foreign policy and projection of influence that we commonly think of when we look at the modern nation-state. There is little mention in the Laws of international disputes aside from war (Laws 955c). In this section I draw on the article International Law in American Courts: A Modest Proposal by Lea Brilmayer (Brilmayer, 1991). In her article, Brilmayer questions the proper place of international law in American state and national courts. As we will see, Brilmayer argues that international disputes between a state and an individual are appropriate for judicial resolution because they closely resemble domestic disputes of the same nature; that is between a state and an individual (Brilmayer 1991). What this means for the Laws is the premise of my argument in this section. 

Explicit in the body of the Laws are the actual teachings which will govern Magnesia. The courts, whose job it is to enforce these laws also play a prominent role (Laws 928c, 932c, 938b, 943b). In most cases in the Laws, the courts are the assessors of the penalties or damages that a person will have to pay if they have wronged another individual, the state, or the gods. International law is restricted to legislature on foreigners, their criminal affairs, and to domestic issues regarding war, peace, and the military (Laws 955c). I argue here that respect and worship of the gods in Magnesia takes the place of any worry about international disputes and war. In other words, Plato, in writing the Laws, was preoccupied with legislature and preambles concerning the gods, then to worry seriously about the actions of other states. 

There are a myriad of objections to this, but let us consider two in turn: 1) Plato explicitly lays down laws regarding foreigners, he clearly cares about foreign people living within the Cretan city. And 2) Plato analyses the constitutions of both Persia and Athens in Book Three, both of which can be considered international, both in the city-state sense. However, for 1); in his laws regarding foreigners, Plato does not worry about the origin of the foreigner, only that they are not a citizen. In Book Twelve, Plato divides the foreigner into four categories, and decrees where their proper place is to be in being welcomed to the city (Laws 952d-953e). And for 2); the preambles comprising of constitutional comparison in Book Three focus on the history of ancient Greece in the context of other nation-states but the focus is not on statesmanship or diplomacy, but on whether monarchy or democracy should be pursued.

Instead of an opposition between the international and the individual in a court of law, as in Brilmayer’s contemporary work, the focus is between the individual and the gods in the Laws (Laws 716a-718c, in particular 718b1-2). In this sense, the theological ramifications of the Laws are seemingly greater than those of the Republic. Most overtly, against atheism, Book Ten is crucial in laying out laws which enshrine worship and rituals into the lives of the citizens of Magnesia. Here we find a critical passage setting out the main idea of Plato’s theology:

“Nobody who believes the gods exist, as the laws require, has ever intentionally performed an impious action or breathed a word contrary to law. No, people do these things in one of three frames of mind: either lacking the belief I mentioned; or second believing that there are gods, but that they care nothing for human beings; or third, that they are easily won over by inducements in the form of sacrifice and prayer” (Laws 885b).

This preamble sets in stone the key difference between Plato’s laws, and the more modern judicial system we see today in Brilmayer’s work. What I mean to say is that, you can cast all of Plato’s laws and ideas aside, and still find equivalents in contemporary legislature, but requiring belief in the gods is the image we need to affix ourselves with if we are to understand Plato’s work in a modern context. 

Brilmayer’s paper is important to our argument, because, as we will see in the next section; scripture and belief play important, non-negligible, roles in the adjudication of present-day cases. Brilmayer distinguishes between horizontal (state-to-state) and vertical (individual-to-state) legislation and adjudication. I have drawn a parallel between these concepts in Brilmayer’s paper, and the concepts of human-human interactions and human-god interactions in the Laws. These interactions and the judicial regulations surrounding them are a centerpiece to the Laws, and its philosophy of divine law. A different kind of arbitration relevant to our discussion is religious arbitration. In what follows is a deeper look into the comparison between American secular and religious adjudication, and the Laws’ own edicts on the subject. 

Section IV

Plato anticipates in the Laws a number of arguments which are widely studied in regards to divine law. In fact, one might say that divine law plays an outsize role in the Laws, specifically, more so than the Republic, and certainly more than other of Plato’s works such as the Statesman. But what are the reasons for divine law, and what expectations do the gods have for the citizens of Magnesia? The answer can come, in part, from Mark Lutz in Divine Law and Political Philosophy in Plato’s Laws. Lutz says: “the gods are worshipped to win their favor and to win victories over enemies,” suggesting that the gods exist to serve and intervene in human affairs (Lutz, 2012, p. 108.). 

The Laws’ claims to religion are clearly extensive. But let’s look for a moment at one of the actual laws put forth in the text. Up until now we have focused on preambles and the background that Plato spends much of the first half of the book on. The following law is an important part of the Laws’ religious code. It occurs at 907d-908a in the Laws: 

If someone behaves impiously, in word or deed, anyone who encounters him shall rally round; they shall report it to the magistrates, and the first of the magistrates to be informed shall bring the offender, in accordance with the laws, before the court designated for hearing these cases. Any magistrate who fails to do this, after hearing the report, shall himself be liable to a charge of impiety at the hands of anyone prepared to vindicate the laws. For anyone found guilty, the court shall impose a separate penalty for each act of impiety. This shall be imprisonment in all cases” (Laws 907d-908a).

Emblematic of the Laws enforcement of worship, ritual, prayer, and piety, this passage is one of many in the Laws which holds normal citizens accountable for their actions in conjunction with the gods. Besides the gods’ intervention in human affairs, humans have specific, necessary obligations to the gods which are inscribed in law. 

In a recent edition of the Yale Law Journal there is an article entitled The Reverse-Entanglement Principle: Why Religious Arbitration of Federal Rights Is Unconstitutional (Chua-Rubenfeld and Costa, 2019). In this work, the authors describe the Rules for Procedure of Christian Conciliation in the United States. In particular, one of the rules states as follows: “Conciliators shall take into consideration any state, federal, or local laws that the parties bring to their attention, but the Holy Scriptures (the Bible) shall be the supreme authority governing every aspect of the conciliation process” (Chua-Rubenfeld and Costa, 2019). Not entirely reminiscent of Plato’s era of enforced worship and prayer, Chua-Rubenfeld and Costa’s paper takes a different note in explaining how “rely[ing] on biblical scripture to define [one’s] rights” is unconstitutional due to separation of church and state (Chua-Rubenfeld and Costa, 2019).

This does not apply in the Laws. The breadth of the applicability of religion to the laws of Magnesia is one of the more important aspects of the Laws: It is the gods’ concern that there should be no killing in the Laws’ cities (Laws 871c), the gods would never recommend a neglect of an individual’s parents (Laws 930e), and judgements from the gods are “straightforward and swift” (Laws 949b). On almost every part of the legislation in the Laws, the gods have an opinion, judgement, or precedent which needs to be taken into account by the people of the city. Today, we simply cannot say that this is the norm. In the odd case, yes. But even to consult God, as in the consultation of the Bible in arbitration above, is clearly taken as unfair in the majority of cases, and those courts which do uphold the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation are clearly outliers (Chua-Rubenfeld and Costa, 2019).

What Plato would say to this is clear; that the gods can and should be consulted on matters of law, and that laws upholding this preeminent status of the gods are valid in the court of Magnesian law. Preambles proving the existence of the gods are common in the Laws. In particular, Plato cites the enduring existence of the human soul, and the movement of the stars and other stellar bodies which can only exist due to the will of the gods (Laws 966d-e). In the two thousand years since Plato’s work, we can see a dramatic change in the adjudication of religious rights, civil rights, and divine law and power. While in Plato’s time it would have been accepted, required even, that consultations of the gods play a major role in trials, today we have very different ideas about the role of God, scripture, and religious beliefs in our courts of law. Requirements of piety, belief, and worship by the state have long since fallen out of fashion, and Plato would undoubtedly be shocked by secularized legislature which does not rely in any way on gods or God.

Section V

Modernizing Plato’s eternal work seems difficult if not impossible at this point. The stark differences between the way that the courts of Athens and Magnesia would have worked and the way that present day American courts operate are clearly numerous. But Plato’s Laws sits at the outset of a long continuum of works, some of which are devoted exclusively to divine law, and all of which play a role in understanding the relevance of religion to government. Taking a step back from our heavily modernized discussion of the endurance of the Laws to modern times, let’s look for a moment at two separate passages from authors who held divine law to be exquisite in its history and applicability to politics. 

Aquinas advocated for punishment of heretics by excommunication from the church and death. Importantly, the heretics would be separated from the mainstream of the church and punished (Aquinas, 1988, p. 63-64). Plato has a lesser sentence than Aquinas, favoring imprisonment over death. In the excerpt above, we see that Plato extends the punishment of impiety to magistrates who become aware of impious acts and do not report them (Laws 907d-908a). While Plato does not make any explicit assumptions about the individual who commits impious acts, it is clear that he views the act as intentional, and even more evident, he views the magistrate who covers up the ill deed as equal in his wrongdoing. Both Aquinas and Plato see heresy or impiety as a “threat to the social order and a criminal offense” (Aquinas, 1988, n. 9, p. 64). 

In Book X of Augustine’s City of God, Augustine captures the motivations behind Plato’s ideas about divine law and worship of the gods. Augustine writes:

“Now we selected the Platonists as being deservedly the best known of all philosophers, because they have been able to realize that the soul of man, though immortal and rational (or intellectual), cannot attain happiness except by participation in the light of God, the creator of the soul and of the whole world. They also assert that no one can attain this life of blessedness, the object of all mankind’s desire, unless he has adhered, with the purity of chaste love, to that unique and supreme good, which is the changeless God” (City of God, Bk. X, Ch. 1).

Drawing several lines of dialogue in this paper to a close, this excerpt shows the enduring legacy of Plato’s theology of divine law in his major works such as the Laws. Later in the same chapter of Book X, Augustine asks: “what kind of observances of religion and devotion are we to believe that they wish to see in us?” (City of God, Bk. X, Ch. 1).  Augustine defers all judgements, ritual, and flattery to the gods, as proscribed in the Laws. What we have seen here, and in the historical legislative analysis above; is nothing short of wavering and yet enduring divine law which comes from the ancient greeks and permeates our world to this day. 

References

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Ed., Trans. Paul E. Sigmund. On Politics and Ethics. W. W. Norton & Co. 1988.

Augustine. Trans. Henry Betttenson. City of God. Penguin Books. 2003.

Brilmayer, Lea. International Law in American Courts: A Modest Proposal. Yale Law Journal. Vol. 100. No. 8. Jun 1991. https://www.jstor.org/stable/796894.

Chua-Rubenfeld, Sophia, and Frank J. Costa, Jr. The Reverse-Entanglement Principle: Why Religious Arbitration of Federal Rights Is Unconstitutional. Yale Law Journal. Vol. 128, No. 7. May 2019. 

Lutz, Mark. Divine Law and Political Philosophy in Plato’s “Laws.” Cornell University Press. 2012. 

Moore, Kenneth. Plato, Politics, and a Practical Utopia. New York: Continuum. 2012.

Morrow, Glen. Plato’s Cretan City: A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Princeton University Press. 1960.

Plato. Laws. Ed. Malcolm Schofield. Trans. Tom Griffith. Cambridge University Press. 2016. 

Reid, Jeremy. The Mixed Constitution in Plato’s Laws. Australasian Journal of Philosophy. Vol. 99. No. 1. Pp. 1-18. 2021.

Saunders, Trevor. Plato’s Laws. New York: Penguin Books. 2004.

Schofield, Malcolm. “Introduction.” In: Plato’s Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2016.

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