Laws Book 3 - Plato

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BOOK III

Athenian Stranger. Enough of this. And what, then, is to be regarded 
as the origin of government? Will not a man be able to judge of it 
best from a point of view in which he may behold the progress of 
states and their transitions to good or evil? 
Cleinias. What do you mean? 
Ath. I mean that he might watch them from the point of view of time, 
and observe the changes which take place in them during infinite ages. 
Cle. How so? 
Ath. Why, do you think that you can reckon the time which has 
elapsed since cities first existed and men were citizens of them? 
Cle. Hardly. 
Ath. But are sure that it must be vast and incalculable? 
Cle. Certainly. 
Ath. And have not thousands and thousands of cities come into 
being during this period and as many perished? And has not each of 
them had every form of government many times over, now growing larger, 
now smaller, and again improving or declining? 
Cle. To be sure. 
Ath. Let us endeavour to ascertain the cause of these changes; for 
that will probably explain the first origin and development of forms 
of government. 
Cle. Very good. You shall endeavour to impart your thoughts to us, 
and we will make an effort to understand you. 
Ath. Do you believe that there is any truth in ancient traditions? 
Cle. What traditions? 
Ath. The traditions about the many destructions of mankind which 
have been occasioned by deluges and pestilences, and in many other 
ways, and of the survival of a remnant? 
Cle. Every one is disposed to believe them. 
Ath. Let us consider one of them, that which was caused by the 
famous deluge. 
Cle. What are we to observe about it? 
Ath. I mean to say that those who then escaped would only be hill 
shepherds-small sparks of the human race preserved on the tops of 
mountains. 
Cle. Clearly. 
Ath. Such survivors would necessarily be unacquainted with the 
arts and the various devices which are suggested to the dwellers in 
cities by interest or ambition, and with all the wrongs which they 
contrive against one another. 
Cle. Very true. 
Ath. Let us suppose, then, that the cities in the plain and on the 
sea-coast were utterly destroyed at that time. 
Cle. Very good. 
Ath. Would not all implements have then perished and every other 
excellent invention of political or any other sort of wisdom have 
utterly disappeared? 
Cle. Why, yes, my friend; and if things had always continued as they 
are at present ordered, how could any discovery have ever been made 
even in the least particular? For it is evident that the arts were 
unknown during ten thousand times ten thousand years. And no more than 
a thousand or two thousand years have elapsed since the discoveries of 
Daedalus, Orpheus and Palamedes-since Marsyas and Olympus invented 
music, and Amphion the lyre-not to speak of numberless other 
inventions which are but of yesterday. 
Ath. Have you forgotten, Cleinias, the name of a friend who is 
really of yesterday? 
Cle. I suppose that you mean Epimenides. 
Ath. The same, my friend; he does indeed far overleap the heads of 
all mankind by his invention; for he carried out in practice, as you 
declare, what of old Hesiod only preached. 
Cle. Yes, according to our tradition. 
Ath. After the great destruction, may we not suppose that the 
state of man was something of this sort:-In the beginning of things 
there was a fearful illimitable desert and a vast expanse of land; a 
herd or two of oxen would be the only survivors of the animal world; 
and there might be a few goats, these too hardly enough to maintain 
the shepherds who tended them? 
Cle. True. 
Ath. And of cities or governments or legislation, about which we are 
now talking, do you suppose that they could have any recollection at 
all? 
Cle. None whatever. 
Ath. And out of this state of things has there not sprung all that 
we now are and have: cities and governments, and arts and laws, and 
a great deal of vice and a great deal of virtue? 
Cle. What do you mean? 
Ath. Why, my good friend, how can we possibly suppose that those who 
knew nothing of all the good and evil of cities could have attained 
their full development, whether of virtue or of vice? 
Cle. I understand your meaning, and you are quite right. 
Ath. But, as time advanced and the race multiplied, the world came 
to be what the world is. 
Cle. Very true. 
Ath. Doubtless the change was not made all in a moment, but little 
by little, during a very long period of time. 
Cle. A highly probable supposition. 
Ath. At first, they would have a natural fear ringing in their 
ears which would prevent their descending from the heights into the 
plain. 
Cle. Of course. 
Ath. The fewness of the survivors at that time would have made 
them all the more desirous of seeing one another; but then the means 
of travelling either by land or sea had been almost entirely lost, 
as I may say, with the loss of the arts, and there was great 
difficulty in getting at one another; for iron and brass and all 
metals were jumbled together and had disappeared in the chaos; nor was 
there any possibility of extracting ore from them; and they had 
scarcely any means of felling timber. Even if you suppose that some 
implements might have been preserved in the mountains, they must 
quickly have worn out and vanished, and there would be no more of them 
until the art of metallurgy had again revived. 
Cle. There could not have been. 
Ath. In how many generations would this be attained? 
Cle. Clearly, not for many generations. 
Ath. During this period, and for some time afterwards, all the 
arts which require iron and brass and the like would disappear. 
Cle. Certainly. 
Ath. Faction and war would also have died out in those days, and for 
many reasons. 
Cle. How would that be? 
Ath. In the first place, the desolation of these primitive men would 
create in them a feeling of affection and good-will towards one 
another; and, secondly, they would have no occasion to quarrel about 
their subsistence, for they would have pasture in abundance, except 
just at first, and in some particular cases; and from their 
pasture-land they would obtain the greater part of their food in a 
primitive age, having plenty of milk and flesh; moreover they would 
procure other food by the chase, not to be despised either in quantity 
or quality. They would also have abundance of clothing, and bedding, 
and dwellings, and utensils either capable of standing on the fire 
or not; for the plastic and weaving arts do not require any use of 
iron: and God has given these two arts to man in order to provide 
him with all such things, that, when reduced to the last extremity, 
the human race may still grow and increase. Hence in those days 
mankind were not very poor; nor was poverty a cause of difference 
among them; and rich they could not have been, having neither gold nor 
silver:-such at that time was their condition. And the community which 
has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest 
principles; in it there is no insolence or injustice, nor, again, 
are there any contentions or envyings. And therefore they were good, 
and also because they were what is called simple-minded; and when they 
were told about good and evil, they in their simplicity believed 
what they heard to be very truth and practised it. No one had the 
wit to suspect another of a falsehood, as men do now; but what they 
heard about Gods and men they believed to be true, and lived 
accordingly; and therefore they were in all respects such as we have 
described them. 
Cle. That quite accords with my views, and with those of my friend 
here. 
Ath. Would not many generations living on in a simple manner, 
although ruder, perhaps, and more ignorant of the arts generally, 
and in particular of those of land or naval warfare, and likewise of 
other arts, termed in cities legal practices and party conflicts, 
and including all conceivable ways of hurting one another in word 
and deed;-although inferior to those who lived before the deluge, or 
to the men of our day in these respects, would they not, I say, be 
simpler and more manly, and also more temperate and altogether more 
just? The reason has been already explained. 
Cle. Very true. 
Ath. I should wish you to understand that what has preceded and what 
is about to follow, has been, and will be said, with the intention 
of explaining what need the men of that time had of laws, and who 
was their lawgiver. 
Cle. And thus far what you have said has been very well said. 
Ath. They could hardly have wanted lawgivers as yet; nothing of that 
sort was likely to have existed in their days, for they had no letters 
at this early period; they lived by habit and the customs of their 
ancestors, as they are called. 
Cle. Probably. 
Ath. But there was already existing a form of government which, if I 
am not mistaken, is generally termed a lordship, and this still 
remains in many places, both among Hellenes and barbarians, and is the 
government which is declared by Homer to have prevailed among the 
Cyclopes: 
They have neither councils nor judgments, but they dwell in hollow 
caves on the tops of high mountains, and every one gives law to his 
wife and children, and they do not busy themselves about one another. 
Cle. That seems to be a charming poet of yours; I have read some 
other verses of his, which are very clever; but I do not know much 
of him, for foreign poets are very little read among the Cretans. 
Megillus. But they are in Lacedaemon, and he appears to be the 
prince of them all; the manner of life, however, which he describes is 
not Spartan, but rather Ionian, and he seems quite to confirm what you 
are saying, when he traces up the ancient state of mankind by the help 
of tradition to barbarism. 
Ath. Yes, he does confirm it; and we may accept his witness to the 
fact that such forms of government sometimes arise. 
Cle. We may. 
Ath. And were not such states composed of men who had been dispersed 
in single habitations and families by the poverty which attended the 
devastations; and did not the eldest then rule among them, because 
with them government originated in the authority of a father and a 
mother, whom, like a flock of birds, they followed, forming one 
troop under the patriarchal rule and sovereignty of their parents, 
which of all sovereignties is the most just? 
Cle. Very true. 
Ath. After this they came together in greater numbers, and increased 
the size of their cities, and betook themselves to husbandry, first of 
all at the foot of the mountains, and made enclosures of loose walls 
and works of defence, in order to keep off wild beasts; thus 
creating a single large and common habitation. 
Cle. Yes; at least we may suppose so. 
Ath. There is another thing which would probably happen. 
Cle. What? 
Ath. When these larger habitations grew up out of the lesser 
original ones, each of the lesser ones would survive in the larger; 
every family would be under the rule of the eldest, and, owing to 
their separation from one another, would have peculiar customs in 
things divine and human, which they would have received from their 
several parents who had educated them; and these customs would incline 
them to order, when the parents had the element of order in their 
nature, and to courage, when they had the element of courage. And they 
would naturally stamp upon their children, and upon their children's 
children, their own likings; and, as we are saying, they would find 
their way into the larger society, having already their own peculiar 
laws. 
Cle. Certainly. 
Ath. And every man surely likes his own laws best, and the laws of 
others not so well. 
Cle. True. 
Ath. Then now we seem to have stumbled upon the beginnings of 
legislation. 
Cle. Exactly. 
Ath. The next step will be that these persons who have met together, 
will select some arbiters, who will review the laws of all of them, 
and will publicly present such as they approve to the chiefs who 
lead the tribes, and who are in a manner their kings, allowing them to 
choose those which they think best. These persons will themselves be 
called legislators, and will appoint the magistrates, framing some 
sort of aristocracy, or perhaps monarchy, out of the dynasties or 
lordships, and in this altered state of the government they will live. 
Cle. Yes, that would be the natural order of things. 
Ath. Then, now let us speak of a third form of government, in 
which all other forms and conditions of polities and cities concur. 
Cle. What is that? 
Ath. The form which in fact Homer indicates as following the second. 
This third form arose when, as he says, Dardanus founded Dardania: 
For not as yet had the holy Ilium been built on the plain to be a 
city of speaking men; but they were still dwelling at the foot of 
many-fountained Ida. 
For indeed, in these verses, and in what he said of the Cyclopes, he 
speaks the words of God and nature; for poets are a divine race and 
often in their strains, by the aid of the Muses and the Graces, they 
attain truth. 
Cle. Yes. 
Ath. Then now let us proceed with the rest of our tale, which will 
probably be found to illustrate in some degree our proposed 
design:-Shall we do so? 
Cle. By all means. 
Ath. Ilium was built, when they descended from the mountain, in a 
large and fair plain, on a sort of low hill, watered by many rivers 
descending from Ida. 
Cle. Such is the tradition. 
Ath. And we must suppose this event to have taken place many ages 
after the deluge? 
Ath. A marvellous forgetfulness of the former destruction would 
appear to have come over them, when they placed their town right under 
numerous streams flowing from the heights, trusting for their security 
to not very high hills, either. 
Cle. There must have been a long interval, clearly. 
Ath. And, as population increased, many other cities would begin 
to be inhabited. 
Cle. Doubtless. 
Ath. Those cities made war against Troy-by sea as well as land-for 
at that time men were ceasing to be afraid of the sea. 
Cle. Clearly. 
Ath. The Achaeans remained ten years, and overthrew Troy. 
Cle. True. 
Ath. And during the ten years in which the Achaeans were besieging 
Ilium, the homes of the besiegers were falling into an evil plight. 
Their youth revolted; and when the soldiers returned to their own 
cities and families, they did not receive them properly, and as they 
ought to have done, and numerous deaths, murders, exiles, were the 
consequence. The exiles came again, under a new name, no longer 
Achaeans, but Dorians-a name which they derived from Dorieus; for it 
was he who gathered them together. The rest of the story is told by 
you Lacedaemonians as part of the history of Sparta. 
Meg. To be sure. 
Ath. Thus, after digressing from the original subject of laws into 
music and drinking-bouts, the argument has, providentially, come 
back to the same point, and presents to us another handle. For we have 
reached the settlement of Lacedaemon; which, as you truly say, is in 
laws and in institutions the sister of Crete. And we are all the 
better for the digression, because we have gone through various 
governments and settlements, and have been present at the foundation 
of a first, second, and third state, succeeding one another in 
infinite time. And now there appears on the horizon a fourth state 
or nation which was once in process of settlement and has continued 
settled to this day. If, out of all this, we are able to discern 
what is well or ill settled, and what laws are the salvation and 
what are the destruction of cities, and what changes would make a 
state happy, O Megillus and Cleinias, we may now begin again, unless 
we have some fault to find with the previous discussion. 
Meg. If some God, Stranger, would promise us that our new enquiry 
about legislation would be as good and full as the present, I would go 
a great way to hear such another, and would think that a day as long 
as this-and we are now approaching the longest day of the year-was too 
short for the discussion. 
Ath. Then I suppose that we must consider this subject? 
Meg. Certainly. 
Ath. Let us place ourselves in thought at the moment when Lacedaemon 
and Argos and Messene and the rest of the Peloponnesus were all in 
complete subjection, Megillus, to your ancestors; for afterwards, as 
the legend informs us, they divided their army into three portions, 
and settled three cities, Argos, Messene, Lacedaemon. 
Meg. True. 
Ath. Temenus was the king of Argos, Cresphontes of Messene, 
Procles and Eurysthenes of Lacedaemon. 
Meg. Certainly. 
Ath. To these kings all the men of that day made oath that they 
would assist them, if any one subverted their kingdom. 
Meg. True. 
Ath. But can a kingship be destroyed, or was any other form of 
government ever destroyed, by any but the rulers themselves? No 
indeed, by Zeus. Have we already forgotten what was said a little 
while ago? 
Meg. No. 
Ath. And may we not now further confirm what was then mentioned? For 
we have come upon facts which have brought us back again to the same 
principle; so that, in resuming the discussion, we shall not be 
enquiring about an empty theory, but about events which actually 
happened. The case was as follows:-Three royal heroes made oath to 
three cities which were under a kingly government, and the cities to 
the kings, that both rulers and subjects should govern and be governed 
according to the laws which were common to all of them: the rulers 
promised that as time and the race went forward they would not make 
their rule more arbitrary; and the subjects said that, if the rulers 
observed these conditions, they would never subvert or permit others 
to subvert those kingdoms; the kings were to assist kings and 
peoples when injured, and the peoples were to assist peoples and kings 
in like manner. Is not this the fact? 
Meg. Yes. 
Ath. And the three states to whom these laws were given, whether 
their kings or any others were the authors of them, had therefore 
the greatest security for the maintenance of their constitutions? 
Meg. What security? 
Ath. That the other two states were always to come to the rescue 
against a rebellious third. 
Meg. True. 
Ath. Many persons say that legislators ought to impose such laws 
as the mass of the people will be ready to receive; but this is just 
as if one were to command gymnastic masters or physicians to treat 
or cure their pupils or patients in an agreeable manner. 
Meg. Exactly. 
Ath. Whereas the physician may often be too happy if he can 
restore health, and make the body whole, without any very great 
infliction of pain. 
Meg. Certainly. 
Ath. There was also another advantage possessed by the men of that 
day, which greatly lightened the task of passing laws. 
Meg. What advantage? 
Ath. The legislators of that day, when they equalized property, 
escaped the great accusation which generally arises in legislation, if 
a person attempts to disturb the possession of land, or to abolish 
debts, because he sees that without this reform there can never be any 
real equality. Now, in general, when the legislator attempts to make a 
new settlement of such matters, every one meets him with the cry, that 
"he is not to disturb vested interests"-declaring with imprecations 
that he is introducing agrarian laws and cancelling of debts, until 
a man is at his wits end; whereas no one could quarrel with the 
Dorians for distributing the land-there was nothing to hinder them; 
and as for debts, they had none which were considerable or of old 
standing. 
Meg. Very true. 
Ath. But then, my good friends, why did the settlement and 
legislation of their country turn out so badly? 
Meg. How do you mean; and why do you blame them? 
Ath. There were three kingdoms, and of these, two quickly 
corrupted their original constitution and laws, and the only one which 
remained was the Spartan. 
Meg. The question which you ask is not easily answered. 
Ath. And yet must be answered when we are enquiring about laws, this 
being our old man's sober game of play, whereby we beguile the way, as 
I was saying when we first set out on our journey. 
Meg. Certainly; and we must find out why this was. 
Ath. What laws are more worthy of our attention than those which 
have regulated such cities? or what settlements of states are 
greater or more famous? 
Meg. I know of none. 
Ath. Can we doubt that your ancestors intended these institutions 
not only for the protection of Peloponnesus, but of all the 
Hellenes. in case they were attacked by the barbarian? For the 
inhabitants of the region about Ilium, when they provoked by their 
insolence the Trojan war, relied upon the power of the Assyrians and 
the Empire of Ninus, which still existed and had a great prestige; the 
people of those days fearing the united Assyrian Empire just as we now 
fear the Great King. And the second capture of Troy was a serious 
offence against them, because Troy was a portion of the Assyrian 
Empire. To meet the danger the single army was distributed between 
three cities by the royal brothers, sons of Heracles-a fair device, as 
it seemed, and a far better arrangement than the expedition against 
Troy. For, firstly, the people of that day had, as they thought, in 
the Heraclidae better leaders than the Pelopidae; in the next place, 
they considered that their army was superior in valour to that which 
went against Troy; for, although the latter conquered the Trojans, 
they were themselves conquered by the Heraclidae-Achaeans by 
Dorians. May we not suppose that this was the intention with which the 
men of those days framed the constitutions of their states? 
Meg. Quite true. 
Ath. And would not men who had shared with one another many dangers, 
and were governed by a single race of royal brothers, and had taken 
the advice of oracles, and in particular of the Delphian Apollo, be 
likely to think that such states would be firmly and lastingly 
established? 
Meg. Of course they would. 
Ath. Yet these institutions, of which such great expectations were 
entertained, seem to have all rapidly vanished away; with the 
exception, as I was saying, of that small part of them which existed 
in yourland.And this third part has never to this day ceased warring 
against the two others; whereas, if the original idea had been carried

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