From Philosophy Archive
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?
Ath. But are sure that it must be vast and incalculable?
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
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
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
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
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?
Ath. And of cities or governments or legislation, about which we are
now talking, do you suppose that they could have any recollection at
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
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.
Ath. Faction and war would also have died out in those days, and for
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
Cle. That quite accords with my views, and with those of my friend
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.
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
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.
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
Ath. And every man surely likes his own laws best, and the laws of
others not so well.
Ath. Then now we seem to have stumbled upon the beginnings of
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
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
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.
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.
Ath. The Achaeans remained ten years, and overthrew Troy.
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?
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.
Ath. Temenus was the king of Argos, Cresphontes of Messene,
Procles and Eurysthenes of Lacedaemon.
Ath. To these kings all the men of that day made oath that they
would assist them, if any one subverted their kingdom.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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