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Rehabilitating Legal Rule in Statesman and Laws

Joshua Blecher-Cohen

Harvard University

In Statesman, Plato offers a critique of regimes based solely on law in favor of wise kingships (St. 293 ff.). This assessment is supported by a number of complaints, summarized collectively under a single broad claim: law, absent the corrective discretion of a political expert, is too simple to govern the complexities inherent in human affairs (Lane 1998). In particular, the dialogue notes that legislation will always be general rather than tailored to individual needs (St. 294-95), whereas ruling experts are able to grant particular accommodations as circumstances require; in these cases, the authority of wise rulers supersedes the authority of the law. When such political expertise is not present, however, law-based rule remains deficient in part due to its generality.

This critique of legal authority in Statesman has rightly been recognized as having resonances for the legislative project outlined in Plato’s Laws (Irwin 2010; Nightingale 1999; Klosko 2008; Kraut 2010). However, an examination of law’s generality in the latter dialogue has escaped significant comment. This paper identifies a section of the Laws describing legally-imposed marriages for certain inheritances (Leg. 925 ff.) as explicitly taking up the issue of legal generality. While the arranged marriages are sound on the whole, particular pairings will pose undue burdens by requiring partnerships harmful for those involved (Leg. 926).

In its provision for a council to adjudicate individual requests to avoid such marriages, I argue that this passage provides a means of mitigating the problem of generality raised both in Laws and in Statesman. While those individuals for whom the general law is unduly burdensome will still initially be subject to its prescriptions, its arbitration provision will eventually excuse them on the basis of their particular situations. As the council is composed of citizens without political expertise (Leg. 926), this policy corrects for legal generality without requiring the presence of political experts able to override the law. This passage in the Laws thus offers a more optimistic assessment of rule by law than that advanced in Statesman, demonstrating its potential viability even when a political expert has not arisen or cannot be found.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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