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The political thought of the early Stoics has received much recent scholarly attention. Perhaps the aspect of their political thought for which they are best known is their concept of natural law. Indeed, many scholars follow Striker 1987 in crediting Zeno and Chrysippus with the first articulation of a full-blown theory of natural law. Scholars have been particularly eager to locate the antecedents of the Stoic concept of natural law and to identify the philosophical problems to which the theory responds. Some scholars have suggested that the Stoics were developing basic Socratic insights (Striker 1987, DeFilipo and Mitsis 1994); others have arguedthat the early Stoics articulated their particular conception of natural law in an attempt to improve upon Plato’s teaching in the Republic (Vander Waerdt 1994, Schofield 1999). While it is no doubt true that Plato’s Republic was an important target for the early Stoics, this paper argues that Plato’s Laws was the dialogue that more greatly contributed to the early Stoic account of natural law.

Though most scholarly attention has focused on the early Stoics’ engagement with Plato’s Republic, there is abundant evidence that Plato’s Laws also served as an important stimulant for early Stoic political thought. First, we know that Persaeus of Citium, Zeno’s close friend and disciple, wrote a seven-book critique of Plato’s Laws (D.L. 7.36). And in fact, a number of Zeno’s most prominent political arrangements contradict specific teachings in the Laws, including the Athenian Stranger’s provisions for law courts (766D), temples (778B-C), and currency for travel (742A-B) as well as his criticisms of homosexuality (636 AD). However, not all Stoic references to the Laws are negative. As Schofield 1999 suggests, the Stoic debate over drinking wine was likely provoked by the Laws. And most importantly, the Stoic understanding of law as “common law” (koinosnomos) or “right reason” (orthoslogos) echoes the Athenian Stranger’s conception of law (Plato, Laws 714A, 890D; cf. SVF 1.262, 3.314).

The Laws’ treatment of law actually responds to a problem shared with the Republic: How can the defender of natural justice respond to the conventionalist’s claim that justice is “the advantage of the stronger” (cf. Republic338C, Laws 714C)? The Athenian Stranger’s articulation of law as “right reason” and “by nature” (890D) in Book 10 attempts to meet this challenge by connecting law to nous, the primary force governing the cosmos (899D). How though does this argument establish the authority of laws of non-ideal cities like the second-best city of the Laws? Given his preceding argument, Plato can only establish the authority of non-ideal laws by equivocating on both “law” and “nature.” Plato uses “law” to refer to both ideal “right reason” and the laws of the second-best city. Likewise, these non-ideal laws can be understood as “in accordance with nature” only by shifting the meaning of “nature” from the rational nature of the cosmos to human nature, which in turn is characterized by irrationality as well as rationality.

I suggest that the particular form of natural law found in the early Stoics took its shape from the desire to remove the ambiguities in Plato’s Laws. The Stoics removed the ambiguity from “law” by arguing that all law is “right law,” the perfect reason of the sage. Ordinary laws of ordinary cities are not proper laws (SVF 3.325). Likewise, the Stoics conceived of “nature” strictly as that rational nature shared by the cosmos and sages (SVF 2.528). They do not also extend the designation ”nature” to include human nature as defined by Plato in the Laws as encompassing a mix of rational and irrational qualities. As a result of these efforts to render Plato more consistent, Zeno’s Republic required the communality of women and property, provisions shared with that best regime described in the Laws as “inhabited by gods and the children of gods” (739C-D).