The Laws (Greek: Νόμοι, Nómoi; Latin: De Legibus) is Plato's last and longest dialogue. The conversation depicted in the work's twelve books begins with the question of who is given the credit for establishing a civilization's laws. Its musings on the ethics of government and law have established it as a classic of political philosophy alongside Plato's more widely read Republic.
Scholars generally agree that Plato wrote this dialogue as an older man, having failed in his effort in Syracuse on the island of Sicily to guide a tyrant's rule, instead having been thrown in prison. These events are alluded to in the Seventh Letter. The text is noteworthy as Plato's only undisputed dialogue not to feature Socrates.
Unlike most of Plato's dialogues, Socrates does not appear in the Laws: the dialogue takes place on the island of Crete, and Socrates appears outside of Athens in Plato's writings only twice, in the Phaedrus, where he is just outside the city's walls, and in the Republic, where he goes down to the seaport Piraeus five miles outside of Athens. The conversation is instead led by an Athenian Stranger (in Greek, ξένος xenos) and two other old men, the ordinary Spartan citizen Megillos and the Cretan politician and lawgiver Clinias from Knossos.
The Athenian Stranger, who resembles Socrates but whose name is never mentioned, joins the other two on their religious pilgrimage from Knossos to the cave of Zeus. The entire dialogue takes place during this journey, which mimics the action of Minos: said by the Cretans to have made their ancient laws, Minos walked this path every nine years in order to receive instruction from Zeus on lawgiving. It is also said to be the longest day of the year, allowing for the densely packed twelve chapters.
By the end of the third book Clinias announces that he has in fact been given the responsibility of creating the laws for a new Cretan colony, and that he would like the Stranger's assistance. The rest of the dialogue proceeds with the three old men, walking towards the cave and making laws for this new city which is called the city of the Magnetes (or Magnesia).
The question asked at the beginning is not "What is law?" as one would expect. That is the question of the apocryphal Platonic dialogue Minos. The dialogue rather proceeds from the question of who it is that receives credit for creating laws.
The questions of the Laws are quite numerous, including:
Divine revelation, divine law and law-giving
The role of intelligence in law-giving
The relations of philosophy, religion, and politics
The role of music, exercise and dance in education
Natural law and natural right
The dialogue uses primarily the Athenian and Spartan (Lacedaemonian) law systems as background for pinpointing a choice of laws, which the speakers imagine as a more or less coherent set for the new city they are talking about.
Comparisons to Plato's other dialogues
The Laws is similar to and yet in opposition to the Republic. It is similar in that both dialogues concern the making of a city in speech. The city of the Laws is described as "second best", not because the city of the Republic is the best, but because it is the city of gods and their children. The city of the Laws differs in its allowance of private property and private families, and in the very existence of written laws, from the city of the Republic, with its property-system and community of wives for the guardians, and absence of written law. Also, whereas the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and several young men, the Laws is a discussion among old men, where children are not allowed and there is always a pretense of piety and ritualism.
Traditionally, the Minos is thought to be the preface, and the Epinomis the epilogue, to the Laws, but these are generally considered by scholars to be spurious.
Some centuries later Plutarch would also devote attention to the topic of Ancient Greek law systems, e.g. in his Life of Lycurgus. Lycurgus was the legendary law-giver of the Lacedaemonians. Plutarch compares Lycurgus and his Spartan laws to the law system Numa Pompilius introduced in Rome around 700 BC.
Both pseudo-Xenophon and Plutarch are stark admirers of the Spartan system, showing less reserve than Plato in expressing that admiration.
— (1859). Burges, George (ed.). The laws. The Works of Plato: A new and literal version chiefly from the text of Stallbaum / Bohn's Classical Library. Translated by Cary, Henry. London: Henry G. Bohn. (literal translation) Also available in audio.
^Cf. Plato, Laws. Book VIII, 848D. "And if there exist any local deities of the Magnetes or any shrines of ancient gods whose memory is still preserved, we shall pay to them the same worship as did the men of old. ...". A footnote in the Loeb Classical Library 1926 edition, translated by R.G. Bury, says: "The original inhabitants of the site of Clinias's new colony (cp. 702 B, 860 E); they subsequently migrated to Magnesia in Asia Minor".
^Hunter, Virginia, "Plato's Prisons", in Greece & Rome journal, v.55, n.2, October 2008, pp.193-201
^John M. Cooper in Plato, Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002.