Persons of the Dialogue : An ATHENIAN STRANGER ; CLEINIAS, a Cretan ; MEGILLUS, a Lacedaemonian
The Laws are discussed by three representatives of Athens, Crete, and Sparta. The Athenian, as might be expected, is the protagonist or chief speaker, while the second place is assigned to the Cretan, who, as one of the leaders of a new colony, has a special interest in the conversation. At least four-fifths of the answers are put into his mouth. The Spartan is every inch a soldier, a man of few words himself, better at deeds than words. The Athenian talks to the two others, although they are his equals in age, in the style of a master discoursing to his scholars; he frequently praises himself; he entertains a very poor opinion of the understanding of his companions. Certainly the boastfulness and rudeness of the Laws is the reverse of the refined irony and courtesy which characterize the earlier dialogues. We are no longer in such good company as in the Phaedrus and Symposium. Manners are lost sight of in the earnestness of the speakers, and dogmatic assertions take the place of poetical fancies.
The three interlocutors all of them speak in the character of old men, which forms a pleasant bond of union between them. They have the feelings of old age about youth, about the state, about human things in general. Nothing in life seems to be of much importance to them; they are spectators rather than actors, and men in general appear to the Athenian speaker to be the playthings of the Gods and of circumstances. Still they have a fatherly care of the young, and are deeply impressed by sentiments of religion. They would give confidence to the aged by an increasing use of wine, which, as they get older, is to unloose their tongues and make them sing. The prospect of the existence of the soul after death is constantly present to them; though they can hardly be said to have the cheerful hope and resignation which animates Socrates in the Phaedo or Cephalus in the Republic. Plato appears to be expressing his own feelings in remarks of this sort. For at the time of writing the first book of the Laws he was at least seventy-four years of age, if we suppose him, at p. 638 A, to allude to the victory of the Syracusans under Dionysius the Younger over the Locrians, which occurred in the year 356. Such a sadness was the natural effect of declining years and failing powers, which make men ask, ‘After all, what profit is there in life?’ They feel that their work is beginning to be over, and are ready to say, ‘All the world is a stage’; or, in the actual words of Plato, ‘Let us play as good plays as we can,’ though ‘we must be sometimes serious, which is not agreeable, but necessary’ (vii. 803 B, C). These are feelings which have crossed the minds of reflective persons in all ages. And there is no reason to connect the Laws any more than other parts of Plato’s writings with the very uncertain narrative of his life, or to imagine that this melancholy tone is attributable to disappointment at having failed to convert a Sicilian tyrant into a philosopher.
The plan of the Laws is more irregular and has less connexion than any other of the writings of Plato. As Aristotle says in the Politics (ii. 6, § 4), ‘The greater part consists of laws’; in Books v, vi, xi, xii the dialogue almost entirely disappears. Large portions of them are rather the materials for a work than a finished composition which may rank with the other Platonic dialogues. To use his own image, ‘Some stones are regularly inserted in the building; others are lying on the ground ready for use’ (ix. 858 B). There is probably truth in the tradition that the Laws were not published until after the death of Plato. We can easily believe that he has left imperfections, which would have been removed if he had lived a few years longer. The arrangement might have been improved; the connexion of the argument might have been made plainer, and the sentences more accurately framed. Something also may be attributed to the feebleness of old age. Even a rough sketch of the Phaedrus or Symposium would have had a very different look. There is, however, an interest in possessing one writing of Plato which is in the process of creation.