Revelation, Holy Law, and Reason’s Sway

Plato’s Laws is a neglected work. For this, there are many reasons. A large book, it cannot be read at a single sitting as an entertainment. It is also an exceedingly sober book—a dialogue between three elderly men, none of them exceedingly frisky. Two are Dorians, reared, respectively, in Knossos on Crete and at Sparta in the Peloponnesus with an eye to war in circumstances quite rigorous, and, as one would expect, neither is light of heart. Moreover, as one would also expect, this dialogue between old codgers lacks the drama that makes the Symposium, the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and The Republic so engaging. Moreover, the book lacks the focus on philosophy as such that draws those enamored of that subject to the Theaetetus, Sophist, and Politicus. Students of Greek history, law, and institutions would do well to study its articulation of the lineaments of a political regime, but not many of them bother.

All of this is understandable, and all of it is a great shame—for there is no better guide to classical republicanism, and there is arguably no better introduction to Plato’s political science. It is this book and not The Republic that deserves comparison with The Politics of Aristotle. It is this book that Montesquieu frequently consulted when he penned his Spirit of Laws. It is in this book that Plato’s heavenly city is brought down to earth.

Mark Lutz comes at The Laws from a peculiar angle. He is not a classicist. He is not a historian. He is not even, at least in the technical sense, a student of philosophy. He is a political scientist. Moreover, unlike most of the classicists, historians, philosophers, and political scientists who read Plato, Lutz is extremely sensitive to the subsequent history of The Laws—when it was taken up under Islam by Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroës, and by that great Jewish admirer of the Arab falasifā Maimonides, and treated, in a fashion that seems inexplicable to most interpreters today, as a work on prophecy. He is by no means inclined to dismiss the reading of the book articulated by these medieval philosophers as a bizarre incident in the history of its reception. He thinks, instead, that the medieval Arab and Jewish philosophers were on to something of great importance that we are highly likely to miss. What’s more, he thinks Plato’s Laws may be a better guide to the manner in which reason and revelation can to good effect interact (at least where revelation takes the form of law) than the various works dedicated to that subject by Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and the leading figures of the 18th century Enlightenment.

To persuade his readers that this is so, Lutz asks from them a concession that well-trained academics are far less likely to accord him than laymen would be. He asks that they entertain the possibility that Plato’s Laws is first and foremost a work of literature—a drama, to be precise: a dialogue that records a conversation. And, once this concession has been made, he asks for another: that the conversation be analyzed as a conversation.

To the layman, this might seem a matter of common sense. Who in his right mind would read a play by Sophocles and ignore the give-and-take between the various characters? Who would think it a methodological error to pay close attention to the fact that Antigone says one thing in public and something incompatible with that in her soliloquy?

When it comes to the study of Plato in the modern academy, however, such questions are generally ignored, if not ruled out of court. It is, in fact, common practice for interpreters to ignore the main figure’s interlocutors as well as the setting, the circumstances, and the drama and to treat Socrates or, in the case of The Laws, the Athenian Stranger simply as a spokesman for the work’s author. In effect, they edit out, insofar as they can, the likes of Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus and take what Socrates has to say to each of them in the presence of all as a set of dogmatic Platonic pronouncements. In most books on Plato’s Laws, Kleinias of Knossos and Megillus of Sparta are given very short shrift. In most books on Plato, the difference between the regime in speech that Socrates sketches for Glaucon and Adeimantus and that which the Athenian Stranger articulates for Kleinias and Megillus is taken as proof positive that Plato’s thinking has dramatically changed.

Mark Lutz concedes that it would be odd if Plato never changed his mind about anything. But he asks us to take into account another possibility—that the striking differences between these two regimes in speech have something to do with the character of the particular individuals addressed in the two dialogues.

Think of it this way. In both dialogues, we get a peek at a would-be instructor establishing his authority as a teacher in front of a prospective class. The prospective students in The Republic are wealthy, spirited, ambitious young men reared in free-wheeling Athens; those in The Laws are old men brought up under a strict regimen at Knossos and Sparta, one of whom has been asked to help draw up a law code for a colony about to be established on Crete. To get and keep the attention and respect of the first group, one would have to offer one set of enticements; to elicit and retain the attention and respect of the second group, one would have to offer an entirely different set of enticements.

If the regime sketched in The Laws is closer to being down-to-earth and practical than the one limned in The Republic, it might be because old fellows like Kleinias and Megillus would not have had any patience with the sort of intellectual fireworks needed to induce young bucks like Glaucon and Adeimantus to stay up all night arguing at a time when a sumptuous dinner and a horse race were supposed to be in the offing. To penetrate to the heart of the matter, to get at what Plato actually thought when he wrote each of these two dialogues, one would have to begin by asking where his chief interlocutor on each occasion was trying to lead the men he encountered and why. If one could show that Plato’s aim in one was incompatible with his aim in the other, one might be able to discern how his thinking had evolved.

Mark Lutz is by no means the first to have treated Plato’s Laws as a dramatic dialogue rather than as a treatise thinly disguised. Forty years ago, Leo Strauss published a book of this sort on the subject, as did Seth Benardete nearly 30 years thereafter. The commentary Thomas Pangle appended to his fine translation of The Laws deals with the work in the same fashion, as does Catherine Zuckert in the book-length chapter she devotes to The Laws in her magnum opus on Plato’s dialogues. Nor is Lutz the first to have read Plato’s dialogue in light of the commentary on it penned by Alfarabi and the remarks proffered by Avicenna and their successors. Strauss, Pangle, Benardete, and Zuckert took note of this as well.

What distinguishes Lutz’s analysis from that of these commentators is that he follows Alfarabi and Avicenna forthrightly in interpreting The Laws first and foremost as a study of the relationship between reason and prophecy, understood as the promulgation of a code of divinely revealed law. Put simply, he sees it as an account of the manner in which a man persuaded of the supremacy of reason can provide guidance of genuine use to those convinced, as Kleinias and Megillus are, of the supremacy of god-given law.

Needless to say, this would require a modicum of reticence on the part of the would-be guide, who would never be able to assert unequivocally the supremacy, much less the sufficiency, of unassisted reason or do what Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and their successors repeatedly did—which was to hint broadly or even say openly that there is no such thing as revelation and that what passes as such has no authority worthy of a reasonable man’s respect. In short, a rationalist modeled on the Athenian Stranger, if he wanted to be effective, would have to practice a species of humility and confine his observations to remarks consistent with the moral, political, and religious horizon of his interlocutors, and he would have to exploit the eagerness of those interlocutors to present holy law as something wholly admirable.

The trick is for the chief interlocutor to insinuate reason into the mix by inducing his companions to reinterpret divine law in light of the dictates of reason. This, as Lutz demonstrates, is precisely what the Athenian Stranger does over and over again. The premise, never baldly stated but ever present, that the Athenian without any great difficulty gets Kleinias and Megillus to accept is that neither Zeus nor Apollo nor, for that matter, any other god can ever have intended that anything disgraceful and irrational be required or encouraged by law. Guiding their creation of laws suitable to the new colony is the presumption that god-given law exists to instill in or elicit from the citizens virtue or human excellence as a whole.

Mark Lutz prefaces his book with a chapter on Plato’s Minos – a brief, aporetic dialogue between Socrates and an unnamed Athenian devoted to the question what is law, which ends with an enigmatic suggestion that divine law of the sort articulated by Minos for Crete and Lycurgus for Lacedaemon might somehow overcome law’s apparent inability to do justice to individual cases. In antiquity, as he points out, the Minos was regarded as a prelude to The Laws. The six chapters that follow take the form of an extended commentary on how the latter dialogue addresses the question left unanswered in its predecessor. In consequence of its character as a commentary, Lutz’s book requires considerable patience on the part of the reader. In my judgment, however, it repays with interest the price it demands—for it makes intelligible much that is strange in the dialogue.

In only one respect did I find Lutz’s slim volume disappointing. It left me wanting one thing more—an account of how Alfarabi and his successors thought the species of restrained rationalism exemplified by the Athenian Stranger could be redeployed as a guide to those within Islam who interpret the shari’a. A better understanding of their ideal of a more flexible and rational Muslim Holy Law, a Muslim Holy Law reoriented towards human excellence as a whole, would be useful. As events in the Middle East remind us every day, the theological-political problem is still very much with us. A review of the role played by fascism, communism, and progressivism in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries might even lead one to suppose that, in the West, that problem also persists—albeit in a guise unanticipated by those who once supposed that Enlightenment would set us forever free.