The Accounts of the Origin of Law in Plato's Laws
This dissertation presents the different accounts of the origin of law in Plato’s Laws and I seek to show how the question of the law’s origin relates to Plato’s political philosophy as a whole. For the early modern political philosophers, the concept of a pre-political “state of nature” plays a central role in their attempt to describe the sources and limits of legitimate political authority. The question of the origin and development of the city is given much less emphasis by the ancient philosophers and it is not clear how their opinions about this question relate to their understanding of politics. In Plato’s Laws, however, the question of whether law has a divine, natural, or conventional origin is at the center of the Athenian Stranger’s inquiry. I begin by arguing that the conventionalist view of law, religion, and morality as it is presented in Book X depends on a materialist natural science that the Athenian knows to be deficient. At the same time, the Athenian also knows that he does not possess demonstrative knowledge of the existence of providential gods. Because of his knowledge of his ignorance about these matters, he is compelled to consider the claim that certain laws have a divine origin. In order to evaluate these claims he turns the conversation toward the question of the purpose of law and shows that a divine law must be understood to perfect human beings by making them virtuous. I argue that the core of the Athenian’s confrontation with the claim that law has a divine origin is a dialectical inquiry into virtue and happiness. Although the Athenian does not carry out this inquiry in the conversation in the Laws itself, I argue that the results of such an inquiry are shown by his new beginning in Book III, which begins with the question of the origin of the regime. In Book III he breaks with the traditional claims about law’s divine origin and he offers his own account of the human origin of the city and its laws. Although the Athenian’s account is in some respects similar to that of the conventionalists, I argue that he departs from them in important respects due to his deeper understanding of the roots of our ignorance about the human good.