Plato’s Views on Law

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Jeffrey Thayne

Last weekend, I posted notes from my philosophy of law class on this site. The post was quite lengthy, and I have decided to divide it into a series of shorter posts, which I will repost over time. Again, I am not arguing any particular point of view here; in this law series, I am only presenting various views of law. I would be interested to hear any thoughts our readers may have about the issue.

Rigidity of Law

Plato, in a detail of Raphael’s The School of Athens. Plato gestures upward, indicating his belief in abstract ideals and forms.

Plato consistently contrasted law and tyranny; more emphatically, claims Robin Letwin, than any other philosopher.1 What is tyranny? It is when a ruler “is at liberty to do what he pleases, to kill, to exile, to follow his own pleasure in every act.”1 Plato condemns this, and espouses instead what he calls the rule of law. Let’s consider: in the absence of any pre-established laws or norms for condemning or punishing behavior, we are left at the moment of an atrocity to decide what to do about it. At the moment of an atrocity, passions are inflamed, judgments are impaired, and any judge or legislator will be biased in making his or her decisions. In other words, there is an inherent randomness and arbitrariness to human decisions when they are made at the moment of crisis.

Law fixes the problem, because it, in essence, allows people to make rational decisions (unaffected by passion) prior to the moment of crisis. “It is because the law consists of rules that are framed when the wrongdoer and his victim are equally unknown that the law secures the stability of the city.”1 This is important, because this makes law stable and fixed; it isn’t created at the moment of crisis or in a moment of passion. They are prospective rules that provide a stabilizing affect on an otherwise arbitrary and random human nature.

Plato is also aware that the law, as general and inflexible, can never “deal satisfactorily with what is never uniform and constant [day to day circumstances].”1 Letwin explains:

Law is both static and general and consequently at odds with the changing particularities of the concrete world. That is why law is necessarily a second best alternative to the ideal, which is a ruler of perfect wisdom who can make the right decision for every particular question. If such a ruler were available, it would be as ridiculous to hamper him by legal codes as for a patient to prefer the instructions left by the doctor when he travels abroad to the doctor’s personal prescription on the spot. As such an all-wise ruler is not available in the real world, law is the best substitute for him. But its capacity for remedying disorder necessarily entails a degree of inappropriateness in its prescriptions because law is inseparable from rigidity. Any attempt to mitigate that rigidity, Plato insisted, must destroy the law.1

Thus, rigid generalities are not better than the specific judgments of a perfectly wise ruler; however, they are certainly better than the specific judgments of an unwise ruler. In the absence of a perfectly wise ruler (who can remain collected and rational at a moment of crisis or atrocity), it is dangerous to turn the reigns of government over to an unwise man without the principle of rule of law, for he may become a tyrant. Instead, it is best to rely on rigid generalities, in order to avoid this possibility. It is an imperfect but necessary way to avoid tyranny and yet maintain peaceful coexistence. It is necessary because law will be consistent and impersonal, while men’s judgment is affected by the particular biases of the moment.

Contractual Obligations

Why must we obey the law? Plato insists that we have an unqualified obligation to obey the law. Plato’s writings usually take the form of a dialogue between a character named Socrates and his associates. In Crito, Plato presents a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito. Crito pleads with Socrates to escape an unjust death sentence. Socrates calmly and collectedly explains to Crito why he ought not do so. What is his argument? Why shouldn’t Socrates have the right to escape Athens when he was innocent, yet unjustly accused and sentenced to death? Letwin explains,

Socrates’ argument clearly attaches law to an association made by subscription to rules governing it. And he emphasizes that this kind of association, the polis, is not imposed by nature but made by men. This implies, on the one hand, that men may renounce their membership in a polis by leaving it, as they cannot do by leaving their families or tribes.1

In other words, nature organizes us into families, which are natural organizations which we did not choose. Other organizations, such as clubs or businesses, for example, are associations made not by nature, but by people. A particular kind of association, called the polis, is an association that is associated with law; a nation would be an example of a polis, or a community that forms laws that regulate the affairs of its citizens. “The law shapes … an association constituted not by agreement to achieve any particular substantive purpose [such as a business or a club], but by subscription to a common set of rules.”1 Because a polis is defined by a collective agreement to abide by a set of rules, a polis will cease to be a polis if that agreement dissolves, or if the citizens disregard the rules.

While we cannot leave our families (or, if we did, they would still be our family), we could leave a polis and completely disavow allegiance to it. This implies that when we remain in a community or nation, we do so voluntarily. Voluntarily remaining in a polis, and partaking of the benefits provided by its laws, therefore implies consent to those laws. Thus, when Socrates was wrongfully accused, unjustly convicted, and sentenced to death, he still felt an obligation to obey the law and submit to the punishment. Letwin explains:

Although Socrates knows himself to be innocent of the crime for which he had been sentenced to die, when Crito urges him to attempt to escape, Sacrates replies that though his sentence was unjust, refusing to submit to it would constitute an even graver injustice. And he established his obligation by arguing that though he might at any time have left Athens, he had chosen not to do so. He had in all ways enjoyed the benefits of the kind of life that the laws of Athens secured of him and had even brought children into the world in Athens. In all these ways, he had tacitly accepted membership in the community and had thereby undertaken an obligation to obey its laws.1

Thus, by remaining in Athens and participating in the freedoms there, Socrates had tacitly agreed to obey the laws. To disobey them now would not only break this tacit agreement, he claimed that it would destroy Athens. Why?

A polis exists only insofar as its members observe its laws. Once its members cease to subscribe to the law, the polis ceases to exist. And that is why Socrates says that if he disobeyed the law, he would be unable to refute the charge that he would thereby be destroying Athens. … Although the polis is an association that its members may choose to leave, if they remain within the polis they must have no choice but to obey the laws that secure the life of the polis they are enjoying.1

In this way, Plato spells out something that resembles contract theory. Plato does not claim that law is perfect; only that it must be obeyed because of an implicit agreement to abide by it.

Plato’s Other Point of View

There are other passages in Plato that imply an entirely different view of law. This second understanding of law that we find in Plato is usually presented as Plato’s primary view. Noel Reynolds, however, believes that the first view, the one already presented here, represent Plato’s actual view. This second point of view, Reynolds suggests, may have been intended by Plato to be a kind of satire.

We often feel hunger, thirst, or other passions but do not always respond to them. If we did, we would be unpredictable and we would be drawn hither and thither with every change of emotion and passion. We subject them to reason; we channel them, using rational processes, to higher and nobler ends. Thus, according to Plato, man is a kind of rational creature; we have the changing uniquenesses of a physical body (such as emotion, sickness, aging, etc.), but we also have access to a higher, unchanging order through reason. There are passages in Plato’s writings that suggest that the law serves the same function in the community as reason does in the soul; it directs the individual wants and wishes of the polis to a higher and nobler end. For example, Socrates, in the Republic,

describes law as the rational element of the polis, with law performing the same function in the community as does reason in the soul. The wants of the individual members of the polis are analogues of the passions in the soul, and the law reduces the unruly and changing variety of individual wants to order by directing them in conformity with the rational principle that governs the universe and transforms it into an ordered cosmos.2

In order for law to do this, however, the “legislator must have a special sort of knowledge which transcends the human world. It is knowledge of something eternal, of the eternal form of justice, which he must endeavor to copy in framing laws.”1

This idea is commonly referred to as Plato’s philosopher king—the idea that the one who has privileged access to the Divine Reason would then encode that reason into laws for the rest of the community to follow (in the same way the mind, through reason, would perceive unchanging truths, and then gather and direct all the passions of the body towards that end). In this case, the polis is more than just

an association whose members are independent individuals bound together only by their observation of the same laws, but an association with a particular substantive object: the creation of a certain sort of person. In other words, the polis acquires the character of an educational enterprise designed to produce and impose an all-embracing discipline. The object of the laws is to teach virtue to the individuals who constitute the city. Rules of law are instrumental imperatives, a set of directions for how to behave. They direct behavior and distribute censure and praise in such a way as to ensure that all the members of the community will pursue the right satisfaction in the right order.1

Thus, the law represents a kind of normative order, that gets its moral authority from the weight of eternal reason. This is very different from the previous view of law as an imperfect social agreement that preserves the peace. Letwin explains:

In short, Plato gives us two distinct views of law. One, contained in the Crito [and some parts of the Statesman], suggests that the law is a set of non-instrumental, general, highly determinate and necessarily somewhat defective written rules, created by an association (a polis), purely for the sake of maintaining the association, and which (despite their defects) are to be obeyed by the members for the sake of peaceful coexistence. The second view, which appears most sharply in the Republic, the Gorgias, and parts of the Statesman, suggests on the contrary that laws are to be obeyed only because (and hence presumably only to the extent that) they are the products of and embody a human wisdom that is the nearest thing in the changing world to the unchanging verities of Reason.1


Dr. Reynolds believes that this second idea is an idea Plato presented as satire, which he presented in order to refute it. The first idea is much more representative of Plato. It is also what Hobbes drew out of Plato when Hobbes studied Plato’s ideas on law. Thus, Plato’s first view of law is the beginning of social contract theory. In the first point of view, Plato makes it clear that law is only a second best option when compared to having a perfectly wise leader. However, he says, such a leader is unavailable—that is, non-existent. So his suppositions about having a wise philosopher-king with privileged access to divine reason is hypothetical at best, and he certainly realized that it is impractical.

In this way begins centuries of debate about the nature of law: is law merely a social fact, invented by people to help compensate for human passion and weakness (Plato’s first point of view), or does it represent some form of eternal, normative ideal to be aspired to, to produce “a certain sort of person” (Plato’s satirical point of view)? In a sense, this same debate continues today in the conflict between legal positivism and natural law theory; is law merely a useful social invention that serves a particular human purpose, or are there eternal standards against which law may be measured and critiqued? In the first case, the only measure of law, really, is how well it serves the purposes people decide for it—that is, how satisfied people are with it, or how unsatisfied they are with it before they decide to change it. In the second case, we must decide what the standards are against which law may be measured, and how we can agree on those standards. This debate has its roots in Plato, and has filtered its way down to our present day.


1. Robin Letwin, On the History of the Idea of Law. (Cambridge University Press, 2005).


  1. This is actually quite helpful 🙂 GREATLY appreciated.

    And not just this post, the whole series. 😀


  2. Thanks for your comments! The series, unfortunately, is far from complete. I have 7 or 8 more posts in draft form for the series that have not been posted yet, which cover topics such as Hobbes, Hayek, Dworkin, and others. One of these days, I’ll polish them up and post them.

  3. Hi, this really helped me in understanding Plato’s mind for my Law assignment. I appreciate this website because it really gives deep information about him. Thank you!

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