Does Plato actually lean more towards democracy in the Laws? III.693d ff. suggest an upgrading of democracy's relative position from its low status in the Republic.

  • I made some edits which you may roll back or continue editing. Welcome. Commented Mar 23, 2019 at 22:55
  • Compare with the election of Strategoi in Ancient Athens. Why do you think it to be "more democratic" ? Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 14:36
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    @frustrated_dialectic. In Laws 756a and 756b, PLato makes a distinction between the different army ranks and how they'll be nominated and elected such as generals, rank commanders, tribe commanders, etc. The questions are Is such a distinction made due to a characteristic of, for instance, the auxiliary troops that is not present in another group like the cavalry? This question needs to be separated from that on democracy.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 10:59

1 Answer 1


Welcome to PSE, frustrated_dialectic!

Democracy in the Laws

There are shifts in favour of democracy in the Laws. Or rather, Plato's disfavour of democracy is markedly lessened from the anti-democratic polemics of the Republic. A useful article here is Thomas M. Robinson, 'Plato the Democrat? Some Thoughts on the Politics of the "Laws"', Frontiers of Philosophy in China, Vol. 8, No. 4 (December 2013), pp. 530-545:

Plato moves on to what he sees as the two matrices of a just society. These are, he tells us, monarchy and democracy (!). Perfect examples, he goes on, are those operative in Persia and Athens respectively (693d). To those who have read Plato's views on democracy in the Republic this is likely to come as a surprise. At a stroke, democracy appears to have climbed from the second-last rung of the ladder of constitutions, where only tyranny came lower, to a shared place on the topmost rung! But the surprise should be short-lasting. Democracy as such is not on the first rung, just as monarchy as such is not either. Only part of each is there, the acceptable part of monarchy providing the constitution's "wisdom" and the acceptable part of democracy its citizens' "freedom." Each makes to the other the concessions that are necessary to ensure the "amity" or concord essential to the state's functioning (693e). As for other features of the Athens of his day (which he carefully distinguishes from a better, pre-democratic Athens of past times (698a ff), a time when, as he puts it, "a sense of respect ('conscience,' Taylor [aidos tis], cf. Rep. 560a6) had a sovereignty amongst us, which disposed us to a willing subjection to the laws" (698b), and political offices were "based on a fourfold system of social classes" (698b), modern Athens is a place, he says, of "unqualified liberty" (699e). [Fn.The word "liberty" is being used in a negative sense, something close to "license."] Choosing that which goes on at music festivals as an example, he laments the "folly" of the people in their assumption that there is no such thing as "right" or "wrong" in music; they now think the standard of judgment is not a series of fixed norms, as in the past, but "the pleasure given to the hearer" (700e). He then continues, in a manner all who know the Republic will recognize: our catcalling and discordant audiences (700c) are now persuaded

that they understand what is good and bad in art; the old "sovereignty of the best" ( aristokratia ) in that sphere has given way to an evil "sovereignty of the audience " (theatrokratia). If the consequence had been even a democracy, no great harm would have been done, so long as the democracy was confined to art, and composed of free men. But, as things are with us, music has given way to a general conceit of universal knowledge and contempt for law, and liberty has followed in their train. Fear was cast out by confidence in supposed knowledge, and the loss of it gave birth to impudence. For to be unconcerned for the judgment of one's betters in the assurance which comes of reckless excess of liberty is nothing in the world but reprehensible impudence. (701a-b)

Now in full flight of rhetoric, the Athenian goes on to predict a future for Athens which is even worse: "The next stage of the journey towards liberty will be refusal to submit to the holders of office, and on this will follow emancipation from the authority and correction of parents and elders; then, as the goal of the race is approached, comes the effort to escape obedience to the law, and, when that goal is reached, contempt for oaths, for the plighted word, and all religion" (701b). And when that happens, he concludes, man will have returned "to the old condition of a hell of unending misery" (701c).

We probably need to catch our breath here. If we set aside Plato's gloomy predictions for the future, what stands out is the firmness with which Plato has held to his earlier ideas on current Athenian democracy. While he applauds its commitment to freedom, he continues to deplore the license (cf. Rep. 560e5, anarchia ) which often accompanies it, a license, he states, which stems from the overthrow of two major constraints which had governed the Athens of the past - a sense of respect (aidos tis), and a healthy fear of consequences. As he had put it some years earlier in the Statesman (303b): a democracy is the best place in the world to live in - if your only choice is a choice among various types of law -flouting societies!

But one change is noticeable: the picture Plato is drawing of the [democratic] Athens of his day is not totally negative, as it had been in the Republic. There he had stressed the license rather than the freedom characterizing his city; now, while still deploring the license that often takes place, he is happy to admit the value and worth of the freedom Athens enjoys - a worth such that democracy will now be a critically important feature of his second -best, rather than his second-worst society. On the face of it, it is a critical adjustment in his thinking. How this came about can only be speculated. My view is that Plato had lived to see an Athens at peace rather than an Athens at war - which was the only Athens he knew until the age of about 23. Athens at war could well have seemed to him, as it seemed to Thucydides, out of control and self-destructive, in contrast to a more disciplined, and ultimately victorious Sparta. The subsequent half century of (relative) peace, however, provided him ample time to reflect on the fact that Athens, a state committed to freedom for its citizens, had in fact survived its defeat quite well. This is in contrast with the autocratic states of Sparta and Thebes, each of which, though characterized by great internal discipline amongst its citizens, had quickly collapsed after a brief period of power and glory.

That, however, is just speculation. Let us return to the Laws. With his views on the downside of current Athenian democracy off his chest, Plato can now return to his ideal, the combination of the best in democracy and the best in monarchy and their "moral worth" as a "social system" (707c). Having focused on democracy, he now turns to the autocratic element in his best state.

But before that is done, he turns to struggle once more, as he had done in the Republic , with the question, how could a just society ever begin? And his answer is: with a combination of divine providence, luck, and skill (709b-d), part of that skill consisting in what sort of luck to pray for (709d) ! Such a combination would consist of the fortunate/providential meeting of a legislator of distinction (710c-d) and a young autocrat "of retentive memory," he says, "quick to learn, and temperamentally bold and high-souled" (709e), as well as being endowed with (in its popular sense) "temperance" ("balance," "self-control" [sophrosyne], 710a). And where would this most likely occur? In an autocracy, he thinks, with the next best possibilities being, in order of likelihood, a constitutional monarchy, a democracy, and then, last of all, an oligarchy (710e). In light of what we have just been discussing, democracy's placement after constitutional monarchy will, to readers of the Republic, not be surprising, but its placement before oligarchy very likely will. Plato, no doubt aware of this possibility, offers reasons why he has made this apparent change of ordering. The fortunate/providential meeting he has in mind would involve the production by "nature" of a "real legislator" who happened "to share power of a kind with the most influential persons in society. Where, as in an autocracy, this latter element is numerically fewest but strongest, you have the normal occasion and opportunity for facile and speedy revolution" (710e-711a).

This particular combination of pieces of luck is quite a bit more complex than the original set, but it does offer a reason why Plato has chosen on this occasion to place democracy ahead of oligarchy as a likely point of departure for the production of a truly good society. In an oligarchy there are a fair number of people wielding power, but none of them is particularly strong; in a democracy, by contrast, the great majority of people have little power, but the few who achieve office through the electoral process of that system have a good deal of power. Plato could, of course, point to a number of celebrated figures in Athenian history, such as Pericles, who had achieved power in just such a way. (Robinson: 531-4.)

Further reading on Laws and democracy

Keyt, David, and Fred D. Miller, eds. 2007. "Freedom, Reason and the Polis," in Ancient Greek Political Philosophy. Cambridge: University Press.

Morrow, Glenn R., Plato's Cretan City (Princeton 1960). Morrow also discusses the system of military election.

Simpson, Peter. "Plato's Laws in the Hands of Aristotle," in Plato s Laws: From Theory into Practice. Proceedings of the VI Symposium Platonicum , edited by Scolnicov and Brisson , 298-303. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag.

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