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Ascending to the Cave

By: Keith Whitaker
September 27, 2016

nlike most philosophic works, Plato’s dialogues are dramas, not treatises. Each comes with a cast of characters, the back-and-forth of lively conversation, and even some action. Characters blush, laugh, cry, get angry, and even hiccup.

The Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue and the only one that takes place at a specific time: June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The Laws is also unique in that Socrates does not appear, and its setting is outside of Athens, in Crete. Plato peopled it with Kleinias, a Cretan statesman; Megillus, a Spartan elder; and an unnamed Athenian stranger.

The Laws is the only dialogue in which a character almost acknowledges his status as a character. Near the center of the book, the Athenian stranger says: 

Gazing at the speeches that from dawn till here we have gone through … they seem to me to have been spoken altogether like a sort of poem. And perhaps it is no wonder I should feel pleased, gazing at our collected speeches.

In the drama, no one is taking notes. So what is the stranger gazing at? For a moment he seems to leap beyond the four corners of the page, inhabiting Plato’s position.

The relevance of the Laws appears when we connect these unique dramatic elements with its content. The Athenian begins the dialogue with this question, “A god or some human being, O strangers—which is responsible for laying down your laws?” It may seem an odd way to start a conversation. But we immediately learn that the three of them are walking from the city of Knossos to the cave of Zeus, the god whom Kleinias claims gave law to the Cretans. This dialogue is unique in questioning the very roots of political life.

This exchange opens an inquiry into the goals of the Cretan laws. In what must be a rhetorical first, the Athenian stranger uses the occasion to praise drinking parties to his companions, whose cities famously forbade drinking. (Students particularly appreciate this part of the Laws.) He thereby produces in them a sort of vicarious drunkenness, getting these law-abiding men to examine their existing laws with unashamed eyes.

The Athenian’s tactic works, and by the end of the first quarter of the dialogue, Kleinias reveals that he has been commissioned by the Cretans to found a new city. The remaining three-quarters of the conversation turns from critiquing the existing laws to proposing new ones. The Athenian stranger spins out a law code that encompasses everything from marriage, property, and public offices to education, festivals, and sex.

Along the way he deftly mixes humor with seriousness, showing that legislation is not all work and no play. To the surprise of his companions, he says the best way to institute new laws would be under the sway of a “tyrant: young, with a good memory, a good learner, courageous, and magnificent by nature.” Alas, no such tyrant is available. So the Athenian does what he can to get the would-be city into shape. He makes marriage nearly mandatory, as a path to “a certain share in immortality.” He recommends that expectant mothers exercise to help their fetuses grow. He takes education seriously, and so makes the Supervisor of Education—not a priest or a general—the highest official in the proposed city. At the same time, “looking away to the god,” as he puts it, he muses that “while god is worthy of complete, blessed seriousness, humanity … is a certain plaything of god, and that is really the best thing about it.”

The last third of the Laws turns to the penal code. This section offers the clearest sense of what the stranger faces in trying to mix reason with law. He argues several times that injustice is involuntary. It deserves pity, not punishment. Yet he must repeatedly veer away from this gentle principle. In the most extreme case, he lays down a law to punish rocks that fall and kill a person: such “offenders” must be tried and cast out of the city’s borders. It is simply intolerable for human beings to see someone we love killed and not seek to punish the “murderer.” Or, more broadly, as Megillus retorts when the stranger says that human beings are mere playthings of the gods: “You’re running down our human race in every way!” It is part and parcel of political life that we take ourselves and our own seriously.

In the West, at least, most of us are taught to look at politics as a secondary, even sordid matter: what comes first is our individuality, our rights, and our freedom. At the same time, many of us long for community, for service to something greater than ourselves, and for meaning that does not derive from our own personal “values.” To borrow a famous image from Plato’s Republic, almost all students arrive at university today believing that they have already ascended from the “cave” of politics to the sunlit realm of truth. But this belief is nothing other than a new orthodoxy. As Leo Strauss observed, it chains us within “a cave beneath the cave.”

This is what the Laws above all can help us do: recover the cave, that is, an appreciation for the attachments of social and political life. The characters dramatize this goal, as they hike to the cave of Zeus, pausing along the way to escape under plane trees from the burning sunlight. This goal explains why Socrates and almost any mention of philosophy are absent. But this absence should not deter us. For if with the Laws’ help we ascend to the cave, we may live better, together, as well as begin to philosophize—and so join the stranger in gazing upon these speeches with pleasure.