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Dusenbury D. L., Platonic Legislations. An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece

Francisco L. Lisi
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Dusenbury D. L., Platonic Legislations. An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece, Cham, Springer International Publishing, “Springer Briefs in Philosophy”, 2017

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1It is a well known fact that politics was a very important issue for Plato. What is not so well known is that the occurrences of the word nomos, which is usually translated as “law”, are the most numerous among the central concepts of Plato’s philosophy, more than aretê, kalon or agathon. This mathematical point confirms the central significance that Plato attributed to his legal philosophy. All scholars working on this topic know the difficulty and complexity of his thought. For this reason, a work expounding the central points of Plato’s doctrine, in a series characterised by its conciseness, arouses great expectations. The young Oxonian scholar Dusenbury (D.) has faced that risky but significant challenge. Unfortunately, the results are very disappointing.

2The book includes a “Prologue” (not included in the table of contents), five chapters, an epilogue, six supplements, and a bibliography. The Prologue (xv-xxii) summarizes the central issues treated in the book. In the first chapter (The Argument, 1-7), D. develops his main theses of the imperfection of every law code. Chapter 2 (The Platonic Dialogues and Legal Critique, 9-40) offers a panorama of the main political dialogues explaining what D. takes to be Plato’s critical approach to all legal systems. The third chapter (Socrates’ Execution and Platonic Legislation, 41-57) considers the apparent contradiction between Socrates’ criticism of the laws of Athens as represented in the Apology and the later Platonic normative dispositions. In chapter 4 (A Critique of Law and the First Platonic Law-Code, 59-76), the object of the analysis is the supposed rejection of law in the Republic. Finally (Ch. 5: The Flux of Law and the Second Platonic Law-Code, 77-96), D. expounds the procedures related to the change of legislation, the measures for preventing any uncontrolled change in legislation, and the supposed consequences these would have had for Socrates. The Epilogue (97) has a very tenuous relationship to the content of the book since it considers Marcus Aurelius as a Platonic legislator on the basis of his defence of continuous adaptations of the law code. The Supplements (99-101) offer supposed parallel passages of different authors in English translation. A Bibliography (103-106) closes the book. The bibliography is divided into “pre-modern works” consisting practically exclusively of bilingual editions and “modern” ones, where the absence of the main contributions to the subject is surprising and alarming.

3D. pretends to give a general panorama of Plato’s legal philosophy, which should highlight the contemporary significance of his thought. Three central hypotheses are defended by the author: 1) the mature and older Plato would have indicted the Socrates of the Apology, because, especially in the Laws, Plato forbids any criticism of the ruling laws (93, 96 et passim). 2) Plato is opposed to governance through laws, because he sees a contradiction between justice and law (37 ff. et passim). 3) And deriving from 2), Plato is a defender of what D. calls the “flux of law”, i.e. the continuous changes in legislation (xx-xxii ff. 4-7, et passim). According to D., what essentially characterizes Plato’s political thought is his criticism of the law and, especially, of the rule of law. This is what makes Plato’s legal philosophy “modern”.

4One of the weakest aspects of D.’s work is his scarce focus on the real issue, Plato’s legal philosophy. In spite of its brevity, the book treats too many general problems in a chaotic manner, from the chronology of the dialogues up to Plato’s intellectual biography, his intellectual evolution, Socrates’ prosecution, the influence of Plato’s thought on Marcus Aurelius, etc. This is linked to extravagant interpretations, most of them not only arbitrary but also erroneous. The rest of the contribution consists of repetitions of mistakes and readings long accepted in the Anglo-Saxon literature. E.g., D. accepts the biographic interpretation of Plato’s writings and follows Wilamowitz’ approach so far as to believe he can guess Plato’s psychological states through the texts and detect when the Athenian is depressed or disgusted (e. g. 59, 73), etc. D. also traces an evolution of Plato’s legal thought in the direction of a radicalisation of his tendency to construct a form of closed society in which criticism is not allowed and normative changes are controlled by the state. The hypothesis of a supposed Platonic treason of Socrates’ critical ideal is a clear remake of Popper’s position in the first volume of his famous The open society and its enemies.

5It is not possible in this review to analyse or even to enumerate all the aspects of the book that this reviewer considers wrong. However, some central points are worth remarking on. First of all, Plato’s criticism of the nomos in the Statesman (291a1-302b4) does not imply an absolute negation of its value, but only a relativization of the written dispositions, because the law is a general norm that cannot be adapted to every individual in all situations. Nevertheless, Plato also stresses the need of the good politician/philosopher to legislate, since he is not a god (294a10-295b5). The nomos is the only tool the human politician has for ordering a community. The generality of the law is a central problem of all legal philosophy and it does not imply the abolition of the law. This is especially true against D.’s interpretation of the Republic. He follows Jaeger’s mistaken interpretation, widely accepted in English-speaking literature, of Callipolis as a city-state without laws. The text clearly refutes this position. Socrates only says that the philosopher-rulers are able to legislate more specific norms according to the existing legal frame he is merely outlining (e. g. 5, 458b9-c4 et passim). He does not deny the existence of laws. Socrates and his interlocutors are acting as lawgivers (cf. c6 et quoque passim). Moreover, since our present norms are the product of experience and also have their roots in the gods, in spite of all degeneration and change, Plato proposes an absolute respect for the existing laws (Polit. 297a1-6 et passim).

6Further, Plato was never a critic of divine legislation, as D. states. On the contrary, the attitude of reverence for the existing legislation is clearly put in the mouth of Socrates in the Crito, and practically in all dialogues through invocations to the gods and other expressions of religious piety. The Athenian laws did not condemn Socrates to death, but a group of corrupt judges did, because Socrates, contrary to their indictment, had always respected the existing norms, especially those related to the gods. In the first book of the Laws the criticism is not of the Spartan and Cretan norms, but of the defence Megillus and Cleinias make of them. This is precisely the point about the mistakes D. makes in his interpretation of Plato. There is nothing more un-platonic and naïve than to construct a supposed opposition to the legislation of divine origin. Only a fleeting mention is warranted of the erroneous belief maintained by D. that for Plato there is a contradiction between justice and law (37 ff. et passim). The main effort of Plato’s work was focused precisely on demonstrating the coincidence of both.

7No reader or Plato’s work, even if he is only superficially acquainted with him in English translation, can see in him a defender of a permanent adaptation of legislation in a contemporary sense. This view is a product of an ignorance of the meaning of the word nomos in Greek. D. clearly confuses the Greek notion of nomos with our modern concept of law, which has a more restricted semantic field and lacks any religious connotation. The whole political thought of Plato strives to avoid all change, as far as possible. This is the central issue not only of Plato’s politics, but of the whole of classical political thought.

8A hermeneutic work cannot consist in a chaotic hotchpotch of isolated quotations without consideration of the context. It is not enough to read a bilingual edition to understand Plato. What is needed is a profound confrontation with the Greek text, in order to deepen the complete sense of the Platonic message. Unfortunately, this work offers no innovative approach nor a useful introduction to this important point in Plato’s philosophy.

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Francisco L. Lisi, « Dusenbury D. L., Platonic Legislations. An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece »Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 16 | 2019, mis en ligne le 16 avril 2020, consulté le 03 août 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesplatoniciennes/1821

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Francisco L. Lisi

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