11 June 2007

The Laws the First Work of Political Philosophy?

I was puzzled by the claim of Pradeau and Brisson that Plato's Laws, not the Republic, is the first work of political philosophy 'in the strict sense'.

Schofield points out (p. 7) that something similar has "recently been claimed" by André Laks, in his contribution on the Laws to the Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. This is news to me, and a good example of why I wanted so much to read Schofield's book.

Laks' view is that the Laws "can be considered the first work of genuine political philosophy in the Western tradition" because (I give now Schofield's summary):

...it builds an elaborate legal and theologico-political superstructure on the foundations it discusses.
According to Laks, "the Republic is at best a sketch, whereas the Laws breaks ground for future political thought".

Admittedly the Laws executes something in the way the Republic does not, but still I think Laks' view should be rejected:
(i) If the Republic is not political philosophy because it is a sketch, then neither is Rousseau's Social Contract, Locke's Second Treatise, or Rawls' Theory of Justice--which is absurd. (Neither of these other works builds on foundations to any greater extent than the Republic does. They leave that sort of building to others.)
(ii) It's difficult to claim that future political thought is responsive to the Laws more than to the Republic. But if so, how is it that the former alone 'breaks ground for future political thought'?
Schofield has some counterarguments of his own, which I'll give in the next post.

But where do you stand on this question?


The Irreverent Seraph said...

Can philosophy operate in a parable, or is it only truly philosophical in abstractus. There are many of our philosophers who operate in this way to make their works easier to understand. If the Republic was a sketch, well that statement in itself does little justice. I do not disagree with Laks' thoughts on Laws, but one must ask "if the quest for a utopia is not forward looking, what is it?" It cannot be a reflection of present circumstance, in Athenian times or otherwise, and if it is I'm certainly living in the wrong country.

Anonymous said...

First of all I am not sure whether it is clear what is political philosophy. Following Plato’s/ Socrates’ method, first knowing what a given thing (branch of knowledge) is, we can tell whether this or that belongs there or not. I believe one would get different answers if one asked Leo Strauss or, on the other hand, Bernard Williams for example.

Anonymous said...

But I think Michael was asking us, not Strauss or Williams. If it were entirely clear what political philosophy is, then it would be entirely clear whether or not the Laws is the first work of political philosophy. That's what the dispute is about.

If we care at all about how the authors whose works we are judging conceived of 'political philosophy,' then it might be relevant to note that Aristotle seems to have considered the Republic a genuine work of political philosophy. On his own conception of politike, one of his primary aims is to examine real and possible politeiai, to inquire into how they work and whether they are successful in a variety of ways. The Republic both does that and provides one of the politeiai that Aristotle apparently thought he needed to consider. He spends more time on it than he does on the Laws, if that's any indication of his judgment of their relative merit. In any event, Aristotle doesn't seem to have thought that the Laws was somehow more genuinely political than the Republic. If Laks' view is to stand, it will have to lean on the relative emphasis that the Laws puts on political questions compared to the Republic, which begins and ends with an ethical question and considers not only politics, but metaphysics and epistemology and everything under the sun. The Laws is more focused on politics, sure, but is it for that reason more genuinely political?