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Minos

By Plato*

[Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 9 translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925. Posted on Perseus Digital Library. Editor-in-Chief Gregory R. Crane. Tufts University. Accessed 21 November 2012. Used with permission of Perseus Digital Library under its Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

* Website editor’s note: Although many doubt that Plato wrote the Minos, Professor Lewis, the author of this site’s essay on Plato, believes that the dialogue is indeed authentic.


[313a]

Socrates
Tell me, what is law?

Companion
To what kind of law does your question refer?

Socrates
What! Is there any difference between law and law, in this particular point of being law? For just consider what is the actual question I am putting to you. It is as though I had asked, what is gold: if you had asked me in the same manner, to what kind of gold I refer, I think your question would have been incorrect. For I presume there is no difference between gold and gold, [313b] or between stone and stone, in point of being gold or stone; and so neither does law differ at all from law, I suppose, but they are all the same thing. For each of them is law alike, not one more so, and another less. That is the particular point of my question—what is law as a whole? So if you are ready, tell me.

Companion
Well, what else should law be, Socrates, but things loyally accepted?[1]

Socrates
And so speech, you think, is the things that are spoken, or sight the things seen, or hearing the things heard? Or is speech [313c] something distinct from the things spoken, sight something distinct from the things seen, and hearing something distinct from the things heard; and so law is something distinct from things loyally accepted? Is this so, or what is your view?

Companion
I find it now to be something distinct.

Socrates
Then law is not things loyally accepted.

Companion
I think not.

Socrates
Now what can law be? Let us consider it in this way. Suppose someone had asked us about what was stated just now:

[314a] Since you say it is by sight that things seen are seen, what is this sight whereby they are seen? Our answer to him would have been: That sensation which shows objects by means of the eyes. And if he had asked us again: Well then, since it is by hearing that things heard are heard, what is hearing? Our answer to him would have been: That sensation which shows us sounds by means of the ears. In the same way then, suppose he should also ask us: Since it is by law that loyally accepted things are so accepted, what is this law whereby they are so accepted? [314b] Is it some sensation or showing, as when things learnt are learnt by knowledge showing them, or some discovery, as when things discovered are discovered—for instance, the causes of health and sickness by medicine, or the designs of the gods, as the prophets say, by prophecy; for art is surely our discovery of things, is it not?

Companion
Certainly.

Socrates
Then what thing especially of this sort shall we surmise law to be?

Companion
Our resolutions and decrees, I imagine: for how else can one describe law? [314c] So that apparently the whole thing, law, as you put it in your question, is a city’s resolution.

Socrates
State opinion, it seems, is what you call law.

Companion
I do.

Socrates
And perhaps you are right: but I fancy we shall get a better knowledge in this way. You call some men wise?

Companion
I do.

Socrates
And the wise are wise by wisdom?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
And again, the just are just by justice?

Companion
Certainly.

Socrates
And so the law-abiding are law-abiding by law? [314d]

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
And the lawless are lawless by lawlessness?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
And the law-abiding are just?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
And the lawless are unjust?

Companion
Unjust.

Socrates
And justice and law are most noble?

Companion
That is so.

Socrates
And injustice and lawlessness most base?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
And the former preserve cities and everything else, while the latter destroy and overturn them?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
Hence we must regard law as something noble, and seek after it as a good.

Companion
Undeniably.

Socrates
And we said that law is a city’s resolution? [314e]

Companion
So we did.

Socrates
Well now, are not some resolutions good, and others evil?

Companion
Yes, to be sure.

Socrates
And, you know, law was not evil.

Companion
No, indeed.

Socrates
So it is not right to reply, in that simple fashion, that law is a city’s resolution.

Companion
I agree that it is not.

Socrates
An evil resolution, you see, cannot properly be a law.

Companion
No, to be sure.

Socrates
But still, I am quite clear myself that law is some sort of opinion; and since it is not evil opinion, is it not manifest by this time that it is good opinion, granting that law is opinion?

Companion
Yes.

Socrates
But what is good opinion? Is it not true opinion?

Companion
Yes.

[315a]

Socrates
And true opinion is discovery of reality?

Companion
Yes, it is.

Socrates
So law tends to be discovery of reality.

Companion
Then how is it, Socrates, if law is discovery of reality, that we do not use always the same laws on the same matters, if we have thus got realities discovered?

Socrates
Law tends none the less to be discovery of reality: but men, who do not use [315b] always the same laws, as we observe, are not always able to discover what the law is intent on—reality. For come now, let us see if from this point onward we can get it clear whether we use always the same laws or different ones at different times, and whether we all use the same, or some of us use some, and others others.

Companion
Why, that, Socrates, is no difficult matter to determine—that the same men do not use always the same laws, and also that different men use different ones. With us, for instance, human sacrifice is not legal, but unholy, [315c] whereas the Carthaginians perform it as a thing they account holy and legal, and that too when some of them sacrifice even their own sons to Cronos, as I daresay you yourself have heard. And not merely is it foreign peoples who use different laws from ours, but our neighbors in Lycaea[2] and the descendants of Athamas[3]—you know their sacrifices, Greeks though they be. And as to ourselves too, you know, of course, from what you have heard yourself, the kind of laws we formerly used in regard to our dead, when we slaughtered sacred victims before [315d] the funeral procession, and engaged urn-women to collect the bones from the ashes. Then again, a yet earlier generation used to bury the dead where they were, in the house: but we do none of these things. One might give thousands of other instances; for there is ample means of proving that neither we copy ourselves nor mankind each other always in laws and customs.

Socrates
And it is no wonder, my excellent friend, if what you say is correct, and I have overlooked it. But if you continue to express your views after your own fashion in lengthy speeches, [315e] and I speak likewise, we shall never come to any agreement, in my opinion: but if we study the matter jointly, we may perhaps concur. Well now, if you like, hold a joint inquiry with me by asking me questions; or if you prefer, by answering them.

Companion
Why, I am willing, Socrates, to answer anything you like.

Socrates
Come then, do you consider[4] just things to be unjust and unjust things just, or just things to be just and unjust things unjust?

Companion
I consider just things to be just, and unjust things unjust.

[316a]

Socrates
And are they so considered among all men elsewhere as they are here?

Companion
Yes.