The Role of Law and Government in Plato’s Laws

Charles Lincon
3 min readNov 5, 2020


The question in the beginning of the dialogue is what the source of law is. At first it seems as if the interlocutor is asking whether law comes from a divine source, such as a mystical source, or from humans. But it does not seem that the question is merely asking is there a mystical origin of law, but what and human brings about law.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and gestures to the heavens. Image and description from Wikipedia. I claim no ownership.

Also I don’t think that the ultimate question later on in the dialogue is about really a divine source but rather whether laws come from virtue or practical goods, so it’s not really whether they came from Zeus or if the mystical creature created the laws, it’s rather what in humans do laws aim at doing. One of the first questions they bring up in the first book is what the goal of government is. One person says that it is to destroy and then it is demonstrated well peace is better than purely victory and war. So perhaps there is more virtue in peace then in war and maybe that’s the guiding goal of government. But what do you think?

The more I think about book one of the laws, I think it’s more about what in human nature makes laws. Is it the divine side of human nature that is the more virtuous part, or is it as a matter of direct practicality. Is it more about winning wars or is about keeping peace? I think that’s what the initial question is. That’s why I don’t think that they focus that much on whether Zeus or someone else brought the laws.

However, contrasting this view with that of James Madison in the Federalist Papers seems to prove an alternate point. Madison writes:

“The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”
- James Madison, Federalist #10

Title page of Publius (pseudonym) [Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison] (1788) The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, as Agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787. In Two Volumes. (1st ed.), New York, N.Y.: Printed and sold by J. and A. McLean, №41, Hanover-Square OCLC: 642792893. This copy is from the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. Description and Image from Wikipedia. I claim no ownership.

Basically Madison is saying that there are multiple reasons for forming a government and there is not really one reason for forming a government.

Is Madison correct? That is to say is James Madison in the Federalist Papers accurate about whether or not the true motives are creating government or multifarious? I mean I don’t think that Plato discounts this as a possibility, but he rather frames the question in a way so that it can be helpful.

Moreover, Madison later writes in Federalist 45:

“Were the plan of the Convention adverse to the public happiness, my voice would be, reject the plan. Were the Union itself inconsistent with the public happiness, it would be, abolish the Union” — James Madison Federalist Paper 45

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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.