UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The unity of Plato’s political thought McGilp, Ian Findlay


The orthodox interpretation of. Plato's political theory underntands Republic as supporting the rule of an autocratic sovereign whose power is unlimited; and Laws as supporting a form of government under which the authority of the rulers is limited by a legal code which may never be amended. This thesis argues for a different interpretation of both Republic and Laws. It argues that Plato's political theory is essentially consistent; that the theory of government advocated in Republic is in fact embodied in the constitution and code of law which Plato writes in Laws. The first step in the argument is to show that contrary to the orthodox interpretation, Republic does not recommend the rule of a sovereign whose power is unlimited by law. Plato in fact makes clear in Republic that his ideal state will nave a comprehensive code of law; and he explicitly says that the rulers themselves must obey that code. The next step is to show that those passages in Statesman which are traditionally cited in support of the orthodox view, will not in fact support that interpretation. The thesis also musters some evidence from both Republic and Statesman which suggests that even in these early political dialogues Plato favoured some (as yet undeveloped) form of constitutional government. Now Plato's, saying in Laws that the laws must have a higher authority than the rulers is the doctrine which is supposed to "cleave Plato's political theory into two distinct halves." The latter chapters of this thesis dispute the orthodox interpretation, by analysing the functions and powers that Plato assigns to the various governmental institutions which his constitution defines. The thesis argues that this doctrine should be understood as calling for a system of checks and balances on governmental power, rather than as calling for a form of government under which the rulers would have no power to amend or supplement Plato's own code of law. In Laws Plato makes clear that his government will enjoy full legislative powers (including the amendment power);, yet by creating an institution - the Nocturnal Council -which is instructed and empowered to preserve the "alms" and "spirit" of the state's constitution^ Plato places a check on his legislature - the Guardians of the Laws - which will ensure that all legislative (and executive) acts and policies are in strict, conformity with the fundamental political and educational principles on which Plato's constitution is based. The argument to this point, then, is that the orthodox interpretation of Plato's political theory is wrong on both ends; it misunderstands Republic, and it misunderstands Laws. Having argued that Plato's three political dialogues should be understood as advocating a consistent but developing theory of constitutional government, the last chapter examines the finished constitution in some detail. By analysing the constitutional provisions for legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and by considering the checks and balances that Plato places on every governmental power and institution, the thesis concludes by asserting that in Laws Plato manages to write a constitution which does give all political power to experts in the art of ruling, but which nevertheless provides for a more than adequate set of safeguards against all forms of governmental tyranny.

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