“Statesman” by Plato

The second dialogue of a trilogy, which also includes Sophist and Laws.

The Lawgiver and the Law

Law-making certainly is the business of a king; and yet the best thing of all is, not that the law should rule, but that the king should rule, for the varieties of circumstances are endless, and no simple or universal rule can suit them all, or last for ever. The law is just an ignorant brute of a tyrant, who insists always on his commands being fulfilled under all circumstances.

The legislator is obliged to lay down general laws, and cannot enact what is precisely suitable to each particular case. He cannot be sitting at every man’s side all his life, and prescribe for him the minute particulars of his duty, and therefore he is compelled to impose on himself and others the restriction of a written law.

The pilot saves the lives of the crew, not by laying down rules, but by making his art a law, and, like him, the true governor has a strength of art which is superior to the law. This is scientific government, and all others are imitations only. Yet no great number of persons can attain to this science. And hence follows an important result. The true political principle is to assert the inviolability of the law, which, though not the best thing possible, is best for the imperfect condition of man.

Suppose that mankind, indignant at the rogueries and caprices of physicians and pilots, call together an assembly, in which all who like may speak, the skilled as well as the unskilled, and that in their assembly they make decrees for regulating the practice of navigation and medicine which are to be binding on these professions for all time. Suppose that they elect annually by vote or lot those to whom authority in either department is to be delegated. And let us further imagine, that when the term of their magistracy has expired, the magistrates appointed by them are summoned before an ignorant and unprofessional court, and may be condemned and punished for breaking the regulations. They even go a step further, and enact, that he who is found enquiring into the truth of navigation and medicine, and is seeking to be wise above what is written, shall be called not an artist, but a dreamer, a prating Sophist and a corruptor of youth; and if he try to persuade others to investigate those sciences in a manner contrary to the law, he shall be punished with the utmost severity. And like rules might be extended to any art or science. But what would be the consequence?

Three Forms of Government

Each of the three forms of government, royalty, aristocracy, and democracy, might be divided into two, so that the whole number of them, including the best, will be seven. Under monarchy we have already distinguished royalty and tyranny; of oligarchy there were two kinds, aristocracy and plutocracy; and democracy may also be divided, for there is a democracy which observes, and a democracy which neglects, the laws. The government of one is the best and the worst–the government of a few is less bad and less good–the government of the many is the least bad and least good of them all, being the best of all lawless governments, and the worst of all lawful ones. But the rulers of all these states, unless they have knowledge, are maintainers of idols, and themselves idols.

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