On the Minos

Liberalism Ancient and Modern, Basic Books, 1968.  Reprint: University of Chicago Press, 1995.


The Minos has come down to us as a Platonic work immediately preceding the Laws. The Laws begins where the Minos ends: the Minos ends with a praise of the laws of the Cretan king Minos, the son and pupil of Zeus, and the Laws begins with an examination of those laws. The Minos thus appears to be the introduction to the Laws. The Laws more than any other Platonic dialogue needs an introduction, for it is the only Platonic dialogue in which Socrates is not mentioned or which is set far away from Athens, in Crete. The Minos thus also appears to be entirely preliminary. Yet it is the only work included in the body of Platonic writings which has no other theme than the question “What is law?” and the answer to it. It could appear strange, and it ought to appear strange, that this grave question which is perhaps the gravest of all questions is, within the body of the Platonic writings, the sole theme only of a preliminary work. But we must remember that in Xenophon’s Socratic writings Socrates never raises the question “What is law?”; according to Xenophon, it was Socrates’ ambiguous companion Alcibiades who raised that Socratic question in a conversation with Pericles while Socrates was absent. The strangeness is enhanced by the fact that Plato’s Socrates raises his question concerning law, not as is his wont, after proper preparation, but abruptly; he seems to jump at an unsuspecting companion with, his bald question. He thus brings it about that nothing accidental or particular — like the question of Socrates’ own law-abidingness in the Crito — distracts our attention from the universal question in all its gravity. We are not even distracted by the name of the companion; that companion remains nameless and faceless; we perceive only what he says. Since no one else appears to be present at the conversation, the work could not carry as its title, as most Platonic dialogues do, the name of a participant in a Socratic conversation or of a listener to it: the name which is mentioned in the title is the name of a man of the remote past who is only spoken about in the conversation.

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