Socrates continues the speech of the Laws of Athens by appealing to a kind of social contract that exists between the Laws and the citizens. The Laws, as Socrates already suggested, have given him birth, have raised him and educated him, and have shared the wealth of Athens with him and his fellow citizens. All this the Laws do for their citizens before they even reach manhood. Upon attaining manhood, the age at which citizens are meant to be able to think for themselves, they are free to review the Laws and the State, and if they do not like what they see, they are free to take their property and go wherever they please. However, if they choose to stay in Athens, they are actively submitting themselves to the Laws of Athens, and must abide by them no matter what. So the Laws are willing to allow discontents to leave Athens without forfeit, and are willing to be persuaded to change, but if one does not leave and does not persuade the Laws to change, then one must abide by them. If Socrates were to try to escape he would be breaking the Laws rather than following any of these just actions.

Furthermore, the Laws point out, Socrates would be more guilty than most because he has, until now, endorsed Athenian Law and the Athenian way of life. Socrates has only left Athens on a handful of occasions--once to attend a festival, and the other times to do military service in wars on behalf of the state. Unlike most Athenians, Socrates has never traveled or acquainted himself with the customs or laws of other people: he has been perfectly happy in Athens. Also, at his trial (recorded in ##The Apology##), Socrates dismissed the possibility of exile, saying he'd prefer to die than live outside of Athens. It would be strangely inconsistent for him to refuse exile when it was offered to him freely, and then to flee Athens when the Laws no longer permit him to do so.

The Laws conclude, then, that Socrates has no reason to break the Laws now: he has had every opportunity to leave or disagree, and the Laws have made no effort to deceive him in any way. In fact, until now, Socrates has expressed great satisfaction with the Laws. If Socrates is to avoid becoming a laughing-stock, he must stick by his agreement with the Laws now as he has always done.


Plato introduces a kind of social contract that binds the citizens to the Laws. We should be wary, though, of equating this social contract theory with our modern, liberal notion of the social contract, as presented by Rousseau. In Rousseau's idea of the social contract, the state (or sovereign) is a direct consequence of the general will of the people, and the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live in harmony together under laws. For Plato, the agreement is not made between citizens, but between the individual citizen and the Laws. As we saw in the previous section, the personification of the Laws is a crucial move in Plato's argument, as it allows an agreement to exist directly between the Laws and the people. We might characterize the difference between Plato and Rousseau by saying that for Plato, the Laws are real entities (an idea that might follow from his Theory of Forms), whereas for Rousseau, they are abstract constructions made by and for the people.

The idea behind Plato's social contract is that any citizen who reaches the age of manhood should be able to decide for himself whether or not the Laws suit him, and if they do not, he should be free to leave the city. The age of manhood in Athens was set at seventeen, at which time youths would undergo an examination which would formally confirm their citizenship. Those who become citizens have thus explicitly agreed to obey the Laws of the city, and anything they do to break them will be a breach of this agreement.

However, in presenting the Laws as commands to be obeyed, Plato is portraying the Laws as quite tyrannical. If we are to follow Plato's analogy and treat the Laws like parents in a position of great authority, they are the kind of parents who expect their children to do whatever they say. Granted, the Laws can be persuaded into modification, but even so, the relationship between the citizens and the Laws is one of obedience and commandment. The Athenians were fiercely proud of their democracy, one in which justice and law were agreed upon by the majority. Plato's portrayal of the Laws sees Athens more as an enlightened dictatorship, where the people do not create the law, but merely live under its benevolent power. w(Interestingly, this view of the state is more like the ideal state Plato envisions in the Republic, and less like the actual historical Athens.)

Popular pages: Crito