The Education of the Irrational in Plato's Laws

Doctoral Dissertation


Through the argument and action of the Laws, Plato teaches his readers that political life will never reach a state of rational perfection, but progress is possible through incremental reforms introduced through gentle persuasion. These reforms should strengthen the leadership of reason, but also educate the irrational to support this rule willingly, thereby establishing harmony between them. The Athenian Stranger encourages his interlocutors to aspire toward this goal by demonstrating new approaches to lawgiving and to education based on his double vision. This entails envisioning the perfectly ordered city and soul as his telos, while also acknowledging the ways in which his actual city and citizens fall short of this ideal. Finally, the Athenian advocates using gentle persuasion to move the latter towards the former. Persuasion incorporates argument, but also addresses the passions through pleasure, poetry, habituation, appeals to the divine, honor, and shame. The Athenian also demonstrates that while gentle persuasion may be successful in private education, it has limitations when applied to the city by lawgivers. Specifically, although the Athenian does persuade his interlocutors to follow the leadership of intelligence, he is less successful in creating an effective public paideia for his city in speech. However, unlike Socrates who refrains from direct involvement in politics because he prefers private education, the Athenian continues to aspire to improve the city, despite his awareness that perfect, lasting resolution between the rational and irrational is not possible in political life. Ultimately, Magnesia is not a blueprint for future cities because the dialogue remains unresolved on the proper way to reconcile the tensions between the rule of law and living intelligence, between philosophy and politics, between individual freedom and the common good, between positive and negative freedom, between the many and the few, between the possibility of education and the limits imposed by human nature. Yet by encouraging readers to recognize these tensions, the Laws allows them to appreciate the flaws and limitations in themselves and in their political communities, to moderate their expectations, but also to remain engaged in political life and to continue to aspire to bring positive change.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04122009-010302

Author Jill Budny McCormick
Advisor Catherine H. Zuckert
Contributor Catherine H. Zuckert, Committee Chair
Contributor Michael Zuckert, Committee Member
Contributor Mary Keys, Committee Member
Contributor Mary P. Nichols, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Political Science
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2009-03-12

Submission Date 2009-04-12
  • United States of America

  • xenos

  • prelude

  • nomos

  • virtue

  • irrational

  • penal code

  • harmony

  • nomoi

  • poetry

  • pleasure

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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