Spring 2011

Law Between Plato and the Poets

Listed in: Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, as LJST-36


Adam Sitze (Section 01)


The tragic dramas of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles put law into question in fascinating ways. “Tragedy,” argues Jean-Pierre Vernant, “is contemporaneous with the City and with its legal system. What tragedy is talking about is the City itself and the problems of law it is encountering.” For this reason, Vernant concludes, “the true subject matter of tragedy is social thought and most especially juridical thought in the very process of elaboration. Tragedy poses problems of law, and the question of what justice is.” Vernant’s suggestion--that classical tragic drama in effect amounts to a theory of law--is even more intriguing once juxtaposed to the remarks on tragedy in the text that is arguably the inaugural work in the philosophy of law. In Book VII of Plato’s Laws, the Athenian considers what answer he would give to a tragic poet who asked him why he and his fellow legislators had decided to ban tragic poets from the city. The Athenian begins with a frank admission: “Respected visitors, we are ourselves authors of a tragedy, and that the finest and best we know how to make. You are poets,” the Athenian continues, “and we also are poets in the same style, rival artists and rival actors, and that in the finest of all dramas, one which indeed be produced only by a code of true law.”

This course is designed as an inquiry into the relationships between tragedy and law, on the one hand, and theatre and theory, on the other. What does it mean to read classical tragedies as works of legal theory? In what sense, meanwhile, does Plato’s Laws lay claim to the generic status of tragedy? What is it about tragedy’s nonphilosophical theory of law that Plato’s interlocutors find so philosophically objectionable? We will bring these and other questions to bear on Plato’s Laws and on key works by Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. In addition, we will read secondary texts by Danielle Allen, Louis Gernet, René Girard, Nicole Loraux, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Rancière, and Jean-Pierre Vernant.

Limited to 30 students. Spring semester. Professor Sitze.


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2011, Spring 2014, Fall 2019