Analytical Work

The Grammar of Law:

Dative pronouns and impersonal verbs in Plato’s Minos

The Minos, which at first appears to be about law, upon closer examination is actually a dialogue about the nature of being. Inasmuch as law [1] is ubiquitous to man,[2] it constitutes a fundamental and defining part of what it means to be human. However, what it means to be human is never visible in general being, but in being specifically; being with respect to a particular culture, a particular place, a particular time. The relationship between universal being and particular being that is made manifest through law is analogous to the pairing of impersonal verbs and the dative case. In order for law—as what moves us and as what we are moved by—to function, it must be treated as whole and omniscient; subject-less, and with only a general object. Law must be an impersonal verb.[3] But implanted beneath the surface of impersonal verbs lies the indirect object—nothing simply seems, but always necessarily seems to someone. A close reading of the beginning of the Minos through the lens of these grammatical structures yields an insight into the dialogue and the subject of law; the fundamental problem of νόμος can be characterized and consequently illuminated as having to do with the putting together of impersonal verbs and indirect objects.[4]

Platonic dialogues do not only resist summary, they are antithetical to it. Thus, this paper neither summarizes nor provides commentary on the Minos as a whole. Rather, it argues that the relation between the grammatical function of dative pronouns and the use of impersonal verbs in the beginning of the dialogue is indicative and serves to substantiate the oxymoronic nature of law as a whole, the parts of which are examined throughout the dialogue.[5]

However, in the interest of grounding the reader, a brief overview of the context of the dialogue is in order. The Minos is a short dialogue. While it may seem only an introduction to the Laws, and so, only preliminary, “it is the only work included in the body of Platonic writings which has no other theme than the question ‘What is law?’”[6] It therefore ought not to be treated merely as an insignificant and contingent introduction, but also as a work in and of itself.

The Minos is set with as little context as possible. It concerns a conversation between Socrates and an unnamed companion, with no mention of where or when it takes place. It could be in Athens or outside of Athens (outside of Athens would not be absurd, as the Laws is set in Crete) and the comrade, although presumably Athenian, is not identified as such. Without a given context, the dialogue begins abruptly with Socrates’ question, “the law, what is it to/for/by/in us?” We have not had time to prepare ourselves for the question, and cannot assume that the nameless, unidentified comrade has either. As a by-product, Socrates “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.”[7]

The comrade’s first answer is that law is nothing more or less than the things held or believed,[8] a definition which Socrates does away with in favor of leading the comrade to the peculiar definition of law as what “wants to be the finding out of what is.” The comrade removes ‘wants’ from the definition and consequently does not understand why laws change: if law is the finding out of what is (the having found out), then law would be steadfast and unchanging. Law would be the written/recorded account of a kind of perfect knowledge. But law manifestly changes[9] and is universal not because of its sameness but because of its difference—it is consistently inconsistent. This is why Socrates included wanting, imperfection, inside the nature of law: “if law only wishes, or tends, to be the finding out of what is, if no law is necessarily the finding out of what is, there can be an infinite variety of laws, which all receive their legitimation from their end: the truth.”[10] The dialogue ends with a discussion of Minos the Cretan lawgiver for whom the dialogue is named, which sets the stage for the beginning of the Laws.

How is the ‘answer’ of what law is that the Minos provides us with (“the law wants to be the finding out of what is”) representative and somehow reconciliatory of law’s seemingly disparate attributes? A look at how the problems are expressed grammatically offers an insight. Let us begin with the first word of the dialogue: νόμος.

Vόμος is defined in Liddell and Scott as “anything assigned, a usage, custom, law, or ordinance.” Vόμος appears twenty four times in the Minos, second in usage for Plato only to the Laws.[11] Vόμος is also defined as “a musical mode or strain,” and is used commonly throughout tragedy as well as other philosophical texts in a variety of contexts and in a variety of ways.[12] Thus to read the Minos as confining the definition of law to a notion of legality would be to miss the slippery nature of the word—and its intrinsic relation to impersonal verbs and the dative case. Law, then, must be read not simply ‘as is’ but with attention to from where/whom and to where/whom. Both the vόμος that forbids driving over the speed limit and the vόμος that causes all the actors in films from the fifties to sound alike must simultaneously be ‘law’ as pure and superseding the people it governs, as well as law constituted by and therefore dependent upon the people who create it. The dual nature of law will reveal itself through a grammatical lens by way of the application of an impersonal verb upon an indirect object (the dative) rather than upon a direct one (the accusative).

Let’s untangle this by means of example. Law both needs to be as simple as a universal punishment fitting a universal crime (two different people steal loaves of bread from a grocery store, but both are punished equally regardless of whether one is homeless and on the brink of starvation while the other has plenty of money to pay),[13] and it needs to be particular: lawyers defend by means of the particulars of their clients’ cases, arguing not that stealing bread should be legal, but that their client should be treated differently based upon the specific circumstances. A universal and unvarying punishment would look like the accusative case—it is the direct object of the law, and sits within its case regardless of whom it is directed towards. But while the law must look as though it deals only in accusatives in order to maintain its power, beneath every punishment and acquittal, every adherence to norm and every breaking of it, lurks the presence of the dative: the law is to us, it is for us, it is by us, and, as we shall see in the Minos, it is in us. The dative is both what makes law miraculous, and what endangers its very being.

On the other hand, law must come as the voice of the impersonal verb: “thou shalt not kill,” is an imperative that does not account for the one uttering it. In true impersonal form, “thou shalt not kill,” translates into law as “it is wrong to kill,” or “it seems wrong to kill.” Law reaches above itself towards an extra-ordinary[14] notion of right and wrong in order to establish itself, but once established, it must act as its own voice, (it must be whole and impersonal), since the recognition that it is validated by an original, personal notion of right and wrong would fundamentally undermine it.

The first line of the Minos is νόμος ἡμῖν τί ἐστιν; “(The law, to/for/by/in us, what is it?”).[15] As stated before, it is uttered by Socrates to a nameless comrade. This is notable, as it is one of only three occurrences within Plato[16] where Socrates’ interlocutor is nameless. This must, consequently, be taken as intentional and necessary to the subject matter of the Minos. A name distinguishes a person as defined by a certain locale—while it is not universally binding, the cultural reference of names is customary. No ‘law’ would be breached if you were to meet a Nepalese woman named Martha, or a Caucasian American named Abdul, but a reaction involving a sense of the unnatural would be expected and arguably valid. A name is therefore a kind of vόμος, and Socrates holds a dialogue about vόμος specifically with someone who seems to lack or be free of this vόμος.

Of course, the comrade only appears to us to be free of a name—the man Socrates is actually talking to is right in front of him, and even in the off-chance that they were strangers who had not exchanged names, the man is rooted in particularity by being in the same place as Socrates, while to us he is only the comrade of Socrates, a man nowhere in particular, a man who is no one in particular. Plato has thus set up the first half of law: the universal, the law as it pertains to all, regardless of a name, a place, or a culture. If he had asked simply νόμος τί ἐστιν; (“The law, what is it?”) to a nameless companion, then the comrade’s response, τί οὖν ἄλλο νόμος εἴη ἄν, Σώκρατες, ἀλλ᾽ τὰ νομιζόμενα; (“What other thing, then, might law be, oh Socrates, but the things held/believed to be?”) would be an adequate response. Law, as a universal concept/theoretical, is in essence the manifestation of whatever is held to be just.[17] The fact that all humans in all societies have some notion—regardless of how it differs—of justice, is evident in the fact that vόμος exists everywhere. Consequently, if Socrates were only trying to understand this fact (that law binds all humans together by means of its universal usage), then it wouldn’t matter to whom he was talking. But Socrates does not just ask what law in general is, he asks, “The law, to/for/by/in us, what is it?” adding ἡμῖν,[18] the dative plural pronoun. Now, ἡμῖν could be referencing humanity at large, or it could be particular to him and his comrade, but regardless, it adds on the second half of law: that it can only appear in a specific case, and never in general.

At this point, an examination of the usage of the dative case in ancient Greek is in order. The dative case is most simply known as the case of the indirect object, but can be split into three categories: the dative proper, (which includes datives of interest[19]), the instrumental, and the locative.[20] The dative proper “denotes that to, or for, which something is, or is done,” and is “largely personal” as it “denotes the person who is interested in or affected by the action.”[21] The instrumental dative denotes “that by which or with which an action is done or accompanied.”[22] Finally, the locative expresses place and time.

If we are to read ἡμῖν through these different syntaxes, we have a myriad of different interpretations: “the law, what is it to/for us” would encapsulate various datives of interest, and could be interpreted both as “how does the law serve us?” as well as “how are we affected by the law?” In essence, do we act upon the law, or does the law act upon us? It could also mean, “the law, what is it in us?” which somehow places the law as a faculty within us.[23]

If we read ἡμῖν through the instrumental dative, we get something like, “the law, what is it, because of/by means of us?” which puts an emphasis upon the agency of humans with regard to law, and that law is as a byproduct of our being.

The final reading of ἡμῖν through the locative does somewhat of the opposite to the instrumental: “The law, what is it, to us (presumably Athenian, circa 5th century B.C.E.),” which is to say, what is the law, as larger than we, to us in particular? This could be interpreted either as the entire legal system or as a law in particular. Read against the instrumental dative, this dative would mean not what the law is because of what we are, but what we are because the law is.

If a simultaneous reading of ἡμῖν through the instrumental and the locative renders opposing and irresolvable meanings, the oxymoronic nature of law seems to be best held within the dative of interest. After all, the instrumental and the locative are ‘lost’ cases and according to Goodwin and Gulick, “most datives may be resolved into datives of interest.”[24] So, treating the opening of the Minos as employing a dative of interest pronoun, we enter the dialogue not distinguishing vόμος as either theoretical or practical, universal or particular, but as necessarily both.

There are more dative pronouns in the Minos than any other declension of pronoun.[25] Of the twenty-six used, six occur within the first few exchanges between Socrates and his comrade. Given the importance of the opening—specifically the opening words—of Platonic dialogues, the use of these datives in particular warrants examination.

The first usage has been discussed above. The second dative pronoun comes about at the end of Socrates’ first exclamation. His comrade has asked him what sort of laws he is asking about, and Socrates responds:

“But what, is it possible that law/vόμος differs from law according to this thing, according to being law? For indeed consider what I am happening to ask you. For I ask, just as if I had asked what is gold, and similarly you had asked me what sort of gold I in fact mean, not correctly I would suppose you asked. For not at all surely/somewhere gold differs from gold nor stone from stone, according at least to stone being stone and to gold being gold; and so neither does law/vόμος differ from law/vόμος but all (plural) are the same (singular). For each law/vόμος is of a like manner, not one more so and the other less. Indeed I ask this very thing, with respect to all/in general, what is law/vόμος. If, then, something is at hand to you, speak.”

The dative pronoun in this section is employed at the very end: “if, then, something is at hand to you, speak.” On the surface, Socrates seems to be asking whether what he has said prompted any opinion in his companion. But the impersonal nature of ‘something at hand’ or ‘something easy/readily available’ (πρόχειρον, a neuter, singular, nominative) in tandem with to/for/by/in you (σοι) sets up the question of subject-hood that is integral to the issue of vόμος. Socrates is asking for an opinion of the comrade that the comrade does not recognize as opinion but understands as truth. What is readily available for the comrade to speak (under imperative) is what he holds to be true, and this is the first answer he offers Socrates: “what other thing might vόμος be, oh Socrates, than the things held/believed to be?” The σοι used by Socrates personalizes the vague, neuter nature of πρόχειρον, making what is impersonal about it grammatically personal, and consequently sets the comrade up to posit the first definition of law that Socrates will work to undo: that law is merely manifestation of opinion, that Law is always only law, and in being such is always particular to its referent (its dative subject).

The next four usages of the dative appear in connection to an impersonal verb, all within nine lines. The exchange translates as follows:

Socrates: “And truly speech seems (best) to you to be the things spoken, or sight the things seen, or hearing the things heard, or is speech one thing and the things spoken another, and sight one thing, and the things seen another, and hearing one thing and the things heard another, and, certainly, law/vόμος one thing, and the things believe/held to be another? Thusly or how, (does) it seem (best) to you?”

Comrade: “Now it is revealed to me (to be) different.”

Socrates: “Therefore law/vόμος is not the things held/believed to be.”

Comrade: “It does not seem (best) to me.”

The only pronouns used in this exchange are in the dative, the only verbs are either impersonal or are forms of ‘to be’ or ‘to seem.’ Δοκεῖ, in the impersonal, means ‘to seem,’ and is used three times. Integrated into the verb—but not mandatory to it—is that what seems to someone naturally seems best. The other impersonal verb, ἐφάνη, translates as ‘it appears,’ or ‘it has been bought to light.’ The sole use of these verbs: εἶναι, (to be), δοκεῖν (to seem), and φαίνειν (to appear) demands our attention. What do they all hold in common? All have to do, fundamentally, with the tension between seeming and being. Even εἶναι, which presents itself as just ‘being’ plain and simple, is only actually used once, and then remains solely through the use of nominal sentence structure; the initial εἶναι is evoked because there is no finite verb.[26] Consequently, only the first example in Socrates’ argument is enforced by a verb (εἶναι), while the following examples depend upon a grammatical tool to hold themselves together; our only option is to hold sight to be the things seen, hearing to be the things heard, and law to be the things believed, but the verb ‘to be’ is actually absent. Does the elision of ‘to be’ suggest there is, in fact, a difference between its presence and its absence, its appearance and its being? Davis argues:

“a nominal sentence, where one simply juxtaposes two things understood to be connected by the verb to be, is possible because the verb to be does not really add anything. The copula ‘is’ is not a predicate. Still, is it really true that ‘is’ adds nothing? By indicating that two things are to be put together the copula silently invokes the subject who puts them together. Whilst the upshot of this putting together is to say ‘I wasn’t needed; they were already together,’ my action somehow belies this claim. I am an agent (I invent) who finds himself to be a patient (I discover).[27]

All of the verbs in this section (the beginning) of the Minos hold two simultaneous identities: on the one hand, to seem, to appear, and to be act simply as the conduits of what ‘is’. They are somehow impersonal, merely presenting reality rather than acting upon it. On the other hand, they also have an underlying sense of their dependence upon the subjective, particular world. Everything that seems, appears, and even is, exist only in relation to someone, to a dative subject. Law most obviously recognizes that it is a seeming, or an appearing rather than a pure being because it always seems or appears to someone. Things are inasmuch as they are to someone.

The distance between these two verbal identities is what makes room for law; law accounts for what ought to be/what seems best to be because things are not actually that way. The fact that a law against killing exists means that humans recognize a discrepancy between what they believe to be just or good and the way the world actually functions. If law were to be truly and singularly universal—only an impersonal verb—then it would disappear entirely, as the distance between reality and how we desire reality to be would evaporate. We wouldn’t kill because killing would be wrong generally, in every situation, to everyone, and would never occur to be otherwise. The fact that people are killed indicates our personhood, our being as defined by longing. Our longings can bring us to kill, just as our longing for the world in its imperfection and the world as it ought to be to collapse is made manifest through our creation of law. This is what Socrates means by claiming that law “wants to be the finding out of what is.”

The movement of the particular exchange translated above, and the motivations for Socrates drawing a distinction between speech, sight, hearing, and law from the things spoken, seen, heard, and believed fits into a larger movement of Socrates’ argument that will not be commented upon here. Two things are of note: firstly, that vόμος is distinguished as a faculty rather than an object, which sets the stage for the later definition of law as what wants “to be the finding out of what is,” and secondly, that from the beginning of the dialogue, there is an implicit recognition that anything said—including law, and including statements made by impersonal verbs—appears to be merely a reflection of what is, but in reality only exists if it exists for an indirect object: “even if inexplicably, things said always involve a dative pronoun—we would say they involve an indirect object. Accordingly, legein/to speak is always already dialegesthai/to converse. As necessarily dialogic, speech always implies a ‘we.’”[28] Socrates is not choosing to have this conversation with an unsuspecting, nameless victim because he wants to inflict knowledge upon him (a kind of pleasure or pain, depending on how you look at it), but because the miraculous nature of vόμος is revealed in the way it connects otherwise dissimilar individuals. What is peculiar and worth examination within vόμος is how it binds Socrates to his nameless comrade; potentially of different ages, backgrounds, and possibly even cities, both are somehow defined by it, and belong under the same pronoun, ἡμῖν. While vόμος exists in the “I,” it is only made visible in the “we.”

The dual nature of law that opens the Minos is never resolved into a one. When Socrates asks, “the law, what is it to/for/by/in us,” he does not mean solely particular, practical law any more than he means solely universal, theoretical law. Instead, he understands that law necessarily is characterized by an impersonal verb, on the one hand, and a dative pronoun, on the other, and that the putting together of these two elements is what makes us human, what makes us long for the finding out of what is, and by longing, define our being.

[1] The word used in the Minos is νόμος, which means law, but also means custom, usage, ordinance, and song.

[2] Consider Nietzsche, “You can understand a people by the God they bow down to,” and Aristotle, “man is by nature a political animal,” Politics, 1253a2, and the city-state “coming into being for the sake of being,” Politics,1252b28.

[3] “True impersonal verbs have a grammatical subject in the personal ending; but the real subject is properly an idea more or less vague that is present in the mind of the speaker.” Smyth, Greek Grammar, p. 256.

[4] It is not unusual for Plato to pursue a philosophical issue by way of a grammatical paradigm. Consider, for example, the Laches, Euthydemus, and Euthyphro, which turn respectively to the peculiarities of the demonstrative pronoun, the dual number, and the middle voice. See Davis, Michael, “The Logos of Plato’s Laches: A Grace Note, “ (Unpublished manuscript, 2014) and The Soul of the Greeks (Chicago: 2011) 205-221, as well as Grewal, Gwenda-lin, Plato’s Euthydemus, Doctoral Dissertation, Tulane University, 2010.

[5] For commentary, see Strauss, On the Minos, and Davis, Plato’s Minos: The Soul of the Law.

[6] Strauss, p. 65

[7] Strauss, p. 65

[8] τὰ νομιζόμενα; the present participle in the neuter plural of the verb νομίζειν, which means to believe, to hold or to regard, and shares a root with νόμος.

[9] See discussion of previous Athenian customs/laws in comparison to contemporary ones in the Minos, 315B-D

[10] Strauss, p. 67

[11] Vόμος occurs 88 times in the Laws. However, the Minos is a very short dialogue (3071 words) and surprisingly surpasses all other dialogues in its usage of vόμος, including the Republic and the Crito (also concerned with law).

[12] 84 occurrences in Aristotle, 39 in Euripides, 18 in Sophocles, 15 in Aeschylus, (interestingly) only 6 in Homer.

[13] “The law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread,” Anatole France.

[14] See Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, and Mansfield’s Machiavelli’s new modes and orders : a study of the Discourses on Livy for discussion of extra-ordinary founding of law.

[15] This, and all following translations are my own.

[16] The other dialogues with a nameless companion are Hipparchus and Protagoras. There are, in addition, nine narrated dialogues in which Socrates or someone else speaks to “interlocutors” who are present but do not respond.

[17] Justice as having a direct correlation to the true, the good, and the beautiful; see Socrates’ argument/proof in the Minos, lines 314C6-314E5.

[18] “to/for/by/in us”

[19] Dative of the possessor, dative of advantage or disadvantage, dative of feeling, dative of agent, dative of relation, dative of reference, dative of the participle expressing time.

[20] “The Greek dative does duty for three cases: the dative proper, and two lost cases, the instrumental and the locative.” Smyth, Greek Grammar, p. 337

[21] Smyth, Greek Grammar, p.338

[22] Smyth, Greek Grammar, p. 351

[23] The interpretation of law as in us, as a kind of faculty in the way that the senses are is perhaps the most complex and interesting reading of ἡμῖν, and would account for both the universality of νόμος and its particularity. If it is something inside of us, not a fixed thing, but a disposition that makes room for the longing to find the being, then it defines us all as human by the very same stroke of our individual longings taking different forms.

[24] Goodwin & Gulick, Greek Grammar, p. 243.

[25] There are 26 dative pronouns, 19 nominative, 9 accusative, and 4 genitive personal pronouns in the dialogue.

[26] “A Nominal sentence is a linguistic term that refers to a nonverbal sentence (i.e. a sentence without a finite verb). As a nominal sentence does not have a verbal predicate, it may contain a nominal predicate, an adjectival predicate, an adverbial predicate or even a prepositional predicate.” Callender, J.B. (July 1989). “Studies in the Nominal Sentences in Egyptian and Coptic”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 48 (3): 230–232.

[27] Refer to the Greek verb εὑρίσκω, which means both “to discover” and “to invent,” used throughout the Minos.

[28] Davis, p. 6