You can read the Laws online in English at Perseus Project and in Cousin's French at Wikisource.
The Laws is a non-Socratic dialogue (although Aristotle repeatedly refers to the Athenian Stranger by the name 'Socrates'). The characters are the Athenian Stranger (Xenos in Greek), the Cretan Clinias, and the Spartan Megillus. It is unclear whether the last two are historical figures or not -- Debra Nails notes that 'Clinias' would be an unusual name for a Cretan, but also notes that there are possible mentions of Megillus in other sources.
The Athenian Stranger opens the dialogue by asking the other two whether the source of their codes of law is human or divine. Clinias replies that in Crete, where he is from, the code of laws is attributed to Zeus, and in Sparta, where Megillus is from, it is attributed to Apollo. The Athenian asks if the Cretans follow Homer in taking Minos to have had regular consultations with Zeus, and Clinias replies that this fits the Cretan version, which also describes Minos' brother Rhadamanthus as an exceptionally just judge. The Athenian then proposes that they discuss codes of law on their journey. They are walking from Knossos to the shrine at the Cave of Zeus, and it is a long way, although there are shady areas and cool meadows where they can stop and rest. And so they start off.
The Athenian Stranger asks why it is that the Cretans and Spartans enforce communal meals and special systems of physical training by law. Clinias replies that the legislator no doubt did it with an eye to making sure that they could be supreme in war. The Athenian Stranger, however, is unconvinced, and goes on to argue that this can't be right: the goal of a legislator is not increasing the ability for war but increasing the unity, reconciling enemies and furthering peace. Preparing for war is just a necessary evil subordinate to this end: "he'll become a genuine lawgiver only if he designs his legislation about war as a tool for peace, rather than his legislation for peace as an instrument of war" (628d-e). Clinias concedes that this sounds reasonable, but notes that he would be very surprised if the institutions of Crete and Sparta were not, in fact, geared for war. The Athenian responds by imagining a dialogue with the poet Tyrtaeus, an Athenian who became a Spartan, to argue that a legislator must concern himself with highest virtue. Clinias remarks that this is as much to say that the Cretan legislator was a failure, but the Athenian points out that one could as easily say that they had made the mistake, in thinking that the legislator was concerned with only one part of virtue rather than the whole. In reality, we should look at a larger picture;
'Now, Sir,' you ought to have said, 'it is no accident that the laws of the Cretans have such a high reputation in the entire Greek world. They are sound laws, and achieve the happiness of those who observe them, by producing for them a great number of benefits. These benefits fall into two classes, "human" and "divine." The former depend on the latter, and if a city receives the one sort, it wins the other too--the greater include the lesser; if not, it goes without both. Health (hygieia) heads the list of the lesser benefits, followed by beauty (kallos); third comes strength (ischys), for racing and other physical exercises. Wealth (ploutos) is fourth--not "blind" wealth, but the clear-sighted kind whose companion is good judgment--and good judgment (phronesis) itself is the leading "divine" benefit; second comes the habitual self-control of a soul that uses reason (meta nou sophron psyches hexis). If you combine these two with courage, you get (thirdly) justice (dikaiosyne); courage (andreia) itself lies in fourth place. All these take a natural precedence over the others, and the lawgiver must of course rank them in the same order. Then he must inform the citizens that the other instructions they receive have these benefits in view: the "human" benefits have the "divine" in view, and all these in turn look towards reason, which is supreme....' (631b-d)
They decide to start from the beginning again, looking at how the legislator handles fortitude and then using their discussion of that as a model for the rest. The Athenian argues that courage concerns not just conquering in matters of pain, but also in matters of pleasure; they look at institutions that expose people to pains and pleasures in order to teach them how to overcome them. Clinias and Megillus, however, have difficulty coming up with institutions on the pleasure side, and the Athenian notes that this seems fairly unique to these regimes: they expose men extensively to pains and dangers in order to teach them to overcome them, but try to keep people away from pleasures entirely.
They next turn to self-control, and Megillus proposes again that common meals and gymnastic exercises contribute to this, but the Athenian notes that they can contribute to revolution as well. In addition, they seem to corrupt the pursuits of pleasures, especially sexual pleasures, directing people not to the natural pleasures of sex between men and women in order to have a child but to the unnatural pleasures of men and men or women and women, which arise not in order to have a child but simply because the people in question cannot control their desires for pleasure. There seems to be a need to draw from both fountains, pleasure and pain, and one needs to know the proper occasions for doing so.
Megillus, however, argues that the Spartan custom of avoiding pleasure seems to work quite well, to which the Athenian replies that it no doubt does for people who already have a certain character. He proposes that they focus in particular on drunkenness. There are many different approaches to it on the table, ranging from the total abstention of the Spartans and Cretans to the intensive drinking of the Scythians and Thracians. He then goes on to defend drinking parties (symposia) as real contributions to the education of the citizenry by arguing that someone who wishes to be truly good at a trade must practice it from childhood, and what a city really needs is for people to practice virtue even from childhood. People are trained by fear, confidence, and reasoning, however, and reasoning when it is a public decision is a law; wine removes fear and intensifies confidence, and thus provides an occasion for the practice of self-control.
The Athenian continues his defense of drinking parties by looking at the nature of education. He ties education again to the managing of pleasures and pains:
I maintain that the earliest sensations that a child feels in infancy are of pleasure and pain, and this is the route by which virtue and vice first enter the soul....I call 'education' the initial acquisition of virtue by the child, when the feelings of pleasure and affection (philia), pain and hatred, that well up in his soul are channeled in the right courses before he can understand the reason why. Then when he does understand, his reason and his emotions agree in telling him that he has been properly trained by inculcation of appropriate habits. Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion. (653a-b)
Education, in other words, is focused on training children to love what ought to be loved and rejecting what ought to be rejected, so that our loves and hates accord with reason. This can wear off, over time, so that we need means of recuperation. This has been provided by the gods, who provide religious festivities so that we might be refreshed and restore our characters to proper balance. A significant part of this is music and dance. Even young non-human animals like to jump around and cry out; the difference in our case is that we, being rational, are capable of appreciating order and disorder in these things. Thus we have music and dance, which enable us simultaneously to relax and to practice being rational. Goodness in song and dance has to be understood in terms of education: a person may in some sense sing well by being able to represent good things accurately, but the true and proper sense of singing well is having the right alignment of loves and hates, pleasures and pains: this is to be trained in music and dance. If this is so, however, it is also not true to say that the standard of music and dance is whether they give pleasure: they need to be rationally ordered and appropriate to a good human being and his or her state. We would not teach children just any kind of dancing and singing, after all, but appropriate ones, and this is true generally; at the very least, you need the dancing and singing to be appropriate to whatever function it is supposed to fulfill in the health of the city. Thus we get the standard of taste: "The productions of the Muse are at their finest when they delight men of high calibre and adequate education--but particularly if they succeed in pleasing the single individual whose education and moral standards reach heights attained by no one else" (658e-659a). One of the major implications of this is that a musician is a teacher, and must act accordingly, not pandering to what just anyone, but providing a way for people to educate their loves and hates, pleasures and pains, properly.
One of the things the Athenian, very Platonically, does not want to say is that there is an inherent split between the pleasurable life and the virtuous life; he insists (as Plato does elsewhere) that what the virtuous find pleasurable is different from what the vicious find pleasurable, and because virtue is required for rational judgment in such matters, only the judgment of the virtuous is right. Even if this weren't true, it would obviously be valuable for people to believe it correct. This too must be expressed in song and dance.
As men get older, song and dance still remain important, but the kind of song and dance that is appropriate for them changes. Young people can with dignity enter competitions and the like, but older people are more sober and cannot so easily rely on the natural charms of youth. This brings us back to dinner parties. People under eighteen should be forbidden wine, because wine intensifies the dangerous tendencies of youth. People under thirty may drink in moderation but should be kept sharply within bounds. But those who are over thirty should let themselves loosen up at common meals and "summon Dionysus to what is at once the play-time and the prayer-time of the old" (666b). Wine helps them grow young again; it cures any curmudgeonliness they might be developing; by softening their cast of mind a bit it makes it easier for them to bring themselves back into proper balance.
Pleasant things can be pleasant in a way that emphasizes the charm, or the correctness, or the usefulness of the things in question. Thus things should only be judged wholly by the standard of pleasing others if they are not also true or useful. This applies to imaginative (eikastike) and imitative (mimetike) arts like music; the fact that music pleases others is in a way the least important thing about it -- certainly not as important as correctly imitating the beautiful/splendid (kalos). If the arts of the Muses are to be judged by how well they imitate the beautiful, however, then the only ones who can seriously be in a position to judge them are those who already know the beautiful. A judicious assessment of the matter has to take in the original, the correctness of the copy, and the quality of the copying. Modern judgments of music consistently fail on these points.
Thus the older men need to have an excellent training in song and dance, both so that they may dance and sing in ways appropriate to their age, but also so that they may serve as leaders and guides for the singing and dancing of the young. Dinner parties or symposia, then, are an appropriate and fitting object of legislation; there should be experienced men, over sixty years of age, to serve as generals of Dionysus, doing for wine what the generals of Ares do for war, but wine plays an important role in the health of the city. Drinking is excellent if done in an orderly way, and it serves as training for temperance. If we do it frivolously, however, drinking is so dangerous that we might as well go so far as punish people for doing it.
* In the notes to Bury's translation there is a good summary of the criticisms the Athenian Stranger makes of modern music:
...the main features censured are—incongruity, when the words, tunes and gestures of an acted piece of music are out of harmony; senselessness, when tunes and gestures are divorced from words; barbarousness, when the thing represented is paltry or uncouth (such as a duck's quack); virtuosity, when the performer makes a display of the control he has over his limbs and instruments, like a mountebank or “contortionist.” All these are marks of bad music from the point of view of the educationist and statesman, since they are neither “correct” nor morally elevating.
* It may seem a bit odd that the dialogue opens with a very extended defense of the importance of drinking parties, but it is an indirect way of arguing that temperance is as important to a city as fortitude -- in an analogy that is occasionally made explicit, symposia do for temperance in a city what the martial exercises of the Cretans and Spartans do for fortitude. The subject also keeps the argument of the dialogue connected to the original idea, which is that the real source of the laws is divine: the drinking that the Athenian Stranger is advocating is explicitly drinking associated with religious festivals, whose purpose in turn is to refresh and restore our moral characters through song and dance.
Having defended symposia, the Athenian asks what they should say about the origins of cities. They all agree that the history of cities is cyclical, as cities are destroyed or founded, as they increase in size or decrease in size, as they become good or turn bad. They imagine a few survivors surviving the great Flood, hiding in the mountains, and from there proceed to work out a speculative history of the slow, gradual re-establishment of city life. Such men would tend to be of noble character, through necessity, but they were both naive and ignorant of how to form societies in the best way. Instead of having statutory law, which requires writing, they lived according to custom (ethos) and the conventions of their fathers, as scattered clans are essentially extended families ruled by parents or the eldest members. Slowly they become more sophisticated, turning to farming and making homesteads and fencing off land, and at the same time become more aware of the differences among the customs of various settlement. They then start advising each other on laws, and they adopt those that seem good to them.
After a while, though, people start moving down from the highlands to the plains, being far enough removed from the disaster of the past to throw off fear of its happening again. The city of Troy is an example of this. Other peoples did the same, cities proliferated, and soon enough we have the Trojan War. Returning home, they sometimes found themselves unwelcome; rallied by Dorieus, they banded together as the Dorians and established places like Sparta. The Dorians forged alliances among the cities of Sparta, Argos, and Messene, one designed for the protection of all the Greeks. Since they were just starting out, they had many advantages over later legislators -- they were not trying to reform practices to which the people were already attached -- but it all went wrong, anyway. Argos and Messene collapsed, leaving only Sparta. And the reason is that the impressive character of the alliance to protect all Greeks lies entirely in something purely instrumental -- the ability to put forward an army like no other. And human beings, the Athenian notes, have a bad habit of assuming that a splendid instrument will cure all their problems. People get dazzled by wealth, for instance, and think that if only they put such a fine tool to fine use, they would inevitably have good results.
In reality, though, everyone tends to grasp after the desires of their own hearts, despite the fact that sometimes we are quite ignorant about what is really good for us, and thus are trying for bad things. We see this in prayer: prayer is dangerous for those without wisdom. The alliance collapsed through a lack of wisdom, which is why legislators must, above all, implant wisdom in the city. This occurs, again, by education forming our love and hate in an appropriate way. This is tied to the fact that in cities there must be ruler and ruled -- first parent and child, or noble and ignoble, or elder and younger, or master and slave, or stronger and weaker, or wise and foolish (the most important), or those chosen by lot and those not chosen by lot. The creation of faction makes possible the collapse of government; and at the level of kings, this was due to the pursuit of luxury. The Spartans were saved from this, however, by the fact that they ended up with a split kingship -- the kingship was originally shared by brothers -- as well as a council of elders and an ephor system to keep the power of the rulers in check. The divinely favored character of this constitution is seen by the survival of the Spartans and by the fact that they were the only one of the three cities actually to fulfill the function of protecting all of Greece when the Persians invaded. It shows that the most important thing for a legislator to aim at is a society that is wise, free, and bonded by friendship.
The Athenian argues that there are two pure kinds of government, monarchy (like the Persians) and democracy (like the Athenians). In order to have freedom and friendship joined together by wisdom, however, it is essential to blend the two. Under Cyrus the Persians became powerful and prosperous precisely because he allowed the people a considerable measure of freedom. But Cyrus was unable to teach his sons to do this as well, and let them become corrupted by the luxuries of the court. They met disaster, and only recovered because they became dominated by Darius, who was in some ways like Cyrus. But Darius made the same mistake, and disasters followed again. This was not due to luck but to bad education. And the only reason a person should come to rule is if they have the whole of virtue -- prudence, temperance, justice, and courage, all. These are the people who should be honored. The failure of the Persians to legislate with this in mind led to despotism and war. The tale on the Athenian side is much the same, allowing for the differences in constitutional structure. Originally they distributed power and were governed according to reverence, which united them internally and with other Greek cities, so that they protected the Greeks against the Persians. But just as the Persians practically destroyed themselves by making their people the slaves of luxury-hungry kings, so the Athenians began to ruin themselves by giving people too much license, thus destroying the orderliness of their education and breaking down the friendship of the city until children wouldn't even treat their parents with proper respect.
The Athenian ends by asking what test they might use to check that their conclusions are right. Clinias responds that Crete is founding a colony, in the planning for which he is heavily involved, so he suggests that they use their conclusions to design the legal framework for the colony, building a city in speech, thus letting them investigate these matters further, and perhaps, should the results be favorable, putting them into effect. They all agree on this, and the rest of the dialogue is concerned with this project.
* Notice that the Athenian suggests that legislation starts with the interaction between cities rather than anything internal to them.
* The history of the Dorians is quite surprising; everywhere else they are mentioned, they are said to be an invading people who drove out the Achaeans from the Peloponnesus (hence Sparta's famous two-tier structure with occupying Spartans on top of occupied helots), not Achaeans who were exiled.
* The tale of Hippolytus is that Phaedra, the wife of Theseus (and daughter of Minos), accused Theseus' son Hippolytus of trying to take advantage of her. Theseus prayed to his father, Poseidon, to punish the boy, and Poseidon did by causing him to die in a chariot accident. Theseus only then learned that the boy was innocent.
* Ephors were representatives elected by the people for one and only one term; they shared power with the kings, significant policies requiring majority vote of the ephors and kings. The system probably arose because one of the functions (the primary function, in fact) of the kings was to lead armies into battle, and the ephors provided a way for governance to continue even when kings were gone for an extended period of time. The ephors, when in agreement, were in practice an absolute authority.
* Aristotle, in Books II and III of the Politics, protests rather firmly against some of the Athenian Stranger's claims in this book. One of his protests against the plausibility of the suggestion that all good governments are blends of monarchy and democracy. But it seems clear enough that Plato's intent here is simply to take these as stand-ins for more abstract qualities: unity and liberty, which he repeatedly says the legislator should unite by prudence.