BMCR 1999.09.28

Platonic Ethics Old and New

, Platonic ethics, old and new. Cornell studies in classical philology ; v. 57. The Townsend lectures. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. viii, 196 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780801485176 $35.00.

Platonic Ethics Old and New, which opens with the promise that, “when we take a look at the interpretation of the ancients, we find something which is not just old … but also new, in the sense of giving us a new insight into Plato’s ethical thinking” (1), abounds with new, thought-provoking insights that challenge many orthodoxies in contemporary Plato studies. Annas uses the example of middle Platonist and Stoic interpreters to resolve, or more often, dissolve, problems in Plato scholarship. Arguing throughout against a developmental approach to the dialogues, Annas offers interpretations of Plato’s views on the sufficiency of virtue for happiness, worldliness vs. asceticism in the ethical ideal, the relationship between politics and ethics, the relationship between metaphysics and ethics, intellectualism vs. irrationalism in moral psychology, and the role of pleasure in the good life. But since it is the problems of contemporary Plato scholarship rather than the interpretation of the ancients that set the book’s agenda, many of its discussions have a negative structure: topics that are ultimately to be shown unimportant receive more extensive treatment than seems justified on Annas’s own grounds; often, more positive detail on the alternative interpretation suggested by the ancients might have made Annas’s case more convincing.1 This is true of her discussion of the Republic and its relation to other dialogues, which is what my remarks will concentrate on. For, although Annas would like to dethrone the Republic from its present “privileged position … in Plato interpretation” (5), she devotes three of seven chapters (4, 5, and 6) to it. And at the end of her discussion one is left wondering why Plato wrote Books 5-9, for, on her interpretation, the political details of these books are unilluminating for the city-soul analogy that they supposedly serve; the specific content of the metaphysics is dispensable; finally, the moral psychology is dangerous and misguided.

In chapter 4, Annas raises the question whether the Republic is about ethics or politics and votes for the former. She suggests that the prominence given to the Republic is due to its being regarded, since the mid-19th century, as a contribution to political theory, Plato’s answer to the problem of democracy. Against this, Annas argues that the Republic is, rather, a work in ethical theory, with the ideal state serving only as a model for the virtuous soul; moreover, the ethical position it advances is the one familiar from the Euthydemus and Meno, that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness.

But to begin with, there are pre-19th century interpreters of the Republic who took its politics as politics: Islamic philosophers such as Al-Farabi in the Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Perfect City and their ancient sources; Plutarch, one of Annas’s ancient Platonist sources, is a major source for Plato’s practical political story and advises philosophers to educate and improve men in power as Plato tried with Dionysius of Syracuse ( Moralia 776ef, 778a, especially because such men affect many others, 778e-79c). Alcinous, another important ancient Platonist source for Annas, says that the philosopher should enter public life when he sees that others are governing badly ( Didaskalikos 153.15-20), echoing Republic I (347c). Overall, Annas’s arguments establish considerably weaker claims than that the Republic is not about politics and a contribution to political theory (as well as ethics). She claims that the ethical and political doctrines in the Republic are separable, and the ancients treat them as such; on her view this shows that the ideal state is not part of the main argument of the Republic but rather merely illustrates and clarifies the nature of virtue in the virtuous person. But even if the doctrines can be discussed apart from each other there may still be a tight argumentative connection between them. And Annas explicitly addresses only two arguments for the inseparability of the doctrines — the argument that the ideal city provides the external goods that are necessary for positive (rather than merely comparative) happiness2 and the argument that it is necessary for the development of virtue and thus happiness. Yet for the politics of the Republic to be genuine and important it seems enough that the description of the ideal city, especially its educational scheme, points to conditions that enable or nurture the development of virtue in citizens. But the politics of the Republic does more: it provides a positive account of political justice (stated as a principle and sketched in its instantiation in a city) in answer to the conventionalist intuitions underlying Thrasymachus’ claim that ‘justice’ is the name for what serves the interests of the powerful, and Glaucon and Adeimantus’ claim that justice is the compromise outcome of a contract in which the preferable policy of doing injustice is given up in order to avoid the worse evil of having injustice done to one. Still, while Annas does not prove that politics is not part of the main argument of the Republic, she does pose an important challenge when she insists that any interpretation that considers politics important must show how it is central to the structure and argument of the work and not just a subsidiary topic like art or literature or censorship. However, she herself acknowledges that politics is more important to the argument than these other subsidiary topics when she admits, “we have to accept that Plato does think, though without good argument against contemporary political ideas, that his ideal state will be accepted as embodying a structure which is, in a state, moral; otherwise, the argument that the would-be moral person must internalize and live by this structure would have no force.” (82)

Does the Republic have no good arguments against contemporary political ideas? If we follow Annas we will view it in a political vacuum. For Annas argues that the Republic is not political in the sense of bearing on Athenian politics because neither the ancient biographical tradition nor the 7th Letter can be relied on to give us a true account of Plato’s political career; the ideal city of the Republic is constructed from first principles rather than by correcting existing institutions; and the degenerate states of Books 8 and 9 bear no resemblance to real constitutions but can only be understood in terms of the theory of the soul.

But from the fact that one can’t rely on ancient biography to give us a true account of Plato’s political career it doesn’t follow that we must suspend judgment about the Republic‘s relation to real-world politics in general or democracy or Athens in particular. We have the evidence of other dialogues: for example, the Gorgias criticizes the leadership of democratic Athens and the power democracy gives to ordinary and unskilled people (513ac, 515c-22a). And what would it mean for Plato to construct (or claim that he constructs) his ideal city from “first principles”? Alcinous draws a distinction between the best constitution absolutely (anypothetos) and the best constitution given limiting circumstances (ex hypotheseos, Didaskalikos ch. 32/188.8), but this seems to draw on Aristotle, Politics IV 1288b25-37, rather than on the Republic context of unhypothetical knowledge from first principles (510b-11d). Further, the contrast between “from first principles” and “by correcting existing institutions” looks more like Popper’s contrast between utopian and piecemeal engineering than like anything in Plato.3 Psychology and politics are not mutually exclusive alternatives for Republic 8 and 9 to be about, for the psychology of the individual characters offers an analysis of what makes the constitution such as it is: this is why we can only understand the political constitutions through the theory of the soul. It is a general principle in the Republic that the characteristics of cities come from the individuals in them (435d-36a). Conversely, the characterization of the constitution, the way of life of a city, gives a causal story about how such individuals are produced. What Annas does not consider is that Plato’s constitutions, while they may not resemble actually existing cities, do resemble — and then take issue with — the idealized constitutions described in such works as Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians (Aristotle complains about people who only do these idealizations in the Politics, 1288b40-89a2).4 For example, the Republic‘s musical education corrects the purely gymnastic education in Xenophon’s Sparta on the grounds that gymnastic alone makes citizens harsh (410cd).

What of the attitude of the ancients to politics in the Republic ? According to Annas, Plato treats his own account of the ideal city as “imaginative construction … beneath the level of serious intellectual discussion” (91). But imaginative construction and serious intellectual discussion are not mutually opposed: like the myth of the Timaeus, the imaginative construction of the ideal city can give us an approximation, a vision, inspiration where we do not have scientific knowledge. Annas also says that Aristotle’s discussion of the best constitution, the central topic of political theory, “unsurprisingly ignores the Republic, where this question is not considered” (92). This is an astounding claim about Aristotle: Politics II begins with the announcement that since his task is the study of the best form of political community, Aristotle will examine both actually existing constitutions and constitutions propounded by certain thinkers, and he immediately goes on to do the latter by considering the community of property in the Republic (1260b). Annas says that Aristotle’s typology of constitutions at Politics 1279a22 ignores the Republic‘s typology and draws on the Statesman. But the Statesman distinguishes correct and defective constitutions by whether or not they are governed by law, whereas Aristotle’s criterion is whether or not they aim at the common advantage; the common advantage is what the ideal city’s founders and law aim at in the Republic (420bc, 421bc, 519e-20a). And although Aristotle in the Politics is critical of the Republic‘s ideal constitution, this is not the same as his not considering the Republic to be about politics at all. As for whether the Republic itself considers the central topic of political theory, Socrates says in the text that he is describing the best constitution and its deformations (445c-49a, 543c-44b); the description of constitutions, ideal and otherwise, is the form ancient political theory took.5 It is also worth noting that far from denying that the Republic is a political work, Alcinous says that it sketches ideal constitutions and how they are to be formed ( Didaskalikos 188.9-12) Alcinous describes the politics and psychology of the Republic as parallel but nowhere suggests that politics is merely an analogy to illuminate psychology. Certainly Alcinous devotes more space to ethics than to politics, but this is likely to be a function of his audience and its interests, which may not be at all similar to Plato’s.

It is genuinely difficult to maintain on textual grounds that the politics in the Republic is only meant to illuminate the psychology. Annas herself admits that not all the political details of the ideal city admit of psychological interpretations. And Annas must strain some of Plato’s most direct remarks about the city and the soul to maintain her view. For example, Republic 592ab tells us that a man of understanding, if he is concerned to maintain the harmony established in his soul, will not wish to take part in politics ( τά γε πολιτικὰ πράττειν) in his native city ( ἔν γε τῇ πατρίδι) although he certainly will in his own city ( ἔν γε τῇ ἑαυτοῦ πόλει καὶ μάλα). Annas translates this last expression, “in the city of himself,” that is, in his soul (81, fn. 22) But this cannot be, for this city does not exist anywhere on earth ( γῆς γε οὐδαμοῦ αὐτὴν εἶναι), but only in theory ( ἐν λόγοις κειμένῃ) — which can hardly be true of souls. Surely this passage says, first, that the virtuous person will practice politics in the city that is virtuous, his own in the sense of being like him, where he will be truly at home. And its next, concluding, point is that since such cities are either rare or nonexistent, the virtuous person can nevertheless look at a model of the virtuous city and make himself virtuous in its image.

Chapter 5 argues for the separability of the ethics from the metaphysics of the Republic on the grounds that the Form of the Good is not needed to justify the authoritarianism of the Republic (Socratic ethics being authoritarian simply on the basis of the appeal to expertise on the craft-analogy), and the Forms do not answer the “what is X?” question of the Socratic dialogues in any way that is particularly relevant to ethics. Annas proposes that rather than providing a foundation or justification for ethics, Plato’s metaphysics helps one to make sense of one’s (independently held) ethics by, for example, showing one how one’s rationality is a microcosm of the rationality of the world. So the Form of the Good, like cosmic order and reason in the Gorgias and Philebus, inspires one to imitate its structure in oneself, helps one understand one’s ethical nature by putting it in the context of the world, and renders one’s ethical beliefs more stable and reliable. This reading is supposed to reduce the gravity of an important problem for the Republic, namely that philosophic virtue (knowing the Form of the Good) competes with and so undermines ordinary virtue: since ethics does not depend on metaphysics, Plato or a Platonist can replace the Form of the Good with a less problematic metaphysics.

The difficulty Annas points to, however, is the wholly ethical problem of whether the contemplative or the practical life is superior. And instead of taking the out proposed by Annas, many ancient philosophers subscribing to different metaphysical views seem to have inherited the problem (see, e.g., Aristotle EN X.7-8, Seneca De Otio, Cicero De Officiis I.152-60, Alcinous Didaskalikos 152.30-153). Annas’s interpretive strategy in this chapter is to minimize the importance of the details of any particular metaphysical picture for ethics, thereby removing one important motivation for developmentalism — differences in Plato’s metaphysical views in different dialogues. Is the thought then that there may be development in Plato’s metaphysical views while there is none in his ethical views? Even on this assumption, a contemporary Plato scholar will still want to know why Plato proposes this metaphysics in this work — even if that question is only a question about why he thinks this would inspire us, make sense of our ethical experience, etc.

Chapter 6 argues against yet another ground for developmentalism, namely the apparent difference between the intellectualist moral psychology in the Socratic dialogues and the admission of irrational elements in the soul in the Republic, Timaeus, and Phaedrus. Here Annas argues that the so-called Socratic dialogues simply understate Platonic moral psychology, ignoring the irrational elements and focussing on the aspect of virtue that is knowledge. Invoking Alcinous’ distinction between perfect and ordinary virtue, Annas argues that perfect virtue is knowledge, i.e. requires practical wisdom which turns out to range over the whole of one’s life, so any perfect virtue entails all the others; whereas ordinary virtue is specified in terms of types of action and so can coexist with vices in other areas of action. Annas uses a second distinction from Alcinous, between the primary virtues (of reason) and subordinated ones (of the irrational parts of the soul), to give a subtle and persuasive account of the virtues in the Republic according to which the subordinated virtues (such as courage) take their perfection from the predominant ones; they can do this because the irrational parts of the soul of which they are the virtues are amenable to being structured by reason. Thus courage, insofar as it is the virtue of the spirited part of the soul, gets its perfection from practical reason, the virtue of the reasoning part.6 Thus, “for a virtue to be courage is just for the spirited part of the soul to have developed in accordance with wisdom, the virtue of the rational part” (125) This shows that the Republic upholds the Socratic position of the reciprocity of the virtues.

But there is an irreconcilable difference here, Annas admits, not between Socrates and Plato or early and middle, but between two strains in Plato — the tendency to see the relation between the parts of the soul as the above account does, in terms of integration and agreement, and another tendency, to see this relationship in terms of dominance and coercion, with reason standing to the irrational parts as a shepherd to his dog, charioteer to his horses, etc. This amounts to “externalizing” a part of oneself as not fully human — and Annas denounces this strain.

This conclusion, of a tension between two tendencies (one of which is to be rejected on philosophical grounds), seems to move towards what motivates developmentalism in the first place — conflicts in the text (whether a single dialogue or the whole Platonic corpus) which lead interpreters to seek out intellectual difficulties and their solutions in Plato’s thought. A developmentalist may believe, like Annas, in tensions — say within a given text, even over a period of time — but she will hope, at least, that Plato eventually recognized and became dissatisfied with such tensions and sought to resolve them over the course of his intellectual life. She need not base her story of Plato’s intellectual development on a biography, but rather on philosophically motivated changes, with later dialogues resolving problems in earlier ones. And since Annas’s is not a simple unitarianism about Plato’s doctrines, recognizing “false starts, different approaches to the same problem, and change of mind on one theme coexisting with unchanged views on another” (12), one may ask how radically different her approach is from the developmentalists’. Surely being a developmentalist does not preclude paying attention to differences in voice, which may be explained by differences in “the contexts, and the method employed” (13), and these in turn, by Plato’s different pedagogical purposes and different audiences in different dialogues (17).

This raises the question of why we should be, before we look at particular texts, either developmentalist or unitarian. Annas’s guide is the example of the ancient interpreters — they thought in the same intellectual tradition as Plato, and their interpretation (apart from Aristotle’s distinction between Socrates and Plato) was unitarian. But does it make sense for us to follow the ancients here? Annas’s main ancient sources are epitomes of Plato’s philosophy, expository rather than analytical and critical,7 and an epitome does not have to explain or resolve every apparent difficulty — it is a dogmatic outline. Additionally, the interests of a contemporary historian of philosophy are fundamentally different from those of a member of a philosophical school in antiquity: we are interested in what Plato thought, right or wrong, when he thought it, why he thought it. The ancients do not separate their historical and philosophical activities — their interpretations reflect their interest in the truth, or in making sense of Plato’s thought as a whole, or in refuting it. For their purposes, differences in Plato’s approach and views in different works are weaknesses — to be used (by enemies) or explained away (by sympathizers and adherents). We are not playing the same game.

Although these comments have concentrated on my differences with Annas, I found Platonic Ethics Old and New an exciting book, rewarding both to read and to disagree with. Modern Plato scholars will need to think through this book, for it presents an important and cogent challenge to received opinions about Plato.


1. Above, I assume that Annas’s invocation of “the ancient interpreters of Plato” is unproblematic. But of course, the ancient interpreters did not speak with one voice — if an ancient interpreter needs to say, “Plato has many voices, not, as some think, many doctrines” (9) then obviously there is also ancient precedent for reading him as having “many doctrines.” In particular, Annas needs to deal with the evidence of Aristotle rather than leave him to one side on the grounds that others have dealt with this evidence so extensively.

2. Against Irwin’s view in Plato’s Ethics that in the Republic Plato argues that virtue is better and more productive of happiness than conventional goods but not sufficient for happiness, Annas makes the important point that to give up on sufficiency is to give up the most intuitively plausible grounds for virtue’s always turning out better than conventional goods.

3. See The Open Society and Its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (vol. 1), ch. 9.

4. In a work in progress, Stephen Menn develops an account of the relationship between Plato’s Republic and other works in the genre of politeiai, especially Laconizing ones.

5. One might argue on Annas’s behalf that in Plato’s writing a city’s constitution (politeia) is a way of life — hence the emphasis on education (paideia) — whereas later it comes to be a form of government. On this, see Plutarch, On Monarchy, Democracy and Oligarchy; Moralia 826ce. But this is to impose later categories on Plato’s thought — for Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, and the “Old Oligarch’s” Constitution of Athens conceive of a constitution as a city’s way of life and not just its institutions of government.

6. In explaining the nature of the dependence of the subsidiary virtues on the primary virtue of reason/wisdom, Annas reads Alcinous as saying that because the irrational parts of the soul do not have reason in them, they depend on the rational part for their perfection (125). The view may be right, but what Alcinous says is that the secondary virtues (not the parts of the soul) do not have reason in themselves, and that the virtue of reason (the rational part of the soul) is knowledge or skill (science or art) — this is not to make a claim about the nature of the soul, but again to distinguish between perfect and ‘civic’ virtue.

7. “The Didaskalikos is intended to be an exposition and not a criticism of the Platonic philosophy: a logos hyphegetikos, not a logos zetetikos” (R. E. Witt, Albinus and the History of Middle Platonism, Transactions of the Cambridge Philological Society, vol. VII (1937)).