BMCR 2020.03.15

Virtue and Law in Plato and Beyond

Julia Annas, Virtue and Law in Plato and Beyond. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. vi, 234 p. ISBN 9780198755746 $45.00.


Julia Annas is a major advocate of the branch of ethical theory that in modern normative ethics has come to be called ‘virtue ethics’ (Annas 2005, 2011). Since Annas considers ancient ethical theory a classical version of virtue ethics, she often draws on ancient ethics to clarify the virtue ethical position (Annas 2005, 515). In her most recent monograph, Annas reverses the direction, offering an interpretation of Plato’s Laws along the lines of virtue ethics. Plato’s last work is no less committed to the position that happiness requires virtue than the Republic, yet differs in assigning obedience to law a major role in the acquisition of virtue. Annas sets herself the goal of assessing this role, arguing that “Plato now insists that education for virtue on the part of the citizens requires them to learn explicitly, and internalize, obedience to the city’s laws” (4). She highlights a “bold” move on Plato’s part to bring together the idea of strict obedience to the laws, epitomized in the idea that the citizens of the ideal city of Magnesia should be ‘slaves of the laws’, with the notion that free citizens are “entitled to know what the point is of their laws” (105). On her account, the extended preambles in the Laws supply the kind of explanation necessary to develop virtue (“laws are needed to develop the virtues”, 105, cf. 150) because they enable the citizens “to understand the point of their laws, whether by rational argument, discussion, or appeal to non-rational factors like fear” (98).

These claims are mainly developed in Chapter 4 (‘Virtue in a Framework of Law’). Chapter 1 briefly sets out the aims of the book, and Chapter 2 adds to recent scholarship showing that laws are also part of the constitution of the Republic (although the preambles belong uniquely to the Laws). Chapters 3-6 address related aspects of Annas’ reading of the Laws: Chapter 3 argues how the bold combination of slavery and freedom rests on the synthesis of the best aspects of the Spartan and Athenian constitutions; Chapter 5 argues that the laws aiming at virtue are based on divine reason; and Chapter 6 shows how various preambles structure daily life so as to encourage virtue. Chapters 7 and 8 as a kind of postlude trace vestiges of the idea of the preambles in Cicero’s On the Laws and Philo of Alexandria’s Exposition of the Laws of Moses.

Annas’ attempt to make the preambles central to reading the Laws along virtue ethical lines is ambitious. Crucial for her is the idea that a person is not virtuous if he or she does the right thing out of pure habit: mere, unquestioning obedience and slavishly following the law fall short of the requirements of virtue.[1] Virtue is only realized if a person does the right thing with understanding. This is why, on Annas’ reading, the preambles are so important for producing virtue and hence why they are central to her argument: they supply the ethical ideals without an understanding of which citizens cannot truly be virtuous. The preambles “explain the point of the law in question” (91, cf. 93), while the citizens need to “understand the point of obeying” (93, 111, emphasis added). Annas’ account of the preambles makes the important step of conceiving of the preambles as including various forms of reasoning rather than as rational arguments appealing to a rational part of the soul. Still, Annas’ notion of reasoning remains the relatively scholastic one of supplying an understanding of the ethical ideals underlying the actions prescribed by law. This seems problematic on two grounds. First, it takes for granted that the citizen is obedient or, at least, already aspires to virtue. Only then would supplying ethical ideals seem a sufficient reason for acting. The raison d’être of the preambles, however, is to induce obedience in the first place—or perhaps rather to discourage disobedience, in full recognition of the fact that in some cases, people will be subject to various opposing impulses. Annas’ account thus undervalues the rhetorical function of the preambles. For while explanations of how obedience contributes to the achievement of virtue may be part of such discourse, it is certainly not the only rhetorical strategy in a type of discourse that aims at being, first of all, persuasive. If that makes the preambles seem childish, it might be worth recalling that the Athenian fully acknowledges that they resemble the kind of speech directed at children: they are like the mild, soft treatment which children importune a doctor to use (720a5-6), or an address by soothing parents (858d6-859a6).

Second, the emphasis on understanding makes Annas prone to overstate the extent to which the preambles offer an explanation of ethical ideals. In line with an emerging consensus,[2] Annas (rightly) notes the variety of the preambles (pp. 95-96), yet she goes on to argue that the preambles have the “general aim” (97) of putting forward a positive ideal: “[t]he preambles, in a range of ways, present the ethical ideals implicit in the ways of life structured by the various laws” (98).[3] Annas makes it abundantly clear that the laws restructure various areas of human activity, such as hunting and commerce, so as to aim at virtue. Thus, hunting should cultivate the right kind of courage, and trading in the market square should preclude any form of cheating. But that laws and social, political or economic institutions aim at virtue does not mean that citizens will fall short of virtue unless they have a firm understanding of the ethical ideal they would achieve by obeying the law. Furthermore, supplying an understanding of ethical ideals seems less apt to describe a number of other cases: e.g. the preambles to the marriage law, meant to stir people’s allegedly natural longing for immortality (the version in 721b6-d6), or to encourage people to look for a partner less well-to-do than oneself and of the opposite temperament (the version in 772e7-773e4); the preamble to temple theft (854a3-c6), which labels the urge to steal from temples as an ancestral fault and advises seeking ritual purification; or the preamble on the duty to honour one’s elderly parents (930e4-932a6), which warns that parents’ curses and prayers are respectively the most severe and the most to be coveted. If virtue requires understanding ethical ideals, one might well ask why not all preambles offer an explanation along these lines. One might also wonder how Annas views the relation between the absence of philosophical argument from the dialogue and her interpretation of the preambles.[4] All of this does not mean that the Laws cannot be read as a work endorsing a virtue ethical position—clearly, Plato considers laws which aim at virtue the only laws worth the name. But such an argument would require letting go of some aspects of the modern virtue ethical position, taking into account virtue’s fourfold nature in the Laws, and noting differences in education between the citizens (such as the ‘more accurate education’ (ἀκριβεστέρα παιδεία) of the Nocturnal Council).

In Chapter 7, Annas turns to Cicero’s On the Laws, focusing on how Cicero approaches the need for an explanation of the point of the law (pp. 172-180). With her reading of the preambles in mind, she concludes—despite the fact that Cicero, with explicit reference to Plato’s practice in the Laws, initiates his legislation both in Book 2 (on religion) and Book 3 (on magistrates) with prooemia—that it is de facto Book 1 which functions as a preamble, as its account of natural law “is meant (…) to indicate how they are to be recommended to the citizens” (173).

In Chapter 8, Annas argues that Philo retains Plato’s idea that the virtues and happiness are developed through adherence to a law code. Philo’s presentation of the Mosaic laws in the context of the Pentateuch—that is, preceded by the account of the creation of the cosmos and virtuous lives (Abraham, Joseph)—does “something very similar” to the preambles (191) and to Book 1 of Cicero’s On the Laws. Annas points to a passage in The Life of Moses (II, 51) which discusses Moses’ approach as lawgiver in terms recalling the preambles. Philo’s language is indeed striking, but Annas overlooks the distinction between a historical and a legislative section made immediately prior to it (De Vit. Mos. II, 45-48; cf. Praem. 1-2). One might furthermore have wished that Annas took more notice of the fact that Philo is retelling, and interpreting, an existing text: at various points, she seems to treat both everything preceding the Commandments in Philo’s Exposition of the Laws of Moses and his method of expounding the ten generic Commandments in more detailed legislation in On the Special Laws as similar to the Platonic preambles.

The book concludes with a synthesis of the argument in Chapter 9 (‘Bringing Things Together’) and an Index of names and terms; an Index Locorum is regrettably absent. Omitted from the bibliography is Sandrine Bergès, Plato on Virtue and the Law. Bloomsbury 2009, whose chapter on the Laws also centres on the preambles (although it makes a very different point). The bibliography contains a not insignificant number of minor errors, as well as a non-existent study (“Perkams, Matthias (2001), On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses, Brill, Leiden”).[5]

Annas’ overall project is an engaging one: she offers a way of seeing such different intellectuals as Plato, Cicero and Philo—working within different legal contexts and with different (historical or imagined) sets of laws—as being au fondconcerned with reshaping law codes and legislation as tools for producing virtue. In that sense, it is true to say that these intellectuals are engaged in similar projects and may be seen as precursors to modern virtue ethical approaches to legal philosophy. This book will therefore be of great importance to scholars working on Plato’s Laws as well as to those interested in legal thought in the ancient Mediterranean. Although the book would have gained from taking into account differences between ancient and modern notions of virtue, Annas’ sustained efforts to show how the laws aim at virtue is salutary; her treatment of the ways in which the innovation of the preambles is taken up by Cicero and Philo is moreover a welcome broadening of the debate and opens up new perspectives from which to approach the preambles in the Laws; and the ways in which Philo takes cues from Plato’s approach to lawgiving is fascinating material, which merits further exploration.


Annas, J., ‘Virtue Ethics’, in: D. Copp (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005, 515-536.
Annas, J., Intelligent Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011.
Bickford, S., ‘This Way of Life, This Contest: Rethinking Socratic Citizenship’, in: S. Salkever (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009, 126-155.
Brisson, L., ‘Les préambules dans les Lois’, in id., Lectures de Platon. Paris: Vrin 2000, 234-265.
Buccioni, E., ‘Revisiting the controversial nature of persuasion in Plato’s Laws’, Polis 24 (2007), 262-283.
Fossheim, H.J., ‘Plato’s Rhetoric of Law: The Prooimia and Moral Psychology’, The Journal of Greco-Roman Studies 46 (2011), 5-26.
Fossheim, H.J., ‘The prooimia, Types of Motivation, and Moral Psychology’, in: C. Horn (ed.), Platon. Gesetze – Nomoi. Akademie Verlag 2013, 87-104.
Laks, A., ‘The Laws’, in: C. Rowe & M. Schofield (eds.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000, 258-292.
Schöpsdau, K., Platon. Nomoi, Buch IV-VII. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2003.


[1] Annas nowhere explicitly addresses the nature of these requirements, nor does she define ‘virtue’. Her argument seems to presuppose the understanding of virtue offered in Annas 2005.

[2] E.g., Brisson (2000); Laks (2000), 290; Schöpsdau (2003), 223-224; Buccioni (2007); Bickford (2009), 148-151; Fossheim (2011), (2013).

[3] Cf. “They [the citizens] (…) need to understand the way that virtuous character is the point of the specific regulations that structure their lives” (91); “the ideals they will achieve by living their ordinary, often mundane lives virtuously” (114, cf. “ethical ideals”, pp. 97, 98, 100).

[4] Noted on pp. 74, 77, and 160.

[5] David Runia, Philo of Alexandria On the Creation of the Cosmos according to Moses. Introduction, translation and commentary. Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series 1. Leiden: Brill 2001.