Plato, Virtue and the Law

Sandrine Berges

Book Proposal.




Ancient Philosophy is no longer an isolated discipline. The past twenty years or so have witnessed the growth of a dialogue between ancient philosophers and philosophers writing on central contemporary issues in moral or political philosophy. One case in hand is the renewed interest in character and virtue as ethical concepts, which has meant that many moral philosophers have gone back to Aristotle whom they perceived as the founding father of their creed.[1]

On the whole, and rather surprisingly, Plato’s contribution to virtue ethics has been neglected.[2] This is perhaps due to a focus on the part of readers, on Plato’s strong commitment to the thesis of the unity of the virtues, and on the somewhat extreme moral psychology that can be read in the Republic when certain passages are taken out of context.[3] But when we focus on other dialogues as well, we see that Plato does have very useful thoughts to contribute to the discipline of virtue ethics, and especially, to its political applications. Indeed, many of Aristotle’s own thoughts (virtue coming from habituation, the importance of character development) can be traced to Plato.[4] And Plato, like Aristotle, did not merely outline a moral psychology. He asked how these principles could be applied in the world of politics.

The question of whether a virtue politics can be evolved from virtue ethics has become particularly urgent in recent years. If it cannot, then doubts can be raised as to its overall usefulness, and there will be grounds for preferring ethical theories, such as consequentialism and Kantianism, which can form the basis of a political theory.[5] One aspect of virtue politics which has received special attention recently, is virtue jurisprudence, a set of questions regarding the virtue ethical understanding of the law. So an account of how a virtue ethicist may answer central questions regarding the law will go quite some way towards vindicating the possibility of extending virtue ethics to the political domain.


I believe that this work will contribute to the fields of virtue ethics and ancient philosophy in two distinct ways:

First, I will aim to show how it is possible for virtue ethics to make an interesting and original contribution to one aspect of political philosophy, i.e. the understanding of laws. Secondly, I will show that Plato’s dialogues contain interesting and mostly plausible insights into current philosophical concerns. Because interest in Plato’s political philosophy has revived in the last few years I have reason to believe such a book would attract a wide readership amongst ancient philosophy scholars[6]. Notably the International Plato Studies hosted conferences on Statesman and Laws, followed by proceedings[7], and Christopher Bobonich recently published a monograph entitled Plato’s Utopia Recast.[8]


My research methodology in writing this book has been to try out the central ideas and arguments in a series of articles:




The thesis of this book is that a distinctive virtue theory of the law is clearly presented in Plato’s political dialogues.


There are two main challenges to this project. First it seems prima facie impossible for a virtue ethicist to have anything interesting to say about the laws. A virtuous agent will act according to what she perceives as the morally relevant features of the particular situation she finds herself in. But the law requires that she follows the same rules as everyone else, no matter what the fine details of her situation might be. This apparent incompatibility makes is difficult to imagine that a virtue ethicist might have anything useful to say on the topic of laws.


Secondly, one might easily feel that giving a virtue ethical account of the law would constitute a threat to autonomy.[9] Laws tell us what we should do in order not to be punished. We know that they are necessary in order for society to function well. We choose to be part of a well functioning society, and so we respect the laws. But a virtue ethical account of laws will also state that laws are good for our characters, and that someone who disobeys them is not just a dissenter, but a bad person, and, possibly, a mentally unhealthy one.


By studying the arguments of the Crito, Menexenus, Gorgias, Republic, Statesman and Laws, I will show how Plato proposes several ways in which we can understand the law from the perspective of virtue ethics and at the same time respond to the two challenges above. I will argue that Plato worked on these questions throughout his career, and that not until his later works in political philosophy, the Statesman and the Laws, does he succeed in addressing the challenges of incompatibility of law and virtue, and paternalism satisfactorily. 


Chapters overview.


(Appendix 1 contains drafts of the introduction and chapters 1, 2 and 3).


I will focus on six dialogues: Crito, Menexenus, Gorgias, Republic, Statesman and Laws. Each of the following six chapters will be devoted to one of these in order. The introduction discusses the rationale for the book and offers an overview of the contents.


Chapter One offers preliminary remarks on the central themes of the book, starting with a discussion of what ancient virtue ethics is, its role in the revival of virtue ethics, an attempt to define virtue jurisprudence, and lastly, a brief analysis of the two problems I take Plato to solve in his later dialogues: the incompatibility problem and the paternalism problem.


In Chapter Two I begin to discuss the apparent incompatibility between virtue ethics and allegiance to laws. I will then argue that the Crito offers a deep and subtle answer to the question: 'why should a virtuous agent obey the law?', and that this answer is couched in terms of the law/parent analogy presented by the Personified Laws of Athens at 50c-51c. This interpretation is controversial in that it refutes two schools of thought: one is that the Crito lends itself to an authoritarian interpretation, we must obey the law no matter what[10] (this is clearly not compatible with a virtue ethical reading) and the second is that the Crito presents the laws' claims as authoritarian but does not recommend that we should obey the law at all, and claims instead that Socrates obeys for moral reasons which are independent of the belief that one owes allegiance to the law.[11] I shall argue that both interpretations are wrong and that a correct interpretation of the argument of the Crito must rely understanding the parent analogy as claiming that the purpose of the law is to promote and maintain an environment in which it is possible for the virtuous agent to flourish.


The Menexenus takes up again the parent/law analogy introduced in the Crito. In Chapter Three I show how the analogy enables Plato to answer further questions about the virtue ethical understanding of laws, namely, what is it for a law to be a good law from the point of view of the virtuous agent? This goes further than the argument of the Crito, as in that dialogue, Plato tells us why a virtuous agent has reasons to obey a law, even if it is a bad law. My interpretation of the Menexenus draws on Plato’s beliefs that a good law, like a good parent, will educate citizens, and therefore promote virtue. This interpretation lends itself to charges of paternalism: if the law shapes citizens’ characters, then it is not clear that citizens ever decide autonomously whether a law is good or not. I will show how one might respond to these objections.


Up to Chapter Three I discuss laws from the perspective of the virtuous agent, focussing on why a virtuous agent would want to obey a law, and what makes a good law from the point of view of the virtuous agent. However, problems tend to arise when we try to apply a virtue theory of law to the non-virtuous agent, in particular, to agents who disobey the law, i.e. criminals. The virtue theory propounded by Plato equates virtue with psychological health. This can be taken to mean that those who are not virtuous, and those who disobey the law, are mentally unhealthy. A consequence of this view is to say that criminals should be cured, rather than punished, a claim that Plato supports sometimes. Chapter Four will explore the significance of the health analogy with reference to punishment. In particular it will address the objection that what Plato is claiming is that all criminals are mad. I will argue that the medical model Plato is proposing in the Gorgias is based on the elenctic method, i.e. that to become psychologically healthy is an intellectual process involving dialectic. I will then show that Plato’s medical model has interesting implications for modern penology, in that it would encourage a predominance of community service sentencing.


Chapter Five explores the extent to which in the Republic, Plato discusses political obedience as psychological health without reference to laws. It will show how our distrust of Plato’s legal and political philosophy is mainly caused by what he says in that dialogue. Both the compatibility and the paternalism worry seem to be magnified in the Republic, and Plato does not attempt to offer solutions to either of them. But rather than considering that the Republic constitutes a step back in our attempt to construct a sensible virtue ethical account of the laws from Plato’s views, I will suggest reasons why we can discard some of his comments as irrelevant to the particular project of giving an account of laws: what makes them good or bad, and why we should obey them. 


Chapter Six examines Plato’s mature attempt in the Statesman at resolving the incompatibility problem. I start by considering the dialogue’s two very controversial and apparently contradictory claims about laws:

1) That a true king will not rely on laws except as convenient shorthand to avoid having to review each individual case, and as guidelines for his people on occasions when he has to go away.[12]

2) That in the absence of a true king, states must do their best to imitate the rule of the true king and that to do so, they must stick to their written laws, whatever they are, and not attempt to change them or write new ones.[13]

It seems that Plato is saying that either a virtuous ruler must do without laws, or that, in the absence of such a ruler, citizens must forget about a system of laws that is compatible with virtue. However, I will argue that in fact, the image of the true king, who relies on written laws for convenience only, provides a model for a more realistic appeal to virtue in jurisprudence, that is, a respect of laws that is compatible with equity. The Statesman, I will show both sets out clearly the dilemma facing those who wish to explain legislation and jurisprudence in terms of virtue, and makes some very plausible claims about how one might deal with these dilemmas.


Plato’s last dialogue, the Laws, has been read as the product of his disillusion with politics. He no longer believes that kings are capable of becoming philosophers and ruling justly. This would explain the emphasis he places on the nitty-gritty detail of the laws in that dialogue. Men are not to be trusted – laws are, as one interpretation of the Statesman might suggest.


However, in Chapter Seven I will show how the Laws is in fact the mature product of Plato’s reflection on the possibility of understanding laws from the point of view of virtue, and in particular, that he is now able to answer the paternalism worry. What Plato proposes is that all laws should be prefaced by a preamble, such that when citizens obey the law, it is because they have been rationally persuaded that these laws are in fact good laws. But several writers have argued that in fact, the preambles of the Laws fail to persuade rationally. I will attempt to explain why some of them appear to be unpersuasive, and at the same time, defend Plato against accusations that he is interested in propaganda, not persuasion.


In the concluding chapter, I retrace the main lines of Plato’s thought on virtue and the laws as well as the various links between his proposal and contemporary virtue ethics.



[1] See Anscombe, E. (1958), ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, in Crisp, R. and Slote, M. (eds.) (1997) Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Rosalind Hursthouse, (1999), On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Slote, M. (1995) ‘Agent-Based Virtue Ethics’. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 20, 83-10, Annas, J. (2005), ‘Virtue Ethics: What Kind of Naturalism’, in S. Gardiner, Virtue Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] With a few exceptions such as Michael Slote “Virtue Ethics” in, Baron,M., Slote,M., and Pettit,P. (1999) Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate Oxford: Blackwell, Julia Annas, (2005), whose discussion of the concept of wickedness is based on a reading of Books 8 and 9 of Plato’s Republic in “Wickedness as Psychological Breakdown”, Southern Journal of Philosophy, 43 (supp.) 515-36,  and of Christine Korsgaard, (1999), “Self-constitution in the ethics of Plato and Kant”, Journal of Ethics, 3:1-29, who bases her discussion of self-constitution on Plato.

[3] This is maybe why Philippa Foot, (1978),  in her pioneering book Virtues and Vices Oxford: Blackwell, claimed that she found Plato less useful than Aristotle when talking about the virtues.

[4] See Laws, Book II, 653 for an account of habituation.

[5] Michael Slote and Roger Crisp (1997) Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press note that there is a yet-to-be-filled gap in contemporary virtue ethics:


If virtue ethics cannot produce some plausible conception of social justice and of political morality more generally, then its main contemporary rivals, consequentialism and Kantianism, will have a distinct advantage.[5]


[6] See Appendix  for details of some recent books on Plato’s political philosophy.

[7] C. Rowe (ed.), (1995,) Reading the Statesman, Academia Verlag, Sankt Augustin, , and S. Scolnicov and L. Brisson (eds.), (2003), Plato’s Laws: From Theory into Practice, Academia Verlag, Sankt Augustin,  .

[8] Christopher Bobonich, (2002), Plato’s Utopia Recast, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] Part of my discussion of this challenge will aim to establish that Plato was indeed concerned with a form of autonomy.

[10] David Bostock. (1990) "The Interpretation of Plato's Crito", Phronesis,  35/1: 1-20 and Gregory Vlastos, (1994), "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy" in Vlastos (1994) Socratic Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 87-108.

[11] See Roslyn Weiss,  (1998) Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato's Crito, Oxford University Press: New York; Verity Harte, (1999), "Conflicting Values in Plato's Crito", Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie, 81/2: 117-147; and Melissa Lane, (1998) "Argument and Agreement in Plato's Crito", History of Political Thought, 19/3: 313-330.

[12] Statesman 294a-297b.

[13] Statesman 297b-300c.