Theses Doctoral

Virtue and Change in Plato's Laws

Noé, Mariana Beatriz

The aim of my dissertation is to show that Plato’s metaphysics in the Laws (Chapter 1) commits him to particular accounts of virtues (Chapter 2) and political leadership (Chapter 3).In the first chapter, I show that Laws X contains a metaphysical-cosmological theory that is directly relevant to Plato’s discussion of virtue. With this proposal, I reject the assumption that Plato’s Laws does not contain any extended discussion of metaphysics. I develop this argument by attending to a puzzling passage that, I think, has not received the attention it deserves: in X 896d-e Plato seems to talk of a good and a bad cosmic soul.

Given his theological-cosmological commitments, it seems inconceivable that he takes there to be a bad cosmic soul. This passage, I argue, makes sense once we attend to the immediately preceding text. This text contains a comprehensive metaphysical account of movement in the universe. Plato presents ten kinds of movement, among them “Other Movement” and “Self/Other Movement.” Only the Self/Other Movement of the cosmic soul is independent and good. This account enables us to make sense of the passage that mentions a bad cosmic soul: Plato entertains the hypothesis that there is such a soul, because he must explain where bad things in the universe come from. But the hypothesis that they come from a bad cosmic soul is immediately dismissed. Instead, the bad in the world is generated by those kinds of movements that are “lesser” as compared to the Self/Other Movement of the cosmic soul. This includes human movement. Human beings are Dependent Self-Movers: they participate both in bodily movement (Other Movement) and in psychic movement (Self/Other Movement). Since bodily movement is dependent, human beings cannot be inherently good. This status limits humans and makes them passive, weak, and inherently vulnerable to corruption.

In the second chapter of my dissertation, I turn to the intriguing notion of demotic virtues. According to Plato, attainable virtues are “demotic,” literally, “people-like.” So far, there is not much scholarship on this notion, as Plato construes it in the Laws. Insofar as there is work on demotic virtue in Plato, it tends to address passages from across the corpus. Contrary to this approach, I argue that the very framework of the Laws draws attention to the way in which human nature frames our ability to become virtuous. In the Laws, demotic virtues are the virtues of human beings. On this reading, “demotic” speaks to the ethical implications of a dependent nature. Human beings cannot attain perfect virtue. Only divine beings are perfect models of virtue; they are also perfect models of political organization, psychic states, as well as poetic and governance skills in the Laws. Demotic virtues, on the other hand, are a humanly-accessible type of virtue that does not require precise knowledge, and that everyone can possess. Given their ethical limitations, the “first-best” political system (i.e. the one achieved solely through reason) is out of human reach. But mortals have access to a second-best tool to achieve a second-best order: laws. Laws are expressions of νοῦς tailored to human needs, and are meant to make humans as godlike as possible.

In the third chapter, I argue that none of Magnesia’s magistrates possesses perfect virtue. Plato first introduces demotic virtues when he discusses the city’s rulers. Why should “people-like” virtues figure in the discussion of those who are presumably best? I believe that this puzzle is instructive; its solution reveals an important aspect of the Laws’ theory of virtue. The rulers have two features (XII 965a-968a): they have cosmological knowledge about soul and universe, and they have demotic virtues. Rather than assume that both of these traits differentiate them from the non-rulers, I argue that only the first trait, their knowledge, marks them out. Rulers have knowledge that others lack, but they cannot attain a different type of virtue based on that.

Through an examination of Magnesia’s offices, I show that even the highest-standing officials must make an ongoing effort to sustain virtues. An analogous consideration applies to the laws. Laws can attain a high level of goodness, but they inherit the temporal and imperfect nature of their human creators. Over time, and viewed in the light of experience, laws require amendments and corrections. Eventually, Magnesia’s officials will declare them stable, but not because they attain inherent stability. Rather, the laws should be perceived as stable, and hence the process of amendments shall be called to a halt. My account of the magistrates’ demotic virtues explains why Magnesia depends on an intricate system of examination and testing. Plato scholars tend to be fairly silent on these policies of testing. I argue, however, that Plato makes a proposal we can appreciate: rather than defend the superior standing of rulers, he argues for political accountability. This need to hold leaders accountable is the political manifestation of the type of virtue human beings can attain, one that is “people-like” rather than “divine-like.”


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Classical Studies
Thesis Advisors
Vogt, Katja
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2022