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Plato's Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 42, Number 3, July 2004
pp. 334-335 | 10.1353/hph.2004.0048

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.3 (2004) 334-335

Christopher Bobonich. Plato's Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 643. Cloth, $49.95.

In tracing developments in Plato's views between his middle- and late-period dialogues, Plato's Utopia Recast focuses on the differences between philosophers and non-philosophers with respect to their capacities to become genuinely virtuous. The central thesis of this extensive work is that the Laws reveals a degree of optimism about the prospects for non-philosophers in attaining virtue and happiness not found in dialogues of the middle period. Specifically, Bobonich describes this development in terms of four claims that he thinks Plato denies in the Phaedo and Republic but later affirms in the Laws: first, that at least some non-philosophers are capable of being virtuous; second, that they can value virtue for its own sake; third, that they can value the virtue and happiness in others for its own sake; and fourth, that these non-philosophers are capable of living happy lives.

Bobonich devotes most of the first chapter to describing Plato's pessimism about non-philosophers in the middle period. The cause for this pessimism is both epistemic and psychological. In the Phaedo, non-philosophers are incapable of knowing what is genuinely valuable. Failure to grasp non-sensible value properties means that in non-philosophers, reason simply takes over the ends defined by bodily impulses. The Republic is less pessimistic, but even here, Plato's tripartitioning of the soul makes clear that the rational part of the soul in non-philosophers fails to fulfill its proper ruling function. Bobonich's claim is that the more optimistic view presented in the Laws is indicative of developments not only in Plato's political theory, but also in the areas of psychology and epistemology.

The central feature of the political theory advanced in the Laws is that the proper goal of legislation is not victory in war, but the cultivation of virtue in all citizens. More importantly for Bobonich, it suggests that all citizens, both philosophers and non-philosophers, are capable of attaining some degree of genuine virtue. For evidence of this, he points to the preludes that accompany each piece of legislation designed to provide a rational justification for what the laws command. In identifying virtue as the aim of legislation, Bobonich observes that the Laws endorses a dependency thesis about goods, making the value of a dependent good such as wealth, honor or military victory dependent upon its possessor being virtuous. His position is that Plato's endorsement of this dependency thesis in the Laws implies that ordinary citizens are capable of at least a partial grasp of what is genuinely valuable, making some degree of virtue and happiness attainable.

Bobonich's view that this optimism about non-philosophers has implications for Plato's later epistemology and psychology is developed in the third and fourth chapters. He argues that the Republic's partitioning of the soul into three distinct, agent-like parts is abandoned in the later dialogues in favor of a more unified conception. This approach in the middle period served to account for akratic action and the formation of non-rational desires, but Bobonich believes that Plato came to see this doctrine as ultimately flawed. By contrast, the Laws offers an account of akratic action and non-rational desire that maintains a unified subject and avoids the problems found in partitioning. In chapter four, Bobonich considers how the Laws' unified conception of the subject, supported by the Phaedrus, Philebus and Timaeus, reveals how all human aims and desires, both rational and non-rational, are structured and conceptualized through the soul's rational faculty. In this unified conception of the subject, Bobonich sees important implications for the role of non-rational elements in the ethical education of even ordinary human beings.

In the fifth and final chapter, Bobonich returns to politics, and considers how Plato's conception of citizenship in the Laws reflects the more optimistic view of human nature. He examines how citizens in the Laws develop non-instrumental concerns for the happiness of other citizens, the extent...



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