Platonic Ethics: Old and New
Readers of Plato's dialogues in our time are almost unanimously affected by what Annas here calls "the developmental thesis." We bring to Plato's texts as a dogma the [End Page 114] view that his doctrines evolved over time, that later dialogues return to problems unsuccessfully addressed in earlier dialogues, and in short that the Platonic corpus as a whole should be arranged as a kind of intellectual "Bildungsroman." The early and inconclusive explorations of Socrates give way to mature and expansive metaphysical doctrines, which in turn are tested and revised in subsequent works.
This developmentalist dogma has dominated interpretations of Plato, with few exceptions (notably Paul Shorey), for a century and more. Yet this makes it a rather young dogma after all. Annas argues that it is a product of Victorian scholars, and especially targets the highly influential work of Benjamin Jowett (95 n.56). Jowett placed the Republic at the center of Plato's works and interpreted others backward and forward from it. The influence of this developmental thesis has been sweeping and, Annas argues, unfortunate. Armed with it, we are reluctant to consider the doctrines of the dialogues on their own terms; we make problems for one dialogue with concerns expressed in quite another; we tend to force our readings to fit the progressive picture and distort the works in the process.
To achieve some distance from developmentalism and other modern preconceptions and dogma, Annas proposes listening with an open mind to ancient readings of Plato, especially those of the so-called Middle Platonists. Most modern students of ancient philosophy have been accustomed to discount these ancients as either too marginal to deserve a hearing or too biased to be fair readers. (In addition, access to their works in reliable texts and translations has been impossible until quite recently.)
But such ancient readers as Albinus, Alcinous, Arius Didymus, Philo, and Numenius have (Annas argues) much to offer.
First, they are active participants in an ongoing intellectual conversation about "eudaimonism," or the sufficiency of virtue for happiness. They comfortably engage Plato in this conversation as a proponent of eudaimonism. This is as true for the Plato of Republic and Laws as for the earlier dialogues. These older readers of Platonic ethics demonstrate that it is indeed possible to discern a unified view of the relation between goodness and happiness, without violence to the texts. While Plato may speak with "many voices," as Arius Didymus averred, this does not entail that he held "many doctrines" (9).
Another modern shibboleth which the older readers can help us dislodge concerns the proper understanding of the Republic. We have tended to classify it as political theory (and in this are supported by the Library of Congress, as Annas points out). While recognizing the hefty core of more individual ethical thinking which goes into the definition of justice in the soul, we have insisted that the "Fairest City" is a serious utopian project description and should shape and contain the Republic's ethical teachings. Here too the ancients were much less inhibited than we; most of them cheerfully ignore the city-building and attend mainly to the implications for moral life. Annas finds this not only salubrious and unity-supporting but more faithful to the text, whose political content she finds "brief and underdeveloped" (82).
Many readers will find the treatment of Republic's political significance (or lack thereof) objectionable. Many readers will also find the idea of relinquishing developmentalism to be unappealing or even frightening. But Annas makes a strong case for [End Page 115] seriously consulting the ancient readers if only for their medicinal value; they can "... wake us from our developmental slumbers" (165). Moreover, she provides a friendly and accessible entree to their world, one which will be of value to many modern readers who have been mystified by them heretofore.
All texts quoted are in translation, and the occasional bits of original texts are transliterated. An extremely helpful "cast of characters" (which everyone will be tempted to xerox and distribute to students) is appended giving biographical information about all relevant ancients and a sketch of their main contributions to Platonic ethics. Bibliography, Index Locorum, and regular index are also quite helpful.
A. has done much to bring the Plato's ancient readers into conversation with us. This is an important book which will certainly change the way in which Plato's works are taught, and the way Platonic ethics are understood, in our era.