- Virtue and Law in Plato and Beyond by Julia Annas
About Plato's Laws, Aristotle rather uninspiringly wrote, "Most of the Laws consists, in fact, of laws, and [Plato] has said little about the constitution. He wishes to make it more generally attainable [κοινοτέραν] by actual city-states, yet he gradually turns it back towards the Republic" (Politics 2.6, 1265a1–4). Julia Annas's new volume seeks to counter such dismissive interpretations of Plato's Laws. Rather than view the work as Plato's final written dialogue, written by a crabby, old, pessimistic author, she argues that "the Laws presents us with a remarkably fresh and original approach to social and political issues" (2–3), one grounded in views about law-abidingness and cosmic law which is novel in the Platonic corpus. Annas, the author of several landmark works in ancient Greek ethical and political thought, makes a very persuasive case for a rich interpretation of Plato's Laws, an interpretation that she further connects to Stoic natural law (in the works of Cicero) and Jewish divine law (in the works of Philo of Alexandria).
Although Annas's book is divided into ten chapters, to my mind the book is composed of three parts. Following a first introductory chapter, chapters 2 and 3 probe the relationship between the Republic and the Laws with respect to Annas's target subject of law-abidingness. Therein, her thesis is that what most importantly distinguishes the Laws from the Republic is the former's concern with "the specific and explicit role of conscious commitment to strict and unquestioning obedience to the laws" (4). The second part of the book, chapters 4 through 6, shows how, in the Laws, Plato thinks that law-abidingness can be grounded in a peculiar mix of both Athenian and Spartan institutional arrangements. The third and final part of the book, chapters 7 and 8 (followed by a brief concluding chapter), explores the reception of the notion of law-abidingness in three post-Platonic traditions: in Aristotle, who largely omits such a notion in his Politics; in Cicero, who extends such a notion both universally (in Stoic natural law) and specifically for the Roman Republic (in his De legibus); and finally, in Philo of Alexandria, who also extends such a notion universally (as the laws of God) and specifically for the people of the Torah.
The first part of the book aims to correct the (mistaken) notion that, whereas the Republic advocates the untrammeled ruling of philosopher kings, accountable only to themselves, the Laws advocates a "second best" constitutional rule of law. Annas provides ample evidence to show that the notion of law pervades much of the Republic and that more generally, the Republic and the Laws share the same goal, namely, that of discerning "how a city might best be run and individually how a person might best live their own life" (Laws 702a7–b1). Rather, the correct contrast to draw is that the Laws focuses on the political (rather than philosophical) education of its citizens, their legal institutions, and their religious framework (such as the account of god and public religion in book 10) that produce a mindset of strict obedience to the law. The second part of the book examines such aspects of Magnesia, the imaginary city described in the Laws, and argues that they are viewed as equally the result of superlative Athenian and Spartan institutions, while at the same time avoiding the deficiencies of both city-states (37). For instance, whereas justice is the central virtue of the Republic, moderation (σωφροσύνη) is the central virtue of the Laws, one which, [End Page 749] as we see in Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian Wars, is equally attributable to both Athenians (according to Pericles's funeral oration [II.39–40]) and Spartans (according to their Corinthian allies [I.68, 84]).
The third and final part of Annas's book traces the development and reception of lawabidingness in the Stoic and Jewish traditions. She points out that, although Plato "rejects the idea of a...