Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Reconfiguring Plato's Ethics.

Christopher Bobonich's new and challenging re-assessment of Plato's ethics comes at an opportune time. Here is another review by Christopher Rowe for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Charles Kahn also responded in an article published in the 2004 issue of the Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy reviewed here.

This is an exciting time to be working on Platonism and Platonic ethics. From Julia Annas’ synoptic Platonic Ethics, Old and New to Dominic O’Meara’s Platonopolis, the study of (neo)Platonism(s) is enjoying a revival. A most recent expression of this is Lloyd Gerson’s challenge to us to reconsider Platonism in Aristotle, or even that Aristotle may well have been a Platonist malgré lui. Bobonich’s re-assessment and reorientation of Plato’s moral psychology and politics is not less significant. It is a challenging and vibrant piece of work that shakes us from our complacency away from the focus on the Republic and forces us to re-read works such as Phædo and the Laws. The full and detailed examination of the later dialogue in particular is one of the joys and strengths of the book. Clear within his approach are two points : first, that Plato’s ethical and political thought undergoes a radical shift from the utopia of the philosophers in the Republic that presents a pessimistic view of non-philosophers to a more ‘realistic’ optimism about non-philosophers in the Laws; second, his developmental approach requires one to rethink the chronology of the dialogues as Charles Kahn did, in a somewhat different manner with different results, in his Plato and the Socratic Dialogue. Not only this, Bobonich also shows how a full picture of Plato’s public ethics can only emerge with further consideration of yet more works such as the Phædrus and the Statesman. If Bobonich is right, then those rather lazy introductory philosophy classes that fix upon the Republic as the final statement of Platonic politics ought to be discontinued.

Let us consider his main claim (I leave aside the Dependency Theory and the moral psychology for brief remarks later). This concerns non-philosophers. Bobonich presents the problem and his answer in the following manner (pp. 7-10). In the Phædo and in the Republic, Plato denies the following claims that:

1) At least some non-philosophers are capable of being genuinely virtuous.

2) At least some non-philosophers are capable of valuing virtue for its own sake, that is, are capable of believing that virtue is good for its own sake and of desiring virtue for its own sake.

3) At least some non-philosophers are capable of valuing for its own sake the genuine well-being or happiness of others.

4) At least some non-philosophers are capable of living happy lives.

In the Laws in his accounts of the citizens of Magnesia, Plato does a U-turn and affirms these claims. Thus from the middle dialogues to the later dialogues, he moves from a pessimistic view of non-philosophers to an optimistic one. Alongside this shift, a change occurs in Plato’s view of psychology. Even if we do not raise issues to this main claim, one question that does arise is why did Plato’s views change, or rather the historian in me would want to pose such a contextual question.

There are certain assumptions that Bobonich makes that may be questionable and raise a few eyebrows. The first is a stylistic and methodological one: he assumes that Plato tells us precisely what he wishes to do and that the dialogues are merely a sounding board for his philosophical ideas. This in some ways is an old problem: is Plato offering us literature or philosophy, a dialogue or a treatise? Kahn and before him Vlastos among others grappled with this; Bobonich does not. Second, another old problem of akrasia seems to rear its ugly head in a different guise. This is what Bobonich in Chapter 2 calls the dependency thesis, simply that happiness depends on wisdom or as Bobonich puts it, virtue and phronesis are innate goods and all other goods such as health and wealth are ‘dependent’ upon it. He sets aside any instrumentalist view of virtue and opts for a rather foundationalist approach which is argues is located in the discussion in the Philebus on the relationship between reason/wisdom and the human good as a causal one. The point is not demonstrated and demands questioning. Third, he asks us to set aside the sophisticated philosophical work, the Republic, in favour of a work that on his own account is unphilosophical, the Laws, but one which he argues has a sophisticated philosophy behind it. Again, this requires some explanation and defence. Finally, Bobonich in Chapter 3 on the psychology of the Republic argues that one ought to set it aside because its tripartite division of the soul seems to violate the integrity of it and a mode of recovering the account is to argue that the non-rational parts of the soul do not lack rational agency. This claim is not fully demonstrated and is perhaps one point that would be rejected by most specialists. The suggestion that the later dialogues set aside the tripartite account is also refuted by considering the Timæus, an uber-text for the neoplatonist and very much a later dialogue. A further possible implication of his reassessment may be because the Laws represents the pinnacle of Plato’s thinking, then the non-ethical aspects of the Republic such as its metaphysics and even its notorious theory of forms (although some might deny it) can be set aside along with its politics. This might amount to an over-ambitious reading of Bobonich but seems worthy of caution.

The real virtue of Bobonich’s book is the comforting thought for us non-philosophers (we are surely on the whole historians, are we not?) that we are capable of upright moral agency and can function, contribute and even run a morally good state and society. As such, it has a democratising effect; such a revitalised Plato cannot be said to be an enemy of an ‘open society’ but rather its friend and mentor. The gaps in the arguments and undemonstrated points can be left to the philosophers to thrash out.

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