The virtues of the "Laws"

Mary Elizabeth Lenzi, University of Pennsylvania


The general consensus of commentators on Plato's last dialogue, the Laws, is that it is both a pessimistic work and one not worth taking seriously. It is thought that Plato abandoned the absolute rule of philosopher-kings, as described in the Republic, and replaces this vision with a conventional State governed by law. I argue that this interpretation is erroneous and that the neglect of the Laws is unwarranted; in fact, the Laws represents a significant and original development in Plato's theory of virtue. Previous scholarship has emphasized that sophrosyne (self-control, moderation) is the key virtue in this dialogue. However, by examining Plato's new theories of justice and wisdom, the original developments and value of the Laws to the Platonic corpus become evident. In the Laws Plato attempts to provide a fuller account of justice as a social virtue than he does in the Republic. Plato's new conception of social justice makes the Laws the only dialogue which acknowledges the importance of liberty and equality as principles of justice. In the society of the Laws law, which Plato disparages in the Republic and the Statesman, allows for a more equitable relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Furthermore, Plato provides a new and innovative theory of practical wisdom in the Laws based on the political arts of rhetoric and law-making. Finally, though it is often thought that Plato provides no theory of theoretical wisdom in the Laws, I argue that Plato actually intends his theology to serve as his doctrine of theoretical wisdom. By providing a novel interpretation of Plato's theory of virtue in the Laws, I hope to overturn some serious misconceptions about Plato's political philosophy and his view of society. Significantly, the State of the Laws is not a "closed society" like that of the Republic, but rather is partially "open," because Plato's conception of wisdom suggests that law must undergo change in order to bring about virtue in the individual and society, and because Plato's conception of justice requires that the State and its laws must promote the democratic principles of liberty and equality.

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Recommended Citation

Lenzi, Mary Elizabeth, "The virtues of the "Laws"" (1989). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8922552.