Platonic Ethics, Old and New

Platonic Ethics, Old and New

Julia Annas
Volume: 57
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 204
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttq44f5
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  • Book Info
    Platonic Ethics, Old and New
    Book Description:

    Julia Annas here offers a fundamental reexamination of Plato's ethical thought by investigating the Middle Platonist perspective, which emerged at the end of Plato's own school, the Academy. She highlights the differences between ancient and modern assumptions about Plato's ethics-and stresses the need to be more critical about our own.

    One of these modern assumptions is the notion that the dialogues record the development of Plato's thought. Annas shows how the Middle Platonists, by contrast, viewed the dialogues as multiple presentations of a single Platonic ethical philosophy, differing in form and purpose but ultimately coherent. They also read Plato's ethics as consistently defending the view that virtue is sufficient for happiness, and see it as converging in its main points with the ethics of the Stoics.

    Annas goes on to explore the Platonic idea that humankind's final end is "becoming like God"-an idea that is well known among the ancients but virtually ignored in modern interpretations. She also maintains that modern interpretations, beginning in the nineteenth century, have placed undue emphasis on the Republic, and have treated it too much as a political work, whereas the ancients rightly saw it as a continuation of Plato's ethical writings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6697-7
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-ix)
    Julia Annas
  4. INTRODUCTION: DISCOVERING A TRADITION
    (pp. 1-8)

    The title of this book tries to bring out the point that, with respect to Plato’s ethics, when we take a look at the interpretations of the ancients, we find something which is not just old, in the sense of being an object of historical study, but also new, in the sense of giving us a new insight into Plato’s ethical thinking.

    By “the ancients” here I mean in particular the so-called Middle Platonists. This is not their own self-conception; like people in what we call the Middle Ages, they did not think of themselves as being in the middle...

  5. [I] MANY VOICES: DIALOGUE AND DEVELOPMENT IN PLATO
    (pp. 9-30)

    “Plato has many voices, not, as some think, many doctrines.” He is poluphõnos, of many voices, but not poludoxos, of many opinions or doctrines. This is a view of Plato which we read in Arius Didymus, court philosopher to the emperor Augustus,¹ in his Introduction to Ethics.²

    Many views have been expressed about Plato over the centuries, and it may seem perverse, when beginning a study of Plato’s ethics, to hark back to an obscure ancient author who figures marginally, if at all, in our books about ancient philosophy. Modern philosophers concerned with Plato have not on the whole been...

  6. [II] TRANSFORMING YOUR LIFE: VIRTUE AND HAPPINESS
    (pp. 31-51)

    Modern Plato scholars often refer to “the Socratic dialogues.” In theory, this should be a uselessly vague reference, since Socrates appears in all Plato’s dialogues except the Laws. In practice, the reference is always understood to be to a group of dialogues which are nowadays considered “early,” that is, composed relatively early in Plato’s intellectual career. The dominant assumption is that first Plato presents Socrates as putting forward the views of the historical Socrates, or as putting forward an early version of Plato’s own ideas, and then goes on to use him as a mouthpiece for his own, different ideas....

  7. [III] BECOMING LIKE GOD: ETHICS, HUMAN NATURE, AND THE DIVINE
    (pp. 52-71)

    Our final end, according to Plato, is to become like God. This is what Alcinous tells us;¹ Arius Didymus² tells us that Socrates thought this too, underlining the point that ancient Platonists did not see Plato’s Socrates, at any rate, as holding a different view from Plato.³ The reference to Socrates may reflect the point that the most famous passage for this idea comes from the Theaetetus, a dialogue which, although it is long and complex, is self-consciously Socratic, and presents Socrates emphatically as a barren midwife, someone who elicits ideas from others rather than presenting his own.

    It is...

  8. [IV] THE INNER CITY: ETHICS WITHOUT POLITICS IN THE REPUBLIC
    (pp. 72-95)

    Since the mid-nineteenth century Plato’s Republic has been the work which dominates most people’s view of his philosophy. It or parts of it turn up in survey and introductory courses in philosophy, political science, classics, humanities, and literature. It is likely that the way it is most frequently taught is as a contribution to political theory. Outside specialists in ancient philosophy, there has not been a great deal of resistance to this way of reading the work,¹ and yet there is an obvious problem. The Republic is an extended answer to a question in moral philosophy: Why should I, an...

  9. [V] WHAT USE IS THE FORM OF THE GOOD? ETHICS AND METAPHYSICS IN PLATO
    (pp. 96-116)

    What use is the Form of the Good? This is, of course, a question which Aristotle memorably poses in a passage of the Nicomachean Ethics. “It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or a carpenter will be benefitted in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby.”¹

    The natural first response to this is that it is somewhat crass. The Form of the Good, whatever it may be, is not meant to be a practical guide to shoemaking....

  10. [VI] HUMANS AND BEASTS: MORAL THEORY AND MORAL PSYCHOLOGY
    (pp. 117-136)

    The dialogues we group as “Socratic” and are nowadays generally considered to be “early” have some striking features in common—unsurprisingly, since they consider problems of the same general form. One of these is their moral psychology, the view they take on the inner nature of the virtuous person or, as Plato more frequently puts it, the virtuous soul. From these dialogues we get the idea that virtue is to be identified with a certain kind of knowledge. Ordinarily, we think of a virtue as being identified by certain characteristics of behavior, and also by the types of inclination that...

  11. [VII] ELEMENTAL PLEASURES: ENJOYMENT AND THE GOOD IN PLATO
    (pp. 137-161)

    In various places in Plato’s work we find passages which express what looks, at least at first, like hedonism. The Protagoras discusses hedonism as a theory, but the passages I have in mind go beyond discussing it; they seem to accept it. Here are a couple:

    If someone declared that the most just life was happiest, everyone who heard him, I suppose, would ask what was the good and fine in it superior to pleasure, which the lawgiver praises. What good could come to a just person separated from pleasure? For example, is fame and praise from gods and men...

  12. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 162-166)

    I hope that the reader has come to share my thought that the ancient Platonists point us in an illuminating direction, and that modern Plato studies—at least in the area of ethics, which is all I have tried to cover here—would benefit from a greater readiness to see them as partners in the interpretation of Plato. Certainly it seems quite inadequate to regard them as merely fitting Plato into an anachronistic mold.

    Of course I have not tried to argue that Plato’s ancient interpreters are right on all points. There are obvious reservations that we are in a...

  13. APPENDIX: HEDONISM IN THE PROTAGORAS
    (pp. 167-172)
  14. CAST OF CHARACTERS
    (pp. 173-178)
  15. EDITIONS USED
    (pp. 179-180)
  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 181-184)
  17. INDEX LOCORUM
    (pp. 185-192)
  18. INDEX OF NAMES AND SUBJECTS
    (pp. 193-196)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-197)