Comparing Lives in Plato, Laws 5

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In Laws 5 (732d-734e), the Athenian argues in favour of virtuous over vicious lives on the basis that the former are preferable to the latter when we consider the pleasures and pains in each. This essay offers an interpretation of the argument which does not attribute to the Athenian an exclusively hedonist axiology. It argues for a new reading of the division of ‘types of life’ at 733c-d and suggests that the Athenian relies on the conclusion established earlier in the Laws that we humans take pleasure in harmony and order. Virtuous lives exhibit just such harmony and order and are therefore always more pleasant than and preferable to vicious lives.

Comparing Lives in Plato, Laws 5

in Phronesis



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  • 1)

    White 2001458 thinks that the Laws endorses a form of hedonism; he cites a similar claim in Grote 1888 vol. 4 301-2 and notes that Grote’s familiarity with James Mill and Bentham may lie behind the positive appraisal of both the Laws and the section of the Protagoras to which he thinks it is similar. Stalley 1983 60 notes cautiously: ‘A passage in Book V has been taken to claim that we can and should do only what seems pleasantest to us’; his discussion of the passage at 66-70 is more nuanced. Guthrie 1978 326-7 similarly notes the importance of pleasure and pain to the moral psychology of education in the Laws but does not explicitly attribute hedonism to the Athenian. Cf. Schöpsdau 2003 275-7. Irwin 1995 343-5 notes that some of the things that the Athenian says are compatible with hedonism but concludes that the Laws is committed only to the claim that the just and virtuous life is the most pleasant. This is similar to the position I will defend here.

  • 2)

    Cf. Guthrie 1978327 n. 2. Carone 2003 288-91 argues that at 792c-d the Athenian is warning against the precipitous pursuit of pleasures rather than against hedonism itself and that the divine diathesis he recommends might well have its own graceful pleasures. More generally she argues for a consistency between two claims she thinks are to be found in the Laws: (1) virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness and (2) pleasure is necessary and sufficient for happiness. Her evidence for the claim that pleasure is sufficient for happiness comes from the passage I discuss here (732e-733a: Carone 2003 287-91); my interpretation of the passage differs significantly from hers as should become clear as my discussion proceeds. In brief I agree that the Athenian holds (1) but think that he does not hold (2). Rather he holds (2*) that the virtuous life is the most pleasant life. From (1) and (2*) it follows that the happy life is the most pleasant life but the Athenian does not think that virtue is good because it produces pleasure.

  • 4)

    See e.g. Laks 2005143who notes the similarity between the Protagoras’ concern to deny the phenomenon of akrasia and the Athenian’s contention that anyone who fails to make the right choice between lives must do so out of ignorance (733d4-6 cf. 734b4 731c2 ff.). Certainly both passages assume that well-informed agents will not voluntarily choose what is not genuinely good for them. But there are nevertheless important differences between the two texts that ought to be emphasised.

  • 5)

    Stalley 198368 rightly notes and emphasises this.

  • 8)

    Cf. Irwin 1995342-3; Bobonich 2002 566 n. 95.

  • 10)

    Carone 2000286 here finds the Athenian claiming that pleasure is a necessary condition for happiness. This is true but not in the sense that it is the pleasantness of a life that makes that life happy. Rather a virtuous life is necessarily a good life and also necessarily a pleasant life.

  • 14)

    Compare Saunders 197224-5 with Schöpsdau 2003 278-80. On the latter view the lives would both be what I shall claim are ‘balanced’ lives as described at 733c6-d2.

  • 16)

    Cf. England 1921vol. 1 ad 734a8 and Schöpsdau 2003 280-3.

  • 19)

    Saunders 197225 traces this view back to Ast. Cf. Schöpsdau 2003 284-5.

  • 20)

    Saunders 197225-7.

  • 21)

    Stalley 198368 thinks that the three-fold classification is not exhaustive. It is better for the Athenian if the classification is exhaustive since then he can claim that any pair of candidate lives can be compared in these terms.

  • 23)

    Saunders 197226: ‘So in this life too we may exercise preference and as καθάπερ ἐν τοῖς πρόσθεν δεῖ διανοεῖσθαι indicates our criteria are the same as in lives A and B: we want the life that offers more pleasure than pain.’

  • 27)

    See Bobonich 2002363-5; Frede 2010 120-6; Kamtekar 2010; Pelosi 2010 52-9; Prauscello 2013.

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