Tuesday, April 17, 2018


Myrthe L. Bartels, Plato's Pragmatic Project: A Reading of Plato's "Laws". Hermes Einzelschrift 111. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017. Pp. 251. ISBN 9783515118002. €49,00.

Reviewed by Julia Pfefferkorn, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen (julia.pfefferkorn@uni-tuebingen.de)

Version at BMCR home site

This monograph presents the revised version of Myrthe Bartels' dissertation which was defended in June 2014 at Leiden University. In contrast to recent studies1 which pick out single aspects of the dialogue, this study focuses on the complexity of the overall composition of Plato's Laws as well as on the status of the legislative activity carried out by the three interlocutors. As the title suggests, Bartels' aim is to show that the Laws is based on a more 'pragmatic' attitude towards virtue and legislation than that of Plato's earlier works. The labelling of the Laws' approach as 'pragmatic' refers to the absence of a metaphysical foundation of the legislation, revealing the dialogue, according to Bartels, to be "at odds with what we consider the core principles of Platonic philosophy" (14). This strong claim turns the book into a valuable and indispensable challenge for everyone who studies the Laws.

The book is divided into seven chapters (Chapters 1 and 7 constituting the introduction and conclusion, respectively). While Chapter 2 deals with important preliminaries regarding Plato's earlier dialogues, the remaining chapters concentrate on features in the Laws which are relevant for Bartels' thesis, each building on the results of the previous parts. Thus the study is very well-structured, making it easy for the reader to follow Bartels' argument.

Two interpretative principles are put forward in the introduction ("Laws in Dialectic"), the first of which is the demand to interpret individual passages in their proper context (13). This principle is severely and successfully followed throughout Bartels' study, opening, in many cases, a different perspective on the Laws. The second guideline, "a text-immanent use of the philological 'principle of charity'" (23), leads the author to a coherent overall picture, though as an interpretative strategy it might in some cases obstruct a more profound confrontation with parallel passages in other works.

The first part of Chapter Two ("Platonic preliminaries") offers an introductory study of important aspects in Plato's earlier work in order to provide a "comparative framework for the study of Laws" (39), concentrating on the notions of technê (in the sense of an expert knowledge) and aretê (which is characterized by its intellectualism). The analysis, which helpfully references other ancient authors as well, leads to the account that aretê is usually presented as analogous to technê, i. e. as an expert knowledge. Subsequently, Bartels focuses on the concept of dikaiosynê in the Apology, the Crito and the Republic. Her intention is to show that in all three texts "justice" refers to an objective norm, grounded in physis, whose cognition implies a higher moral perspective. Both of these "prototypical" (76) assumptions of Platonic thought – and this is the central claim of the chapter – are abandoned in the Laws. Since the results of this chapter are of fundamental importance for the subsequent parts of the book, at this point one may voice some uncertainties which remain in spite of Bartels' thorough analysis: as far as I understand, Bartels' account of aretê (due to its strict analogy with technê) does not seem to recognize the possibility of non-philosophical kinds of virtue based on opinion, which the Republic, however, expressly admits (as does the Menon, cf. 97b1 ff.). If sôphrosynê "extends simply over the whole [city]" (Rep. 432a2–3), it cannot imply the knowledge of a metaphysical truth for everyone. A 'civic' (politikê) courage is introduced verbatim in Rep. 430c3. Finally, Bartels' account denies training as a way of acquiring virtue (126, cf. also 67–68, n. 132 and 90, n. 59), although this seems to be exactly the goal of the discussion on mousikê in books II–III (see esp. Rep. 395b8–d2). Charles Kahn has criticized Christopher Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast (2002) in a similar way.2

The third chapter ("Setting the Scene: ἀρετή in Laws I–II") concentrates especially on the puppet image as well as the three choruses. After Klaus Schöpsdau's article from 19863 Myrthe Bartels' monograph is the first to offer such a complete and careful description of the image's context in Laws I. Her step-by-step analysis leads the author to the conclusion "that Plato here introduces a novel conception of virtue" (77). This new account of aretê, according to Bartels, is the skill of being 'stronger than oneself' (kreittôn heautou) in the face of pleasures. Education (paideia) thus is to be understood as "the training of a skill" (87) with the symposion as corresponding "training ground" (99). The purpose of the puppet image, consequently, consists in illustrating the training of calculation (logismos), which is afterwards "equate[d]" (98) with shame (aidôs). Within the postulated new moral frame, aidôs turns out to be a pragmatic and behavioural notion of virtue focusing on social cohesion. The second, briefer half of the chapter centres on the claim that the four Platonic virtues, which are reintroduced, correspond to the four age groups of the citizens in the Laws (and hence to the three choruses). The symposion, identified with the chorus of Dionysus (109), becomes "embedded" in this four-stage process of paideia (110). In the concluding paragraphs both choreia and the symposion are revealed as representing nothing more than illustrations of paideia and aretê (113). The symposion, in particular, is called a "tongue-in-cheek version of the lawful society" (111, cf. 113). While the second part of the chapter contains a number of very original theses which put the status of the first two books in a new light, some aspects in Bartels' interpretation of the puppet image are open to criticism. 4 An account which intends to defend the introduction of a "novel conception" of virtue in the Laws should search in an intensified way the confrontation with parallel passages in other dialogues in order to provide a firm ground for such a strong claim. In the case of the puppet image, there are several well-known passages5 which are not discussed: especially, with regard to the specific vocabulary used in the image, the definition of sôphrosynê in the Republic (Rep. 430c8–432b1). In addition, the link between aidôs and the Platonic virtues in the Laws, especially sôphrosynê (which seems to be rather close), is not completely clear. Instead, owing to the results of Chapter Two, aidôs is only compared with dikaiosynê in the Republic (100–1). Finally, the assumption that aidôs is conceived of as a virtue in the Laws is arguable, particularly since it is called a kind of fear (Lg. 647a9–10) and could thus possibly have its proper place among the iron cords of the puppet.6

Chapter Four ("Lawgiving Logôi: Formal Features of the Legislation") examines the status of the interlocutors' legislative activity. Bartels' main thesis in this chapter is that the Laws "does not offer an unambiguous and straightforward law code ready for use" (115). Instead, what is usually conceived of as the law code of the dialogue is really a discussion or an exercise 'in speech' (logôi) regarding a possible arrangement of the city by which the practical use of the results of the conversation in Laws I and II is tested. This assertion is further substantiated by the observation (accompanied by a valid critique of Saunders' and Schofield's editions of the Laws, 130–2) that neither preambles nor laws can be easily extracted from the text and by an analysis of the interlocutors' ambiguous references to themselves as lawgivers. This chapter is certainly one of the most important and most carefully worked out parts of the book. It presents a strong and thought-provoking claim which, if adopted, has consequences for the status of the whole dialogue.

In Chapter Five ("Outline and Amendment: An inevitable lack of accuracy") Bartels focuses on the analogy between lawgiving and the painter in Laws 769a ff. and discusses how the text of the Laws points beyond itself. Some salient details of the analogy are highlighted: the painter is not presented as an expert, perfection is impossible, there is no model (paradeigma) to be imitated, and the painting is subject to deterioration over time. These observations, which fit well with Bartels' earlier claims, reveal the interlocutors' lawgiving activity as inevitably inaccurate and unfinished. Since their ideas have to be tested in practice over the course of time, they can only describe an outline of the legislation and need to appoint successors. Thus, the author concludes, in the Laws, lawgiving is not a technê but "is presented as a discipline profoundly concerned with practical considerations" (188). Bartels' reading of the painter analogy is well argued and persuasively presented. Two important issues should perhaps have been addressed additionally in this context: the relation between the model-less painting and the extensive accounts of mimesis in Laws II and VII (cf. Laws. 656e1–2 on painting), as well as the 'outline' or 'cast' terminology (typos) in the Republic since it is present there as well (cf. Rep. 377b2, 379a2, a5, 380c7, 412b2 etc.).

Finally, Chapter Six ("Outside the Legislation: The Nocturnal Council and the Athenian Stranger") discusses two of the most debated issues of the Laws. With regard to the Nocturnal Council, Bartels emphasizes, in light of her earlier claims, that its competences do not include any expert knowledge, but are based mostly on experience. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the main character of the dialogue. Here, too, the author maintains that the Athenian does not present himself as an authority or a moral expert, but mirrors a pragmatic attitude to lawgiving. Certainly Bartels has an important point in stressing the differences between the Athenian and Socrates as main characters in Platonic dialogues. Regarding the Athenian's 'expert knowledge', however, Laws X with its explanations on the self-moving soul remains strikingly out of sight in her analysis. Are books I and II really the "most philosophical part of Laws' discussion" (199) or might not book X change our perspective on the Athenian and on the dialogue as a whole?

The conclusion ("Plato's Pragmatic Project") brings the most important themes of the book back into focus: the non-prominence of dikaiosynê and the new moral frame, the missing consideration of metaphysics, as well as the "fundamental […] shift" regarding the "core principles" (209) of Plato's philosophy.

As stated on various occasions, not all of Bartels' affirmations seem to be fully convincing. A narrow conception of virtue, a somewhat 'idealising' view of the Republic and a strong tendency to stress differences from earlier dialogues might be reasons for this. Yet undoubtedly Bartels' book is an important contribution to the research on Plato's philosophy in general and on the Laws in particular: for its lucid and fresh approach to the text, the ample consideration of the context of singular passages, the throughout competent discussion of the relevant literature (resulting in a rich bibliography), and not last for its strong and challenging claims.7


1.   E.g. Marcus Folch, The City and the Stage: Performance, Genre, and Gender in Plato's Laws (Oxford 2015), or Lucia Prauscello, Performing Citizenship in Plato's Laws (Cambridge 2014), reviewed by Klaus Schöpsdau at BMCR 2016.02.11.
2.   Charles Kahn, 'From Republic to Laws: A Discussion of Christopher Bobonich Plato's Utopia Recast,' in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 26 (2004): esp. 343–53.
3.   Klaus Schöpsdau,'Tapferkeit, Aidos und Sophrosyne im ersten Buch der platonischen Nomoi,' in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 129, no. 2 (1986): 97–123.
4.   I argue on the basis of my forthcoming article 'Shame and Virtue in Plato's Laws: Two Kinds of Fear and the Drunken Puppet,' in Laura Candiotto and Olivier Renaut (eds.): Emotions in Plato (Leiden 2018).
5.   E.g. Rep. 603c10–4d10, Phlb. 32b9–c2 and Tim. 69d.
6.   For Aristotle aidôs is not a virtue (cf. NE 1108a31–32, 1128b10; EE 1220b12–13). According to Laws 837c7–8 aidôs is a valuing attitude towards the virtues.
7.   I would like to thank Dr. Justin Vlasits (Tübingen) for his proofreading and advice.

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