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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws

John Mouracade

There is a dominant scholarly view that Plato believes hedonistic considerations to be incompatible with the virtuous life, such that anyone
who is virtuous must be motivated to do what is right independent of
the resulting pleasure or pain.1 In the sequel, I argue, against this dominant view, that Plato accepts psychological hedonism (the view that all
humans are motivated by what we consider most pleasant) and its
compatibility with virtue in the Laws. The Athenian seems to plainly
endorse this view when he claims, 'So the account that does not separate
the pleasant from the just and fine and good, persuades someone, if
nothing else, to wish to live a pious and just life ( ',
, ).'2 And even
more decisively he states,
It is by nature that pleasures, pains, and desires are especially human
( 5 );
from these, it is necessary for every mortal nature simply (
) to be suspended and to depend upon the
weightiest and greatest of these ( ). It is necessary
to praise the noblest life ( ), not only because it
characteristically has a better reputation, but further ... as superior in
that which we all seek ( ) more pleasure and less pain

1 Noteworthy examples include Morris (1934), Mabbott (1937), Annas (1981). Dissenting are Gosling and Taylor (1982) among others.
2 Laws 663a8-b2; translations are my own unless otherwise noted, based on the text
of Bury (1928).

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74 John Mouracade

throughout the whole of life ( ,


).3

The vast majority of scholars have resisted the implications of such


passages.4 In Platonic Ethics Old and New, Julia Annas defends the standard interpretation of Plato's moral psychology in the Laws. According to
Annas, Plato makes two central claims about virtue and pleasure. First,
the virtuous life delivers more pleasure than any other. Second, in order
to achieve virtue, one cannot pursue pleasure, but must desire virtue for
itself. Annas states, 'The greatest pleasure, for Plato, is to be found in the
life in which the person aims not at pleasure but at virtue, and indeed
trains his desires so thoroughly that he values only virtue, even when
accompanied by all conventional evils.'5 And again, 'It is only when you
give up aiming at pleasure and aim at virtue instead, in the most
uncompromising way, that you get true pleasure ... .'6 Annas expresses
this necessary condition for virtue in various ways: that one must value
virtue alone, that one must pursue virtue alone, and that one cannot aim
at pleasure. In spite of compelling support for such a view and its
persistent popularity, there are good reasons for thinking otherwise.
Annas acknowledges passages in the Laws and other dialogues which
contradict the standard view and presents arguments for discounting
the force of those passages. I have not found those arguments persuasive.
I find Plato's view of hedonistic motivation and virtue to be more
complex than Annas allows.71 argue, pace Annas et al., that an adequate
understanding of Plato's moral psychology must neither completely
disregard (as the standard line does) nor completely exalt (as a hedonistic interpretation of Plato does) the desire for pleasure. Rather, it must

3 Laws 732e4-733al
4 Exceptions include R.F. Stalley (1983), Carone (2002). Although these scholars do
not follow the standard line, their project is not directly arguing against it, as this
paper does.
5 Annas (1999,146)
6 Ibid., 149
7 I find it to be more complex in exactly this way. Plato does not simply preclude
hedonistic motivations, nor does he simply endorse them (as Socrates seems to in
the Protagoras). The complexity is found in Plato's inclusion of some, but not all,
hedonistic considerations in the virtuous life.

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 75

be allowed that there are certain types of hedonistic motivations that are
incompatible with virtue and some that are compatible with and even
necessary for virtue. In offering such an account I will show that the
educational program laid out in the Laws requires this understanding of
hedonistic motivations and virtue.
Annas' reasoning unfolds in two stages. The first explicates a passage
from the Laws (644d7-5cl). Based on this passage, Annas claims that the
relationship between rational motivations and non-rational motivations
is asymmetrical. The asymmetry is to be found in reason's ability to
pursue its goals with no concern for pleasure and pain, whereas such
considerations are all that matter to non-rational motivations. In the
second stage of her argument, she contends that the pursuit of virtue is
fundamentally different from the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of
pain. In fact, these pursuits differ so greatly that a motivational transformation must occur before one can pursue virtue instead of pleasure.8
Annas quotes the passage from the Laws at length.9
Let's think about it in the following way. Let's think of each of us living
things as a puppet of the gods, either as one of their toys or as
constructed for some serious purpose, for that we don't know. But this
we do know, that these emotions [pathe] in us are like cords or strings
which drag us along. Being opposed to each other, they pull us in
different directions to opposite kinds of action, and this is where the
division between virtue and vice lies. Reason says that we should all
follow along always with one of these pulling forces and in no way
leave go of it, pulling against the other strings. This is the directing of
reasoning, and is golden and holy, and is called the common law of the
state. The others are hard and like iron, but it is soft, being golden, while
the others are like forms of all sorts. We must always co-operate with
the directing of the law, which is finest; for since reasoning is fine, but
gentle and not violent, its directing needs helpers so that the golden
kind in us will win over the other kinds. In this way our story of virtue,
which is about us as though we were puppets, would be a success, and
the idea of being "self-master" or "giving in to oneself" would become

8 Ibid., 145
9 I will use Annas' translation of this passage which she admits to be controversial in
some respects. See Annas (1999,142 n 15).

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76 John Mouracade

somewhat clearer, as would the point that an individual must grasp


the true reasoning within himself about these pulling forces, and live
following it, and a state must grasp the reasoning (whether from a god
or from a human with knowledge), establish it as law, and live by it
both internally and with other states. In this way both vice and virtue
would be more clearly articulated for us.10

Annas identifies two special features of the cord of reason.


First, it is soft whereas they are hard and inflexible ... But the softness
of the gold cord makes the point that reason can deal with pleasure and
pain in ways that they cannot deal with it. They simply yank and pull,
whereas it can manage and manipulate them; its greater flexibility gives
it greater power over them than they have over it. Second, the person
can be encouraged to cooperate with and follow the golden cord; it
needs help, but the person can follow it and thus be able to withstand
the pullings of pleasure and pain, inflexible though these are."

Annas correctly observes that the gold cord differs from the others in
so far as it is soft and they are hard. However, there is ample room for
disagreement about what this means. Annas takes this to signify reason's
distinct ability to operate on non-rational strings of pleasure and pain
through management and manipulation. Reason's flexibility in dealing
with non-rational strings endows it with 'greater power over them than
they have over it'. Thus, Annas explicates the softness of the gold cord
as indicating complex and varied options for dealing with the appetites
(which simply pull).
It should be noted that the nature of the cords represents how they
deal with us, not with each other. The cords, according to the imagery,
are connected to the puppet and act directly on the puppet and only
indirectly on one another. Reason is one of the cords and as such does
not free us from our dominant desire although it does free us from the
demands of the lower part(s) of the soul.12 Thus, the life drawn along by

10 laws 644d7-645cl
11 Annas (1999,143)
12 This point is also made by Scolnicov (2003,123) and Gerson (2003,150), Christopher
Bobonich makes an elaborate case for a dissenting opinion in Bobonich (2002,
260-81).

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 77

the golden cord is of the same sort as the life dominated by the other
cords insofar as there is no freedom from the strongest desire. The
difference is that the life dominated by the gold cord is freer in the sense
that the rational life is lived in subjection to benevolent and persuasive
reason and directed by considerations of truth, goodness, and appropriateness as opposed to the tyrannical rule of appetite which is entirely
coercive.
This explanation of the asymmetry between the rational and non-rational cords is preferable to Annas' for several reasons.13 There is better
textual support for my reading within the Laws and within the Plato's
thought as a whole. In the Laws, one of the most important points made
by the Athenian is that persuasion is preferable to compulsion.14 This
necessitates preambles for the laws which attempt to persuade citizens
to comply rather than merely ensuring obedience through coercion. The
preference for persuasion over compulsion can be used to explain the
softness of the golden cord of reason. It is golden and soft because it is
rational and persuasive as opposed to the non-rational iron cords whose
only tool is force. In addition to textual support, there is better thematic
fit with the Laws. The Laws addresses the issues of education, persuasion,
and avoidance of force. My reading of the story of the strings resonates
with those themes whereas Annas' reading relies heavily, if not entirely,
on the passage quoted at length above. Such a difficult and metaphorical
passage should not bear such a heavy interpretive burden. After all, the
parable is introduced to explain temperance and we should be reticent
to draw conclusions about topics other than temperance without supporting texts elsewhere.
Thus far, it may not be clear that there is a significant difference
between my reading and Annas'. Perhaps the complex and varied
options available to reason on Annas' account include various modes of
persuasion. Granting that persuasion is among the ways reason can
manage the appetites (and perhaps exhausts the options, but we need

13 Another minor reason that may appeal to some is the following. It is a more
conservative reading of the text which is supported by other passages in the Laws
and in the Republic. Given the metaphorical nature of the passage in the Laws quoted
above, we should not put undue interpretive burden upon it.
14 Laws 719e6-722c4. For a very good discussion of this topic, see Bobonich (1991) and
the corresponding discussion in Bobonich (2002,97-106).

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78 John Moumcade

not go that far), this would be merely incidental to Annas' account as she
explains the difference between reason and appetite completely in terms
of the fact that appetite has only one way to deal with reason and reason
has many ways to deal with appetite. She emphasizes the complexity
and number of ways of managing the appetites, whereas I emphasize
the way reason does the managing. Though this difference may not itself
seem significant, it underlies the two fundamentally different ways of
viewing reason's relation to the desire for pleasure considered in this
paper (the standard view and my view). The significance resides in the
role of persuasion. If reason must persuade the appetites (as I hold) to
pursue a virtuous life, then hedonistic considerations must be compatible with the pursuit of virtue since desires can only respond to hedonistic considerations.15
Annas' second claim about the golden cord begins with an innocuous
assertion. She points out that a person can follow the guidance of reason
when it conflicts with the demands of the non-rational desires. But then
Annas makes an interesting substitution. Whereas Plato claims that we
ought to follow the golden cord of reason and pull against all the other
cords which are identified as emotions (pathe), Annas' second point is
that we should follow reason and withstand the 'pullings of pleasure
and pain.'
Understood one way, she is correct to make this substitution, but
understood differently she is not. We can see the two ways of understanding this point if we bring before us the context of the passage
quoted above while keeping in mind that Plato has recognized different
types of pleasure elsewhere (Republic IX, Symposium, Philebus, Gorgias).
Plato's other discussions of pleasure and self-control are worth considering in this regard, especially Republic 389d9-e2 where self-control is
described as being a ruler of the pleasures of food, sex and drink
( ). Prior to the
passage quoted above, the Athenian reminds his interlocutors, 'We
agreed a long time ago that those who are capable of ruling themselves
are good, and those who cannot are bad.'16 This point is agreed upon and

15 Bobonich has a prolonged argument for the absence of belief and judgment from
desires in Plato's psychological theory of the Laws. See Bobonich (2001,295-334).
16 Lflzus644b7-8

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 79

the Athenian offers to clarify the point by offering a story. This serves as
an introduction to the divine puppet story. So, the point of this story is
to explain temperance, as the Athenian reminds his interlocutors again
at the end of the story. And surely the temperate person obeys reason
and does not give in to the all desires for physical pleasure and all
repulsions from physical pain. This is one way in which reason must
withstand pleasure and pain by withstanding a subset of pleasures
and pains. The second way to understand Annas' point is to take the
pulling of reason as not merely conflicting with the desires for physical
pleasure, but as conflicting with the unqualified pursuit of pleasure and
avoidance of pain.17 Since Annas claims that the virtuous person, 'values
only virtue' and gives up 'aiming at pleasure and aims at virtue instead',
she seems committed to the latter understanding wherein reason resists
the pull of all pains and pleasures.
In order to evaluate Annas' claim that reason pulls against all motivations of pleasure and pain, we must proceed to the second stage of
Annas' argument. Here, she claims that the pursuit of virtue differs
fundamentally from the pursuit of pleasure. While Annas does not add
much in the way of arguing for this position, she clarifies her view. It is
important to discuss her view in light of these clarifications. Annas
maintains that the virtuous life is the most pleasant on Plato's scheme,
but she also claims that the virtuous life cannot be lived while pursuing
pleasure, not even while pursuing the pleasure that derives from a
virtuous life. She states, 'Pleasure thus comes, we may say, only when
not directly sought, and it comes as a result of what is sought, namely
virtue.'18 In a similar vein she claims, "The desire for pleasure is the most
basic motivation that we have, but rational reflection can so educate and
train the person that they aim in an appropriately uncompromising way
at being virtuous. The person who succeeds in becoming virtuous, and
who does not aim directly at pleasure, in fact gets pleasure as a result of
his virtue.'19 She makes this point even more succinctly by later claiming,

17 For a detailed discussion of Plato's use of pleasure to sometimes pick out physical
pleasures and to sometimes refer to all pleasures, see Grube (1980, Chapter 2,
especially p. 66).
18 Annas (1999,146)
19 Ibid., 146

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80 John Mouracade

The best pleasure comes only to those who don't seek it.'20 She also
claims that the virtuous person will 'acquire a radically different attitude' to pleasure.21
Is Annas right about this? Does Plato require us to abandon our search
for pleasure in favor of pursuing virtue in order to become virtuous?
Does the golden cord of reason pull against all pleasure and pain? There
are good reasons for thinking this is not so. To begin with, Annas' claim
is a strong assertion and the only textual support she musters on behalf
of her view is the story about the puppets. Even if she had the correct
understanding of Plato's theory of human motivation and virtue, we
should not be convinced solely by an appeal to such a difficult piece of
text. There should be corroboration and Annas offers none.22 Besides a
lack of corroborating evidence, there is textual support in the Laws and
elsewhere for the opposite of Annas' suggestion. In Laws , while
discussing the relation between justice and pleasure and the Athenian
argues that the just life is the pleasantest.23 He then insists that a distinction between the just and the pleasant is harmful and should be prohibited because 'no one willingly consents to be persuaded to do something
unless more pleasure and less pain comes from it.'24 More decisively in
Book V the Athenian asserts, 'It is by nature that pleasures, pains, and
desires are especially human; from these, it is necessary for every mortal
nature simply to be suspended and to depend upon the weightiest and
greatest of these. It is necessary to praise the noblest life, not only because
it characteristically has a better reputation, but further ... as superior in
that which we all seek more pleasure and less pain throughout the whole

20 Ibid., 147
21 Ibid., 148
22 Annas does not offer additional evidence for this view, but she argues that it is
similar in various ways to Plato's other discussions of pleasure in the Republic,
Gorgias, and Philebus. While these other dialogues offer support for different aspects
of her view, none of them are offered as evidence that Plato requires a motivational
shift.
23 Laws 662b and ff.
24 Laws 663b2-5.
.

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 81

of life.'25 To this the Athenian later adds, 'But if we eve speak of ourselves
as desiring an object other than those aforesaid [the preponderance of
pleasure over pain], the statement is due to ignorance and defective
experience of actual lives.'26
Annas is correct to note that there must be a motivational transformation. The above texts show that she is incorrect to assert (as she does
many times and as the standard interpretation requires) that the transformation is from one that is hedonistically based to one that is entirely
devoid of hedonistic considerations and focuses only on virtue. The
educational program of the Laws indicates that the motivational transformation is not away from desiring pleasure, but away from desiring
some pleasures to desiring others. Regarding education in Magnesia,
R.F. Stalley correctly observes: 'Since virtue consists in having our desires adjusted to whatever reason judges to be right, the citizen's education will involve so training a child's feelings of pleasure and pain that,
even before his reason can grasp the nature of virtue, he loves what ought
to be loved and hates what ought to be hated (653a-c).'27 Again Stalley
notes, "The main theme of Book [of the Laws] is that the young must
be educated to take pleasure in the right things.'28 Christopher Bobonich
also observes that the legislators must 'pay close attention to pleasure,
since enjoying the right pleasures is not simply a constituent of the happy
life and a concomitant of achieved virtue, but is essential to the development of virtue itself.'29 In connection with these points (with which I
wholeheartedly agree), Laws 636d7-e3 offers profound support, 'Pleasure and pain, you see, flow like two springs released by nature. If a man
draws the right amount from the right one at the right time, he is happy;
but if he draws unintelligently at the wrong time, his life will be quite
the opposite. State and individual and every living being are on the same
footing here.'30 It is in light of this view of the importance of pleasure that

25 Larvs 732a4-el
26 Lflms733d3-6
27 Stalley (1983,124)
28 Ibid., 62
29 Bobonich (2001,351)
30 Trans. Saunders (1997) with modifications.

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82 John Mouracade

the educational program focuses on training children to take pleasure in


the right sort of things. To this end the Athenian states, 'We should try
to use the children's games to channel their pleasures and desires towards the activities in which they will have to engage when they are
adult.'31 The Athenian makes it quite clear that this description applies
to education in virtue their topic of discussion (643e).32 The Athenian
later asserts:
I maintain that the earliest sensations that a child feels in infancy are
pleasure and pain, and this is the route by which virtue and vice first
enter the soul ... I call "education" the initial acquisition of virtue by
the child, when pleasure and affection, pain and hatred are channeled
in the right courses before he can understand the reason why ... But
there is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this
is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which
makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what
we ought to love. Call this "education", and I, especially, think you
would be giving it its correct name.33

Plato continues to develop this view, claiming that 'the correct ordering
of pleasures and pains is education.'34 These feelings are so important,
that Plato ordains Dionysian festivals to revive the sense of pleasure in
the aged. And again, 'pleasure is indeed a proper criterion in the arts,
but not the pleasure experienced by anybody and everybody.'35 Rather,
it is the people of high moral character and advanced education who
must be pleased by good art (658e). We are then told that children must
be educated to feel pleasure according to the law and 'find pleasure and
pain in the same things as the old.'36 The Athenian continues the discus-

31 Laws 643c7-9, trans. Saunders (1997)


32 It is also noteworthy that these comments about pleasure almost immediately
precede the puppet story, which begins less than one Stephanas page later.
33 Laws 653a5-c4, trans. Saunders (1997) with modifications.
34 Lflu>s653c8
35 Luo*658e7-9
36 Laws659d

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 83

sion advocating a constraint on poets; they would be compelled to never


say that 'there are men who live a pleasant life in spite of being wicked.'37
It is in light of the educational program established by the Athenian
that we must consider Plato's view of human motivation and the relationship between pursuing pleasure and acquiring virtue. The Athenian
speaks univocally on this matter. Children are educated in virtue by
learning to take pleasure in the right sort of things. It is this view which
leads the Athenian to proclaim that the educator/legislator must not
allow the virtuous life to be conceptually separated from the most
pleasant life in order to provide a compelling argument for living justly.38
On the standard view, one must pursue virtue for itself and not be
prompted by hedonistic considerations. This would make it impossible
for an argument like the one cited directly above to persuade someone
to live a virtuous life because it is impossible to acquire virtue while
being motivated by such considerations. Additionally at 732e5-6 the
Athenian claims, 'pleasures, pains, and desires are by nature especially
human.' He continues that the virtuous life should be praised because
'it is superior in that which we all seek more pleasure and less pain
throughout the whole of life.'39 He concludes with a compelling indictment of the standard view: 'We must think of all of our human lives as
naturally bound up in these two feelings [pleasure and pain], and we
must also determine what kind of life we naturally desire. But if we say
we wish for something besides these, we are talking out of ignorance and
confusion about life as it is really is.'40
There is another feature of the puppet account that merits discussion.
The cord which pulls against the emotions () is calculation (). The logismos is the calculating and prudential faculty of the mind
whereas nous is the theoretical and understanding part. If Plato had
claimed that nous pulled against the emotions, the standard interpretation would have better textual grounds. As it is, Plato claims that
calculation pulls against the emotions, leaving open the interpretation
that the judgment which is based on a calculation of long term pleasures

37 Lau*662b4-cl
38 Laws 663a8-b2
39 Laws733a2
40 Luu*733d2-6

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84 John Mouracade

and pains pulls against the pathe whose focus is on the immediate or
short run pleasures and pains.41 And this interpretation is not merely left
open by the text as calculation is described as that which determines
which pleasures and pains are better and which are worse (644c5-d3). It
is this calculation which 'when it becomes a public decree is named the
law of the state.'42 This identification of calculation with law recurs
within the puppet imagery as we are told that there is one cord we ought
to hold on to which is 'the leading of calculation which is golden and
holy and is called the public law of the state ( '
, ).'43
Since the golden cord is calculation and it determines which pleasures
are better and which are worse, it cannot be that following the golden
cord means ignoring considerations of pleasure and pain.
Department of Philosophy
Oklahoma Baptist University
500 W. University
Shawnee OK, 74804
U.S.A.
john.mouracade@okbu.edu

References
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Bobonich, Christopher. 1991. 'Persuasion, Compulsion, and Freedom in Plato's Laws'.
Classical Quarterly. Ns 41.365-88.
. 2001. 'Akrasia and Agency in Plato's Laws'. In Wagner (2001), 203-29.
. 2002. Plato's Utopia Recast. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bury, R.G. 1926. Laws. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Carone, Gabriela. 2002. 'Pleasure, Virtue, Externals, and Happiness in Plato's Laws'. History
of Philosophy Quarterly 19: 327-44.

41 Scolnicov (2003,124) contains an interesting discussion of this point.


42 Lui)s644d4
43 Laws(A5al-2

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Virtue and Pleasure in Plato's Laws 85

Cooper, John, ed. 1997. Plato's Complete Worte. Indianapolis: Hackett.


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