Virtue and democracy in Plato's late dialogues
Both Plato's theory of virtue and his attitude towards democracy -the two being correspondent- change significantly as we move from the middle to the late dialogues. The Republic is a substantially authoritarian work which expresses an unmitigated rejection of democracy. Its authoritarianism is deeply rooted in the fact that its ethical and political assertions are justified on a metaphysical basis. Plato suggests that virtue and metaphysical knowledge legitimize political power, but both virtue and knowledge are so defined as to be attainable only by a tiny minority. In the Politicus Plato reasserts the superiority of a complete virtue grounded on philosophical knowledge, but seriously questions the attainability of this ideal. In the closing part of this dialogue Plato demonstrates an interest in history and in this respect the Politicus anticipates the Laws, where political theory is not justified by metaphysics, but is informed by historical experience. More specifically, Plato attempts to reproduce on a theoretical level a legislation similar to the actual historical legislation of Solon and he underlines the need for a moderate state involving elements from different constitutions. Because Plato adopts a historical perspective in the Laws, his earlier authoritarianism is severely curtailed (though not completely abandoned). So, despite still holding a low opinion of democracy, Plato does use some democratic elements in his Magnesian constitution and the predominant conception of moral virtue put forward in the Laws is not the highly exclusive virtue of the Republict but a virtue falling within the capacities of the ordinary citizen. In comparison to the state of the Republic the city of the Laws is for Plato only a "second best". Even so, however, the latter dialogue with its moderation, its rejection of absolutism and its surprisingly modern emphasis on the accountability of all officials constitutes a contribution of lasting interest to Western political thinking.