Plato’s Ethics: An Overview (2022)

1. Preliminaries

If ethics is widely regarded as the most accessible branch ofphilosophy, it is so because many of its presuppositions areself-evident or trivial truths: All human actions, for example, servesome end or purpose; whether they are right or wrong depends on anactor’s overall aims. At least for secularists, the attainmentof these overall aims is thought to be a condition or prerequisite fora good life. What we regard as a life worth living depends on thenotion we have of our own nature and of the conditions of itsfulfillment. This, in turn, is determined, at least in part, by thevalues and standards of the society we live in. Personal ends andpurposes depend in each case not only on reason, but also on theindividual agents’ dispositions (i.e.their likes and dislikes,which determine their personal character). The attainment of theseends can also depend at least in part on external factors, such ashealth, material prosperity, social status, and even on good looks orsheer luck.

Although these presuppositions may appear to be self-evident, most ofthe time, human beings are aware of them only implicitly, because manyindividuals simply lead their lives in accordance with pre-establishedstandards and values that are, under normal circumstances, not objectsof reflection. It is only in times of crisis that a society’straditions and precepts are challenged by someone like Socrates, whosees the need to disturb his fellows’ complacency. Thehistorical Socrates was, of course, not the first to question theGreek way of life. Presocratic philosophers such as Heraclitus orXenophanes had been critics of their times, and the sophists hadargued provocatively that, contrary to the naïve view, it iscustom and convention, rather than nature that set the standards forwhat is deemed right or wrong, good or bad, in every society. But ifother thinkers had preceded Socrates with moral and social criticism,he was certainly the first to challenge his fellows on an individualbasis on the ground that ‘the unexamined life is not worthliving’ (Ap. 38a). Whatever position one may take inthe controversy concerning the degree to which Plato’s earlydialogues are true to the historical Socrates’ discussions, theindependent testimony of Xenophon leaves little doubt thatSocrates’ cross-examinations (elenchos) provoked thekind of enmity that led to his conviction and execution. In the eyesof conservative Athenians, Socrates’ questioning undermined thetraditional values of their society. As Socrates saw it, the‘virtues’ – which is to say the social skills,attitudes, and character-traits possessed by most Athenian citizens ofhis time – were all too often geared towards theirpossessors’ wealth, power, and capacities for self-indulgence,to the detriment of public morality and the community’swell-being.

The Socratic legacy prompted Plato to engage in a thorough examinationof the nature of knowledge and reality, an examination that graduallytook him far beyond the scope of the historical Socrates’discussions. Nevertheless, Plato continued to present hisinvestigations as dialogues between Socrates and some partner orpartners. And Plato preserved the dialogical form even in those of hislate works where Socrates is replaced by a stand-in and where thedidactic nature of the presentations is hard to reconcile with thepretense of live discussion. But these didactic discourses continue tocombine questions of ethical, political, social, or psychologicalimportance with metaphysical, methodological and epistemologicalconsiderations, and it can be just as hard to assess the extent towhich Plato agrees with the pronouncements of his speakers, as it iswhen the speaker is Socrates. Furthermore, the fact that a certainproblem or its solution is not mentioned in a dialogue does not meanthat Plato was unaware of it. There is, therefore, no certaintyconcerning the question: “What did Plato see and when did hefirst see it?” The lack of information about the order in whichPlato wrote his works adds to this difficulty. It stands to reason,however, that he started with the short dialogues that questiontraditional virtues – courage, justice, moderation, piety. Italso stands to reason that Plato gradually widened the scope of hisinvestigations, by reflecting not only on the social and politicalconditions of morality, but also on the logical, epistemological, andmetaphysical presuppositions of a successful moral theory. Thesetheoretical reflections often take on a life of their own. Several ofPlato’s later works address ethical problems only marginally ornot at all. The Parmenides, the Theaetetus, and theSophist deal primarily or exclusively with epistemologicaland metaphysical problems of a quite general nature. Nevertheless, aswitnessed by the Philebus, the Statesman, theTimaeus, and the Laws, Plato never lost interest inthe question of what conditions are necessary for a good humanlife.

2. The early dialogues: Examining life

2.1 The quest for definitions

The early ‘Socratic’ dialogues are not concerned with thequestion of the good life and its conditions in general, but ratherwith particular virtues. Socrates explores the individual virtuesthrough a discussion with persons who are either representatives of,or claim to be experts on, that virtue. Socrates’ justificationfor this procedure is that a paragon or expert must know thecharacteristic property of a particular virtues, and therefore be ableto give an account or definition of it (cf. XenophonMemorabilia I, 10; 16). Thus, in the Euthyphro,Socrates discusses piety with an ‘expert’ on religiousaffairs. In the Laches, he discusses courage with tworenowned generals of the Peloponnesian war, Laches and Nicias.Similarly, in the Charmides Socrates addresses—somewhatironically—the nature of moderation with the two of the ThirtyTyrants, namely the then very young Charmides, an alleged model ofmodesty, and his guardian and intellectual mentor, Critias. In theGreater Hippias Socrates raises the question of the nature ofthe beautiful with a producer of ‘beautiful things’, thesophist and polymath Hippias. In the Protagoras Socratesfocuses on the question of the unity of virtue in a discussion withProtagoras, the most famous teacher of ‘civic virtues’among the sophists. And in the Gorgias Socrates discusses thenature of rhetoric and its relation to virtue with the most prominentteacher of rhetoric among the sophists. Finally, in the Menothe question how virtue is acquired is raised by Meno, a disciple ofGorgias, and an ambitious seeker of power, wealth, and fame.Socrates’ interlocutors are usually at first quite confidentabout their own competence in the discussion. Nor is such confidenceunreasonable. If virtue is a kind of ‘skill’ or specialproperty that enjoys general recognition, its possessor should knowand be able to give an account of his skill. As the Socrates’examinations demonstrate, however, such self-confidence is usuallymisplaced and the ‘knowledge’ professed by Socrates’conversation partners is frequently revealed to be at best an implicitfamiliarity, When they are confronted with their inability to explainthe nature of their cherished virtue or expertise, they end upadmitting their ignorance, often with considerable chagrin and anger.

Socrates’ purpose in conducting these sometimes cruel-lookinggames is not just to undermine the false confidence of hisinterlocutors, but also to arrive at formal definitions and standardsconcerning the virtues. There were no widely acknowledged standards ofdefinition in Socrates’ time, but by exposing the flaws in hispartners’ abortive arguments in his investigations Socratescontributed significantly to the establishment of such standards.These flaws vary greatly in kind and gravity: Socrates shows thatenumerations of examples are not sufficient to capture the nature ofthe thing in question. Definitions that consist in the replacement ofa given concept with a synonym are open to the same objections as theoriginal definition. Definitions may be hopelessly vague or miss themark entirely, which is to say that they may be either too wide, andinclude unwanted characteristics or subsets, or too narrow, andexclude essential characteristics. Moreover, definitions may beincomplete because the object in question does not constitute aunitary phenomenon. If generally accepted ‘socialexcellences’ are not simple conditions, they may be subject toconflicting convictions. Examples of all these flaws are provided inPlato’s early dialogues, where Socrates exposes the exact natureof the underlying deficiencies with more or less diagnostictransparency.

Given that the focus in the early dialogues is almost entirely on theexposure of flaws and inconsistencies, one cannot help wonderingwhether Plato himself knew the answers to his queries, andhad some cards up his sleeve that he chose not to play for the timebeing. This would presuppose that Plato had not only a clear notion ofthe nature of the different virtues, but also a positive conception ofthe good life as such. Since Plato was neither a moral nihilist nor asceptic, he cannot have regarded moral perplexity (aporia) asthe ultimate end, nor regarded continued mutual examination, Socratico more, as a way of life for everyone. Perplexity, as isargued in the Meno, is just a wholesome intermediary stage onthe way to knowledge (Me. 84a–b). But if Plato assumesthat the convictions that survive Socratic questioning will eventuallycoalesce into an account of the good life, then he keeps thisexpectation to himself. Nor would such optimism seem warranted, givenSocrates’ disavowal of knowledge. There is no guarantee thatonly false convictions are discarded in a Socratic investigation,while true ones are retained. For, promising suggestions are often asmercilessly discarded as their less promising brethren. Perhaps Platocounted on his readers’ intelligence to straighten out what isskewed in Socratic refutations, and also to detect unfair moves, andto supplement what is missing. It is, in fact, often not difficult tomake out fallacies in Socrates’ argument and to correct them;but such corrections must remain incomplete without sufficientinformation about Plato’s overall conception of the good lifeand its moral presuppositions. It is therefore a matter of conjecturewhether Plato himself held any positive views while he composed oneaporetic dialogue after the other. He may have regarded hisinvestigations as experimental stages, or have seen each dialogue asan element in a network of approaches that he hoped to eventuallyintegrate.

If there is a general lesson to be drawn from the many failed accountsof the virtues by Socrates’ different conversation partners,beyond the particular shortcomings of individual definitions andassertions, it is that isolated definitions of single virtues, summedup in one sentence, will not do. The evidence that Plato alreadywanted his readers to draw this very conclusion in his early dialoguesis somewhat contradictory, however. Plato famously pleads for theunity of the virtues in the Protagoras, and seems intent toreduce them all to knowledge. Scholars are therefore wont to speak ofthe ‘intellectualistic’ character of the so-called‘Socratic ethics’, because it leaves no room for othermotivational forces, such as emotions or desires. Socrates’proof in the Protagoras that reason cannot be overcome by thepassions has, from Aristotle on, been treated as a denial ofakrasia, of the phenomenon that was later somewhatmisleadingly dubbed as ‘weakness of the will’. Thisintellectualizing tendency, however, does not tell us what kind ofmaster-science would fulfill all of the requirements for definingvirtues, and what its content should be. What is more, the emphasis onknowledge does not rule out an awareness on Plato’s part of theimportance of other factors, even in his early dialogues. Though Platooften compared the virtues with technical skills, such as those of adoctor or a pilot, he may have realized that virtues also involveemotional attitudes, desires, and preferences, but not yet have seen aclear way to coordinate or relate the rational and the affectiveelements that constitute the virtues. In the Laches, forinstance, Socrates partners struggle when they try to define courage,invoking two different elements. In his attempt to define courage assteadfastness in battle, Laches, one of the two generals and‘experts’ on courage, is faced with the dilemma thatsteadfastness seems not to be a satisfactory definition of courageeither in itsself or in combination with knowledge (La.192a–194c). His comrade Nicias, on the other hand, fails when hetries to identify courage exclusively as a certain type of knowledge(197e–200a). The investigation of moderation in theCharmides, likewise, points up that there are two disparateelements commonly associated with that virtue – namely, acertain calmness of temper on the one hand (Chrm.158e–160d) and self-knowledge on the other (166e–175a). Itis clear that a complex account would be needed to combine these twodisparate factors. For moral skills not only presuppose sufficient‘operative’ rationality but also require appropriateevaluative and emotional attitudes towards the desirable ends to beattained and the means to be employed. Such an insight is at leastindicated in Socrates’ long and passionate argument in theGorgias against Polus and Callicles that the just life isbetter for the soul of its possessor than the unjust life, an argumentthat he fortifies with a mythical depiction of the soul’s rewardand punishment after death (523a–527e). But the nature ofjustice and what is required for the proper care of one’s soul,is thereby illuminated only indirectly. For the most part,Socrates’ interrogations focus on the incompatibility of hisinterlocutor’ selfish aims with their more selfless and nobleviews. In his earlier dialogues, Plato may or may not already beenvisaging the kind of solution that he is going to present in theRepublic to the problem of the relationship between thevarious virtues, with wisdom, the only intellectual virtue, as theirbasis. Courage, moderation, and justice presuppose a certainsteadfastness of character as well as a harmony of purpose among thedisparate parts of the soul, but their goodness depends entirely onthe intellectual part of the soul, just as the virtue of the citizensin the just state depends on the wisdom of the philosopher kings(R. 428a–444e). The dispositional or‘demotic’ virtues are thus acknowledged but relegated tosecond place (500d; 522a–b).

There are at least some indications that Plato already saw the needfor a holistic conception of the good life when he composed his‘Socratic’ dialogues. At the end of the Laches,he lets Nicias founder in his attempt to define courage as the‘knowledge of what is to be feared and what should inspireconfidence’. Nicias is forced to admit that such knowledgepresupposes the knowledge of good and bad tout court(La. 199c–e). In a different but related way, Socratesalludes to a comprehensive knowledge at the end of theCharmides, in his final refutation of Critias’definition of moderation as ‘knowledge of knowledge’, byurging that this type of knowledge is insufficient for the happy lifewithout the knowledge of good and bad (Chrm. 174b–e).But pointing out what is wrong and missing in particular arguments isa far cry from a philosophical conception of the good and the bad inhuman life. The fact that Plato insists on the shortcomings of apurely ‘technical’ conception of virtue suggests that hewas at least facing up to these problems. The discussion of the‘unity of the virtues’ in the Protagoras –regardless of the perhaps intentionally unsatisfactory structure ofhis proofs – confirms that Plato realized that a critique of theinconsistencies implied in conventional values is insufficient tojustify such a unitary point of view. But the evidence that Platoalready had a definitive conception of the good life in mind when hewrote his earlier dialogues remains, at most, indirect.

2.2 Definition and recollection

A reflection on the meaning of Socrates’ quest for definitionsin the early dialogues suggests that Plato cannot have been blind tothe sterility of a purely negative way of argument, or if he was blindat first, his blindness cannot have lasted long. For Socrates’quest for definitions has important consequences. First and foremost,definitions presuppose that there is a definable object; that is tosay, that it must have a stable nature. Nothing can be defined whosenature changes all the time. In addition, the object in question mustbe a unitary phenomenon, even if its unity may be complex. Ifdefinitions are to provide the basis of knowledge, they require somekind of essentialism. This presupposition is indeed made explicit inthe Euthyphro, where Plato employs for the first time theterminology that will be characteristic of his full-fledged theory ofthe Forms. In response to Euthyphro’s enumeration of variousexamples of pious behavior, Socrates demands an account of theone feature (Euthphr. 5d: idea; 6d:eidos; 6e: paradeigma) that is common to all casesof what is holy or pious. Despite this pregnant terminology, fewscholars nowadays hold that the Euthyphro already presupposestranscendent Forms in a realm of their own– models that areincompletely represented by their imitations under materialconditions. The terms eidos and idea preserved theiroriginal meaning of ‘look’ or ‘shape’ into theclassical age; but they were also often used in the more abstractsense of ‘form’, ‘sort’, ‘type’,or ‘kind’. No more than piety or holiness in the abstractsense seems to be presupposed in the discussion of theEuthyphro. There is, at any rate, no mention here of anyseparation of a sensible and an intelligible realm, let alone of anexistence of ‘the holy itself’, as an entity existing insplendid isolation from all particular cases of holiness.

The passage in the Euthyphro where Socrates asks Euthyphro toidentify the one feature that is common to all that is holy or piousmakes intelligible, however, the reason why Plato felt encouraged todevelop the idea of transcendent Forms in dialogues that no longerconfine themselves to the ‘negative’ approach ofquestioning the foundations or premises of other people’sconvictions. The requisite unity and invariance of entities such as‘the holy’, ‘ the beautiful’, ‘thejust’ or ‘the equal’, necessarily promptsreflections on their ontological status and on the appropriate meansof access to them. Given that they are the objects of definition andthe models of their ordinary representatives, there is every reasonnot only to treat them as real, but also to assign to them a state ofhigher perfection. And once this step has been taken, it is onlynatural to make certain epistemological adjustments. For, access toparadigmatic entities is not to be expected through ordinaryexperience, but presupposes some special kind of intellectual insight.It seems, then, that once Plato had accepted invariant and unitaryobjects of thought as the objects of definition, he was predestined tofollow the path that let him adopt a metaphysics and epistemology oftranscendent Forms. The alternative of treating these objects as mereconstructs of the mind that more or less fit the manifold of everydayexperience, clearly was not to Plato’s taste. It would havemeant the renunciation of the claim to unassailable knowledge andtruth in favor of belief, conjecture, and, horribile dictu,of human convention. The very fact that mathematics was already anestablished science with rigorous standards and unitary and invariantobjects must have greatly enhanced Plato’s confidence inapplying the same standards to moral philosophy. It led him to searchfor models of morality beyond the limits of everyday experience. This,in turn, explains the development of his theory of recollection andthe postulate of transcendent immaterial objects as the basis ofreality and thought that he refers to in the Meno, and thathe presents more fully in the Phaedo.

(Video) Plato's Ethics And Life [Fast]

We do not know when, precisely, Plato adopted this mode of thought,but it stands to reason that his contact with the Pythagorean schoolon his first voyage to Southern Italy and Sicily around 390 BC playeda major role in this development. Mathematics as a model-science hasseveral advantages. It deals with unchangeable entities that haveunitary definitions. It also makes a plausible claim that the essenceof these entities cannot be comprehended in isolation but only in anetwork of interconnections that have to be worked out at the sametime as each particular entity is defined. For instance, to understandwhat it is to be a triangle, it is necessary – interalia – to understand the nature of points, lines, planesand their interrelations. That Plato was aware of this fact isindicated by his somewhat prophetic statement in his introduction ofthe theory of recollection in the Meno, 81d: “As thewhole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, nothingprevents a man, after recalling one thing only – a process mencall learning – discovering everything else for himself, if heis brave and does not tire of the search; for searching and learning,are, as a whole, recollection (anamnesis).” Thesomewhat mystifying claim of an ‘overall kinship’ is thenilluminated in the famous ‘mathematical experiment’(Me. 82b–85c). The slave finally manages, with somepushing and pulling by Socrates, and some illustrations drawn in thesand, to double the area of a given square. In the course of thisinterrogation, the disciple gradually discovers the relations betweenthe different lines, triangles, and squares. That Plato regards theseinterconnections as crucial features of knowledge is confirmed laterby the distinction that Socrates draws between knowledge and truebelief (97b–98b). As Socrates argues, true beliefs areunreliable, because they behave like ‘the statues of Daedalusthat easily run away as long as they are not tied down’. Therequisite ‘tying down’ happens (98a) “by giving anaccount of the reason why. And that, Meno my friend, is recollection,as we previously agreed. After they are tied down, in the first place,they become knowledge, and then they remain in place.” Thisexplanation indicates that, according to Plato, knowledge does notconsist in a mental ‘gazing’ at isolated models, butrather in uncovering the invariant relations that constitute theobjects in question.

The complexity underlying Plato’s theory of the Forms as it isfirst applied in the Phaedo is easily overlooked, because thePhaedo initially suggests that that recollection is no morethan the grasping of concepts – the concept of ‘exactequality in size’, for example, is prompted by the perception ofmore or less equal-seeming sticks and stones (74a–e). Not onlythat, the same is suggested by the list through which Socrates firstintroduces the Forms, 65d–e: “Do we say that there is sucha thing as the Just itself or not? And the Beautiful, and the Good?[…] I am speaking of all things such as Tallness, Health,Strength, and in a word, the reality of all other things, that whicheach of them essentially is.” Such an appeal to recollectionleaves a lot to be desired. How does it work? How can one ensure thatone’s intuitive grasp of these natures is correct? That the‘recollection’ of isolated ideal objects is not the wholestory emerges later in the Phaedo when Socrates presents a‘simple minded hypothesis’ of the Forms as a way to avoidhis difficulties with the causes of generation and destruction(Phd. 99d–100e). The hypothesis he starts out withseems simpleminded indeed, because it consists of nothing more thanthe assumption that everything is what it is by participating in thecorresponding Form. But it soon turns out that more is at stake thanthat simple postulate. First, the hypothesis of each respective Formis to be tested by looking at the compatibility of its consequences.Second, the hypothesis itself is to be secured by higher hypotheses,until some satisfactory starting point is attained. Unfortunately,Socrates explains neither the kinds of consequences nor of the kind of‘satisfactory highest principle’ he has in mind, butconfines himself to the demand for an orderly procedure. Thedistinctions that Socrates subsequently introduces in preparation ofhis last proof of the immortality of the soul seem, however, toprovide some information about the procedure in question(103d–107b). Socrates first introduces the distinction betweenessential and non-essential attributes. This distinction is thenapplied to the soul: because it always causes life in whatever itoccupies, it must have life as its essential property, which it cannotlose. The soul is therefore incompatible with death and must be‘deathless’ = immortal. The viability of this argument,stripped here to its bare bones, need not engage us. The procedureshows, at any rate, that Plato resorts to relations between Formshere. The essential tie between the soul and life is clearly not opento sense-perception; instead, understanding this tie takes a good dealof reflection on what it means to be, and to have a soul. To admirersof a two-world metaphysics, it may come as a disappointment that inPlato, recollection should consist in no more than the uncovering ofsuch relationships. But this agrees well with the fact that with theexception of such concepts of perfection as ‘the Good’ and‘the Beautiful’, all of Plato’s examples in thePhaedo are quite pedestrian. Not only does he confine himselfto concepts like ‘tallness’, ‘health’,‘strength’ and ‘the equal as such’, –thereby invoking objects that are familiar from every-day experience;– but he also treats the fact that knowledge of their naturecannot be derived from sense-perception alone as sufficient evidencefor the existence of the respective Forms, as he shows in the case ofequal-looking sticks and stones.

Plato does not employ his newly established metaphysical entities asthe basis to work out a definitive conception of the human soul andthe appropriate way of life in the Phaedo. Rather, heconfines himself to warnings against the contamination of the soul bythe senses and their pleasures, and quite generally against corruptionby worldly values. He gives no advice concerning human conduct beyondthe recommendation of a general abstemiousness from worldlytemptations. This seems a rather austere picture of human life, and anegocentric one, to boot, for nothing is said about relations betweenhuman beings, beyond Socrates’ exhortations that his friendsshould likewise take care of their souls as best they can. It isunclear whether this otherworldly and ascetic attitude is the sign ofa particularly pessimistic period in Plato’s life or whether itmerely reflects the circumstances of the discussion –Socrates’ impending death. But as long as this negative orother-worldly attitude towards the physical side of human natureprevails, no interest is to be expected on the part of Plato in natureas a whole – let alone in the principles of the cosmic order(but cf. 5.1 below). But it is not only Platonic asceticism thatstands in the way of such a wider perspective. Socrates himself seemsto have been quite indifferent to the study of nature. ThePhaedo admits that Socrates is unable to deal with the causesof natural processes, and the Apology contains an energeticdenial of any concern with natural philosophy on Socrates’ side.The accusations that depict him as “a student of all things inthe sky and below the earth” are quite false (18c); he has neverconversed on such issues at all, and the attribution to him of theAnaxagorean tenet that the sun is stone and the moon earth is a signof his accusers’ recklessness (26d–e). And in a dialogueas late as the Phaedrus, Socrates famously explains hispreference for the city and his avoidance of nature (230d):“Landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me – only thepeople in the city can do that.” That Plato is not distortingthe facts here is confirmed by the testimony of Xenophon, who isequally emphatic about Socrates’ repudiation of the study ofheavenly phenomena and his concentration on human affairs(Memorabilia I 1.15–16). If Plato later takes a muchmore positive attitude towards nature in general, this is aconsiderable change of focus. In the Phaedo, he quitedeliberately confines his account of the nature of heaven and earth tothe myth about the afterlife (108d–114c). As he states inconclusion, this mythical depiction is not to be taken literally, butas an encouragement to heed its moral message and to take care ofone’s soul (114d–e). This is as constructive as Plato getsin his earlier discussions of the principles of ethics.

3. The middle period: Justice and other virtues

3.1 The needy nature of human beings

If Plato went through a period of open-ended experimentation, thisstage was definitely over when he wrote the Republic, thecentral work of his middle years. Because of theRepublic’s importance a more detailed account will benecessary, in order to explain the ethical principles set forth inthat work, for the principles are closely intertwined with political,psychological, and metaphysical conceptions. That the work representsa major change in Plato’s thinking is indicated already by thedialogue’s setting. The aporetic controversy about justice inthe first book is set off quite sharply against the cooperativediscussion that is to follow in the remaining nine books. Like theGorgias, the first book of the Republic presentsthree interlocutors who defend, with increasing vigor, their notion ofjustice against Socrates’ elenchos. Of these disputes,the altercation with the sophist Thrasymachus has received a lot ofattention, because he defends the provocative thesis that naturaljustice is the right of the stronger, and that conventional justice isat best high-minded foolishness. The arguments employed by Socrates atthe various turns of the discussion will not be presented here. Thoughthey reduce Thrasymachus to angry silence, they are not abovecriticism. Socrates himself expresses dissatisfaction with the resultof this discussion R. 354c: “As far as I am concerned,the result is that I know nothing, for when I don’t know whatjustice is, I’ll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue ornot, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.” Butfor once, the confession of aporia is not the end of thediscussion. Two members of the audience, Plato’s brothersGlaucon and Adeimantus, challenge Socrates: Perhaps Thrasymachus hasdefended his case badly, but if Socrates wants to convince hisaudience, he must do better than that. The brothers demand a positiveaccount of what justice is, and of what it does to the soul of itspossessor.

The change of character in the ensuing discussion is remarkable. Notonly are the two brothers not subjected to elenchos, they getample time to elaborate on their objections (357a–367e). Thoughthey are not themselves convinced that injustice is better thanjustice, they argue that in the present state of society injusticepays – with the gods as well as with men – as long as thesemblance of respectability is preserved. To prove this claim thebrothers play devil’s advocate by unfolding a scathing pictureof their society’s attitude towards justice. As the story of theRing of Gyges and its gift of invisibility proves, everyone who doesnot have a god-like character will eventually succumb to such aring’s temptations (359c–360d). Instead of the wolf ofThrasymachus’ account, it is the fox who is the paragon ofinjustice. He will succeed at every level because he knows how to playthe power game with cunning. The just man, by contrast, pays no heedto mere semblance of goodness, rather than its substance,and thereforesuffers a Christ-like fate, because he does not comply with thedemands of favoritism and blandishment (361e). Even the gods, as thepoets allegedly confirm, are on the side of the successful scoundrel,since they can be propitiated by honors and sacrifices. Given thisstate of affairs, a logic-chopping argument that justice is betterthan injustice is quite insufficient for the brothers (367b–e:logôi). Instead, Socrates should show what effect eachof them have on the soul of their possessors. Plato at this pointclearly regards refutation as an insufficient method of making trueconverts; whether he ever had such confidence in the power ofrefutation must remain a moot point. But the Republic showsthat the time had come for a positive account of morality and the goodlife. If elenchos is used in Plato’s later dialogues,it is never again used in the knock-down fashion of the earlydialogues. It should be pointed out, however, that in his treatment ofjustice Plato does not resort to the theory of Forms. Instead, heoffers a political and psychological solution to the problem ofjustice. That a metaphysical solution is possible is indicated onlybriefly and enigmatically, when Plato speaks of a ‘longerway’ that would also have been possible for him to take (435d;504b)

A brief sketch of Plato’s approach to his inquiry into thenature of justice must suffice here, to make intelligible hisdistinction of justice from the other kinds of virtue, and their rolein the good life. This question is addressed in a quite circuitousway. Justice is first to be studied in the ‘larger text’of the state, rather than in the hard-to-decipher ‘smalltext’ of the soul. A study of how a city comes to be willsupposedly reveal the origin of justice and injustice (369a). Itsfounding principle is – at least at first – nothigh-minded concern, but mutual economic need: “A citycomes to be because none of us is self-sufficient(autarkês), but we all need many things. … Andbecause people need many things, and because one person calls on asecond out of one need and on a third out of a different need(chreia), many people gather in a single place to livetogether as partners and helpers.” The ‘need’ is, atleast at this point, purely economic. The minimal city is based on theneed for food, clothing, shelter, and for the requisite tools.Economic efficiency dictates the adoption of the principle of the‘division of functions’: It is best if everyone performsthe task s/he is naturally most fit for. This principle determines notonly the structure of the minimal, self-subsistent state of farmersand craftsmen, but also the subsequent separation of the city’sinhabitants into three classees in the ‘maximal state’that caters to higher demands. For a more luxurious city needsprotection by a professional army as well as the leadership of a classof philosopher-kings and -queens. Beyond the claim that the divisionof functions is more economical, Plato gives no justification for thisfateful decision that determines the social order in the state, aswell as the nature of the virtues. Human beings are not born alike,but with different abilities that predestine them for different tasksin a well-ordered state. This leads to Plato’s rule: ‘oneperson – one job’ (R. 370a–c; 423d).

Because the division of functions paves the way for the definition ofjustice as ‘doing your own thing’ in Book IV(432d–433b), it is necessary to briefly review the kind ofsocial order Plato has in mind, the psychological principles heassumes, and the political institutions by which that order is to beattained. For this explains not only the establishment of athree-class society and the corresponding structure of the soul, butalso Plato’s theory of education and its metaphysicalunderpinnings. That economic needs are the basis of the politicalstructure does not, of course, mean that they are the only human needsPlato recognizes. It indicates, however, that the emphasis here is onthe unity and self-sufficiency of a well-structured city, not on thewell-being of the individual (423c–e; 425c). This focus shouldbe kept in mind when assessing the ‘totalitarianism’ andrigorous cultural conservatism of Plato’s politicalphilosophy.

The need for a professionally trained army leads to the discussion ofeducation and moral psychology, because the preservation of internalpeace and external security presupposes the combination of twodifferent character-traits among the ‘guardians’(‘the philosophical watchdogs’, 375d–376c):friendliness towards their fellow-citizens and fierceness towardstheir enemies. The injunctions concerning their appropriate educationare very detailed, because it must combine the right kind of‘muses’ (poetry, music, and other fine arts) with theappropriate physical training to develop the right temperament andattitude in the soldiers (376d–403d). The ‘muses’come in for protracted criticism, both in content and form. Allstories that undermine respect towards the gods are to be banned,along with tales that instill fear of death in the guardians. Theimitation of bad persons is forbidden, as are depictions of varietiesof character, quite generally. Analogous injunctions apply,mutandis mutatis, to the modes and rhythms in music and topainting. Physical exercise must suit the harmonious soul andtherefore must not exceed what is healthy and necessary(403e–412b). Because the educational scheme is geared to securea harmonious and yet spirited class of soldiers, Plato bans from hiscity most of the cultural achievements that were hiscontemporaries’ pride and joy. There must be nothing to disturbthe citizens’ willingness to fulfill their tasks. Thesupervision of education is the function of the third class, therulers of the city (412b–417b). They are to be selected throughtests of intelligence and character from among the soldiers, toidentify individuals who are unshakable in their conviction that theirown well-being is intimately tied to that of the city. To ensure thatmembers of the ruling and military classes retain their right attitudetowards their civic duties, members of both classes must lead acommunal life, without private homes, families, or property. Hisinterlocutor’s objection that such a life is not apt to makethese citizens happy (419a) is the first approach to the topic ofhappiness, but it is quickly brushed aside at this point on thegrounds that the political order is designed to make the entire cityhappy, rather than any particular group.

3.2 Virtues of state and soul

The division of functions that leads to the separation of the threeclasses for the purpose of achieving the social conditions for justiceconcludes the discussion of the social order (427d–434c). Thesomewhat peculiar manner in which Socrates further develops hisexplation of the nature of justice can be understood with reference tothis concluding discussion. The catalogue of what in later traditionhas been dubbed ‘the four cardinal Platonic virtues’– wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice – is firstpresented without comment. Piety, as the text indicates, is no longertreated as a virtue, for religious practices should be left totradition and the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (427b–c). Thedefinition of justice is to be discovered by a process of elimination.If there are four virtues in the city, then justice must be the onethat is left over after the other three have been identified (427e).There is no proof offered that there are exactly four virtues in astate, nor that they are items that can be lifted up, singly, forinspection, like objects from a basket. Instead, Socrates points outthe role they play in the maintenance of the social order. Aboutwisdom (sophia), the only purely intellectual virtue and theexclusive possession of the rulers (428b–429a), little more issaid at this point than that it is ‘good council’(euboulia) in decisions about the internal and externalaffairs of the city. Courage (andreia) is the soldiers’specific virtue (429a–430c). Socrates takes some troubleexplaining its nature, because it is a mixture of belief(doxa) and steadfastness of character(sôtêria). It is compared to colorfast wool:through thick and thin the guardians must be dyed-in-the-wooladherents to the laws’ decrees about what is to be feared.Moderation (sôphrosunê) (430d–432a) is notan intellectual excellence either, but rather a combination of beliefwith a certain disposition to support order. It is a conviction(doxa, 431e) shared by all classes about who should rule– a conviction based on a state of ‘order’(kosmos), ‘consonance’ (sumphônia)and ‘harmony’ (harmonia) in and through which thebetter class in the state controls the pleasures and desires of thelower class. The third class, then, has no specific virtue of its own.The identification of justice, the virtue that is left over, is due toa sudden ‘discovery’ on Socrates’ part(432d–434c) that justice is the principle that has been at workall along in the founding of the model state – namely thateveryone is to “do their own thing and not meddle with that ofanother” (433a). At first sight, it seems hard to tell howjustice differs from moderation as a “consonance about whoshould rule and be ruled.” Justice as “doing your ownthing” may represent a more active state of mind with a widerextension, given that its task is also to see to it that “nocitizen should have what belongs to another or be deprived of what ishis own” (433e). But since Socrates does not elaborate on thedispositions of justice and moderation any further, there seems to beonly a fine line between the functions of justice and moderation inthe city. That there are four virtues rather than three probably alsoreflects the fact that this catalogue of four was a fixture intradition. As will emerge in connection with the virtues in theindividual soul, the distinction between justice and moderation is farless problematic in the case of the individual than in that of thecity as a whole, because in the individual soul, internal self-controland external self-restraint are clearly different attitudes. As thissurvey shows, the virtues are no longer confined to knowledge. Theyalso contain right beliefs and attitudes of harmony and compliance– extensions that are apt to make up for deficiencies in theexplanation of certain virtues in earlier dialogues.

The promise to establish the isomorphic structure of the city and soulhas not been forgotten. After the definition and assignment of thefour virtues to the three classes of the city, the investigation turnsto the role and function of the virtues in the soul. The soul is heldto consist of three parts , corresponding to the three classes in thecity. The lengthy argument for the tri-partition of the soul into arational (logistikon), a spirited (thumoeides), andan appetitive (epithumêtikon) part (434d–441c),can here be neither reproduced nor subjected to critical evaluation.That Plato lets Socrates express reservations concerning the adequacyof his own procedure (435c–d), despite his unusually circumspectway of justifying his division of the soul’s faculties,indicates that he regards it as an important innovation. Indeed, thereis no indication of separate parts of the soul in any of the earlierdialogues; irrational desires are attributed to the influence of thebody. In the Republic, by contrast, the soul itself becomesthe source of the appetites and desires. The difference between therational and the appetitive part is easily justified, because theopposition between the decrees of reason and the various kinds ofunreasonable desires is familiar to everyone (438d–439e). Theexistence of a third, a ‘spirited’ or courageous part– different from reason and desire – is harder to prove.But the phenomenon of moral indignation is treated as evidence for apsychic force that is reducible neither to reason nor to any of theappetites; it is rather an ally of reason in a well-ordered soul, aforce opposed to unruly appetites (439e–441c). This concludesthe proof that there are three parts in the soul corresponding to thethree classes in the city – namely the rational part in thewisdom of the rulers, the spirited part, which is manifested in thecourage of the soldiers, the appetitive part, which is manifested inthe rest of the population, whose defining motivation is materialgain.

(Video) Plato's Ethics (A History of Western Thought 13)

The discussion of the division of the soul sets the stage forSocrates’ final contrast of of justice with injustice: In thecity there is justice if the members of the three classes mind theirown business; in the individual soul, justice likewise consists ineach part fulfilling its own function. This presupposes that the twoupper parts have been given the right kind of training and educationin order to control the appetitive part (441d–442a). The threeother virtues are then assigned to the respective parts of the soul.Courage is the excellence of the spirited part, wisdom belongs to therational part, and moderation is the consent of all three about whoshould rule and who should obey. Justice turns out to be the overallunifying quality of the soul (443c–e). For, the just person notonly refrains from meddling with what is not his, externally, but alsoharmonizes the three parts of the soul internally. While justice isorder and harmony, injustice is its opposite: it is a rebellion of onepart of the city or soul against the others, and an inappropriate ruleof the inferior parts. Justice and injustice in the soul are, then,analogous to health and illness in the body. This comparison sufficesto bring the investigation to its desired result. If justice is healthand harmony of the soul, then injustice must be disease and disorder.Hence, it is clear that justice is a good state of the soul that makesits possessor happy, and injustice is its opposite. Just as no-one inhis right mind would prefer to live with a ruined body so no-one wouldprefer to live with a diseased soul. In principle, the discussion ofjustice has therefore reached its promised goal at the end of Book IV.Socrates has met Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’ challenge toprove that justice is a good, in and by itself, for the soul of itspossessor, and preferable to injustice.

That the discussion does not end here but occupies six more books, isdue most of all to several loose ends that need to be tied up. Apartfrom the fact that reason and order are to reign supreme, little hasbeen said about the citizens’ way of life. This gap will befilled, at least in part, by the description of the communal lifewithout private property and family in Book V. More importantly,nothing has been said about the rulers and their particular kind ofknowledge. This is a crucial point because, as the definitions of thethree ‘inferior’ virtues show, their quality is contingenton the rulers’ wisdom. Socrates addresses this problem with theprovocative thesis (473c–d): “Until philosophers rule askings or those who are now called kings and leaders genuinely andadequately philosophize ... cities will have no rest from evils, norwill the human race.” This thesis starts the discussion of thephilosophers’ knowledge, and of their upbringing and education,which will continue through Books VI and VII. Because they alsointroduce the special objects of the philosophers’ knowledge,these books provide the metaphysical underpinning of the entireconception of the good state and of the good soul. For the ‘Formof the Good’ turns out to be the ultimate source of all beingand knowledge. A short summary of the upshot of the educationalprogram must suffice here. The future philosophers, both women andmen, are selected from the group of guardians whose general culturaltraining they share. If they combine moral firmness with quickness ofmind, they are subject to a rigorous curriculum of higher learningthat will prepare them for the ascent from the world of the senses tothe world of intelligence and truth, an ascent whose stages are summedup in the similes of the Sun, the Line, and the Cave(508a–518b). To achieve this ascent, the students have toundergo, first, a preparatory schooling of ten years’ durationin the ‘liberal arts’: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy,and theoretical harmonics (518c–531c). Afterwards they areadmitted to the training in the master-science of‘dialectic’, a science of which little more is said beyondthe indication that it enables its possessor to deal in a systematicway with the objects of real knowledge – the Forms in general,– and with the Form of the Good, – the principle of thegoodness of all else, – in particular (531c–535a). Thisstudy is to last for another five years. Successful candidates arethen sent back into the Cave as administrators of ordinary politicallife for about 15 years. At the age of fifty the rulers are grantedthe pursuit of philosophy, an activity that is interrupted by periodsof service as overseers of the order of the state. This completes, ina nutshell, the description of the philosopher-kings’ and-queens’ education and activities (539d–541b).

This design of an autocratic rule by an aristocracy of the mind hasreceived a lot of flak; but an assessment of Plato’s politicsmust here be limited to the kind of happiness it supposedly provides.Regardless of whether or not we accept his overall principle of theGood as the basis of the political order, Plato’s model statehas, at least in theory, the advantage that it guarantees external andinternal peace. That is no mean feat in a society where external andcivil wars were a constant threat, and often enough ended in thedestruction of the entire city. The division of functions guarantees ahigh degree of efficiency, if every citizen does what he/she isnaturally suited to do. But what about the citizens’ needs,beyond those for security and material goods? Are they to find theirlife’s fulfillment in the pursuit of their jobs only? Platoseems to think so; he characterizes each class by its specific kind ofdesire and its respective good (581c): the philosophers are lovers ofwisdom (philosophoi), the soldiers lovers of honor(philotimoi), and the workers are lovers of material goods(philochrêmatoi). That human beings find, or at leasttry to find, satisfaction in the kinds of goods they cherish is apoint further pursued in the depiction of the decay of the city andits ruling citizens, from the best – the aristocracy of the mind– down to the worst – the tyranny of lust, in Books VIIIand IX. A discussion of the tenability of this explanation ofpolitical and psychological decadence will not be attempted here. Itis supposed to show that all inferior forms of government of city andsoul are doomed to fail because of the inherent tensions between thegoods that are aimed for.

Some comments on Plato’s conception of happiness are in order,however. He clearly goes on the assumption that human beings are happyinsofar as they achieve the goals they cherish. Though this notionseems to come close to the ‘preference satisfaction’ forall citizens that is nowadays regarded as the primary aim of everyliberal state, Plato’s restriction of each class to one type ofgood remains objectionable, most obviously in the case of the citizensof the third class who supposedly covet nothing but material goods.This ‘reductive’ view of their human nature militates notonly against present-day intuitions: It should also militate againstPlato’s own moral psychology, in that all human souls consist ofthree parts – a rational, a spirited, and an appetitive part– whose health and harmony constitute the soul’s and thestate’s happiness. Why, then, reduce the third class toanimal-like creatures with low appetites, as suggested by thecomparison of the people to a strong beast that must be placated(493a–c)? This comparison is echoed later in the comparison ofthe soul to a multiform beast, where reason just barely controls thehydra-like heads of the appetites, and then only with the aid of alion-like spirit (588c–590d). Is Plato thereby giving vent toanti-democratic sentiments, showing contempt for the rabble, as hasoften been claimed? He can at least be cleared of the suspicion thatthe workers are mere serfs of the upper classes, because he explicitlygrants them the free enjoyment of all the customary goods that he hasdenied to the upper classes (419a): “Others own land, build finebig houses, acquire furnishings to go along with them, make their ownprivate sacrifices to the gods, entertain guests, and also, of course,possess what you were talking about just now, gold and silver and allthe things that are thought to belong to people who are blessedlyhappy.” But apart from such liberties, the members of the thirdclass are quite neglected in Plato’s ideal city. Apparently noeducation is provided for them, for there is no suggestion that theyparticipate in the guardians’ musical and athletic training, andthere is no mention that obedience to the rulers’ commandscannot be the only source of happiness for the third class. Platoseems to sidestep his own insight that all human beings have animmortal soul and have to take care of it as best they can, as he notonly demands in the Phaedo but is going to confirm in afanciful way in the Myth of Er at the end of Republic BookX.

The life-style designated for the upper classes also seems open toobjections. The soldiers’ musical and physical training isstrictly regimented; they must take satisfaction in the obedience tothe laws for the sake of preserving the city’s inner and outerpeace, and in deeds of valor in war. Theirs is an austere camp-life;not all of them will be selected for higher education. But even thephilosophers’ lives leave a lot to be desired, and not onlybecause they have to starve their common human appetites and devotemany years to administrative duties back in the ‘Cave’.Their intellectual pursuits are also not entirely enviable, as acloser inspection would show. Not only do the philosophers have twojobs – in violation of the rule ‘one person – onefunction’ – in that they are responsible for bothadministrative work and philosophical reflection: They are also not toenjoy open-ended research, but are rather subject to a mental trainingthat is explicitly designed to turn their minds away from theenjoyment of all worldly beauty in order to focus exclusively on thecontemplation of the Forms. This is indicated in the injunctionsconcerning the study of astronomy and harmonics (529a–531d). Thestudents are not to crane their necks to watch the beauty of the“embroidery in the heavens”, but rather to concernthemselves with the ideal motions of ideal moving bodies in a purelygeometrical fashion, and they are not to listen to audible sounds, butto attend to the mathematics of harmonics. The universe is not treatedas an admirable cosmos, with the explicit purpose of providing moraland intellectual support to the citizens, in the way Plato is going tostate in the Timaeus and in the Laws. Given theselimitations of the philosophers’ mental exercises in theRepublic, the claim that their lives are 729 times morepleasant than the tyrants’ (IX 587e) seems like a grossexaggeration, even if they enjoy the pleasures of being filled withpure and unadulterated truths while everyone else enjoys onlysemblances of the really real (581e–588a).

For all the advances that the Republic represents in somerespects, Plato’s ideal city seems to us far from ideal. Thesystem resembles a well-oiled machine where everyone has theirappointed function and economic niche; but its machine-like characterseems repellent, given that no deviations are permitted from theprescribed pattern. If innovations are forbidden, no room seems to beleft for creativity and personal development. Plato seems topresuppose that the fulfillment of a person’s function issufficient to secure her happiness, or at least that is suggested bythe ‘functional’ argument that defeats Thrasymachus(352d–354a). It states that every object, animal, and person hasa specific function or work (ergon). If it performs itsfunction well, it does well: for a living thing, ‘doingwell’ means ‘living well’ and living well istantamount to living happily. Though Socrates’ refutation ofThrasymachus is found wanting as a proof of justice’ssuperiority, the ergon-argument is nowhere revoked. On thecontrary, it is affirmed by the principle of ‘one person –one job’ that is the basis of Plato’s ideal city. But itseems rather inhumane to confine everyone’s activities to justone kind of work, even if such confinement may be mosteconomical and efficient. These features suffice to make the ideallife in Plato’s city unpalatable to us, not to speak of certainother features that have not been explored here, such as the communallife envisaged for the upper classes, and the assignment of sexualpartnerships by lotteries that are rigged for reasons of eugenics. Thefeature that must strike us as strangest about Plato’s depictionof his citizens’ lives is that he does not even emphasize theone factor that could throw a more favorable light on hissocial order – that each citizen will take pride and joy intheir work and its products, given that these are to be regarded, eachin their own way, as valuable contributions to the community’swell-being. This applies especially to the members of the third class– tailors, carpenters, doctors, architects, sailors, and allthose who are summed up rather ungraciously under the epithet of‘money-lovers’ — because they, after all, producethe city’s material goods, whithout which the city could notfunction or exist.

Has this fact escaped Plato’s notice, alongside otherdeficiencies of his blue-print of an ideal city? Against all thesecomplaints, justified as they must seem, it should be pointed out thatPlato clearly is not concerned with the conditions that would make hiscity ‘livable’. His aim is rather more limited: He wantsto present a model, and to work out its essential features.The same explanation applies to his depiction of the city’s andits citizens’ decay in Books VIII and IX. Contrary to manycritics’ assumptions, Plato is not there trying to predict andexplain the course of history. Rather, he wants to explain thegeneration and decay typical of each political system and thepsychopathology of its leaders. Plato finds the basis of both in the‘values’ – be they honor, money, freedom, or lust– that are embedded in he constitutions of the different typesof state. It is unlikely that Plato presupposes that there are purerepresentatives of these types, though some historical states may havecome closer to being representatives than others. Given thatPlato’s aim is to work out the model of a well-functioningstate, he does not and need not concern himself with softening thefeatures of his bare sketch of the decay of the city and of the soulsof the citizens due to their inherent tensions. If his decision toconcentrate on a model explains certain inhumane features ofPlato’s political vision, are there any indications that he wasaware of the limitations that he imposed on his ‘politicalanimals’ by confining them to just one function in anefficiently run community? Was Plato aware of the fact that hisblack-and-white picture of civic life in his model state disregardsthe claim of individuals to have their own aims and ends, and not tobe treated like automata, with no thoughts and wishes of their own?Though the Republic contains some suggestions that wouldmitigate this bleak picture, for the sake of balancing this picture,it is more fruitful, to look at other works of Plato’s middleperiod that concentrate on and prioritize the conditions of theindividual soul rather than focus on the demands of the community.These works are the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Forthough each dialogue should be studied as a unity of its own, it isalso necessary to treat the individual dialogues as part of a widerpicture.

4. The later dialogues: Ethics and Dialectic

4.1 Happiness and the desire for self-completion

The Symposium and the Phaedrus are two dialoguesthat focus on the individual soul and pay no attention to communallife at all. Instead, they concentrate on self-preservation,self-improvement, and self-completion. The Symposium is oftentreated as a dialogue that predates the Republic, most of allbecause it mentions neither the immortality nor the tripartition ofthe soul. But its dramatic staging – the praise of Eros by acompany of symposiasts – is not germane to the otherworldly andascetic tendencies of the Gorgias and the Phaedo. Inaddition, Plato has good reasons for leaving aside a discussion of theseparation of the soul’s faculties in the Symposium,because he aims to show that love is an incentive, not only for allhumans, but also for other living beings. Contrary to all otherspeakers, Socrates denies that Eros is a god, because the gods are ina state of perfection. Love, by contrast, is a desire of the needy forthe beautiful and the good (199c–201c). Socrates therebycorrects the previous speakers’ confusion of love with thebeloved object. This insight is presented not as Socrates’ own,but as the upshot of a ‘lecture on the nature of love by thewise Diotima’ (201d–212b): Eros is a powerful demon, abeing between the mortal and the immortal, an eternally needy hunterof the beautiful. Human beings share that demonic condition; for theyare neither good nor bad, but desire the good and the beautiful, thepossession of which would constitute happiness for them. Because allpeople want happiness, they pursue the good as well as they can(205a–206b). In each case they desire the particular kinds ofobjects that they hope will fulfill their needs. Such fulfillment isnot a passive possession; it is rather the objects of love are deemedto be essential in the struggle for self-preservation,self-completion, and self-fulfillment (207d): “For among animalsthe principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so faras possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible inone way only: by reproduction, because it leaves behind a new youngone in place of the old.” There is, then, a constant need forself-restoration and self-improvement by procreation in the quest forearthly immortality. In the case of human beings this need expressesitself in different ways. The search for‘self-eternalization’ may result in, or even be fulfilledby, the production of biological children or of so-called‘children of the mind’ (e.g. works of the arts), or evenby the creation of order in cities that are then guided by the virtuesof justice and moderation (209a–e). Diotima’s lecture isfinally crowned by a depiction of the famous scala amoris– Diotima’s explanation of the refinement and sublimationthat a person experiences when recognizing higher and higher kinds ofbeauty (210a–212a). Starting with the love of one beautifulbody, the individual gradually learns to appreciate not only allphysical beauty, but also the beauty of the mind, and in the end shegets a glimpse of the supreme kind of beauty, namely the Form of theBeautiful itself – a beauty that is neither relative, norchangeable, nor a matter of degree.

Because beauty of the higher kind is tied to virtue, and is attainedby the comprehension of what is common in laws and publicinstitutions, it is clear that Plato does not have purely aestheticvalues in mind, but principles of good order that are ultimately tiedto the Form of the Beautiful/Good. The difference between theRepublic’s and the Symposium’s accountslies in the fact that the scala amoris treats physical beautyas an incentive to the higher and better, an incentive that inprinciple affects every human being. There is no talk of a painfulliberation from the bonds of the senses, or of a turn-around of theentire soul that is reserved only for the better educated. Brief asthe Symposium’s explanation of happiness is, it showsthree things: First, all human beings aim for their ownself-preservation and -completion. Second, this drive finds itsexpression in the products of their work, in creativity. Third, theirrespective activities are instigated by each person’s ownparticular desire for the beautiful. There is no indication thatindividuals must act as part of a community. Though the communitarianaspect of the good and beautiful comes to the fore in the high praiseof the products of the legendary legislators (209e–210a), theultimate assent to the Beautiful itself is up to the individual. Themessage of the Symposium is not unique in Plato’sworks. The Lysis shares its basic assumption concerning theintermediary state of human nature between good and bad, and regardsneed as the basis of friendship. Due to the aporeticcharacter of that dialogue, its lesson remains somewhat obscure, butit is obvious enough that it shares the Symposium’sgeneral anthropological presuppositions.

The idea that eros is the incentive to sublimation andself-completion is worked out further in the Phaedrus.Although the close relationship between the two dialogues is generallyacknowledged, the Phaedrus is commonly regarded as a muchlater work. For not only does it accept the Republic’spsychological doctrine of a tri-partite soul, it also advocates theimmortality of the soul – doctrines that are conspicuouslyabsent in the Symposium. But this difference seems due to adifference in perspective rather than to a change of mind. Thediscussion in the Symposium is deliberately confined to theconditions of self-immortalization in this life, while thePhaedrus takes the discussion beyond the confines of thislife. If it shares the Republic’s doctrine of adivision of the soul into three parts, it does so for reasons of itsown: The three parts of the soul in the Phaedrus are notsupposed to justify the separation of people into three classes. Theyexplain, rather, the different routes taken by individuals in theirsearch for beauty and their levels of success. If thePhaedrus goes beyond the Symposium, it does so inorder to show how the enchantment of beauty can be combined with anelement of Plato’s philosophy that seems quite alien to thenotions of self-improvement and sublimation through the love ofbeauty. That element is abruptly identified as dialectic, thesystematic method of collection and division that is characteristic ofPlato’s later work. At first sight, it might seem that thedialogue’s topic, Eros, is hardly the right tie to keep togetherthe dialogue’s two disparate parts – i.e. the highlypoetical depiction of the enchantment of beauty, and Plato’ssubsequent, quite pedestrian methodological explanations of thepresuppositions of rhetoric. But although the coherence of thePhaedrus cannot be argued for in full here, the notion thatthe Phaedrus is disjointed does not do justice to thedialogue’s careful composition and overall aim.

(Video) PHILOSOPHY - The Good Life: Plato [HD]

Rhetoric, its purpose and value, is in fact the dialogue’s topicright from the start. The misuse of rhetoric is exemplified by thespeech attributed to the orator Lysias, a somewhat contrived plea tofavor a non-lover rather than a lover. Socrates’ retort pointsup Lysias’ presuppositions – that love is a kind ofsickness, an irrational craving for the pleasures of the body; that alover tries to dominate and enslave the beloved physically, materiallyand mentally, and, most importantly, that the lover tries to deprivethe beloved of philosophy. Once restored to his senses the lover willshun his former beloved and break all his promises. This one-sidedview of Eros is corrected in Socrates’ second speech: Eros,properly understood, is not a diseased state of mind, but a kind of‘divine madness’ (theia mania). To explain thenature of this madness, Socrates employs the comparison of thetripartite soul to a charioteer with a pair winged horses, an obedientwhite one and an unruly black one. The crucial difference between thePhaedrus’ tripartition and that in theRepublic lies in in this: instead of a painful liberationthrough education, the Phaedrus envisages a liberationthrough the uplifting force of love, a love that is – just as itis in the Symposium – instigated by physical beauty.That is what first makes the soul grow wings and soar in the pursuitof a corresponding deity, to the point where it may attain godlikeinsights. The best-conditioned souls – those where thecharioteer has full control over his horses – get a glimpse oftrue being, including the nature of the virtues and of the good(247c–e). Depending on the quality of each soul, the quality ofthe beauty pursued will also determine the cycle of reincarnationsthat is in store for each soul after death (248c–249c).

4.2 The quest for method

What is remarkable in the Phaedrus’ picture of theuplifting effect of beauty is not only its exuberant tone and imagery,which goes far beyond the Symposium’s unadornedscala amoris, but also its intricate interweaving of mythicaland philosophical elements. For in the midst of his fanciful depictionof the different fates that are in store for different kinds of souls,Plato specifies, in quite technical terms, that the capacity “tounderstand speech in terms of general Forms, proceeding to bring manyperceptions together into a reasoned unity”, (249b–c), isthe condition for the reincarnation of dead individuals as humanbeings. It is this capacity for abstract thought that he then calls“recollection of what the soul saw when it was traveling withgod, when it disregarded the things we now call real and lifted up itshead to what is truly real instead.” The heavenly adventureseems to amount to no more than the employment of the dialecticalmethod that Socrates is going to describe, without further mythicalcamouflage, in the dialogue’s second part. The ability toestablish unity in a given subject-matter, and to divide it upaccording to its natural kinds, is the art that characterizes the‘scientific rhetorician’ (265d–266b). Socratesprofesses the greatest veneration for such a master: “If Ibelieve that someone is capable of discerning a single thing that isalso by nature capable of encompassing many, I follow ‘straightbehind, in his tracks, as if he were a god’.” So theheavenly voyage has a quite down-to-earth counterpart in thedialectical method – a method that Plato regards, as he is goingto confirm in the Philebus, as a ‘gift of thegods’. At the same time, Plato’s esteem for taxonomyexplains the inner unity of the Phaedrus’ seeminglyincongruous two parts as two sides of one coin, and it also shows whyPlato no longer treats the sensory as a distraction and disturbance ofthe mind per se. For the properly conditioned souls’sensory impressions are its first incentives to the higher andbetter.

What concept of happiness is suggested by this ‘inspired’view of human life? The individual does not find her or hisfulfillment in peaceful interactions in a harmonious community.Instead, life is spent in the perennial pursuit of the higher andbetter. But in that task the individual is not alone; she shares thattask with kindred spirits. The message of the the Symposiumand the Phaedrus is therefore two-pronged. On the one hand,there is no permanent attainment of happiness as a stable state ofcompletion in this life. In the ups and downs of life (and of theafterlife), humans are in constant need of beauty as an incentive toaim for their own completion. Humans are neither god-like nor wise; atbest, they are god-lovers and philosophers, demonic hunters for truthand goodness. To know is not to have; and to have once is not to haveforever. In the Symposium, Diotima states in no uncertainterms that humans have a perennial need to replenish what they lose,both in body and soul, because they are mortal and changeablecreatures, and the Phaedrus confirms the need for continuedefforts, for the heavenly voyage is not a one-time affair. On theother hand, the second part of he message conveyed is that the pursuitof the good and the beautiful is not a lonely enterprise. As thePhaedrus makes clear, love for a beautiful human being is anincentive to search for a higher form of life, as a sacred jointjourney of two friends in communion (255a–256e). The need for,and also the possibility of, constant self-completion and -repletionis a motive that will also reappear in the ethical thought ofPlato’s late works, a motif he sometimes presents as the maximthat humans should aim at the ‘likening of oneself togod’, (homoiôsis theôi Theaetetus176b; Timaeus 90c).

Sober philosophers have a tendency to ignore such visionary talk astoo elevated and lacking in substance to be worth serious thought.That Plato, appearances notwithstanding, is not indulging in agod-besotted rêverie in the Phaedrus isindicated by his interweaving of the mythical description in thedialogue’s first part, and his description and exploration ofthe dialectical method in the later part (259e-279c), where Socratesattempts to determine the requirements of ‘scientificrhetoric’ (259e–279c). Artful speaking (and even artfuldeception) presupposes knowledge of the truth, especially where theidentity of the phenomena is difficult to grasp, because similaritiescan be deceptive. This applies in particular to concepts like the goodand the just, as witnessed by the wide disagreement about their nature(263a–c). The development of the ‘sharp eye’ that isneeded to assign each object to the right class is the aim ofPlato’s method of collection and division, a method on which heexpounds at some length in the Phaedrus. Plato discusses thecare that is needed in order to (265d–e) “see togetherthings that are scattered about everywhere, and to collect them intoone kind (mia idea)”, as well as “to cut theunity up again according to its species along its natural joints, andto try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do.”That this method is supposed to serve an overall ethical purpose isconfirmed by the fact that rhetoric based on truth must reflect thespeaker’s knowlege not only of the different types of souls andthe types of speech that fit them (271d), but also of the truth aboutjust and good things (272d).

That dialectic is geared to this end is somewhat obscured in thesubsequent discussion in the Phaedrus. First of all, Platoturns away from this issue in his long depiction of the iniquities ofcontemporary rhetoricians, when he constrasts their efforts withscientific rhetoric. And Plato continues this excursion with adiscussion of speaking and writing, culminating in his famous‘critique of writing’. Second, although Plato makes ampleuse of the method of collection and division in later dialogues suchas the Sophist and the Statesman, he seems to paylittle heed to problems of ethics, with the exception of thePhilebus. But the aptness of the dialectical method indiscerning the nature of the good has already been emphasized in theRepublic (534b–c): “ Unless someone candistinguish in an account the Form of the good from everything else,can survive all refutation as if in battle... you will say that hedoes not know the good itself or any other good.” Brief as theseremarks are, they show that the application of dialectic to theunderstanding and pursuit of the good is of central importance. Thatthe Good is nowhere subjected to such treatment must be due to theenormity of the task involved in undertaking a systematicidentification of all that is good, and in distinguishing good thingsfrom each other, as well as from the Form of the Good. Although it isunclear whether Plato had already refined the dialectical method inthe systematic way indicated in the Phaedrus, the hintscontained in the Republic about a ‘longer way’(435d; 504b) to determine the nature of justice and the other virtuesseem to suggest that the the development of a systematic method ofcollection and division was ‘in the works’. As a closerlook at the much later Philebus will show, the determinationof what is good about each kind of thing presupposes more than aclassification by collection and division. For in addition, theinternal structure of each kind of entity has to be determined.Knowledge is not confined to the comprehension of the objects’being, identity, difference and other external interrelations thatexist in a given field. It also presupposes the knowledge of whatconstitutes the objects’ internal unity and complexity. Itwould, of course, be rather presumptuous to claim that Plato had notseen the need to investigate the ontological ‘anatomy’, aswell as taxonomy, of the Forms from early on. But as the latedialogues show, it took him quite some effort to develop the requisiteconceptual tools for such analyses.

Before we turn to the late dialogues, a final review is in order ofthe kind of good life Plato envisages in the dialogues underdiscussion here. In the Symposium, the emphasis is on theindividual’s creative work, which involves others at least ascatalysts in one’s efforts to attain self-perpetuation andcompletion. The quality of life attainable for each person differs,depending on the kind of ‘work’ each individual is able toproduce. This is what the scala amoris is all about. In thePhaedrus, the emphasis is more on the ‘jointventure’ of kindred souls. True friends will get to the highestpoint of self-fulfillment by the joint insights that theirsouls’ conditions permit them to attain. Just as in theSymposium, the philosophical life is deemed the best. Butthen, this preference is found everywhere in Plato and itis not uniqueto him: all ancient philosophers regard their own occupation as thetrue fulfillment of human life. If there are differences between them,they concern the kinds of study and occupation that are deemedappropriate to philosophy. The more individualistic view of happinessespoused in the Symposium and in the Phaedrus need,however, not be seen as a later stage in Plato’s developmentthan the Republic’s communitarian conception. They maybe complementary, rather than rival, points of view, and no fixedchronology need be assumed in order to accommodate both.

5. The late dialogues: Ethics and Cosmology

5.1 Harmony and cosmic goodness

Nature and natural things are not among the objects that concern Platoin his earlier and middle philosophical investigations. Thus, in theRepublic, he dismisses the study of the visible heaven fromthe curriculum of higher learning along with audible music. But suchgeneralizations about Plato’s intentions may be misleading. Whathe denigrates is not the study of the heavenly order as such, nor thatof harmonics; it is rather the extent to which we must necessarilyrely on our eyes and ears in those concerns. Students of philosophyare, rather, encouraged to work out the true intelligible orderunderlying the visible heaven and audible music. Not only that: Theascent out of the Cave includes recognition of objects outside,especially “the things in the sky” (R.516a–b). If Plato is critical of natural science, it is becauseof its empirical approach. This echoes the Phaedo’scomplaint that one ruins one’s eyes by looking directly atthings, most of all at the sun (Phdo. 99d–e).Nevertheless, Plato already indicates in his critique of Anaxagorasthat comprehension of the workings of the order of nature would behighly desirable, as long as it contained an explanation of therationale of that order (98a): “I was ready to find outabout the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, about theirrelative speed, their turnings and whatever happens to them, how it isbest that each should be acted upon.” But Anaxagorashas not fulfilled his promise to explain how mind is the cause of allthings by showing (99c): “that the truly good and binding tiesand holds everything together”, i.e. through a teleologicalrather than a mechanical explanation of the cosmic order. Platohimself does not pursue this idea in the rest of the Phaedo,but his elaborate ‘geographical’ depiction of the under-,middle-, and upper world in the final myth can be read as a model ofsuch an explanation in mythological garb. The same can be claimed forthe description of the heavenly order and the structure of the‘spindle of necessity’ in the myth of Er at the end of theRepublic (R. 616b–617d).

What kind of ‘binding force’ does Plato attribute to‘the Good’? His reticence about this concept, despite itscentrality in his metaphysics and ethics, is largely responsible forthe obscurity of his concepts of happiness and of what it is to lead agood life, except for the claim that individuals are best off if they‘do their own thing’. The philosophers’ knowledgeprovides a solid basis for the good life of the entire community, aswell as for that of the – perhaps uncomprehending –majority, because they benefit from the good order of the state. Butwhat is ‘the Good’ that is responsible for the goodness ofall other things? A lot of ink has been spilt over the followingpassage in Republic book VI, 509b: “Not only do theobjects of knowledge owe their being known to the Good, buttheir being (ousia) is also due to it, although theGood is not being, but superior (epekeina) to it in rank andpower.” The analogy with the sun’s maintenance of all thatis alive suggests that the Good is the intelligent inner principlethat determines the nature of every object that is capable ofgoodness, in the sense that these objects fulfill their respectivefunctions in an appropriate way. Plato did not attempt to state howsuch a principle of goodness works in all things when he wrote theRepublic. That he was thinking of an internal ‘bindingforce’ is indicated, however, in Book X, where Plato elucidatesthe ontological differences that exist, respectively, between theForms as the products of a divine maker, their earthly copies, and theimitation of these copies by an artist (R. 596a ff.).According to Plato, in each case it is the use orfunction that determines what it is to be good, (601d):“Aren’t the virtue or excellence, the beauty andcorrectness of each manufactured item, living creature, and actionrelated to nothing but the use (chreia) for which each ismade or naturally adapted?” Given that he does not limit thisaccount to instruments, but explicitly includes living things andhuman actions in it, he seems to have a specific criterion in mind forwhat constitutes each thing’s excellence. A similar thought isalready expressed in Republic I (353a–e) when Socrates,in his refutation of Thrasymachus, employs the argument that theability to fulfill one’s own task (ergon) wellconstitutes the excellence of each object. In the case of humanbeings, this means ‘doing well’; ‘doing well’,in turn, means ‘living well’, and ‘livingwell’, in turn, means ‘living happily’. Thestringency of these inferences is far from obvious; but they show thatPlato saw an intimate connection between the nature, the function, andthe well-being of all things, including human beings.

What determines the ‘use’ of a human being, and to whatextent can there be a common principle that accounts for all goodthings? In the Republic, this question is answered onlyindirectly through the isomorphism of the just state and soul as aharmonious internal order. The postulate of such an orderly structureis not explicitly extended beyond the state and the soul. In contrast,in the later dialogues, the Good clearly operates on a cosmic scale.That such is Plato’s view comes to the fore in his excursus onthe philosopher’s nature in the Theaetetus(173c–177c). Contrary to Socrates’ denial in theApology, Socrates in the Theaetetus affirms that thephilosopher is to pursue both what lies below the earth and theheights above the heaven (173e): “tracking down by every paththe entire nature of each whole among the things that are.” AndSocrates also concerns himself with the question of “What isman? What actions and passions properly belong to human nature anddistinguish it from all other beings?” In that connection hecompares the discovery of the true nature of things with‘likening oneself to God’ (homoiôsistheôi) and indicates that there is a unitary principle ofgoodness. The ability to achieve this superhuman state depends onone’s readiness to engage in strenuous philosophical discourse(177b).

If, in the Republic, the goodness of the individual soul isexplained in terms of its being a smaller copy of a harmonioussociety, in the Timaeus, Plato goes for a larger model. Theuniverse now supplies the ‘large’ text for deciphering thenature of the human soul. The structure of the world-soul isreplicated in the nature of the human soul. That there is,nevertheless, a close affinity between the Republic and theproject that Plato meant to pursue in the Timaeus and itsintended sequels is clearly indicated in the preface to theTimaeus. The tale of the origin of the universe, includinghuman nature, is presented as the first step in a reply toSocrates’ wish to see his own best city ‘in action’(Ti. 19b–c). From antiquity on, this introduction hascreated the impression that the Timaeus is the directcontinuation of the Republic, an impression that explains itsjuxtaposition in the Corpus Platonicum. Strong indicationsspeak, however, for a much later date for the Timaeus. IfPlato establishes a link between these two works, his intent is tocompare as well as to contrast. The continuity consists solely in thefact that Socrates reaffirms that he still considers his city’sorder as the best (Ti. 17c–19b). It is this ideal orderthat Critias promises to illustrate by narrating the tale of the warbetween pre-historic Athens, a city that exempified the ideal order,and Atlantis, a powerful tyrannical superpower (Ti.20d–26e). However, Plato eventually set aside the project ofillustrating the ideal city in action: the Critias breaks offafter 15 pages, in mid-sentence, and the third dialogue in the series,Hermocrates, was never written at all. So the story ofSocrates’ ideal city in action and of the life of its citizensremains untold. All we have is Plato’s cosmic model.

(Video) A History of Philosophy | 08 Plato's Ethics

The difference between the philosophical approach of theRepublic and that of the Timaeus lies in the factthat Plato concerns himself in the later dialogue with the structureof the visible heaven as a model for the human soul, and also with thematerial conditions of human physiology. What is confined to mythologyin Plato’s earlier works is here worked out – though notwithout the caveat to the effect that Plato is merelyoffering a likely account of the structure of the universe, of thehuman soul, and of human physiology – rather than proven facts.Plato’s choice of presenting his explanation of the order of theuniverse as a story of creation by a ‘divine workman’ iscertainly no accident. It can be understood as a kind of‘retractation’ of his deprecatory statement concerning thedivine workman’s product that appears in the Republic,where this product is denigrated because of its inferiority to apurely theoretical model. To be sure, the Timaeus presupposesthe Forms as the divine workman’s unchanging models(27d–29d; 30c–31b) and resorts to mathematical principlesto explain the cosmic order, but the focus is almost exclusively onthe construction of the visible heavens. Plato now seems convincedthat in order to explain the nature of a living being, it is necessaryto show what factors constitute such a live organism.

This intention explains certain peculiarities of the Timaeusthat make the dialogue hard to penetrate. For the dialogue falls intothree rather disparate parts. The first part describes the structureof the world-soul and its replication in the human soul in a way thatcombines the formal principles with those of mathematics and harmonicsand illustrates it with fantastic imagery (29d–47e). The secondpart consists of a rather meticulous account of the elementaryphysical constituents of nature, which are held to be formed ofgeometrically constructed atoms (47e–69a). The third partcombines elements from the first and second parts in a lengthyexplanation of human physiology and psychology (69b–92c). Thefirst, cosmological, part of the Timaeus greatly taxesone’s ability to relate the notion of a divinely createdworld-soul to the motions of the visible heavens, since Plato onlyoffers the bare hints of an intelligible, mathematical, and harmonicstructure that would explain these motions. By contrast, theexplanations in the second and third part are hard to follow becauseof Plato’s, quite unique, concern with detail with respect tonature.

This is not the place to summarize Plato’s description of thecomplex structure of the world-soul at greater length. Suffice it tosay that this structure combines three features – namely, (1)the components or ingredients, of the world-soul itself, which are theessential tools for dialectic; (2) the mathematicalproportions that define the structure of the world-soul; and (3) theinfluence that the structure of the world-soul has in turn on theobservable order of the universe, such as the motion of the heavenlybodies. According to Plato, the soul itself is composed of being,sameness, and difference – i.e., three of the ‘mostimportant kinds’ discussed in the Sophist as theobjects of the philosopher’s art of combination and separation(Sph. 253b–254b). Each of the three concepts thatconstitute the world-soul do so in a mixture of their unchangeable andtheir changeable types (Ti. 35a–b): the world-soul is acombination of unchangeable and changeable being, of unchangeable andchangeable sameness, and of unchangeable and changeable difference.What is the use of this strange concoction? As Timaeus points out, thecombination of the eternal and temporal versions of the formalconcepts allows the soul to comprehend both unchangeable andchangeable objects in the world (37a–c). In other words, thesoul has ‘unchangeable’ tools to identify the Forms, and‘changeable’ tools to deal with the objects in thephysical realm. By mixing together the unchangeable and the changeableversions of the formal concepts, Plato maintains the unity of thesoul. In other words, there is no such thing as aworld-reason – dealing only with eternal being,sameness and difference – separate from the world-soul,which is concerned with temporal and changeable things, their being,sameness and difference. Rather, there is one mental force that doesboth, resulting in either knowledge or firm belief. Nous andpsuchê are united in the Timaeus. The‘mixed tools’ of dialectic (once more – being,sameness, and difference) are at the same time depicted as extended‘bands’ that provide the soul with a mathematicalstructure through division in a complex set of proportions(35b–36b). The portions (1 - 2 - 4 - 8 - 3 - 9 - 27) of themixture, with further subdivisions according to the arithmetical,geometrical and harmonic means, are the proportions that demarcate theintervals in theoretical harmonics (1 : 2 is the ratio underlying theoctave, 3 : 2 the fifth, 4 : 3 the fourth, 9 : 8 the major second,etc.). As these harmonic divisions suggest, the world-soul is at thesame time a kind of musical instrument. No music of the spheres ismentioned in the Timaeus, but Plato seems to have in mind atleast the possibility of heavenly music. The mathematical proportionsare applied, in turn, to explain the order and the motions of theheavenly bodies (36b–d). For the soul-bands, divided indifferent proportions, form circles that are ordered in a complicatedsystem, and in doing so they represent a geometrical model of themotions and distances of the stars revolving around the earth.

Why does Plato burden himself and his readers with such a complexmachinery and what does this heavenly instrument have to do withethics? Since the human soul is formed from the same ingredients asthe world soul (albeit in a less pure form), and displays the samestructure (41d–e), Plato is clearly not just concerned with theorder of the universe, but with that of the human soul as well. Heattributes to it the possession of the kinds of concepts that arenecessary for the understanding of the nature of all things, botheternal and temporal. The soul’s ingredients are here limited tothe purely formal conditions, however. A theory of recollection of thenature of all things is no longer being advocated. Rather, Plato isconcerned with ascertaining all of the following: (1) the mostimportant concepts used to identify and differentiate objects in theway necessary for dialectical procedure; (2) the numbers andproportions needed to understand numerical relations and harmonicstructures of all sorts; and (3) the capacity of the soul to performand comprehend harmoniously coordinated motions. This, it seems, isall the soul gets and all it needs in order to perform its varioustasks. The unusual depiction of the soul’s composition makes ithard, at first, to penetrate to the rationale of its construction, andit must remain an open question to what extent Plato expects his modelto be taken in a literal rather than in a figurative sense. Hisoverall message should be clear, however: the soul is aharmoniously structured entity, that can in principle functionforever, and it also comprehends the corresponding structuresin other entities, and therefore has access to all that is good andwell-ordered. This last point has consequences for his ethical thoughtthat are not developed in the Timaeus itself, but that can bedetected in other late dialogues.

5.2 Measure for Measure

Plato’s concern with ‘right measure’ in a sense thatis relevant for ethics is, of course, not confined to his late work.It shows up rather early. Already in the Gorgias, Socratesblames Callicles for the undisciplined state of his soul, andattributes it to his neglect of geometry, (508a): “You’vefailed to notice that proportionate equality (geometrikêisotês) has great power among both gods and men.” Butit is unclear whether this expression is to be taken in a more thanmetaphorical sense; it is, at any rate, not repeated anywhere else inPlato’s earlier work. Numbers are treated as paradigmaticentities from the middle dialogues on, and in the Protagoras(156c–157e), Socrates maintains that virtue is ‘the art ofmeasuring’ (metrêtikê technê)pleasure and pain. But nothing further is made of that suggestion; thedialogue ends in aporia about the nature of virtue(161c–d) — a fact that strongly speaks against theattribution of a kind of ‘enlightened hedonism’ to Plato,as certain interpreters are wont to do. There is no indication thatPlato takes seriously the idea of a ‘quantification’ ofthe nature of the virtues in his middle dialogues. If mathematicslooms large, then, it is as a model science on account of itsexactness, the stability of its objects, and their accessibility toreason. A systematic exploration of the notion that measure andproportion are the fundamental conditions of goodness is confined tothe late dialogues. Apart from the Timaeus’ emphasis ona precise cosmic and mental order, there is a crucial passage in theStatesman (283d–285c), where the Eleatic Strangerdistinguishes two kinds of ‘art of measurement’. The firstkind is the ordinary measuring of quantities relative to each other(‘the great and small’). The second kind has a normativecomponent; it is concerned with the determination of ‘duemeasure’ (to metrion). The latter is treated with greatconcern, for the Eleatic Stranger claims that it is the basis of allexpertise, including statesmanship, the very art that is the subjectof the dialogue itself, (284a–b): “It is by preservingmeasure in this way that they produce all the good and fine thingsthey do produce.” His point is that all good productions and allprocesses of generation that come to a good end presuppose‘right measure’, while arbitrary quantities (‘themore and less’) have no such results. The Eleatic Strangertherefore suggests the separation of the simple arts of measuring fromthe arts concerned with due measure, (284e): “Positing as onepart all those sorts of expertise that measure the numbers, lengths,depths, breadths and speeds of things in relation to what is opposedto them, and as the other, all those that measure in relation to whatis in due measure (to metrion), what is fitting (toprepon), the right moment (to kairion), what is as itought to be (to deon)—everything that is removed fromthe extremes to the middle (meson).” This distinctionis not applied in the Statesman itself, except that duemeasure seems to be presupposed in the final definition of thestatesman as a ‘kingly weaver’, weaving together thefabric of the state by combining the aggressive and the moderatetemperaments of the population so as to produce a harmonious citizenry(305e– 311c). But mathematics is not mentioned as the conditionof the ‘mixing of the citizens’ characters’.

The importance of measure in a literal sense becomes more explicit,however, in the Philebus, the dialogue that is concerned withthe question of whether pleasure or knowledge constitutes the humangood. In that dialogue, number (arithmos), measure(metron), and limit (peras) play a crucial role atvarious points of the discussion, and the Philebus is thedialogue where Plato requires that numerical precision must beobserved in the application of the ‘divine gift’ ofdialectical procedure by the method of collection and division(16c–17a). The dialectician must know precisely how many speciesand subspecies a certain genus contains; otherwise he has no claim toany kind of expertise. Despite this emphasis on precision and on theneed to determine the numerical ‘limit’ in every science,Socrates does not provide the envisaged kind of numerically completedivision of the two contenders for the rank of the best state of thehuman soul – pleasure and knowledge – envisaged by the useof collection and division. This is because Socrates suddenlyremembers that neither of the two contenders suffices in itself forthe good life, and that a mixture of the two is preferable. To explainthe nature of this mixture, Socrates introduces a fourfold division ofall beings (23c–27c), a division that uses the categories of‘limit’ and ‘measure’ in a different way thanin the ‘divine method of dialectic’. As he now states, allbeings belong in one of four classes – namely (1) limit(peras), (2) the unlimited (apeiron), (3) themixture (meixis) of limit and the unlimited, or (4) the cause(aitia) of such a mixture. As the subsequent explicationsconcerning the four classes show, the unlimited comprises all thosethings that have no exact grade or measure in themselves, such as thehotter and colder, the faster and slower. Although at first theexamples are confined to relative terms, the class of the unlimited isthen extended to things like hot and cold, dry and moist, fast andslow, and even heat and frost. Mixture takes place when such qualitiestake on a definite quantity (poson) or due measure(metrion) that limits their variation. That only measuredentities qualify as mixtures is not only suggested by the examplesSocrates refers to (health, strength, beauty, music, and the seasons),but by his assertion much later in the dialogue that a mixture withoutdue measure or proportion does not deserve its name (64d–e):“[it] will necessarily corrupt its ingredients and most of allitself. For there would be no blending in such cases at all, butreally an unconnected medley, the ruin of whatever happens to becontained in it.” The upshot of this discussion is that allstable entities (mixtures) represent a harmonious equilibrium of theirotherwise unlimited ingredients. Since indeterminate elements usuallyturn up in pairs of opposites, the right limit in each case is theright proportion necessary for their balance. In the case of health,there must be the right balance between the hot and the cold, the dryand the moist. The cause of the proper proportion for each mixtureturns out to be reason; it is the only member of the fourth class. AsSocrates indicates, divine reason is the ultimate source of all thatis good and harmonious in the universe, while human reason is but apoor copy (26e–27c; 28a–30e).

The adoption of this fourfold ontology allows Socrates to assign thetwo contenders for best condition in human nature to two of the fourclasses: pleasure turns out to be unlimited, because it admits of the‘more and less ’. Reason, by contrast, belongs to thefourth class, as the cause of good mixtures. On the basis of thisclassification, Socrates’ investigation provides a criticalassessment of different kinds of pleasure and knowledge(31b–59d). It turns out that pleasure is at best a remedialgood: pleasure is always the filling of a lack, or the restoration ofa harmonious state, and therefore pleasure presupposes some kind ofdisturbance of the physical or mental equilibrium. A pleasure may befalse, harmful or violent if its pursuer is mistaken about theobject’s identity and quantity, or if there is no real cure forthe disturbance. A pleasure may be ‘true and pure’ if itis a compensation for a harmless and unfelt lack, and if its possessoris not mistaken about the nature of its object (31b–55c). Therivals of the pleasures – the different intellectual disciplines– also vary in quality; but in their case the difference inquality depends on the amount of mathematical precision they contain(55c–59d). The decision about what mixture will make for a happylife leads to a combination of the true and pure pleasures with allthe kinds of knowledge and disciplines that are necessary forlife’s needs (59d–64b). In the final ranking of goods,measure and due proportion, unsurprisingly, get the first rank, thingsin proper proportion come in second, reason is ranked third, the artsand sciences obtain fourth place, whereas the true and pure pleasuresget fifth and last place on the scale of goods (64c–67b). IfPlato in the Philebus is more favorably disposed towards ahedonist stance than in some of his earlier works, he is so only to aquite limited degree: he regards pleasure as a necessary ingredient inhuman life, because both the physical and the psychic equilibria thatconstitute human nature are unstable. There is always some deficiencyor lack that needs supplementing. Because the range of such‘supplements’ include learning and the pursuit of thevirtues, there are some pleasures that are rightly cherished. But eventhey are deemed goods only because they are compensations for humanimperfection.

What are we to make of this conception of happiness as a mixture ofpleasure and knowledge that is based on ‘due measurement’?There are two questions worth exploring here. One concerns the rolethat Plato assigns to measure in his late concept of ethics. Secondly,there is the question of how serious Plato is about such a‘mathematization’ of his principles, quite generally.

Regardning the issue of the role of measure in Plato’s ethics,though harmony and order are treated as important principles inPlato’s metaphysics and ethics from early on, in his latedialogues he seems to envisage right measure in a literal sense. Thisexplains his confidence that even physical entities can attain arelatively stable state. As he specifies both in the Timaeusand in the Philebus, not everything is in a hopeless constantflux; on the contrary, those things that possess the measure that isright for their type are stable entities and can be the objects of‘firm and true beliefs and convictions’ (Ti.37b–c). This applies not only to the nature of the visibleuniverse, but also to the human body and mind, as long as they are ingood condition. Plato seems to have been encouraged to embrace suchtheories by the advances of astronomy and harmonics in his ownlifetime, so that he postulates ‘due proportion’ in anarithmetical sense as the cause of all harmony and stability. Hisconfidence seems to have extended not only to the physical, but alsoto the moral state of human nature. That assumption is confirmed notonly by the emphasis on right mixture in the Philebus, butalso by the the discussion in the Laws about how the laws areto achieve peace in the state and harmony in the souls of thecitizens. In the Laws it seems that Plato no longer regardsthe emotions as a menace to the virtues; rather, he sees it as thelegislators’ obligation to provide an adequate balance ofpleasure and pain by habituating citizens in the right way(632a–643a). This balance, through paideia, is crucialfor maintaining a truly free soul (I 636e): “Pleasure and painflow like two springs released by nature. If a man draws the rightamount from the right one at the right time, he lives a happylife.” This is not the place to discuss the project Platopursues in the Laws as a whole, which ist to determine thebest possible constitution and its laws. Suffice it to note that thediscussion of the right measure of pleasure and pain forms the prefaceto the entire project. This is an indication of a considerable shiftof emphasis on the emotions in the Laws compared withPlato’s treatment of the subject in the Republic. Forthe form of education that provides the citizens with the righthabituation (ethos) concerning the measure of pleasure andpain is the topic of the Laws’ second book. Theemphasis put on the right measure and on the right object of pleasureand pain in the citizens’ sentimental education to some degreeanticipates the Aristotelian conception of the moral virtues as theright mean between excess and deficiency (II 653b–c):“Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion. But thereis one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this isthe correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, whichmakes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love whatwe ought to love.” The confidence expressed in the Lawsin the power of due measure in all matters finally culminates in thefamous maxim that God is the measure of all things (IV 716c–d:“In our view, it is God who is preeminently the ‘measureof all things’, much more so than any man, as they say. So ifyou want to recommend yourself to someone of this character, you mustdo your level best to make your own character reflect his, and on thisprinciple the moderate man is God’s friend, being like him,whereas the immoderate and unjust man is not like him and is hisenemy; and the same reasoning applies to the other vices too.”Because Plato, like Aristotle after him, carefully refrains from anykind of specifications about what actual right measures might be, weshould treat the ‘arithmetic’ of the good life with morethan a pinch of salt. That individuals differ in their internal andexternal conditions is as clear to Plato as it is to Aristotle. Thisdoes not shake his faith in the Laws that right habituationthrough the right kind of education, most of all in the arts, willprovide the necessary inner equilibrium in the good citizen.

As to the second question concerning the extent to which Platobelieved that ethics was amenable to quantification, stated earlier,Plato’s confidence in a mathematically structured order of theuniverse that also includes human nature was greatly enhanced by theprogress made by the scientists of his day. This seems to be therationale for his depiction in the Timaeus of theworld’s creation as a construction by a divine craftsman whomakes use of proportion, and who also takes care to give a geometricalconstruction to the four elements (a factor left out of considerationhere). This conviction is echoed in the Philebus’emphasis on measure and proportion as the ultimate criteria ofgoodness. It should be noted, however, that Plato carefully refrainsfrom going into any specifics about concrete mathematical relations.Even in the Timaeus, he does not apply his complicated systemof proportions when it comes to specifying the actual size, distance,and speed of the heavenly bodies. Nor does he indicate in thePhilebus how the art of establishing the limits of goodmixtures should be attained. It therefore remains an open question towhat extent Plato regarded mathematical physics and metaphysics asviable projects. That Plato went some way in that direction seems tobe indicated by claims in later reports on his theory of the Forms,that he either treated the Forms as numbers or associated numbers withthem. Because Aristotle is quite vociferous in his criticism of thistheory in Book A of the Metaphysics (A 6; A 9) and furtherexpands his criticism of ideas as numbers or idea-numbers in books Mand N, there must be some substance to that claim. As the obscuritiesin Aristotle’s various reports indicate, the doctrine cannotever have reached a definitive stage, for at one point he complainsthat Plato’s theory relied on too few numbers (Met.1084a10–27), while elsewhere he objects that, (1073a20):“they speak of numbers now as unlimited, now as limited by thenumber 10.” That Plato never presented this theory in amagisterial form is confirmed by the reports on his public‘lecture on the good’. It scandalized the general audiencebecause Plato, instead of speaking about the good in the ordinarysense, as expected by the uninformed public, spoke about mathematicsand “finally, that the Good is one” (cf. Aristoxenos,Harmonica, II, 30). But it was not just the general publicwho found the message hard to comprehend. As Simplicius reports, evenPlato’s mature students – such as Aristotle, HeraclidesPonticus, and Hestiaeus – took notes on the lecture,“because it was stated enigmatically”. Simplicius alsoreports that Porphyry, his source, used the Philebus tounravel the enigma (In Aristotelis physica 453,29). Given thedisagreements in our sources, it may forever remain a matter of debatehow far Plato went in his mathematization of his ethics andmetaphysics. It seems clear, however, that he must at least haveentertained the hope that all that is good rests on ‘duemeasure’ in a more than metaphorical sense. We may well ask whyhe shouldered his philosophy with such heavy baggage that made itinaccessible to the mathematically untrained, an inaccessibility thatlargely persists to this day and age. Clearly, there is one convictionthat Plato never gave up: The nature of all things requires knowledge,and that condition applies most of all to the Good. And if it takesmathematical knowledge to comprehend what is good, then that is theway to go.

(Video) PHILOSOPHY: Platonic Ethics - Angie Hobbs

The speculative character of Plato’s metaphysical thought mayexplain why, in his late works, his treatment of ethics strikes us asless rigid, and as more ready to come to terms with the complexity ofhuman nature, and with the ordinary requirements for a satisfactorylife. Signs of this more conciliatory stance can be seen in thedepiction of a mixed life in the Philebus, which is a lifeopen to everyone, as well as in the portrayal in the Laws ofthe city-state of Magnesia, which is depicted as the second-beststate, but as a one that is more accommodating to ordinary humannature. It is a state that is no longer divided into three classes,and where there are no philosopher-kings and -queens in control ofeverything; the heavy work is done by slaves of foreign origin. The‘overseers’ over the laws are chosen from the most uprightand experienced of the citizenry. That they meet in a ‘NocturnalCouncil’ is not for secrecy’s sake, but because during theday they have the same occupations as all other citizens. If Platodoes not assign unlimited power to a special class it is for tworeasons: he recognizes that persons of super-human virtue are not easyto find and that scientific education and philosophy alone are nowarranty of goodness. Plato no longer expects any human being to beimmune to the temptations of power. Therefore, in Book V of theLaws he recommends a mixed constitution and a‘nomocracy’ as being more appropriate than a monarchy ofthe best minds. Humans are to be servants of the laws, not masters ofeach other. It may seem paradoxical that Plato became moreconciliatory towards the ordinary human condition at the same time ashis confidence in scientific rigor increased. But there actually is noparadox. His conciliatory stance seems, rather, to reflect his insightthat, the more complex things get, the less precision is to beattained. Therefore no mathematical precision can be expected in theordering of such complex mixtures as the human soul and life.‘Due measure’, as applied to the human condition musttherefore be given some leeway, “if ever we are to find our wayhome”, as Plato lets Socrates’ partner conclude in thePhilebus. That ethics cannot be done with the same precisionas mathematics is not, then, an insight that occurred only toAristotle. But Plato must have thought that precision should at leastbe aimed for, if life is to be based on a harmonious order that isaccessible, at least to a certain degree, to human knowledge.

Did Plato’ view of the human good, then, become more democraticin his latest works? If we follow the indications in theTimaeus concerning the good state of the human soul in‘orderly circles’, Plato seems to remain as elitist asever. But he no longer puts so much emphasis on the distance betweenthe best and the ordinary. As he remarks in the Statesman,even the most gifted statesmen don’t stick out from the rest ofhumankind like queen-bees do from ordinary bees. Further, the souls ofall human beings are at best only ‘second-best souls’ whencompared with the world-soul. That all human beings have to seek thebest obtainable mixture of life, and even the best of them can be nomore than servants of the laws, suggests that Plato has become moredemocratic in the sense that he regards the ‘human herd’as a more uniform flock than he did in his earlier days. He retainshis conviction, however, that a well-ordered soul is the prerequisiteof the good life and that human beings need not only a careful moraleducation, but also a well-regulated life. Whether the life inPlato’s nomocracy would better please the modern mind than ruleby philosopher-kings, however, is a question that would require acareful perusal of that enormous compendium of regulations and laws,the study of which makes the task of reading and understanding theLaws such hard work. That compendium is at the same time asourcebook for all those interested in Plato’s late moralthought.


  • account: logos
  • appetitive part: épithumetikon
  • art: technê
  • being: ousia
  • cause: aitia
  • consonance: sumphonia
  • courage: andreia
  • difference: heteron
  • education: paideia
  • enthusiasm: enthusiasmos
  • excellence: aretê
  • form: eidos, idea
  • function: ergon
  • habit: ethos
  • happiness: eudaimonia
  • harmony: harmonia
  • kind: eidos, idea
  • justice: dikaiosunê
  • likening to god: homoiôsis theô
  • limit: peras
  • look: idea
  • love: erôs
  • madness, divine: theia mania
  • measure: metron; metrion
  • mixture: meixis
  • model: paradeigma
  • moderation: sôphrosunê
  • need: endeia; chreia
  • number: arithmos
  • order: kosmos
  • perplexity: aporia
  • quantity: poson
  • rational part: logistikon
  • reason: nous
  • reasoning: logos
  • recollection: anamnêsis
  • refutation: elenchos
  • sameness: tauton
  • self-mastery: egkrateia
  • self-sufficiency: autarkeia
  • soul: psuchê
  • sort: eidos, idea
  • spirited part: thumoeides
  • steadfastness: sôtêria
  • unlimited: apeiron
  • virtue: aretê
  • weakness of the will: akrasia
  • wisdom: sophia


1. Plato's Ethics
(Daniel Bonevac)
2. Plato's Moral Philosophy
(The School of Life)
4. The Philosophy Of Plato
(Let's Talk Philosophy)
5. Plato's Ethics by Richard Parry (SEP)
(Alexander Koryagin)
6. 02-Ethical Theory Plato and Aristotle NCC Fall 2019
(Stephen Bujno)

You might also like

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Jamar Nader

Last Updated: 10/10/2022

Views: 6455

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (55 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Jamar Nader

Birthday: 1995-02-28

Address: Apt. 536 6162 Reichel Greens, Port Zackaryside, CT 22682-9804

Phone: +9958384818317

Job: IT Representative

Hobby: Scrapbooking, Hiking, Hunting, Kite flying, Blacksmithing, Video gaming, Foraging

Introduction: My name is Jamar Nader, I am a fine, shiny, colorful, bright, nice, perfect, curious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.