Ethics Illustrated With Essays And Notes

1. Preliminaries

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

Although these presuppositions may appear to be self-evident, most of the time, human beings are aware of them only implicitly, because many individuals simply lead their lives in accordance with pre-established standards and values that are, under normal circumstances, not objects of reflection. It is only in times of crisis that a society’s traditions and precepts are challenged by someone like Socrates, who sees the need to disturb his fellows’ complacency. The historical Socrates was, of course, not the first to question the Greek way of life. Presocratic philosophers such as Heraclitus or Xenophanes had been critics of their times, and the sophists had argued provocatively that, contrary to the naïve view, it is custom and convention, rather than nature that set the standards for what is deemed right or wrong, good or bad, in every society. But if other thinkers had preceded Socrates with moral and social criticism, he was certainly the first to challenge his fellows on an individual basis on the ground that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (Ap. 38a). Whatever position one may take in the controversy concerning the degree to which Plato’s early dialogues are true to the historical Socrates’ discussions, the independent testimony of Xenophon leaves little doubt that Socrates’ cross-examinations (elenchos) provoked the kind of enmity that led to his conviction and execution. In the eyes of conservative Athenians, Socrates’ questioning undermined the traditional 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 of his time – were all too often geared towards their possessors’ wealth, power, and capacities for self-indulgence, to the detriment of public morality and the community’s well-being.

The Socratic legacy prompted Plato to engage in a thorough examination of the nature of knowledge and reality, an examination that gradually took him far beyond the scope of the historical Socrates’ discussions. Nevertheless, Plato continued to present his investigations as dialogues between Socrates and some partner or partners. And Plato preserved the dialogical form even in those of his late works where Socrates is replaced by a stand-in and where the didactic nature of the presentations is hard to reconcile with the pretense of live discussion. But these didactic discourses continue to combine questions of ethical, political, social, or psychological importance with metaphysical, methodological and epistemological considerations, and it can be just as hard to assess the extent to which Plato agrees with the pronouncements of his speakers, as it is when the speaker is Socrates. Furthermore, the fact that a certain problem or its solution is not mentioned in a dialogue does not mean that Plato was unaware of it. There is, therefore, no certainty concerning the question: “What did Plato see and when did he first see it?” The lack of information about the order in which Plato wrote his works adds to this difficulty. It stands to reason, however, that he started with the short dialogues that question traditional virtues – courage, justice, moderation, piety. It also stands to reason that Plato gradually widened the scope of his investigations, by reflecting not only on the social and political conditions of morality, but also on the logical, epistemological, and metaphysical presuppositions of a successful moral theory. These theoretical reflections often take on a life of their own. Several of Plato’s later works address ethical problems only marginally or not at all. The Parmenides, the Theaetetus, and the Sophist deal primarily or exclusively with epistemological and metaphysical problems of a quite general nature. Nevertheless, as witnessed by the Philebus, the Statesman, the Timaeus, and the Laws, Plato never lost interest in the question of what conditions are necessary for a good human life.

2. The early dialogues: Examining life

2.1 The quest for definitions

The early ‘Socratic’ dialogues are not concerned with the question of the good life and its conditions in general, but rather with particular virtues. Socrates explores the individual virtues through a discussion with persons who are either representatives of, or claim to be experts on, that virtue. Socrates’ justification for this procedure is that a paragon or expert must know the characteristic property of a particular virtues, and therefore be able to give an account or definition of it (cf. Xenophon Memorabilia I, 10; 16). Thus, in the Euthyphro, Socrates discusses piety with an ‘expert’ on religious affairs. In the Laches, he discusses courage with two renowned generals of the Peloponnesian war, Laches and Nicias. Similarly, in the Charmides Socrates addresses—somewhat ironically—the nature of moderation with the two of the Thirty Tyrants, namely the then very young Charmides, an alleged model of modesty, and his guardian and intellectual mentor, Critias. In the Greater Hippias Socrates raises the question of the nature of the beautiful with a producer of ‘beautiful things’, the sophist and polymath Hippias. In the Protagoras Socrates focuses on the question of the unity of virtue in a discussion with Protagoras, the most famous teacher of ‘civic virtues’ among the sophists. And in the Gorgias Socrates discusses the nature of rhetoric and its relation to virtue with the most prominent teacher of rhetoric among the sophists. Finally, in the Meno the question how virtue is acquired is raised by Meno, a disciple of Gorgias, and an ambitious seeker of power, wealth, and fame. Socrates’ interlocutors are usually at first quite confident about their own competence in the discussion. Nor is such confidence unreasonable. If virtue is a kind of ‘skill’ or special property that enjoys general recognition, its possessor should know and be able to give an account of his skill. As the Socrates’ examinations demonstrate, however, such self-confidence is usually misplaced and the ‘knowledge’ professed by Socrates’ conversation partners is frequently revealed to be at best an implicit familiarity, When they are confronted with their inability to explain the nature of their cherished virtue or expertise, they end up admitting their ignorance, often with considerable chagrin and anger.

Socrates’ purpose in conducting these sometimes cruel-looking games is not just to undermine the false confidence of his interlocutors, but also to arrive at formal definitions and standards concerning the virtues. There were no widely acknowledged standards of definition in Socrates’ time, but by exposing the flaws in his partners’ abortive arguments in his investigations Socrates contributed significantly to the establishment of such standards. These flaws vary greatly in kind and gravity: Socrates shows that enumerations of examples are not sufficient to capture the nature of the thing in question. Definitions that consist in the replacement of a given concept with a synonym are open to the same objections as the original definition. Definitions may be hopelessly vague or miss the mark entirely, which is to say that they may be either too wide, and include unwanted characteristics or subsets, or too narrow, and exclude essential characteristics. Moreover, definitions may be incomplete because the object in question does not constitute a unitary phenomenon. If generally accepted ‘social excellences’ are not simple conditions, they may be subject to conflicting convictions. Examples of all these flaws are provided in Plato’s early dialogues, where Socrates exposes the exact nature of the underlying deficiencies with more or less diagnostic transparency.

Given that the focus in the early dialogues is almost entirely on the exposure of flaws and inconsistencies, one cannot help wondering whether Plato himself knew the answers to his queries, and had some cards up his sleeve that he chose not to play for the time being. This would presuppose that Plato had not only a clear notion of the nature of the different virtues, but also a positive conception of the good life as such. Since Plato was neither a moral nihilist nor a sceptic, he cannot have regarded moral perplexity (aporia) as the ultimate end, nor regarded continued mutual examination, Socratico more, as a way of life for everyone. Perplexity, as is argued in the Meno, is just a wholesome intermediary stage on the way to knowledge (Me. 84a–b). But if Plato assumes that the convictions that survive Socratic questioning will eventually coalesce into an account of the good life, then he keeps this expectation to himself. Nor would such optimism seem warranted, given Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge. There is no guarantee that only false convictions are discarded in a Socratic investigation, while true ones are retained. For, promising suggestions are often as mercilessly discarded as their less promising brethren. Perhaps Plato counted on his readers’ intelligence to straighten out what is skewed in Socratic refutations, and also to detect unfair moves, and to supplement what is missing. It is, in fact, often not difficult to make out fallacies in Socrates’ argument and to correct them; but such corrections must remain incomplete without sufficient information about Plato’s overall conception of the good life and its moral presuppositions. It is therefore a matter of conjecture whether Plato himself held any positive views while he composed one aporetic dialogue after the other. He may have regarded his investigations as experimental stages, or have seen each dialogue as an element in a network of approaches that he hoped to eventually integrate.

If there is a general lesson to be drawn from the many failed accounts of the virtues by Socrates’ different conversation partners, beyond the particular shortcomings of individual definitions and assertions, it is that isolated definitions of single virtues, summed up in one sentence, will not do. The evidence that Plato already wanted his readers to draw this very conclusion in his early dialogues is somewhat contradictory, however. Plato famously pleads for the unity of the virtues in the Protagoras, and seems intent to reduce them all to knowledge. Scholars are therefore wont to speak of the ‘intellectualistic’ character of the so-called ‘Socratic ethics’, because it leaves no room for other motivational forces, such as emotions or desires. Socrates’ proof in the Protagoras that reason cannot be overcome by the passions has, from Aristotle on, been treated as a denial of akrasia, of the phenomenon that was later somewhat misleadingly dubbed as ‘weakness of the will’. This intellectualizing tendency, however, does not tell us what kind of master-science would fulfill all of the requirements for defining virtues, and what its content should be. What is more, the emphasis on knowledge does not rule out an awareness on Plato’s part of the importance of other factors, even in his early dialogues. Though Plato often compared the virtues with technical skills, such as those of a doctor or a pilot, he may have realized that virtues also involve emotional attitudes, desires, and preferences, but not yet have seen a clear way to coordinate or relate the rational and the affective elements that constitute the virtues. In the Laches, for instance, Socrates partners struggle when they try to define courage, invoking two different elements. In his attempt to define courage as steadfastness in battle, Laches, one of the two generals and ‘experts’ on courage, is faced with the dilemma that steadfastness seems not to be a satisfactory definition of courage either in itsself or in combination with knowledge (La. 192a–194c). His comrade Nicias, on the other hand, fails when he tries to identify courage exclusively as a certain type of knowledge (197e–200a). The investigation of moderation in the Charmides, likewise, points up that there are two disparate elements commonly associated with that virtue – namely, a certain calmness of temper on the one hand (Chrm. 158e–160d) and self-knowledge on the other (166e–175a). It is clear that a complex account would be needed to combine these two disparate factors. For moral skills not only presuppose sufficient ‘operative’ rationality but also require appropriate evaluative and emotional attitudes towards the desirable ends to be attained and the means to be employed. Such an insight is at least indicated in Socrates’ long and passionate argument in the Gorgias against Polus and Callicles that the just life is better for the soul of its possessor than the unjust life, an argument that he fortifies with a mythical depiction of the soul’s reward and punishment after death (523a–527e). But the nature of justice 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 his interlocutor’ selfish aims with their more selfless and noble views. In his earlier dialogues, Plato may or may not already be envisaging the kind of solution that he is going to present in the Republic to the problem of the relationship between the various virtues, with wisdom, the only intellectual virtue, as their basis. Courage, moderation, and justice presuppose a certain steadfastness of character as well as a harmony of purpose among the disparate parts of the soul, but their goodness depends entirely on the intellectual part of the soul, just as the virtue of the citizens in the just state depends on the wisdom of the philosopher kings (R. 428a–444e). The dispositional or ‘demotic’ virtues are thus acknowledged but relegated to second place (500d; 522a–b).

There are at least some indications that Plato already saw the need for 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 inspire confidence’. Nicias is forced to admit that such knowledge presupposes the knowledge of good and bad tout court (La. 199c–e). In a different but related way, Socrates alludes to a comprehensive knowledge at the end of the Charmides, in his final refutation of Critias’ definition of moderation as ‘knowledge of knowledge’, by urging that this type of knowledge is insufficient for the happy life without the knowledge of good and bad (Chrm. 174b–e). But pointing out what is wrong and missing in particular arguments is a far cry from a philosophical conception of the good and the bad in human life. The fact that Plato insists on the shortcomings of a purely ‘technical’ conception of virtue suggests that he was 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 of his proofs – confirms that Plato realized that a critique of the inconsistencies implied in conventional values is insufficient to justify such a unitary point of view. But the evidence that Plato already had a definitive conception of the good life in mind when he wrote his earlier dialogues remains, at most, indirect.

2.2 Definition and recollection

A reflection on the meaning of Socrates’ quest for definitions in the early dialogues suggests that Plato cannot have been blind to the sterility of a purely negative way of argument, or if he was blind at 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 to say, that it must have a stable nature. Nothing can be defined whose nature changes all the time. In addition, the object in question must be a unitary phenomenon, even if its unity may be complex. If definitions are to provide the basis of knowledge, they require some kind of essentialism. This presupposition is indeed made explicit in the Euthyphro, where Plato employs for the first time the terminology that will be characteristic of his full-fledged theory of the Forms. In response to Euthyphro’s enumeration of various examples of pious behavior, Socrates demands an account of the one feature (Euthphr. 5d: idea; 6d: eidos; 6e: paradeigma) that is common to all cases of what is holy or pious. Despite this pregnant terminology, few scholars nowadays hold that the Euthyphro already presupposes transcendent Forms in a realm of their own– models that are incompletely represented by their imitations under material conditions. The terms eidos and idea preserved their original meaning of ‘look’ or ‘shape’ into the classical age; but they were also often used in the more abstract sense of ‘form’, ‘sort’, ‘type’, or ‘kind’. No more than piety or holiness in the abstract sense seems to be presupposed in the discussion of the Euthyphro. There is, at any rate, no mention here of any separation of a sensible and an intelligible realm, let alone of an existence of ‘the holy itself’, as an entity existing in splendid isolation from all particular cases of holiness.

The passage in the Euthyphro where Socrates asks Euthyphro to identify the one feature that is common to all that is holy or pious makes intelligible, however, the reason why Plato felt encouraged to develop the idea of transcendent Forms in dialogues that no longer confine themselves to the ‘negative’ approach of questioning the foundations or premises of other people’s convictions. The requisite unity and invariance of entities such as ‘the holy’, ‘ the beautiful’, ‘the just’ or ‘the equal’, necessarily prompts reflections on their ontological status and on the appropriate means of access to them. Given that they are the objects of definition and the models of their ordinary representatives, there is every reason not only to treat them as real, but also to assign to them a state of higher perfection. And once this step has been taken, it is only natural to make certain epistemological adjustments. For, access to paradigmatic entities is not to be expected through ordinary experience, but presupposes some special kind of intellectual insight. It seems, then, that once Plato had accepted invariant and unitary objects of thought as the objects of definition, he was predestined to follow the path that let him adopt a metaphysics and epistemology of transcendent Forms. The alternative of treating these objects as mere constructs of the mind that more or less fit the manifold of everyday experience, clearly was not to Plato’s taste. It would have meant the renunciation of the claim to unassailable knowledge and truth in favor of belief, conjecture, and, horribile dictu, of human convention. The very fact that mathematics was already an established science with rigorous standards and unitary and invariant objects must have greatly enhanced Plato’s confidence in applying the same standards to moral philosophy. It led him to search for models of morality beyond the limits of everyday experience. This, in turn, explains the development of his theory of recollection and the postulate of transcendent immaterial objects as the basis of reality and thought that he refers to in the Meno, and that he presents more fully in the Phaedo.

We do not know when, precisely, Plato adopted this mode of thought, but it stands to reason that his contact with the Pythagorean school on his first voyage to Southern Italy and Sicily around 390 BC played a major role in this development. Mathematics as a model-science has several advantages. It deals with unchangeable entities that have unitary definitions. It also makes a plausible claim that the essence of these entities cannot be comprehended in isolation but only in a network of interconnections that have to be worked out at the same time as each particular entity is defined. For instance, to understand what it is to be a triangle, it is necessary – inter alia – to understand the nature of points, lines, planes and their interrelations. That Plato was aware of this fact is indicated by his somewhat prophetic statement in his introduction of the theory of recollection in the Meno, 81d: “As the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing only – a process men call learning – discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search; for searching and learning, are, as a whole, recollection (anamnesis).” The somewhat mystifying claim of an ‘overall kinship’ is then illuminated in the famous ‘mathematical experiment’ (Me. 82b–85c). The slave finally manages, with some pushing and pulling by Socrates, and some illustrations drawn in the sand, to double the area of a given square. In the course of this interrogation, the disciple gradually discovers the relations between the different lines, triangles, and squares. That Plato regards these interconnections as crucial features of knowledge is confirmed later by the distinction that Socrates draws between knowledge and true belief (97b–98b). As Socrates argues, true beliefs are unreliable, because they behave like ‘the statues of Daedalus that easily run away as long as they are not tied down’. The requisite ‘tying down’ happens (98a) “by giving an account 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.” This explanation indicates that, according to Plato, knowledge does not consist in a mental ‘gazing’ at isolated models, but rather in uncovering the invariant relations that constitute the objects in question.

The complexity underlying Plato’s theory of the Forms as it is first applied in the Phaedo is easily overlooked, because the Phaedo initially suggests that that recollection is no more than the grasping of concepts – the concept of ‘exact equality in size’, for example, is prompted by the perception of more or less equal-seeming sticks and stones (74a–e). Not only that, the same is suggested by the list through which Socrates first introduces the Forms, 65d–e: “Do we say that there is such a 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 which each of them essentially is.” Such an appeal to recollection leaves a lot to be desired. How does it work? How can one ensure that one’s intuitive grasp of these natures is correct? That the ‘recollection’ of isolated ideal objects is not the whole story emerges later in the Phaedo when Socrates presents a ‘simple minded hypothesis’ of the Forms as a way to avoid his difficulties with the causes of generation and destruction (Phd. 99d–100e). The hypothesis he starts out with seems simpleminded indeed, because it consists of nothing more than the assumption that everything is what it is by participating in the corresponding Form. But it soon turns out that more is at stake than that simple postulate. First, the hypothesis of each respective Form is 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, but confines himself to the demand for an orderly procedure. The distinctions that Socrates subsequently introduces in preparation of his last proof of the immortality of the soul seem, however, to provide some information about the procedure in question (103d–107b). Socrates first introduces the distinction between essential and non-essential attributes. This distinction is then applied to the soul: because it always causes life in whatever it occupies, it must have life as its essential property, which it cannot lose. 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 procedure shows, at any rate, that Plato resorts to relations between Forms here. The essential tie between the soul and life is clearly not open to sense-perception; instead, understanding this tie takes a good deal of reflection on what it means to be, and to have a soul. To admirers of a two-world metaphysics, it may come as a disappointment that in Plato, recollection should consist in no more than the uncovering of such relationships. But this agrees well with the fact that with the exception of such concepts of perfection as ‘the Good’ and ‘the Beautiful’, all of Plato’s examples in the Phaedo are quite pedestrian. Not only does he confine himself to 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 nature cannot be derived from sense-perception alone as sufficient evidence for the existence of the respective Forms, as he shows in the case of equal-looking sticks and stones.

Plato does not employ his newly established metaphysical entities as the basis to work out a definitive conception of the human soul and the appropriate way of life in the Phaedo. Rather, he confines himself to warnings against the contamination of the soul by the senses and their pleasures, and quite generally against corruption by worldly values. He gives no advice concerning human conduct beyond the recommendation of a general abstemiousness from worldly temptations. This seems a rather austere picture of human life, and an egocentric one, to boot, for nothing is said about relations between human beings, beyond Socrates’ exhortations that his friends should likewise take care of their souls as best they can. It is unclear whether this otherworldly and ascetic attitude is the sign of a particularly pessimistic period in Plato’s life or whether it merely reflects the circumstances of the discussion – Socrates’ impending death. But as long as this negative or other-worldly attitude towards the physical side of human nature prevails, no interest is to be expected on the part of Plato in nature as a whole – let alone in the principles of the cosmic order (but cf. 5.1 below). But it is not only Platonic asceticism that stands in the way of such a wider perspective. Socrates himself seems to have been quite indifferent to the study of nature. The Phaedo admits that Socrates is unable to deal with the causes of natural processes, and the Apology contains an energetic denial of any concern with natural philosophy on Socrates’ side. The accusations that depict him as “a student of all things in the sky and below the earth” are quite false (18c); he has never conversed on such issues at all, and the attribution to him of the Anaxagorean tenet that the sun is stone and the moon earth is a sign of his accusers’ recklessness (26d–e). And in a dialogue as late as the Phaedrus, Socrates famously explains his preference for the city and his avoidance of nature (230d): “Landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me – only the people in the city can do that.” That Plato is not distorting the facts here is confirmed by the testimony of Xenophon, who is equally emphatic about Socrates’ repudiation of the study of heavenly phenomena and his concentration on human affairs (Memorabilia I 1.15–16). If Plato later takes a much more positive attitude towards nature in general, this is a considerable change of focus. In the Phaedo, he quite deliberately confines his account of the nature of heaven and earth to the myth about the afterlife (108d–114c). As he states in conclusion, this mythical depiction is not to be taken literally, but as an encouragement to heed its moral message and to take care of one’s soul (114d–e). This is as constructive as Plato gets in 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, this stage was definitely over when he wrote the Republic, the central work of his middle years. Because of the Republic’s importance a more detailed account will be necessary, in order to explain the ethical principles set forth in that work, for the principles are closely intertwined with political, psychological, and metaphysical conceptions. That the work represents a major change in Plato’s thinking is indicated already by the dialogue’s setting. The aporetic controversy about justice in the first book is set off quite sharply against the cooperative discussion that is to follow in the remaining nine books. Like the Gorgias, the first book of the Republic presents three interlocutors who defend, with increasing vigor, their notion of justice against Socrates’ elenchos. Of these disputes, the altercation with the sophist Thrasymachus has received a lot of attention, because he defends the provocative thesis that natural justice is the right of the stronger, and that conventional justice is at best high-minded foolishness. The arguments employed by Socrates at the various turns of the discussion will not be presented here. Though they reduce Thrasymachus to angry silence, they are not above criticism. Socrates himself expresses dissatisfaction with the result of this discussion R. 354c: “As far as I am concerned, the result is that I know nothing, for when I don’t know what justice is, I’ll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.” But for once, the confession of aporia is not the end of the discussion. Two members of the audience, Plato’s brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, challenge Socrates: Perhaps Thrasymachus has defended his case badly, but if Socrates wants to convince his audience, he must do better than that. The brothers demand a positive account of what justice is, and of what it does to the soul of its possessor.

The change of character in the ensuing discussion is remarkable. Not only are the two brothers not subjected to elenchos, they get ample time to elaborate on their objections (357a–367e). Though they are not themselves convinced that injustice is better than justice, they argue that in the present state of society injustice pays – with the gods as well as with men – as long as the semblance of respectability is preserved. To prove this claim the brothers play devil’s advocate by unfolding a scathing picture of their society’s attitude towards justice. As the story of the Ring of Gyges and its gift of invisibility proves, everyone who does not have a god-like character will eventually succumb to such a ring’s temptations (359c–360d). Instead of the wolf of Thrasymachus’ account, it is the fox who is the paragon of injustice. He will succeed at every level because he knows how to play the power game with cunning. The just man, by contrast, pays no heed to mere semblance of goodness, rather than its substance,and therefore suffers a Christ-like fate, because he does not comply with the demands of favoritism and blandishment (361e). Even the gods, as the poets allegedly confirm, are on the side of the successful scoundrel, since they can be propitiated by honors and sacrifices. Given this state of affairs, a logic-chopping argument that justice is better than injustice is quite insufficient for the brothers (367b–e: logôi). Instead, Socrates should show what effect each of them have on the soul of their possessors. Plato at this point clearly regards refutation as an insufficient method of making true converts; whether he ever had such confidence in the power of refutation must remain a moot point. But the Republic shows that the time had come for a positive account of morality and the good life. If elenchos is used in Plato’s later dialogues, it is never again used in the knock-down fashion of the early dialogues. It should be pointed out, however, that in his treatment of justice Plato does not resort to the theory of Forms. Instead, he offers a political and psychological solution to the problem of justice. That a metaphysical solution is possible is indicated only briefly and enigmatically, when Plato speaks of a ‘longer way’ that would also have been possible for him to take (435d; 504b)

A brief sketch of Plato’s approach to his inquiry into the nature of justice must suffice here, to make intelligible his distinction of justice from the other kinds of virtue, and their role in the good life. This question is addressed in a quite circuitous way. Justice is first to be studied in the ‘larger text’ of the state, rather than in the hard-to-decipher ‘small text’ of the soul. A study of how a city comes to be will supposedly reveal the origin of justice and injustice (369a). Its founding principle is – at least at first – not high-minded concern, but mutual economic need: “A city comes to be because none of us is self-sufficient (autarkês), but we all need many things. … And because people need many things, and because one person calls on a second out of one need and on a third out of a different need (chreia), many people gather in a single place to live together as partners and helpers.” The ‘need’ is, at least at this point, purely economic. The minimal city is based on the need 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 performs the task s/he is naturally most fit for. This principle determines not only the structure of the minimal, self-subsistent state of farmers and craftsmen, but also the subsequent separation of the city’s inhabitants into three classees in the ‘maximal state’ that caters to higher demands. For a more luxurious city needs protection by a professional army as well as the leadership of a class of philosopher-kings and -queens. Beyond the claim that the division of functions is more economical, Plato gives no justification for this fateful decision that determines the social order in the state, as well as the nature of the virtues. Human beings are not born alike, but with different abilities that predestine them for different tasks in a well-ordered state. This leads to Plato’s rule: ‘one person – one job’ (R. 370a–c; 423d).

Because the division of functions paves the way for the definition of justice as ‘doing your own thing’ in Book IV (432d–433b), it is necessary to briefly review the kind of social order Plato has in mind, the psychological principles he assumes, and the political institutions by which that order is to be attained. For this explains not only the establishment of a three-class society and the corresponding structure of the soul, but also Plato’s theory of education and its metaphysical underpinnings. That economic needs are the basis of the political structure does not, of course, mean that they are the only human needs Plato recognizes. It indicates, however, that the emphasis here is on the unity and self-sufficiency of a well-structured city, not on the well-being of the individual (423c–e; 425c). This focus should be kept in mind when assessing the ‘totalitarianism’ and rigorous cultural conservatism of Plato’s political philosophy.

The need for a professionally trained army leads to the discussion of education and moral psychology, because the preservation of internal peace and external security presupposes the combination of two different character-traits among the ‘guardians’ (‘the philosophical watchdogs’, 375d–376c): friendliness towards their fellow-citizens and fierceness towards their enemies. The injunctions concerning their appropriate education are very detailed, because it must combine the right kind of ‘muses’ (poetry, music, and other fine arts) with the appropriate physical training to develop the right temperament and attitude in the soldiers (376d–403d). The ‘muses’ come in for protracted criticism, both in content and form. All stories that undermine respect towards the gods are to be banned, along with tales that instill fear of death in the guardians. The imitation of bad persons is forbidden, as are depictions of varieties of character, quite generally. Analogous injunctions apply, mutandis mutatis, to the modes and rhythms in music and to painting. Physical exercise must suit the harmonious soul and therefore must not exceed what is healthy and necessary (403e–412b). Because the educational scheme is geared to secure a harmonious and yet spirited class of soldiers, Plato bans from his city most of the cultural achievements that were his contemporaries’ pride and joy. There must be nothing to disturb the citizens’ willingness to fulfill their tasks. The supervision of education is the function of the third class, the rulers of the city (412b–417b). They are to be selected through tests of intelligence and character from among the soldiers, to identify individuals who are unshakable in their conviction that their own well-being is intimately tied to that of the city. To ensure that members of the ruling and military classes retain their right attitude towards their civic duties, members of both classes must lead a communal life, without private homes, families, or property. His interlocutor’s objection that such a life is not apt to make these citizens happy (419a) is the first approach to the topic of happiness, but it is quickly brushed aside at this point on the grounds that the political order is designed to make the entire city happy, rather than any particular group.

3.2 Virtues of state and soul

The division of functions that leads to the separation of the three classes for the purpose of achieving the social conditions for justice concludes the discussion of the social order (427d–434c). The somewhat peculiar manner in which Socrates further develops his explation of the nature of justice can be understood with reference to this concluding discussion. The catalogue of what in later tradition has been dubbed ‘the four cardinal Platonic virtues’ – wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice – is first presented without comment. Piety, as the text indicates, is no longer treated as a virtue, for religious practices should be left to tradition and the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (427b–c). The definition of justice is to be discovered by a process of elimination. If there are four virtues in the city, then justice must be the one that is left over after the other three have been identified (427e). There is no proof offered that there are exactly four virtues in a state, nor that they are items that can be lifted up, singly, for inspection, like objects from a basket. Instead, Socrates points out the role they play in the maintenance of the social order. About wisdom (sophia), the only purely intellectual virtue and the exclusive possession of the rulers (428b–429a), little more is said at this point than that it is ‘good council’ (euboulia) in decisions about the internal and external affairs of the city. Courage (andreia) is the soldiers’ specific virtue (429a–430c). Socrates takes some trouble explaining 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-wool adherents to the laws’ decrees about what is to be feared. Moderation (sôphrosunê) (430d–432a) is not an intellectual excellence either, but rather a combination of belief with 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 the better class in the state controls the pleasures and desires of the lower class. The third class, then, has no specific virtue of its own. The identification of justice, the virtue that is left over, is due to a sudden ‘discovery’ on Socrates’ part (432d–434c) that justice is the principle that has been at work all along in the founding of the model state – namely that everyone is to “do their own thing and not meddle with that of another” (433a). At first sight, it seems hard to tell how justice differs from moderation as a “consonance about who should rule and be ruled.” Justice as “doing your own thing” may represent a more active state of mind with a wider extension, given that its task is also to see to it that “no citizen should have what belongs to another or be deprived of what is his own” (433e). But since Socrates does not elaborate on the dispositions of justice and moderation any further, there seems to be only a fine line between the functions of justice and moderation in the city. That there are four virtues rather than three probably also reflects the fact that this catalogue of four was a fixture in tradition. As will emerge in connection with the virtues in the individual soul, the distinction between justice and moderation is far less problematic in the case of the individual than in that of the city as a whole, because in the individual soul, internal self-control and external self-restraint are clearly different attitudes. As this survey shows, the virtues are no longer confined to knowledge. They also contain right beliefs and attitudes of harmony and compliance – extensions that are apt to make up for deficiencies in the explanation of certain virtues in earlier dialogues.

The promise to establish the isomorphic structure of the city and soul has not been forgotten. After the definition and assignment of the four virtues to the three classes of the city, the investigation turns to the role and function of the virtues in the soul. The soul is held to consist of three parts , corresponding to the three classes in the city. The lengthy argument for the tri-partition of the soul into a rational (logistikon), a spirited (thumoeides), and an appetitive (epithumêtikon) part (434d–441c), can here be neither reproduced nor subjected to critical evaluation. That Plato lets Socrates express reservations concerning the adequacy of his own procedure (435c–d), despite his unusually circumspect way of justifying his division of the soul’s faculties, indicates that he regards it as an important innovation. Indeed, there is no indication of separate parts of the soul in any of the earlier dialogues; irrational desires are attributed to the influence of the body. In the Republic, by contrast, the soul itself becomes the source of the appetites and desires. The difference between the rational and the appetitive part is easily justified, because the opposition between the decrees of reason and the various kinds of unreasonable desires is familiar to everyone (438d–439e). The existence 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 a psychic force that is reducible neither to reason nor to any of the appetites; it is rather an ally of reason in a well-ordered soul, a force opposed to unruly appetites (439e–441c). This concludes the proof that there are three parts in the soul corresponding to the three classes in the city – namely the rational part in the wisdom of the rulers, the spirited part, which is manifested in the courage of the soldiers, the appetitive part, which is manifested in the rest of the population, whose defining motivation is material gain.

The discussion of the division of the soul sets the stage for Socrates’ final contrast of of justice with injustice: In the city there is justice if the members of the three classes mind their own business; in the individual soul, justice likewise consists in each part fulfilling its own function. This presupposes that the two upper parts have been given the right kind of training and education in order to control the appetitive part (441d–442a). The three other virtues are then assigned to the respective parts of the soul. Courage is the excellence of the spirited part, wisdom belongs to the rational part, and moderation is the consent of all three about who should rule and who should obey. Justice turns out to be the overall unifying quality of the soul (443c–e). For, the just person not only refrains from meddling with what is not his, externally, but also harmonizes the three parts of the soul internally. While justice is order and harmony, injustice is its opposite: it is a rebellion of one part of the city or soul against the others, and an inappropriate rule of the inferior parts. Justice and injustice in the soul are, then, analogous to health and illness in the body. This comparison suffices to bring the investigation to its desired result. If justice is health and 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 makes its possessor happy, and injustice is its opposite. Just as no-one in his right mind would prefer to live with a ruined body so no-one would prefer to live with a diseased soul. In principle, the discussion of justice has therefore reached its promised goal at the end of Book IV. Socrates has met Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’ challenge to prove that justice is a good, in and by itself, for the soul of its possessor, and preferable to injustice.

That the discussion does not end here but occupies six more books, is due most of all to several loose ends that need to be tied up. Apart from the fact that reason and order are to reign supreme, little has been said about the citizens’ way of life. This gap will be filled, at least in part, by the description of the communal life without private property and family in Book V. More importantly, nothing has been said about the rulers and their particular kind of knowledge. This is a crucial point because, as the definitions of the three ‘inferior’ virtues show, their quality is contingent on the rulers’ wisdom. Socrates addresses this problem with the provocative thesis (473c–d): “Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leaders genuinely and adequately philosophize ... cities will have no rest from evils, nor will the human race.” This thesis starts the discussion of the philosophers’ knowledge, and of their upbringing and education, which will continue through Books VI and VII. Because they also introduce the special objects of the philosophers’ knowledge, these books provide the metaphysical underpinning of the entire conception of the good state and of the good soul. For the ‘Form of the Good’ turns out to be the ultimate source of all being and knowledge. A short summary of the upshot of the educational program must suffice here. The future philosophers, both women and men, are selected from the group of guardians whose general cultural training they share. If they combine moral firmness with quickness of mind, they are subject to a rigorous curriculum of higher learning that will prepare them for the ascent from the world of the senses to the world of intelligence and truth, an ascent whose stages are summed up in the similes of the Sun, the Line, and the Cave (508a–518b). To achieve this ascent, the students have to undergo, first, a preparatory schooling of ten years’ duration in the ‘liberal arts’: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and theoretical harmonics (518c–531c). Afterwards they are admitted to the training in the master-science of ‘dialectic’, a science of which little more is said beyond the indication that it enables its possessor to deal in a systematic way with the objects of real knowledge – the Forms in general, – and with the Form of the Good, – the principle of the goodness of all else, – in particular (531c–535a). This study is to last for another five years. Successful candidates are then sent back into the Cave as administrators of ordinary political life for about 15 years. At the age of fifty the rulers are granted the pursuit of philosophy, an activity that is interrupted by periods of service as overseers of the order of the state. This completes, in a 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 has received a lot of flak; but an assessment of Plato’s politics must here be limited to the kind of happiness it supposedly provides. Regardless of whether or not we accept his overall principle of the Good as the basis of the political order, Plato’s model state has, at least in theory, the advantage that it guarantees external and internal peace. That is no mean feat in a society where external and civil wars were a constant threat, and often enough ended in the destruction of the entire city. The division of functions guarantees a high degree of efficiency, if every citizen does what he/she is naturally suited to do. But what about the citizens’ needs, beyond those for security and material goods? Are they to find their life’s fulfillment in the pursuit of their jobs only? Plato seems to think so; he characterizes each class by its specific kind of desire and its respective good (581c): the philosophers are lovers of wisdom (philosophoi), the soldiers lovers of honor (philotimoi), and the workers are lovers of material goods (philochrêmatoi). That human beings find, or at least try to find, satisfaction in the kinds of goods they cherish is a point further pursued in the depiction of the decay of the city and its ruling citizens, from the best – the aristocracy of the mind – down to the worst – the tyranny of lust, in Books VIII and IX. A discussion of the tenability of this explanation of political and psychological decadence will not be attempted here. It is supposed to show that all inferior forms of government of city and soul are doomed to fail because of the inherent tensions between the goods 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 happy insofar as they achieve the goals they cherish. Though this notion seems to come close to the ‘preference satisfaction’ for all citizens that is nowadays regarded as the primary aim of every liberal state, Plato’s restriction of each class to one type of good remains objectionable, most obviously in the case of the citizens of the third class who supposedly covet nothing but material goods. This ‘reductive’ view of their human nature militates not only against present-day intuitions: It should also militate against Plato’s own moral psychology, in that all human souls consist of three parts – a rational, a spirited, and an appetitive part – whose health and harmony constitute the soul’s and the state’s happiness. Why, then, reduce the third class to animal-like creatures with low appetites, as suggested by the comparison of the people to a strong beast that must be placated (493a–c)? This comparison is echoed later in the comparison of the soul to a multiform beast, where reason just barely controls the hydra-like heads of the appetites, and then only with the aid of a lion-like spirit (588c–590d). Is Plato thereby giving vent to anti-democratic sentiments, showing contempt for the rabble, as has often been claimed? He can at least be cleared of the suspicion that the workers are mere serfs of the upper classes, because he explicitly grants them the free enjoyment of all the customary goods that he has denied to the upper classes (419a): “Others own land, build fine big houses, acquire furnishings to go along with them, make their own private sacrifices to the gods, entertain guests, and also, of course, possess what you were talking about just now, gold and silver and all the things that are thought to belong to people who are blessedly happy.” But apart from such liberties, the members of the third class are quite neglected in Plato’s ideal city. Apparently no education is provided for them, for there is no suggestion that they participate in the guardians’ musical and athletic training, and there is no mention that obedience to the rulers’ commands cannot be the only source of happiness for the third class. Plato seems to sidestep his own insight that all human beings have an immortal soul and have to take care of it as best they can, as he not only demands in the Phaedo but is going to confirm in a fanciful way in the Myth of Er at the end of Republic Book X.

The life-style designated for the upper classes also seems open to objections. The soldiers’ musical and physical training is strictly regimented; they must take satisfaction in the obedience to the laws for the sake of preserving the city’s inner and outer peace, 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 the philosophers’ lives leave a lot to be desired, and not only because they have to starve their common human appetites and devote many years to administrative duties back in the ‘Cave’. Their intellectual pursuits are also not entirely enviable, as a closer inspection would show. Not only do the philosophers have two jobs – in violation of the rule ‘one person – one function’ – in that they are responsible for both administrative work and philosophical reflection: They are also not to enjoy open-ended research, but are rather subject to a mental training that is explicitly designed to turn their minds away from the enjoyment of all worldly beauty in order to focus exclusively on the contemplation of the Forms. This is indicated in the injunctions concerning the study of astronomy and harmonics (529a–531d). The students are not to crane their necks to watch the beauty of the “embroidery in the heavens”, but rather to concern themselves with the ideal motions of ideal moving bodies in a purely geometrical fashion, and they are not to listen to audible sounds, but to attend to the mathematics of harmonics. The universe is not treated as an admirable cosmos, with the explicit purpose of providing moral and intellectual support to the citizens, in the way Plato is going to state in the Timaeus and in the Laws. Given these limitations of the philosophers’ mental exercises in the Republic, the claim that their lives are 729 times more pleasant than the tyrants’ (IX 587e) seems like a gross exaggeration, even if they enjoy the pleasures of being filled with pure and unadulterated truths while everyone else enjoys only semblances of the really real (581e–588a).

For all the advances that the Republic represents in some respects, Plato’s ideal city seems to us far from ideal. The system resembles a well-oiled machine where everyone has their appointed function and economic niche; but its machine-like character seems repellent, given that no deviations are permitted from the prescribed pattern. If innovations are forbidden, no room seems to be left for creativity and personal development. Plato seems to presuppose that the fulfillment of a person’s function is sufficient to secure her happiness, or at least that is suggested by the ‘functional’ argument that defeats Thrasymachus (352d–354a). It states that every object, animal, and person has a specific function or work (ergon). If it performs its function well, it does well: for a living thing, ‘doing well’ means ‘living well’ and living well is tantamount to living happily. Though Socrates’ refutation of Thrasymachus is found wanting as a proof of justice’s superiority, the ergon-argument is nowhere revoked. On the contrary, it is affirmed by the principle of ‘one person – one job’ that is the basis of Plato’s ideal city. But it seems rather inhumane to confine everyone’s activities to just one kind of work, even if such confinement may be most economical and efficient. These features suffice to make the ideal life in Plato’s city unpalatable to us, not to speak of certain other features that have not been explored here, such as the communal life envisaged for the upper classes, and the assignment of sexual partnerships by lotteries that are rigged for reasons of eugenics. The feature that must strike us as strangest about Plato’s depiction of his citizens’ lives is that he does not even emphasize the one factor that could throw a more favorable light on his social order – that each citizen will take pride and joy in their work and its products, given that these are to be regarded, each in their own way, as valuable contributions to the community’s well-being. This applies especially to the members of the third class – tailors, carpenters, doctors, architects, sailors, and all those who are summed up rather ungraciously under the epithet of ‘money-lovers’ — because they, after all, produce the city’s material goods, whithout which the city could not function or exist.

Has this fact escaped Plato’s notice, alongside other deficiencies of his blue-print of an ideal city? Against all these complaints, justified as they must seem, it should be pointed out that Plato clearly is not concerned with the conditions that would make his city ‘livable’. His aim is rather more limited: He wants to present a model, and to work out its essential features. The same explanation applies to his depiction of the city’s and its citizens’ decay in Books VIII and IX. Contrary to many critics’ assumptions, Plato is not there trying to predict and explain the course of history. Rather, he wants to explain the generation and decay typical of each political system and the psychopathology 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 types of state. It is unlikely that Plato presupposes that there are pure representatives of these types, though some historical states may have come closer to being representatives than others. Given that Plato’s aim is to work out the model of a well-functioning state, he does not and need not concern himself with softening the features of his bare sketch of the decay of the city and of the souls of the citizens due to their inherent tensions. If his decision to concentrate on a model explains certain inhumane features of Plato’s political vision, are there any indications that he was aware of the limitations that he imposed on his ‘political animals’ by confining them to just one function in an efficiently run community? Was Plato aware of the fact that his black-and-white picture of civic life in his model state disregards the claim of individuals to have their own aims and ends, and not to be treated like automata, with no thoughts and wishes of their own? Though the Republic contains some suggestions that would mitigate this bleak picture, for the sake of balancing this picture, it is more fruitful, to look at other works of Plato’s middle period that concentrate on and prioritize the conditions of the individual soul rather than focus on the demands of the community. These works are the Symposium and the Phaedrus. For though each dialogue should be studied as a unity of its own, it is also necessary to treat the individual dialogues as part of a wider picture.

4. The later dialogues: Ethics and Dialectic

4.1 Happiness and the desire for self-completion

The Symposium and the Phaedrus are two dialogues that focus on the individual soul and pay no attention to communal life at all. Instead, they concentrate on self-preservation, self-improvement, and self-completion. The Symposium is often treated as a dialogue that predates the Republic, most of all because it mentions neither the immortality nor the tripartition of the soul. But its dramatic staging – the praise of Eros by a company of symposiasts – is not germane to the otherworldly and ascetic tendencies of the Gorgias and the Phaedo. In addition, Plato has good reasons for leaving aside a discussion of the separation of the soul’s faculties in the Symposium, because he aims to show that love is an incentive, not only for all humans, but also for other living beings. Contrary to all other speakers, Socrates denies that Eros is a god, because the gods are in a state of perfection. Love, by contrast, is a desire of the needy for the beautiful and the good (199c–201c). Socrates thereby corrects the previous speakers’ confusion of love with the beloved object. This insight is presented not as Socrates’ own, but as the upshot of a ‘lecture on the nature of love by the wise Diotima’ (201d–212b): Eros is a powerful demon, a being between the mortal and the immortal, an eternally needy hunter of the beautiful. Human beings share that demonic condition; for they are neither good nor bad, but desire the good and the beautiful, the possession of which would constitute happiness for them. Because all people want happiness, they pursue the good as well as they can (205a–206b). In each case they desire the particular kinds of objects that they hope will fulfill their needs. Such fulfillment is not a passive possession; it is rather the objects of love are deemed to be essential in the struggle for self-preservation, self-completion, and self-fulfillment (207d): “For among animals the principle is the same as with us, and mortal nature seeks so far as possible to live forever and be immortal. And this is possible in one way only: by reproduction, because it leaves behind a new young one in place of the old.” There is, then, a constant need for self-restoration and self-improvement by procreation in the quest for earthly immortality. In the case of human beings this need expresses itself in different ways. The search for ‘self-eternalization’ may result in, or even be fulfilled by, the production of biological children or of so-called ‘children of the mind’ (e.g. works of the arts), or even by the creation of order in cities that are then guided by the virtues of justice and moderation (209a–e). Diotima’s lecture is finally crowned by a depiction of the famous scala amoris – Diotima’s explanation of the refinement and sublimation that a person experiences when recognizing higher and higher kinds of beauty (210a–212a). Starting with the love of one beautiful body, the individual gradually learns to appreciate not only all physical beauty, but also the beauty of the mind, and in the end she gets a glimpse of the supreme kind of beauty, namely the Form of the Beautiful itself – a beauty that is neither relative, nor changeable, nor a matter of degree.

Because beauty of the higher kind is tied to virtue, and is attained by the comprehension of what is common in laws and public institutions, it is clear that Plato does not have purely aesthetic values in mind, but principles of good order that are ultimately tied to the Form of the Beautiful/Good. The difference between the Republic’s and the Symposium’s accounts lies in the fact that the scala amoris treats physical beauty as an incentive to the higher and better, an incentive that in principle affects every human being. There is no talk of a painful liberation from the bonds of the senses, or of a turn-around of the entire soul that is reserved only for the better educated. Brief as the Symposium’s explanation of happiness is, it shows three things: First, all human beings aim for their own self-preservation and -completion. Second, this drive finds its expression in the products of their work, in creativity. Third, their respective activities are instigated by each person’s own particular desire for the beautiful. There is no indication that individuals must act as part of a community. Though the communitarian aspect of the good and beautiful comes to the fore in the high praise of the products of the legendary legislators (209e–210a), the ultimate assent to the Beautiful itself is up to the individual. The message of the Symposium is not unique in Plato’s works. The Lysis shares its basic assumption concerning the intermediary state of human nature between good and bad, and regards need as the basis of friendship. Due to the aporetic character of that dialogue, its lesson remains somewhat obscure, but it is obvious enough that it shares the Symposium’s general anthropological presuppositions.

The idea that eros is the incentive to sublimation and self-completion is worked out further in the Phaedrus. Although the close relationship between the two dialogues is generally acknowledged, the Phaedrus is commonly regarded as a much later work. For not only does it accept the Republic’s psychological doctrine of a tri-partite soul, it also advocates the immortality of the soul – doctrines that are conspicuously absent in the Symposium. But this difference seems due to a difference in perspective rather than to a change of mind. The discussion in the Symposium is deliberately confined to the conditions of self-immortalization in this life, while the Phaedrus takes the discussion beyond the confines of this life. If it shares the Republic’s doctrine of a division of the soul into three parts, it does so for reasons of its own: The three parts of the soul in the Phaedrus are not supposed to justify the separation of people into three classes. They explain, rather, the different routes taken by individuals in their search for beauty and their levels of success. If the Phaedrus goes beyond the Symposium, it does so in order to show how the enchantment of beauty can be combined with an element of Plato’s philosophy that seems quite alien to the notions of self-improvement and sublimation through the love of beauty. That element is abruptly identified as dialectic, the systematic method of collection and division that is characteristic of Plato’s later work. At first sight, it might seem that the dialogue’s topic, Eros, is hardly the right tie to keep together the dialogue’s two disparate parts – i.e. the highly poetical depiction of the enchantment of beauty, and Plato’s subsequent, quite pedestrian methodological explanations of the presuppositions of rhetoric. But although the coherence of the Phaedrus cannot be argued for in full here, the notion that the Phaedrus is disjointed does not do justice to the dialogue’s careful composition and overall aim.

Rhetoric, its purpose and value, is in fact the dialogue’s topic right from the start. The misuse of rhetoric is exemplified by the speech attributed to the orator Lysias, a somewhat contrived plea to favor a non-lover rather than a lover. Socrates’ retort points up Lysias’ presuppositions – that love is a kind of sickness, an irrational craving for the pleasures of the body; that a lover tries to dominate and enslave the beloved physically, materially and mentally, and, most importantly, that the lover tries to deprive the beloved of philosophy. Once restored to his senses the lover will shun his former beloved and break all his promises. This one-sided view 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 the nature of this madness, Socrates employs the comparison of the tripartite soul to a charioteer with a pair winged horses, an obedient white one and an unruly black one. The crucial difference between the Phaedrus’ tripartition and that in the Republic lies in in this: instead of a painful liberation through education, the Phaedrus envisages a liberation through the uplifting force of love, a love that is – just as it is in the Symposium – instigated by physical beauty. That is what first makes the soul grow wings and soar in the pursuit of a corresponding deity, to the point where it may attain godlike insights. The best-conditioned souls – those where the charioteer has full control over his horses – get a glimpse of true being, including the nature of the virtues and of the good (247c–e). Depending on the quality of each soul, the quality of the beauty pursued will also determine the cycle of reincarnations that is in store for each soul after death (248c–249c).

4.2 The quest for method

What is remarkable in the Phaedrus’ picture of the uplifting effect of beauty is not only its exuberant tone and imagery, which goes far beyond the Symposium’s unadorned scala amoris, but also its intricate interweaving of mythical and philosophical elements. For in the midst of his fanciful depiction of the different fates that are in store for different kinds of souls, Plato specifies, in quite technical terms, that the capacity “to understand speech in terms of general Forms, proceeding to bring many perceptions together into a reasoned unity”, (249b–c), is the condition for the reincarnation of dead individuals as human beings. It is this capacity for abstract thought that he then calls “recollection of what the soul saw when it was traveling with god, when it disregarded the things we now call real and lifted up its head to what is truly real instead.” The heavenly adventure seems to amount to no more than the employment of the dialectical method that Socrates is going to describe, without further mythical camouflage, in the dialogue’s second part. The ability to establish unity in a given subject-matter, and to divide it up according to its natural kinds, is the art that characterizes the ‘scientific rhetorician’ (265d–266b). Socrates professes the greatest veneration for such a master: “If I believe that someone is capable of discerning a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many, I follow ‘straight behind, in his tracks, as if he were a god’.” So the heavenly voyage has a quite down-to-earth counterpart in the dialectical method – a method that Plato regards, as he is going to confirm in the Philebus, as a ‘gift of the gods’. At the same time, Plato’s esteem for taxonomy explains the inner unity of the Phaedrus’ seemingly incongruous two parts as two sides of one coin, and it also shows why Plato no longer treats the sensory as a distraction and disturbance of the mind per se. For the properly conditioned souls’ sensory impressions are its first incentives to the higher and better.

What concept of happiness is suggested by this ‘inspired’ view of human life? The individual does not find her or his fulfillment in peaceful interactions in a harmonious community. Instead, life is spent in the perennial pursuit of the higher and better. But in that task the individual is not alone; she shares that task with kindred spirits. The message of the the Symposium and the Phaedrus is therefore two-pronged. On the one hand, there is no permanent attainment of happiness as a stable state of completion in this life. In the ups and downs of life (and of the afterlife), humans are in constant need of beauty as an incentive to aim for their own completion. Humans are neither god-like nor wise; at best, they are god-lovers and philosophers, demonic hunters for truth and goodness. To know is not to have; and to have once is not to have forever. In the Symposium, Diotima states in no uncertain terms that humans have a perennial need to replenish what they lose, both in body and soul, because they are mortal and changeable creatures, and the Phaedrus confirms the need for continued efforts, for the heavenly voyage is not a one-time affair. On the other hand, the second part of he message conveyed is that the pursuit of the good and the beautiful is not a lonely enterprise. As the Phaedrus makes clear, love for a beautiful human being is an incentive to search for a higher form of life, as a sacred joint journey of two friends in communion (255a–256e). The need for, and also the possibility of, constant self-completion and -repletion is a motive that will also reappear in the ethical thought of Plato’s late works, a motif he sometimes presents as the maxim that humans should aim at the ‘likening of oneself to god’, (homoiôsis theôiTheaetetus 176b; Timaeus 90c).

Sober philosophers have a tendency to ignore such visionary talk as too elevated and lacking in substance to be worth serious thought. That Plato, appearances notwithstanding, is not indulging in a god-besotted rêverie in the Phaedrus is indicated by his interweaving of the mythical description in the dialogue’s first part, and his description and exploration of the dialectical method in the later part (259e-279c), where Socrates attempts to determine the requirements of ‘scientific rhetoric’ (259e–279c). Artful speaking (and even artful deception) presupposes knowledge of the truth, especially where the identity of the phenomena is difficult to grasp, because similarities can be deceptive. This applies in particular to concepts like the good and the just, as witnessed by the wide disagreement about their nature (263a–c). The development of the ‘sharp eye’ that is needed to assign each object to the right class is the aim of Plato’s method of collection and division, a method on which he expounds at some length in the Phaedrus. Plato discusses the care that is needed in order to (265d–e) “see together things that are scattered about everywhere, and to collect them into one kind (mia idea)”, as well as “to cut the unity up again according to its species along its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do.” That this method is supposed to serve an overall ethical purpose is confirmed by the fact that rhetoric based on truth must reflect the speaker’s knowlege not only of the different types of souls and the types of speech that fit them (271d), but also of the truth about just and good things (272d).

That dialectic is geared to this end is somewhat obscured in the subsequent discussion in the Phaedrus. First of all, Plato turns away from this issue in his long depiction of the iniquities of contemporary rhetoricians, when he constrasts their efforts with scientific rhetoric. And Plato continues this excursion with a discussion of speaking and writing, culminating in his famous ‘critique of writing’. Second, although Plato makes ample use of the method of collection and division in later dialogues such as the Sophist and the Statesman, he seems to pay little heed to problems of ethics, with the exception of the Philebus. But the aptness of the dialectical method in discerning the nature of the good has already been emphasized in the Republic (534b–c): “ Unless someone can distinguish in an account the Form of the good from everything else, can survive all refutation as if in battle... you will say that he does not know the good itself or any other good.” Brief as these remarks are, they show that the application of dialectic to the understanding and pursuit of the good is of central importance. That the Good is nowhere subjected to such treatment must be due to the enormity of the task involved in undertaking a systematic identification of all that is good, and in distinguishing good things from each other, as well as from the Form of the Good. Although it is unclear whether Plato had already refined the dialectical method in the systematic way indicated in the Phaedrus, the hints contained in the Republic about a ‘longer way’ (435d; 504b) to determine the nature of justice and the other virtues seem to suggest that the the development of a systematic method of collection and division was ‘in the works’. As a closer look at the much later Philebus will show, the determination of what is good about each kind of thing presupposes more than a classification by collection and division. For in addition, the internal 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 that exist in a given field. It also presupposes the knowledge of what constitutes the objects’ internal unity and complexity. It would, of course, be rather presumptuous to claim that Plato had not seen the need to investigate the ontological ‘anatomy’, as well as taxonomy, of the Forms from early on. But as the late dialogues show, it took him quite some effort to develop the requisite conceptual tools for such analyses.

Before we turn to the late dialogues, a final review is in order of the kind of good life Plato envisages in the dialogues under discussion here. In the Symposium, the emphasis is on the individual’s creative work, which involves others at least as catalysts in one’s efforts to attain self-perpetuation and completion. The quality of life attainable for each person differs, depending on the kind of ‘work’ each individual is able to produce. This is what the scala amoris is all about. In the Phaedrus, the emphasis is more on the ‘joint venture’ of kindred souls. True friends will get to the highest point of self-fulfillment by the joint insights that their souls’ conditions permit them to attain. Just as in the Symposium, the philosophical life is deemed the best. But then, this preference is found everywhere in Plato and itis not unique to him: all ancient philosophers regard their own occupation as the true fulfillment of human life. If there are differences between them, they concern the kinds of study and occupation that are deemed appropriate to philosophy. The more individualistic view of happiness espoused in the Symposium and in the Phaedrus need, however, not be seen as a later stage in Plato’s development than the Republic’s communitarian conception. They may be complementary, rather than rival, points of view, and no fixed chronology 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 Plato in his earlier and middle philosophical investigations. Thus, in the Republic, he dismisses the study of the visible heaven from the curriculum of higher learning along with audible music. But such generalizations about Plato’s intentions may be misleading. What he denigrates is not the study of the heavenly order as such, nor that of harmonics; it is rather the extent to which we must necessarily rely on our eyes and ears in those concerns. Students of philosophy are, rather, encouraged to work out the true intelligible order underlying the visible heaven and audible music. Not only that: The ascent 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 because of its empirical approach. This echoes the Phaedo’s complaint that one ruins one’s eyes by looking directly at things, most of all at the sun (Phdo. 99d–e). Nevertheless, Plato already indicates in his critique of Anaxagoras that comprehension of the workings of the order of nature would be highly desirable, as long as it contained an explanation of the rationale of that order (98a): “I was ready to find out about the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, about their relative speed, their turnings and whatever happens to them, how it is best that each should be acted upon.” But Anaxagoras has not fulfilled his promise to explain how mind is the cause of all things by showing (99c): “that the truly good and binding ties and holds everything together”, i.e. through a teleological rather than a mechanical explanation of the cosmic order. Plato himself 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 of such an explanation in mythological garb. The same can be claimed for the description of the heavenly order and the structure of the ‘spindle of necessity’ in the myth of Er at the end of the Republic (R. 616b–617d).

What kind of ‘binding force’ does Plato attribute to ‘the Good’? His reticence about this concept, despite its centrality in his metaphysics and ethics, is largely responsible for the obscurity of his concepts of happiness and of what it is to lead a good life, except for the claim that individuals are best off if they ‘do their own thing’. The philosophers’ knowledge provides a solid basis for the good life of the entire community, as well as for that of the – perhaps uncomprehending – majority, because they benefit from the good order of the state. But what is ‘the Good’ that is responsible for the goodness of all other things? A lot of ink has been spilt over the following passage in Republic book VI, 509b: “Not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the Good, but their being (ousia) is also due to it, although the Good is not being, but superior (epekeina) to it in rank and power.” The analogy with the sun’s maintenance of all that is alive suggests that the Good is the intelligent inner principle that determines the nature of every object that is capable of goodness, in the sense that these objects fulfill their respective functions in an appropriate way. Plato did not attempt to state how such a principle of goodness works in all things when he wrote the Republic. That he was thinking of an internal ‘binding force’ is indicated, however, in Book X, where Plato elucidates the ontological differences that exist, respectively, between the Forms as the products of a divine maker, their earthly copies, and the imitation of these copies by an artist (R. 596a ff.). According to Plato, in each case it is the use or function that determines what it is to be good, (601d): “Aren’t the virtue or excellence, the beauty and correctness of each manufactured item, living creature, and action related to nothing but the use (chreia) for which each is made or naturally adapted?” Given that he does not limit this account to instruments, but explicitly includes living things and human actions in it, he seems to have a specific criterion in mind for what constitutes each thing’s excellence. A similar thought is already expressed in Republic I (353a–e) when Socrates, in his refutation of Thrasymachus, employs the argument that the ability to fulfill one’s own task (ergon) well constitutes the excellence of each object. In the case of human beings, this means ‘doing well’; ‘doing well’, in turn, means ‘living well’, and ‘living well’, in turn, means ‘living happily’. The stringency of these inferences is far from obvious; but they show that Plato saw an intimate connection between the nature, the function, and the well-being of all things, including human beings.

My base camp, the paperback I carried around while I was studying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, was:

  • Ross, David Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics Oxford University Press, ( printing) [HTML version with many typos, alas]

Thanks to Google Books, I also was able to draw on a number of other translations and commentaries. I made my own copies of these books in PDF form so that I could correct for scanning errors, make the PDF page numbering more accurate, add bookmarks for chapters and sections, remove duplicate/damaged/blank pages, and such. (Still, as nice as Google Books can be, they have an unfortunate tendency to do low-quality scanning work, and so occasionally pages are missing or unreadable.) These are those:

  • Brewer, John S. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, with English Notes Oxford: Henry Slatter, [Google Books, my copy] — The Greek text with substantial English notes & commentary
  • Browne, R.W. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle George Bell and Sons, [Google Books, my copy] — An introduction that presents the whole work in outline form, followed by a complete annotated English translation and some study questions
  • Burnet, John The Ethics of Aristotle Methuen & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — a substantial introduction, followed by the Greek text with English annotations, followed by an appendix including excerpts from De Anima and De motu animalium
  • Chase, D.P. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle: A New Translation, Mainly from the Text of Bekker Oxford: Henry Hammans, [Google Books, my copy] — A summary followed by a complete English translation
  • The Ethics of Aristotle with Introductory Essay by George Henry Lewes (Chase’s translation, revised) Walter Scott, date unknown [Google Books, my copy] — a complete English translation
  • Gillies, John Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Comprising his Practical Philosophy Cadell & Davies, [Google Books, my copy] — the life of Aristotle, an analysis of Aristotle’s speculative works, followed by a very-liberal complete English translation
  • Grant, Alexander The Ethics of Aristotle, Illustrated with Essays and Notes Longmans, Green & Co., [Google Books: Volume 1, Volume 2; my copies: Volume 1, Volume 2] — Volume 1 includes several introductory essays giving the context of the Nicomachean Ethics, followed by books one and two in Greek with substantial English annotations; Volume 2 continues with books three through ten
  • Hatch, Walter M. The Moral Philosophy of Aristotle John Murray, [Google Books, my copy] — gives each chapter in both a faithful and direct English translation and in a more liberal and easier-to-understand paraphrase
  • Hawkins, E.L. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Oxford: James Thornton, [Google Books, my copy] — the Greek of books one through four and part of book ten, with English annotations
  • Jackson, Henry Περὶ Δικαιοσύνης [concerning righteousness]: The Fifth Book of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Cambridge University Press, [Google Books, my copy] — Jackson reorganizes book five into what he believes is a more intelligible order, gives this newly-organized version in parallel Greek and English versions, provides voluminous notes, and discusses his methodology and the reasoning behind it.
  • Jelf, William Edward Notes to Aristotle’s Ethics Oxford: John Henry & James Parker, [Google Books, my copy] — detailed notes meant to accompany Bekker’s Greek version
  • Lancaster, Thomas William The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Oxford: J. Vincent, [Google Books, my copy] — English summaries followed by the Greek text
  • Moore, Edward An Introduction to Aristotle’s Ethics Longmans, Green & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — covers chapters 1–4 and a bit of 10; the “Supplementary Notes and Illustrations” chapter includes many interesting examples of where characters in Shakespeare’s plays and other literature embody some of the virtues and vices Aristotle mentions
  • Muirhead, J.H. Chapters from Aristotle’s Ethics John Murray, [Google Books, my copy] — commentary and context for sections of books one through three and six through ten, with some of the passages translated as well
  • Paley, F.A. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books Ⅴ & Ⅹ Cambridge: J. Hall & Son, [Google Books, my copy] — Greek and an English translation in parallel
  • Peters, F.H. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — a full English translation
  • Smith, I. Gregory Chief Ancient Philosophies: The Ethics of Aristotle Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, [Google Books, my copy] — commentary on various aspects of Aristotle’s ethical system
  • Stewart, J.A. Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Oxford: Clarendon Press, [Google Books: Volume 1, Volume 2; my copies: Volume 1, Volume 2] — volume 1 covers books one through five; volume 2 covers the rest. These books summarize each chapter and then provide very detailed notes on particular words, concepts, and translation issues
  • Stock, St. George Lectures in the Lyceum, or: Aristotle’s Ethics for English Readers Longmans, Green, & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — Stock paraphrases books one through five of the Nicomachean Ethics as a transcript of Aristotle teaching (and fielding questions from) his students. This makes for an easier read than those translations that are more faithful to the original manuscripts.
  • Taylor, Thomas The Rhetoric, Poetic, and Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle James Black & Son, [Google Books, my copy] — this volume (2) gives an English translation of the Nicomachean Ethics
  • [“Vincent”] A New Translation of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Oxford: J. & C. Vincent, [Google Books, my copy]
  • Welldon, J.E.C. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle MacMillan & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — a summary of each book, followed by a translation of the whole
  • Williams, Robert The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle Longmans, Green, & Co., [Google Books, my copy] — a complete English translation
  • Wilson, J. Cook Aristotelian Studies Ⅰ: On the Structure of the Seventh Book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Chapters Ⅰ–Ⅹ Oxford: Clarendon Press, [Google Books, my copy] — Explores this book under the theory that it is composed of multiple parallel original works that have been interlaced.

Some other resources I found helpful included:

  • “Aristotle’s Ethics of Virtue” Radio Free Philosophy #28 [Internet Archive]
  • “Roger Crisp on Aristotle’s Ethics” from Interviews with Philosophers podcast [Oxford]
  • Ebrey, David B. “Nicomachean Ethics” U.C. Berkeley lectures [Berkeley Webcast Courses]
  • “Ancient Athenian Democracy: A conversation with Josiah Ober” from Entitled Opinions with Robert Harrison, a show on Stanford University’s KZSU [Entitled Opinions]
  • Koturski, Jospeh “The Ethics of Aristotle” The Teaching Company: The Great Courses
  • Meikle, Scott Aristotle’s Economic Thought Oxford University Press,
  • Rickaby, Joseph “The Aristotelian Division of Justice” Political and Moral Essays, [Google Books]
  • Vernon, Mark “What is Friendship?” a series of podcast lectures based on Aristotle’s Lyceum lectures on friendship [podcast]
  • Wattles, Jeffrey “Introduction to Ethics” Kent State University lectures

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