Ethics Study Guide: Plato

"Of all of you who claim to praise justice, from the original heroes of old whose words survive, down to the present day, not one has ever blamed injustice or praised justice except by mentioning the reputation, honors, and rewards that are their consequences. No one has ever adequately described what each itself does of its own power by its presence in the soul of the person who possesses it, even if it remains hidden from gods and humans. No one has adequately argued that injustice is the worst thing a soul can have in it and that justice is the greatest good."

Plato started out with two career ambitions: to become a successful dramatist, and to become a successful politician. According to his ancient biographers, Plato gave up the first ambition after his first conversation with Socrates, which convinced him that his literary efforts were valueless. (He went home and burned them. Yet in his dialogues he did realize his initial ambition, in a sense.) The second ambition died more slowly; in one of his letters Plato tells how he first came to despair of politics:

[324b] In the days of my youth my experience was the same as that of many others. I thought that as soon as I should become my own master [324c] I would immediately enter into public life. But it so happened, I found, that the following changes occurred in the political situation.In the government then existing, reviled as it was by many, a revolution took place; and the revolution was headed by fifty-one leaders, of whom eleven were in the City and ten in the Piraeus -- each of these sections dealing with the market and with all municipal matters requiring management -- and Thirty were established [324d] as irresponsible rulers of all. Now of these some were actually connections and acquaintances of mine; and indeed they invited me at once to join their administration, thinking it would be congenial. The feelings I then experienced, owing to my youth, were in no way surprising: for I imagined that they would administer the State by leading it out of an unjust way of life into a just way, and consequently I gave my mind to them very diligently, to see what they would do. And indeed I saw how these men within a short time caused men to look back on the former government as a golden age; and above all how they treated my [324e] aged friend Socrates, whom I would hardly scruple to call the most just of men then living, when they tried to send him, along with others, after one of the citizens, to fetch him by force [325a] that he might be put to death -- their object being that Socrates, whether he wished or no, might be made to share in their political actions; he, however, refused to obey and risked the uttermost penalties rather than be a partaker in their unholy deeds. So when I beheld all these actions and others of a similar grave kind, I was indignant, and I withdrew myself from the evil practices then going on.

But in no long time the power of the Thirty was overthrown together with the whole of the government which then existed. Then once again I was really, though less urgently, impelled with a desire to take part in public and [325b] political affairs. Many deplorable events, however, were still happening in those times, troublous as they were, and it was not surprising that in some instances, during these revolutions, men were avenging themselves on their foes too fiercely; yet, notwithstanding, the exiles who then returned exercised no little moderation. But, as ill-luck would have it, certain men of authority summoned our comrade Socrates before the law-courts, laying a charge against him which was most unholy, and which Socrates of all men least deserved; [325c] for it was on the charge of impiety that those men summoned him and the rest condemned and slew him -- the very man who on the former occasion, when they themselves had the misfortune to be in exile, had refused to take part in the unholy arrest of one of the friends of the men then exiled.

When, therefore, I considered all this, and the type of men who were administering the affairs of State, with their laws too and their customs, the more I considered them and the more I advanced in years myself, the more difficult appeared to me [325d] the task of managing affairs of State rightly. For it was impossible to take action without friends and trusty companions; and these it was not easy to find ready to hand, since our State was no longer managed according to the principles and institutions of our forefathers; while to acquire other new friends with any facility was a thing impossible. Moreover, both the written laws and the customs were being corrupted, and that with surprising rapidity. Consequently, although at first [325e] I was filled with an ardent desire to engage in public affairs, when I considered all this and saw how things were shifting about anyhow in all directions, I finally became dizzy; and although I continued to consider by what means some betterment could be brought about not only in these matters but also in the government as a whole, [326a] yet as regards political action I kept constantly waiting for an opportune moment; until, finally, looking at all the States which now exist, I perceived that one and all they are badly governed; for the state of their laws is such as to be almost incurable without some marvellous overhauling and good-luck to boot. So in my praise of the right philosophy I was compelled to declare1 that by it one is enabled to discern all forms of justice both political and individual. Wherefore the classes of mankind (I said) will have no cessation from evils until either the class of those [326b] who are right and true philosophers attains political supremacy, or else the class of those who hold power in the States becomes, by some dispensation of Heaven, really philosophic.

-- Plato, Seventh Letter

So Plato founded a school in the suburbs of Athens, naming it the Academy after the grove of Akademe where it was located. (This is the origin of our words “academy” and “academic.”) He had not given up on politics entirely, however. He made several journeys to Sicily in an attempt to reform Dionysius, the ruler of Syracuse, and convert him into a philosopher-king. The results were disastrous. (Details can be found in Plato’s Letters, Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Plato, and Plutarch’s Life of Dion.) So the Thirty’s reign of terror, the execution of Socrates, and the Sicilian debacle left Plato disgusted and dislillusioned with oligarchy, democracy, and monarchy respectively. Barely escaping Sicily with his life, he returned to Athens and spent the rest of his life teaching in the Academy and writing his famous dialogues (of which there are over thirty, most of them longer than the ones we’ve read).

Socrates is the main speaker in most of Plato’s dialogues. How far is the character Socrates an accurate representation of the historical Socrates, and how far is he simply a mouthpiece for Plato’s views? Fortunately, we have some guidance in answering this question, because Plato’s pupil Aristotle often distinguishes between the views of Socrates and those of Plato:

[987a] The philosophies described above [= Pythagoreanism] were succeeded by the system of Plato, which in most respects accorded with them, but contained also certain peculiar features distinct from the philosophy of the Italians. In his youth Plato first became acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean doctrines -- that the whole sensible world is always in a state of flux, and that there is no scientific knowledge of it --and in after years he still held these opinions. [987b] And when Socrates, disregarding the physical universe and confining his study to moral questions, sought in this sphere for the universal and was the first to concentrate upon definition, Plato followed him, but assumed that the problem of definition is concerned not with any sensible thing but with entities of another kind; for the reason that there can be no general definition of sensible things which are always changing. These entities he called "Ideas," and held that all sensible things are named after them and in virtue of their relation to them; for the plurality of things which bear the same name as the Forms exist by participation in them.

-- Aristotle, Metaphysics

[1182 a] After him [= Pythagoras] came Socrates, who spoke better and further about this subject, but even he was not successful. For he used to make the virtues into kinds of knowledge, and this is impossible. For every sort of knowledge is a matter of reason, which is to be found in the intellectual part of the soul, so that all the virtues, according to him, are to be found in the rational part of the soul. the result is that in making the virtues into kinds of knowledge he is doing away with the nonrational part of the soul, and is thereby doing away with both emotion and character. So in this way his treatment of the virtues was not successful. After this Plato divided the soul into the rational and the nonrational part -- and in this he was right -- assigning appropriate virtues to each. So far so good; but after this he went astray. For he mixed up virtue with the treatment of the Good [as a metaphysical principle], which cannot be right; for in speaking about the Truth of Reality he ought not to have discoursed about virtue, for the two have nothing to do with each other.

-- Aristotle, Magna Moralia

Aristotle, then, claims the following things:

1. Socrates was interested solely in ethics, while Plato was also interested in metaphysics and cosmology.

2. Socrates searched for essences, the objects of definitions, but Plato was the first to claim that these essences could not belong to the sensory world but must exist separately as Forms or Ideas.

3. Socrates defined virtue as a kind of knowledge, while Plato did not, and Plato claimed that virtue involved not only a rational but also a nonrational part of the soul.

4. Plato thought that virtue involved the Form or Idea of the Good, while Socrates did not.

Now Aristotle never knew Socrates. But he studied in Plato’s Academy for nearly twenty years, knew Plato well, and knew many people who had known Socrates. So we have good reason to take his testimony seriously. And when we apply what Aristotle tells us to Plato’s dialogues, we find that his description of Socrates’ views answers pretty closely to Plato’s early dialogues (as well as to Xenophon’s Socratic writings), while his description of Plato’s views answers pretty closely to Plato’s later dialogues. Hence it is reasonable to infer that in the early dialogues, Plato is presenting a roughly accurate picture of the views of the historical Socrates, while in his later dialogues, Plato (perhaps having becomes less satisfied with Socratic doctrine over time) is using the character of Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views. (Why still use Socrates? Perhaps because Plato does not regard himself as rejecting Socrates completely, but rather as developing the most essential aspects of Socrates’ insights.)

The dialogues we have read so far -- Laches, Alcibiades, Protagoras, Gorgias, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito -- are all from the early group, and so presumably represent the genuine views of Socrates. (The Phaedo and Symposium are from the later group, but the selections we read from them are solely concerned with biographical details about Socrates and so are likely to be accurate as well.) We now turn to the views that Plato developed for himself.

Plato’s most famous work is the Republic. Both in terms of philosophical content and in terms of Greek literary style, the first book of the Republic is more similar to Plato’s early “Socratic” dialogues than to his later “Platonic” dialogues; hence many have speculated that Republic I might originally have been a stand-alone dialogue to which Plato later added a lengthy sequel. That is why I assigned Republic I in the “Socrates” section of the course. Now we are in the “Plato” section and shall look at the rest of the Republic.

Plato’s Republic deals with many topics; it ranges over ethics, politics, psychology, aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, and theology. Plato seems to have intended it as a summary of his entire philosophy. (If so, it didn’t work out that way, since many of Plato’s most important ideas were not developed until after the Republic.) Owing to time-constraints, we shall not be reading the entire work, but shall focus on those sections that are the most relevant to the ethical issues with which this course is primarily concerned.

Although Republic II-X is a continuation of Republic I, there is a change of speakers. Polemarchus and Thrasymachus are still around, but they remain quietly in the background. (How did Thrasymachus manage to restrain himself? My own theory is that Republic II-X was orignally a separate dialogue unrelated to Republic, and so wasn’t even supposed to have Thrasymachus in it; but that’s another story.) Socrates’ main interlocutors are now Glaucon and Adeimantus -- who happen to be Plato’s brothers. (Are they stand-ins for Plato himself?)

Republic II

I remember being told in physics class that the moon causes high tides not only on the side of the earth facing the moon, but on the opposite side of the earth as well. This puzzled me. It made sense that the moon’s gravity would attract the water on the earth’s moonlit side, but why would it repel the water on the opposite side? The teacher initially answered me by writing lots of equations and vector diagrams on the board showing that this result indeed followed from Newton’s laws of motion. This didn’t satisfy me. I accepted that it happened, but I wanted to know why it happened, and I was none the wiser for all his equations. So then the teacher explained the result to me in terms that made sense: the nearer something is to the moon, the more it is pulled by the moon’s gravity. So the water on earth’s moonlit side is pulled toward the moon more strongly than the earth itself is, but the earth in turn is pulled toward the moon more strongly than the water on the far side is. So that water on the far side isn’t repelled, it’s just attracted less strongly. Finally I was satisfied.

The reader of Socrates’ arguments in Republic I might feel the same way I initially felt about the tides. Remember that in that dialogue, Socrates uses the notions of expertise and function to show that it is in our self-interest to be just, but he doesn’t explain what it is about justice that produces this result. I suspect that one of the people who felt dissatisfied with this aspect of Socratic doctrine was Plato himself, and that the rest of the Republic was written as a solution to this problem. Hence in Republic II, Plato portrays his own brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, delivering what is often known as Glaucon’s Challenge (presumably “Glaucon and Adeimantus’ Challenge” speeds less trippingly off the tongue): “Don’t merely gives us a theoretical argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but tell us what each itself does, because of its own powers, to someone who possesses it, that makes injustice bad and justice good..” (367 b) Glaucon and Adeimantus also insist that justice be shown to be valuable for its own sake and not just for its consequences, so that it would be worth having even if none of the usual social rewards came from it.

In this chapter we meet our old friend Gyges again. (The text says “the ancestor of Gyges, the Lydian [ruler],” but this is presumably a scribal error for “Gyges, the ancestor of the Lydian [ruler]”; a slip from one to the other would be easier in Greek than in English.) Plato’s version of the story is somewhat similar to that of Herodotus: Gyges, a commoner, kills the king, marries the queen, and becomes ruler of Lydia. But the details are importantly different. The most obvious difference is Gyges’ use of a magical ring of invisibility to accomplish his goals. (In Herodotus’ version, by contrast, Gyges became king through failing to be sufficiently invisible.) But from a moral point of view, perhaps the more important difference is that Herodotus’ Gyges had this chain of events thrust upon him, while Plato’s Gyges ruthlessly schemed the whole thing.

Gyges’ ring, incidentally, was part of the inspiration for the magic ring of invisibility in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In both Plato and Tolkien, the ring is an allegory for political power, and the central question is: who can be trusted to wield such power without being corrupted? (Plato answers: “Philosophers.” Tolkien answers: “Nobody.”)

Study Questions

1. What are the three kinds of goods, according to Glaucon? And why do he and Adeimantus fear that justice might belong to the third kind rather than the second? (357 a-362 d)

2. What is Glaucon’s description at 361 b-e supposed to make us think of?

3. What are Glaucon and Adeimantus’ motives for pressing the Challenge? (366 b-367 e)

4. Why does Socrates think finding the nature of justice in the city is the key to finding the nature of justice in the individual? (368 b-369 b)

Republic IV

Socrates draws an analogy between the structure of a just city and the structure of a just soul. A city needs three parts: tradesmen, to minister to the city’s material needs; soldiers (or “auxiliaries”), to protect the city from external enemies; and rulers (guardians, philosopher-kings), to make decisions about what’s good for the city as a whole. (In democratic Athens these functions were all performed by the same people, the common populace, but Plato is a fan of the division of labor and so thinks these should be three different groups. Plato may also have been influenced by reports of the Hindu caste system, where the three dominant groups are the Vaishya tradesmen, above them the Kshatriya warrior nobility, and highest of all the Brahman priests and scholars.)

Likewise, a soul has three parts. From the fact that you can know that something is good and yet be tempted to do something bad (notice that Plato is here abandoning Socrates’ doctrine from the Protagoras about the impossibility of knowingly acting contrary to one’s best judgment), Plato infers that there must be two kinds of desires within the soul: rational desires, which aim at whatever their posessor believes is truly good, and appetites, which aim at certain objects regardless of whether those objects seem good. (For example, even when we know that it’s not good for us to drink right now, our thirst doesn’t go away, so our thirst must not care about what’s good.) But in addition to rational desires (always responsive to beliefs about what’s good) and appetites (never responsive to beliefs about what’s good), we also have a third kind of desire -- spirited desires, or emotions -- that are sometimes responsive to beliefs about what’s good. So, for example, it is possible to be righteously angry (whereas one cannot be righteously thirsty), so anger can be influenced by our judgments about what is best (so anger can’t be an appetite), yet we can also get angry contrary to our best judgment (so anger can’t be a rational desire).

These three parts of the soul turn out to be analogous to the three parts of the city. Our appetites (e.g., hunger, thirst, sexual desire, sleepiness) minister to our bodily needs just as the tradesmen minister to the material needs of the city. Our spirited desires are concerned with honor and make us aggressive and self-assertive, just like a city’s soldiers. And our rational desires are cncerned with what is best for us, just as a city’s rulers deliberate about what is best for the city.

Because there is this systematic analogy between the parts of the city and the parts of the soul, Plato reasons that if justice in the city turns out to be a certain relation among the city’s parts, then justice in the soul will turn out to be that same relation among the soul’s parts. (We now see Plato’s development of Socrates’ idea, from Republic I, that injustice involves strife both within the city and within the individual.) Since a city is just when the tradesmen and soldiers are governed by the rulers, and the rulers in turn are guided by a correct understanding of what is good, so likewise an individual soul is just when its appetitive and spirited desires are governed by its rational desires, and its rational desires in turn are guided by a correct understanding of what is good. So allowing anger to overcome one’s better judgment is, e.g., like allowing a military coup in one’s soul. (Remember Mitchell’s discussion of internal politics.)

Study Questions

1. What is Socrates’ argument for identifying virtue by process of elimination? (427 e-428 a)

2. How does Socrates locate wisdom in the city? (428 a-429 a)

3. How does Socrates locate courage in the city? (429 a-430 c)

4. How does Socrates locate moderation in the city? (430 d-432 c)

5. How does Socrates locate justice in the city? (432 d-434 d)

6. How does Socrates prove that the rational part of the soul is distinct from the appetitive part? (436 a-439 e)

7. How does Socrates prove that the spirited part is distinct from both? (439 e-441 c)

8. How does Socrates identify justice in the individual soul? (441 c-444 a)

9. How does Socrates identify injustice in the individual soul? (444 a-444 e)

Republic V

In this chapter Plato develops his famous “Theory of Forms,” which he has already elaborated in more detail in some dialogues we’re not reading -- the Meno, the Phaedo, and the Symposium. Plato comes to the Theory of Forms by reflecting on the Socratic search for definitions. Remember that Socrates in the early dialogues was always tryiong to define the essence of courage, or holiness, or justice, or whatever virtue was at issue. He didn’t just want an example of something courageous; he wanted to know what the property of courage itself is -- that which all courageous things have in common, that explains why they’re courageous. And he always rejected any candidate for the essence of F-ness if it turned out that that candidate was F in one respect and not-F in another. (For example, paying one’s debts can’t be the essence of justice if paying one’s debts is just in some contexts and unjust in others (e.g., returning the sword to the madman); endurance can’t be the essence of courage if endurance is sometimes courageous and sometimes not (e.g., when it’s in a foolish cause).)

This much Plato got from Socrates. From another of his teachers, Cratylus, however, he learned that, for any property F-ness that you can name, none of the objects in the sensory world is perfectly F; that is, any large thing is small in relation to something larger, any just action is unjust in some context, etc. But Plato had learned from Socrates that the essence of F-ness -- what Plato calls the F-itself, or the Form of F -- can never be non-F at any time or in any respect. As Plato says about the Beautiful-itself: “First of all, it is ever-existent and neither comes to be nor perishes, neither waxes nor wanes; next, it is not beautiful in part and in part ugly, nor is it such at such a time and other at another, nor in one respect beautiful and in another ugly, nor so affected by position as to seem beautiful to some and ugly to others.” (Symposium 210 e-211 a) So Plato concludes that the essences that Socrates was looking for are not to be found in the world we know through sense-perception, but exist only in a world we grasp with our minds. Furthermore, since, e.g., the Courageous-itself is the property that makes courageous things courageous, these Forms must be logically prior to and more fundamental than the perceptible realities that partake of them.

Study Questions

1. What is necessary in order for a just city to come into existence? (472 d-473 e)

2. Why do the people Plato calls “sight-lovers” initially seem like philosophers (“lovers of wisdom”)? (474 b-475 e)

3. Why do the “sight-lovers” turn out not to be philosophers after all? (475 e-476 d) Are these “sight-lovers” anything like Rand’s “anti-conceptual mentalities”?

4. How does Socrates prove that knowledge and opinion have different objects? (476 e-478 e)

5. How does Socrates prove the existence of the Forms? (479 a-d)

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