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Ethics Study Guide: Plato, page 2

Republic VI and VII

Plato now develops the Theory of Forms in more detail. The Form of F-ness causes each particular F thing to become F. But any particular F thing will also be non-F in some respect, and so will not be perfectly F. But the F-itself is perfectly F, and so is a sort of ideal exemplar of F-ness. So all the Forms, by being ideal exemplars, are good, and so themselves must be made good by the Form of Goodness, that which makes all good things good. So the Form of Goodness, the Good-itself, is the cause of all the other Forms, and thus the cause of all being and value in the universe. Thus the Good-itself is the most important thing in the universe; it is the supreme principle on which everything else depends. Plato thinks of it as something like God -- not as a person, but as an abstract principle. To desire something as good is implicitly to desire the Good-itself. And once we grasp the Good-itself, we will be motivated, Plato claims, to use it as a model to transform ourselves and everyone and everything around us into a more perfect reflection of its perfection.

Plato uses several analogies to explain the relation of Forms to things in the sensory world. One that requires some explanation is the Divided Line. The line has 4 sections: the top two sections represent the intelligible world, and the bottom two sections represent the world as we experience it through our senses. The ratios between the lengths of the sections represent the relations among the objects they stand for. Section A represents the Forms; section B represents sensible objects treated as symbols of Forms (as when a trinagle drawn on a blackboard is used to stand for triangle in the abstract), section C stands for the section-B objcts considered as sensible objects in their own right, and section D stands for images of section-C objects. Plato tells us that the length ratios are as follows:

1. B = C
2. A > B; C > D; (A+B) > (C+D)
3. A:B = C:D = (A+B):(C+D)

(1) symbolizes the fact that B and C involve the same objects, considered in different ways. (2) symbolizes the fact that the higher-level items are “bigger” (i.e., more fundamental, more important) than the lower-level items; and (3) symbolizes the fact that images are mere copies of objects, objects are mere copies of Forms, and the sensible world is a mere copy of the intelligible world. The proces sof understanding involves starting from the copies and then moving our way up to an understanding of the things they are copies of. Grasping the Form of the Good would be the highest pinnacle of this process.

Study Questions

1. What does someone have to be like in order to be a philosopher? (485 a-487 a)

2. Why are some people unconvinced by Socratic argument? (487 b-d)

3. What is the point of Socrates’ simile of the ship? (488 a-489 d)

4. How is it that those who are philosophically inclined can be corrupted away from philosophy by the very virtues that make them philosophically inclined? (491 a-495 c) Do you think Plato has Alcibiades in mind here?

5. Why will philosopher be benevolent rulers? (500 b-502 a)

6. Why is the Good the most important thing to learn? (504 d-505 b)

7. What is the objection to those who identify the Good with knowledge? (505 b-c) Is Plato criticizing Socrates here?

8. What is the objection to those who identify the Good with pleasure? (505 c-d) Does Plato have the Gorgias in mind? What about the Protagoras?

9. How is it that every soul desires the good? (505 d-506 b) Is this compatible with what Republic IV claimed about nonrational desires?

10. What is the point of the analogy between the Good and the sun? (507 a-509 d)

11. What is the point of the analogy of the Divided Line? (509 d-511 e)

12. What is the point of the analogy of the Cave? (514 a-521 a, 531 d-534 c)

13. How does the Cave relate to the earlier analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line?

14. How does the cave illustrate the life of Socrates?

15. Why is dialectic (i.e., Socratic conversation and argument) dangerous? (537 c-539 d) Is Plato saying that Socrates was corrupting the youth after all?

16. How will knowledge of the Good guide the rulers of Plato’s ideal state? (539 e-540 c)

17. How can Plato’s ideal state best be achieved? (540 d-541 b)

Republic VIII and IX

Plato returns to the analogy between the just city and the just soul by analyzing the five major kinds of political community that he was familiar with. The first is “aristocracy” or “kingship,” by which Plato means a state as much as possible like the ideal one in Plato’s Republic, ruled by wise philosopher-kings. The second is “timocracy,” Plato’s term for warrior communities like Sparta, dedictaed to victory, self-discipline, and military glory. The third is “oligarchy,” rule by a wealthy elite. The fourth is “democracy,” rule by the common people, as in Plato’s native city, Athens. The fifth is “tyranny.” These five kinds of political constitution are analogous to five conditions of the soul. Remember that our rational desires are analogous to wise rulers, our spirited desires are analogous to soldiers, and our appetitive desires are analogous to common artisans, farmers, etc. It follows that a person ruled by rational desires has an aristocratic or kingly soul, while a person ruled by spirited desires has a timocratic soul. As for appetitive desires, Plato divides these into necessary and unnecessary appetites. A person ruled by necessary appetities is like an oligarchy, a person ruled by unnecessary appetites is like a tyranny, and a person ruled by both kinds of appetites alike is like a democracy. Plato thinks that each of these conditions is worse than the one before it; this yields the surprising conclusion that democracy -- the political system under which Plato grew up -- is the second worst kind of system. (Click here for an analysis and critique of Plato’s account.)

Plato spins the political analogy out father; allowing reaosn to be conquered by anger is like allowing a military coup within ine’s soul; being pulled this way and that by conflicting appetites is like allowing mob rule within one’s soul; and so forth.

Plato also develops a new conception of pleasure. Recall that Callicles had seen pleasure as a process of removing pain (filling a lack), while Socrates had seen pleasure as a state of lacking pain. In Republic IX Plato rejects both these accounts, on the grounds that both fail to see that there is a higher kind of pleasure, one that goes beyond mere absence of pain and does not in any way depend on feeling pain. His example is the pleasure of smell. You may not get any pleasure from drinking without first feeling thirsty, but you can get plasure from smelling fresh flowers without feeling any dissatisfaction before that. Although smell is a sensory example, plato thinks the purest cases of positive plasure involve intellectual grasp of the Forms.

Study Questions

1. How does an aristocratic state become timocratic? (545 d-548 d) What does Plato admire about timocracy, and what does he dislike?

2. How does an aristocratic soul become timocratic? (548 d-550 c)

3. How does a timocratic state become oligarchic? (550 c-553 a)

4. How does a timocratic soul become oligarchic? (553 a-555 b)

5. How does an oligarchic state become democratic? (555 b-558 c) Why is Plato hostile toward democracy?

6. How does an oligarchic soul become democratic? (558 c-562 a)

7. How does a democratic state become tyrannical? (562 a-569 c)

8. How does a democratic soul become tyrannical? (571 a-576 d)

9. What is life like for a tyrannical soul? (577 b-580 c)

10. How does Plato appeal to experienced judges to show that the pleasures of the rational part of the soul are superior to those of the spirited and appetitive parts? (580 d-583 c)

11. What are the three levels with regard to pleasure, and what mistake do people make when moving from one to another? (583 a-585 a) How does Plato’s account relate to the Gorgias?

12. How does Plato argue that the just soul has the best pleasures? (585 a-588 b)

13. What is the point of the analogy of the human being, the lion, and the many-headed beast? (588 b-592 a)

14. In what sense can one participate in the politics of Plato’s ideal state when one doesn’t live there? (592 a-b) Is Plato’s ideal state meant as a serious blueprint for political reform, or as a metaphor for the virtuous individual’s life? Or both?

Republic X

At the beginning of the Republic Plato undertook to show that justice is valuable in itself, apart from any consequences, so that a just person would feel no temptation to misuse Gyges’ ring. Over the course of the dialogue, Plato has argued essentially as follows:

1. Justice consists in our rational desires’ possessing wisdom and ruling over our nonrational desires.
2. Wisdom is knowledge of the Good.
3. So justice involves being ruled by knowledge of the Good. (1, 2)
4. Whoever is ruled by knowledge of the Good will be filled with the most satisfying thing there is.
5. So justice involves being filled with the most satisfying thing there is. (3, 4)
6. Whoever is filled with the most satisfying thing there is will be maximally happy.
7. So justice involves being maximally happy. (5, 6)
8. Whoever is ruled by knowledge of the Good will want to reproduce goodness all around himself.
9. So justice involves wanting to reproduce goodness all around oneself. (3, 8)
10. Whoever wants to reproduce goodness all around himself will seek to benefit others.
11. So justice involves seeking to benefit others. (9, 10)
12. Justice both makes its possessor maximally happy and leads its possessor to benefit others. (7, 11)
13. In misusing Gyges’ ring, one would not be seeking to benefit others.
14. Misusing Gyges’ ring would involve denying oneself the state that makes its possessor maximally happy. (12, 13)
15. It is not in our self-interest to deny ourselves the state that would make us maxiomally happy.
16. It is not in our self-interest to misuse Gyges’ ring. (14, 15)

Notice that this argument makes no appeal to the external rewards and penalties that just or unjust conduct might bring; Plato has focused exclusively (well, almost exclusively) on what a just or unjust soul is like in itself. But now he reminds his readers that although (in his opinion) he has shown that justice is worth having for its own sake, he thinks justice also is beneficial for its consequences; and in this regard he develops an account of the immortality of the soul. Recall that Socrates in the Apology had been agnostic about the soul’s survival after death; not so Plato.

Study Questions

1. Why is Plato critical of literature and drama? (603 c-608 c)

2. What is Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul? (608 d-611 a)

3. What is the true nature of the soul? (611 a-612 a) Is Plato saying that only the rational part of my soul is really me, and that the spirite and appetitive parts of my soul are simply the result of my soul’s association with the body?

4. Why will the just soul receive benefits from the gods? (612 a-614 a)


The Socratic dialogues we read in the first section of the course came from Plato’s Early period. The Republic comes from Plato’s Middle period. Some of Plato’s best philosophical work, however, was done in his Late period. We do not have time to explore the Late period in any depth, but let’s round off our study of Plato with a look at some passages from the Theaetetus, a dialogue in which Plato -- once again using Socrates as a mouthpiece -- is exploring the nature of knowledge.

In this dialogue Plato once again considers the views of the Sophist Protagoras. In the Protagoras we saw Plato’s critique of Protagoras’ views on ethics and society; here we see an attack on protagoras’ metaphysics and epistemology. Protagoras appears to have held a version of relativism -- the view that whatever seems true to a person is true for that person. (Protagoras summarizes his view as “Man is the measure of all things,” i.e., there is no standard of truth beyond the subjective judgment of each individual.) This is a view that many people hold nowadays too, a fact that makes Plato’s discussion particularly important.

Plato raises several criticisms of Protagorean relativism (not all of which are in the excerpt I’ve assigned) but the most important one is the claim that relativism becomes incoherent as soon as one applies the doctrine to itself. If whatever seems true to a person is true for that person, then what about all the people who don’t believe in relativism? To them, relativism seems false, and so the relativist is forced to say that relativism is false, for them. In other words, if the relativist says that nothing is absolutely true, he has to admit that in that case relativism isn’t absolutely true either. So Protagoras isn’t really telling us how things are, but only how they seem to him. Thus the relativist has no way of contradicting those who reject relativism.

Study Questions

1. How is Socrates like a midwife? (148 e-151 d)

2. Why does Socrates think Theaetetus’ claim that knowledge is perception is similar to Protagoras’ claim that whatever seems true to a person is true for that person? (151 d-152 c)

3. How does Protagoras’ doctrine undermine his own claim to wisdom? (161 b-162 a)

4. How does Protagoras’ doctrine refute itself? (169 d-172 b)

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