Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy


The Discovery of Ethics


The Idea of the Good
1. Let us try to characterize, by indicating in rough outline the traits which seem most significant to us, the contributions which moral philosophy has received from Plato, or at least has incorporated into its heritage as bearing the mark of Platonism.

The ethics of Plato, like that of Socrates, is an ethics of happiness. But the happiness of man is only a participation in a transcendent Absolute, whose reality is independent of us and of human life: the Good, which is idlentical with the One, and "beyond essence"; subsistent Good, the Idea of the Good which, despite this term "Ideal" which we are indeed obliged to apply to it by reason of Platonic dialectic, is superior to all intelligibility and to being itself, since in the last analysis, for Plato, being cannot be freed from the multiplicity inherent in mutual relations among intelligible types or essences. In the perspective of Platonism carried to its logical extreme,{1} God -- who, like the Sun, illumines and vivifies all that is below him and who is cause of the order and harmony of the cosmos and of the soul -- is beyond Intellect just as he is beyond Essence, and is finally attained in some degree only by a kind of mystical death of the intellect, swallowed up in the Good under the impulse of the supreme Eros. The end which the initiate aims at above all in his moral activity (and which only the philosopher, or the sage, can attain) is therefore to free himself from the prison of the body and to purify himself by asceticism ~ideal love, turning toward the interior in order to bring out the divine resemblance which is instinct in the soul, a divine thing, and to contemplate the divine, to "escape from here to the beyond", to achieve "assimilation to God" by means of a death that wisdom brings about and that is incomparably more perfect and more liberating than physical death, and that alone enables physical death to succeed, by triumphing over transmigration. Here again, analysis of the moral thought of the philosopher reveals five themes or typical characteristics. The first theme is that of the Good. The Good is now disengaged, in the fullness of its meaning, more decisively and more forcefully than with Socrates. At the summit of beings and of eternal archetypes, beyond the shadows of becoming, it is the light which nourishes the eternal contemplation of the Gods, whom Plato in the Laws{1} regards as the souls which control the revolution of the Firmament. All that which we call good is so only by participation in this subsistent Good, which is at the same time the sovereign metaphysical Good of the universe, and the ideal moral good of human life, for the most fundamental tendency of Platonic ethics seems to be not, doubtless, to suspend the moral from the supra-moral as Christianity was to do -- that is, as a matter of principle and universally -- but to do so at least for the sage (and for him alone). It is from a supra-morality concerned with the conditions and laws of ascetic and mystical progress toward the Transcendent (and from which are derived the moral virtues in him whom wisdom puts in harmony with divine measures) that the sage descends to the world of men to teach them morality and to make them practise it (if they were not so mad) in governing their political life. The good does not belong to the empirical world, or belongs to it only as a reflection. And our knowledge of the subsistent Good is rather divination than knowledge, because it is beyond everything, even, as we remarked above, beyond being.

In relation to this transcendent Good, happiness in this conception appears as a never-ending ascent, a progress in participation which never arrives at its ultimate limit. And this very fact, this transcendence of the Good in relation to Happiness -- carrying Plato, or the internal logic of Platonism, beyond Hellenic thought -- marks a distinction between the Good and Happiness which in general the moral philosophy of the Greeks never made explicit. It is as if the trans-natural or trans-philosophical desire which lies within us were awakened in philosophy itself in order to make it aspire, not, surely enough, to the intuitive vision of the separate Good (which would be to superimpose on Platonism a Christian interpretation, which is not at all appropriate to it), but to an endless ascent toward such a unity -- regarded as unattainable -- with that separate Good. But this is only a virtuality of Platonic thought. In fact Plato, in the Phaedrus, makes happiness consist in fixation in an end and a state of achieved perfection -- but far from the supreme unity, in direct contemplation of the Ideas or separate Forms, a happiness like that of the gods, souls unencumbered by the body.

The Transcendence of the End
2. The second theme is that of the End. The End of human life is now absolutely transcendent. This transcendence of the Good and of the End was doubtless already suggested in certain virtualities of Socratic thought; nevertheless the opposition between Socrates and Plato on this point seems to me quite clear. Whereas for Socrates, in the last analysis, the end of human activity, though implicitly superhuman, is inherent in human activity, which if it is good makes us happy by the same token, whereas for him morality is the art of being happy through right living, for Plato, on the contrary, morality is the art of preparing oneself for a felicity which transcends human life, since, beginning with earthly existence, and continuing afterward, the true life is beyond life, the true happiness is beyond happiness.
Supra-empirical Happiness
3. The third theme is that of Happiness. Happiness is not only internal, but it loses all empirical character. Happy is the just man who is being tortured -- this extreme consequence of Socratic logic shatters the unstable structure of Socratic happiness. In reality it is above all a paradoxical challenge and refers to a hoped-for felicity, to a supreme élan of separation and passing beyond. But Plato cherished this assertion and put all his fervor into it, because in the ethical order as in the metaphysical order his thought is entirely dominated by the idea of participation. For him it is not a matter of obtaining a beatitude to be purchased here below through suffering. It is a matter of participating here below in a beatitude which transcends all earthly conditions; it is quite necessary, then, that the just man who is tortured be really happy, but that itself is only possible because the immortal in us constitutes our only reality, and because the true happiness is not happiness -- whence the sarcasms of Aristotle directed against the sublimity of Plato.

Let us look again at a few of the celebrated passages of the Gorgias: "Then happiest of all is he who has no evil in his soul, since we have shown that to have it there is the greatest of all evils. . . . In second place, no doubt would be the one who was admonished, and rebuked, and punished. . . . And worst, then, is the life of him who has injustice, and is not delivered from it."{1} Then it would seem that he who wishes to be happy should pursue and practise self-control, and flee from license, every one of us as fast as his feet will take him, and contrive if possible to have no need at all of chastisement; but if he does require it, either he himself or any of those connected with him, be it individual or state, he must submit to justice and endure correction, if he is going to be happy."{2} "Callicles, I deny that to have one's face slapped wrongfully is the vilest thing that can befall a man, nor yet to have his purse cut or his body. I say it is more of a disgrace, and worse, to strike or cut me or my belongings wrongfully; and that robbing, aye and kidnapping . . . doing me and my belongings any wrong whatever, is worse and more disgraceful, to the doer than to me who suffer it."{3} ". . . Doing wrong must be avoided with more care than suffering it. . . . And let any one despise you as a fool and cover you with abuse if he will, yes, by Heaven, and cheerfully take from him that blow of infamy; for you will suffer no harm from it if you really are an upright man and true (kalos-kagathos), pursuing virtue."{4}

In the Republic, Plato writes in the same vein: "And he who lives well is blessed and happy, and he who lives ill the reverse of happy. . . . Then the just is happy, and the unjust miserable."{1} "Need we hire a herald, or shall I announce, that the son of Ariston . . . has decided that the best and justest is also the happiest, and that this is he who is the most royal man and king over himself; and that the worst and most unjust man is also the most miserable, and that this is he who being the greatest tyrant of himself is also the greatest tyrant of his State?"{2}

All this remains strictly true even if, in picturing to oneself the just man falsely accused, one imagines him as "scourged, racked, bound . . . his eyes put out; and at last, after suffering every kind of evil. . . . impaled".{3} There is joy only in the pious and just life.{4}

4. Plato does not only affirm that it is a worse evil to commit injustice than to suffer it,{5} -- humanity pays little heed to this axiom in practice, but it is quite true that it is fixed in its conscience "with arguments of steel and adamant"{6} Plato also holds that one is happier, and that one experiences more joy when one suffers injustice than when one commits it. On the near as well as on the far side of the grave justice is sanctioned by happiness.

Not only the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, but the whole metaphysical idealism of Plato is involved here. The End of human life is to be attained beyond the grave, and it is to be attained beyond that grave which is the body, beginning here below, supra-humanly and mystically, at the summit of the spiritual life, by a divine liberation. The End of human life is expressly, absolutely supra-human, the contemplation of the Forms in which the separate Good shines forth. And the art of conduct, at this heroic moment when Platonic thought first affirms its most radical exigencies, is less the art of conducting one's life than the art of quitting it in order to experience ecstasy in the light of the intelligible Sun.

I am well aware of the fact, moreover, that the heroic moment I just spoke of is not the only moment of Platonic thought. There is the movement of return: the sage, delivered, returns among men to fulfill his mission of leading them to virtue while guiding the legislation and the government of the City by his advice -- or better still -- by taking the reins in his own hands.

The Morality of Value and Particpation
5. The fourth theme is that of value. For Plato as for Socrates, and still more systematically, virtue is knowledge and moral fault is ignorance. But on another point there is radical opposition between Socrates and Plato: no morality in the ancient world was further removed from utilitarianism than the morality of Plato. Socrates recognized virtue in terms of what is expedient, advantageous. For Plato virtue is worthwhile without regard to utility, worthwhile in itself. It bears its value within itself, its measure of goodness is judged by its relation to the absolute, it is intrinsically lovable, it is beautiful. The kalos-kagathos acquires a metaphysically founded ethical significance within the treasury of philosophy.{1}

And so another central notion is disengaged from the shadows and appears in broad daylight, the notion of value, or moral value. This term is modern (and employed by moderns in senses that are often debatable), but the idea is as old as the world. For the ancients it was enveloped in the classical idea of virtue, since virtue is a stable disposition through which we live rightly: a good life is a life which occupies a determined place in the scale of values.

Value and End
6. It is well to dwell on these considerations for a moment, in order to bring out a point of central importance for what follows. This point concerns a concept which is quite primary -- the concept of the good.

The concept of the good has two typical implications. Let us observe the way people employ it: we see it cleft in twain so to speak (this is the result of its essential analogicity) following two quite distinct lines of signification, oriented in two different directions.

On the one hand the good is a synonym of end. Here we have the direction of "final causality". The good, by the very fact of being good, is the goal toward which we aim. And all the rest -- that is to say, the whole order of means -- is good only in relation to that end, or insofar as it is such as to lead toward that end.

If the philosopher engaged in the domain of moral philosophy -- the term "moral philosopher" seems grammatically doubtful to me, let us say rather the ethician -- if the ethician considers things solely in this perspective, human acts will appear to him morally good as means, and solely as means leading to the end, that is to the ultimate good or sovereign good of human life. Their moral quality will be regarded as consisting entirely and exclusively in their function as means ordered to that end. Such will be the standard by which the morality of human acts will have to be measured, and will have to be determined and justified before the tribunal of reason. These remarks are valid for the moral utilitarian, they are valid also for the kind of super-utilitarian represented by a religious morality which would define good actions solely and exclusively as actions which lead to the ultimate eternal end.

7. On the other hand the good is a synonym of value. Here we have the direction of "formal causality". If the good appears to us as good, it is because it appears to us as a certain fullness of being, a certain intrinsic qualitative achievement whose property is to be lovable or desirable: that which is good is worthy of love, worth being loved and desired, has a value in itself and for itself. And in truth this aspect is the primordial aspect of the good it is by means of it that the good must be primordially described (we should say "defined" if a primary notion could be defined in the strict sense of the word).

If the ethician considers things in this perspective, human acts will no longer appear to him morally good only as means to the end, the ultimate end of human life. Their moral quality will be conceived as an intrinsic value which, by itself and for itself, independently of any consideration of the end, demands approval or disapproval by the conscience. Such was clearly the point of view of Plato.

In fact, in the common judgment of men, is it not in this fashion that good and bad actions are held to be such? I mean, immediately, in themselves, and not as mere means to an end (even the ultimate end). Let us consider some obvious examples, say a coward, an egotist or a debauchee of some kind: if he hears tell of a courageous exploit, or of a life of devotion to others, or of a life of purity, he will know at once and hasten to declare that these kinds of things are good and beautiful. All of us, just by being, all of us know from the beginning, at first glance, that it is a fine thing to tell the truth without fear, or to risk one's life to save a man in danger of death or to care for the lepers, and that it is bad to betray a friend or to let oneself be bought by a suborner. And at that moment we do not ask ourselves whether the act is or is not a means of attaining what we regard as the true end of human life: our judgment is purely and simply a judgment of value; the idea of the supreme Good of man, and of the relation of a given act to that Good, remains foreign to it. This kind of immediate judgment, arising from spontaneous knowledge, moral intuition or moral sense, by whatever name we call it, poses a problem for the philosopher -- it is a factual datum whose existence he ought to recognize, not conceal. The discussion of this problem is not within the scope of the present volume. For the moment I wish only to point out that one of the tasks of the ethicist is to try to explain this kind of intuition, after he has applied himself to showing how value, the intrinsic moral quality of human acts, is measured and determined -- and reflexively justified -- by reason.

Let us remark here in passing that while noting the essential importance of the good as end, it was upon this aspect of the good as value that Thomas Aquinas was especially to insist in his ethics. For him a human action is good because it conforms to reason. And it is because it is good, because in the first place it has in itself a positive moral value, that it is in consequence of such a nature as to lead us toward our final end.

8. But let us return to our reflections on the moral philosophy of Plato. What I should like to note is that precisely because the End of human life is, for this philosophy, transcendent and supra-human, it is very difficult to find a common measure between that End and the means which lead toward it, in other words to see how that End could be the measure of our acts as means leading toward it.

Let us place ourselves in the perspective of a non-transcendent or intrahuman conception of the end, like that of Socrates: the end is a happiness within our reach -- virtue, or wisdom, or power and liberty of spirit. And now suppose that I am inclined to anger -- I choose this example because it was the case with Socrates himself, according to Porphyry.{1} It is easy to understand that abandoning oneself to an access of fury against others is not a proper means of arriving at happiness: we lose peace of soul, we call forth the resentment of others, we make a lot of enemies for ourselves. Anger, then, is not a virtue.

But let us place ourselves in the perspective of a transcendent or supra-human conception of Happiness or of the End, like that of Plato, for whom Happiness was the state of the soul which has arrived, here below and then beyond the tomb, at the contemplation of incorporeal reality and the separate forms. Now I ask: why is patience with others a more suitable means than anger for arriving at that end? Suppose I do not know at first that anger is not good; suppose that the only way I can measure my acts is by their proportion to my ultimate End -- what kind of relation can I perceive between the subsistent Good, transcendent, absolute, ineffable, and my movement of anger or my act of patience? Could I not just as well think that in giving free reign to my anger I shall be co-operating with the effort of nature to expel stupidity and meanness from its bosom; that I shall be avoiding tension or repression and consequently be better preparing myself for union with the divine? I am without a guide and without a compass. The Absolute is too high to serve as a standard for measuring these poor things which are my acts. If the End is transcendent, if it transcends man and the human life, it transcends also the moral measurement and regulation of human acts.

In such a perspective, consequently, moral values will not be reduced to the simple condition of means in relation to the end; it is in themselves that they will be primarily considered and determined. Thus Plato will define virtue{2} as the order, the harmony and the health of the soul. Virtue makes the soul beautiful, it is a participation, on the level of human activity, in the subsistent absolute Good and Beautiful.

9. It is on values in themselves that the accent is placed in the ethics of Plato: an ethic of values, with the intrinsic dignity which inheres in them rather than an ethic of the final End. This ethic has so to speak an aesthetic character, because nowhere more than in beauty does value appear purely and simply in and for itself, independent of any relation of means to end. Justice is not good because it serves some end, it is purely and simply good, it puts the soul in accord with the standards proper to a rational society, it renders the soul healthy and beautiful. Let us say that with Plato philosophical thought made the discovery, begun by Socrates, of the bonum honestum,{1} of the good-and-beautiful, of the good-in-itself; it became conscious of this aspect of the good in a fully explicit way. I know very well that there is no incompatibility between End and Value. What I should like to emphasize for the moment is that the ethic of Plato disengages and underlines, brings the notion of value into relief with an exceptional force and puts it in first place, particularly in regard to the manner in which the morality of human acts is measured or determined.

It is true that when it comes to application Plato's answers too often remain metaphorical and insufficiently precise. He sees quite clearly that every morally good or "virtuous" action possesses an internal value, by reason of which it merits in itself the approbation or disapprobation of the mind. But because of that aesthetic character and that predominance of the beautiful that we noticed above in his moral philosophy, and because in general, as Aristotle and St. Thomas were to observe, his thought operated less in terms of analysis and scientific demonstration than in terms of perception and symbolism proper to poetic knowledge, he had difficulty, in particular cases, in rationally justifying a given value or a given canon of moral conduct, and in offering us a scientific analysis of various virtues. He left us the list of the four great fundamental moral virtues which was to become classic (the cardinal virtues: practical Wisdom or Prudence, Courage, Justice and Temperance).{2} But in order to indicate the nature of these virtues he has recourse to comparisons (with the typical functions of the harmonious City) rather than to definitions.{3}

The Platonic Utopia
10. Dependence and independence with regard to popular norms -- that is the fifth characteristic we should like to examine. We remarked in speaking of Socrates that in fact the ethicist depends in large measure on the values and norms commonly recognized in his milieu and time. This remark is applicable in a general way to all philosophers, whatever their moral system may be. Plato is one of those rare philosophers who is to a certain extent an exception. He transcends the mentality of his times when he derides the division of humanity into Greeks and barbarians.{1} He transcends it too, and above all, when he proposes an idea -- of the sage fleeing toward the eternal regions -- which, in fact, carried the sage beyond and above the city.

But he is caught short immediately by the Greek conviction of the absolute, insurpassable importance of the political order and of the city; and from then on only one way remains to reinstate the sage in the city which he transcends: to crown him, to make him the sovereign of the city. Thus the kingly quality of the sage is a rigorous logical necessity of Platonic thought.

On many other scores Plato, too, depends on the common conscience of his time -- he received from it the fundamental notion of the kalo-kagathia, likewise the conviction to which I just alluded, that political activity is the highest form of human activity (after his unhappy experiments with tyrants, whose mentor he wished to be, he applied himself to making of the Academy a school for statesmen as well as a school of wisdom); he draws upon the notion of civilization elaborated by the Greece of his time, and upon the aberrant ideal it formulated of a heroic masculine society closed in upon itself; he partakes of the ideas of the reactionary aristocracy with which he had family ties, and he has just that bit too much pessimism about human nature which marks those who weep for a lost past.

Finally, if his morality is so inseparably linked to his politics that it can be characterized as a morality of the conscience{2} itself centered on the city and committed to the city,{3} and if he did not perceive (any more than Aristotle did after him) that in every human being, and not only in the sage, there are calls, values and possessions which transcend the temporal city, it is because for him as for Aristotle man is not fully man except as he is a member of the city (at once citizen and non-slave). In short, Plato accepts without question the conception of the City (regarded as a sacred and supreme monad, let us say the hieropolitical conception of the city) which was characteristic of antiquity. But he submits that conception to the inflexible logic of a reason so passionately desirous of perfection and absoluteness that he transforms it into a utopia in which he is not afraid to reverse the scale of accepted values, to fly in the face of and scandalize the popular conscience, either by installing the community of women in his city or by driving out Homer and the poets after having politely crowned them.

11. To tell the truth, he knew very well, in writing the Republic and the Laws,{1} that he was too right for anyone to listen to him. And I do not think we ought to embark upon a consideration of the great themes of his philosophy without taking into account the transcendent and extraordinarily refined irony with which he abandons himself all the more freely to the most extreme exigencies of his logic, and is all the more at ease in really believing in them (on the level of pure reason) for the fact that he himself laughs at them on the sly when he thinks of men and what they are.{2}

But what he is quite sure of, in any case, is that if the task consists of obliging men to lead a good life and to be virtuous, or irreproachably men, that task can only be accomplished by the city, and only if the city itself is founded and organized on the basis of the science of the supreme verities or upon wisdom. ". . . There might be a reform of the State if only one change were made, which is not a slight or easy though still a possible one. . . . Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one cities will never have rest from their evils -- no, nor the human race, as I believe."{3} It is for the sake of the virtuous life, to be established here below, that the absolutism of the city is imposed. And looking forward to such an Establishment of moral perfection, it is a small thing to be forced by the rigors of dialectics to sacrifice to the political all those things, interests, possessions, family, which pertain to the private domain of the individual.

I used the term "hieropolitical" above, in speaking of the conception of the city formulated by the ancients. One must be careful not to use the word "totalitarian" here, the more so for having discerned the true nature of the abject totalitarianism whose visage our age has been privileged to see.{4} Greece did not know the totalitarianism of a State which holds itself to be the arbiter of good and evil and which laughs at truth because it is itself the insane god of an immanentist world and ideology; its idolatrous cult of the City was a cult of the City which kept faith with transcendental values and subordinated itself to them. Nothing is clearer in the case of Plato. If the Republic must be ruled by philosophers, it is because the Republic itself is measured by wisdom, and because the intemporal truth of the world of Ideas reigns above it. The absolutism of the Platonic city is a kind of theocratic absolutism: the autocracy of wisdom, through law. The philosopher-king is a kind of hierarch who governs a politico-religious society in the name of the eternal Laws.{1}

This city, which imposes adherence to the three articles of its philosophical credo (Gods exist, the universe is morally governed by them, no offering or incantation can seduce them or cause them to betray justice){2} on pain of punishment by five years' imprisonment, and even, for heretics who are second offenders, on pain of death, is not without some resemblance to the Geneva of John Calvin. A deceptive resemblance however, for it is in nowise a city-church -- nothing is more foreign to Greek thought than the concept of a church (the first suggestion of which is found not in any Hellenic notion but in the Hebraic notion of Qahal).{3} The Platonic city is strictly temporal and rational. It is at the same time something temporal and rational and something divine; and therein lies the deepest source of utopia and at the same time of serene pride. It is a matter of founding the virtuous life for humanity, of leading man to his perfection through man himself, elevated to the state of a political body in which, as servitor and organ of the gods, he is rendered divine because he participates in the wisdom and sovereignty whtch emanate from the One and the Good. Plato is the greatest of the Theocrats who in the name of Reason have wanted to force men to be good.

12. It was a vain attempt. And the tyrants will never listen to the philosopher, nor will the people ever crown him. After all, why should Plato be astonished at this? If a rigorous logical necessity of his philosophy is met head on among men by a pure impossibility, is this not simply a confirmation for him of the fact that this world is not the world of truth, but of shadows on the wall and of illusion? "Now human affairs," Plato says in the Laws, "are hardly worth considering in earnest, and yet we must be in earnest about them -- a sad necessity constrains us. . . . Man . . . is made to be the plaything of God, and this, truly considered, is the best of him. . . ."{4}

It is by his failure, indeed, that Plato offers us his most precious lesson. For he was too great not to perceive this failure with complete awareness, and to disengage its full significance. "If, as everyone seems to agree, the Republic was completed around 375, that is, before the last two voyages to Sicily and the definitive failure of his attempts to install philosophy on the throne of Syracuse, it was already before this major setback that Plato foresaw, as though determined a priori, the necessary failure of the philosopher. Taking up once again, and this time at his own expense, the sarcasms of Callicles (in the Gorgias),{1} he shows us this great soul, too pure, thrown defenceless into a world given over to injustice, too corrupt to trust him: he is sure to perish, profitless if he takes it into his head to want to reform the State; and the philosopher gives up this useless ambition, and, withdrawing into himself, he turns to "the city which is within him"{2} pros tên en autô politeian, profound and admirable phrase, the last word (if there is ever a last word), bitter and resigned, of the great wisdom of Plato.

"When he wrote the Gorgias he had perhaps not yet reached this point, perhaps not yet renounced that will to power which had animated his youthful ambitions (is there not some self-satisfaction in the fiery, life-like portrait he draws of Callicles, that amoral but effusive politician?). Now, the step has been taken: he knows that the philosopher, led essentially by his ideal of inner perfection, is beaten at the start. He will always be a failure among men: a stranger to political, everyday life, his thoughts absorbed by this sublime object, he will cut the figure of a fool, like Thales falling into the well as he looked at the stars, of an impotent; and yet only he is free. . . .{3}

"Now Plato sees clearly into himself: his teaching aims to make a man, at the most a little group of men, joined in a school, forming a closed sect, a cultural islet, healthy in the midst of a decayed society. The Sage -- for Platonism heads already into a personalist type of wisdom -- will spend his life 'occupied with his own affairs', ta autou prattôn.{4}

"Thus, Platonic thought, prompted at the start by the desire to restore the totalitarian{5} ethics of the ancient City, comes in the last analysis to transcend definitively the compass of the ancient City and to lay the foundations of what will remain the personal achievements of the classic philosopher."{6}

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