JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Plato's Ethics and Political Philosophy.

§ 31.

1. We begin our account of Plato's ethical system with his inquiries into the nature of pleasure, and into its bearing upon man's moral life. In this connection Plato endeavours to establish a mean between the Hedonism of the Cyrenaic school and the doctrines of the Cynics. He distinguishes between true and false pleasures. The first are those which arise from virtue, and, in a special manner, from the knowledge of truth. False pleasures, on the other hand, are those which have not their source in virtue, and are, moreover, antagonistic to virtue, and destructive of it. True enjoyment, real pleasure, is pure, and does not affect the purity of the Soul; false pleasure is impure, and defiles the Soul.

2. It follows from this that all pleasures are not evil, nor to be avoided as evil. The Cynics are not justified in their absolute condenmation of pleasure. But neither is it true that every pleasure is good, and a thing to be striven for. Hedonism with its unqualified exaltation of pleasure is as one-sided as Cynicism. The truth lies between the two theories. To secure the pure and real pleasure which springs from virtue must be the object of human endeavour; such pleasure is the true good for man; but he must fly the impure and false pleasures which the senses supply, and which are at variance with virtue; they are an evil for him.

3. The relations which Plato further establishes between pleasure and virtue are analogous to those which he establishes between Matter and Ideas. Matter, by participating in the ideal order, takes form and orderly arrangement; analogously, pleasure receives from virtue its true significance and its rightful limitation. Pleasure is further like matter in this that it exists in a condition of continual change, that it is unstable and transient, and by virtue only is made to share in the good -- i.e., in the enduring. Not pleasure by itself, nor virtue by itself, is the true good of men, but only the combination of both -- the union of virtue as the formal, determining element, with pleasure as the material and determined.

4. So much being premised, we are now in a position to deal with the further question -- What, according to Plato, is the Supreme Good for man? To understand rightly Plato's teaching on this point, we must distinguish between the Supreme Good in the objective sense of the term and the Supreme Good in the subjective sense. This distinction being drawn, we find that Plato teaches: --

(a.) Man's Supreme Good, in the objective order, is the "Idea of the Good;" and as this is one with God, it follows that man must find his Supreme Good in God. Goods are either goods of the soul, or goods of the body, or external goods of fortune; the goods of the soul surpass all the others, but amongst these the Idea of the Good -- God, holds the highest place. Man must, therefore, endeavour to rise to God, and find his Chief Good in Him.

(b.) Subjectively considered, the Chief Good of man is Happiness. The basis of Happiness is the assimilation of man with God. (De Rep. X., p. 613; Theaet. p. 176.) The assimilation with God is effected by knowledge and by enthusiastic love of God as the Supreme Good. In the knowledge and love of God as the Supreme Good consists, then, the supreme happiness of man.

5. The means by which man must reach his highest happiness in God is virtue. Plato's description of virtue resembles that of the Pythagoreans: virtue is Harmony, vice is Discord; man is virtuous if his inner nature is rightly ordered, if the parts of his Soul hold their natural relations to one another; man is wicked if this interior order is wanting, if the parts of his Soul are unnaturally at variance with one another. Virtue is, therefore, the health of the Soul; vice is its disease; in virtue consists its beauty and its strength; vice makes its weakness and deformity. Virtue must be loved for its own sake, not for sake of external goods.

6. Virtue, being the inner harmony of the Soul, is essentially one; it admits, however, of a division into four cardinal virtues, a division which is based on the distinction between the three parts of the Soul. The four cardinal virtues are Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. Wisdom (sophia) belongs to the rational Soul, and consists in true knowledge. Fortitude or courage (andreia) is a virtue of the thumos and is exercised in resolute striving after the Good, without any regard for the attendant difficulties. Temperance ( sôphrosunê) belongs to the appetitive Soul (epithumia), and manifests itself in the control of the desires and their restraint within proper limits. Justice (dikaiosunê) belongs at once to all three parts of the Soul, and consists in this, that each part of the Soul, occupying the position assigned it by nature, discharges its proper functions, without passing beyond its own sphere. Justice is thus the bond and union of the other virtues, the principle of order within the Soul. Justice, as applied to the relations of man and the gods, is called Piety (hosiotês).

7. The principal among the four cardinal virtues is Wisdom. The other virtues can be acquired by practice and habitual exercise; but if they are not associated with Wisdom, they are mere shadows of true virtue, and they must degenerate -- Temperance into stupidity, and Fortitude into brutish impulse. Plato goes so far in his commendation of the virtue of Wisdom as to assert that the man who possesses this virtue possesses all the other virtues, and has no further need to acqulre them by practice. He is thus led at last to the Socratic theory that the man who possesses true knowledge cannot do wrong. No one does wrong knowingly; the evil- doer acts in ignorance; ignorance is the real evil, and the source of all evil. We can now understand why and to what extent Plato holds that virtue can be imparted by instruction.

8. From these doctrines the conclusion follows that the effort to gain Wisdom (Philosophy) is the highest ethical duty of human life. This effort after Wisdom, sustained by the love of the good and the beautiful, has two aspects, a theoretical and a practical.

(a.) In its practical aspect it consists in the emancipation of the rational Soul from the body; for the body is only a hindrance to the Soul in its effort to attain true knowledge. The philosopher must give his first attention to the Soul; he must give thought to the body only in so far as extreme necessity requlres. The life of the philosopher must be a continual effort to rid himself of the body, a constant preparation for death; nay, it should be, in a certain sense, a continual death.

(b.) In its theoretical aspect this striving after Wisdom consists in the constant endeavour of man to extend and to perfect his knowledge of truth. He must ever increase in the knowledge of things divine, until he at length attains to that contemplation of the divinity of which the Soul is deprived at its first entrance into the body. In this way man reaches assimilation with God, the Supreme Good, and becomes possessed of the bliss which it confers. In the present life he can never reach this goal; his perfection is to be attained in the life to follow.

9. The man who by virtue, and chiefly by the virtue of Wisdom, makes himself like to God, becomes thereby the friend of the gods. The gods love the virtuous man, and bestow favours upon him; the evils that overtake him are no more than punishments of previous faults. Virtue brings man into relation with the Divinity; and man is, therefore, not virtuous if he does not honour the gods. Irreligion is not only the most egregious folly, it is also the grossest immorality. Moreover, the attainment of virtue is a task of much difficulty; the aid of the gods is absolutely necessary in accomplishing it; virtue may, in fact, be regarded as a gift of the gods.

10. We pass now to the political philosophy of Plato. Here we notice that Plato emphatically rejects the notion of the Sophists that all right and all law are derived from the State, and exist only within it. He holds that there exist a natural right and a natural law, which have their validity without the concurrence of the State, and independently of the State. Nevertheless, he follows his leaning towards the absolutism, of civil authority so far, that in his theory the rights of individuals are practically effaced by the rights of the State. In his opinion, the State, as the totality, has absolute power over individuals. The well-being of the whole is first in importance; the prosperity of individuals is admissible only as far as it comports with the well-being of the whole. Individuals are, therefore, bound to render to the State entire submission and unconditional obedience; private interests must be sacrificed to the public good, and nothing can be permitted which does not serve the common interests. In this portion of his system Plato has not succeeded in rising above that absolutism of civil authority which was recognised in practice by almost all ancient States.{1}

11. Beginning with these principles, Plato, in his work "De Republica," constructs his ideal State -- i.e., he sketches a State which would correspond perfectly to the Idea of the State. In this sketch we find he borrows many details from the Hellenic polities, in particular from the Doric system of legislation. After sketching the "perfect State" in the Republic, he proceeds, in the Laws, to describe the "second-best;" for he is aware that, in view of the actual circumstances of society, the "perfect" State can be realised only with great difficulty, if at all.

12. In his sketch of the ldeal State, we observe that Plato looks on the State as but the human individual magnified, and that he models his sketch on the nature of man. As the inner nature of man, the Soul, has three parts, so the State consists of three orders: the order of husbandmen, artisans, and traders (productive class), corresponding to the appetitive soul (epithumia); the order of guardians or warriors (defensive class), corresponding to the thumos; and the order of rulers, corresponding to the rational soul, logos. And as the perfection of the individual depends on virtue, the divisions of which correspond to the several parts of the Soul, so the perfection of the State consists in this, that the producing class is guided by temperance, the defensive class by valour, the ruling class by wisdom, and that, finally, the entire body politic should be controlled by justice -- i.e., that each order, according to its rank in the State, should faithfully and fully discharge its own functions, without passing out of its own sphere. In order that the State may reach this perfection, it must engage its citizens to the practice of the virtues becoming their position. This is the primary duty which selfinterest imposes upon it.

13. Plato bestows little attention on the productive order, which he places lowest in the State; he assigns to its members little more than the duties of slaves. But he occupies himself at length with the defensive order, for from this order the rulers come. In this portion of his system he is an advocate of the principle of absolutism in government, and of absolutism of the socialistic type. He insists on a community of goods in the order of guardians; no individual shall possess property. All shall eat and lodge together. Money shall not be allowed, In the order of guardians Plato also requires community of wives; there shall be no marriage, no family. The rulers shall assign certain women to certain men; these shall cohabit for a period to be determined by law; the children generated must not know their parents; they shall be taken from them immediately after birth, and shall be brought up in common in a separate place, under the care of the State. Cohabitation may be allowed beyond the period fixed by the law, but any fruit of this intercourse must be destroyed in embryo.

14. The public education of children shall be continued till their twentieth year. In the first stage of this education, the development of the body must be the chief object of the educator; then follows the learning of myths; and then, in succession, gymnastics, reading and writing, poetry, music, mathematics, and finally military exercises. At this point a division of the pupils must be made: those who are less apt for knowledge, but adapted for deeds of valour, remain warriors; the others study the sciences till their thirtieth year. Then comes a second division. The less capable are devoted forthwith to the less important public offices; the more distinguished pursue the study of Dialectic from their thirtieth to their thirty-fifth year, and are then appointed to posts of command till their fiftieth. After this they finally reach the perfection of philosophy -- the contemplation of the Idea of the Good; they beeome philosophers in the true sense of the word, and as such are admitted into the number of the rulers, and undertake the highest offices of State functions. The course of education is the same for boys and girls alike. It has been seen that poetry forms part of this system of education, but this must be understood of that species of poetry which is an imitation of the Good -- i.e., of religious hymns; the art which imitates only the world of phenomena in which good and evil are mingled together must be excluded, for it serves only to excite the passions. Poets who cultivate this species of art are to be banished from the State. This kind of imitative poetry is not real art, for the Good alone is really beautiful.

15. We see that Plato's Ideal State can be realised oniy when philosophers become rulers of the State or the rulers are guided by a sound philosophy. This requirement Plato abandons in the "second-best" State. Here the theory of Ideas is not introduced as the basis of the scheme for the rulers' education; stress is chiefly laid on training in mathematics; the mode of divine worship is more nearly in accord with the notions prevalent in Hellas; private property and marriage remain untouched.

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{1} Plato exempts religion from this absolute jurisdiction of the State; it belongs to God only (i.e., to the Apollo of Delphi) to regulate religious practices and concerns.