Plato, Kronos of the philosophical pantheon, completed his magnum opus in 360 BC. It is with irony (and a mistranslation from Cicero’s Latin) that modern readers know it as the Republic. Cicero’s translation meant affairs (things) of the people. Plato, on the other hand, entitled his work the Πολιτεία, which more accurately means the way in which an individual lives and functions within his πόλις. Under the lens of proper translation, it is easy to see that Plato was not writing about a government or a collective, but instead on an individual and the proper way in which he ought to live. This in fact seems more suitable to the ever-questioning, γνῶθι σεαυτόν Socrates. For indeed, when discussing the issue of justice, happiness, and the good life in the Πολιτεία I 352d-354a, Socrates leads Thrasymachus to an understanding of how best to live ones life in order to arrive at happiness. More abstractly, Plato uses this passage to further demonstrate his idea that everything has a form, that every form has a function, and that the proper state of the form is realized when the function is followed. What is most remarkable about this passage, however, is that it represents the first known case in Western history where ethics became internalized, and happiness could be found within the self.
Socrates begins the passage by questioning if the good or just life is a happy life, and therefore if the bad or unjust life is an unhappy life. To frame his argument to Thrasymachus, Socrates brings up the issue of work or function. He states that everything has a work, such as an eye, the function of which is seeing. Careful attention must be paid, however, to the original Greek for work. One translation of εργονεργον is, “probably [an] archaic word from ερδο-to work, do, accomplish.” What Socrates is really saying is that an eye has a specific thing which it does, and that in doing this it accomplishes what it was intended to do. He continues that the εργον of a thing is that which it can only do or that which it does best. But everything that has a function also has a virtue of the function, or more properly in the Greek, an αρετη. Thus everything that can do or accomplish something, can either do or accomplish it horribly or excellently (αρετη). If the eyes are blind, then they do not possess the virtue or excellence of the function or work. With this basis, Socrates moves into the realm of human action. He conjectures, then, that the soul too has a function and a virtue. The function of the soul is best summarized as life (though Socrates also uses the terms management, deliberation, and rule). The virtue of the soul would then be justice. The conclusion, according to Socrates, is that the just soul is the soul that lives excellently, and the soul that lives excellently is blest and happy. Therefore, the blest or happy soul is more advantageous than the miserable soul, meaning that justice is always more advantageous than injustice. But in typical Socratic fashion, Socrates stresses that one must know the definition of justice before they may begin to become happy. As Adam states, “Socrates sums up regretfully: until we know what Justice is, we are not likely to discover whether it is a virtue or a vice, and whether its possessor is happy or unhappy.” indeed seems to be work, as in that which a farmer or laborer does. A more proper translation, though, is offered by Liddell and Scott, who state that
One can see in this dialogue the typical way in which Socrates tries to prove something. He begins with a more formal and abstract statement, which could be called point A. Socrates states, “Would you be willing to define the work of a horse or of anything else to be that which one can do only with it or best with it?” Thrasymachus, as is typical for the victim of Socrates, does not understand. Socrates then clarifies his position with a host of different examples. With the point having been more clearly understood, Socrates again offers a more abstract definition, point B, stating, “Do you not also think that there is a specific virtue or excellence of everything for which a specific work or function is appointed?” Again Socrates clarifies his position with countless examples. In his examples, he links point A and point B by stating, “Could the eyes possibly fulfill their function well if they lacked their own proper excellence and had in its stead the defect?” This connection, replete with further examples, allows Socrates to bring the discussion to the core issue of the topic: the work and function of the soul. The abundance of examples combined with a solid grasp of points A and B enables Socrates to quickly wrap up the discussion in his conclusion, proclaiming that, “Never, then, most worshipful Thrasymachus, can injustice be more profitable than justice.” Socrates thus brilliantly led Thrasymachus through his discussion in order to reach what he intended to prove, that justice is profitable.
Though Socrates was only a certain and distinct issue within the realm off ethics, points A and B clearly indicate that Plato was trying to prove something much more abstract. Central to Platonic metaphysics is the concept of Forms, and it is here in this passage that we can see Plato trying to link his metaphysics with his ethics. In points A and B, the idea of forms is presented (and accepted by Thrasymachus) as a fact. This can be better understood in Socrates’ examples of horse and eye. There exists, independently, the forms “horse” and “eye”, unique from any other form. Εργον is the link between Plato’s abstractions and Socrates’ concretes. Plato thus states that every form must have a function, or εργον, and every function may be performed either in a good manner or a bad manner. When the form functions in a good manner, the form is fulfilling its nature. Likewise, when the form functions in a bad manner, the form is rejecting its nature. Thus it seems that Plato offers a way to categorize the forms-by definition. This definition is a collection of the attributes of the form and the function of the form (i.e. for a flower: gain nutrition by water and nutrients via the roots and from the sun via photosynthesis, soft and flimsy, leaves, roots, and the flower). A form acting in contradiction to its nature leads to a termination of that form. Αρετη, then, is the proper functioning of the form that leads it to a state of harmony or well-being.
Digging more deeply, one can see that an eye does not choose to go blind, but merely goes blind based upon chance. Of interest in Plato’s ethics is the concept of volition. For indeed, it is not Μοιρα who sways men from justice to injustice, but man himself who, via volition, chooses to engage in his function either excellently or poorly. Thus the happy man is the one who engages in his function excellently, of his own volition. Man, as opposed to every other form, must inquire within in order to determine what his function is and how he might perform his function excellently. Man has the tool, philosophy, by which he can inquire first into his nature, or even nature itself (metaphysics), and then use this knowledge and apply it to his life and actions (ethics). Plato proves within this passage that his ethics can indeed be integrated with his metaphysics.
The significance of this passage is far greater than an understanding of justice and happiness (Socrates) or a link between metaphysics and ethics within a philosophical system (Plato). It is that, for the first time in Western history, a philosopher has posited the idea that man can understand his nature by inquiring within, and from this knowledge act in a manner which allows him to attain a state of happiness. Put more simply, Plato internalized ethics. A simple way to prove this is to examine the ethical philosophies of philosophers before and after Plato.
Homer represents the first major work of Greek thinking. In the Iliad, Achilles is faced with a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he can go fight at Troy and receive immortal happiness and renown via his glory and conquests. On the other, he can stay at home and wither away, miserable and unknown for the rest of his life. When he decided to go fight at Troy, Achilles’ mother Thetis cried out to him, “You should be spending your time here by your ships happily and untroubled by tears, since life is short for you, all too brief. Now you’re destined for both an early death and misery beyond compare” (Il. 1-434-437). Clearly she believed that happiness was freedom from fear or imperturbability, and unhappiness was living in a state of fear. Achilles believed the opposite. Regardless, both viewed happiness as attainable externally, be it glory, riches, and fame (Achilles) or imperturbability and tranquility (Thetis).
When Pythagoras was asked by his followers, as recorded by the late 5th century Italian Pythagoreans, “What is most just?”, he supposedly replied, “Sacrificing” (Iamblichus xviii 81-87). Thus the just, or right thing to do, was to sacrifice (be it to the gods in a figurative sense, or to others in an altruistic sense). Once again, happiness was not found internally via actions, but externally via actions.
As recorded by Cicero, the philosopher and “scientist” Democritus supposedly lived his life as he taught, “…to have blinded himself…in search of what else if not a happy life? And although he located such a life in the knowledge of things, nevertheless he wanted his inquiry into nature to put him into a good frame of mind-for the highest good he called contentment and, often, imperturbability” (Cicero V, xxix, 87). Akin to Homer (or Thetis), Democritus stated that the highest good via which the happy life could be found was imperturbability. He even went so far as to detach himself from this reality (in a sense, by removing some of his perception of it) and found happiness by strictly knowing that it was contentment or freedom from fear which led from happiness. This cannot be mistaken with Plato’s internalization for ethics; the teleological end of Democritus’ ethics was imperturbability achieved by means of not perceiving any object of fear, as opposed to Plato’s teleological end of justice or happiness achieved by means of congruence of function to form. Thus, again, a pre-Socratic philosopher sought happiness and ethics externally.
One final example is Thales, man of the water. As reported by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of the Philosophers, “Supposedly about Thales, when asked, ‘How can we live best and most justly? –If we do not ourselves do the things we blame others for doing. Who is happy? –One who has a healthy body, a well-stocked soul and a cultivated nature’” (1 33-40). To Thales, happiness was found in health and knowledge, or more specifically, to have a “well-stocked soul” (a soul full of lessons from life) and a cultivated nature (knowledge of community and others, of tradition). It is quite apparent, then, that Thales also sought happiness outside of the individual and in the external world.
When Plato wrote the Πολιτεία, he drastically changed the nature of ethics. No longer did man have to be free of fear, have large quantities of glory, be healthy and well cultivated, or sacrifice to the gods or other people. Instead man was free to examine himself (remember, γνῶθι σεαυτόν), to derive an understanding of his function (who he was, and how was he supposed to act), and then act accordingly in order to become happy. In true Greek tradition (for indeed it was they who first truly anthropomorphisized the gods), Plato made ethics human-centered and individual-centered, allowing mankind finally to begin his quest to understand who he was and how he should act. Ethics was no longer the realm of the king or god, but the individual. This is not to say that every single philosopher after him agreed with him, or that one could notfocus, in the starting point or origin-goods, sacrifice, and the external were not the prime focal point; man was. To further prove and solidify this dramatic shift in Western thought, it would be proper to examine subsequent ethical views. find happiness in the external world. Rather, it was a shift in
Aristotle was undoubtedly Plato’s greatest and most influential student. Almost directly echoing his teacher, Aristotle states in his Ethica Nicomachea:
“Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or any artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function…Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and ‘a good so-and- so’ have a function which is the same in kind…human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete” (1097 b23-1098 a16).
Ethics, or the pursuit of the good and happy life, was realized when the individual understood his function. Aristotle, like Plato before him, did not view man as a slave to the outside world, suckling the teat of material goods or the gods in order to achieve happiness. When Aristotle paints a portrait of his magnanimous man later on in his Ethics, the image is almost romantic-a strong, bold, independent man who stood on his own two feet, approaching the world confidently with his mind.
In the Roman times, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, in his Epistles, more succinctly stated, “Therefore, man's highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth. And what is it which this reason demands of him? The easiest thing in the world, to live in accordance with his own nature” (XLI). As was typical of Stoic philosophy, man had a nature, which when actualized, led to the good life. Though this is more general than Socrates’ judgment, the essence (or formation) of the argument is the same: identify the form, identify the function, act accordingly and reap the rewards thereof.
In more modern times, the philosopher Nietzsche poetically proclaimed in his work Beyond Good and Evil:
“It is not actions that prove him [the noble man]-actions are always open to many interpretations, always unfathomable-nor is it “works”. Among artists and scholars today one finds enough of those who betray by their works how they are impelled by a profound desire for what is noble; but just this need for what is noble is fundamentally different from the needs of the noble soul itself and actually the eloquent and dangerous mark of its lack. It is not the works, it is the faith that is decisive here, that determines the order of rank-to take up again an ancient religious formula in a new and more profound sense: some fundamental certainty that a noble soul has about itself, something that cannot be sought, nor found, nor perhaps lost.
The noble soul has reverence for itself (287, emphasis the authors).
Nietzsche here seems to directly attack Plato’s view; even putting the term works into quotations (Nietzsche himself was a Classical Philologist). But even in his disagreement with methodology (that it is works or function which leads to happiness), Nietzsche still accepts the Platonic view of ethics. His ending statement obviously states that the soul does not find happiness or the good life externally, but instead it is its own source of the good (an internal concept). Ironic it is that in trying to disprove Plato, he accepts the assumptions of Plato in order to disprove him!
Finally, and most recently, the controversial philosopher Ayn Rand even paid homage to the views of Plato. In her work, The Virtue of Selfishness, she states:
“The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. The higher organisms, such as animals and man, cannot: their needs are more complex and the range of their actions is wider. The physical functions of their bodies can perform automatically only the task of using fuel, but cannot obtain that fuel. To obtain it, the higher organisms need the faculty of consciousness. A plant can obtain its food from the soil in which it grows. An animal has to hunt for it. Man has to produce it” (19).
Here we see a very similar formula to that of Socrates (Plato). Ayn Rand identifies that every organism has a function, and it is that function which leads to the survival (or the good) of the organism. In her terms, to be ethical (to live the good and happy life), man (the organism) must use his mind, or reason (the function) in order to achieve a state of good. As recently as the 1960s, philosophers still debate the nuances of Plato’s historical revolution.
The evidence almost speaks for itself: the pre-Socratics viewed ethics externally, the post-Socratics (or Platonist) viewed ethics internally. Plato’s revolution was ultimately a fundamental shift in thought and focus which allowed all subsequent philosophers to debate the details: Who gave man the form and function? God, the gods, or evolution? (Metaphysics) What is man’s function? Reason, faith? (Epistemology) What are man’s virtues which allows him to act excellently in regards to his function? (Ethics). How ought man to apply these virtues in regards to other people? Tyranny, Oligarchy, Democracy? (Politics). Plato gave his own view under the name of Socrates.
It is rare, however, when an individual comes along who changes the very basic, fundamental methodology under which every other subsequent person, for thousands of years, operates. But what is certain is that Plato’s method struck such a nerve within the philosophical community that, to this day, philosophers still march and fight under the banner of Plato’s revolution.
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