To understand Plato’s ethics, you must first disregard modern conceptions of ethics as natural duties or utilitarian calculations. To Plato, the act of calculating the greatest good or living by the dictates of supernatural authority would have been entirely beside the point: ethics, to Plato, is instead a more personal matter of living according to universal virtues that lead directly to eudaimonia (human happiness, well-being, or flourishing), to a state of inward welfare and contentment.
To Plato, there is no distinction between virtue and knowledge, under the assumption that goodness is not merely a relative term, but a term that refers to something universal and unchanging, otherwise it could not be an object of knowledge. The task of the philosopher (and for all of us), is to determine what goodness is, and then to practice it for its own sake.
Modernity has shifted its emphasis to the utilitarian calculation of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” but in addition to the difficulties in the mechanics of the calculation itself, no one in practice actually makes these calculations, and, for Plato, the calculations would be superfluous as they would add nothing to the underlying virtue of good behavior. Good behavior is good in itself, because good behavior develops character and improves the soul.
This is why Plato wrote, in the Gorgias, “…for I certainly think that I and you and every man do really believe, that to do is a greater evil than to suffer injustice: and not to be punished than to be punished.” To commit an evil act is worse than to suffer one, for committing an evil act damages the soul and degrades the character, the very things that most distinguish human beings from every other form of life. So, if you were to ask Plato, What is stopping me from killing someone and taking their possessions in the absence of consequences or supernatural punishment? he would view the question as incoherent. To kill or to steal is to commit an injustice and to damage the perpetrator more than the victim.
Ethics is a matter of improving the soul, perfecting one’s character, and practicing the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. This, of course, is an extension of Socrates’ conception of wisdom (that I covered in a previous post) and is the origin of virtue ethics that Aristotle and the Stoics would further develop.
The question becomes, how does one identify and practice the four virtues most conducive to inner contentment, satisfaction, and happiness? The first step is in recognizing the trappings of wealth, fame, and material possessions.
Wisdom is greater than pleasure
In the dialogue Philebus, Socrates outlines the opposing positions of Philebus and himself regarding the highest good:
“Philebus was saying that enjoyment and pleasure and delight, and the class of feelings akin to them, are a good to every living being, whereas I contend, that not these, but wisdom and intelligence and memory, and their kindred, right opinion and true reasoning, are better and more desirable than pleasure for all who are able to partake of them, and that to all such who are or ever will be they are the most advantageous of all things.”
Later in the dialogue, Socrates shows that a life of unmixed pleasure, without a share of intellect or knowledge would not be human life at all:
“But if you had neither mind, nor memory, nor knowledge, nor true opinion, you would in the first place be utterly ignorant of whether you were pleased or not, because you would be entirely devoid of intelligence…and your life would be the life, not of a man, but of an oyster or pulmo marinus.”
Socrates later admits that pleasure is a necessary but insufficient source of happiness; pleasure is too hollow to provide any lasting sense of satisfaction. Simple pleasures of the senses that do not stimulate the mind are fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying, forcing us to pursue them indefinitely in greater degrees, without satisfaction and without end. (In this way Plato anticipates, 2,000+ years early, the idea of the “hedonic treadmill,” or the modern observation that people are forever comparing their situation to those above them, not below them, and are therefore never satisfied regardless of gains.)
Money and wealth, likewise, are simply the means to future pleasure, and therefore, cannot make us happy as we simply convert them into pleasure at a later time. Like simple pleasure, money is pursued indefinitely as we forever compare our current wealth to the next tier.
The path to happiness cannot be achieved through pleasure and wealth, but rather through wisdom, humanity’s defining characteristic. The attainment of knowledge, for its own sake, cannot be taken away and does not require external comparisons for its value. Knowledge is a good to be pursued indefinitely, with its own inherent value, and represents the most satisfying form of self-improvement or personal gain.
The philosopher, of course, is most attuned to this fact, which is why Plato wrote, in the Republic, that:
“There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
(The founders of the United States came the closest to the “philosopher-king” ideal, while Donald Trump is about as far removed from this ideal as can be imagined. As B.L. Rayner wrote in The Life of Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson scarcely passed a day without reading a portion of the classics.”)
This equating of knowledge with virtue and happiness is perhaps idealistic, but having a sense of a higher ideal to which one can live up to might be exactly what our current society needs. Today, people, in general, live in the least violent, most prosperous, and most convenient era in world history, with access to the best medical care and with the prospect of living longer than any previous generation (See Steven Pinker’s books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now). And yet, in spite of this, the world, and the United States in particular, suffers from record levels of anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide.
The standard answer to this paradox comes from the religious: we’ve simply lost our connection to God. But I think the better answer comes from Plato: we’ve lost our connection with our higher selves, with our natural curiosity and drive to acquire knowledge and to engage in meaningful, thoughtful work and civil participation. When we view life as an economic activity to secure ever greater levels of wealth, it’s no surprise that this leaves us all cold in the end. Life, to Plato, was much richer, a life of contemplation, virtue, and living by the higher ideals and cardinal virtues that saw altruism and self-interest as synonymous.
If we can reconnect with the Greek vision of the development of character, we reduce our urge to intemperately pursue pleasure, to act cowardly, or to lie, cheat, and steal for material gains, because what we lose in the process (degraded character and soul) is greater than what we gain (short term satisfaction from material gain). And once we realize this, as the philosopher does, becoming more educated and knowledgeable will also make us better people, because we will realize that wisdom is greater than pleasure, goodness is greater than evil, and honor and self-respect is greater than material gain.