Plato and Socrates, medieval depiction

...Continued from Part 3: Psychology

We now turn to a survey of what one might call ethics in its widest sense. Of course the direction of Plato's ethical system is based on his view of the nature of the human self and its destiny: if we are, as he thinks, immortal and intellectual creatures, unfolding our potential in the world of time, then the pursuit of material wealth and temporal security is of little value. The whole of society and all aspects of human intercourse should be directed towards the goal of spiritual (or as the Platonic tradition calls it, intellectual) growth – or the full consciousness of our own immortal and intellectual nature.

So even though enlightenment is of the philosophic individual, at no point does Plato advocate the removal of responsibility of those who are enlightened or approaching that state to serve their fellow citizens. Quite the reverse: after the description of how the former prisoner of the Cave has contemplated the highest vision of the ruling sun, this is what Socrates says of his plans for his Republic (519c) "It is our business then, said I, to oblige those of the inhabitants who have the best geniuses, to apply to that learning which we formerly said was the greatest, both to view The Good, and to ascend that ascent; and when they have ascended, and sufficiently viewed it, we are not to allow them what is now allowed them."

"What is that?"

"To continue there," said I, "and be unwilling to descend again to those fettered men, or share with them in their toils and honours, whether more trifling or more important."

"Shall we then," said he, "act unjustly towards them, and make them live a worse life when they have it in their power to live a better?"

"You have again forgot, friend," said I, "that this is not the legislator's concern, in what manner any one tribe in the city shall live remarkably happy; but this he endeavours to effectuate in the whole city, connecting the citizens together; and by necessity, and by persuasion, making them share the advantage with one another . ."

The nature of the soul is not simply intellectual – if it were so, she would have no need to descend from her pristine state – but it is both gnostic and vital (that is she is both knowing and living), and her purpose, as stated in the Timaeus, is to bring order and beauty to the manifested world. The path of the soul which has embraced philosophy is not only to contemplate beautiful ideas, but to attempt to make them a part of her life and a part of that portion of the universe over which she has influence. The experience of this attempt is for its own sake, and this is a fundamental of Platonic ethics. The Republic, an extended discourse on justice and the other virtues, continually emphasizes that living the good life – that is to say a life which is directed towards the true good, rather than its shadowy appearance – should be done because each just action is good in itself: all thoughts of future reward should be dismissed. Of course doing good does indeed tend towards future reward, and the last half of the final book of the Republic does explore the principles of what is now known as karma: but by the time the philosopher has followed the arguments of the Republic the intrinsic worth of justice should have been clearly established in his or her mind.

The aim, then, of Platonic ethics is a parallel to that of Platonic psychology – wherever there is a community there must be an exploration of the good, in order to disclose what is truly good rather than apparently good. After this every effort must be made to direct the whole towards the genuine good: Plato's famous assertion that no community is happy unless philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers is equally applicable to the individual life: No one can become happy unless their ruling part, reason, become directive of the whole organism.

Every faculty of the soul has its virtue – in Greek the word is arete, or excellence – the unfoldment of which leads to its fullest manifestation. The four cardinal virtues for Plato are wisdom, fortitude, temperance and justice: by wisdom the rational faculty is perfected, and the governing powers of the community are enabled to discern the truly good; by fortitude the spirited part is perfected, and the ordinative powers of the community are enabled to fulfil their role; by temperance the faculty of desire is perfected, and the mercantile and productive class is enabled to pursue its goals within the confines of due moderation; finally by justice the different faculties of the individual can work together exchanging their merits with each other in order to bring the whole into harmony, and in the community, too, the individual participants and the various classes and associations within the community can bring about a fair exchange of benefits, for the harmonious and progressive life of all.

The philosophy of Plato as presented in his dialogues, attempts to stimulate and awaken both the intellectual powers of the soul, as well as the living activities of virtue. As Hierocles of Alexandria says of this philosophy,13 "it is the purification and perfection of human life. It is the purification, indeed, from material irrationality, and the mortal body; but the perfection, in consequence of being the resumption of our proper felicity, and a reascent to the divine likeness. To effect these two is the province of Virtue and Truth; the former exterminating the immoderation of the passions; and the latter introducing the divine form to those who are naturally adapted to its reception."

The reascent to "divine likeness" is for the soul through intellect – but just as the metaphysics of Platonism is not dualistic, so neither is its ethics: the pursuit of true Platonic dialectic arrives not as separated out intellectualism, but at unity, for as the main speaker in the Sophist says (259d), "For, O excellent young man, to endeavour to separate every thing from every thing, is both inelegant, and the province of one rude and destitute of philosophy."

In the love of wisdom, we cultivate our reasons as our own images of eternal ideas, which are the divine offspring of the Gods. As Proclus says:14 "For the soul when looking at things posterior to herself [i.e. at material things], beholds the shadows and images of beings, but when she converts herself to herself she evolves her own essence, and the reasons which she contains. And at first indeed, she only as it were beholds herself; but, when she penetrates more profoundly into the knowledge of herself, she finds in herself both intellect, and the orders of beings. When however, she proceeds into her interior recesses, and into the adytum as it were of the soul, she perceives with her eye closed, the genus of the Gods, and the unities of beings. For all things are in us psychically, and through this we are naturally capable of knowing all things, by exciting the powers and the images of wholes which we contain."

As a life-giving creature descending into the world of body, the soul's task is to imitate the providence of the Gods, those unities above even eternity. In this ultimate ethical activity, says Proclus,15 "the providential energies of souls do not consist in reasonings conjectural of futurity, like those of human political characters, but in illuminations in the one of the soul derived from the Gods. Hence, being surrounded with the transcendently united splendour of deity, they see that which is in time untemporally, that which is divisible indivisibly, and everything which is in place unlocally; and they energise not from themselves, but from the powers by which they are illuminated."

It is very important to note the underlying principle of the Platonic tradition with regards to our present condition, because it is so different from that which the Christian era took as its basis: human souls are acting entirely according to the unfolding scheme of the universe in descending into material manifestation. Our problems within this descent stem from our forgetfulness of the eternal intellectual truths – or in a word, ignorance. Plato suggests that all human ills arise from our not knowing what the good is (and what our particular good is) – and Socrates argues in several places16 that no one knowingly does wrong.

This is surprising to the modern mind – even those who have supposedly departed from the Christian outlook – because the last two thousand years of western thought about our condition have been built upon a story of a fall through disobedience: the tasting of the fruit of "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" of the second chapter of Genesis. Where the Platonic tradition sees the human being as essential soul, the Christian tradition emphasizes the body so that, for example, Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (7, 18-19) writes, "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."

Platonism, viewing our problems as those of ignorance, considers their solution to be the cultivation of wisdom; post-Platonic thought, seeing the same problems as those of a rebellion of the will, pursues solutions of obedience – albeit with increasing sophistication as the West moves from undiluted Christianity to secular humanism. The Platonic cultivation of wisdom is only viable because the soul is seen as good, an offspring of intellect and the gods, and bearing within itself reasons - images of the ideas of eternity. All Platonic ethics is centred around the conscious recovery of the reasons intrinsic to the soul: it is, perhaps, best summed up by the reported speech of Diotima in the Symposium (212a) who says to Socrates, "Perceive you not, that in beholding the beautiful with that eye, with which alone it is possible to behold it, thus, and thus only, could a man ever attain to generate, not the images or semblances of virtue, as not having his intimate commerce with an image or a semblance; but virtue true, real, and substantial, from the converse and embraces of that which is real and true. Thus begetting true virtue, and bringing her up till she is grown mature, he would become a favourite of the Gods; and at length would be, if any man ever be, himself one of the immortals."

Such, then, in an all too brief summary is an outline of Platonic teaching, so far as I have caught hold of a least a feather or two of that difficult-to-net swan.

Although from some points of view, human understanding has moved on in the last 2,400 years, yet I think that in the most important areas of philosophic enquiry, Plato still poses the questions that really stretch us, and points out the directions in which we may find satisfactory answers. Platonism was, I think, the greatest flowering of philosophy in the ancient west, and in late antiquity the only coherent voice raised against the anti-philosophical strand of Christianity which took hold of Europe. It sees every human being as a rational, self-motive and self-conscious creature – in potential, at least – and each human as a microcosm and so having a clear right to make its own place in the universe without the mediation of any institution. The counterbalance to this right, as far as Plato was concerned, was the responsibility of each individual to deal with the whole of manifestation in a just manner, in order to act as a part of a living universe. I think that this sunlit vision of humankind has much to commend it, and at the very least provides an intelligent alternative to the two great clashing movements of today's world – that of blind mechanistic science, and that of religious literalism.

Continue to Part 5: Summary and Endnotes...


Endnotes are found in Part 5: Summary.

Tim Addey

Author: Tim Addey

Tim Addey is a published author and chairman of the Prometheus Trust, a charity that has published many of the key texts in Platonic philosophy. Please visit the website of the Prometheus Trust for further details at : His books include The Seven Myths of the Soul and The Unfolding Wings: The Way of Perfection in the Platonic Tradition, and co-author of Beyond the Shadows: The Metaphysics of the Platonic Tradition.