31 March 2005

Ultimate PUR Post

A joke once told to me by David Konstan:

One professor says to another, "Have your read such-and-such book?" The other professor replies, "Read it? I haven't even taught it!"
I wasn't planning to read PUR in the short term. I didn't have to review it; it wasn't on my reading list. And I didn't even need to teach it. Chris Bobonich's theory about the development of Plato's political thought, from the Republic to the Laws, was brought to my attention by a lecture of J-F Pradeau in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy. Pradeau gave a lecture arguing that Plato's conception of law, and of the role of law in political society, was the same in the Republic, Statesman, and Laws. The lecture was well-crafted and well-enough argued. But to me it seemed to have no teeth. I wanted to hear Pradeau arguing against someone or something--which, some readers helpfully suggested, is not consistent with French ideas of tact.

I confess that I do not share the French approach to things. I favor rather something more like the medieval disputation, where philosophical questions were approached almost as a sport, with competing teams, or even Socrates' anticipation of Sir Karl, that you understand a view best by trying to refute it.

So I constructed an imaginary debate between Pradeau and Bobonich on the Laws and, specifically, on the nature of the preludes in the Laws. This went on for a couple of weeks. It was enjoyable because it was a chance to look in detail at passages from the Laws, especially Plato's use of the medical analogy.

When, at the end of this imaginary debate, I decided the issue in favor of Pradeau, I began to wonder... how much of the thesis of Plato's Utopia Recast would be affected by that decision. And I resolved that now rather than later would be the time to consider this, since I had already made a start on studying the book.

So I continued to examine the book, beginning from where I had started. I tried to refute Bobonich's view that there was a radical change between the Phaedo/Republic and the Laws on the possibilities for virtue and happiness of non-philosophers. This required a somewhat careful examination of some passages from the Phaedo, and less so of the Republic (because Bobonich's view of the Republic hinges on his reading of the Phaedo). When this was finished, it seemed to me that I could indeed draw the two parts of Plato's thought close together, so that there was no reason to suppose any radical change.

To some extent, for me, this settled my mind about the book, and the examination of further questions in the past couple of days has seemed less pressing. My interest in the book--other than as a purely professional matter--hinges on whether I regard it as a guide to Plato's thought, because I regard Plato as likely to be a good guide to philosophical truth. If a book gets Plato wrong in serious and important ways (if it is 'radically misleading', as Rowe puts it), then my own inclination--although I admit this is a personal idiosyncracy--would be to regard the book as an inefficient way of learning about Plato. I want a book on Plato to help me achieve insight into his thought quickly, reliably, and well.

But I acknowledge that my view is idiosyncratic and perhaps not widely shared. Perhaps the more common approach is that of Christopher Rowe, who in a review can describe a book such as PUR as "radically misleading", and be almost harsh in criticizing its hermeneutic and method, and yet still, as on the dustjacket, recommend it as "one of the best things that I have read on Plato for a very long time".

Perhaps it is. For my part, I move on.

Penultimate PUR Post

Every good implies a limit, as I said, and my investigation of Plato's Utopia Recast must come to an end today.

But here is a passage which seemed worthy of attention. This is from a part of the book where Bobonich is explaining the epistemological possibilities for the soul, once the Homunculus Theory has been cast away:

The Timaeus and the Theaetetus ...go further and require that in order to make any judgment at all, the soul must draw on an awareness of non-sensible properties or Forms....Neither the Timaeus nor the Theaetetus requires the person to be aware of Forms, as such, in ordinary judgments, but they do hold that even the most basic judgments require the use of concepts that are drawn from an awareness of Forms, not simply from perception. Non-philosophers are thus not entirely cut off from an awareness of genuine value and [sic*] the right sort of education can bring it about that they are aware of, albeit still partially, the genuinely valuable features of things and value them as such (296).
Now what I wonder is: What bars us from attributing this same view to the Phaedo? It's not that, when a non-philosopher judges that two sticks are equal, he is aware of the Form of equality; it's rather that, if his mind were entirely cut off from Forms, he could not make a judgment of equality at all.

The bar is set fairly low in this part of PUR, for a person to have some intellectual concourse with Forms. But earlier in PUR (63-4), when the Phaedo is discussed, the bar gets set high. Bobonich considers the claim, "Non-philosophers' valuing of things and actions is based on their true opinions about value Forms." He argues (rightly) that Plato denies this, and then, apparently, he concludes from this that non-philosophers "do not base their valuing" on the Forms (66)--which of course doesn't follow.

Bobonich usefully anticipates an objection: "What about Recollection? If the objects of Recollection are non-sensibles and non-philosophers recollect, then they might have some sort of grasp of some non-sensibles" (65). In the Republic, Bobonich says (citing G. Fine as an authority), although non-philosophers do recollect Forms, they are incapable of recollecting any Forms relevant to ethics. In the Phaedo, Bobonich says, Recollection is said to require the recognition that a particular is not identical with a Form, and thus "Recollection requires an explicit recognition of non-sensibles" (65).

Perhaps Recollection does require this--but that is not what is at issue. In the Phaedo's Recollection Argument, Socrates argues that the fact that we make judgments about equality and non-equality from birth shows that we could not have acquired knowledge of the Form after birth (75b). In saying this he is clearly presupposing that an acquaintance with the Form is used in those sorts of judgments, even if someone making those judgments does not 'explicitly recognize' that that is what he is doing. Plato therefore is presupposing that judgments may be based on the Forms, even among those who have no opinions about Forms.

*The lack of a comma before an independent clause introduced by 'and' is common in PUR. (Astute readers of Dissoi Blogoi will recognize that this is the third such instance in passages alone that I've quoted.) I don't understand. Is this a copy-editing aberration? Has this rule of grammar been relaxed?

Antepenultimate PUR Post

I'll post just three more times on Plato's Utopia Recast (PUR).

First, readers of this blog who are not yet readers of PUR may wonder why Change 2 (as I have called it) should explain Change 1. What does Plato's rejection of a tripartite soul have to do with his coming think that non-philosophers don't entirely lack virtue and happiness?

Let me first define terms. Call the Tripartite Theory the view that there are three parts to the soul: reason, spirit, and desire. Call the Homunculus Theory the view that there are three parts of the soul and that, moreover, each of the parts is itself a 'source of agency', that is, it can formulate and pursue its own conception of what is good for itself.

PUR maintains: Plato in the Republic needs some way of sustaining the sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers that he had formulated in the Phaedo. The Homunculus Theory, which Plato puts forward in the Republic, allows him to do this. Why? Philosophers are those for whom reason sets the goal, with the other parts following along. Non-philosophers are those for whom the other parts of the soul set their goals, with reason being subservient. (Without the Homunculus Theory, there is no setting of goals by lower parts.) Plato in his later dialogues abandons the Homunculus Theory, and tripartition altogether, because of difficulties inherent in that theory. (Why? The Homunculus view leads to an infinite regress of homunculi, and it destroys the unity of the person.) But once he has abandoned the theory, he can no longer sustain a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers. In all persons, now, reason alone sets the goal, with more or less clarity, and one's non-rational impulses (now conceived of as varied and multiple) follow along with better or worse success. So now in principle everyone can be virtuous and happy.

Thus, Change 2 would explain Change 1, in the sense that Change 2 would remove the grounds on which Plato could sustain a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers.

Two difficulties here, in addition to whether there really is Change 1 and Change 2 in Plato:

  1. It's not clear why one couldn't make out a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers, if one wished, on almost any theory of the soul.
  2. If the Homunculus Theory is so fraught with internal difficulties, that it can be seen to degenerate rather quickly into infelicities and vicious regresses, shouldn't we be cautious in attributing that version of the Tripartite Theory to the Republic, and do so only if absolutely necessary? It's not enough that that reading is possible: such a reading has to be required, or at least favored.

On this last point, Rowe writes in his review:
I believe that B gives a radically misleading picture of the lower parts of the soul in the Republic. This is an old and unresolved issue, but the interpretation of ’spirit’ and appetite as homunculi, each with its own beliefs and powers of reasoning as well as desires (and, of course, goals), is no more inevitable than it is philosophically attractive; it is simply the outcome of a series of hermeneutical choices that B makes, each of which seems, separately, virtuous, but which together take B – as I see it – in entirely the wrong direction....This is not in the least to say that B’s reading is an impossible reading of the Republic as such. But for my taste it pays too little attention to the flexibility of Platonic language, to Plato’s capacity for shifting between different perspectives on the same ideas, and above all to the overall coherence of Platonic thought, including its philosophical coherence (hence my reference to ’hermeneutical choices’ above: for all the virtues of B’s painstaking sawing apart of particular contexts, it brings with it the danger of mistaking the trees for the wood – whose very existence is already thrown into doubt by the presumption of fundamental shifts, developments in Plato’s thinking). In particular, if one looks at that part of Plato’s oeuvre which presumably forms the background to the Republic, including those dialogues we have become used to calling ’Socratic’, the concept of agent-like parts is likely to come from nowhere (except, of course, in the case of the reasoning part, which will be what makes us into agents in the first place); since on B’s account Plato abandons it pretty soon after the Republic, I for one feel content to suppose that it was never there at all.

Loose Change

Lorenz' review has an excellent discussion of (what I have called) Change 2, which includes this paragraph:

The diachronic program of Plato's Utopia Recast, with its prominent claim that Plato abandoned tripartition of the soul, depends significantly on its view of what tripartition comes to. If that view is in large part mistaken, as I think it is, this damages much of the diachronic program. If, for instance, tripartion never involved three sources of rational agency, this defeats one of Bobonich's better reasons for thinking that Plato abandoned it some time after the Republic. The Timaeus explicitly denies the capacity for reasoning to the soul's lowest part (Tim. 77B3-6). On Bobonich's view, this is a devastating blow to tripartition. (317-8, cf. 296-7). If, however, the non-rational soul parts of the Republic are already conceived of as incapable of reasoning, the Timaeus simply makes fully explicit what has been assumed all along.
Lorenz's concerns about Change 2 seem analogous to those I have been raising about Change 1. (Strangely, in my view, both Lorenz and Rowe, in their reviews, seem to grant without argument Bobonich's construction of Change 1.)

The review (q.v.) also includes an effective criticism of how Bobonich attempts to deal with Timaeus' affirmation of a tripartite soul. I've decided that I won't post on that after all, since I couldn't say any better what Lorenz says there.

Intuitive or Counter-Intuitive?

Here's an interesting paragraph from Hendrik Lorenz's review of Plato's Utopia Recast on the Dependency Thesis:

[The Dependency Thesis] is the claim that all goods other than virtue are 'dependent goods', which is to say they are good for people who possess virtue, but bad for the unvirtuous. The dependent goods conspicuously include such things as health, wealth, political influence, and the satisfaction of one's desires. The Thesis is thus an astonishingly counter-intuitive claim. It implies that no unvirtuous person is, or ever can be, benefited by health itself or its restoration, or by the satisfaction of ordinary and in themselves perfectly blameless desires such as hunger, thirst, and sexual arousal.
A very small quibble: the last sentence seems to suggest that hunger, thirst, and sexual arousal are always 'perfectly blameless', which does not seem quite right. Can't someone, for instance, be blamed for being hungry, when his hunger results from habitually overeating? (And in general I think the view that 'satisfaction of desire' is good--whatever the desire--is itself a counter-intuitive claim. Not that this is important to settle here, since the Dependency Thesis can be evaluated with respect to other goods only.)

But that things that allow us to act, or to act more effectively, prove harmful to us when we are intent on acting wrongly--that seems intuitive. "It would have been better for him if he had still been struck low with the stomach flu", said of a man who, after recovering, carried out his planned murder today, seems perfectly right.

If this is so, suppose we interpret the Dependency Thesis as: insofar as someone is not virtuous, other things besides virtue are not good for him? (If you wish: take 'not virtuous' to mean 'vicious'. That ambiguity can't affect what's at stake, although it can make the maxim seem more or less plausible.) Why is that 'astonishingly counter-intuitive'?

(Surely this is an issue about which readers of Dissoi Blogoi have views.)

Change Upon Change

In a developmental study, one proposes an explanation for an observed change. Thus, a developmental study requires that one establish first that there really is a change.

Bobonich explains a change in terms of a change, and so he needs to establish that there really are two changes in Plato's thought. And in each case there should be at least a logical distinction between one's establishing the change, and one's giving the explanation for that change, otherwise one risks conflating one's theory with the evidence for one's theory.

What do I mean in saying Bobonich explains a change in terms of a change?

He asserts:

Change 1: Plato in the Phaedo and Republic holds that non-philosophers cannot have virtue or happiness; Plato in the Laws holds that non-philosophers can be virtuous and happy.

Change 2: Plato in the Republic holds a tripartite theory of the soul; Plato in the Laws rejects the tripartite theory of the soul.

Change 2 accounts for Change 1.

So far, I have largely been investigating whether one can establish Change 1. To establish a true change, one needs to show that the precise sense in which something is affirmed in one dialogue is denied in another. It seemed upon investigation that Bobonich's interpretation of the preludes in the Laws, on which his view is based, was not well unsupported; it seemed that Bobonich's interpretation of the Phaedo and Republic was not suitably qualified and unsupported. But, when suitable qualifications are introduced, then it's not clear that there is any noteworthy change at all. The qualified way in which the Laws recognizes virtue and happiness in non-philosophers looks not unlike the qualified way in which the Phaedo and Republic allow for virtue and happiness in non-philosophers. Any differences that remain seem to fall well within those that could easily be attributed to a shift in focus and emphasis. But if there is no change, there is no need for an explanation of that change.

But we might investigate Change 2 for its own sake, prescinding from whether it is an explanans for Change 1.

So what evidence is there, that Plato rejects the tripartite theory of the soul in the Laws? One might say: What evidence is there, that he rejects it in his (presumed) late dialogues taken as a group?-- since presumably, in the absence of further evidence, we should regard what he held in one late dialogue as what he held in all late dialogues, and it's a particular feature of Plato's Utopia Recast that it attempts to understand the philosophical viewpoint underlying the Laws precisely as an expression of philosophical views worked out in other late dialogues.

But what seems to be a big problem ('a fatal stumbling block', according to Lorenz in his review), is that Plato affirms the tripartite theory of the soul in the Timaeus (see 69c-70e), presumably a late dialogue.

Bobonich does have a response--which I'll give in a subsequent post.

The Dependency Thesis

I said that there were four elements to Chris Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast:

  1. a Claim, about a change in Plato's view of the virtue and happiness of non-philosophers;
  2. a proposed Consequence of that change, namely, a new conception of political society as an association of free and equal persons;
  3. a postulated Cause of that change, namely, Plato's rejection of the tripartite theory of the soul, as that is formulated in the Republic;
  4. a discussion of (what Bobonich calls) the "Dependency Thesis".
This is my last day of posts on the book--although I will continue to welcome comments and criticisms at any point, and will respond to them.

Here I say something briefly about 4. above. In my next post I will say something about 3.

The Dependency Thesis is: whether anything besides virtue is good for person depends upon his having virtue.

A good portion of Plato's Utopia Recast is simply Bobonich's examination of Plato's different formulations and justifications for this principle in various dialogues. (In fact it is not a single principle so much as a moralistic insight, which Plato tries to underwrite in various ways.) Bobonich's discussion along these lines, which seems a useful contribution, to me seems independent of the rest of the book. It could stand on its own as a separate monograph, "The Dependency Thesis in the Dialogues of Plato"--or, at least, that's how it strikes me.

But Bobonich also uses the Dependency Thesis to derive a corollary to his claim about the lack of virtues of non-philosophers. If non-philosophers lack virtue; and if their having other goods depends upon their having virtue (Dependency Thesis); and if no one can be happy without having goods; then non-philosophers cannot be happy. This latter portion of Plato's Utopia Recast seems to me precisely as strong as the claim on which it rests, that non-philosophers, according to the Phaedo and Republic, are bereft of virtue. Since I regard that claim as in need of either qualification or support, I don't regard this use of the Dependency Thesis as now requiring further investigation.

O'Rourke Lecture This Evening

A reminder of the BACAP lecture this evening at Boston College which, at the same time, will mark a change in emphasis of Dissoi Blogoi, from Plato to Aristotle:

Aristotle and the Metaphysics of Metaphor

Fran O’Rourke
(University College, Dublin)

Ioanna Patsioti
Deree College)

Walsh Function Room, Boston College
Thursday, 31 March 2005 at 7:30 p.m.

The lecture will be preceded by a seminar on
"Analogy and Unity of Understanding in Aristotle"

Walsh Function Room
3:00-5:00 p.m.

(For additional information, contact Gary Gurtler at Boston College: gurtlerg@bc.edu.)

30 March 2005

A Quick Glance

A quick spin through the Republic turned up dozens of passages in which Plato either ascribes virtue to non-philosophers or says things that imply that they have virtue.

An anonymous commentator (rightly, in my view) drew attention to important passages in book 4.

But here are some examples from other books:

1.353d--(An obvious point, but perhaps worth making nonetheless) The Function Argument presupposes that justice in the ordinary sense, as meant by the interlocutors of the dialogue at that point, is the virtue of the soul.

3.390d --Odysseus' "Bear up, my heart" is cited as an example of genuine endurance and self-mastery. (This is one among many such examples in books 2 and 3.)

3.395c--Socrates insist that, from earliest childhood, children should be given appropriate models in story of bravery, self-discipline, piety, and liberality. But these won't be stories about 'philosophers'!

6.500d--"So the philosopher, spending his time with what is divine and ordered, in fact becomes as ordered and divine as it is possible for a human being to be. ...And if there were some compulsion on him to put what he sees there into effect in human behavior, both in private and public, instead of simply moulding his own personality, do you think there will be anything wrong with him as the craftsman of the self-discipline, justice, and general excellence we need in the ordinary population (sumpa/shj th=j dhmotikh=j a)reth=j)?" (This translation and others are Tom Griffith's. It's not a translation that helps Bobonich, but it's not obviously wrong.)

6.505e--"This is what every soul follows (o(\ dh\ diw/kei me\n a(/pasa yuxh/). All its actions are directed at [the good]. It has a sort of divine intuition that the good is something, but it is in doubt, unable to get a firm grasp on what it is, or find any firm belief of the kind it has about other things." Note here: 'every soul' . Note Plato's willingness to identify what souls are striving for without their knowing it.

book 8--The descriptions of characters corresponding to kinds of constitution are apparently meant to form a sequence from ideally good to ideally bad, implying degrees of virtue and virtues among non-philosophers:

e.g. "And the higher the value they put on [making money], the lower the value they would put on virtue" (550e) implies variations in degree of virtue.
e.g. "Well, it's the next best after the first one I mentioned. And it does compel the citizens to pay some regard to virtue" (556a), which implies that a general concern for virtue is the criterion of the goodness of a constitution.
9. 580c--"The best and most just character is the happiest. This is the one who is the most kingly, the one who is king over himself. The worst and most unjust is the unhappiest..."

9. 589d--"Praiseworthy actions are what bring the savage elements of our nature under the control of the human--or rather, perhaps, of the divine--while shameful actions are what makes the gentle element a slave to the fierce." But that actions are praiseworthy or shameful (here kala\ kai\ ai)sxra//\) can be recognized by other people generally, on ordinary and accessible grounds.

Here's a passage which would be hard to differentiate from the outlook of the Laws:

9.590d--"It's just that it's better for everyone to be ruled by what is divine and wise. Ideally he will have his own divine and wise element within himself, but failing that it will be imposed on him from the outside, so that as far as possible we may all be equal, and all friends, since we are all under the guidance of the same commander.....[This] is clearly the aim ...both of the laws, which is the ally of all the inhabitants of the city, and of our own government of our children."

Here's a passage in which 'love of wisdom' is clearly meant in the broad sense; it is said to be a characteristic of soul generally:

10.611e (at the conclusion of the argument for immortality)--"We should look to the soul's love of wisdom (ei)j th\n filosofi/an au)th=j). We should bear in mind what it clings to, the kind of company it yearns for, since it is kin to that which is divine, immortal and always existing, and what it could become if it devoted itself entirely to this..."

Here is yet another passage that clearly recognizes virtue and vice as ideals and allows for degrees in between:

10.618e--"...defining the worse and the better life with reference to the nature of the soul, calling that worse which leads the soul along the road to greater injustice, and that better which leads along the road to greater justice."

What the Argument Requires

"Thus the Republic, like the Phaedo, rejects the claims of non-philosophers to possess any genuine virtue", Plato's Utopia Recast, p. 43.

What would be necessary, to establish this?

First, one needs to put aside any claims Bobonich has made about the lack of virtue of non-philosophers in the Phaedo, because, as we saw, these claims were not well grounded. We would have to approach the Republic on its own terms.

Second, one would need to show that, when the Republic says things of the form "Philosophers and only philosophers are virtuous", the claim is not meant in an implicitly reduplicated sense; and that it excludes degrees or stages of philosophy and virtue.

Third, one would need to consider the special circumstance (not contemplated in the Phaedo), in which non-philosophers willingly place themselves under the authority of philosophers. One would have to show that, under this special circumstance, non-philosophers do not have 'participated' virtue (as we called it), or that, if they do, Plato thinks that virtue of that sort is in no sense 'genuine' virtue.

Fourth, one would need to consider the various passages in the Republic (and there are many) in which Plato either ascribes virtue to non-philosophers, or says things that imply that non-philosophers have virtue, and show that the most plausible interpretation of these passages, is that Plato would wish to deny that non-philosophers have virtue.

If, as I believe is the case, it would not possible to do these things, and someone who examined the matter closely would be compelled to recognize degrees and stages of virtue among non-philosophers in the Republic--then someone who wanted to claim, nonetheless, that the view of the Republic was radically different from, or incompatible with, that of the Laws, would have to show that the sense in which citizens in the Laws could be virtuous, was radically different from, and incompatible with, the various senses in which non-philosophers in the Republic could be virtuous.

This is what correct attention to method, evidence, and argument would require.

Philosophy, Broad and Narrow

"To be virtuous, and to be a lover of wisdom (a 'philosopher'), are one and the same." --Plato

Philosophy, narrow:
Philosophers are people who do such-and-such (read books, engage in dialectic, study at the Academy, know that Forms exist). People like that, and only people like that, are genuinely virtuous.

Philosophy, broad:
People who do what is just, moderate, courageous, and sagacious are, to that extent, lovers of wisdom (even if they don't know it).

Which did Plato hold? Four arguments that, at least, he would not exclude the broad view:

1. The broad sense is closer to the original sense of 'philosophy'. For Socrates, exhorting to virtue and exhorting to philosophy were the same.

2. The broad sense matches Plato's proclivities elsewhere. His tendency is to interpret activity broadly and generously, as 'really' conforming to and illustrating the philosophical view he favors. Cp. the Symposium:

"To be a poet, and to strive for immortality, are one and the same."
Narrow (not Plato):
People who write poetry and only these are striving for immortality.
Broad (Plato):
Every creature without exception is in some way a 'poet'.
3. Plato often regards virtue as conformity to a quasi-mathematical, divine harmony (e.g. Gorgias 508a), and no specialized knowledge would ostensibly be required for this. He takes virtue in the ordinary sense to be the conformity of action and character with this order.

4. If only philosophers were virtuous, we could never learn what words like 'courage' and 'moderation' meant, and the recommendation that philosophy should be pursued, because it makes people virtuous, would make no sense.

The upshot: just as virtue admits of degrees, so 'love of wisdom' admits of expansion. From:

Virtuous iff a philosopher.
One can reason, either (as Bobonich does, which, I believe, is not Platonic):
Not a philosopher (in the narrow sense); therefore, not virtuous (in any sense).


Virtuous (in an ordinary sense); therefore, a philosopher (without knowing it).

29 March 2005

The Virtues of Non-Philosophers in the Republic

"Thus the Republic, like the Phaedo, rejects the claims of non-philosophers to possess any genuine virtue", Plato's Utopia Recast, p. 43.

What arguments does Bobonich give for this bold and unqualified conclusion?

1. His interpretation of the Phaedo: "...if Plato's view of non-philosophers is substantially more optimistic in the Republic, this will require deep changes in other aspects of his views" (42).

2. A deductive argument: virtue requires knowledge; the non-philosophers of the Republic lack knowledge; thus it must be the case that they lack virtue (43).

And that's it. (If you don't believe me, check the book.)

He then considers the objection:

One might object, however, that from the fact that non-philosophers fail to satisfy Book 4's accounts of the virtues, it does not follow that they are as badly off as non-philosophers in the Phaedo. Although they fail to have the 'highest grade' of virtue or 'perfect' virtue, that is, 'philosophical' virtue, non-philosophers might still have a lower grade or imperfect form of virtue (44).

How does Bobonich respond? "Plato never characterizes the virtues defined in Book 4 in any of these qualified ways" (44). Then he says, "The Republic does, however sometimes apply to non-philosophers virtue terms that are verbally qualified in some way. They might, for example, possess 'political courage' or 'moderation for the masses'" (44).

This apparently is an important concession. Doesn't it signal a recognition by Plato of some kind or degree of virtue? No, not at all, because: "...in the Phaedo, too, Plato was willing to attribute to non-philosophers verbally qualified forms of virtue such as 'popular', 'political', and 'slavish' virtue" (44)!!

Simple Reincarnation

I'm sure this is getting tedious, but to finish the thing.... I think Bobonich actually misinterprets Phaedo 81c-82c. Socrates is not talking about non-philosophers there, I believe, but bad human beings, and kai\ tou/twn at 82a10 means 'even among bad human beings'.

Call 'simple reincarnation' the theory that each kind of animal gets reincarnated as an animal of that kind. Ants come back as ants; lions as lions; human beings as human beings.

Call 'adjusted simple reincarnation' the theory that the bulk of each kind of animal gets reincarnated as an animal of that kind, but that especially good animals in a kind go up a class, and especially bad animals go down a class.

I think that adjusted simple reincarnation is the most natural theory for someone to hold who believes in reincarnation; who thinks that animals always existed or will always continue to exist; but who also thinks that a life is a kind of test or trial.

I believe that Plato at 81c-82c is advocating adjusted simple reincarnation. He has just given his Affinity Argument for the immateriality of the soul. Contrary to what Bobonich says, this is an optimistic not a pessimistic view of the world. It holds that every soul in every living thing has an affinity with the divine and thus a natural inclination to seek the divine and return there. The natural tendency of any soul is upwards. But in the course of life in the body most souls get caught in the body. (That's what 'stuck in the mud' means, in a riddling or allegorical sense, as Plato explains.) For human beings, souls that strive especially to detach themselves from the body and its needs get liberated and join the gods (81a). But souls of bad people (81d7) that, contrariwise, have tried to join themselves with the body as much as possible, first wander around on earth as ghosts after death, and then become reincarnated in non-human animal bodies. Even of these souls (82a10), that is, souls of especially bad human beings, it holds true that the happiest fate and best place is reserved for those that most approximate virtue. (I take it Plato has in mind persons who in private practice self-indulgence but who in public life conform to law and good custom.)

This reading is broadly consistent with what Plato says elsewhere in the dialogue and with his important remark in the misology passage, that few human beings are especially good or bad, but that most are in between.

On Bobonich's reading, we can't explain where the souls of new human beings come from. He holds that the best human beings are reincarnated as social insects. That means that all the rest of human beings are reincarnated as even lower animals. So where do the other human souls come from?

Cover of Justification

Footnote 15, pp. 484-5 of Plato's Utopia Recast reads as follows:

There is a textual difficulty at 82B7. If we read kai/ (Burnet) rather than h)\ kai/ (Duke et al.), then we should translate as 'and then back again into the very same one, the human race...' Fortunately, it does not matter much which we read. Even if we think that coming back into the human race is a distinct option that excludes going into the race of bees, wasps, or ants (and is not a further reincarnation after that as one of these three political creatures), this is just another option that Plato puts on the same level as the other three. There is no hint that there is a special class within those who practiced popular and political virtue who get a vastly better reincarnation, i.e. as respectable men, cf. Rowe (1993, ad loc.). All of the reincarnated souls are 'not all the souls of the good, but of the worthless [tw=n fau/lwn]' (Phd. 81D6-7). In either case, the message is the same: these souls either migrate from human to non-human lives and back again without there being much difference between these reincarnations, or it makes little difference which of the four classes the souls go into in their first reincarnation.

So Bobonich thinks it makes no difference, for Plato, whether the best of the non-philosophers are reincarnated into human beings or insects, and that's presumably why, when he refers back to the passage, Bobonich consistently omits mention of the human reincarnations.


1. That's to conflate theory with evidence. What the passage says is one thing; and what Bobonich takes it to mean is something else. Good scholarship should not conflate these.

2. It ought to make a difference, even on Bobonich's interpretation, whether someone ultimately can become reincarnated once again as a human being, since a human being can potentially become a philosopher, and philosophers get liberated from cycles of reincarnation. (It's as if Bobonich is mistakenly presuming that there difference between philosophers and non-philosophers is essential rather than accidental.) Someone who can become reincarnated again as a human being would not, then, even on Bobonich's terms, be 'living a life not worth living'.

28 March 2005

Two QQ on the Phaedo

I've posed two questions about Phaedo 82a-c:

1. What else could 'even of these' (kai toutwn) mean at 82a10 besides 'even among these non-philosophers'?

2. Why might Bobonich consistently misrepresent 82a-c when he refers back to it? (Yes, it helps his interpretation. But why might he do so under some cover of justification?)

The answers to these questions, as it turns out, are related (at least, as I see it). But I'm not going to post any more today and will let you know what I think tomorrow, before turning to Bobonich's treatment of the Republic.

Bees or Humans--What Does it Matter?

Bobonich consistently misdescribes Phaedo 82a-c when he refers to it in Plato's Utopia Recast. The interesting question is, Why?

As I explained in Stuck in the Mud!, this passage is crucial for Bobonich's interpretation of the Phaedo. Bobonich claims: non-philosophers have lives 'not worth living'; their lives are like that because they have no hope of joining the gods in future lives; and they have no such hope because the best they can do is become reincarnated as ants or bees.

So it's crucial to get this passage right. And yet Bobonich consistently misdescribes it.

Here are some references back to it in the book:

...Plato in the Phaedo clearly does distinguish between better and worse (or unsatisfactory and worse) lives that non-philosophers can live. He even explicitly picks out a group of non-philosophers who are the 'happiest' of non-philosophers--these are the ones reincarnated as ants or bees rather than as wolves or donkeys (492, n.62).

According to an early passage in the Phaedo, the uniform post-mortem fate of non-philosophers is to go to the underworld uninitiated and unpurified and, once there, to 'wallow in the mud' (Phd. 69B7-D3). This pessimistic verdict is confirmed by a second passage in which Plato considers the possibility that human souls undergo reincarnation. In this case, the very best of non-philosophers, i.e. those who have achieved the best character open to one who is not a philosopher, remain impure because they have not been purified by learning and thus cannot enter the company of the gods. The appropriate reward for them is reincarnation into a non-human life, e.g. into the cooperative and tame race of bees or ants (Phd. 82A11-82C1) (6-7).

The 'happiest' and best behaved of non-philosophers, however, go back again into the bodies of 'tame and political creatures' --ants, wasps, and bees (19-20).

The Phaedo's later account (Phd. 82A11-82C2) which we have just seen of the transmigration of non-philosophers' souls offers no less bleak a picture. Here again, joining the company of the gods requires having wisdom as an ultimate end. Non-philosophers will either lie in the mud in Hades or will be reincarnated as a non-human animal (in the best case, as an ant or a bee) (22).

And yet Plato does not say in Phaedo 82a-c that the 'happiest of these' are reincarnated only as ants, wasps, or bees. Rather, as we have seen (see The Best Non-Philosophers Can Do), he also says that they can be reincarnated as human beings. This is not a slight difference, because precisely what is at issue is whether these people ever have the hope of ultimate liberation from cycles of reincarnation. If they can become reincarnated as human beings, then perhaps they can live a philosophical life in some later reincarnation, and then go on to join the gods. Arguably someone's life is 'worth living' now if it leads to a future life that is 'worth living'.

Bobonich's own translation of 82c acknowledges this important qualification:
[They are the happiest] because it is likely that they will go back into a political and tame race, either, I image, that of bees or wasps or ants, or back again into the very same one, the human race, and that respectable men are born from them... (19)
So Bobonich consistently misrepresents the passage when he refers to it; and yet, as his translation indicates, he is aware of what the passage actually says.

This kind of misrepresentation is sloppy at best.

Nonetheless I think I understand why Bobonich, as it seems, takes so little care over it ... as I'll explain in a later post.

Every Good Implies a Limit

I said that this Thursday, March 31, would be my artificial deadline for changing emphasis for the while from Plato to Aristotle. The deadline is created by Fran O'Rourke's upcoming BACAP lecture on analogy and metaphor in Aristotle.

So I need to plan how I will deal with Plato's Utopia Recast in the four days that remain. (Admittedly, planning and blogs don't go together well. But in this case it's necessary.) I have a couple more points to make about the Phaedo. That will occupy today. Tuesday I'll examine whether non-philosophers have virtues in the Republic. Wednesday I'll look at Bobonich's claim about how Plato's psychology changes. And Thursday I'll look at the 'Dependency Thesis'. Thus:

Today: Phaedo clean-up
Tuesday: virtues among non-philosophers in the Republic
Wednesday: putative developments in Platonic psychology
Thursday: the dependence of goods upon wisdom

Today and tomorrow I'll finish looking at the supposed explanandum. Wednesday and Thursday I'll look at Bobonich's explanans.

Please, please, please join in! The thoughtful comments that readers have offered so far, show how much more interesting a blog can be when it generates a true discussion.

A Matter of Interpretation--Only?

Readers of this blog might reasonably worry--I worry about it myself--whether this discussion of Chris Bobonich's Plato's Utopia Recast has gone off the rails, on the grounds that it is so much focused on the interpretation of Platonic texts rather than philosophy. One might argue that this is to do an injustice both to Plato and to Bobonich. Aren't the philosophical claims that are being advanced more deserving of attention than small details in the text?

My reply would be mixed:

1. The contrast is a false one. An important task in philosophy is simply to understand a profound or subtle view different from one's own. This requires that our minds come into conformity--often against inclination--with a view that is alien to us. But this is impossible if we do not carefully and correctly interpret a philosopher's writing.

2. As I mentioned in one of my first posts on Plato's Utopia Recast, I study Bobonich in order to understand Plato, in order to grasp the philosophical truth that Plato might offer. If Bobonich gets Plato wrong, then the chain is broken, and--for my part--my interest in the book dissipates.

3. Bobonich's book is a developmental theory: it makes a claim about how Plato's views changed, and it aims to explain that change. But it is the constant temptation of developmental studies to draw one's attention to matters that, perhaps, ultimately have little philosophical importance. Why? Because change is one thing, and philosophical interest is something else.

4. It probably comes from my study of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Austin, but my preference in philosophy is to dissolve a problem as it arises--and attribute it to one's own folly--rather than let it arise and then try to 'solve' it. Similarly, my preference in studying a classical text is, if possible, to show that a problem simply does not arise--that it is itself a misunderstanding, or based on a misunderstanding. And yet this sort of dissolution can be achieved only through a careful attention to texts.

26 March 2005

The Difference a Word Makes--Phaedo 82a10

Those who don't care about words can skip this.

I do care about them, so I'm going to comment on a word in the Greek but missing in the two translations I looked at, Grube's and Jowett's. And...

...uh, that's the word, 'and' (or 'even'). In Greek, it's kai. A fairly common word, but its presence can make a big difference.

In Greek (see the previous post for the whole passage) the line is:

- ou)kou=n eu)daimone/statoi, e)/fh, kai\ tou/twn ei)si\ kai\ ei)j be/ltiston to/pon i)o/ntej

Jowett leaves out the word (I'll put a gap where it's missing): "Then", said he, "the happiest ___ of those, and who go to the best place..."

Grube leaves out the word (again, I'll gapify): "The happiest ___ of these, who will also have the best destination..."

Bobonich (nicely) includes it: "Are not the happiest even of these [i.e. non-philosophers], and the ones going to the best place..." (19).

Bobonich's gloss, if correct, would certainly support his interpretation. But I'm not sure it's required, or even likely. ---But what else might that one little word mean? (Hint: look at the broader context.)

The Best Non-Philosophers Can Do

I owe readers of this blog a posting of the passage that Bobonich is referring to when he talks about 'non-philosophic virtue' in the Phaedo (82a-c).

- “And those who have chosen injustice and tyranny and robbery pass into the bodies of wolves and hawks and kites. Where else can we imagine that they go?”

- “Beyond a doubt,” said Cebes, “they pass into such creatures.”

- “Then,” said he, “it is clear where all the others go, each in accordance with its own habits?”

- “Yes,” said Cebes, “of course.”

- “Then,” said he, “the happiest of those, and those who go to the best place, are those who have practiced, by nature and habit, without philosophy or reason, the social and civil virtues which are called moderation and justice?”

- “How are these happiest?

- “Don't you see? Is it not likely that they pass again into some such social and gentle species as that of bees or of wasps or ants, or into the human race again, and that worthy men spring from them?”

- “Yes.”

- tou\j de/ ge a)diki/aj te kai\ turanni/daj kai\ a(rpaga\j protetimhko/taj ei)j ta\ tw=n lu/kwn te kai\ i(era/kwn kai\ i)kti/nwn ge/nh: h)\ poi= a)\n a)/llose/ famen ta\j toiau/taj i)e/nai;

- a)me/lei, e)/fh o( Ke/bhj, ei)j ta\ toiau=ta.

- ou)kou=n, h)= d' o(/j, dh=la dh\ kai\ ta)=lla h(=| a)\n e(/kasta i)/oi kata\ ta\j au)tw=n o(moio/thtaj th=j mele/thj;

- dh=lon dh/, e)/fh: pw=j d' ou)/;

- ou)kou=n eu)daimone/statoi, e)/fh, kai\ tou/twn ei)si\ kai\ ei)j be/ltiston to/pon i)o/ntej oi( th\n dhmotikh\n kai\ politikh\n a)reth\n e)pitethdeuko/tej, h(\n dh\ kalou=si swfrosu/nhn te kai\ dikaiosu/nhn, e)c e)/qouj te kai\ mele/thj gegonui=an a)/neu filosofi/aj te kai\ nou=;

- ph=| dh\ ou(=toi eu)daimone/statoi;

- o(/ti tou/touj ei)ko/j e)stin ei)j toiou=ton pa/lin a)fiknei=sqai politiko\n kai\ h(/meron ge/noj, h)/ pou melittw=n h)\ sfhkw=n h)\ murmh/kwn, kai\ ei)j tau)to/n ge pa/lin to\ a)nqrw/pinon ge/noj, kai\ gi/gnesqai e)c au)tw=n a)/ndraj metri/ouj.

- ei)ko/j.

Bobonich's argument seems to be: this is the best that non-philosophers can do; but it's bleak and holds no hope of improvement; so the lives of all non-philosophers are not worth living.

But (among other difficulties):

1. Why would Plato use the term 'happiest' in the very passage where, on Bobonich's interpretation, he was denying that these people could be happy at all?
2. Why say that the plight of these persons is without hope? If they can get reincarnated as 'worthy' human beings, won't they have a chance at becoming philosophers in a future life?

Stuck in the Mud!

I first noticed that the notion, ‘life not worth living’, was carrying weight in Bobonich's argument when I saw it in a passage I’ve quoted already:

We saw that in the Phaedo Plato holds that all non-philosophers are radically ethically defective. All non-philosophers lack genuine virtue and they lack genuine virtue because they have the wrong ultimate ends. They are oriented toward sensible objects and not towards genuine non-sensible value properties. As a result, their lives fail to be happy and, in fact, do not seem to be worth living (41-42).

This is where Bobonich summarizes his interpretation of the Phaedo and begins to discuss the Republic. By claiming that non-philosophers do not ‘live lives worth living’, whereas philosophers do, Bobonich aims to sharpen the distinction between them.

But to what in Plato does this phrase, ‘life not worth living’ correspond? I couldn't think of something, when I first saw it. Or does it correspond to nothing at all—and, rather, it reflects a judgment that Bobonich is making about non-philosophers, as he takes Plato to describe them?

There’s no entry in the index for ‘life not worth living’. So here is my own collation of the relevant passages. I’ll give them in reverse order, to show dependence.

The first earlier passage also refers back to an earlier result:

…it remains the case that the lives of non-philosophers are not worth living and [sic] there is nothing which suggests that any sort of education or training which does not make its recipient into a philosopher can provide him with a life worth living (37)

The ‘as we have seen’ in the following passage indicates that it too depends on something earlier:

[The Phaedo’s] conception of the nature of non-philosophers commits Plato to a radically pessimistic understanding of the possibilities of political association. ‘Popular and political’ virtue might be inculcated in citizens by actual states that are comparatively well-governed. But, as we have seen, this sort of virtue is not sufficient to make the citizens’ lives worth living. Such a problem, however, does not arise only for existing polities; in fact, no possible reorganization of the political and social structure of the city seems capable of solving it. Given Plato’s account of their ethical psychology, non-philosophers must pursue goods which are not capable of making their lives worth living and [sic] the Phaedo does not make room for any sort of education for non-philosophers that could make their lives worth living without making them into philosophers (36).

The next passage gives an argument:

Plato holds that goods such as wealth, health, honor, political office, and various other bodily and psychic qualities are Dependent Goods, that is, they are only good for a person who possesses wisdom or knowledge of the good. Wisdom itself is an Independent Good. For those who lack wisdom or knowledge of the good, Dependent Goods are either not good or bad. Since non-philosophers clearly do lack wisdom or knowledge of the good they could not be benefited by any of the goods that they possess (and may be harmed by them). Even if non-philosophers are merely not benefited by the Dependent Goods they possess, a life with no goods does not seem to be worth living (32).

But from this passage, it seems as if the ‘not worth living’ judgment is Bobonich’s: Bobonich himself is maintaining that a life without any goods would be a life not worth living, and he maintains that, according to the Phaedo, non-philosophers have no goods at all. (But apparently, then, philosophers also would lack goods entirely, since they fail to attain wisdom in this life, as we have seen—but let’s put that problem aside.)

Next there comes another passage that depends on an earlier one:

Although we can now better see their basis in Plato’s psychology and epistemology, the claims that no non-philosopher thinks that virtue is good for its own sake, and that none has a life worth living, are still in sharp contrast with our ordinary understanding of human beings (31).

And then finally we come to the passage which is the origin of the notion. I’ll quote it in full. Bobonich is discussing the eschatological passages at Phaedo 69b-d and 82a-c. (Strangely he does not, here or elsewhere, consider the eschatological passages at 107d-108c and 113d-c, which, as we have seen, seem to affirm degrees of merit.)

Here, joining the company of the goods requires having wisdom as an ultimate end. Non-philosophers will either lie in the mud in Hades or will be reincarnated as a non-human animal (in the best case, as an ant or a bee). Three points are worth particular attention. First, in both pictures of the afterlife all non-philosophers are cut off from contact with the gods. Lying in the mud or reincarnation as an animal leaves them far removed from the divine. Only philosophers actualize the capacities of the human soul that are themselves divine and that bring their possessors into a divine state. Second, there is no possibility of significant improvement for non-philosophers in the afterlife. On the earlier picture, lying in the mud seems to be a permanent condition. But the later picture that allows reincarnation is no more optimistic. The best of non-philosophers pass from respectable people into various animal reincarnations and back again, but while some reincarnations are worse than others, none is a worthwhile life for a human being. Although individual souls that lead a non-philosophic life can, on the later picture, make significant progress, this would require that in one of their future reincarnations they pursue philosophy. Insofar as they do not, they cannot make significant advances in virtue or in happiness. Third, even if we do not take literally the details of the post-mortem fate of the non-philosophically virtuous, Plato presents their lot as what their lives and the condition of their souls entitle them to. Since the happiness of one’s life depends primarily on the condition of one’s soul, the post-mortem fate of non-philosophers should not be seen as marking a genuine and radical change in their happiness. Cashing out the eschatological imagery, Plato is claiming that non-philosophic virtue here and now is not sufficient to provide its possessor with a human life worth living. This is a remarkable conclusion and one that deserves emphasis. Plato is denying not merely that non-philosophers can have happy lives, but that even the best of non-philosophers can have lives that are worth living (22).

So that’s what Bobonich claims. Thoughts? Reactions? Observations?

The argument seems to be that 'close doesn't count'. If someone fails to join the gods upon death, he's lost the entire game.

25 March 2005

Just Curious

Jon Miller (Uppsala) has a review of Steven K. Strange and Jack Zupko (eds.), Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations (Cambridge University Press, 2004), in NDPR, which concludes as follows:

This reviewer would take issue with many of the claims but since the (alleged) problems don't diminish the basic originality and importance of the volume, they will be bypassed in favor of one global criticism. It concerns the objectives of the volume. In their generally helpful introduction, the editors say that "[t]he essays in this volume are intended to . . . [explore] how Stoicism actually influenced philosophers from antiquity through the modern period in fields ranging from logic and ethics to politics and theology" (1). In keeping with this mandate, many of the individual authors -- Engberg-Pedersen, Normore, Lagrée, Rutherford, Nussbaum -- do speak of instances of "actual influence" by Stoicism on this person or that concept. It would be absurd to deny that Stoicism was influential; yet, it is another thing entirely to prove specific cases of influence. And it is unclear why philosophers should care all that much: what we're more interested in is how the ideas and arguments compare, not where they came from. The task of determining influence is distinct, both conceptually and scholarly, from that of determining philosophical kinship. The former involves studies of the transmission and reception of texts; the latter, the analysis of the proximity of arguments. Whether they think so or not, almost all the papers in the volume engaged in the latter; many of the most important errors would have been avoided if they had recognized as much.

If we look past thinking papers, and the unscholarly use of adjectives--mistakes to be attributed, surely, to NDPR's editors--Miller's criticism seems a serious one.

Let me restate that criticism, to underline the point:

“Here’s a volume intending to document examples of the influence of Stoicism. But only half the contributions in fact try to do this. Yet those that do, argue fallaciously from similarity to causation: e.g. ‘This idea in St. Paul (or Aquinas, Grotius, or Descartes) is similar to this Stoic idea; therefore St. Paul (or Aquinas, or Grotius, or Descartes) was influenced by this Stoic idea.’ But in any case questions of influence are irrelevant to philosophy. Moreover, the authors' concern with that project distracts them from giving due attention to the interesting conceptual differences between the Stoics and the other philosophers they examine.”

Fair enough. But suppose one were to accept Miller’s criticism and insist that the contributions be re-written, so that it was clear that no claims about influence were being advanced. The volume might then be re-released as Observed Similarities to Stoicism in Various Thinkers. But then (just curious): Why would anyone want to read such a book?

(And I don't think anyone will write the other book that could by written from the same material: Why Stoicism is True--with Supporting Passages from Various Thinkers.)

Academic Blogs

What can academic blogs do? What might they replace? For instance, the Volokh Conspiracy recently surmised that law blogs would render otiose the student summaries of cases traditionally published in law journals: astute summaries are posted almost immediately on blogs. Similarly, can blogs in philosophy eventually do better much of what book reviews have traditionally done? How can they be used to test ideas? To foster a real exchange?

I try to avoid that staple of blogging--posting someone else's post. But here's an interesting article in the Chronicle on academic blogs, now ancient, but sound in its main themes.

And Salon recently reported on a study of blogs with this table:

per Blog
per Blog

per Blog

100 A-list bloggers
15 million
1700 hrs
2,000 B-list bloggers
5 million
62 hrs
18,000 C-list bloggers
9 million
13 hrs
80,000 up-and-coming bloggers
8 million
2.5 hrs
5 million remaining active bloggers
15 million

Where does Dissoi Blogoi fall, now one month after it began? In the 'up-and-coming' class, that is, within the top 2% of US blogs.

(Btw, the Salon article also reports that, because of the recent explosion of blog readership in China, the 32 million US blog readers represent only 40% of the world audience for blogs.)

What 's Really At Issue

Let's grant (which we shouldn't) that the distinction between a philosopher and a non-philosopher is as sharp and as clear as could be. Philosophers grasp the Forms; non-philosophers don't. Philosophers have genuine virtue; non-philosophers lack virtue entirely. Let's accept the picture of the Phaedo that Bobonich wishes to draw part and parcel.

But so far we are talking about philosophers and non-philosophers 'in a state of nature', so to speak, or as private persons living in some larger society.

Now suppose, however, a relationship of authority between these two classes: philosophers have authority, and non-philosophers live under their authority. Even more, suppose that the non-philosophers recognize:

  1. that the philosophers know something that they don't;
  2. that knowing this is important for achieving human welfare;
  3. that the philosophers, in their authority, genuinely aim at the good of those under their authority.
Suppose that, as a consequence of these beliefs, the non-philosophers are duly subservient to the laws that the philosophers, in their authority, set down.

Now what do we say about the virtue, or lack of virtue, of the non-philosophers? Certainly the non-philosophers will act in virtuous ways. Certainly too there will be reasons why they act as they do--which they recognize, even if they don't grasp them themselves. Call this sort of virtuous-like behavior 'participated' virtue (following traditional Platonic usage) .

That is, take the view of the Phaedo, introduce a structure of authority as described, and then pose the question: Given this adjusment, would Plato speak of the virtue of the non-philosophers as he speaks of the virtue of citizens in the Laws? That's the crucial question, I think. If the answer is 'yes', then no change between the dialogues; if the answer is 'no', then change.

But there is nothing in the Phaedo to decide this, and therefore no basis for claiming that the view of the Phaedo is different. (If anything, 1.-4. of the previous post indicate that Plato would be inclined at least to regard participated virtue as in some sense virtue.)

In re: Phaedo

I'll summarize the case about the Phaedo, and then in another post say what I think is really at issue (no, we haven't yet touched upon it, I believe!).

1. Plato is usually articulating ideals. So perhaps his talk of 'true philosophers' is to be understood in an implicitly reduplicated sense. I.e. "Only true philosophers have virtue" = "A person has virtue only insofar as he is a philosopher." How can this be ruled out? I don't see that it can.

2. The Phaedo clearly affirms that it is possible to grasp the Forms and attain to virtue in various degrees--(perhaps only among philosophers, but the principle of the thing is acknowledged).

3. Plato is happy, at times, to talk in an ordinary way, as if goodness and badness are widely distributed among people.

4. Non-philosophers differ, if not in virtue, then in something that is like virtue, and which provides a basis for differences in rewards and punishments after death.

As regards 3. , think also of the famous 'misology' passage. Misology is

a shameful state of affairs...and obviously due to an attempt to have human relations without any skill in human affairs, for such skill would lead one to believe, what is in fact true, that the very good and very wicked are both quite rare, and that most men are between these extremes (Grube, 89e-90a).

...ai)sxro/n, kai\ dh=lon o(/ti a)/neu te/xnhj th=j peri\ ta)nqrw/peia o( toiou=toj xrh=sqai e)pexei/rei toi=j a)nqrw/poij; ei) ga/r pou meta\ te/xnhj e)xrh=to, w(/sper e)/xei ou(/twj a)\n h(gh/sato, tou\j me\n xrhstou\j kai\ ponhrou\j sfo/dra o)li/gouj ei)=nai e(kate/rouj, tou\j de\ metacu\ plei/stouj.

Most of us are 'in between' (metaxu) ! And this passage occurs immediately after those that we have been looking at, where Socrates seems to say that only philosophers can be virtuous!

Taking all of 1.-4. into account, the Claim that the Laws' acknowledgement of virtue among non-philosophers marks a radical change for Plato seems really quite weak. Why not say, as we can so easily say: in the Phaedo, Plato is concerned with clarifying the ideal; in the Laws, his interest is rather in the extent to which people generally can approximate to the ideal?

But, as I said, I don't think that even this touches upon the key point.

24 March 2005

Virtue by Stages and Degrees

In an earlier post I pointed out that Socrates in the Phaedo clearly affirms that there are degrees of knowledge and of virtue. I then raised the question of whether, nonetheless, he still draws a sharp distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers.


Again, let’s review the relevance of this. (Skip this paragraph if you’re tired of hearing this.) I’m trying to settle my mind about the thesis of Chris Bobonich’s recent book. He gives a theory of development in Plato’s understanding of citizenship and law. The theory, since it is a developmental theory, presupposes a change that needs to be explained. The supposed change is that from (i) Plato’s thinking, in the Phaedo and Republic, that no non-philosopher is virtuous, to (ii) his thinking, in the Laws, that non-philosophers generally can become virtuous. I agree with Socrates that we learn in what way something is true by trying to refute it. So I’ve been trying to refute this thesis. I tried at first to refute Bobonich’s view of the nature of citizens’ virtue in the Laws. (He claims, in effect, that it is philosophical; I claim that it is ‘participated’.) I’m now trying to refute Bobonich’s reading of the Phaedo. The reason is that, if Plato did not change his mind, then we don't need a theory of development to explain any change. (The difference between the Laws and earlier works would still be interesting, but not in that way.)

This may be a dead-end, but maybe not.

So now, to resume:


In Phaedo 66e-67a Socrates says that no one attains knowledge strictly (‘purely’), or virtue, before his soul is separated from his body at death. That’s why, I think, Socrates repeatedly says that he’s looking forward to meeting even ‘better’ men than his friends after he dies. That’s also why, I think, Socrates is usually careful to say that what is decisive for the soul’s salvation is not wisdom or virtue but rather the love of wisdom, that is, philosophy. Now love clearly can vary in degree, so this seems to make the case even worse for Bobonich.

But not so, because he can now argue: “You can’t love what you do not know, and only philosophers have discovered the Forms. Plato’s talk of degrees of knowledge and virtue applies only to those who have already discovered, and love, the Forms.” Bobonich in effect does argue this on pp. 34-36. He also makes a point similar to that at the end of Republic 5: unless someone recognizes the existence of Forms, he has no way of taking appearances to be merely appearances, and yet this rejection of appearances is crucial to genuine virtue.

So there you have it, an interpretation which allows for both degrees of virtue, and stages.

One might seal the case by pointing to those passages (and think of the Cave Allegory!) where Plato supposes some initial conversion and liberation from bondage, which precedes an ascent towards the truth. The idea is in the Phaedo as well. Here’s a passage describing a change in direction, much as Lucas Rotondo suggested in his comment:

Those who care for their own soul and do not live for the service of their body dismiss all these things. They do not travel the same road as those who do not know where they are going but, believing that nothing should be done contrary to philosophy and their deliverance and purification, they turn to this and follow wherever philosophy leads (Grube, 82d).

e)kei=noi oi(=j ti me/lei th=j e(autw=n yuxh=j a)lla\ mh\ sw/mati pla/ttontej zw=si, xai/rein ei)po/ntej, ou) kata\ tau)ta\ poreu/ontai au)toi=j w(j ou)k ei)do/sin o(/ph| e)/rxontai, au)toi\ de\ h(gou/menoi ou) dei=n e)nanti/a th=| filosofi/a| pra/ttein kai\ th=| e)kei/nhj lu/sei te kai\ kaqarmw=| tau/th| dh\ tre/pontai e)kei/nh| e(po/menoi, h(=| e)kei/nh u(fhgei=tai.

One’s deliverance (lysis) is the sharp change, one’s ultimate purification (kartharmos) is what is approached in degree.

Here’s a passage describing a liberation from imprisonment:

The lovers of learning know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned in and clinging to the body, and that it is forced to examine other things through it as through a cage and not by itself, and that it wallows in every kind of ignorance. Philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment is that it is due to desires, so that the prisoner himself is contributing to his own incarceration most of all. As I say, the lovers of learning know that philosophy gets hold of their soul when it is in that state, then gently encourages it and tries to free it by showing them that investigation through the eyes is full of deceit, as is that through the ears and the other senses. …The soul of the true philosopher thinks that this deliverance must not be opposed and so keeps away from pleasures and desires and pains and fears as far as he can (Grube, 82e-83b).

gignw/skousi ga/r, h)= d' o(/j, oi( filomaqei=j o(/ti paralabou=sa au)tw=n th\n yuxh\n h( filosofi/a a)texnw=j diadedeme/nhn e)n tw=| sw/mati kai\ proskekollhme/nhn, a)nagkazome/nhn de\ w(/sper dia\ ei(rgmou= dia\ tou/tou skopei=sqai ta\ o)/nta a)lla\ mh\ au)th\n di' au(th=j, kai\ e)n pa/sh| a)maqi/a| kulindoume/nhn, kai\ tou= ei(rgmou= th\n deino/thta katidou=sa o(/ti di' e)piqumi/aj e)sti/n, w(j a)\n ma/lista au)to\j o( dedeme/noj sullh/ptwr ei)/h tou= dede/sqai, o(/per ou)=n le/gw, gignw/skousin oi( filomaqei=j o(/ti ou(/tw paralabou=sa h( filosofi/a e)/xousan au)tw=n th\n yuxh\n h)re/ma paramuqei=tai kai\ lu/ein e)pixeirei=, e)ndeiknume/nh o(/ti a)pa/thj me\n mesth\ h( dia\ tw=n o)mma/twn ske/yij, a)pa/thj de\ h( dia\ tw=n w)/twn kai\ tw=n a)/llwn ai)sqh/sewntau/th| ou)=n th=| lu/sei ou)k oi)ome/nh dei=n e)nantiou=sqai h( tou= w(j a)lhqw=j filoso/fou yuxh\ ou(/twj a)pe/xetai tw=n h(donw=n te kai\ e)piqumiw=n kai\ lupw=n [kai\ fo/bwn] kaq' o(/son du/natai,

Of course this conversion and 'liberation' fits perfectly with the Socratic practice of inducing shame and perplexity in his interlocutors, so that they come to think that they do not know what they thought they knew-- and only then can they love what they see that they lack. Their eros has been awakened.

This all looks decisive. But in fact it’s not clear that, despite all this, we still shouldn’t allow a degree or kind of virtue to non-philosophers. The case is not quite closed, I think--or so I shall maintain in a later post.

When Good Things Happen to Bad People

In an earlier post (When Bad Things Happen to Good People?), I drew attention to the following passage in Aristotle’s Ethics:

Righteous indignation is intermediate between grudging ill will and malice, all of these having to do with pain and pleasure at things that happen to one’s neighbors: the person who tends towards righteous indignation is distressed at those who do well undeservedly, while the grudging person exceeds him, being distressed at anyone’s doing well, and the malicious person is so deficient when it comes to being distressed that he is even pleased (Nicomachean Ethics 2.8.1108b1-5, Rowe and Broadie translation).

[1108b] (1) ne/mesij de\ meso/thj fqo/nou kai\ e)pixairekaki/aj, ei)si\ de\ peri\ lu/phn kai\ h(donh\n ta\j e)pi\ toi=j sumbai/nousi toi=j pe/laj ginome/naj: o( me\n ga\r nemeshtiko\j lupei=tai e)pi\ toi=j a)naci/wj eu)= pra/ttousin, o( de\ fqonero\j u(perba/llwn tou=ton e)pi\ (5) pa=si lupei=tai, o( d' e)pixaire/kakoj tosou=ton e)llei/pei tou= lupei=sqai w(/ste kai\ xai/rein.

And I posed the open question: Pleased by what?

It’s a question about what this vice of epichairekakia amounts to. The common view, followed by Rowe and Broadie in their comments, is that it’s being “pleased by the bad things that happen to others generally”, which is really equivalent to being “distressed by the good things that happen to others generally”, and so the two extremes of the virtue of righteous indignation would amount to the same thing—which is a problem.

One commentator on this blog, John Henry, was bold enough to attempt an answer. I promised my own view of it, which is the following. (If you want to make an attempt at an answer, read the earlier post here before going on!)

To see what Aristotle is getting at, simply change the order of the phrases in which he introduces the extremes, thus:

Righteous indignation is intermediate between grudging ill will and malice, all of these having to do with pain and pleasure at things that happen to one’s neighbors: the person with epichairekakia is so deficient when it comes to being distressed that he is even pleased, the person who tends towards righteous indignation is distressed at those who do well undeservedly, while the grudging person exceeds him, being distressed at anyone’s doing well, and (Nicomachean Ethics 2.8.1108b1-5, Rowe and Broadie translation).

It then becomes clear that Aristotle is interpreting the word, epichairekakia, to mean not “taking pleasure in the bad things that happen to people (generally)” but rather “taking pleasure in (moral) badness”—and this makes sense, because kakia means ‘vice’ or ‘wickedness’. And this outlook is more plausibly taken as an extreme of someone who is upset when anyone, even good persons, do well.

If we want an image of that sort of person, we need look no farther than Polus in the Gorgias, who is so far from feeling distress at Archelaus’ success, that he relishes describing all the gory details to Socrates.

I said that this understanding of epichairekakia sheds much light on how Aristotle regards the Doctrine of the Mean, and maybe in a later post I’ll say more about that.