19 March 2005

How Bad Could It Be?

“Things are never so bad, nor so good, as they seem.” Does the maxim hold also of both ends of Plato’s philosophical career?

Recall the Claim: that Plato changes from holding, in the Phaedo and Republic, that no non-philosophers can be virtuous, to holding in the Laws that citizens generally can have all the virtues.

So far I’ve been trying out, as it were, the ‘not so good’ part of the maxim. That citizens generally could be fully virtuous seemed to depend on an unsupported interpretation of the preludes. The preludes, it seemed, were introduced by Plato not for autonomy, nor for knowledge of the foundations of law for its own sake, but rather for ready obedience to law, merely.

But what about the ‘not so bad’ side of things? Does Plato early on think that there is some limited but real sense in which people generally can be virtuous? If so, maybe we can pull the two ends of his career together, and make them meet. Then there’s no big change, and no need of a theory to explain it.

But how bad could things seem? Very, very bad, Bobonich maintains. Here’s what he says about the Phaedo:

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 towards 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)
His view seems to be based on the plain meaning of Socrates' words in the Phaedo.

But could Plato have really been so...extreme, so fanatical? And this notion of a 'life not worth living' is intriguing. What does it mean, and where does Plato talk about it? (More later.)


Sam Rickless said...

So Bobonich thinks that, according to the Phaedo, "all non-philosophers lack genuine virtue and they lack genuine virtue because they have the wrong ultimate ends. They are oriented towards sensible objects and not towards genuine non-sensible value properties."

I'm having trouble with this. It is true that in the Phaedo Socrates distinguishes between those who love (or care for) the body and those who love (or care for) the soul, saying that the latter are, while the former are not, capable of real virtue (68c-69d). And I suppose that if we identify philosophers with those who care for the soul and non-philosophers with those who care for the body, then we are committed to saying, as Bobonich does, that non-philosophers are incapable of real virtue.

But I wonder whether we should think that ALL non-philosophers care for the body and not the soul, i.e., that there is no way you can care for your soul unless you are a philosopher. In the Republic, which was almost certainly written at the time of (or at least not much later than) the Phaedo (many of the Phaedo's metaphysical doctrines re-appear in the Republic), Socrates (in Book IV) defines the virtues in a way that, at least in principle, makes it possible for non-philosophers to be virtuous. Consider moderation, for example. It's not true that one can't be moderate unless one despises (or wishes one were completely free of) one's appetitive desires. The important thing is that the appetitive part and the rational part of the soul should agree that the latter part should rule. A non-philosopher can therefore care about food, drink, and sex without thereby becoming vicious, as long as her care for these goods is kept in check by her reason. So I don't see why we must read the Phaedo as committing Plato to the view that non-philosophers can't be virtuous.

In this respect, the views of middle-period Plato contrast markedly with the views of early-period Plato (or, which is the same, with the views of the mature historical Socrates). As I mentioned in a previous post, the historical Socrates and early Plato were moral intellectualists, i.e., of the view that virtue is a kind of knowledge, specifically knowledge of good and bad. But according to moral intellectualism, it is IMPOSSIBLE to be virtuous without actually knowing what the good is and what the bad is. Only philosophers can (in principle) come to have the relevant kind of knowledge, and so only philosophers can come to be virtuous. But middle-period Plato abandons moral intellectualism and, with it, any commitment to the view that non-philosophers are incapable of virtue.

Anonymous said...

Sam, I think your impression of the Republic  is a natural one. I was in fact planning a post later today on how Bobonich deals with those book 4 definitions.

Your mention of intellectualism is interesting too. I gather that you, like many scholars, would take Plato's important shift to have taken place already before the Phaedo and Republic. I don't know what Bobonich makes of that. The index to his book (generally not helpful) has no entry for 'intellectualism', and a quick glance of his discussion of akrasia hasn't shed light on it for me.

Rowe remarks in his review that perhaps it's a mistake to look at Plato's development, as Bobonich does, beginning only from the (suppposed) middle dialogues, not taking into account Socratic dialogue views. Your concerns seem consistent with this. 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk