26 March 2005

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.


Anonymous said...

Just a reaction, if I may.
There are a few things that Plato does in the Phaedo that genuinely compromise what he intends to be a very sympathetic reaction to Socrates' death. One of them is to put in Socrates' mouth the repeated strident dogmatic abuse of non-philos to Bobonich attends. Most readers recoil, do they not, from this "only we philos know the truth and live right, and the rest of you are worthless money-loving scum" line. Whom does Plato think he is persuading with this kind of rhetoric ?
Another very disappointing choice, if I may, is Socrates' admission at 63b that he would be wrong (adikoun) not to grieve at the prospect of his death if he did not believe this whole story about benevolent gods rewarding good souls in a happy afterlife. NO. NO. NO. Socrates should be grieved at dying if after all the life he has pursued was not the best life, and he did not make the right choices, and he could and should have avoided being condemned to the death he now faces. The rewards that gods and men may choose to bestow or withhold be damned. Doesn't this admission show that Plato has not yet really accepted that the virtuous life ( as we choose to live it here & now ) must be chosen for its own sake, and not for possible rewards of an afterlife?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous, Why couldn't Socrates believe that his life 'here and now' was good and desirable for its own sake and, precisely because of this, fear losing it? From, "N. fears losing X" it doesn't follow that "N. does not love X for its own sake." (He doesn't argue early in the Phaedo that he's looking forward to rewards. What he says is that he's looking forward to more of the same, and with even better companions as friends.)

Anonymous said...

A fine point perhaps, but maybe one of some philosophical interest: I do not find the idea of Socrates being grieved at the prospect of dying a sign that he does not authentically value the philosophical life for its own sake. What I find objectionable is his conditionalizing this grieving on the rewards of an afterlife. It is the conditional claim at 63b I find objectionable. To simplify & paraphrase : if I did not believe in all the rewards of a happy afterlife, I ought to be grieved at dying. In other words, lack of belief in a rewarding afterlife is a sufficient condition for being grieved at coming to the end of a virtuous life.
That disvalues the philosophical life. Be grieved at what you have done or failed to do, at whether you have managed to live the life you’ve professed or failed to live that life, not at whether the gods or the universe will choose to reward your life. If it is valued first and foremost for itself, the philosophical life does not need posthumous honors & rewards.
Socrates could be authentically grieved at the prospect for dying, if, for example, he felt death was cutting short his pursuit of truth & virtue. But he can’t very well claim that, can he, in the context of the Phaedo? Can a 70 year old man feel his life has been unjustly denied the opportunity to pursue truth & virtue? Let us recall here the opinion of Xenophon & Hermogenes: Socrates had decided it was time to die.