16 March 2005

Two Caveats

A commentator on an earlier post wrote, perceptively, "A difference in tone and content does not necessarily mean a difference in one's thinking." This should be kept in mind, I think, when we examine Bobonich's claim that Plato rejected his tripartite theory of the soul, and that he changed from thinking that only philosophers can be virtuous, to thinking that nearly everyone can be.

In fact these are matters in which it is very easy to take different views, in different circumstances or for different purposes.

Can most people be virtuous? Are most people virtuous? What do you think?

I'll answer differently at different times. Arguing against a Hobbesian, I'll insist on the wide distribution of good will and simple decency. Looking at how few people risked their lives to help Jewish people in Nazi Germany, I'll say that very few of us are truly virtuous. If the standard of virtue is, you would always and immediately prefer to die than do anything wrong (which, by the way, is Plato's standard in the Phaedo), then undoubtedly few people are virtuous. That's heroism. And yet it's not unnatural to think that someone who compromises even a little and fails to be heroic is, to that extent, not 'truly virtuous'.

Likewise (if we speak in this way): How many parts does the human psyche have? What would you say?

There's an amazing persistance to the Republic's idea that there are three--reason, spiritedness, and desire. (It's not for nothing that it's a time-honored classic.) To take two examples at random: C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man adopts that analysis and talks about 'men without hearts', who have reason and desire but lack educated, spirited responses to beauty. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, is constantly using the tripartite analysis as workable enough and sufficient for ethics: "After courage let's discuss moderation, since these seem to be the virtues of the non-rational parts of the soul" (3.10), he says, clearly having Plato's trio of wisdom-courage-moderation in mind. But does Aristotle then accept some sharp or exaggerated doctrine of three homunculi in the soul? Clearly not.

(Generally, that the 'soul has three parts' will be appealing to just the same extent as the doctrine that there are four chief or cardinal virtues. Wisdom, courage, and moderation get assigned to parts, and justice gets assigned either to the whole, as in Plato, or to relations between persons, as in Aristotle.)

So one needs to be very cautious about claims that someone is adopting these views for the first time or rejecting them.