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.


Anonymous said...

You might figure that there is a development, everything else being equal, but everything else is not equal. The difference is easily explained: they are different dialogues. Different audience, different interlocutors, different purpose. No need to introduce extraneous and unknowable variable, ie some sort of development (or even a dating of the dialogues, which we don't know either).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is a dead end, but I want to point to two passages in which Plato seems to ascribe courage & temperance first to philos and then to non-philos. I don't understand how Plato can concede these virtues to those who aren't wise ( philosophers ) or even pursuing wisdom ( ie, philosophisizing ).
68b seq contrasts the oxymoronic "shadow virtue " of non-philos who are intemperately temperate & fearfully brave with the real virtue of philos who practice temperance et al to purge themselves of fears and desires. Virtue, it is emphasized, is a life-time discipline in which the soul practices detaching itself from emotions & worldly concerns , so that at death it can fully separate itself & go live with the gods . [ If so, do disembodied souls have any more use for courage & temperance than do gods? Souls certainly need some virtues like euboulia, but are courage & temperance only disposable virtues of the embodied? ]
82b celebrates the afterlife of those happy souls who have practiced the virtues of temperance and justice "aneu philosophias te kai nou". Without even pursuing wisdom, much less being wise.
So what does it take to be courageous and temperate? Knowledge, wisdom, acquantance with the Forms seems to be completely out of picture here?
I can't understand degrees of virtue until I understand who is really virtuous and why.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous the First: I think that simply saying 'they are different dialogues' does not yet explain the apparent difference in doctrine. One should explain how someone who (by hypothesis) thought the same thing in both dialogues, might nonetheless, precisely on account of the differences you cite, produce works that appear to be different in doctrine.

Anonymous the Second: I'm not sure I understand how you deal with those passages. Bobonich would say (and does say in his book): these passages show exactly the point--in the Phaedo  Plato is willing to grant that those who don't philosophize have only simulacra of virtue. Do you interpret these passages otherwise?  

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

How can the Phaedo resist the following skeptical dilemma:
Embodied souls don't know what temperance or courage is, so they cannot be temperate or courageous. Immortal disembodied souls have no need or use for temperance & courage, so they aren't temperate or courageous. Therefoe, no soul or person is courageous or temperate.