02 March 2006

Cool Reason

Suppose someone knows something very well. What he knows is interesting, beautiful, and deep--for instance, a fundamental theorem in mathematics. Knowing this, he thinks about it.

Now suppose that an entire life for him is stitched together from activities such as this. One might say--if one had a certain sort of sensibility--that such a life would be akin to the life of the gods. It would be how a blessedly happy person, a makarios, would live. It's the life to be enjoyed by those who are graced to live on the Isles of the Blessed. And it is the sort of life to which our 'happiness' approximates.

Now, will that life be exceedingly pleasant; painful; or neutral--neither pleasant nor painful?

Plato and Aristotle give different answers on this point, and one wonders whether this difference--and not the issue about Forms or anything else--isn't the most significant difference in their philosophies. (This is a difference that can't but ramify throughout every part of a theory of ethics, of striving and therefore of motion, and of existence.) Aristotle says that such a life would be filled continuously with pleasures, and with pleasures that count as the greatest of all. Plato, at least as regards the Philebus, holds that such a life would be neutral--without pain, to be sure, but also entirely lacking in pleasure. There he recognizes pleasures of learning, but not pleasures inherent in thinking or knowing.

For my part, I began adequately to appreciate this difference when preparing last week a presentation on the Philebus for the NY Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy. And then I began to wonder: Does Plato maintain this Philebian view consistently throughout the dialogues?

Here, for instance, is something I found in the Phaedo, 65c1-9. It is a passage in 'Socrates' Defense' at the beginning, where Socrates is advocating a philosophical life as one devoted to those activities that the soul is fitted to engage in 'alone by itself', without, he thinks, any assistance from the body, and not in the service of the body.

a)=r' ou)=n ou)k e)n tw=| logi/zesqai ei)/per pou a)/lloqi kata/dhlon au)th=| gi/gnetai/ ti tw=n o)/ntwn;


logi/zetai de/ ge/ pou to/te ka/llista, o(/tan au)th\n tou/twn mhde\n paraluph=|, mh/te a)koh\ mh/te o)/yij mh/te a)lghdw\n mhde/ tij h(donh/, a)ll' o(/ti ma/lista au)th\ kaq' au(th\n gi/gnhtai e)w=sa xai/rein to\ sw=ma, kai\ kaq' o(/son du/natai mh\ koinwnou=sa au)tw=| mhd' a(ptome/nh o)re/ghtai tou= o)/ntoj.

“In thought, then, if at all, something of the realities becomes clear to it?”


“But it thinks best when none of these things troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor any pleasure, but it is, so far as possible, alone by itself, and takes leave of the body, and avoiding, so far as it can, all association or contact with the body, reaches out toward the reality.”

That the soul's activity is free from pleasure might seem strange. Rowe's gloss is clearly unsatisfactory:
...the inclusion of pain in the list is perhaps partly suggested by the verb paralupein (a)lghdw/n =lu/ph), and pleasure is naturally paired with it; mhde///, however, makes us pause on this last item--as well we might, since h(donh/ seems to be the last thing which should (para)lupei=n us. But S. says 'some sort of (tij) pleasure'; the reference is to any of the 'so-called pleasures' of 64d3, and his description of these would certainly be consistent with the claim that they 'annoy [the philosopher's soul] by a diversion' (LSJ's rendering of ).
Rowe at first explains the inclusion of pleasure as the result of what psychologists call 'clang association', a line of superficial connections, based on the sound of a word. (But Plato couldn't be a great writer and throw things onto a list in that way.) Then he points out--not consistently with this first explanation--that Plato takes care to flag pleasure especially, with mhde////. And then his final remark seems incorrect, because tij won't have a restrictive sense if it falls under the scope of a negation. (Fowler and Gallop rightly have 'any pleasure'.)

It would seem better to say that Plato, as he writes this, accepts the Philebian doctrine, and he intends to indicate that neither pain (as expected) nor pleasure (as probably not expected) will be part of, or contribute to, the activity of the soul 'alone by itself'.