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Philebus asks whether pleasure or wisdom is the good. Philebus is represented as maintaining that pleasure is the good, while Socrates contends that wisdom, right opinion, and right reasoning are better than pleasure. It is agreed at the outset of the discussion that if a third state of being turns out to be better than either pleasure or wisdom, then neither Philebus nor Socrates will be considered the victor in the argument; but if either pleasure or wisdom turns out to be more akin to the good than the other, the victor will be the one who has defended the state allied with the better and happier life. Protarchus agrees to defend Philebus’s position, and the discussion begins.

Socrates begins his criticism of Philebus’s view by asking Protarchus to identify the quality common to pleasures of various sorts that Philebus designates by the word “good.” Protarchus objects to the question, arguing that pleasures, insofar as they are pleasures, do not differ from one another. However, after Socrates points out that it would be ridiculous to say that the various sciences, because they are all sciences, do not differ from one another, Protarchus agrees to say that there are many different kinds of pleasures, just as there are many different kinds of sciences.

The dialogue here takes a fascinating, although technical, turn. Pleasures are one, but also they are many. This fact suggests the problem of the one and the many, a problem that has nothing to do with concrete things, for an individual person, for example, can easily be one person with many parts; it has, rather, to do with the question as to how a person (the universal) is one, a unity, while the class of people is many, a plurality. The problem is to explain how the one (the universal) can be distributed among the many without losing its unity. Socrates explains that his favorite way of learning is to begin with one idea, a unity, and to proceed to infinity by means of finite steps. A musician, for example, understands that sound is one but also knows that there are many sounds and realizes how these various sounds can be combined. Also, Socrates adds, if inquiry begins with the infinite, then one should proceed to the unity not directly but only by means of a definite number. Thus, beginning with the infinite number of sounds possible to humanity, some god or “divine man,” perhaps the Egyptian Thoth, selected a definite number of sounds, and finally unified them by the art of grammar. In the present discussion, the problem is to determine, in the case of the unities pleasure and wisdom, the definite number of species or kinds of each, before passing on to the infinity of particular pleasures and instances of wisdom. Philebus interrupts to beg Socrates either to divide pleasure and wisdom, in the manner described, or to find between them some other way of settling the issue.

Pleasure or Wisdom Alone

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Socrates suggests that perhaps neither pleasure nor wisdom is the good, and, if so, there is no need to divide either of them into species. To settle the question as to whether either of them is the good, the proper method would be to consider, first of all, a life of pleasure without wisdom, and then a life of wisdom without pleasure; for if either is the good, it is self-sufficient and does not depend on the other. Philebus and Protarchus assent to this suggestion.

Protarchus at first is convinced that he would like nothing better than a life spent in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures. However, Socrates points out that if he had neither mind nor memory nor knowledge, he would have neither the intelligence nor the knowledge to know or to discover that he possessed pleasure or that he had possessed pleasure in the past; furthermore, he could not anticipate pleasure. Consequently, without knowledge, life would be reduced to the kind of existence an oyster has. Viewing the alternative in this way, Protarchus loses his enthusiasm for a life of pleasure.

Socrates then considers a life of wisdom without pleasure. It, too, appears unsatisfactory. It does seem to be the case that a life of both pleasure and wisdom, a third alternative, would be superior to a life of nothing but pleasure or nothing but wisdom.

Division into Finite and Infinite

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The next pertinent question, then, is the question as to whether pleasure or wisdom is the element that makes the mixed life good. Socrates claims that wisdom, or mind, is the cause of the good; if he can establish his point, Philebus’s claim that pleasure is the good will not take even third place. There is the possibility, briefly mentioned by Socrates, that the divine mind is the good; by the time the argument is over, pleasure has fallen to fifth place, and, even then, only as “pure” pleasure.

To lay the foundation of his argument in support of mind over pleasure, Socrates introduces a principle of division according to the distinction between the finite and the infinite. The finite and the infinite form two classes, the compound of them is a third class, and the cause of the compound is the fourth.

Socrates then shows that the infinite is many and that comparatives (such as the hotter and the colder) have no definite quantity because there is no end to the possibilities of degree. The comparative, then—whatever admits of more or less—belongs in the class of the infinite. In Socrates’ terms, “the infinite . . . is their unity.” Whatever has definite quantity and is measurable is, then, finite.

When the finite and infinite are combined, a third class appears: the class of the harmonious and proportionate (because the finite is the class of the measurable and is therefore able to introduce number, or order, into the infinite). Health, music, moderate temperature, the seasons, beauty, strength, and “ten thousand other things” belong to the third class.

Protarchus is reminded that the fourth class is the cause of the union of the finite and the infinite. It is then decided that pleasure and pain belong to the class of the infinite, the unlimited. Wisdom (knowledge, mind), however, as that which orders the universe and the elements of the universe and provides human beings with souls and minds, must belong to the fourth class: the cause of the union of the finite and infinite in a state of harmony.

Pleasure and Pain

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Socrates then explains that pain is the consequence of the dissolution of harmony in the body; the restoration of harmony is a pleasure. The pleasure of the soul is produced by expectation, a hope of pleasure. However, it is possible for a person to be in a condition of rest between periods of dissolution and restoration, and it may be that such a condition, possible to those who live a life of wisdom, is “the most divine of all lives.”

The pleasures of memory are mentioned, and Protarchus is reminded that not all bodily affections reach the soul, for sometimes people are not conscious; to be conscious is to achieve union of body and soul. Memory is the preservation of consciousness, and recollection is the soul’s power of recovering some feeling once experienced.

Because desire is the “endeavour of every animal . . . to the reverse of his bodily state”—as when a person who is hungry (empty) desires to be full—desire must be of the soul, or mind, which apprehends the replenishment when it occurs (remembering the state of being empty). Most people are in an intermediate state, as, for example, those who, experiencing pain, take some pleasure in remembering past pleasures.

A distinction is then made between true pleasures and false pleasures. Those persons who beguile themselves with false fancies and opinions derive pleasure from the false; consequently, their pleasures are false. Socrates also shows how the quality and quantity of pleasures can be misjudged when they are compared with different amounts of pain; pleasures compared with pains appear to be greater than they actually are: Such pleasures are also false. The greatest of bodily changes are felt as pleasure or pain, and they appear to be greater when the body is in an unhealthy state than when it is healthy. Furthermore, the pleasures of the intemperate are more intense than those enjoyed by the wise and temperate.

Socrates then carefully outlines the class of mixed feelings, combinations of pleasure and pain that are only of the body, or only of the soul, or common to both. The pleasure of scratching an itch, for example, is a mixed feeling of the body only; and there are certain kinds of anger, belonging to the soul, which are compounds of pleasure and pain.

Because neither false nor mixed pleasures could possibly rank very high in the scale of values, Socrates goes on to consider true and pure pleasures. If he can show that even these pleasures are inferior to wisdom or mind, he will win his case. Having previously rejected the notion that pleasure is merely the absence of pain, Socrates classifies the true pleasures as those given by beauty of color and form, by smooth and clear sounds, by sweet smells, and by knowledge when there is no hunger (pain) for knowledge. These pleasures are true and pure because they are unmixed with pain. Because the excessive pleasures have no measure, they are infinite; the moderate pleasures are finite. A small amount of pure pleasure is truer and more valuable than a large amount of impure, or mixed, pleasure.

Socrates then refers to the philosophical opinion that pleasure is a “generation”; that is, it is relative to some absolute essence that has true being. Because pleasure is not an end, or absolute, but is feeling provoked in a generative process toward an end and is thus allied with the instrumental, it cannot be truly good. The contrary view—that pleasure is good—would lead to the denial of the value of courage, temperance, understanding, and the other virtues; and it would further entail the absurd position that a person possessing pleasure is a person possessing virtue or excellence because only pleasure is good.


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Turning to a consideration of knowledge, Socrates first distinguishes between productive knowledge (aiming at products) and educational knowledge. Arithmetic, measurement, and weighing are the pure elements of the productive arts; the rest is conjecture. Socrates claims that music, medicine, husbandry, piloting, and generalship involve more of the impure element of conjecture than does the art of the builder. Even the exact art of building, considered in its pure aspect, the arithmetical, is not always pure. One must distinguish between rough-and-ready practical calculation, where things are counted, and the pure arithmetic of the person who is concerned only with number.

Of the arts, the purest is dialectic, the science of being and reality; the knowledge at which dialectic aims is the highest kind of knowledge, the knowledge of the changeless and essential. The words “mind” and “wisdom” are most truly and exactly used to refer to the contemplation of true being.

The Ordering of the Goods

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In summarizing, Socrates reminds his listeners, Philebus and Protarchus, that neither pleasure nor wisdom in isolation is a perfect good because neither would be acceptable without the other. The good, then, is a feature of the mixed life. At first it seems as if the greatest good could be achieved by mixing true pleasures with pure knowledge, but because life without knowledge of practical matters, to supplement knowledge of the essential, would not be worthwhile, all kinds of knowledge were admitted into the compound of the good. However, only the true pleasures are admitted, for wisdom knows the trouble that the impure can cause. Truth, too, is added. However, without measure to regulate the order of the parts of the good, no good would be possible. The mixture conceived by Socrates is regarded as the ideal because of the beauty, symmetry, and truth that order it.

The rival claims of pleasure and wisdom can now be judged by consideration of the beauty, symmetry (measure), and truth of each. On all three counts, wisdom wins; it surely has more of beauty, symmetry, and truth than does pleasure. The conclusion is now possible—the final ordering of the goods. Measure is first, because without measure nothing is worthwhile. Second is that which has been ordered by measure, the symmetrical and the beautiful. Mind and wisdom, as that which possesses the three essentials, is third. Then come the arts and sciences and true opinions that are the mind’s activities and products. In fifth position are the pure pleasures of the soul, the pleasures accompanying the practice of the pure arts and sciences.

Although wisdom turns out to be only third in the list of goods, Socrates wins the argument, for pleasure—and only pure pleasure at that—is fifth. Furthermore, measure and the symmetrical, the first two on the list, characterize the mind and are the mind’s objectives. Insofar as pleasure is allowed at all, it is only as the pure pleasure of wisdom.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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