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...

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Pleasure or Wisdom Alone

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

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

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...

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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

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...

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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.


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