Platonic Ethics Analysis

At Issue

The key ethical topics of Plato’s dialogues may be listed as follows: the definition of the virtues, most prominently justice, moderation, courage, wisdom, and piety; the so-called Socratic paradoxes (first, that no one sins knowingly, and second, that virtue is knowledge); the inseparability of virtue and happiness (eudaimonia); the relation of the virtues to political life; the virtues as subspecies of the idea of the good; and the denunciation of hedonism—that is, the rejection of the popular notion that pleasure is that which produces happiness.

Beyond these topics, which are explicitly identified by Plato, the dialogues address numerous areas of ethical import. These include the existence of the soul, immortality, and life after death (in the dialogue Phaedo); rewards and punishments; education; the value of the fine arts; men’s duties to the gods, to other men, to their cities, families, and to themselves; the rights and duties of women; and in the story of Gyges and his invisibility ring (Republic), the question of whether the moral status of one’s conduct should depend on the consequences of that conduct.

Definition of the Virtues

Socrates responded (as is known from Plato’s earlier, or Socratic dialogues) that individual virtues such as courage (discussed in Laches), moderation (Charmides), piety (Euthyphro), and justice (Republic) could be defined for all to understand, so as to place most or all ethical activity under the umbrella of universally accepted standards. The realm in which each person was to be judge of the ethical quality of his own actions was much reduced; sophist ethics was defeated.

The Socratic contribution to ethical thought—essential in Plato’s system—was identified by Aristotle, who credited Socrates with laying down the principles of “universal definition and inductive reasoning”; that is, arriving at the universal definition of each virtue by means of a discussion and analysis of particular actions (inductive reasoning).

The Socratic Paradoxes

In developing his own ethical program, Plato took his point of departure from the so-called Socratic paradoxes. The first paradox argues that all men naturally seek to do good but often act wrongly because they mistake evil for good. Men thus commit sin involuntarily and out of ignorance (Protagoras). This paradox allows Plato, with Socrates, to define all sin or evil as ignorance and, conversely, to assert that all virtue is knowledge or wisdom: the second paradox.

This knowledge is available to men in general, but ordinary men occasionally err. It thus behooves the best men to acquire knowledge about the virtues, understand their nature, and act on a foundation of knowledge. This is no easy matter and requires a lifelong pursuit of wisdom (Republic). Thus, philosophers (seekers of wisdom) will be the wisest and, seeking the good (as all men do), will be less likely to err.

John Gould, in The Development of Plato’s Ethics (1955), strongly asserts that the goal of Plato’s ethical system (virtue, or areté) was always to lead to virtuous activity or behavior—for example, justice in the soul will express itself in just action—not merely to arrive at a valid ethical theory. This too was inspired by Socrates, as Plato dramatically demonstrated in the Crito, in which his teacher put his ethics into action by accepting the sentence of death as legally binding, refusing to escape from prison when he had the opportunity to do so, and refusing to disobey the state’s command that he take poison.

The Teachability of Virtue

Since virtue is knowledge and all men possess an innate capacity for knowledge, then virtue can be taught, and teaching and guidance may direct an individual toward good. On this point Plato seems initially to have wavered, for in the Meno Plato has Socrates say that virtue comes rather by chance, while in the Protagoras he suggests its teachability. Thus, the moral and political education of youths depends on the identity of virtue with knowledge and therefore on the teachability of virtue.

Plato’s Theory of Ideas or Forms as Related to Ethics

When one comes really to know the virtues, it is the immutable, stable, and abiding idea, form, or universal definition of the virtue that one comes to know. In the Gorgias, Plato has Socrates make the point that belief or opinion (which Gorgias, as a sophist, teaches) is not a sufficient standard for guiding moral and political life. The idea (or definition) of a virtue is learned by induction from particular case studies of the virtue in action.

In Republic, Plato lays out the course of lifelong study whose goal is the attainment of knowledge of the ideas and of the highest of the ideas, which Plato variously calls the idea of beauty, truth, or the good. Intimate knowledge of the ideas of the different virtues allows the guardians of the state to recognize the virtues and their opposites in every action in which they are present.

After a primary education (to age eighteen), the citizens, especially those who will emerge as guardians of the republic, are made to dwell in beautiful surroundings so as to attain to a love of the idea of the beautiful-in-itself. They next serve two years of military service. This is followed by the citizens’ higher education, which consists of ten years in “propaedeutic” (preparatory) studies for those who will become the guardians or philosopher kings of the state. The subjects studied in this phase are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics (music). The purpose of this scientific...

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The Overriding Idea of the Good

Some Plato scholars are troubled that in the minor dialogues (Laches, among others), the definitions of the virtues sometimes break down when Socrates tests them for their production of happiness in individual or city. That Plato may have done this deliberately in these early dialogues is indicated by the hints of dramatic purpose as opposed to an air of tentative inquiry in their structure and logic.

In Republic, Plato himself warns that these early definitions of virtues are not final. The utility of virtue must be related to an ultimate standard or ideal of the good. He devotes much of Republic and Symposium to achieving this.

For Plato, the forms of the virtues are themselves subcategories of the idea of the good. In reality, moderation, justice, and all the other virtues, including knowledge, are virtues because they participate in goodness. Plato is clear about this in Republic, where he calls the good the ultimate aim of life, the final object of desire, and the sustaining cause of everything else. The virtues, whether severally or united under the paradox that all virtue is knowledge, themselves aim at the good.

It is the guardians’ vision of the good that enables them to inculcate right opinion, teach virtue, and mold character and institutions in the light of a reasoned concept of goodness in private and public life.

The Symposium and other dialogues provide parallels to the idea of the good as final cause by looking, for example, at a hierarchy of friendship, passion, and love culminating in the apprehension of the idea of beauty, which is depicted by Plato as practically identical to the good.

The Relationship of Utility and Pleasure to Ethics

Plato is clear in rejecting Protagoras’ dictum that pleasure is to be identified with the good. He denies as well the notion that utility is the source and goal of morality. In Lysis and Symposium, Plato rejects the theory that the good is desired as a remedy against evil because that would make the good merely a means to an end. For the same reason, he explicitly rejects the hope of immortality as the origin of and reasons for people’s morality. In Republic, he strenuously opposes the view of Thrasymachus and Callicles that justice is an artificial convention devised by the weak in their conspiracy to neutralize the strong.

In his article “Plato’s Ethics,” Paul Shorey believes...

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Final Developments in Plato’s Ethical Thought

In Plato’s last years, his ethical approach underwent a change little noticed in discussions of mainstream Platonism. John Gould remarks that in his last work, Laws, “Plato the aristocrat, Plato the constructor of systems, Plato the lover of the aesthetic are all represented in their final and most convincing forms, while the ghost of Socrates . . . is no longer present even in the dramatis personae.”

In Laws, the thrust is still the perfection of the individual, but now no longer through the personal acquisition of virtue. Instead, the individual is to be improved by means of ideal legislation whose explicit goal is the control and obliteration of nonvirtuous behavior in the interest of...

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Crombie, I. M. An Examination of Plato’s Doctrines. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. A general work on all aspects of Plato’s philosophy, with ninety pages on ethics. Especially useful in tracing Plato’s ideas through the early minor dialogues: Euthyphro, Charmides, Laches, Meno, and Euthydemus.

Gould, John. The Development of Plato’s Ethics. New York: Russell & Russell, 1972. An excellent survey of the evolution of Plato’s ethical views from his youthful days under the influence of Socrates to the fully mature thought of his last dialogues, chiefly Philebos and Laws.

Grube, G. M. A. Plato’s...

(The entire section is 342 words.)