Platonic Ethics Analysis

At Issue

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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 Plato’s whole ethical thrust to be a polemic against hedonism: “This doctrine of the negativity of what men call pleasure is the fundamental basis of Plato’s ethics.” On this basis, Shorey continues, rests Plato’s demonstration that virtue and happiness are one. Moreover, pleasures are never pure but always mixed with desire or pain. Finally, Shorey adds, “Pleasure and pain, like confidence and fear, are foolish counselors.”

The dialogues devote much space to analyzing the concept of pleasure, which arises in some form in more dialogues than does any other issue. The Gorgias and Philebos directly oppose the sophist doctrine that defines the good as pleasure and that asserts that true happiness comes from gratifying the sensual appetites. This repudiation of hedonism also appears in Phaedo and Republic. In Republic, where Plato presents the idea of man’s tripartite soul, pleasures are ranked as intellectual, energetic, and sensual. Plato allowed the thesis of the Protagoras that a surplus of pleasure is good, but only when the pleasure is kept in perspective and is free from all evil consequences. Only in the sense that it suited his ethical system to argue that the virtuous life is the most pleasurable did Plato make Socrates identify pleasure and the good at the end of Protagoras. Rather, it is wisdom (sophia) that delivers happiness, for wisdom always achieves its object, wisdom never acts in error, and absence of error entails happiness.

Final Developments in Plato’s Ethical Thought

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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 the perfection of society. In this last dialogue of Plato’s corpus, the primary virtues are given their own separate existence as sophrosyne (moderation or temperance), dikaiosyne (justice), phronesis (wisdom), and andreia (courage), and possession of only one of them is not sufficient.

Plato’s thinking has, in fact, undergone a change from that of his Socratic period. In his new ideal state, the legislator will guide his people to virtue by manipulating the distribution of honor and dishonor and by using the pleasures, desires, and passions that motivate people: a kind of nascent behaviorist theory. By using a system of repetitive propaganda to work on popular emotions, he will steer them to virtue (areté). Plato’s goal was ever the same. What changed in his latter years was his attitude toward human nature, which became more pessimistic. The mistakes of Athenian democracy, rule by the masses, had convinced him that a more thoroughgoing system of controls had to prevail, and this he intended to provide in his new “second-best” state, governed not by philosophers but by law.


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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 Thought. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980. Perhaps the best introduction to the entire philosophical system of Plato.

Lodge, R. C. Plato’s Theory of Ethics: The Moral Criterion and the Highest Good. New York: Archon Books, 1966. An interpretation that ignores both solidly based explications of Plato’s ethics and Plato himself by subjectively focusing on non-Platonic topics such as “value scales” and “private-spirited artistic creation.”

Raven, J. E. Plato’s Thought in the Making. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965. A highly readable discussion of Plato’s life and thought, featuring a generous treatment of his ethics and especially a critique of the views of other premier Plato scholars on important issues.

Rowe, Christopher. An Introduction to Greek Ethics. London: Hutchinson, 1976. A short introduction to the field that ranges from Homer to the Epicureans and Stoics.

Shorey, Paul. “Plato’s Ethics.” In Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Gregory Vlastos. Vol. 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1971. A concise introduction to the major ethical issues considered by Plato from the pen of an important Plato scholar.

Shorey, Paul. What Plato Said. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. A highly acclaimed résumé and analysis of Plato’s writings with synopses of and critical commentary on twenty-eight dialogues. Treats ethics in appropriate contexts.

Taylor, A. E. Plato: The Man and His Work. 7th ed. London: Methuen, 1960. An indispensable book for any study of Plato’s philosophy in English. Provides a thorough discussion of every aspect of Platonism.