Plato (part 2) – Politics, Ethics & More

Politics & Justice

Plato’s republic describes the perfect political state, and the meaning of justice. This is the subject of an earlier post on Plato’s politics, so I will only dip into this briefly. Plato’s utopian republic is an austere communism where there is no wealth or poverty. Political power belongs to a philosopher-king and an aristocratic ruling class. Everyone is kept in their place by a caste system which is based on the necessary myth that God has created three kinds of people: those of gold (the aristocracy), silver (the soldiers) and brass (the workers). Plato’s republic is a rigid society devoid of innovation. Given that Plato experienced military defeat and famine in Athens, it is perhaps not surprising that his society achieves little more than providing enough to eat and a competent military.

The definition of justice consists in everybody keeping the role that they are naturally suited to. This comes from an older Greek belief that every person and thing has their appointed place and function, including the Olympian gods. If someone should overstep their appointed place this will lead to strife, but fate will punish that person and sooner or later restore balance. This definition of justice has nothing to do with equality, but then it could be argued neither does our modern justice system, which protects property rights regardless of inequality. Plato does raise the question of how to decide what someone’s appointed place is. Surely this can only be a question of judgement rather than objective fact, so does it not come down to whoever has power gets to decide? Justice then is only the interests of the stronger, and there is no objective ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Plato unfortunately does not take this argument seriously and simply insists that he knows what ‘the good’ is, and the debate remains undecided within philosophy today.

Cosmogony

Russell is wonderfully dismissive of Plato’s cosmogony (explanation for the origin of the universe) as written in his work the ‘Timaeus’, calling it at times ‘simply silly’ and unimportant to philosophy. It was however one of Plato’s most famous works in the Middle Ages and so had enormous influence on western thought. Following his theory of ideas, Plato says that there is the idea of a perfect universe which is perceived by God (also referred to as the Creator). God took existing matter, which was imperfect and irregular and fashioned it as closely as possible to be like the ideal universe. For Plato, the sphere is the perfect shape and circular motion of the perfect form of motion. The true elements of the world are not earth, air, fire and water. These substances are made up of elemental shapes – the right angled and equilateral triangle, which Plato says are the most beautiful forms, and therefore God arranged these shapes to construct matter. God then created the four kinds of animals: gods, birds, fishes and land animals. God made the souls of all animals (which is the immortal and divine part) and instructed the gods to make the mortal part. According to Russell, the last point may have been meant by Plato to be more of a creative flourish than a serious thought.

Ethics

Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ recounts the last hours of Socrates’ life before he is executed. As ever with Plato we don’t know to what extent he has faithfully recounted Socrates’ words or whether he has invented an entirely fictional character based on Socrates. The truth is probably somewhere in-between. The Platonic Socrates in his final hours is Plato’s ideal man, both immensely wise and good, and without fear of death. The influence Platonism would have on Christianity is very evident here in the parallels between in the martyrdom of Socrates and that of Christ.

Socrates is given the chance to escape, with Athens only too happy to look the other way to be rid of him. But his sense of justice is unwavering; even though he has been sentenced to death unjustly, it would be morally wrong to evade the law. His conclusion is familiar to Christians – two wrongs don’t make a right. Also in common with Christianity he decides that suicide is wrong, because our lives are ultimately owned by God. In the same way that a farmer would be angry if their cattle took their own life, so God is angry with us if we commit suicide. Instead he settles down to one last philosophical discussion with his friends (apparently sending his wife away first so that her weeping does not interfere with the conversation).   

Immortality

The Orphics believed that the body is of earth and the soul of heaven, as did Plato. As reality is superior to appearance, so the soul is superior to the body. Death is the separation of the soul and the body, so that the soul can live on in heaven in the company of the gods. Death then is not something to be feared but welcomed. The philosopher in life should be entirely concerned with the needs of the soul not the body. This asceticism does not mean forgoing physical luxuries out of a moral effort, but rather as a natural consequence of focusing instead on other matters such as the pursuit of knowledge. The body is a hindrance to the acquisition of knowledge; the bodily senses such as sight and hearing are imprecise and misleading. True knowledge is revealed to the soul through thought, not through the senses. Not only do the senses distort true reality, they also distract us from our thoughts, so are doubly evil. Only the soul of a true philosopher will go to heaven. The soul of a person who paid too much attention to the needs of the body will be trapped on earth like a ghost. A person who lived well and justly but was not a philosopher can hope to be reborn in human form again, or perhaps as an industrious and sociable animal (such as a bee, apparently).

The Platonic Socrates provides some arguments in favour of immortality, including the doctrine of reminiscence. We can gain some understanding of physical objects around us through experience, but where does our understanding of ideas that we can’t observe come from? Plato says we must have brought that knowledge from a previous existence, which proves the soul is immortal. This doctrine has several flaws. For example if our soul achieved knowledge in a previous life, it doesn’t explain how the soul achieved knowledge in that previous life (although Plato might have said that the soul originates in heaven in the realm of ideas). More importantly, most people would agree that understanding of intangible things (including ideas) can be taught and elicited by experience, even if not directly experienced.

The Platonic Socrates was held as the ideal philosopher until the modern era, but Russell’s judgement of him is not entirely positive. Yes he is indifferent to worldly success and cares most of all for what he believes to be true. His courage in the face of death appears remarkable, but is enabled by an evangelists’ faith in the afterlife. He is at times dishonest and sophistical in argument. He is unscientific and uses his intellect to prove that things are as he sees them, rather than pursuing a disinterested search for knowledge. For Russell this is the worst philosophical sin.

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