All 4 entries tagged Plato

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August 15, 2011

Plato and the England Riots

Plato argues in the Republic that the human psyche consists of three 'parts' or motivational sets, which exist - or should exist - in a definite hierarchy. First, there is the rational part which desires truth and reality and which should rule the psyche as a whole (and note how the rational part has its own specific, rational desires; it is not just a means/ends calculator, a Humean 'slave of the passions'). Secondly, there is the thumos, the spirited part which is concerned with the individual's position in the world and which desires honour, status and success; though it involves self-respect, this self-respect depends in part on the respect that others show us. Its role is to support the decrees of reason concerning what things and actions are truly honourable and constitute true success. Lastly, there is the appetitive part which desires food, drink, sex, material goods and the money that may be needed to acquire them; its role is to do what reason (supported by the thumos) tells it to do: Plato makes a distinction between 'necessary' appetites needed for the survival of self and species, and 'unnecessary' appetites, which are simply self-indulgence.

When all three 'parts' are performing their proper roles, the psyche will be in a harmonious state which Plato identifies both with moral excellence and with flourishing (eudaimonia is often tranlated as 'happiness', but 'flourishing' is more accurate). The good life is the rational life, in the fullest and richest sense of 'reason'.

But this internal psychic harmony is almost impossible to achieve in a degenerate society. This is for two linked reasons. Firstly, the individual will not receive the quality of education needed for reason to develop and be able to take control in the individual's psyche. And in the absence of rational guidance, either the thumos or the appetites will take control. Furthermore, the absence of rational guidance means that, whether the thumos rules the appetites or is ruled by them, it will seek to gain honour and success and status simply by doing and acquiring the things that the degenerate society values. And if the corrupt society values electronic goods and designer trainers, such items will be sought not merely to satisfy the unchecked unnecessary appetites, but the unguided thumos and its yearning for status as well. We all wish to count for something.

Nor is this all. Plato would point out that strong appetites for material goods, and such a strong belief that they bestow status and self-worth, are unlikely to be confined to particular pockets of society, to particular postcodes or socio-economic groups. These strong appetites and beliefs arise precisely because people can see that this is the way status is acquired throughout that society as a whole. Plato would point out that there is, in respect of basic motivation (though not the law), little difference between the looting in London and Birmingham and Manchester and elsewhere, and the greed recently (and in some cases still) manifested by some bankers and politicians - greed which has also caused huge harm to the country as a whole. The bankers and politicians who behaved irresponsibly, and in some cases illegally (and of course that is a minority, just as only a minority of those in Tottenham and elsewhere were involved in the riots and looting), came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. But whatever their origins, their jobs had put them, as adults, in a privileged position. A venal desire for short-term gratification is demonstrably not confined to any particular class, colour or religion.

Plato's response was to argue for a two-fold approach. There must, of course, be individual responsibilty and individuals must be held to account: one cannot use one's background as an excuse. But there must also be a willingness on the part of the whole of society to consider its values and the attitudes, actions and possessions to which it gives status. Each of us needs to consider whether we have, even unwittingly, helped foster the warped conceptions of value and status that currently obtain. We need to consider what we write, read and buy, the music and lyrics which we create and to which we listen, the programmes that we make and watch. Plato's proposals in the Republic (or at least the proposals he puts into the mouth of the character of Socrates) for the radical reformation of society are far too totalitarian and authoritarian for most of us to stomach, including me. Nor do most of us believe in the Form of the Good, on which he wants the reformatiopn to be based. But that does not detract from the brilliance of Plato's analysis of society's ills, and his clear recognition that, if we want to diminish looting and the abuse of our banks and taxes, we have to pay far less attention, and accord far less status, to the supposed 'goods' that such activities seek (I suspect it is unlikely that anyone stole a copy of the Republic). Our current predicament is not just a case of the unnecessary appetites run amok; it is a case of the unguided thumos run amok as well. Our society needs to scrutinize itself without flinching from some unpalatable truths, and then seek to renew itself, including its educational institutions, in ways which will allow for true psychic harmony to be achieved and maintained. As long as rewards and status are given, and can so clearly be seen to be given, to selfishness and greed, we cannot pretend that the riots are nothing to do with us.


February 13, 2010

Question: Plato on Love

What is the definition of erotic love?  What are its origins, functions, aims and effects?  Are some kinds of erotic love better than others?  What is the relationship between erotic love and friendship?  Why do we fall in love with the individuals that we do, and is it either possible or desirable to transfer these erotic attachments onto other objects of desire?  What happens to the identity of both lovers and love if love is consummated?

Plato has much to say on all these questions, particularly in his dialogues the Symposium and the Phaedrus (both widely available in many translations; the Penguin translations are fine).  Over the next few weeks we'll be exploring some of the views put forward by characters in the dialogues, and also asking whether Plato gives us any clues as to which views are preferable.

First, though, I would welcome your definitions of erotic love.

And though much of Plato's analysis of romantic and erotic love is beady-eyed, to say the least, here are a couple of quotes (from a poetic translation of 1914) to get you in the mood for Valentine's Day.

'Well, when one of them ... happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other's side for a single moment.  These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.  No-one could imagine this to be a [solely] sexual connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other's company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express ...' (Symposium 192c-d; translation adapted from W.R.M.Lamb)

And a powerful passage from the Phaedrus which describes how the soul of the lover starts to grow wings in the presence of his beloved:

'And as he looks upon him, a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unwonted heat: for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the germ of the feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting, become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul; for it was once all feathered.'(Phaedrus 251a-b; translated W.R.M.Lamb)

Happy Valentine's Day!


December 24, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 3 (Plato's Contribution)

Amongst other things, Mandelson wants University Degrees to be more directed to contributing to the economy.  It is, of course, perfectly reasonable for there to be a public debate about how publicly-funded Universities contribute to the public good.  Nevertheless, three questions immediately occur:

1) How is 'economy' to be defined?

2) How does the economy of a state fit in with the overall well-being of the state?

3) How is contribution to the economy to be assessed, and by whom? Can it always be quantitatively measured?  (The answer to this will naturally depend on how one answers 1) above.)

If it turns out that these three questions have not been fully thought through, then I would recommend a little Plato ...

In Plato's Republic, a dialogue in which the character of Socrates outlines what he claims is the development of an  ideally just state from scratch, money is introduced fairly early on (in 371b in Book 2) to facilitate the exchange of basic goods and services.  If each human has to produce everything required to satisfy even their basic material needs, life would be almost impossibly hard: we would each have to produce not only our own food, shelter and clothing, but also all the tools needed to produce these things, and even the tools to make the tools.  So it makes sense to specialise in different trades and exchange the products, and money is the best means of facilitating this exchange.  The function of money is thus to make life easier and provide us with more leisure.  It is invented by humans as an efficient means of satisfying certain basic needs.

The trouble, as Plato sees it, is that human psychology makes it very difficult to keep money as the efficient, labour-saving tool that it was designed to be.  This is for three main reasons:

a) Our appetites are essentially unlimited - they do not just aim to satisfy our basic physical needs but want more and more goods and goodies - so our appetite for money will also be unlimited

b)  This would be bad enough, but it's made worse by the fact that the things that our appetites desire are often in limited supply - so conflict can break out in the struggle to obtain them.  At Republic 373e we are told that the origin of war is the same as that of most evil - greed.  And in another dialogue, Phaedo, the message is even blunter: 'all wars are made to get money' (66c).  And we may lose these wars and struggles; they may end up depriving us of the very thing they were designed to obtain in the first place - money.  This seems to be one of the warnings embedded in the Atlantis legend at the end of Plato's Critias.

c)  In Plato's psychology, the desires for e.g. food and drink and the desire for the money needed to obtain them all belong to the same appetitive 'part' of the psyche.  But we can quickly start desiring money for its own sake (particularly as money so often has symbolic value, as we have already seen in Parts 1 and 2 of 'Ethics and Money'), and not just as a means to satisfy other desires, and this desire to hang on to our money and gloat over it can prevent us from buying the things that would satisfy those other desires.  So there are often internal contradictions in our desire for money. 

Fortunately, Plato also holds that in the ideally just psyche this internally contradictory and essentially insatiable appetitive part, bent on goods in short supply, is to be ruled by another part - a rational part which has its own rational desires for truth and reality.  Our desire for and pursuit of money should fit in with a bigger picture of the good life based on reason.

This is not, however, the view of one of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, Adam Smith, who holds that humans are ruled by appetitive desire and seek their own individual appetitive gain (though he does admittedly believe that if trade and markets are managed properly, the pursuit of private goals can have public benefit).  David Hume, too, argues that reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.  Modern rational choice theory can look as if it is based on the same assumptions.

So; the question we have to ask ourselves is: how many kinds of desire do humans possess, and how many of these can be served by money?  It is not until we know what we think about this that we - or Mandelson - can answer questions 1) and 2) above.


December 13, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 2

The first thing to do when considering the role of money in our life is to work out how much we need to pay the basic bills;, the second is to work out how much we want (in a number of philosophical systems, of course (such as that of Epicurus), the goal is to match our wants to our basic needs; we'll come back to this).  But these two tasks are complicated by the fact that in our culture money is not just a means of purchasing goods and services, but also possesses considerable symbolic value.

So a key question is: when I want to buy something, what is it that I ultimately want to obtain?  For example, I may want to buy a bicycle because I want to get fitter, or to reduce my carbon footprint (or both).  I may want to buy my niece an expensive present because I think it will make her happy, or because I want her to love me (or both).  I may want to invest in gold because I think it will provide me with financial security in turbulent times, or because the investment will make me feel that I am successful (or both).  I may want to buy a sports car because I would love the physical sensation of driving it, or because I want others to admire or envy me, or because I think it will make me seem more attractive (or all of the above!).

The next question, therefore, is: how important are these ultimate aims to me?

Then: if they really are important, is money the only, or the best, means of achieving them?  For example: if my aim is to make my niece happy and/or to strengthen her love for me, could these aims be better achieved by giving her some of my time rather than an expensive present?

If I still really feel that a) my ultimate aim is important and that b) spending money on this particular product or service is the only, or the best, means of obtaining it, then I finally need to ask myself whether, even so, buying the product or service would in fact satisfy my need or want?  Is this particular need or want (for love, say, or a sense of security, or the admiration of others) insatiable or satiable?  If it seems to be the first, is it really insatiable, or does it just appear that way to me because I am conceiving it in the wrong way, or because I have been trying to satisfy it by the wrong means?  

If the need or desire really is genuinely insatiable, would I perhaps be better off trying to rid myself of it entirely rather than trying to obtain more and more money in a fruitless bid to satisfy it?  Or could I perhaps learn to accept that some needs and desires are intrinsically insatiable, and decide only to try to accomodate them to a certain degree but no more?

Next time we'll look at some of the things Plato has to say on these issues. 


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  • @ Ivor, Jowett's trans. "...there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may beh… by W Lindsay Wheeler on this entry
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