The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy by Norman Melchert Summary (Part 1)

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. – Socrates

The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy by Norman Melchert Summary (Part 1)
The School of Athens by Raphael

Key Takeaways:

  • Myths are religions. Philosophers question myths (stories, predominant ideas, religion). People hate it when you question their religion—that’s why Socrates was killed.
  • Myth → Philosophy → Religion → Psychology → Neuroscience
  • Always tell the truth.
  • To disagree with an opinion is easy—too easy. What is needed is a reason to think that another opinion is mistaken.
  • The good things of life are produced by learning with hard work; the bad are reaped of their own accord, without hard work.
  • The brave man is he who overcomes not only his enemies but his pleasures. There are some men who are masters of cities but slaves to women.
  • Read Karl Popper.
  • Study Buddhism.
  • Learn to speak persuasively. It is the key to influence. Be able to construct compelling arguments and appeal to people’s emotions.
  • Study argument and logic.
  • Agnosticism is wisdom. Agnostics realize that they don’t know enough to have an opinion.
  • Cultivating a good reputation is essential. Be intentional in how you portray yourself.
  • Relativism makes us fainthearted and lazy. If we can dismiss any criticism by saying, “Well, it’s true for me,” then our present beliefs are absolutely secure; so why should we undertake the difficult task of examining them?
  • Relativism, at least as a general theory, is mistaken. Skepticism is wrong. We do have knowledge of the truth. (Plato)
  • You need applied knowledge to be excellent. You can’t just read a book, you must read a book and then act—develop skill. (Socrates)
  • You need to understand human nature. (Socrates)
  • There are secular ethics. You don’t need to believe in God to be moral. (Socrates)
  • Never fear the unknown. You don’t know if it is better or worse than the known. (Socrates)  
  • To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. (Socrates)
  • “As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.” — Josh Billings (1818–1885). Socratic dialogue angers people who are not open-minded.
  • Only value the opinions of the wise, not the opinions of the foolish. (Socrates)
  • Never hurt people even if they have hurt you. (Socrates)
  • The influence of Plato’s philosophy has been incalculable in the West. Together with that of Plato’s pupil Aristotle, it forms one of the two foundation stones for nearly all that is to follow; even those who want to disagree first have to pay attention. In a rather loose sense, everyone in the Western philosophical tradition is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.
  • We must develop the knowledge to understand the difference between a good idea and a persuasive speaker. (Plato)
  • Studying mental models is the key to wisdom.
  • The excellent human being is one who is strongly motivated, emotionally vivacious, and rational. Such a person, Plato believes, will also be happy.
  • Unhappiness comes from uncontrolled desires or a lack of passion. (Plato)
  • Good communities need philosophers as leaders. The intelligent, rational, and wise should make the decisions for all. Direct democracy doesn’t work. (Plato)
  • It is essential to figure out what will make you happy and achieve it. (Aristotle)
  • Happiness includes ethics and morality, wisdom, special skills, and pleasure. Aristotle warns that external goods, such as friends, children, a spouse, wealth, political power, and good looks, can also contribute to happiness, but they can also cause unhappiness if they are not used or acquired in an ethical, wise, and skillful manner. I would add health to the list. (Aristotle)
  • The happy life is a life of activity. Happiness is not something that happens to you. It is not passive. (Aristotle)
  • The acceptance of responsibility and the sparing use of excuses are requirements of the good life. By our choices and actions we create the habits that become our character. And so we are ourselves very largely responsible for our own happiness or lack thereof. (Aristotle)
  • We should be just (moral) and moderate because, to put it crudely, it pays. (Plato and Aristotle)

Chapter 1

Before Philosophy: Myth in Hesiod and Homer

Hesiod: War Among the Gods

Hesiod wrote about the inception of the Greek gods in Theogony. Kronos and his children like Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.

Homer: Heroes, Gods, and Excellence (The Iliad, Achilies)

Xenophanes tells us that “from the beginning, all have learnt in accordance with Homer.” As we have seen, poets were thought to write by divine inspiration, and for centuries Greeks listened to or read the works of Homer, much as people read the Bible or the Koran today.

  • The Illiad and the Odyssey were like the Bible to the Greeks.

Homer’s world is one of kings and heroes, majestic but flawed, engaged in gargantuan projects against a background of gods who cannot safely be ignored.

The Iliad can be thought of as the story both of the tragedy that excess and pride lead to and of the humanization of Achilles.

The moral of the Iliad is “Nothing too much.” Meaning that moderation is key.

The Iliad celebrates the “heroic virtues”: strength, courage, physical prowess, and the kind of wisdom that consists in the ability to devise clever plans to achieve one’s ends. For Homer and his audience, these characteristics, together with moderation, make up the model of human excellence. These are the virtues ancient Greeks taught their children.

Homeric virtues: Strength, courage, physical prowess, strategic wisdom, and moderation.

Chapter 2

Philosophy Before Socrates

Thales: Water is the Essence of Everything

Aristotle, one of the most important philosophers in the Western tradition, calls Thales the founder of philosophy.

Thales’ motto seems to be this: Account for what you can see and touch in terms of things you can see and touch. This idea is a radical departure from anything prior to it.

Thales is said to have held (1) that the cause and element of all things is water and (2) that all things are filled with gods.

Why would Thales choose water to play the role of the primeval stuff? Aristotle speculates that Thales must have noticed that water is essential for the nourishment of all things and that without moisture, seeds will not develop into plants. At first glance, the saying that all things are full of gods seems to go in a quite different direction. If we think a moment, however, we can see that it is consistent with the saying about water. What is the essential characteristic of the gods, according to the Greeks? Their immortality. To say that all things are full of gods, then, is to say in effect that in each thing—not outside it or in addition to it—is a principle that is immortal.

Both sayings, then, point thought in a direction quite different from the tradition of Homer and Hesiod. They suggest that if we want to understand this world, then we should look to this world, not to another.

Anaximander: There Are Natural Cycles

Every time has another time that was before it. Until you go all the way back. So there must be something that itself has no beginning. We can call this “the infinite” or “the Boundless.

Anaximander tells us that existing things “make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time”. Several questions arise here. What existing things? No doubt it is the opposites of hot and cold, wet and dry that Anaximander has in mind, but why does he speak of injustice? How can the hot and cold do each other injustice, and how can they “make reparation” to each other? Much as Homer requires a certain moderation or balance in human behavior, assuming, for instance, that too much anger or pride will bring retribution, Anaximander presupposes a principle of balance in nature. The hot summer is hot at the expense of the cold; it requires a cold winter to right the balance. The rainy season comes at the expense of the dry; it requires the dry season to right the balance. Thus, each season encroaches on the “rights” due to the others and does them an injustice, but reparation is made in turn when each gets its due—and more. This keeps the cycle going.

  • There are natural cycles. Things will go in one direction, overcorrect one way, then overcorrect the other way.

Xenophanes: The Gods as Fictions (Early Objectivism)

Xenophanes criticized the god openly. He said their actions are reproachable.

Here we have the first recorded version of the saying that god does not make man in his own image but that we make the gods in our image.

Several points in this brief statement stand out. There is only one god. Xenophanes takes pains to stress how radically different this god is from anything in the Homeric tradition. It is “in no way similar to mortals.” This point is brought out in some positive characterizations he gives of this god.

  • He sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over. (DK 21 B 24, IEGP, 53)
  • He remains always in the same place, without moving; nor is it fitting that he should come and go, first to one place and then to another. (DK 21 B 26, IEGP, 53)
  • But without toil, he sets all things in motion by the thought of his mind. (DK 21 B 25, IEGP, 53)

There is “the truth”. (Early objectivism.)

Pythagoras: All Things Are Numbers

Discovered the Pythagorean theorem. Believed that all things are numbers. He was vegetarian and didn’t want to harm animals.

Heraclitus: Everything is Ever-Changing

Consider the river. It is the same river, although the water that makes it up is continually changing. A river is not identical with the water that makes it up but is a kind of structure or pattern that makes a unity of ever-changing elements. It is a one that holds together the many. So it is, Heraclitus tells us, with “all things.” All things are in flux, like the river: ever changing, yet preserving an identity through the changes. The river is for that reason a fitting symbol for reality.

Now, if we think not about physical phenomena but about society, we see that the same is true. What is justice, Heraclitus asks, but the result of the conflict between the desires of the wealthy and the desires of the poor? Were either to get the upper hand absolutely, there would be no justice. Tension, opposition, and conflict, he tells us, are necessary. Without them the universe could not persist.

In The Iliad, Achilles laments the death of Patroclus, saying, “If only strife could die from the lives of gods and men.” —The Iliad, Book 18, 126

To this cry, Heraclitus responds, He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the whole; for if his prayers were heard, all things would pass away.

  • Nothing would exist if conflict did not exist. Progressives and conservatives need each other. Progressives push us too far toward change. Conservatives stop the change before it goes too far. Conservatives would never change if they didn’t have the progressives pushing change.

Strife is not opposed to the good; strife is its necessary presupposition.

Logos essentially means rationale or argument.

You can see that logos is a very rich term, containing layers of related meanings: word, message, discourse, thought, rationale, argument, pattern, structure.

Heraclitus claims that all things are in a process of continual change and that part of what makes them the things they are is a tension between opposite forces.

Socrates and Heraclitus think that the wise understand the logos. That is the big difference between the wise and the foolish.

Though they are in daily contact with the logos they are at variance with it, and what they meet appears alien to them. To those who are awake the world-order is one, common to all; but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

  • Those who are at odds with reality are the fools. Those who understand and accept reality and do what they can within its constraints are wise and successful.
  • “To be wise is to understand the nature and structure of the world.“
  • “We each manufacture a little world of our own, distorted by our own interests, fears, and anxieties, which we take for reality.”
  • “To be wise is to see that all is and must be ever-changing, that strife and opposition are necessary and not evil, and that if appreciated apart from our narrowly construed interests, they are good and beautiful.”

That is why wisdom is difficult and why few achieve it. Most people, like cattle, seek to maximize their bodily pleasures. In doing so, they are “at variance” with the logos, which requires of every force that it be limited. That is why “moderation is the greatest virtue”—and why it is so rare.

To speak falsely is to be at variance with that logos.

  • Always tell the truth.

Heraclitean fire: Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC) believed that fire is the essence of all matter, meaning that the entire cosmos is in a state of constant strife and flux

Parmenides: Everything (Things and Time) is One

The conclusion is that there is no “many”; only “the One” exists.

And every thought has the form: It is so and so. If you think, “This desk is brown,” you are thinking what is, namely, the desk and its color. If you think “This desk is not brown,” once more you are thinking of what is, namely, the desk. Suppose you say, “But I am thinking that it is not brown; so I am thinking of what is not.” Parmenides will reply that “not brown” is just an unclear way of expressing the real thought, which is that the desk is, let us say, gray.

  • You cannot have a negative thought. If you say, “I’m not thinking of an elephant,” you will think of an elephant.

You cannot think “nothing.” Why not? Because nothing is not, and to think is (as we have seen) to think of what is. If you could think of nothing, it would (by the first premise) be something.

Parmenides is rightly considered the first rationalist philosopher. Rationalism.

Notice the contrast to the Ionian nature philosophers. They all try to explain the nature of the things we observe; they start by assuming that the world is composed of many different things changing in many different ways, and it never occurs to them to question this assumption. Heraclitus, remember, says that he esteems most the things we can see and hear and understand. Parmenides resolutely rejects this reliance on the senses.

You cannot just go off of what you observe because: We are all familiar with things not really being what they appear to be. Sticks in water appear to be bent when they are not. Roads sometimes appear to be wet when there is no water on them, and so on.

What is must exist “all at once.” This means that time itself must be unreal, an illusion. Why? Because the present can only be identified as the present by distinguishing it from the past (which is no longer) and from the future (which is not yet), and this shows that the notions of past and future both involve the unthinkable notion of “what is not.” So “what is” must exist all at once in a continuous present. This thought is later exploited by St. Augustine in his notion of God.

Even though few accept his positive views, his influence is great, and his impact is still felt today.

Zeno: The Paradoxes of Common Sense

Common sense generates logical contradictions.

Democritus: Atomism: The One and the Many Reconciled

To disagree with an opinion is easy—too easy. What is needed is a reason to think that other opinion is mistaken.

What exist are atoms and the void.

Democritus quotes

  • Medicine cures the diseases of the body; wisdom, on the other hand, relieves the soul of its sufferings.
  • It is hard to fight with desire but to overcome it is the mark of a rational man.
  • Moderation increases enjoyment, and makes pleasure even greater.
  • It is childish, not manly, to have immoderate desires.
  • The good things of life are produced by learning with hard work; the bad are reaped of their own accord, without hard work.
  • The brave man is he who overcomes not only his enemies but his pleasures. There are some men who are masters of cities but slaves to women.
  • In cattle excellence is displayed in strength of body; but in men it lies in strength of character.

Twentieth-century philosopher of science Karl Popper quotes Xenophanes approvingly and asserts that the development of thought we can trace in the pre-Socratics exemplifies perfectly the basic structure of scientific thinking. He calls it the “rational critical” method and says it works through a sequence of bold conjectures and incisive refutations. Can you identify such moves in the thinking of the philosophers we have studied so far? (See Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge).

Chapter 3

Appearance and Reality in Ancient India

The Vedas and the Upaniṣads: The Myths of the Ancient Indians

Indian philosophy, like Greek philosophy, developed out of responses to mythical explanations of the origin and nature of the universe.

Whereas we looked to the poets Hesiod and Homer to recount Greek myths, we find Indian myths recorded in an ancient set of religious hymns known as the Vedas. Composed during the second millennium B.C., the Vedas laid the foundation for Indian religion and philosophy

The Ancient Indians have pagan myths similar to the Greek gods.

Later still, the hymns come to regard all these gods merely as aspects of a single deity, the Rig Veda.

Eventually, this tentative monotheism broadens into a monistic view of the universe itself. Not only were the various gods really just aspects of a single supreme deity, but so was everything else: everything was but a manifestation of god; god was everything. This is an idea that appears in many traditions around the world. In the Indian tradition, this all-encompassing deity eventually comes to be called Brahman.

The Upaniṣads (Upanishads) contain philosophical reflections on the contents of the Vedas.

Unlike the Greek philosophers, however, the anonymous authors of the Upaniṣads did not reject the older myths, which by this time contained sophisticated ideas about the nature of reality. Instead, they built on those ideas and worked to fashion them into a rationally coherent doctrine.

The self (ātman) that is free from evils, free from old age and death, free from sorrow, free from hunger and thirst; the self whose desires and intentions are real—that is the self that you should try to discover, that is the self that you should seek to perceive. When someone discovers that self and perceives it, he obtains all the worlds, and all his desires are fulfilled.—That is the self (ātman); that is the immortal; that is the one free from fear; that is brahman.

Once more Indra returns to Prajāpati, who mercifully makes him wait only five more years before saying, This body . . . is mortal; it is in the grip of death. So, it is the abode of this immortal and non-bodily self. One who has a body is in the grip of joy and sorrow, and there is no freedom from joy and sorrow for one who has a body. Joy and sorrow, however, do not affect one who has no body. . . .

Death is inevitable for those who are born; for those who are dead birth is just as certain. — Bhagavad Gītā

This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is known as saṃsāra. With each turn of the wheel of saṃsāra, people leave their old bodies behind to be reborn into new ones. Furthermore, those who have lived good lives are reborn into good circumstances, whereas those who did not are reborn into bad circumstances—or even as lower animals.

The idea that one’s actions in this life can affect the circumstances of one’s next life is part of the doctrine of karma. According to this doctrine, it is built into the very structure of the universe that every good action leads to good consequences for the actor, and every bad action leads to bad consequences for the actor.

The Buddha: Buddhism

“All that is subject to arising is subject to cessation.” - The Buddha

Siddhārtha Gautama is born wealthy. He is sheltered from suffering but discovers it one day and becomes ascetic and travels. According to legend, he remains there in meditation for forty-nine nights before achieving enlightenment by seeing the world for what it really is. Thereafter, he is known as the Buddha, which means “Awakened One.”

So what did the Buddha discover under that tree? As he eventually explained to his followers, he came to understand four fundamental ideas, which are called the Four Noble Truths. They are as follows:

  1. There is suffering (duḥkha).
  2. There is the origination of suffering.
  3. There is the cessation of suffering.
  4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.

These claims form the basis of Buddhist philosophy, which became one of several early Indian philosophies to reject the authority of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads.

Understanding Buddhism:

  1. The first step to understanding the four Noble Truths is to understand what the Buddha means by “suffering.” He is not referring only to the things that shocked him when he ventured out of the palace—death, disease, and physical pain—though these are certainly forms of suffering. He also means to capture despair, frustration, fear, anxiety, lack of control, and a host of other ills. While we would not normally classify all these things as “suffering,” they are all captured by the word duḥkha. Everything suffers—everything always suffers. Life certainly has its bleak moments, but it also has moments of joy, of pleasure, of pride, and of satisfaction. Do even those moments involve suffering? Yes, says the Buddha, for even when we get what we want, we are constantly at risk of losing it. The threat of losing our joy/pleasure creates anxiety and concern.
  2. So what is the cause of suffering, according to the Buddha? At a superficial level, the cause of suffering is craving or attachment. Attachment includes strong desires, including both desires for something and desires to avoid something. It is by pursuing what we desire and striving to avoid what we hate that we bring suffering on ourselves. But the Buddha also offers a deeper analysis of the cause of suffering: attachment itself is caused by delusion, by a false understanding of the way the world is. It is because we misunderstand the world that we feel greed and hatred.
  3. The Buddha offers a path to the cessation of suffering, called the Noble Eight-fold Path.
  4. The Buddha encourages his followers to develop the Four Divine Abidings.

Noble Eight-fold Path

  1. Right view. This is the most important. Having an accurate view of the world. It is a pre-requisite to the other 7.
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right conduct
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Four Divine Abidings:

  1. Lovingkindness: wishing for others to be happy
  2. Compassion: wishing for others to be free from suffering.
  3. Joy: being happy about others’ happiness.
  4. Equanimity: a calm, even-handed assessment of things as they are, without attachment or prejudice.

Follow the four abidings and also don’t kill, steal, or lie in order to follow the noble Eight-fold path.

The Buddha places “right intention” before these other things, however, because it is one’s intentions, more than anything else, that determine the quality of one’s actions.

If you follow the Eight-fold path, you can reach Nirvana, where suffering ceases.

  • Note: this is the mechanism that Buddhism uses to get people to do the right thing—similar to Heaven in Christianity. You have to give them something to look forward to, to incentivize good behavior.
  • Note: Buddhism seems just like Christianity now. There’s a list of rules that are good for society but how do you incentivize people to follow them? Tell them that they will go to Nirvana or Heaven.

There are 2 Nirvanas. One happens immediately for people who become enlightened—nothing actually happens, they still suffer. But when these enlightened people die, they have Nirvana without remainder—where suffering ceases. We don’t know what happens to these people—whether they cease to exist or not. Are they reincarnated? Where do they go?

Your attachments, the Buddha is arguing, are ultimately bound up with the idea that there is some self that does or possesses the things you crave. Because there is no conception of an enduring self that avoids these pitfall, we can escape attachment— and therefore suffering—only by recognizing that the self is a delusion.

  • The self is a delusion. Once you understand this, you will not be attached to things (you will not have desires) because you realize that you cannot do or possess the things you crave. This is because of impermanence.
  • Impermanence: Everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent. You cannot own something because it will change. There is no “self” because the self changes.
  • Each event, including events that would appear to be actions attributable to a self, is the outcome of events that preceded that self and of conditions that are clearly outside the self. Thus, even the idea of the self as the author of one’s actions melts away.
  • Your genes and environment are completely outside of your control. Everything is simply the effect of something that came before it.

Rejecting the Upaniṣadic view of the self creates a problem for the Buddhists. Recall that the Buddha accepts the ideas of rebirth and karma. In the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā, however, it is the eternal, unchanging self—ātman—that is reborn again and again, shedding one body and accepting another like a change of clothes. But if there is no ātman, in what sense can we say that a particular person is the reincarnation of some other, deceased person? And perhaps more important, how can a person enjoy or suffer the karmic consequences generated by her past self if she has no self in the first place?

A clarification on reincarnation: In the Vedic view, what makes the baby a reincarnation of Aśoka, rather than a reincarnation of someone else, is that Aśoka and the baby share the same ātman. Furthermore, it is because that particular ātman did various good and bad deeds during its life as Aśoka that certain karmically caused consequences await it in this life. In the Buddhist view, however, this last step gets things exactly backward. It is because Aśoka’s good and bad deeds carry karmic consequences for this baby, rather than for some other baby, that this baby counts as a reincarnation of Aśoka. Reincarnation simply passes on the karmic consequences.

  • This clarifies what happens to people who reach Nirvana. They don’t actually get reincarnated, they just pass on their karmic consequences.

Non-Self and Nagasena: After the Buddha

After the Buddha died, many groups were formed trying to further his ideas.

Many of the developments and controversies from this period are on display in a dialogue between a monk called Nāgasena and the brilliant and powerful King Milinda.

The Brahmanical Schools: Iterating on the Vedas and the Upaniṣads

After the Buddha died, there were 6 other schools of thought that were based on the Vedas and Upaniṣads.

Chapter 4

The Sophists: Rhetoric and Relativism in Athens

Athens was “the glory that was Greece.”

The prominent city-states of that time were Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Sparta, and Athens, but there were many more.


Democracy was first tried in Athens.

Citizenship was broadened, though not so far as to include women and slaves, and the citizens gained control of major decisions. It was to be so for the next hundred years and, with a few exceptions, for some time after that.

The Persian Wars

In 490 B.C., the Persians came in force across the Aegean, conquered a coastal island, and landed at Marathon. In a famous battle on the plain twenty-six miles north and east of Athens, the Greeks defeated the Persians, killing 6,400 of them. The victory invigorated the democratic city of Athens, which had supplied most of the soldiers for the battle.

Thucydides on Athenian Government: Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

  • You can see the influence this had over 1776 America.

Thucydides continues: Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.

Thucydides Quotes:

  • We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them.
  • Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.
  • For our adventurous spirit has forced an entry into every sea and into every land; and everywhere we have left behind us everlasting memorials of good done to our friends or suffering inflicted on our enemies.

Such was the spirit of the Golden Age of classical Athens: proud, confident, serenely convinced that the city was “an education to Greece”—and not without reason. Twenty-five hundred years later, we still are moved by their tragedies, laugh at their comedies, admire their sculpture, are awed by their architecture, revere their democracy, and study their philosophers.

The Sophists: The Greek Teachers

All of the Sophists taught rhetoric, the principles and practice of persuasive speaking.

Rhetoric: Persuasive Speaking

Clearly, in democratic Athens [persuasion] would be very valuable. Suppose, for instance, that you are brought into court by a neighbor. If you hem and haw, utter only irrelevancies, and cannot present the evidence on your side in a coherent and persuasive way, you are likely to lose whether you are guilty or not. Or suppose you feel strongly about some issue that affects the welfare of the city; only if you can stand up in the Assembly of citizens and speak persuasively will you have any influence. You must be able to present your case, marshal your arguments, and appeal to the feelings of the audience.

Someone skilled in rhetoric should be able to present a persuasive argument for each side. A student was encouraged to construct and present arguments on both sides of some controversial issue. He was not judged to be proficient until he could present a case as persuasive on one side as on the other.

You can win an argument with rhetoric alone.

How is one to discriminate the truth from mere opinion? The Sophists’ answer is that one cannot. All we have—and all we ever can have—are opinions.

You should be able to see how this skepticism is intimately related to the way they conceive and teach rhetoric. If rhetoric can make a convincing case for absolutely anything, then what can one know?

  • Be wary of orators.

Agnosticism is wisdom. Agnostics realize that they don’t know enough to have an opinion.

Relativism: Everything is Relative Except the Natural Law: Self-Preservation

Everyone’s perspective is correct to them. That is the core of Relativism.

“Relativists tend to understate the amount of attunement, recognition, and overlap that actually obtains across cultures.” — Martha Nussbaum 1947

Historian Herodotus, a great traveler and observer: “Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.”

There is no objective way to determine if something is just. If it seems just to the people of Athens, say, then it is just (for the Athenians).

Antiphon is telling us that if we only observe, we can see that a natural law governs the affairs of men and other living creatures: the law of self-preservation. Like all laws, it carries a punishment for those who violate it: death. Unlike conventional laws, this punishment necessarily follows the violation of the law. That is what makes it a natural law rather than a matter of convention. All creatures, he says, follow this law by seeking what is “advantageous” to themselves.

  • Self-preservation is the only sure incentive. It is the only true law: those who violate it die.

Antiphon gives us this remarkable piece of advice: A man will be just, then, in a way most advantageous to himself if, in the presence of witnesses, he holds the laws of the city in high esteem, and in the absence of witnesses, when he is alone, those of nature. He who breaks the rules, therefore, and escapes detection by those who have agreed to them, incurs no shame or penalty; if detected he does.

  • When you are in public, uphold the laws of the country. But when alone, or when you cannot be caught, follow the natural law: self-preservation.

Whether you say that conventional justice is the only justice there is or hold that there is a natural justice of self-preservation, it is more important to appear just than to be just. According to the former view, appearances are all anyone can know; according to the latter, the way you appear to others determines whether you obtain what is most advantageous to yourself.

  • Cultivating a good reputation is essential.

The “reevaluation of values” represented for us by Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias: In my opinion, it’s the weaklings who constitute the majority of the human race who make the rules. In making these rules, they look after themselves and their own interest, and that’s also the criterion they use when they dispense praise and criticism. They try to cow the stronger ones—which is to say, the ones who are capable of increasing their share of things—and to stop them from getting an increased share, by saying that to do so is wrong and contemptible and by defining injustice in precisely those terms, as the attempt to have more than others. In my opinion, it’s because they’re second-rate that they’re happy for things to be distributed equally. Anyway, that’s why convention states that the attempt to have a larger share than most people is immoral and contemptible; that’s why people call it doing wrong. But I think we only have to look at nature to find evidence that it is right for better to have a greater share than worse, more capable than less capable. The evidence for this is widespread. Other creatures show, as do human communities and nations, that right has been determined as follows: the superior person shall dominate the inferior person and have more than him. By what right, for instance, did Xerxes make war on Greece or his father on Sythia, not to mention countless further cases of the same kind of behaviour? These people act, surely, in conformity with the natural essence of right and, yes, I’d even go so far as to say that they act in conformity with natural law, even though they presumably contravene our man-made laws.

  • That last part means that the winners follow that natural law because they are simply acting in self-preservation.
  • Callicles’ basic idea is that we are by nature equipped with certain passions and desires. It is natural to try to satisfy these. Although the weak may try to fetter the strong by imposing a guilty conscience on them, the strong do nothing contrary to nature if they exert all their power and cleverness to sat- isfy whatever desires they have. Such behavior may be conventionally frowned upon, but it is not, in itself, unjust.
  • Note how dramatically this contrasts with the ethics of the Greek tradition. Compare it, for in- stance, to Heraclitus, who holds that it is not good for men to get all they wish, that “moderation is the greatest virtue.”

Athens and Sparta at War: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian war.

In the context of the sophistic movement, we are philosophically prepared to understand Socrates and his disciple, Plato. But to understand why Socrates was brought to trial, we need to know something of the Peloponnesian War, as it was called by the historian Thucydides, who lived through it.

As Thucydides tells us, What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.

  • Sounds like the US and China today.

Sparta eventually won the war and appointed 30 of their own people (known as the Thirty) to run Athens until they found a replacement government (they took their time to find a replacement but it lasted less than 1 year). They killed their Athenian enemies and anyone they didn’t like and they got as many Athenians to help them as possible so that they didn’t get their own hands dirty. Athenian exiles came back and killed the leader of the Thirty and democracy was restored in Athens.

Aristophanes and Reaction:

Athens practiced direct democracy where decisions were made by whichever citizens were present in the Assembly on a given day. Political power rested directly with the people in this system, but the masses, of course, tended to be at the mercy of those who possessed the rhetorical skills to sway them in the direction of their own interests: the demagogues.

Is there any technique by which people can discuss and come to agree on matters important to them that does not reduce to a power struggle in the end? Is there something that can be identified as being reasonable, as opposed to being merely persuasive? Can human beings, by discussing matters together, come to know the truth? Or is it always just a question of who wins? This is the question that interests Socrates: Can an argument be rational/reasonable or does only persuasion matter?

Chapter 5

Reason and Relativism in China

From the sixth century B.C. until China’s political reunification under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C., Chinese thinkers developed a variety of philosophies, known as the Hundred Schools of Thought.

Of these, six emerged as most important. In this chapter, we will focus on three of these schools that illustrate the development of logic and reason in ancient China: the Mohists, named after their founder Mozi; the School of Names, sometimes called the Logicians; and Daoism, especially as embodied in the work of Zhuangzi.

A Brief History of Ancient China

As with early Greek philosophy, early Chinese philosophy responded to the dominant myths of its time. Unlike the Greeks, however, the Chinese did not focus on myths about gods or the creation of the world. Indeed, while the Chinese did believe in an all-powerful but impersonal Heaven and in the existence of ghosts and spirits, they had no equivalent to the gods of Hesiod and Homer. Their myths were about mortals. What is more, these mortals were not the heroic warriors of Homeric legend, but wise and benevolent rulers—kings and ministers who improved the well-being of their people through competent administration and clever inventions rather than warfare and who embodied virtues like loyalty and benevolence rather than courage and martial skill. Unsurprisingly, then, early Chinese philosophy had a different focus and a different flavor than did early Greek philosophy.

Whereas the earliest Greek philosophers sought to offer rational alternatives to the mythical explanations of the world and its origins, the founding figure of Chinese philosophy, Confucius, sought to offer a rationally coherent justification of the particular moral and political ideals embodied in mythical accounts of Chinese history.

Mozi: The Doctrine of Mutual Love

An acceptable doctrine, according to Mozi, will produce benefits if it is put into practice, whereas an unacceptable one will bring harm.

Mozi believed that ghosts and spirits existed and that they reward the worthy and punish the wicked. He says that there is disorder in the world because not everyone believes in ghosts and spirits.

  • Similar to karma.

Mozi says that if someone says that they have seen or heard something we must accept it. He then says that since the beginning of time, people have seen ghost-like and spirit-like figures, so they must exist.

Mozi’s ethical and political philosophy is the doctrine of impartial concern or mutual care, according to which the guiding principle of life is to care for everyone equally. This is the most famous of Mozi’s doctrines, in part because it conflicted with the traditional Chinese view that people would and should prioritize their own family, friends, and associates over strangers.

Master Mo Zi spoke, saying: “The way in which the benevolent man conducts affairs must be to promote the world’s benefit and eliminate the world’s harm. It is in this way he conducts affairs.”

Master Mo Zi said: “Now if states attack each other, if houses usurp each other, if people harm each other, if there is not kindness and loyalty be- tween rulers and ministers, if there is not love and filiality between fathers and sons, if there is not concord and harmony between older and younger brothers, then this is harmful to the world.”

  • Harm arises through a lack of mutual love.

“People would view others’ states as they view their own states. People would view others’ houses as they view their own houses. People would view other people as they view themselves. . . . If the people of the world all loved each other, the strong would not dominate the weak, the many would not plunder

the few, the rich would not despise the poor, the noble would not scorn the lowly, and the cunning would not deceive the foolish.

Mozi’s ghosts and spirits act like karma from Ancient Indian philosophy, they are designed to persuade people to do the right thing, to follow the rules.


Daoism came to be understood loosely as the school of thought descended from the Zhuangzi and the Dàodéjīng (Tao Te Ching), both of which emphasize certain themes such as a skeptical bent, an admiration for nature, and an emphasis on spontaneous, effortless action.

For while words will lead us astray, a certain kind of knowledge is still possible.

  • Language can get in the way of conveying knowledge.

Tao Te Ching Summary: Why do we endanger our health and our bodies, Laozi is asking us, to acquire more things? Why do we risk “danger” and “disgrace” to acquire one shiny bauble after another? If we think these things will make us happy, we are wrong. So Laozi is telling us. If only we could “know when to stop,” we could find contentment.

Whereas the waterlike Dào embraces and supports all things without distinction, humans carve the world into good and bad according to their own purposes: into the beautiful and the ugly, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor; and then we prize the beautiful, strong, hard, and rich and set about contending with one another to acquire more and more of these things.

Social media is full of people trying to present themselves as beautiful, trustworthy, knowledgeable, wealthy, and powerful. Things were not so different in Laozi’s day, even if they took different forms, and he is dismissing that preening as foolishness. He is advising us not to try to show off, accumulate wealth, or outdo other people. True happiness is not to be found there, but in the humble life of following the Dào. Be humble, give to charity, do not accumulate possessions, help others.

  • This philosophy is interesting because there is no karma or spirit judges or heaven/hell to enforce its rules, it simply tells people that it is the right thing to do.

Chapter 6

Socrates: To Know Oneself

Socrates wrote nothing, save some poetry written while awaiting execution; he is said to have written a hymn to Apollo and to have put the fables of Aesop into verse. But those have not survived. His impact on those who knew him, however, was extraordinary, and his influence to the present day has few parallels.

Plato didn’t write a biography or a scholarly analysis of his master’s thought. He left us a large number of dialogues, or conversations, in most of which Socrates is a participant, often the central figure. But these dialogues were all written after Socrates’ death, many of them long after. And in the later dialogues, there can be no doubt that Plato is putting ideas of his own into the mouth of Socrates.

Plato’s writings on Socrates can be broken up into 3 periods:

  1. They seem to have been written soon after his death. In these dialogues, Socrates questions various individuals about the nature of piety, courage, justice, or virtue/ excellence (areté). The outcome of the conversation is usually negative in the sense that no agreed-on solution is reached. The participant, who at the dialogue’s beginning claims to know the answer, is forced to admit ignorance. You might ask, Is there any point to such conversations? Well, the participants do learn something—that is, how little they really know. In this way the ground is cleared of at least some intellectual rubbish.
  2. In the middle dialogues, such as Meno, Phaedo, Symposium, and the monumental Republic, Socrates is still the main protagonist. Here, however, we find positive doctrines aplenty, supported by many arguments. Here Plato is working out his own solutions to the problems that the Sophists posed and trying to go beyond the negative outcomes of Socratic questioning.
  3. The late dialogues contain further developments and explore difficulties discovered in the doctrines of the middle period. Here Socrates’ role diminishes; in the very late Laws, he disappears altogether.

Socrates’ Character

Socrates was born in 470 or 469 B.C. His father was a stonemason and perhaps a minor sculptor. It is thought that Socrates pursued this same trade as a young man. He married Xanthippe, a woman with a reputation for shrewishness, and had three sons, apparently rather late in life.

His mother was a midwife, and Socrates calls himself a “midwife” in the realm of thought. A midwife does not give birth herself, of course. In a similar way, Socrates makes no claim to be able to give birth to true ideas but says he can help deliver the ideas of others and determine their truth. He does this by examining them and testing their consistency with other ideas expressed in the conversation. The question is always this: Do the answers to Socrates’ questions fit together with the original claim that what was said is true?

We see several things about Socrates in this little excerpt: (1) It was not for his physical attractiveness that Socrates was sought after as a companion; he was acknowledged on all sides to be extraordinarily ugly, though it seems to have been an interesting kind of ugliness; (2) we see something of Socrates’ humor; here it is light and directed at himself, but it could also be sharp and biting; (3) we have our first glimpse of the typical Socratic method, which proceeds by question and answer, not by long speeches; and (4) we see that Socrates here identifies the good or the beautiful in terms of usefulness or advantage, and this is typical of his views on these questions of value.

He served in the army several times with courage and distinction.

He schooled his body and soul by following a system which . . . would make it easy to meet his expenses. For he was so frugal that it is hardly possible to imagine a man doing so little work as not to earn enough to satisfy the needs of Socrates.

  • Socrates was extremely frugal.

“That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” — Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

He was temperate in his desires and possessed remarkable self-control with regard not only to food and drink but also to sex.

The young cannot learn self-control from someone who does not display it.

Is Socrates a Sophist? No

There are undeniable similarities between Socrates and the Sophists, but there are also important differences.

Socrates is different from the Sophists. They both talk about human affairs like how to be excellent or virtuous. But the Sophists are paid for their teachings. And Socrates would not consider himself a teacher of virtue because he does not rightly know what it is, and no one can teach what he doesn’t understand.

“I do not even have any knowledge of what virtue itself is.” — Socrates

For the Sophists, these arts (rhetoric) are like strategies and tactics in battle. The whole point is to enable their practitioner to win. Argument and persuasion are thought of as a kind of contest where, as Antiphon put it, “victory goes to the best speaker.” The Sophists aim at victory, not truth. This is wholly consistent with their skepticism and relativism. If all you can get are opinions anyway, then you might as well try to make things appear to others in whatever way serves your self-interest. And rhetoric, as they conceive and teach it, is designed to do just that.

For Socrates, on the other hand, the arts of communication, argument, and persuasion have a different goal. His practice of them is designed not to win a victory over his opponent but to advance toward the truth.

  • The Sophists seem like the relativists of today—they claim that everyone has their own truth. Socrates is like the rationalists of today—there is one truth that everyone should try to better understand.
  • Socrates could never agree that if a man thinks a certain action is just, then it is just—not even “for him.”

Socrates’ way of proceeding coheres well with this conviction about truth. He usually refrains from piling up fine phrases in lengthy speeches that might simply overwhelm his listeners; he does not want them to agree with his conclusions for reasons they do not themselves fully understand and agree to. So he asks questions. He is very insistent that his listeners answer in a sincere way, that they say what they truly believe. Each person is to speak for himself.

The course of Socrates’ conversations generally goes like this. Someone, often Socrates himself, asks a question: “What is piety?” or “Can human excellence be taught?” Someone, usually someone other than Socrates, suggests a reply. Socrates then proposes they “examine” whether they agree or disagree with this proposition. The examination proceeds by further questioning, which leads the person questioned to realize that the first answer is not adequate. A second answer that seems to escape the difficulties of the first is put forward, and the pattern repeats itself. In the early, more authentically Socratic dialogues, we are usually left at the end with an inconsistent set of beliefs; it is clear that we cannot accept the whole set, but neither Socrates nor his partner knows which way to go. Thus the participant is brought to admit that he doesn’t understand the topic at all—although he thought he did when the conversation began.

So long as people sincerely say what they believe and are open to revising this on the basis of good reasons, people can together identify inadequate answers to important questions. It is important, however, to note that even in the best case this sort of examination cannot guarantee the truth of what is left standing at the end.

Socrates, however, thinks the best help we can get—what we really need—is given by questions that make us think again, questions that make us uncomfortable and inclined to be defensive.

You had to be a certain kind of person to enjoy talking with Socrates and to benefit from a conversation with him, as a passage from the Gorgias makes clear.

  • It’s possible that some people are too far gone in delusion to be brought to reality through Socratic dialogue.
  • You need to be the kind of person who likes to be proven wrong, as stated below.

If you’re the same kind of person as I am, I’d be glad to continue questioning you; otherwise, let’s forget it. What kind of person am I? I’m happy to have a mistaken idea of mine proved wrong, and I’m happy to prove someone else’s mistaken ideas wrong, I’m certainly not less happy if I’m proved wrong than

if I’ve proved someone else wrong, because, as I see it, I’ve got the best of it: there’s nothing worse than the state which I’ve been saved from, so that’s better for me than saving someone else. You see, there’s nothing worse for a person, in my opinion, than holding mistaken views about the matters we’re discussing at the moment.

Socrates will converse only with those who have a certain character. Progress in coming to understand the truth is as much a matter of character as intelligence. If you care more for your reputation, for wealth, for winning, or for convincing others that your opinion is the right one, Socrates will leave you alone.

You must be just as happy to be shown wrong as to show someone else to be wrong. No—you must be even happier, for if you are weaned from a false opinion, you have escaped a great evil.

It is worth expanding on this point a bit. To profit from a conversation with Socrates, you must (1) be open and honest about what you really do believe; and (2) not be so wedded to any one of your beliefs that you consider an attack on it as an attack on yourself. In other words, you must have a certain objectivity with respect to your own opin- ions. You must be able to say, “Yes, that is indeed an opinion of mine, but I shall be glad to exchange it for another if there is good reason to do so.” This outlook skirts two dangers: wishy-washiness and dogmatism.

What Socrates “Knows”

In part, surely, he is being ironic, especially in begging his partner in the conversation to instruct him. Socrates is simply playing the role of ignorant inquirer.

  • Socrates says that he doesn’t know a subject in order to get someone else to tell him everything they know.

“The wisest man is he who does not fancy that he is so at all.” — Nicolas Boilean Despreau (1636–1711)

1. We Ought to Search for Truth

  • In his conversation with Meno, Socrates says that there’s one proposition that I’d defend to the death, if I could, by argument and by action: that as long as we think we should search for what we don’t know we’ll be better people—less fainthearted and less lazy—than if we were to think that we had no chance of discovering what we don’t know and that there’s no point in even searching for it.
  • Again we can see the Sophists lurking in the background; for it is they who claim that knowledge of truth is not possible for human beings, each of us being the final “measure,” or judge, of what seems so to us. Socrates believes that this doctrine (relativism) will make us worse persons, fainthearted and lazy. After all, if we can dismiss any criticism by saying, “Well, it’s true for me,” then our present beliefs are absolutely secure; so why should we undertake the difficult task of examining them?

2. Human Excellence is Knowledge

  • What distinguishes the expert from a mere novice is the possession of knowledge. Such knowledge is not just having abstract intellectual propositions in your head, however; it is knowledge of what to do and how to do it. You need applied knowledge to be excellent. You can’t just read a book, you must read a book and then act—develop skill.
  • You need to understand human nature.
  • You cannot be a good person if you do not have applied knowledge (information + skills).

3. All Wrongdoing is Due to Ignorance

  • Socrates holds that we always act out of a belief that what we are doing is good. At the least, we think that it will produce good in the long run. We never, Socrates thinks, intend to do what we know is wrong or bad or evil or wicked. So if we do things that are wrong, it must be that we are not well-informed.
  • This view has seemed mistaken to many people. Not only Euripides disagrees. Among others, so do Aristotle, Saint Paul, and Augustine.
  • I think Socrates is correct but it is not simply the knowledge of “good” that matters, you also need to know how to overcome impediments like laziness and desire for pleasure. But as Karl Popper says, all problems are caused by a lack of knowledge.

4. The Most Important Thing of All is to Care For Your Soul

  • Among the striking and unusual propositions that Socrates embraces are that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice and that a good person cannot be harmed in either life or death.
  • One of the two mottoes at the Delphic Oracle might be the motto for Socrates’ own life and practice: “Know Thyself.”

In the Apology, Socrates says that for a human being “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Chapter 7

The Trial and Death of Socrates

Euthyphro: What is Pious? (On Ethics)

Euthyphro is surprised to meet Socrates near the king archon’s court, for Socrates is not the kind of man to have business with courts of justice. Socrates explains that he is under indictment by one Meletus for corrupting the young and for not believing in the gods in whom the city believes.

They talk about what pious means. Does it mean something that the gods like? That doesn’t make sense because the gods fight with each other. There are no agreed-upon virtues of the gods.

Does Socrates believe in the “old gods”? There can be little doubt that his view of the Olympians is much the same as that of Xenophanes or Heraclitus: The stories of Homer cannot be taken literally.

On ethics and lying: In 10a, we get an important question, one that reverberates through later Christian theology and has a bearing on whether there can be an ethics independent of what God or the gods approve. Suppose we agree that in normal circumstances it is wrong to lie (allowing that a lie may be justified, for example, if it is the only way to save a life). And suppose, for the sake of the argument, we also agree that God or the gods hate lying (in those normal circumstances). What is it, we still might ask, that makes lying wrong? Is it the fact that it is hated by the divine power(s)? Or is there something about lying itself that makes it wrong—and that is why the gods hate it?

Suppose we agree, Socrates says, that what all the gods love is pious and what they all hate is im- pious; the question remains whether it is this love that explains the piety of the pious. Suppose it is. Then a behavior is pious simply because that behavior pleases the gods. It follows that if the gods loved lying, stealing, or adultery, that would make it right to lie, steal, or sleep with your neighbor’s spouse. In this case, ethics is tied intrinsically to religion.

The alternative is that there is something about these actions that makes them wrong—and that is why the gods hate them. If this alternative is correct, then a secular ethics, independent of God, is possible. If we could identify what it is about lying that makes it wrong, we would have a reason not to lie whether we believe in the gods or not. Those who think that God’s command (or love) is what makes lying wrong will be likely to say, if they lose faith in God, that “everything is permitted.” But on the alternative to divine command theory, this radical consequence does not follow.

Assuming that the alternatives are clear, which one should we prefer? There is no doubt about Socrates’ answer: the pious is pious not because the gods love it; rather, the gods love what is pious because of what it is.

  • There are secular ethics. You do not need to have a god to have ethics.
  • An analogy: Suppose that Henry, a gardener, loves his roses. The roses are loved, then, because Henry loves them. But he doesn’t love them because they are loved by him! That would be absurd. He loves them because of something in the roses, something that makes them worthy of his love—their fragrance, perhaps, or their beauty.
  • In the same way, Socrates argues, if the gods love piety in humans, it must be because there is something lovable about it.

As we’ll see, Jesus and the Christians have an answer about what piety is for. We find it clearly, for instance, in St. Augustine.

At the end of the dialogue, Euthyphro escapes, leaving us without an answer to the question examined. Socrates must go to his trial still ignorant of the nature of piety.

Apology: Socrates’ Trial

The Apology professes to be a record of the actual speech that Socrates delivered in his own defense at the trial. Plato was at the trial.

Socrates was 70.

The comedy of Aristophanes indoctrinated the young into thinking that Socrates was bad.

  • Watch out for satirical slander designed to ruin your reputation.

If you do anything out of the ordinary you will have people who try to slander and accuse you.

  • Public companies are always sued.

Furthermore, the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others. I think they find an abundance of men who believe they have some knowledge but know little or nothing. The result is that those whom they question are angry, not with themselves but with me. They say: “That man Socrates is a pestilential fellow who corrupts the young.”

  • Socratic dialogue angers people who are not open-minded.

I do not think, gentlemen of the jury, that it requires a prolonged defense to prove that I am not guilty of the charges in Meletus’ deposition, but this is sufficient. On the other hand, you know that what I said earlier is true, that I am very unpopular with many people. This will be my undoing, if I am undone, not Meletus or Anytus but the slanders and envy of many people. This has destroyed many other good men and will, I think, continue to do so. There is no danger that it will stop at me.

Someone might say: “Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?” However, I should be right to reply to him: “You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man.”

  • Don’t be ashamed for being accused of something bad. You should only be ashamed if you did something bad.

This is the truth of the matter, gentlemen of the jury: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace.

Interesting take on death: To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.

Interesting take on fear: I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad.

They sentenced Socrates to death.

Perhaps you think that I was convicted for lack of such words as might have convinced you, if I thought I should say or do all I could to avoid my sentence. Far from it. I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others.

He does not regret his defense: Neither I nor any other man should, on trial or in war, contrive to avoid death at any cost. Indeed it is often obvious in battle that one could escape death by throwing away one’s weapons and turning to supplicate one’s pursuers, and there are many ways to avoid death in every kind of danger if one will venture to do or say anything to avoid it. It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen of the jury, it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death. Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers, being clever and sharp, have been caught by the quicker, wickedness. I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice. So I maintain my assessment, and they maintain theirs. This perhaps had to happen, and I think it is as it should be.

Now I want to prophesy to those who convicted me, for I am at the point when men prophesy most, when they are about to die. I say gentlemen, to those who voted to kill me, that vengeance will come upon you immediately after my death, a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me. You did this in the belief that you would avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I now held back, but you did not notice it. They will be more difficult to deal with as they will be younger and you will resent them more. You are wrong if you believe that by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way. To escape such tests is neither possible nor good, but it is best and easiest not to discredit others but to prepare oneself to be as good as possible. With this prophecy to you who convicted me, I part from you.

Let us reflect in this way, too, that there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.

If anyone arriving in Hades will have escaped from those who call themselves judges here, and will find those true judges who are said to sit in judgment there, Minos and Radamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus and the other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life, would that be a poor kind of change?

Socrates’ final words: Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.

  • Not sure if it’s just the translation, but Socrates said “the god,” not “the gods,” so he blatantly said that he doesn’t believe in their gods as his last words.

As we delve into the character of Socrates as Plato portrays it in this dialogue, we should be struck by his single-mindedness. If it should turn out that death is a “change from here to another place,” how would Socrates spend his time there? He would continue precisely the activities that had occupied him in this life; he would “examine” all the famous heroes to see which of them is wise.

“As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.” — Josh Billings (1818–1885)

Note that several times during his speech Socrates asks the jury not to create a disturbance. We can imagine that he is interrupted at those points by hoots, catcalls, or their ancient Greek equivalents.

Socratic dialogue is the way to become as wise and good as a person can be.

Again Socrates drives home the conclusion that Meletus has “never been at all concerned with these matters.” If he had been, he surely would have thought these things through. As it is, he cannot be taken seriously.

  • If someone has not thought something through, they cannot be taken seriously on the matter.

As the examination proceeds, we can see Meletus becoming angrier and angrier, less and less willing to cooperate in what he clearly sees is his own destruction. No doubt this is an example—produced right there for the jury to see—of the typical response to Socrates’ questioning. We might think Socrates is not being prudent here in angering Meletus and his supporters in the jury. But again, it is for Socrates a matter of the truth; this is the kind of man he is. And the jury should see it if they are going to judge truly.

It’s not that we cannot be harmed at all, however. Indeed, we can be harmed—but only if we do it to ourselves! How can we harm ourselves? By making ourselves into worse persons than we otherwise would be. We harm ourselves by acting unjustly. That is why Socrates says that if his fellow citizens kill him they will harm themselves more than they will harm him. They will be doing injustice, thereby corrupting their souls; and the most important thing is care for the soul.

  • The only way to harm yourself is to harm others.

Guilt by association is commonly assumed. Stay away from bad people. It is likely that Socrates is put on trial (partly) for his association with the Thirty, 30 Spartan leaders who took over Athens after the Peloponnesian war.

Crito: Crito Plans for Socrates’ Escape, but Socrates Refuses

Many people who do not know you or me very well will think that I could have saved you if I were willing to spend money, but that I did not care

to do so. Surely there can be no worse reputation than to be thought to value money more highly than one’s friends, for the majority will c not believe that you yourself were not willing to leave prison while we were eager for you to do so.

  • Crito is concerned that other people will think he is a bad friend who chose money over Socrates’ life.

One should value the good opinions, and not the bad ones. The good opinions are those of wise men, the bad ones those of foolish men.

The most important thing is not life, but the good life.

S: So one must never do wrong.
C: Certainly not.
S: Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.

Never hurt people even if they have hurt you.

Plato opens the dialogue with a scene designed to reiterate how different Socrates is from most men. The time is approaching for his execution, yet he sleeps peacefully—as though he had not a care in the world. His dream confirms what he had concluded at the end of the trial: Death is not an evil to be feared but is more like the soul coming home again after many hardships.

What is wrong, Socrates says, is doing injustice in return for an injustice done to you. Wrong done to you never justifies your doing wrong. The reason is simply that doing injustice is always wrong, always a corruption of the soul. When you consider how to act, according to Socrates, you should never think about revenge. Revenge looks to the past, to what has happened to you, and you should look only to actions that will promote excellence—in your soul and in others. That is the way to care for your soul.

In virtue of his long residence in Athens, Socrates has agreed to be a citizen under the laws, to accept their benefits and “live in accordance” with them. This agreement was made without any compulsion and in full knowledge of what was involved.

  • People who willingly choose to live in a country/state/city agree to live by its customs and laws.
  • This is why Socrates has no issues with being sentenced to death.
  • If individuals can choose which laws or sentences are just or unjust, then the whole legal system would fall apart. And if the legal system falls apart, the whole city/state/country falls apart.
  1. One must never do wrong. Because to do wrong is “in every way harmful and shameful to the wrongdoer.” Because doing wrong harms the part of ourselves that is “more valuable.”
  2. One must never return wrong for wrong done. (This follows directly from 1.)
  3. To injure others (treat them unjustly) is to do wrong.
  4. One must never injure others. (This follows from 1 and 3.)
  5. To violate a just agreement is to do injury.
  6. To escape would be to violate a just agreement with the laws. (Here we have the argument presented in the dialogue between Socrates and the laws.)
  7. To escape would be an injury to the laws. (This follows from 5 and 6.)
  8. To escape would be wrong. (This follows from 3 and 7.)
  9. Socrates must not escape. (This follows from 1 and 8.)

Once again, it is better to suffer injustice than to do it, even if that means losing one’s life to avoid committing an unjust act.

The dialogue ends with Plato once again emphasizing the very real piety of Socrates. He quietly accepts the verdict of the logos as guidance from the god. The voice of reason, as far as it can be discerned, is the voice of the divine.

Phaedo: Socrates’ Death Scene

In the Phaedo, a number of Socrates’ friends have come to visit him in prison on the last day of his life, as he will drink the hemlock at sundown.

You will please me and mine and yourselves, by taking good care of your own selves in whatever you do.

  • You have to take care of yourself in order to help others.

Socrates drank poison and died. He did not cry, unlike his friends, and he was not scared.

About 15 people were at Socrates’ death.

Chapter 8

Plato: Knowing the Real and the Good

When Socrates died in 399 BC, his friend and admirer Plato was just thirty years old. He lived fifty-two more years.

That long life was devoted to the creation of a philosophy that would justify and vindicate his master, “the best, and also the wisest” man he had ever known (Phaedo 118). It is a philosophy whose influence has been incalculable in the West. Together with that of Plato’s pupil Aristotle, it forms one of the two foundation stones for nearly all that is to follow; even those who want to disagree first have to pay attention. In a rather loose sense, everyone in the Western philosophical tradition is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” — Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947)

In Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, Plato is the one on the left, pointing upward. Aristotle is on the right with a hand stretched out horizontally.

Let us briefly review the situation leading up to Socrates’ death. An ugly, drawn-out war with Sparta ends in humiliation for Athens, accompanied by internal strife between democrats and oligarchs, culminating in the tyranny of the Thirty, civil war, and their overthrow. The Sophists have been teaching doctrines that seem to undermine all the traditions and cast doubt on everything people hold sacred.

After Socrates’ execution, Plato takes up his teacher’s tenacious search for the truth. He sets for himself the goal of refuting skepticism and relativism. He intends to demonstrate, contrary to the Sophists, that there is a truth about reality and that it can be known. And he intends to show, contrary to Democritus, that this reality is not indifferent to moral and religious values.

His basic goal, and in this he is typically Greek, is to establish the pattern for a good state. If you were to ask him, “Plato, exactly what do you mean by ‘a good state’?” he would have a ready answer. He would say that a good state is one in which a good person can live a good life.

  • It follows that Athens as it existed in 399 B.C. was not, despite its virtues, a good state, for it had executed Socrates.
  • A good state supports open-minded people.

Knowledge and Opinion: Objectivism vs Relativism

People commonly contrast what they know with what they merely believe. This contrast between mere belief, or opinion, and knowledge is important for Plato. Indeed, he uses it to critique sophistic relativism and skepticism and to derive surprising conclusions—conclusions that make up the heart of his philosophy.

Plato tries to refute relativism in three steps. First, he has to clarify the distinction between opinion and knowledge. Second, he has to show that we do have knowledge. Third, he needs to explain the nature of the objects that we can be said to know. As we will see, Plato’s epistemology (his theory of knowledge) and his metaphysics (his theory of reality) are knit together in his unique solution to these problems.

What is the difference between knowing something and just believing it? The key seems to be this: You can believe falsely, but you can’t know falsely. Suppose that on Monday you claim to know that John is Kate’s husband. On Friday, you learn that John is unmarried and has never been any- one’s husband. What will you then say about your Monday self? Will you say, “Well, I used to know (on Monday) that John was married, but now I know he is not”? This would be saying, “I did know (falsely) that John was married, but now I know (truly) that he is not.” Or will you say, “Well, on Monday I thought I knew that John was married, but I didn’t know it after all”? Surely you will say the latter. If we claim to know something but then learn it is false, we retract our claim. We can put this in the form of a principle: Knowledge involves truth.

Believing or having opinions is quite the opposite. If on Monday you believe that John is married to Kate and you later find out he isn’t, you won’t re- tract the claim that you did believe that on Monday. You will simply say, “Yes, I did believe that; but now I believe (or know) it isn’t so.” It is quite possible to believe something false; it happens all the time. Believing does not necessarily involve truth.

But Plato wants more than survival. In addition to surviving criticism, he wants to supply positive reasons for holding on to a belief. What he hopes to supply is a logos that gives the reason why.

  • Plato uses open-mindedness and Socratic dialogue to find the truth. Then he constructs an argument for his belief. The belief + the argument becomes knowledge.

Knowledge, unlike (true) belief, “stays put” because it involves the reason why. And this leads to a final difference. In the Timaeus, Plato tells us that the one [knowledge] is implanted in us by instruction, the other [belief] by persuasion; . . . the one cannot be overcome by persuasion, but the other can. The instruction in question will be an explanation of the reason why. But what is persuasion? Plato seems to have in mind here all the tricks and techniques of rhetoric. If you know something, he is saying, you will understand why it is so. And that understanding will protect you from clever fellows (advertisers, politicians, public relations experts) who use their art to “make the weaker argument appear the stronger.” Opinion or mere belief, by contrast, is at the mercy of every persuasive talker that comes along. If you believe something but don’t clearly understand the reason why it is so, your belief will easily be “overcome” by persuasion.

  • We must develop the knowledge to understand the difference between a good idea and a persuasive speaker.

There are certain truths: Plato’s clearest examples are the truths of mathematics and geometry.

Math is the best example of knowledge: it endures or stays put, is always true, is backed up by reasons, and is the result of instruction.

  • But that begs the question: Can we know that deception is unjust with the same certainty as that a square on the diagonal is twice the size of an original square?

Relativism, at least as a general theory, is mistaken. Skepticism is wrong. We do have knowledge of the truth.

The senses (sight, hearing, and the rest) never get it right, Plato tells us; they are not clear or accurate. We grasp the truth only through reasoning—through a logos. Here Plato agrees with Parmenides, who admonishes us not to trust our senses but to follow reasoning alone.

Interestingly, Plato holds that both Parmenides and Heraclitus are correct. They aren’t in fact contradicting each other, even though one holds that reality is unchangeable and the other that reality is continually changing. Both are correct because each is talking about a different reality. The one is revealed to us through the senses, the other through reasoning.

The Forms, Plato argues, are more real than anything you can experience by means of your senses because, unlike sensible things, they are unchangeably what they are—forever. Even if every square thing ceased to exist, the Square Itself would remain.

The World and the Forms: Science

Both shadows and hands are parts of the world. So there are different degrees of reality within the world, too. Could we use the relationship between shadows and hands to illuminate the relationship between world and Forms? This is in fact what Plato does in a famous diagram called the Divided Line. Plato here calls the world “the visible” and the Forms “the intelligible,” according to how we are acquainted with them.

We should remind ourselves, too, that Forms have a kind of independence actual eagles lack. Should an ecological tragedy kill all the eagles in the world, the Form Eagle would not be affected. We might never again see an eagle, but we could still think about eagles; we could, for instance, regret their passing and recall what magnificent birds they were. The intelligible has this kind of superiority to the visible: it endures. And this, Plato would conclude, is a sign that the Form (the object of thought) is more real than those things (the objects of sight) that participate in it. In Forms we have the proper objects of knowledge, which must itself endure.

Plato calls the construction of lower Forms “science.” The scientist examines the actual things in the visible world (Charlie or the sand square) and posits explanations of them in terms of hypothetical Forms. Things that explain shadows are now treated by the scientist just as the shadows were—as likenesses of something still more real, to be explained by appeal to Forms. A Form loses its merely hypothetical character when it is explained in terms of higher Forms. We then un- derstand why that Form must be as it is. And this purely conceptual process of moving from Forms to higher Forms, and eventually to the highest Form—the First Principle—Plato calls “dialectic”.

The Love of Wisdom

A wise person would understand everything in the light of the Forms, particularly the Form of the Good. To produce such wise individuals is the aim of education. Plato illustrates the progress toward wisdom in a dramatic myth told in the seventh book of the Republic.

The Allegory of the Cave

Any such myth is subject to multiple interpretations. But let us see if we can, in light of what we know of Plato so far, identify the various stages of the ascent to wisdom. The people fettered in the cave, seeing only the shadows of things, are like those who gain their understanding of things from the poets, from Homer and Hesiod. Or, in our day, they are like those who get their impressions of the world by paying attention to the media— to movies, to the soaps, to headlines shared on social media. They see only images of reality— reflections, interpretations.

  • The people of the cave are the kind of people who believed in the myths of Homer and Hesiod. Or, today, the people who get their understanding of the world through the media: movies, TV shoes, news, and social media.

Those who climb up to the wall, on which are carried various items casting the shadows, are like those who can look directly on things in the visible world. The fire, I think, represents the physical sun, lighting up these perceptible realities so they can be apprehended. Looking on them directly re- veals how fuzzy and indistinct the shadows of them on the wall actually were.

  • These people are people who view the world through their own experiences. But to really know the truth, you must get outside of the cave.

But to really understand these things it is necessary to climb higher, out of the cave altogether. This move is like the transition on the Divided Line between the visible world and the intelligible world; it is the transition from things to Forms. The sun outside the cave represents the Form of the Good, just as it does in the Analogy of the Sun. First our adventurer can only see the lower Forms, reflections of the “Sun.” But gradually, through dialectic, he can come to see the Form of the Good itself.

And what would happen if our adventurer returned to cave to tell the captives what he had seen? What would happen if someone who saw things as they really were and understood their participation in Goodness tried to tell those who had not ventured beyond the sensible world? Such a person would be mocked and maybe even killed. (Can there be any doubt that Plato is thinking of Socrates here?)

To love wisdom is to be motivated to leave the Cave. At each stage, Plato emphasizes how difficult, even painful, the struggle for enlightenment is. It is much easier, much more comfortable, to remain a prisoner in relative darkness and occupy oneself with what are, in reality, only shadows—content to be entertained by the passing show of images.

Symposium: Love and Wisdom

The theme of Plato’s dialogue Symposium, from which Alcibiades’ tribute to the character of Socrates was taken, is love. After dinner, each guest is obliged to make a speech in praise of love. When Socrates’ turn comes, he protests that he cannot make such a flattering speech as the others have made, but he can, if they like, tell the truth about love. They urge him to do so. Socrates claims to have learned about love from a wise woman named Diotima, who instructed him by the same question-and-answer method he now uses on others.

Having children is the closest thing humans have to immortality.

The other way to become immortal is by attaining the “endless fame” that heroes and great benefactors of humankind attain. Think, for example, of Achilles and Homer, and Solon.

Next, he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish—and beautiful enough to quicken in his heart a longing for such discourse as tends toward the building of a noble nature. And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how nearly every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.

And next, his attention should be diverted from institutions to the sciences, so that he may know the beauty of every kind of knowledge. . . . And, turning his eyes toward the open sea of beauty, he will find in such contemplation the seed of the most fruitful discourse and the loftiest thought, and reap a golden harvest of philosophy, until, confirmed and strengthened, he will come upon one single form of knowledge, the knowledge of the beauty I am about to speak of.

The Progression of Love

In discussing these stages, let us remember that one can love in ways other than sexual. A lover, then, is someone who lacks that which will make him or her happy. What will make the lover happy is to possess the beautiful and the good—forever. For that the lover yearns. It is the lover’s resourcefulness, propelled by longing, that moves the lover up the ladder of love. At each rung, the lover is only partially satisfied and is therefore powerfully motivated to discover whether there might be something still more satisfying.

  • Resourcefulness and desire propel a lover towards beauty.

Being in the world, the lover naturally begins in the world. His or her first object is some beautiful body. But he or she will soon discover that the beauty in this body is not unique to that individual. It is shared by every beautiful body. What shall the lover do then? Although Plato does not say so explicitly, we might conjecture that at this point it is easy for the lover to go wrong by trying to possess each of these bodies in the same way as he or she longed to possess the first one—like Don Juan. We might think of it like this. Don Juan (with 1,003 “conquests” in Spain alone) has moved beyond the first stage of devotion to just one lovely body. He now tries to devote to many the same love that he devoted to the one. This is bound to be unsatisfying; if a single one does not satisfy, there is no reason to think that many will satisfy.

  • Physical beauty is the first beauty that people understand, so they desire a beautiful body. But then they realize that there are a lot of beautiful bodies and no reason to choose one over another.
  • Some people, like Don Juan, then try to possess all of the beautiful bodies. They want to have sex with everyone.

Instead, the healthy thing to do is to no longer desire physical beauty. Understand that physical beauty is frivolous and common.

The lover, moreover, discovers that a beautiful soul is even more lovely than a beautiful body, finding it so much more satisfying that he or she will “fall in love with” and “cherish” a beautiful soul even though it is found “in the husk of an unlovely body.” (Could Plato here be thinking of the physical ugliness of Socrates?) The lover will then come to love all beautiful souls.

The next step is to “contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions.” Presumably, the transition from lovely individual souls to a pleasing social order is a small one. What explains the existence of lovely souls? They must have been well brought up. And that can happen only in a moderate, harmonious, and just social order. The beauty of a good state comes into view, and we move one more step away from the original passion for an individual beautiful body; when this stage is reached, the lover “concludes that beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment.”

Once in the sphere of “spiritual loveliness,” the lover comes to long for knowledge. Why? It is not difficult to see why if you keep the Divided Line in mind. What is it that makes intelligible and produces good social institutions? Surely they must be founded not on opinion, but on knowledge. Plato speaks movingly here of “the beauty of every kind of knowledge” and supposes that the lover—not yet satisfied—will explore all the sciences. Here the lover will find an “open sea of beauty,” in contemplation of which he or she will be able to bring forth “the most fruitful discourse and the loftiest thought, and reap a golden harvest of philosophy.”

There is one last stage: It is called a “wondrous vision,” an “everlasting loveliness.” Like all the Forms, the Form of Beauty is eternal. The religious character of the vision is indicated by the term “worshiper,” which Plato applies to the lover who attains this “final revelation.”

Why, we wondered, would anyone be motivated to leave the Cave and make the difficult ascent to the sunlight, leaving behind the easy pleasures of worldly life? We now have Plato’s answer. It is because we are all lovers. We all want to be happy, to possess the beautiful and the good, forever.

Wisdom, which for Plato is equivalent to seeing everything in the light of the Forms, particularly in the light of the highest Forms of Beauty and Goodness, is something we all need, lack, and want.

The Soul: The Myth of the Charioteer

If we understand by “the world” what we indicated previously, then it is accurate to say that Plato’s philosophy contains a drive toward other-worldliness. Raphael was thus right to paint Plato pointing upward. Our true home is not in this world but in another. The love of wisdom, as he understands it, propels us out and away from the visible, the changeable, the bodily—out and away from the world. It is true that one who has climbed out of the Cave into the sunlight of the Forms may return to the darkness below, but only for the purpose of encouraging others to turn their souls, too, toward the eternal realities.

When a subject is both difficult and important, Plato often constructs an analogy or a myth. The analogy of the sun presented the Form of the Good. The struggle toward wisdom is the subject of the Myth of the Cave. And to help us comprehend the soul, Plato tells the Myth of the Charioteer.

The soul has 3 parts: We found that one part is the intellectual part of a person, another is the passionate [spirited] part, and the third has so many manifestations
that we couldn’t give it a single label which applied to it and it alone, so we named it after its most prevalent and powerful aspect: we called it the desirous part, because of the intensity of our desires for food, drink, sex, and so on, and we also referred to it as the mercenary part, because desires of this kind invariably need money for their fulfillment.

  1. Intellectual
  2. Passionate
  3. Desirous

Whichever part is most embodied by a person determines what kind of person they are.

  1. Philosophical
  2. Competitive
  3. Avaricious (extreme greed)

Knowledge must be true for everyone. Forms must be universal truths. Forms are mental models.

Plato makes the problem of morality one of the main themes in the Republic. He is asking the So- cratic question: What is morality? For Plato, this is equivalent to asking about the Form of Morality. The particular question is this: Is the Form of the Moral related to the Form of the Good? And if so, how? To put it in more familiar terms, is morality something good or not?

Thrasymachus argues that you should only be moral if it benefits you. And that the immoral will often be in an advantageous place after being immoral. If Plato could show that being moral is in your long-term interest because it is the only way to be truly happy, Thrasymachus would be defeated. Is the moral person the happy person? That question is posed in a radical way by another participant in the dialogue of the Republic, Glaucon, who tells the following story. It is about an ancestor of Gyges.

What Thrasymachus claims, of course, is not that injustice in the soul is a good thing but that our lives will be better if we are unjust in the community.

From Plato’s Republic: He was a shepherd in the service of the Lydian ruler of the time, when a heavy rainstorm occurred and an earthquake cracked open the land to a certain extent, and a chasm appeared in the region where he was pasturing his flocks. He was fascinated by the sight, and went down into the chasm and saw there, as the story goes, among other artefacts, a bronze horse, which was hollow and had windows set in it; he stopped and looked in through the windows and saw a corpse inside, which seemed to be that of a giant. The corpse was naked, but had a golden ring on one finger; he took the ring off the finger and left. Now, the shepherds used to meet once a month to keep the king informed about his flocks, and our protagonist came to the meeting wearing the ring. He was sitting down among the others, and happened to twist the ring’s bezel in the direction of his body, towards the inner part of his hand. When he did this, he became invisible to his neighbors, and to his astonishment they talked about him as if he’d left. While he was fiddling about with the ring again, he turned the bezel outwards, and became visible. He thought about this and experimented to see if it was the ring which had this power; in this way he eventually found that turning the bezel inwards made him invisible, and turning it outwards made him visible. As soon as he realized this, he arranged to be one of the delegates to the king; once he was inside the palace, he seduced the king’s wife and with her help assaulted and killed the king, and so took possession of the throne.

  • The Lord of the Rings

On the one hand, if being moral is worthwhile only because of its consequences, then removing the consequences would diminish the worth of being a moral person; you might as well be unjust and satisfy your desires. On the other hand, if being moral is the true good, good in itself, then it would be better to refrain from unjust actions; it would be more advantageous not to steal, kill, or commit adultery, even if you could get away with it. Your life would be better being moral, even though you would have to do without some of the things that would please you.

Plato on Happiness

Every soul has: Knowledge, passion, and desire.

  • Desire motivates you. You need goals.
  • Passion is spirit. You need a “why”. You need a reason for what you do.
  • Knowledge allows you to achieve you goals. You need mental models.

Desire: The function of appetite or desire is to motivate a person. It is, if you like, the engine driving the whole mechanism forward. If you never wanted anything, it is doubtful that you would ever do anything. So appetite is performing its function and doing it well when it motivates you strongly to achievement.

Passion: Spirit’s function is to animate life, so that it amounts to more than satisfying wants. Without spirit, life would perhaps go on, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable; it might not even be worth living. Spirit is “doing its thing” if it puts sparkle into your life, determination into your actions, and courage into your heart. It supplies the pride and satisfaction that accompany the judgment that you have done well, and it is the source of indignation and anger when you judge that something has been done badly.

Knowledge: It is the task of the rational part of the soul to pursue wisdom and to make judgments backed by reasons. It performs this task with excellence when it judges in accord with knowledge. The rational part of the soul, then, works out by reasoning the best course of action. Its function is to guide or rule the other two parts. Desire, one could say, is blind; reason gives it sight. Spirit may be capricious; reason gives it sense.

The excellent human being is one who is strongly motivated, emotionally vivacious, and rational. Such a person, Plato believes, will also be happy.

For what is the source of unhappiness? Isn’t it precisely a lack of harmony among the various parts of the soul? Desire wants what reason says it may not have. Spirit rejoices at what reason advises against. These are cases in which the parts of the soul are not content to perform their proper function. One wants to usurp the function of another. When, for example, you want what reason says is not good for you, it may be that your desire is so great that it overrides the advice given. In that case, desire takes over the guiding function that properly belongs to reason. But then you will do something unwise; and if it is unwise, you will suffer for it. And that is no way to be happy.

  • Unhappiness comes from uncontrolled desires or a lack of passion.

On the assumption that we all want to be happy and that being happy is what is good, the good life for human beings must be one in which each part of the soul performs its functions excellently—where reason makes the decisions, supported by spirit, and desire is channeled in appropriate directions. The good and happy person is the one who is internally harmonious. Though we do not all realize it, this internal harmony among the parts of the soul is what we all most want; for that is the only way to be happy.

A spoilt, soft way of life is considered bad because it makes this part of us so slack and loose that it’s incapable of facing hardship.

The State: How to Create Good Communities

Plato sees a parallel between the internal structure of a soul and the structure of a community.

Just as the parts of the soul have distinctive functions, individual men and women differ in their capacities and abilities. They can be grouped into three classes: (1) Some will be best fitted to be laborers, carpenters, stonemasons, merchants, or farmers; these can be thought of as the productive part of the community; they correspond to the part of the soul called “appetite.” (2) Others, who are adventurous, strong, and brave, will be suited to serve in the army and navy; these form the protective part of the state, and they correspond to spirit in the soul. (3) The few who are intelligent, rational, self-controlled, and in love with wisdom will be suited to make decisions for the community; these are the governing part; their parallel in the soul is reason.

  • The dominant force of the soul determines what job individuals should have in society. Are they overcome with desire, passion, or intelligence?

To this point, we have more or less been taking for granted that the search for wisdom is open to everyone. But this is not Plato’s view. Like Socrates, Plato contrasts the few who know with the many who do not. A basic principle for Plato’s ideal state is that there are only a few who are fit to rule. Obviously, Plato is consciously and explicitly rejecting the foundations of Athenian democracy as it existed in his day, where judges were selected by lot rather than by ability and where laws could be passed by a majority of the citizens who happened to show up in the Assembly on any given day. It is not the case, Plato urges, that everyone is equally fit to govern. Where democracy is the rule, rhetoric and persuasion carry the day, not reason and wisdom.

  • The intelligent, rational, and wise should make the decisions for all. Direct democracy doesn’t work.

He is not in favor of tyranny or despotism, either; we can think of these as forms of government where the strong rule through power alone. Nor does he favor oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy. Who, then, are these “few” who are fit to be rulers? Consider again the harmonious, internally just soul. In such a soul, reason rules.

Unless communities have philosophers as kings, . . . or the people who are currently called kings and rulers practice philosophy with enough integrity . . . there can be no end to political troubles, . . . or even to human troubles in general, I’d say.

Plato compares the statesman to a doctor (Gorgias 463a–465e). We would never entrust the health of our bodies to just anybody. We rely on those who have been trained in that craft by skilled teachers. Furthermore, just as not everyone is by nature qualified to be a doctor, not everyone is fit to rule.

We still need, however, to ask about the many. If only the few will ever make it to wisdom, what are the many to do? If they cannot know the good, how can they be depended on to do the good? And if they do not do the good, won’t the state fall apart in anarchy and chaos?

The state can be saved from this fate by the principle that, for purposes of action, right opinion is as effective as knowledge. If you merely believe that the cliff is directly ahead and as a result turn left, you will avoid falling over just as surely as if you knew that it was. The problem, then, is to ensure that the large majority has correct beliefs. They may not be able to follow the complicated dialectical reasoning demonstrating the goodness of morality, but they should be firmly persuaded that it pays to be moral.

Such right opinion is inculcated in the young by education, which is directed by the guardians or rulers, who know what is best. There are detailed discussions in the Republic about what sort of stories the young should be told and what sort of music should be allowed. Music and stories should both encourage the belief—which Plato thinks can be demonstrated dialectically to the few—that the best and happiest life is a life of moderation and rational self-control, a moral life.

We will find subsequent philosophers raising serious questions both about the Forms and about Plato’s view that some—but not all—of us are capable of knowing them.

Problems with the Forms

Plato offers a complete vision of reality, including an account of how knowledge is possible, an ethics that guides our practical lives, and a picture of an ideal community. As we have seen, all these aspects of reality involve the Forms. The Forms are the most real of all the things there are. They serve as the stable and enduring objects of our knowledge. They guide our goals, our behaviors, and our creative drives. And knowledge of them is the foundation for a good state.

  • Plato summary: The Forms are mental models. A good state allows its citizens to engage in Socratic dialogue freely. The wise use Socratic dialogue to figure out what the best mental models are. The wise should be the leaders. They should educate the young based on the current mental models.

It is traditionally formulated in terms of the Form of Man. Heraclitus and Socrates are both men; so there must be a Form of Man to explain this similarity. If that Form is itself a man, you have a third man. In this guise the argument has a name. It is called the Third Man Argument.

The Forms are posited to explain the fact of knowledge, the meaning of general terms, and the common features of individuals. But the Third Man Argument shows that—on principles accepted by Plato himself, at least in his middle period—the Forms do not explain what they are supposed to explain.

Like all such paradoxes, this indicates that something is wrong. But it does not itself tell us what is wrong. Some solution to the problem is needed. As we will see, Aristotle offers a solution.

Chapter 9

Aristotle: The Reality of the World

The year was 384 BC, Socrates had been dead for fifteen years; Plato had begun his Academy three years earlier. In northern Thrace, not far from the border of what Athenians called civilization, a child was born to a physician in the royal court of Macedonia. This child, named Aristotle, was destined to become the second father of Western philosophy.

At the age of eighteen Aristotle went to Athens, where bright young men from all over desired to study, and enrolled in the Academy. He stayed there for twenty years, as a student, researcher, and teacher, until the death of Plato in 347 B.C. He then spent some time traveling around the Greek islands, studying what we would call marine biology. He returned briefly to Macedonia, where he tutored the young prince Alexander, later called “The Great” for completing his father’s ambition of conquering and unifying the known world, including the Greek city-states.

Aristotle and Plato

Let us begin by comparing Aristotle and his teacher, Plato.2 First, Plato was born into an aristocratic family with a long history of participation in Athe- nian political life. Aristotle’s father was a doctor in the Macedonian court. These backgrounds symbolize their different interests and outlook. The influence of Plato on Aristotle’s thought is marked; still, Aristotle is a quite different person with dis- tinct concerns, and his philosophy in some respects takes quite a different turn. That Aristotle’s hand is stretched out horizontally in Raphael’s painting symbolizes perfectly the contrast with Plato. Here are some comparisons.

In general, Plato tends toward otherworldliness in a way that Aristotle does not. Plato yearns to transcend the Heraclitean flux of the material world and reach the unchanging, eternal, genuinely real world of the Forms. To philosophize, for Plato, is to die away from sense and desire.

Aristotle regards the concrete particulars of the world as real and worthy of our attention, studying snails and octopuses alongside metaphysics and ethics. Philosophy, for Aristotle, offers not an escape from the world but an understanding of it.

Aristotle, more down to earth, believes that language is capable of expressing the truth of things and that the senses, although not sufficient by themselves, are reliable avenues along which to pursue knowledge of the changing world about us.

“It is those who act rightly who get the rewards and the good things in life.” –Aristotle

Aristotle agrees with his teacher without qualification that knowledge—to be knowledge—must be certain and enduring. For both Plato and Aristotle, knowledge is knowledge of unchanging, eternal forms. But they understand the forms differently—and thereon hangs the tale to come.

Aristotelian Logic and Knowledge

Are there standards by which we can divide arguments into good ones and bad ones? Aristotle answers this question.

He does not, of course, answer it once and for all—though for two thousand years many people will think he very nearly has. Since the revolution in logic of the past hundred years, we can now say that Aristotle’s contribution is not the last word. But it is the first word, and his achievement remains a part of the much expanded science of logic today.

“All men by nature desire to have knowledge.” — Aristotle

Those who are wise, then, have knowledge of the causes of things, which allows them to use various arts for practical purposes (as the doctor is able to cure the sick because she knows the causes of their diseases). Knowing the causes, moreover, allows the wise person to teach others how and why things are the way they are.

Wisdom, then, either is or at least involves knowledge. And knowledge involves both statements (that something is so) and reasons (statements why something is so). Furthermore, for the possession of such statements to qualify as wisdom, they must be true. As Plato has pointed out, falsehoods cannot constitute knowledge.

Aristotle intends to clarify all this, to sort it out, put it in order, and show how it works. So he has to do several things. He has to (1) explain the nature of statements—how, for instance, they are put together out of simpler units called terms; (2) explain how statements can be related to each other so that some can give “the reason why” for others; and (3) give an account of what makes statements true or false. These tasks make up the logic.

The clue to discovering these basic forms is noting that every statement is either true or false. Not every sentence we utter, of course, is either true or false. “Close the door, please” is neither.

We can then analyze statements in two parts: there is the part indicating what we are talking about, and there is the part indicating what we are saying about it. Call the first part the subject and the second part the predicate.

To discover whether someone is wise, we may have to decide (1) whether what she says is true and (2) whether the reasons she offers for what she says actually support her claim.

An S-form is the subject. The P-form is the predicate.

Remember that for Aristotle all statements have an S–P form; they say something about something. Such statements may either affirm that something is the case (“Grass is green”) or deny it (“Socrates was not beautiful”). Call the former affirmative statements and the latter negative statements.

All M is P.
All S is M.

Therefore: All S is P.

All animals are mortal.
All men are animals.

Therefore: All men are mortal.

Aristotle calls this kind of argument a syllogism. Every syllogism is made up of three statements.

Either (1) the premises are not true or (2) the relation between premises and conclusion is not such as to guarantee the truth of the conclusion when the premises are true.

So Aristotle is faced with this problem: Since not everything can be known by demonstration, how do we come to know that which cannot be demonstrated?

“The starting point of demonstration is an immediate premise, which means that there is no other premise prior to it.” — Aristotle

  • We can call these immediate premises first principles. Since all knowledge must rest on these starting points, we must be more certain of them than of anything else.

Since we know and believe through the first, or ultimate, principles, we know them better and believe in them more, since it is only through them that we know what is posterior to them. . . . This is because true, absolute knowledge cannot be shaken.” — Aristotle

  • This means that we must be more certain about what makes something an animal than about what makes something a monkey; in geometry, we must know the definition of line with greater clarity than that of isosceles triangle. But how are such principles to be known? We can’t just start from nothing and—by a leap—get to knowledge. In this respect Socrates was right.

Aristotle agrees with Plato that perceiving something is not the same as knowing it. The object of perception is always an individual thing, but knowledge is of the universal; perception can be mistaken, but knowledge cannot. But these facts don’t lead Aristotle, as they lead Plato, to disparage the senses, to cut them off from reality, and to install knowledge in another realm altogether. Perception is not knowledge, but it is where knowledge begins. (It is surely of crucial importance to note here that when Plato thinks of knowledge, his first thought is of mathematics; when Aristotle thinks of knowledge, his first thought is of biology.)

We noted earlier that some animals have memory in addition to their faculties of sense perception. Thus they can retain traces of what they perceive. These traces build up into what Aristotle calls “experience.” And experience is the source of a universal, a sense of the unity of the many things encountered.

Eventually, the biologist comes to group the creatures according to characteristics they do and do not share with each other. Her perception provides her with “universals” under which she groups or organizes the various kinds of things that she has been observing.

  • Perception allows us to eventually group things together. Things with similar qualities are grouped together.

Aristotle’s fundamental conviction about the work of his predecessors is that they go wrong by not observing closely enough.

(Thales’ water, Anaximander’s Boundless, and the rather different logos of Heracli- tus) or seem to conclude that there is no intelligibility in the world at all (Parmenides condemns the world to the status of mere appearance, and Plato believes only the Forms are completely intelligible). Even Democritus, who was from a theoretical point of view superior to all but Plato, misses the intelligibility in the observable world and tries to find it in the unobservable atoms.

Aristotle, drawing on his own careful observations, is convinced that the things that make up the world have principles of intelligibility within them. To explain their nature, their existence, and the changes they regularly undergo, it is necessary only to pay close attention to them.

The Four “Becauses”

The wise person, as we have seen, knows not only what things are but also why. Aristotle sees that all his predecessors are asking why things are the way they are and giving these answers: because of water, because of the Boundless, because of opposition and the logos, because of atoms and the void, because of the Forms. What none of them sees is that this is not one question but four distinct questions.

1: Those who think this way are taking the why-question in one very specific sense. They answer, “Because it is made of such and such stuff.” Aristotle does not want to deny that this is one very proper answer to the why-question. Why is this statue what it is? Because it is made of bronze. The answer points to the matter from which it is made. Let us call this kind of answer to the why-question the material cause. Material causes, then, are one type of causation.

2: Why is this bit of stuff bone? Because it has the characteristics mentioned in the definition of bone. Aristotle calls this the formal cause.

3: Here is a third answer to the why-question. This answer names whatever triggered the beginning of the thing in question, what Aristotle calls the “proximate mover.” This sense of cause comes closest to our modern understanding of causes. For Aristotle, though, such causes are always themselves substances (“man generates man”), whereas for us causes tend to be conditions, events, or happenings. This cause is often called the efficient cause.

Summary of 1-3: Suppose we ask, “Why are there houses?” One answer is that cement and bricks and lumber and wallboard exist. Without them (or something analogous to them) there wouldn’t be any houses. This answer cites the material cause. Another answer is that there are things that satisfy the definition for a house, an answer naming the formal cause. A third answer cites the fact that there are house builders—the efficient cause. But even if we had all these answers, we might want to know why there are houses in the sense of what purpose they serve, what ends they satisfy.

4: Why are there houses? To provide shelter from the elements for human beings. It is because they serve this purpose that they exist; the materials for houses might exist, but they would not have come together in the sort of form that makes a house a house. When we answer the why-question in this way, Aristotle says we are giving the final cause.

  1. What it is made of
  2. Houses exist
  3. There are people who make houses
  4. They have some necessary function (this “because” is most controversial)

The last “because” is the most controversial. We say there is a purpose for artifacts (houses, for example), but only because human beings have purposes. We need, want, desire shelter; so we form an intention to make shelters. We think, plan, and draw up a blueprint, then gather the materials together and assemble a house. But the crucial thing here is the intention—without that, no houses. To say that there are final causes in nature seems like imputing intentions to nature. We might be able to answer the question, What is a sheep dog for? because sheep dogs serve our purposes. But does it even make sense to ask what dogs are for?

Yet Aristotle holds seriously that the question about final causes applies to nature-facts just as much as to artifacts. There may be some things that are accidental byproducts (two-headed calves and such), and they may not have a purpose. Such accidents, he says, occur merely from “necessity.” But accidents apart, he thinks nature-facts are inherently purposive.

Chance or accident makes sense only against a background of regularity, of what happens “either always or usually.” Roses come from roses and not from grains of wheat; therefore, a rose coming from a rose is no accident. But since everything must occur either by chance or for a purpose, it must happen for some purpose. (2) Art (meaning something like the art of the physician or house builder) either completes nature or “imitates nature.” But there is purpose in art, so there must be purpose in nature as well.


The idea that natural substances are for something is called teleology, from the Greek word telos, meaning end or goal.

At the moment when he is caught by little Johnny, the frog has certain characteristics. Johnny might list them as spottedness, four-leggedness, and hoppiness. A biologist would give us a better list. This “what-it-is” the frog shares with all other frogs; it is what makes it a frog rather than a toad or a salamander. This is what Aristotle calls its form.

But of course it is one particular frog, the one Johnny caught this morning. It is not “frog in general” or “all the frog there is.” What makes it the particular individual that it is? Surely it is the matter composing it; this frog is different from the one Sally caught, because even though they share the same form, each is made up of different bits of matter.

So first philosophy, also called metaphysics, looks for the ultimate principles and causes of all things. What are they?

Not Plato’s Forms

To say that the Form Human is the cause of humans is simply to multiply the entities needing explanation. If it is difficult to explain the existence and nature of human beings, it is certainly no easier to explain the existence and nature of humans-plus-the-Form-Human.

Mathematics is a science that, like natural science, has the world of nature as its only object. But it does not study it as nature; it studies only certain abstractions from natural things, without supposing that such abstractions are themselves things.


It would not be appropriate for the best thought to be about ordinary things, Aristotle argues. It must have only the best and most valuable object. But that is itself! So God will think only of himself. He will not, in Aristotle’s view, have any concern or thought for the world. He will engage eternally in a contemplation of his own life—which is a life of contemplation.

God, then, is to the world as winning the World Series is to the “world” of baseball. He functions as the unifying principle of reality, that cause to which all other final causes must ultimately be referred.

The Soul

Plato locates the essence of a person in the soul, an entity distinct from the body. Souls exist before their “imprisonment” in a body and survive the death of the body. The wise person tries to dissociate himself as much as possible from the harmful influences of the body. The practice of philosophy is a kind of purification making a soul fit for blessedness after death. Aristotle rejects the otherworldliness implicit in such views.

The term “soul” is the English translation of the Greek psyche. And that is the general word applied to life. So, things with psyche—ensouled things— are living things.

3 levels to souls:

  1. Nutritive soul: plants
  2. Sensitive soul: animals
  3. Rational soul: people

Remember that “form” does not stand for shape (except in very simple cases) but for the essence, the definition, the satisfaction of which makes a thing the substance it is. Remember also that form is the principle of actualization or realization; it is what makes a bit of matter into an actual thing. And remember that form is itself substance: the very substance of substances.

If Aristotle is right, psychology and physiology in fact study the same thing. The former studies the form, and the latter the matter. From one point of view anger is a mental state, from the other a physical state.

The seat of sensation and emotions, Aristotle thinks, is the heart. When we are afraid or excited we can feel our heart beating fast.

Without knowledge of the microstructure of the brain, it must have seemed to him that there is nothing available in the body to serve as the organ of thought, so the active part of nous must be separable from the body.

The Good Life

Whereas Plato seeks a science of ethics based on the Form of the Good, Aristotle sees ethics as more of an art than a science. It requires a different sort of wisdom—wisdom about choice, character, and action—that pertains to particulars rather than unchanging universal truths. Given this emphasis, Aristotle insists that ethics will never attain the precision or certainty available in theoretical knowledge


Aristotle begins his main treatise on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics, with these words: Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly, every action and choice of action, is thought to have some good as its object. This is why the good has rightly been defined as the object of all endeavor.

  • Whenever we do something, we have some end in view. If we exercise, our end is health; if we study, our end is knowledge or a profession. And we consider that end to be good; no one strives for what he or she considers bad.

We have to know what we truly want: This must be the good, the highest good. Would not knowing it have a great influence on our way of living? Would we not be better at doing what we should, like archers with a target to aim at?

  • What everyone wants is happiness. But people disagree on what happiness is.
  • It is essential to figure out what will make you happy and then achieve it.
  • Aristotle’s term for happiness is eudaemonia. Whether “happiness” is the best English translation for this term is unclear. A better alternative might be “well-being,” and some speak of human “flourishing.” In any case, it is clear that eudaemonia is not merely a matter of feeling happy.

Everyone wants to be happy. And the question, “Why do you want to be happy—for what?” seems to be senseless. This is the end, the final goal.

Money we want for security, but happiness for its own sake.

What most people (wrongly) think happiness is:

  • Many people, Aristotle notes, think that happiness is pleasure and live as though that were so. But that cannot be correct.
  • Other people think that happiness is a matter of fame and honor. Again, there is something to be said for that; it is more characteristically human than mere pleasure. Aristotle does not want to deny that honor is something we can seek for its own sake; still it seems to be more superficial than what we are looking for, since it rests in the man who gives the honor rather than in him who receives it, whereas our thought is that the good is something proper to the person, and cannot be taken away from him. The problem with honor and fame—or popularity—is that you are not in control of them; whether they are bestowed or withdrawn depends on others.

What happiness is:

Happiness is finding your task (your purpose) and then doing it well. We see that the good of a thing is relative to its proper function. Moreover—and this will be important— the flutist is happy when she plays excellently.

This suggests to Aristotle that if human beings had a function—not as flutists or cobblers, but just in virtue of being human—we might be able to identify the good appropriate to them. He thinks we can discover such a function.

Being rational will make humans happy. The inherent purpose of humans is to be rational. Humans are different from plants and the other animals because they have the rational level of soul. So the function of a human being is living according to reason, or at least, Aristotle adds, “not without reason.” This addition is not insignificant. It means that although an excellent human life is a rational one, it is not limited to purely intellectual pursuits. There are excellences (virtues) that pertain to the physical and social aspects of our lives as well. The latter he calls the moral virtues.

It seems as though everything that people look for in connection with happiness resides in our definition. Some think it to be excellence or virtue; others wisdom; others special skill; whereas still others think it all these, or some of these together with pleasure, or at least not without pleasure. Others incorporate external goods as well.

  • Happiness includes ethics/morality, wisdom (knowledge), special skills, and pleasure (because an ethical, wise, skillful life is pleasurable), and external goods (like friends, children, spouse, wealth, political power, and good looks). Aristotle warns that external goods can cause unhappiness: vicious children, a bad spouse, etc. I would add health to the list.

The things thought pleasant by the vast majority of people are always in conflict with one another, because it is not by nature that they are pleasant; but those who love goodness take pleasure in what is by nature pleasant. This is the characteristic of actions in conformity with virtue, so that they are in themselves pleasant to those who love goodness. Their life has no extra need of pleasure as a kind of wrapper; it contains pleasure in itself.

“In the long run men hit only what they aim at.” — Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

A certain amount of good fortune is a necessary condition for happiness. One would not expect the Elephant Man, for example, to be entirely happy, or a person whose children have become thoroughly wicked. This means, of course, that your happiness is not entirely in your own control. To be self-sufficient in happiness may be a kind of ideal, but in this world it is not likely to be entirely realized.

One point needs special emphasis. The happy life, which is one and the same with the good life, is a life of activity. Happiness is not something that happens to you. It is not passive.

There is a certain unavoidable fragility to human happiness. There are many changes and all kinds of chances throughout a lifetime, and it is possible for a man who is really flourishing to meet with great disaster in old age, like Priam of Troy. No one gives the name happy to a man who meets with misfortune like that and dies miserably.

If the virtues are not emotions or capacities, what can they be? Aristotle’s answer is that they are dispositions or habits.

  • To have a virtue of a certain kind is to have developed a habit of choosing and behaving in ways appropriate to that virtue.
  • Aristotle says that virtues are learned.

Virtues are learned habits.

We become moderate through abstaining from pleasure, and when we are moderate we are best able to abstain. The same is true of bravery. Through being trained to despise and accept danger, we become brave; we shall be best able to accept danger once we are brave.

The point is that moral virtue is concerned with pleasures and pains. We do bad actions because of the pleasure going with them, and abstain from good actions because they are hard and painful. Therefore, there should be some direction from a very early age, as Plato says, with a view to taking pleasure in, and being pained by, the right things.

A child can be taught virtue—moderation, courage, generosity, and justice—by associating pleasures with them and pains with their violation—by rewarding and punishing.

Why should we teach these virtues to our children? Aristotle has a clear answer: If they find pleasure in the most excellent exercise of their human nature, they will be happier people.

Our third question is whether virtue is one or many. Can a person be partly good and partly bad, or is goodness all or nothing? Plato and Socrates are both convinced that goodness is one. For Plato, knowledge of the Form of the Good is the only secure foundation for virtue; and that Form is one. Whoever grasped it fully would be good through and through. We might expect Aristotle to be more pluralistic. In fact, he says that Socrates and Plato are in one sense right and in one sense wrong. There are indeed many virtues, and they can perhaps even exist in some independence of each other. Often, a brave man is not particularly moderate in choosing his pleasures; James Bond would be an example. But in their perfection, Aristotle holds, you can’t have one virtue without having them all. What will the brave man without moderation do, for example, when he is pulled in one direction by his bravery and in another by some tempting pleasure? Won’t his lack of moderation hamper the exercise of his courage?

The unity of human excellence in its perfection is a function of the exercise of reason. If you follow reason, you will not be able to develop only one of these virtues to the exclusion of others. This use of reason Aristotle calls practical sense or practical wisdom. “Once the single virtue, practical sense, is present, all the virtues will be present”

  • This seems exactly like Plato. Once you understand the “why” of virtue, you will follow all the virtues. The ”why” is that it improves the life of the individual—morality is essential to happiness.

Excessive or insufficient training destroys strength, just as too much or too little food and drink ruins health. The right amount, however, brings health and preserves it. So this applies to moderation, bravery, and the other virtues. The man who runs away from everything in fear, and faces up to nothing, becomes a coward; the man who is absolutely fearless, and will walk into anything, becomes rash. It is the same with the man who gets enjoyment from all the pleasures, abstaining from none: he is immoderate; whereas he who avoids all pleasures, like a boor, is a man of no sensitivity. Moderation and bravery are destroyed by excess and deficiency, but are kept flourishing by the mean.

If we feel too little fear and are overconfident, we act foolishly, recklessly. At each extreme, then, there is a vice, and the virtue lies in a mean between these extremes.

Consider this example. You are walking down a dark and lonely street, and you feel a pointed object pressed into your back and hear the words, “Your money or your life.” What would be the brave thing for you to do? Turn and try to disarm the thug? Try to outrun him? If you are like most people, either action would be foolhardy, rash, stupid. There would be no taint of cowardice in you if you meekly handed over your wallet, especially because it is not worth risking your life over the money in your wallet. If you happen to be a Green Beret or a Navy Seal in a similar situation, someone superbly trained in hand-to-hand combat, however, then disarming your attacker would not be rash or reckless. What counts as extreme will depend, then, on facts about who is facing danger, what kind of danger he or she is facing, what he or she is seeking to protect by facing danger, and so on. These facts will differ from case to case, and so what is courageous will differ from case to case.

Or let’s think about being angry; again, it is a matter of degree. You can have too much anger (like Achilles) or too little (simply being a doormat for everyone to walk over). Each of these is a vice, wrathfulness at the one extreme and subservience at the other. The virtue (which, in this case, may not have a clear name) lies at the mean between these extremes. Aristotle doesn’t intend to say that we should always get only moderately angry. About certain things, in relation to a given person, and for some specific reason, it might be the right thing to be very angry indeed. But in relation to other times, occasions, persons, and reasons, that degree of anger may be excessive. We should always seek the mean, but what that is de- pends on the situation in which we find ourselves. All of the virtues, Aristotle says, can be given this sort of analysis.

Notice that this is not a doctrine of relativism in the Sophist’s sense. It is clearly not the case that if Jones thinks in certain circumstances that it’s right to get angry to a certain degree, then it is (therefore) right—not even for Jones. Jones can be mistaken in his judgment. True, there is a certain relativity involved in judgments about the right; and without careful thought, this might be confusing. But it is an objective relativity; what is right depends on objective facts—on actual facts about the situation in which Jones finds himself. It is those facts that determine where the mean lies, not what Jones thinks or feels about them.

“The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context, any more than the fact that a good navigational judgment is sensitive to particular weather conditions shows that it is correct only in a local or relational sense. It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context; and the person who so attends and who chooses accordingly is making . . . the humanly correct decision, period.” — Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947)

Finding the mean in the situation is the practical role of reason in ethics.

“Going wrong happens in many ways… whereas doing right happens in one way only. That is why one is easy, the other difficult: missing the target is easy, but hitting it is hard. This is why it is a hard job to be good. It is hard to get to the mean in each thing. It is the expert, not just anybody, who finds the center of the circle. In the same way, having a fit of temper is easy for anyone; so is giving money and spending it. But this is not so when it comes to questions of “for whom?” “how much?” “when?” “why?” and “how?” This is why goodness is rare, and is praiseworthy and fine.” — Aristotle

Aristotle does not give a formula or an algorithm to use in making choices. He apparently thinks that no such formula is possible in practical matters pertaining to particular choices. If a formula were possible, ethics could be a science rather than an art.

Protagoras holds that “man is the measure of all things.” We have seen how this leads to a kind of relativism; if Jones thinks something is good, then it is good—to Jones. Aristotle disagrees and argues in this way: We do not take the word of someone who is color-blind about the color of a tie; in the same way, not everyone is adept at judging the goodness of things. Protagorean relativism is a mistake because it is not everyone, but only the good person, who is the “measure of each thing.”


The virtues, as we have seen, are dispositions to choose and behave in certain ways, according to right reason or practical wisdom. If we have these dispositions, we are called good; if we lack them, we are called bad. It is for our virtues and vices that we are praised and blamed. But under certain conditions, praise or blame are inappropriate. Let’s call these “excusing conditions.”

Aristotle is the first to canvass excusing conditions systematically and so to define when persons should not be held responsible for their actions.

There are 2 times when people should not be held responsible:

  1. Now, having your ship driven somewhere by a storm or being tied up and carried somewhere are particularly clear cases. If something bad should happen as a result of either of these, no one would blame you for it, for “the principle of action is external.” There are more debatable cases. For example, we would normally blame a ship’s captain who lost his cargo by throwing it overboard. But if he threw it overboard during a storm to save his ship, we might excuse him, saying that the storm forced him to do it. Yet we can’t say that he contributed “nothing of his own.” He did make the decision; in that respect, the action was voluntary. Still, because this is what “all people of sense” would do in those circumstances, the captain is pardoned. Aristotle concludes that though such actions are voluntary if considered as particular acts, they are involuntary when considered in context—for no one would ordinarily choose them. And that is the ground on which we excuse the captain from blame. Again Aristotle insists that we not try to find a precise formula for deciding such cases. He stresses how difficult such decisions may be.
  2. Let us consider the second condition. What sort of ignorance excuses us from responsibility? It is not, Aristotle says, ignorance of what is right. Those who do not know what is right are not ignorant, but wicked! We do not excuse people for being wicked. (Here is the source of the adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse.) If ignorance of the right does not excuse, neither does ignorance of what everybody ought to know. But ignorance in particular circumstances does—that is, ignorance of the sphere and scope of the action. . . . A man may be ignorant of what he is doing: e.g., when people say that it “slipped out in the course of a conversation”; or that they did not know these things were secret . . . or like the man with the catapult, who wanted “only to demonstrate it,” but fired it instead. Someone, as Merope does, might think his son an enemy; or mistake a sharp spear for one with a button. . . . One might give a man something to drink, with a view to saving his life, and kill him instead. It is ignorance about particular circumstances that makes an action involuntary and leads us to excuse the agent from responsibility. In such cases, a person can say, If I had only known, I would have done differently. The mark of whether that is true, Aristotle suggests, is regret. If someone does something bad through ignorance and later regrets doing it, that is a sign that she is not wicked. Again, there are difficult cases. What about the person who acts in ignorance because he is drunk and is not in a condition to recognize the facts of the case? Here Aristotle suggests that it is not appropriate to excuse him, because he was responsible for getting himself into that state. The same is true for someone ignorant through carelessness; that person should have taken care. Here is, perhaps, a harder case. But perhaps the man’s character is such that he cannot take care. Well, people themselves are responsible for getting like that, through living disorderly lives: they are responsible for being unjust or profligate, the former through evildoing, the latter through spending their time drinking, and so on.
  • Nobody is so ignorant that they do not know that their actions have reactions.

This provides the main outlines of Aristotle’s views on responsibility. We can see that he assumes people must normally be held responsible for what they do, that compulsion (being forced against your will by a person or circumstances) and ignorance (trying your best, but messing up) may be excusing conditions, and that he is rather severe in his estimation of when these conditions may hold.

The acceptance of responsibility and the sparing use of excuses are requirements of the good life. By our choices and actions we create the habits that become our character. And so we are ourselves very largely responsible for our own happiness or lack thereof.

The activity of nous—discovering and keep- ing in mind the first principles of things—Aristotle calls “contemplation.

The same point is here used to recommend the life of contemplation as the very best life, for it is more “self-sufficient” than any other, less dependent on other people. The other virtues need the presence of other people for their exercise, while the wise man can engage in contemplation “even when he is on his own.”

Aristotle does not deny that there are good human lives that are noncontemplative. Ordinary men and women, not devoting themselves to science and philosophy, can also be excellent human beings—and therefore happy. But only those fortunate enough to be able to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits will experience the very best life—that pinnacle of human happiness which is most like the happiness of God. We see clearly that Aristotle’s ethics (and classical Greek ethics in general) is an ethics of self-perfection, or self-realization. There is not much in it that recommends caring for others for their sakes.

This attitude underlies the rational justification for being virtuous in both Plato and Aristotle. They try to show that we should be just and moderate because, to put it crudely, it pays.

Chapter 10

Confucious, Mencius, and Xunzi: Virtue in Ancient China

In the West, the story of ancient philosophy revolves around three central characters: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In China, the story of ancient Confucian philosophy features another famous trio: Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi. There were other influential philosophers in each tradition, such as the Stoics in the West and Hanfeizi and Zhuangzi in China, but these philosophers exerted an especially profound influence on the course of Western and Chinese civilization, respectively.

Ancient sources say that Confucious grew up impoverished and, as a young man, supported himself with various menial jobs.

At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; at forty, I became free from doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the bounds of propriety. — Confucious (Analects)

When, upon completing his initial education, he “took his place in society,” Confucius established himself as a person of some repute in his native state of Lu. He became part of a rising social class of scholar-officials known as shi, who advised various hereditary rulers during the later Zhou dynasty. Confucius held a government position in Lu at some point, but political chaos there forced him to travel from state to state struggling to find a ruler who would put his ideas into practice. By 484 B.C., having failed to convince any ruler to follow his philosophy, Confucius returned to Lu, where he spent the rest of his days teaching and (according to tradition) editing or compiling books that later became the Confucian classics.

He died in 479 B.C., a decade before Socrates was born, presumably unaware that his life’s work would transform China forever.

Given Confucius’ long quest to find rulers to put his teachings into practice, you might expect the Analects to focus on practical questions of government. So it might surprise you to discover that the book focuses mainly on being a good person, on the finer points of rituals and etiquette, and on the various social relationships that people occupy. For Confucius, however, these topics lie at the very heart of good government.

Cultivating and manifesting genuine Goodness involves cultivating and manifesting various subsidiary virtues, such as dutifulness, understanding, righteousness or integrity, benevolence, trustworthiness, filial piety, and ritual propriety. We cultivate these virtues, according to Confucius, through a lifelong process of assiduous moral self-cultivation that requires learning, reflection, and deliberate effort to put Confucian teachings into practice.

One of Confucius’ prominent disciples explains his own process this way: Master Zeng said, “Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I failed in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?”

“There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” — Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)

Understanding, then, is the ability to understand how you yourself would feel in another’s situation and so refrain from doing to others what you would not want done to you.

A person’s responsibilities toward his or her parents are embodied in the important virtue of filial piety, which involves respect, obedience, and care.

The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in his speech. That is all there is to it.

Confucius said that rectifying names would be the first thing he would do if he was in charge of government. But what does that mean?

Rectifying names, then, means ensuring that everyone is carrying out their respective roles properly. Someone who bears the title of “minister” in the king’s government should act like a minister; whoever bears the title of “king” should act like a king; whoever is called a “father” should act like a father, and so on. And since a “true king” will carry out his responsibilities conscientiously and virtuously, in accordance with the rites, once names are rectified, everyone will be acting virtuously.

One who rules through the power of Virtue [dé] is analogous to the Pole Star: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars.


While Plato studied directly with Socrates, the connection between Confucius and the next great Confucian thinker, Mencius, is less direct. Confucius’ disciples took it on themselves to transmit the Master’s teachings to the next generation, and their disciples continued that tradition. Roughly a century after Confucius’ death, Confucius’ grandson or one of his grandson’s disciples took on a pupil named Meng Ke, who would eventually come to be known as Mengzi or “Master Meng.” We do not know exactly when Mencius lived, but he was probably born in the early fourth century B.C. and lived a long life, making him a contemporary of Plato and Aristotle. Mencius spent his life trying to convince rulers of the chaotic Warring States period to adopt the Confucian way, much as Confucius had done generations earlier. Mencius’ thought is recorded in a book called the Mengzi. Like the Analects, it consists of a loosely organized collection of sayings and anecdotes.

Yang Zhu (unlike Mozi) thinks that caring for all people equally is unrealistic and immoral. You love your son more than your neighbor’s nephew. It is immoral because the truly virtuous person demonstrates different levels of concern and love for different people.

Mencius thinks that the truth lies somewhere in between Yang Zhu and Mozi.

In contrast to the self-interested Yangists and the impartial Mohists, Confucians will give preferential treatment to those closest to them, especially their own family members, but they will still extend some degree of love and concern to everyone.

“Then, too, there are a great many degrees of closeness or remoteness in human society. To proceed beyond the universal bond of our common humanity, there is the closer one of belonging to the same people, tribe, and tongue . . . but a still closer social union exists between kindred.” — Cicero (106–43 B.C.)

To make sense of Mencius’ position, we need to answer three questions. What does Mencius mean by “human nature”? In what sense is there “no human who does not tend toward goodness”? And if all humans naturally tend toward goodness, how do we explain the fact that many people are not virtuous?

With respect to the first question, Mencius means that all humans intrinsically have certain emotions that, under favorable circumstances, will lead them toward goodness and that when someone does not develop into a good person, this is because of unfavorable circumstances, not some fault in their nature.

Given an appropriate environment, with good soil and adequate water and sun, sprouts will naturally grow into healthy plants. Likewise, given an appropriate environment, with economic security and a loving family living in a stable, flourishing society, people will naturally grow into good people.

Mencius takes four virtues—benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom—to be of the first importance. To have them is to be a good person. Thus, the “four sprouts” of compassion, disdain, respect, and approval or disapproval are the roots of virtue and goodness. If they are cultivated and given an appropriate setting in which to develop, people will naturally grow into virtue.

Why, then, do so many people fail to be virtuous? Mencius explains this through the allegory of Ox Mountain.

Bad people are bad, then, not because of their nature, but because outside influences prevent their “sprouts” from developing properly or be- cause they have failed to cultivate their natural tendencies in the proper way.

The third great Confucian in ancient China was Xunzi, who takes a very different view of human nature from most of his predecessors. Whereas Gaozi argued that human nature has no tendency toward either good or evil and Mencius argued that human nature is good, Xunzi declares that “human nature is bad.” The book that records Xunzi’s ideas, the Xunzi, says,

People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. Now people’s nature is such that they are born with a fondness for profit in them.

Fortunately, people are not irredeemably bad. Anyone can become good, says Xunzi, through proper training by good teachers and “deliberate effort” at moral self-cultivation.

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