The Rational, the Just, the Virtuous, the Happy

Plato’s most precise ethical argument in his Socratic dialogues is that of justice’s dual effect; he holds that while a “good” may be pleasant in effect, it must also be good in itself in order to qualify as justice. Justice fills the whole of Plato’s definition of the virtuous life, because only by living justly can a person find true happiness. Similarly, if a person’s supposed happiness is based only on an action’s good and pleasing end, then the result is not truly happiness, but merely the wanton outcome of what happiness has come to represent. Whether the end be wealth, goods, food, or reputation, that sort of end appears as happiness only to the individual who does not realize the falseness of his ideology and who is controlled by his drives for physical satisfaction and honorable recognition. In Plato’s mind, only one who has a genuine understanding of the good itself can begin to understand the principle of virtue, and thus, the spiritual, intellectual, and political elevation in living a just life and in living the best life2EIn Plato’s eyes, through proper education, one reaches not merely knowledge, but truth. Following the allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic, Socrates refutes the notion of education as “sight for the blind,” and expands its intention to include the redirection of one’s soul: “This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call good” (Republic, 518d). What inevitably comes of this is Plato’s call for properly focused desires. Through education one’s soul becomes controlled by rational thought, the producer of justice. Interestingly, Plato’s relation of the Socratic ideal society includes, also, those who can never fully achieve this state of wisdom, namely producers, those who focus on appetitive desires, and guardians, who are concerned chiefly with honor and reputation. An absence of the work of these people would drastically stunt city life. However, Plato knows education to be the center of improvement; as long as each human sees the good, sees the truth, and works toward it, the most virtuous lives attainable to each individual will be fulfilled and the most just society will result.In contrast, the beginning of the Republic includes the cry of those who feast on appetitive and spirited desires only, and who live only in the benefits of injustice. Thrasymachus seems to present a fair argument for injustice, holding that it brings the doer satisfaction in pleasure, wealth, or recognition. Socrates does not agree, however, that the majority of Athenians living comfortably doing injustice are, in fact, truly happy. Here, Plato begins to touch upon the revolutionary difference between presupposed notions of virtue and happiness and what is actually virtuous and good. Socrates most strongly defends this argument in his final attempt to sway Thrasymachus; while holding that everything having a function must, in turn, have a virtue, he asks Thrasymachus to consider the function of a person’s soul, which is to live. The two conclude that justice is indeed a soul’s virtue, and injustice its vice, upon which Socrates lays down the moral law: “Therefore, a just person is happy, and an unjust one wretched” ( Republic, 354a). Through this particular piece of Socratic dialogue, Thrasymachus’ convoluted spirituality is explained by his inadequate sense of virtue. The reader is left to assume, then, that Thrasymachus will never be happy until he practices virtue in justice.Plato’s most stirring message to his readers is that one has a distinct choice as to how to live, psychologically and spiritually. The conclusion of the Republic is most noteworthy for Plato’s definitive description of the best and worst lives. Through Socrates’ telling of the Myth of Er in Book X, Plato spells out for the reader how to distinguish the best life, declaring, simply, that a life is inherently better if it leads the soul to become more just. Moreover, while the tale involves a human being’s choice of a life, the soul is not visible for inspection, for it is supposedly “inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses” (Republic, 618b). The best life results from actions that benefit the self and society, and so, results in a soul that is the most just, rational, and virtuous. Complementing this illustration of human choice, Plato finalizes Socrates’ philosophy of a just life in “Crito.” As Socrates chooses death over escape, he tries to show Crito that “the most important thing is not life, but the good life” (“Crito,” 48b). We may not always have a choice of life or death as Socrates did, but we always have the choice to live well.While most modern readers certainly identify with Plato’s poignant call to live only the life that is worthwhile, it is important to consider that the philosopher himself might call our present lives a flagrant waste of breath. Although massive worldwide injustice solicits many to the scene of solidarity and peace-making, the American culture of capitalism would likely leave Socrates’ protests against instant gratification stuck in the country’s pocket of bohemian, hemp-wearing, social organizers. As blunt as this may sound, Americans in particular have a hard time turning away corporate job promotions in order to deal with homelessness; somehow, if the price of true happiness means not having a sport utility vehicle and not buying clothes manufactured in sweat shops, the prospect of virtue hardly seems worth the sacrifice. This is the culture in which we live, and turning away from it gets more difficult every century since Plato’s day. Yet, as Plato seemed to acknowledge, even accept, the existence of those producers and guardians lower on the spiritual spectrum, though paradoxically claiming that the virtuous life was the only option, we wonder if perhaps there is a chance for us, too. What if I give up the clothes but not the car? What if I live in this capitalistic world but I still really, really care about those less fortunate? As it has always been, all there is to fix in the world is too heavy for one person’s hands. With Plato’s written words ringing in our ears, we must, at least, work towards the most virtuous life possible.Although, for some, nature will only allow the virtuousness of one’s soul to improve so much, the orientation of one’s desires has the capacity to change and move closer to a domination of rationality. With regard to Plato, the best way to live is founded on ethical truth so precise it is nearly mathematical. Furthermore, only from ethical truth in rational thought can a being live a truly virtuous, just life that is in everyone’s best interest. Through a considerably political argument, Plato nonetheless creates a spiritual ideal from which Athenians and readers today are asked to disregard their misdirected trust in instantly gratifying happiness and focus on the greater reality of the state of the soul. Here, Plato argues, lies the virtue that fosters good for good’s sake. Only this enlightened life is the best life; should one make an effort to live otherwise, death would be a more sensible choice.

Leave a Comment