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How To Be Good

We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. Could Plato help us understand the joys of virtue?
Mark Vernon 47
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Greek philosophy and classical civilisation holds a fascination for us moderns. Books about the Romans; TV programmes about Socrates; and discussions about ancient philosophy abound. And yet, I think they commonly miss an essential element that was fundamental and core to figures such as Plato and Aristotle, or schools like the Stoics and Sceptics: the transformative quest to know the transcendent. Without that, they'd have thought philosophy was rootless or aimless. And yet, their philosophy is routinely now presented without that ground. Here are three common errors that you hear from the mouths of historians and presenters of today, and why those errors matter so much.

1. The Greeks invented secular philosophy.

The first misleading story being told is of a crucial shift in human thought that crystallised in fifth century BC Athens. Before then, in the time of Homer and Hesiod, ancient Greeks had resorted to myths to guide them through the world. Now though, with the pre-Socratic philosophers and Plato in particular, a new generation of Greeks developed the capacity to think about the world without referencing their multiple divinities.

Instead they turned to cool, godless reason. Logic helped them derive arguments about what's true. No longer need things be believed because deities said so. Instead, humanity began to build knowledge on the basis of proofs.

This is wrong. It's right that the philosophers deployed new methods to investigate how to live, the nature of the cosmos, the way to rule cities. Those methods included reason and empirical investigation. But it was also a standard assumption amongst the ancients that true knowledge was true because it reflected divine knowledge. Reason and experience are gifts by which we can participate in divine life. Knowing came to be understood as a receptive capacity that reason serves by discerning. Nature came to be experienced as showing itself to us, if we attend to it aright.

Hence Thales, often called the father of philosophy, could exclaim, “All things are full of gods”. This is what his wondrous investigations revealed. For Plato, reason was a tool that could lead to divine insight, but if and only if accompanied by myths, reverent invocations, and the hard work of personal transformation.

This is a very good way of doing philosophy, which after all is the desire for a wisdom that often seems beyond human reach. And it has very little to do with contemporary secular philosophy that often seems stranded on a desert island of soulless logic. Plato might, in fact, help restore it to life.

2. Ancient philosophy opposed the spirit to the body.

There is a second erroneous story going around. One version of it goes like this: Plato held the body to be a prison for the soul that, with luck, the soul could flee at death. This meant that he denigrated the body and idealised the soul. He set up a dualism that we still experience in forms such as sexual prohibitions and women's oppression.

If the historians and TV academics read Plato (which sometimes, honestly, I wonder) they would learn that, for example, Socrates tousles the hair of his youthful follower, Phaedo, on his deathbed. Or they'd spot that Socrates did not just advocate philosopher kings in his dialogue the Republic, but philosopher queens. They are very likely to know that Plato the man probably gained his name because it is a pun on the Greek for "broad", suggesting that before he was a philosopher he had been a wrestler. They will also know that gymnasia were one of Socrates' and Plato's favourite haunts. But they don't take the next step: these are not details from the life of a body-hater. They are not the habits of someone who split body and soul.

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"In an age starved of trust and vision – of goodness as a self-evident good – Plato can feed us."
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Plato was actually gripped by something more subtle, more interesting and more valuable. It is the possibility that the body reflects the soul; is the manifestation of spirit. It's much as we say that someone's character becomes, in time, etched into the lines on their face. Plato proposed that the soul is the form of the body; that the soul is the aliveness of the body.

It's true that Socrates wonders whether the body might come to feel as if it had been a prison, such is the liberation that dying to the concerns of the body can bring. But, in a way, that's what anyone who has suffered an addiction to booze or drugs, food or fashion understands. Socrates simply felt that we're all at risk of fixating on flesh at the expense of spirit. 

So where did the dualism come from? I don't think it really existed until the seventeenth century, when Descartes proposed his famous cogito, “I think therefore I am”. With this formula, it became possible to imagine a thinking part separate from a bodily part. We now live with that legacy. But before then, philosophers had assumed human beings were incarnate: ensouled bodies. If you're against the dualism, which I think is sensible, Plato et al are sophisticated allies, not enemy number one.

3. Plato argued that goodness trounces God.

The third error is that Plato proved that goodness is more basic than godliness. Or, to put it another way, that the gods have no choice but to be good. This is then developed to suggest that goodness is more important than divinity, which is a short step away from the conclusion that divinity is not important at all. In short, Plato was really a new atheist.

The reference for this line of argument is Plato's dialogue, the Euthyphro. Again, I would suggest that proponents of this view take a second look. Because if you follow the dialogue through, you see that it is one of Plato's aporetic works. It ends inconclusively.

If anything definitive can be concluded from Socrates and Euthyphro's exchange it would be that when human beings claim to know anything for certain about the gods, they are certain to tie themselves in knots. That is a useful reminder for religious and atheistic folk alike. No-one with any seriousness can presume to know what causes gods sleepless nights, least of all feeling trapped into being good because goodness dictates it to them. Put it like this: to say the gods must be good is a bit like saying that grass must be green. It's nonsense. Goodness is implicit in divinity much as greenness is implicit in grass. But there's another more positive insight engaging with the Euthyphro can bring.

We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.

Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become. Again, in an age starved of trust and vision – of goodness as a self-evident good – Plato can feed us. We moderns should invoke his spirit and refuse the sticks with which many today routinely beat him.

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Richard Downs on 25/03/2016 7:09pm

Beautiful!

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