The Republic by Plato

Published 14 Feb 2017

After reading The Republic by Plato it becomes plain that the philosopher devoted most of it to the idea of privilege of being a just person in contrast to being an unjust one. Through his protagonist Socrates who attempts to persuade his interlocutors of the concept he seeks to justify his position. There is no doubt however that simple declaration of justice’s superiority was not sufficient to hold the argument not only true but also stimulating to acting in the prescribed way. That’s how the conception of pleasure proofs emerges. Socrates (and Plato himself) needs to prove to Glaucon that besides purely moral factor of being a just person, such individual is the one who is able to perceive the ultimate pleasure. Let us consider the two proofs he offers to make his ethics motivating.

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First of all, Socrates refers back to the principle of threefold division of a human soul and deduces the corresponding desires out of them:

“One part, we say, was that with which a human being learns, and another that with which he becomes spirited; as for the third, because of its many forms, we had no peculiar name to call it by, but we named it by what was biggest and strongest in it. For we called it the desiring part on account of the intensity of the desires concerned with eating, drinking, sex, and all their followers; and so, we also called it the money-loving part, because such desires are most fulfilled by means of money.”(Republic IX 580e)

In other words, in terms of desires, he distinguishes between wisdom-loving, victory-loving and gain-loving impulses, which are originated correspondingly by the rational, spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. It is interesting to note that Plato previously treated the appetitive part of the soul as the only part that is able to have desires. We see, however, that the statements in the Book IX are somewhat contradictory to what the philosopher wrote before. According to Plato, although each person’s soul has the same triple pattern, there is always one part which is dominating.

Hence, there are three types of people who find this or that pleasure the most enjoyable one. How can we tell objectively then, which pleasure is the highest one? For this person Plato feels the need to transform the question of which pleasure produces the greatest happiness into the question of what sort of person is most competent to judge the matter. . Is it the person who pursues the pleasure of philosophy, the one who pursues the pleasure of honor, or the one who pursues bodily pleasures who is the best judge of which kind of pleasure is really the best?

“It’s necessary for the latter {philosopher} to taste of the other pleasures starting in childhood. But for the lover of gain it’s not necessary to taste, or to have experience of, how sweet is the pleasure of learning the natural characteristics of the things which are; rather even if he were eager to, it wouldn’t be easy…Honor accompanies them all, if each achieves its aim. For the wealthy man is honored by many; and so are the courageous man and the wise one. Therefore, all have experience of the kind of pleasure that comes from being honored. But the kind of pleasure connected with the vision of what is cannot be tasted by anyone except the lover of wisdom”(Republic IX 582b-c)

Not surprisingly, Socrates says that the person who pursues primarily the pleasure of philosophy is the best judge, and that such a person will declare philosophy to provide the greatest pleasure. His argument is that while philosophers pursue primarily philosophy, they also have tasted the pleasures of honor and the body. Persons who pursue primarily honor, on the other hand, while having tasted the pleasures of the body, have never experienced the pleasure of philosophy. And persons who pursue only bodily pleasure know nothing of the pleasures of honor or philosophy. These persons will be the worst judges, since they can hardly evaluate pleasures they have never experienced.

The first argument, although rather logical and consecutive, does not seem to be exhaustive at all. On the one hand, the statement about what is real and what is only appearance and about how we can know the difference is clear. If we accept Plato’s metaphysics, then his proof about happiness keeps relevant. If a nonphilosopher said that he or she had in fact tasted philosophy but found it did not provide the best pleasure, Plato would respond by saying that all such a statement proves is that the non-philosopher had not really tasted philosophy. On the other hand, the distinction between pleasures is comprehensive but the purpose for such distinction is not completely clear.

Also, there is no consistent argument why the philosopher’s pleasure is so much superior of that of the gain-lover or honor-lover. Even if we believe Socrates when he says that a philosopher is the best judge (although it may be questionable because he doesn’t experience the pleasures of his counterparts in the same way they do), it is nevertheless not evident at all that the philosopher’s pleasure is worth being a philosopher.

Yet, Plato seems to realize the flaws in the first proof, that’s why the second argument is constructed in the way to eliminate the imperfections of the first one. Overall, it is based on the idea that there exists a division between the absolute and the relative pleasure. There exists pain and there exists its opposite – pleasure- and there also exists repose between them, which ought to balance the two as objectively neutral phenomenon but fails to do it due to the relativity. That’s how Plato illustrates the concept:

“And I suppose you are aware of many other similar circumstances in which human beings, while they are in pain, extol as most pleasant not enjoyment but rather the absence of pain and repose from it.”
“For,” he said, “at that time repose perhaps becomes pleasant and enough to content them.”
“And when a man’s enjoyment ceases,” I said, “then the repose
from pleasure will be painful.” “Perhaps,” he said.
“Therefore, what we were just saying is between the two — repose — will at times be both, pain and pleasure.” (Republic IX 583 d-e)

From the above abstract we see what is characteristic of relative or apparent pleasures – they are experienced as pleasurable only in relation to some prior state that is not pleasurable. Such pleasures do not exist unless there is another state to compare them to:

“Therefore it is not so,” I said, “but when it is next to the painful, repose looks pleasant and next to the pleasant, painful; and in these appearances there is nothing sound, so far as truth of pleasure goes, only a certain wizardry.” (Republic IX 584 b)

In Plato’s opinion, any pleasure which originates from pain is relative, that’s why it is inferior to an absolute pleasure. Now, what is an absolute pleasure according to Plato? Let us consider the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon.

“Well, then,” I said, “look at pleasures that don’t come out of pains, so that you won’t perhaps suppose in the present instance that it is naturally the case that pleasure is rest from pain and pain rest from pleasure.”
“Where shall I look,” he said, “and what pleasures do you mean?”
“There are many others, too,” I said, “but, if you are willing to reflect on them, the pleasures of smells in particular. For these, without previous pain, suddenly become extraordinarily great and, once having ceased, leave no pain behind.” (Republic IX 584 b)

So, an absolute pleasure is the one which is self –sufficient, it leans only on itself and doesn’t depend on the previously experienced states. The example with a smell as illustrating an absolute truth is very indicative but at first it seems ambiguous. We’re already used to the fact that Plato’s aim is to prove that it is a philosopher’s pleasure that is the highest one. But what indicates that smell is perceived by the rational part of the soul? Further on, however, it becomes plain that Plato uses the example of smell just to illustrate another step in his argument. He draws an interesting metaphor to support the point that most people are unable to differentiate between the absolute and the relative pleasures. Such people, he argues, are like a man in space who in rising to a middle position from the bottom, and looking back down at the bottom, is likely to think he is at the top rather than just in the middle. He thinks he knows where he is, when, in fact, he has no clue as to what is really bottom, top, and middle:

“Do you suppose that a man brought from the downward region to the middle would suppose anything else than that he was being brought up? And standing in the middle and looking away to the place from which he was brought, would he believe he was elsewhere than in the upper region since he hasn’t seen the true up?”
“No, by Zeus,” he said. “I don’t suppose such a man would suppose otherwise.”
“And if he were brought back,” I said, “would he suppose he was being brought down and suppose truly?”
“Of course.”
“And wouldn’t he undergo all this due to being inexperienced in what is truly above, in the middle, and below?” (Republic IX 584 d-e)

According to Plato, desires –those which are not genuine – are aimed to fill the emptiness in a person’s soul. But for the person who experiences any desire it is not always evident that the pleasure or pain he or she feels is not ultimate but relative. There is one more metaphor to illustrate the relativity:

“Then would you be surprised if those who are inexperienced in truth, as they have unhealthy opinions about many other things, so too they are disposed toward pleasure and pain and what’s between them in such a way that, when they are brought to the painful, they suppose truly and are really in pain, but, when brought from the painful to the in-between, they seriously suppose they are nearing fulfillment and pleasure; and, as though out of lack of experience of white they looked from gray to black, out of lack of experience of pleasure they look from pain to the painless and are deceived?” (Republic IX 585a)

Taking into account the metaphor, it becomes evident that the idea that smell is an example of absolute pleasures is exposed to doubt by the author himself. As a person’s normal range of emotions is from the black to the gray, then perception of a smell can be at a top, corresponding to the lightest hue of gray. But it is not white all the same. What someone regards as an absolute truth is in fact only its pale reflection.

However, Plato believes, an absolute truth does exist. But only philosophers have true access to it, because they are able to reach such heights that even seemingly absolute perception of smell appears to be relative. At this point it is gradually getting clear that Socrates attempts to be more successful at what he failed to do in the previous argument – to prove the privilege – in terms of pleasure! – of being a philosopher. Thus, he asks Glaucon an essential question:

“In your opinion which thing is more: one that is connected with something always the same, immortal and true, and is such itself and comes to be in such a thing; or one that is connected with something never the same and mortal, and is such itself and comes to be in such a thing?” “That,” he said, “which is connected with what is always the same far exceeds.” “And the being of that which is always the same, does it participate in being any more than in knowledge?” (Republic IX 585c)

This borderline between the changing and the constant, the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the immortal is in fact absolutely vital for the understanding Plato’s idea. This borderline separates usual people (gain-lovers and honor-lovers) from true philosophers (wisdom-lovers). Plato is very much concerned about people’s finitude, that’s why he considers everything, which is timeless, to be especially appealing. What type of person is able to enjoy the fruit of infinity?

“Shall we be bold and say this: Of the desires concerned with the love of gain and the love of victory, some — followers of knowledge and argument — pursue in company with them the pleasures to which the prudential part leads and take only these; such desires will take the truest pleasures, so far as they can take true ones — because they follow truth — and those that are most their own — if indeed what is best for each thing is also most properly its own?” (Republic IX, 586d)

Therefore, a person who leans on prudence as a source of knowledge, gains access to the absolute pleasure, which is absolute not only because it lasts but also because all other pleasures are transformed into this one when a mortal human being passes away. It is very peculiar of Plato’s concept that it is impossible to combine the three pleasures to fill the emptiness. The sum total is not comprised of separate ingredients. One has to fully devote himself to one part of the soul to stay complete. By to be complete to the maximum extent one needs to choose the rational part of the soul as the main domain because the completeness, which a person feels in other cases, is delusive and temporary:

“Therefore, when all the soul follows the philosophic and is not factious, the result is that each part may, so far as other things are concerned, mind its own business and be just and, in particular, enjoy its own pleasures, the best pleasures, and, to the greatest possible extent, the truest pleasures.”
“That’s entirely certain.” “And, therefore, when one of the other parts gets control, the result is that it can’t discover its own pleasure and compels the others to pursue an alien and untrue pleasure.” (Republic IX, 586e-587a)

As we see, the second argument is more complex than the first one. Both of them focus on the distinction between the three types of desires (“one genuine one, and two bastard” as Plato names them) and the corresponding types of personalities rules by these desires. The hierarchy remains the same: appetitive part of the soul is the most primitive one, satisfying animal desires like food, sex or money. Hence, gain-lovers are at the bottom of this classification. As spirited part of a soul possesses more nobility, being concentrated around such concepts as honor and courage, the corresponding type of people takes the middle position in the hierarchy. Finally, the rational part of the soul is connected with cognition and wisdom, and it is superior of the rest, as well as philosophers are higher than the two other groups.

Still, although the second argument takes directly from the first one, it improves the former greatly. Thus, it was not quite clear from the first argument, what the above mentioned hierarchy is based on at all. Socrates starts speaking of pleasures thus foreshadowing the further detailed justification. Indeed, providing practical emotional criterion such as pleasure is necessary to make the interlocutors and the readers motivated and stimulated. But it is only in the second part that Plato expands on the distinction between absolute and relative pleasure, which makes it clear, what is so special and alluring about choosing a rational part as the realm of desires. However, it is not quite clear why it is only possible to stick to one part of your soul. We only know that it is about the specific idea of completeness, which only one of the three pleasures can ensure.

Otherwise, you soul will be fractious and the pleasures will only fill the emptiness for a short time. Overall, Plato’s philosophy deals with the ideas of mortality and immortality, which define the concept of pleasure as well. It is the ability to join to the infinity, which makes the pleasure of learning the most appealing to Plato.

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