Monday, March 05, 2007

Plato = Aristotle?

At his second talk last week Hugh Benson said some things about Plato that made Plato sound a lot like Aristotle. In particular, I got worried that, on Benson's view, a crucial Platonic thesis -- that a well-ordered soul is necessary and sufficient for happiness -- was not actually Plato's view. My suspicions were aroused by some things Benson said about philosophers and political "power", and about knowledge and virtue. All philosophers have political "power", but they don't all live in worlds where this "power" can be manifested; all those who have knowledge have virtue, but they don't all live in worlds where this virtue results in virtuous action. This sounds like luck is playing a big role in whether someone who is internally good (someone who is a philosopher, someone who has knowledge) ends up achieving various external goods (actual political power, an actually virtuous life). That sounds like Aristotle.

But my worries were appeased (as they so often are!) at the bar, later that day. Here is a picture of the difference between Aristotle and Plato, which Benson tentatively approved. The two philosophers agree that there are three sorts of goods you can attain:

1. You can be internally good (i.e. have a "well-ordered soul" by being philosophically reflective)
2. You can be virtuous (in the sense that you can have a virtuous character, in the sense that you are disposed towards right action and emotion, i.e. you can have the capacity for living a virtuous life).
3. You can actually live a virtuous life, and get properly rewarded for it.

They agree that those are three goods that you can attain. And they also agree that (1) is sufficent for (2) -- a controversial claim in its own right. And they agree that (2) is not sufficient for (3), since it takes some contingent luck for (2) to lead to (3).

What they disagree about is which of (1) - (3) is necessary and sufficient for happiness, or living a good life. Plato thinks that (2) is sufficient for happiness (along with (1), of course), but Aristotle thinks that (3) is necessary as well. So Plato does endorse the controversial (and false!) Platonic thesis that an internally "well-ordered soul" is sufficient for happiness, since satisfying (1) and (2) is an internal matter; it requires no "cooperation from the world," it requires (for Plato, at least) no luck. And Aristotle does deny this thesis, since satisfying (3) is an external matter; it requires "cooperation from the world," it requires luck.

(Allan Hazlett)


Howard Curzer said...

This is all quite surprising to me.

I think Aristotle denys that (1) is sufficient for (2). Habituation as well as philosophical reflection is necessary for virtuous. After all, the continent and incontinent have the same beliefs as the virtuous, but they lack virtue because their passions are improper.

More controversially, I think Plato denys that (1) is sufficient for (2). That is why the Republic demands a fair amount of non-philosophical labor and testing before the guardian is allowed to advance to the stage of philosophic reflection. Reflection before appropriate habituation just produces a smart ass. Again in the Meno, the reason that Meno is unable to advance to true belief is that he lacks self-discipline, an emotional character trait that is a prerequisite to successful philosophical reflection. Without it, one just goes around in sophistic circles.

I agree that Plato denies that (2) is sufficient for (3). Philosophers get properly rewarded in great states like the Republic, but in Athens they get punished. Socrates doesn't get his proper reward because he is unlucky enough to live in Athens rather than in the Republic. But that is not the usual interpretation. Most commentators, I think, would say that according to Plato, moral luck is irrelevent to leading a virtuous life, and the virtuous life is its own reward.

Finally, I don't think that Plato would allow (2) to be sufficient for happiness. Rather his view is that being virtuous leads to living a virtuous life (although not to the proper rewards). To know the good is to do it, so no one has a virtuous character without leading a virtuous life. And living a virtuous life is happiness. Happiness is more than (2), but less than (3).

Howard Curzer

Tramp said...

Can we divide (3) into two:

(3a) You actually live a virtuous life.
(3b) You get rewarded for it.

So that Plato's view is that (3a) is sufficient for happiness? (Wheras Aristotle requires (3b)?)

I spoke too soon on Aristotle's view of (1) and (2); it sounds right (both in fact, and as an interpretation of A.) that there are external conditions required to get from (1) to (2); no amount of thinking will make it so.

My thought that internal goodness was sufficient for virtue is based on part on the last part of Book IV of the Republic - "[justice in the soul] isn't concerned with someone's doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, and with what is truly himself and his own." A virtuous person "puts himself in order [and] only then does he act."

Howard, you point is this, right: that you need luck (e.g. to be exposed to "a fair amount of non-philosophical labor and testing") to even get to the point where your soul is in this state of "health." The way I would put that, the way I was thinking of (1), would be this: that it takes luck to get to (1) -- it takes luck to get a "well-ordered soul."

But either way we'd be throwing out a certain view (myth? prejudice?) about Plato: that he thought that the conditions for happiness were internal, that happiness does not require luck.

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