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Lecture Fourth: The Beginnings of the Platonic Idealism

WE have seen that the Platonic philosophy in its most general aspect may be described as an extension to the universe of the principle which Socrates applied to the life of the individual man, and moreover that this extension was due mainly to the combination of Socratic ideas with ideas derived from the earlier philosophy of Greece. This general statement, however, true as it is, will not enable us to explain the distinctive character of Platonism, unless we follow out at least the main lines of development along which Plato's thought was carried as it absorbed these different elements. This mode of explanation has been made easier and more effective of late years since the order of the Platonic dialogues has been approximately determined by linguistic considerations irrespective even of the doctrines taught in them.

Following such indications we find that, as we might have expected, Plato is in the first instance simply the pupil of Socrates, and that his earliest works are mainly devoted to the illustration of the Socratic method and the Socratic ideas. They deal, on the one hand, with the method of interrogation by which Socrates awakened in his pupils a consciousness of ignorance and then led them on to the formation of more and more comprehensive and exact definitions of moral conceptions; and, on the other hand, with the Socratic view of the moral life as a process determined by the idea of good as the end of action. In the course of these dialogues, however, Plato shows a growing sense of certain difficulties which beset the strict Socratic doctrine, and, in particular, of two great but closely connected difficulties, the one arising from the sharpness of the Socratic distinction between knowledge and ignorance, of which I have already spoken, and the other from the ambiguity and imperfection of the Socratic definition of the good which is the final end of action. Socrates, indeed, seemed to fix the nature of that end by the term ενδαιμονία commonly translated ‘happiness’; but the various senses in which his teaching was understood by his disciples show that he did not anticipate or decide any of the controversies about the nature of happiness which arose among them; and, in particular, that he did not discuss the great question—whether happiness is to be found in activity or in feeling, in the exercise of the faculties of man, or in the pleasure or satisfaction that follows upon such exercise.

Now to Plato that question became one of the most important of all ethical issues, and there was ultimately no ambiguity in his rejection of the purely hedonistic alternative. But there was a time when Hedonism seemed to him to afford the most natural interpretation of the Socratic theory that ‘virtue is knowledge.’ In the Protagoras, which is probably the latest of the Socratic dialogues, Socrates is made to maintain the doctrine afterwards called psychological Hedonism, that pleasure is the only possible object of desire, and that, when we seem to pursue any object which is not the most pleasant at the moment, it is only as an indirect means to greater pleasure in the future. On this view, it would follow that the difference between virtue and vice lies, not in our acting or not acting with a view to pleasure, but in the character of the pleasures we seek. The vicious man is he who is led by his short-sightedness to sacrifice a greater but remoter good to one that is nearer but less valuable; the virtuous man is he who has learned to look before and after, and to calculate the ultimate effect of each action in producing pleasure and pain. Such an ethical calculus alone, it is held, can raise men above the illusive appearance of the moment, and enable them to regulate their conduct in view of the greatest pleasure in life as a whole. On the other hand, if we can so regulate our actions, we inevitably must do so; for, ex hypothesi, the only thing we can desire or will is pleasure, and when we know what course will bring us most pleasure, we necessarily follow it. In this sense, therefore, virtue is knowledge and vice ignorance, and the whole task of ethics is to furnish a relative estimate of the degree and quantity of pleasure to be derived from different objects.

But Plato has no sooner drawn out this hedonistic scheme of life than he begins to throw doubt upon it, both in itself and as an interpretation of the Socratic doctrine; and even in the very dialogue in which he sets it before us, he opposes to it another view, which he puts into the mouth of the Sophist Protagoras. Protagoras is made the representative of ordinary morality, which is based upon custom and opinion and not upon scientific reflexion; and in answer to the question of Socrates as to the way in which ethical truth is to be taught, he is made to maintain the thesis that it is not the subject of any special science but the product of a common instinct of humanity; and that therefore there are no special experts from whom it must be learnt, but that, in a sense, everybody teaches it to everybody. This idea is expressed in a sort of mythic apologue, in which the gods are described as making all mortal creatures out of the elements, and then handing them over to Prometheus and Epimetheus to endow them with the qualities necessary for their preservation. It is agreed that Epimetheus shall make the distribution, and that Prometheus shall inspect and criticise the result. Epimetheus, therefore, gifts the animals with various powers—some with swiftness, some with size, some with strength, and so on, till he has exhausted all that he has to bestow. But then it is found that man has been left unprovided, a helpless, unarmed creature, whose existence is narrow and precarious; and Prometheus has to come to the rescue, and to steal from heaven fire and the arts that work by fire, as well as the art of weaving, to be the heritage of man. But even when so endowed, men are still left without the political art, the art of living together in peaceful co-operation; consequently they are involved in a continual struggle for existence against each other, and are in danger of being dispersed and destroyed by the other animals. But “Zeus, fearing that the entire race should be exterminated, comes to their aid, bringing with him reverence and justice (αἰδώς and δίκη) to be the ordering principles of cities and the bonds of friendship and conciliation.” These principles, however, are not given like special talents to particular individuals, but shared among all; for “cities cannot subsist if a few only share in the virtues, as a few only have capacity for any special art”: civil society, therefore, must be protected by the law that “he who has no part in justice or reverence shall be put to death as a plague to the State.”1 Hence it is that, when men consult together upon matters that fall under the particular arts, they take experts into their counsel, and pay no attention to advice from those who are not experts; whereas, when they discuss virtue and vice, good and evil, everybody is supposed to have a right to speak: for on this subject, though one man may know a little more than another, there are no professional teachers who are essentially distinguished from the rest of mankind, but all the citizens are teachers of all.

Protagoras then proceeds to give a sketch of the forms taken by this popular education in morals as it was actually in use in Greece. “Education and admonition commence in the first years of life and last to the very end of it. Mother and nurse, father and tutor, are vying with each other about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that ‘this act is just’ and ‘that is unjust’; ‘this is holy’ and ‘that is unholy’; ‘do this’ and ‘abstain from that.’ And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows like a piece of bent or warped wood. At a later stage they send him to teachers, and enjoin them to see to his manners even more than to his reading and music; and the teachers do as they are desired. And when the boy has learned his letters, and is beginning to understand what is written, as before he understood what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads sitting on a bench at school; in these are contained many admonitions and many profitable tales, and encomiums of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imitate or emulate them, and desire to become like them. Then again the teachers of the lyre take similar care that the young disciple is temperate and gets into no mischief; and when they have taught him the use of the lyre, they introduce him to the works of other excellent poets who have written lyrics; and these they set to music, and make their harmonies and rhythms quite familiar to the children's souls, in order that they may learn to be gentle and harmonious and rhythmical, and so fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm. Then they send them to the masters of gymnastic, in order that their bodies may better minister to the virtuous mind, and that they may not be compelled through bodily weakness to play the coward in war or on any other occasion…When they have done with masters. the State again compels them to learn the laws, and live after the pattern which they furnish, and not after their own fancies: and, just as, when the pupil is learning to write, the writing-master first draws lines with a style for the guidance of the young beginner, and gives him the tablet and makes him follow the lines, so the city draws the laws which were the invention of good lawgivers living in the olden times; these are given to the young man to guide him in his conduct, whether he is commanding or obeying; and he who transgresses them is to be corrected, or, in other words, called to account.”2

Now it is, I think, obvious that we have here two views of education which are sharply contrasted. On the one side, we have the uncompromising development of the Socratic doctrine that ‘virtue is knowledge,’ with all the contempt of Socrates for ordinary opinion—which he regards as ignorance pretending to be knowledge—a contempt which reminds us of the attitude of Bentham towards those who appealed to moral sentiment in opposition to the results of his utilitarian theory. And what makes the parallel closer is that Socrates is here made to narrow his own doctrine by defining the good as the maximum of pleasure and the minimum of pain, and thus to reduce ethical science to a calculus of pleasures. On the other hand, the unsystematic and unscientific idea of morals is stated with equal one-sidedness by the Sophist Protagoras, who identifies morality with a natural sentiment which is developed by the action of many minds upon each other, by the ordinary social training of the family and the school, by the influences of poetic literature, and by the rewards and penalties which the State bestows and inflicts on its members, but not at all by that scientific process of reflexion and definition which Socrates regarded as all-important.

Now if it be asked, which of these views we are to attribute to Plato, we must answer, Neither and both. In other words, as is indicated at the end of the dialogue, Plato has set before us two views, each of them one-sided and imperfect, neither of which he could absolutely accept or reject. It was impossible that he should accept the narrow hedonistic view here attributed to Socrates; yet neither could he surrender his confidence in the Socratic method or his conviction of the necessity of raising ethics into the form of science. He was obviously beginning to perceive that in ordinary opinion—in that common consciousness of ethical distinctions which is developed without any special scientific training by the experience of social life—there is a large element of truth, however mingled with error and illusion. The abrupt Socratic division of knowledge and ignorance was no longer tenable for him, nor could he any longer suppose that virtue was dependent for its primary development upon philosophical discussion. Rather—as was shown by the practice, however it might be excluded by the theory, of Socrates himself—ordinary opinion must be regarded as the first form of that consciousness of the good, which philosophy has to analyse and develop. And if, as is the case, ethical science must be regarded as standing in a negative relation to opinion, as in a sense opposing and even subverting it, yet after all it must derive the means of correcting and transforming opinion from opinion itself. Opinion must furnish at least the starting-point of investigation; and if there were no truth in it, truth in ethics could never be attained at all.

We may take it, then, that Plato in the Protagorasis at the parting of the ways. He is emancipating himself from Socrates, or, as he would probably himself have conceived it, he is advancing from a lower to a higher interpretation of Socratic principles, by the interposition of the middle term of opinion between the extremes of ignorance and knowledge which Socrates left in unmediated opposition. And in the Meno, a dialogue which on linguistic grounds must be placed in close connexion with the Protagoras, we find that Plato has taken this new step. In the beginning of the dialogue he states in the most direct way the difficulty which arises out of the Socratic position. Socrates has proposed to enter upon an enquiry into the nature of virtue, of which he professes himself ignorant, and is met by Meno with the objection: “How will you enquire into that which you do not already know? What will you put forth as the subject of the enquiry? And, if you find what you want, how will you recognise that this is the thing which you did not know?” “I see what you mean,” answers Socrates, “but consider what a troublesome discussion you are raising. You argue that a man cannot enquire either into that which he knows or into that which he does not know: for, if he knows, he has no need to enquire, and, if not, he cannot enquire, for he does not know the very subject about which he has to enquire.”3

The difficulty here suggested is not a mere Scholastic subtility: it is really one of the most important problems in the theory of knowledge. It is the question of the relation of science to the ordinary consciousness. If science were merely an analysis of ordinary experience, and did not yield anything more than we can find in such experience, it would be useless; for it would not bring us a step farther than we were before. If, on the other hand, it does carry us beyond such experience, must it not be by a kind of leap in the dark? If the premises anticipate the conclusion, what is the use of drawing it? If they do not anticipate the conclusion, how can it legitimately be drawn? Plato was the first to face this difficulty, and the answer he gives to it, or at least his first answer, takes the form of what seems to be a mere myth or poetic fiction; though perhaps we may find that it conveys a serious meaning, a meaning which becomes more distinct in the farther development of his philosophy. In any case the answer is one which deserves our particular attention, as it is the first expression of that ideal theory which is the basis of Plato's philosophical theology.

Poets and other inspired men, we are here told, have declared “that the soul is immortal and at one time has an end which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. . . . The soul then, as being immortal, and as having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world above, has knowledge of them all: and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she knows about virtue: for, as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is no difficulty in eliciting, or as men say, learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint: for all enquiry and all learning is recollection.”4 On this view, then, the soul from the beginning has all truth in itself, but has it in a dim implicit way, as we might be said to know something which we have forgotten but of which the recollection may be again awakened in us. This view Socrates seeks to illustrate by the aid of a young slave whom he questions, and gradually, by mere questioning, leads to the discovery of the solution of a geometrical problem. In the first instance, the boy gives a wrong answer, but he is made by further questioning to correct himself and to attain to a true view of the subject: and Socrates then draws what seems to be the necessary inference. “What do you say of this, Meno, were not these answers given out of his own head?” “Yes, they were all his own.” “And yet, as we were now saying, he did not know?” “Yes.” “But still he had in him these notions of his, had he not? Then he who does not know, may still have true notions of that which he does not know.” “Yes.” “And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him as a dream, but if he were frequently asked the same questions in different forms, he would know as well as any one of us at last.”5 His knowledge, therefore, Socrates argues, is recollection, and if he did not acquire it before in this life, he must have acquired it in another life, or else he must have had it always. The possibility of learning is thus traced back to the fact that knowledge, all knowledge, is in the soul in a potential way, as a memory of some previous state of existence, which is not at first consciously present to us but may be recalled.

Analogy is usually the first form in which new truth presents itself, and it was so above all with Plato, in whom the poet generally spoke before the philosopher. Yet there is always a danger that one who has grasped such an analogy, may treat it not merely as a guide to the truth—to the identity that underlies the likeness—but as itself constituting the whole truth to which it points: and it may be that this was the case with Plato. But we should not at once assume that it was so, still less should we assume that it remained so with him to the end. The metaphor of ‘Reminiscence’ is a convenient way of bringing before us the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is not a process of putting something into the mind ab extra, but the evolution of something involved in its own nature. The same metaphor is implied in many common ways of speaking. When we say that we ‘recognise’ the truth of an observation, it is not that we have known it before, but only that we had already before us the data from which it might be drawn. When we say “You are forgetting yourself,” we do not mean that you have forgotten the individual being that you are, but that there is a rational principle, which is one with your very self, and which you are failing to realise. Self-recollection in this sense does not mean going backward upon the past but inward upon a deeper nature, which perhaps we have never been fully conscious of before. The same idea is illustrated by the claim which Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates, that in interrogating he is practising his mother's art of midwifery upon the souls of those whom he subjects to his questions.6 Obviously the metaphor of reminiscence cannot be applied literally to the process whereby the mind rises from the particular to the universal: for, in so doing, it is not calling up the image of some object or event known in the past, but discovering the principle that underlies all similar objects and events. Nor could Plato possibly have thought that, in any world, universals could be the objects of sense-perception, like particular phenomena. Hence we should be disposed to say that he was merely using this image as a first expression of the truth which Aristotle puts more definitely when he says that mind is potentially all that it can know. And this, indeed, seems to be the meaning of the alternative to which Plato himself pointed when, in the passage already quoted, he suggested that perhaps the mind always had possession of these principles. While, therefore, it may not be correct to say that to Plato the idea of reminiscence was merely a metaphor, it is at least obvious that it is not the only or the final form in which he presents his doctrine to us.

This becomes still more obvious when we consider another conception which Plato introduces in the passage quoted above: “As all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no difficulty in thus eliciting, or as men say, learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if one is strenuous and does not faint.” The idea here expressed is that reality is not a collection of things, each of which might be known fully without the others, but a connected system in which each part implies the whole. Thus if we know anything, there is in what we know a link of connexion with everything else; and if we follow it out, we shall gradually be brought into possession of the whole. What we know already contains a partial revelation of the general principle manifested in all that exists. Thus it is as in an organism, where the life of the whole works in every member and organ, and there is no possibility of appreciating the significance and value of any part without grasping in some measure the meaning of all the rest. Hence learning cannot be a mere successive process of adding on unconnected perceptions or experiences to each other; it must be a process of evolution, whereby a universal truth—which is at first confused with a particular case of its application—becomes separated from all particulars, and at the same time is recognised as the principle that determines their nature and their relations to each other.

Now, this conception of reality, as an objective system which is implied in the nature of the mind that apprehends it—so that the growth of knowledge of the world is at the same time the evolution of self-consciousness—enables us to understand the view of opinion which Plato takes, and by means of which he seeks to solve the difficulty of the Meno. Opinion is not to him, as it was to Socrates, another word for ignorance: it is a state of mind between knowledge and ignorance, in which we make judgments in particular cases, but are not able to give any reason for these judgments. We say, ‘this is just,’ and ‘that is unjust,’ without knowing what justice is. Right opinion may, indeed, in many cases serve the purpose of knowledge. But it has two great drawbacks. In the first place it is unstable. It is “like the images of Daedalus,” which are beautiful works of art but “are apt to run away, unless they are fastened by some tie.” So right opinions are good but insecure, “unless they are fixed down by a consideration of the cause”7 i.e. of the reason or principle from which they flow. And, in the second place, as those who possess a faculty of making right judgments without any consciousness of the grounds on which they rest are incapable of explaining or vindicating them, they are unable to communicate their faculty to others. It is in them as a kind of inspiration or intuitive insight, which makes them act rightly without knowing what they do. Therefore “not by any wisdom nor because they were wise, did Themistocles, Pericles and other great statesmen succeed in guiding their states aright, but by a kind of divination; for diviners and prophets say many things truly, but they know not what they say.” And so it is also with the poets, and in a sense with all good men, who therefore are often called divine. If, however, we could find anyone of these who should add to his intuitive perception of the right a consciousness of the reason of its rightness, his moral judgments would have a far higher value, and he would be among other living men what Tiresias was among the dead; for, in the words of Homer “he alone had the breath of life and intelligence in him, while all the rest were but flitting shades.”8

But important as this division between knowledge and opinion seems to be, we must not forget that, for Plato, it is these very opinions which supply the means whereby we attain to knowledge. It is out of the unexplained judgments of the ordinary moral consciousness that we have to elicit the principles or reasons on which scientific morals must rest. We have to ascend from the particulars as given in opinion to the universal principle, by aid of which our views of these very particulars may be corrected. But how is this process to be carried out? The Protagoras had suggested what seemed a very simple way of performing it. It had pointed out that there is one common element or circumstance accompanying, and forming a part in all the ends of our action, namely, that they secure pleasure or avert pain by their attainment; and it had gone on to maintain that this common element in all our ends must be taken as the end, the summum bonum, in reference to which they must all be estimated or valued. Hence, what is needed to correct ordinary opinion and to give a scientific basis to our particular judgments in morals, is simply a measuring art, which shall fix the value of all our actions by the amount of pleasure they produce. But while this was one way of achieving the Socratic aim of making morals scientific, another and a better way seemed to be suggested in the Meno. The great object of Socrates had been to define the moral universals, the words of approval or disapproval which are used in the ordinary moral judgments of men; and his method of achieving it had consisted simply in bringing such judgments together, comparing them, showing their agreements and differences, and using one of them as a negative instance to correct the hasty hypothesis suggested by another; for in this way he hoped to find a principle which would explain them all, showing the amount of truth contained in each, and accounting for the error that was mingled with it. Thus, just as Newton from the many apparent motions of terrestrial and celestial bodies was enabled to elicit the principle of gravitation, which explained all the appearances, and showed in each case what the real motions were; so Socrates, according to this view, sought by a synthesis of the varying judgments of men in particular moral difficulties, to discover a fundamental principle of morality which should justify these very judgments so far as they were right, and correct them so far as they were wrong. In so doing, in short, he was simply following the path which inductive science always has to follow when it seeks to penetrate beyond phenomena to the real laws and nature of things.

Now, the Meno had suggested a new explanation of this process and its result. It had suggested that the mind is possessed of a universal faculty, or, in other words, that it is guided in its apprehension of particular phenomena by universal principles, of which, however, it is not at first conscious, and which it can only imperfectly apply. Science, or knowledge in the stricter sense of the word, must, therefore, mean primarily the bringing of these principles to clear self-consciousness. Thus the true import of the doctrine that ‘virtue is knowledge’ must be, not that a calculative art of life is to be substituted for the haphazard judgments of ignorance, but that the truth which underlies the judgments of the ordinary moral consciousness, even when these judgments are erroneous, should be discovered; that the reality, which is partly hid and partly revealed by the first appearances of things, should be brought to light by a comprehensive induction and a dialectical discussion of these very appearances. For the error of opinion, or, in other words, of the ordinary consciousness, lies in this, not that it altogether fails to apprehend truth or reality, but that it does not bring its different views of things into connexion, or correct one of them by another; or, in other words, that it does not seek for the unity that underlies all the differences and contradictions of the appearances. Opinion is always, so to speak, at some point of the circumference and never at the centre, and therefore it can never see things in their real value and relations. And truth is to be found only by concentration, by ‘thinking things together’; i.e. it is to be found only in some principle which explains all the diversities of experience in consistency with each other.

The Gorgias is the dialogue in which the reconstitution of ethics upon the new basis begins. In it Plato insists, not, as in the purely Socratic dialogues, upon the opposition of ignorance and knowledge, but upon the opposition, and at the same time the relation, of opinion and knowledge, or, in other words, of the apparent and the real in morals. Polus, one of the antagonists of Socrates, speaks of the tyrant in a despotic State and of the skilful rhetorician in a free State as the persons who alone have it in their power to attain the highest happiness; for, more than any other men, they can do what they please, can force all other men to bend to their will, and can exile or ruin all who oppose them. And Socrates is made to answer with the apparent paradox that such men can indeed do ‘what seems to them best,’ but that they, least of all men, can do ‘what they will.’9 For what men really will is not the means but the end, not the particular acts they do or the particular objects they strive after, but the good which they seek to secure through these acts and objects. The immediate objects of human desire—health, wealth, honour, etc. —are, after all, only means to happiness, and not happiness itself; they are sought not for themselves but sub ratione boni, with a view to the supreme good of life. Thus what we really want is not to satisfy our desires but to satisfy ourselves, and we can satisfy ourselves only by the Summum Bonum; but in our shortsightedness the ultimate good we seek is apt to become identified with the objects of special desires, and we pursue such objects as if they offered a complete satisfaction. And although, when we attain them, we find that we are still unsatisfied, this experience does not prevent us on the next occasion from falling under the same illusion. Hence the mere power to do what we please cannot help us, so long as we do not know what we will, do not know where the real satisfaction of the soul is to be found.

What, then, is this real good which Plato contrasts with the satisfaction of particular desires? One point is clear to begin with, that it cannot be defined by aid of the measuring art of the Protagoras. For, according to the view there expressed, the supreme good was simply the sum of particular goods or pleasures. In other words, the Socrates of that dialogue assumed the particular desires and the pleasures to which they point as his starting-point, and regarded the supreme good as simply the greatest possible aggregate of such pleasures. He sought to define the whole by means of the parts, taken severally and then summed up together. But Plato now maintains that we must begin with the unity of the whole and regard the parts only as elements in it or means to it. We are not to ask whether this object and that other object, each by itself, satisfies a particular desire and therefore gives a particular pleasure, and then add them all together, deducting any pains that follow on such pleasures and avoiding the objects which in the long run cause a preponderance of pain. We are to regard the good of life as one whole, and to estimate the particular objects only as contributing to this. For, as in any organism the whole is not the mere sum of the parts, nor could we describe a man as consisting of a head, plus arms, plus legs, and so on, but rather the whole is in every part, and each part can be estimated only as contributing to it: so we cannot say that the good of man consists of a number of separate goods—food, drink, wealth, honours, and so on—and that his complete satisfaction consists in the sum of the satisfactions to be got from all these. Rather we must regard the pleasure resulting from the attainment of each of these objects as illusory, in so far as it is not a means to, or an element in, the one complete good which we are always seeking. Nor does it alter the result, if we look at happiness in another way, as a good which has to be realised in time; for we cannot regard life as a sum of particular actions or feelings, each of which has to be estimated separately, but rather we must regard each moment or period as a stage in the attainment of the one good of existence, the full realisation and satisfaction of the self.

This is not the exact form in which Plato presents his idea to us, but it expresses his essential meaning. Thus he points out the analogy of virtue in the soul to health in the body. To regard it as the good of life to gratify every particular desire to the utmost is, he argues, as if we should suppose it to be the greatest good of the body to have the utmost possible satisfaction of all the appetites of sense without any consideration of health. Hence the politician who seeks merely to aggrandise the State, and to provide the citizens with ‘harbours and ships and colonies’ and all the luxuries and conveniences of life, without attending to their moral and intellectual education, is like a cook setting up for a doctor, and supplying his patient with every kind of dainty that pleases the palate without heeding the diseased state of the body he may be producing. In the case of the body it is obvious that it would be ruinous thus to look to what is pleasant in particular and to regard the general good as secondary; for when the order and due regulation of the parts is sacrificed, this in the long run brings about the ruin of the parts themselves. And the same is no less true in the case of the soul; for what we really desire is, as already said, not the particular object but the good which we think to find in it, and the satisfaction derived from the former is transitory and illusory, if it comes into collision with the latter.

Plato, then, concludes the dialogue by putting the contrast between the two points of view in its most vivid and extreme form. Hence Callicles, the final opponent of Socrates, is made to maintain that the supreme bliss is to have as many, as diverse and as violent desires as possible, provided we have the opportunity of satisfying them. “How,” he asks, “can a man be happy who is the servant of anything? On the contrary I venture plainly to assert that he who would truly live ought to allow his desires to wax to the uttermost and not to chastise them; but when they have grown to the greatest, he should have the courage and intelligence to minister to them and satisfy all his longings. This I affirm to be natural justice and nobility. To this, however, many cannot attain; and they blame the strong man because they are ashamed of their own weakness, which they desire to conceal; and hence they say that intemperance is base.”10 “That,” answers Socrates, “means that we are to be like a cask with holes, into which water is continually being poured and from which it is as continually running out” Hence it is the highest bliss to be filled with a devouring craving which is ever receiving, but never has received, satisfaction. Our pleasure is bound up with the pain of a want that can never be filled; and, as Shakespeare puts it, using the same metaphor,

“The cloyed will,

That satiate but unsatisfied desire, that tub

Both full and running, ravening first the lamb,

Longs after for the garbage.”11

As against this Plato puts the picture of the temperate man, the man whose inner life is ordered by one principle and therefore in harmony with itself, who “when his casks are once filled, has no need to feed them any more, and has no farther trouble or care about them.” In other words, in him each desire and impulse has a definite limit, within which it is kept by regard to the others and to the whole of which it is a part. But if this is the type of humanity we are to aim at, then the true statesman, the true educator of men, is one who will maintain the balance of the soul, and who, when it is in a diseased state, is ready to mortify and chastise any particular desire till it is again reduced to its proper proportions in relation to the rest. And from this point of view Plato is prepared to support the apparent paradox that it is better to suffer than to do injustice, and that if any one does injustice, he ought to wish to be punished for it and not to escape, seeing that it is only by punishment he can be cured.

In all this Plato does not yet give us more than a formal description of the good, as an order or organisation of life which is determined by one principle. But what he distinctly maintains is that we must begin with the unity of the whole and not with the difference of the parts, with the universal and not with the particulars, and that the former must determine the latter. And this is a very important point; for it shows that for Plato the universal, or, to use his own word, the idea, is not merely a common element in the particulars, as pleasure is a common element in all the satisfactions of our desires. It has, moreover, a very distinct bearing upon the ordinary representation of Plato's theory of ideas, in which they are taken as just such common elements. In the Gorgias at least it is clear that the universal is conceived as the organising principle of a whole which determines the relations of all the parts. Further, this organising idea in ethics is not conceived as something which has to be brought to the parts or particulars from without, but something which is implied in them, or in our conceptions of them, from the beginning. For, as Plato points out here, and as he shows more fully in the Republic, the desire of the good underlies all our particular desires, and it is the good that we really seek in every end we set before us. “This is what every man pursues and makes his end, having a presentiment that there is such an end, and yet hesitating because neither knowing its nature nor having the same sure proof of it that we have of other things.”12 In other words, the good is the presupposition of all particular goods just as the truth is the presupposition of all our ordinary judgments, which, no doubt, are often erroneous, but nevertheless by synthesis and dialectic may be made to yield the knowledge of a principle which will enable us at once to explain and to correct them.

  • 1. Protag.,322 D
  • 2. Protag.,325 C. seq. The similarity of this sketch of education to that given in the earlier part of the Republic is evident.
  • 3. Meno, 80 D.
  • 4. Meno, 81 B.
  • 5. Meno, 81 B. seq
  • 6. This metaphor is commonly attributed to Socrates, but it appears for the first time in the Theaetetus, which is a comparatively late dialogue, and it indicates an advance beyond the Platonic idea of Reminiscence. It probably rather represents Plato's own reflexion on the method of Socrates.
  • 7. Meno, 98 A.
  • 8. Id., 100 A.
  • 9. Gorgias, 466 E, οὐδϵ̀ν γὰρ ποιϵι̑ν ὧν βούλονται, ὡς ἔπος ϵἰπϵι̑ν ποιϵι̑ν μϵ́νοι ὃ τι ἂν αὐτοι̑ς δόξῃ βϵ́λτιστον ϵȋναι
  • 10. Gorgias, 491 E.
  • 11. Quoted by Thomson in his edition of the Gorgias.
  • 12. Rep., 505 E.