Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pagan Ethics According To Socrates: The Quick And Dirty Version

In his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius wryly states of Socrates, "he was the first philosopher who discoursed on the conduct of life, and the first philosopher who was tried and put to death."

In other words: the teaching of ethics is a dangerous business and not for the faint of heart!

The core of Socrates' ethical teachings are contained in two of Plato's major works: the Republic and the somewhat less well known Gorgias. The presentation in the Republic is far more complete, and that work is therefore much longer.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it is not that difficult to quickly summarize the main points of the Socratic ethics of Plato's Republic:

1. In the opening scene of the dialogue Socrates insists that (a) even as heat cannot produce cold, a good person can never cause harm, and (b) Justice is good, and, therefore, acting justly cannot cause harm.

2. Socrates also insists that it is always better to act justly than unjustly, even when there appears to be advantage in injustice and disadvantage in justice.

3. Glaucon (Plato's older brother), states that while these ideas are very appealing, Socrates has yet to prove that they are true. The remaining 90% of the Republic is concerned with taking up this challenge. As is typical of Socratic dialogues, no absolute conclusion is ever arrived at.* Despite the absence of definitive proof, however, Socrates and Glaucon remain convinced (in fact, more convinced than they were at the beginning) that (1) good people avoid causing harm, (2) Justice is always beneficial, and (3) no matter what the apparent consequences, it is always better to act justly, and one should never act unjustly.

4. At the end of the Republic Socrates recounts the famous "Myth of Er", according to which each of us receives a tenfold return for all of our just and unjust deeds. The "Myth of Er" also presents a very Pythagorean view of reincarnation (or, more precisely, metempsychosis) according to which spiritual progress is (at least potentially) made over the course of many lifetimes, and that in each incarnation we choose (within certain limitations over which we have no control) beforehand the life we are to have. Socrates uses Odysseus himself as the prime example of this: after the life recounted in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus has learned to avoid all desire for fame and wealth, and chooses, wisely, in his next life to live as "a private man who had no cares."

5. One of Socrates' main concerns in the Republic is disputing the contention that acting in accordance with Justice is at odds with self-interest; that is, he argues against the idea that a person who acts justly will often suffer on that account and therefore be deprived of true happiness. According to Socrates there is no greater "self" concern than the proper care of the soul. Acting justly is always beneficial to the soul, and, therefore, is the only way to pursue genuine happiness. Conversely, acting unjustly is always harmful to the soul and can never lead to happiness.

* This lack of conclusiveness is in some ways even more pronounced in the Republic than in other dialogues. This is because early on Socrates proposes to talk, by analogy, about Justice as applied to the polis (that is, "the Republic" or "the State", or, more accurately, "the City"), rather than as applied to the individual. Socrates argues that in the State, Justice "is likely to be larger and more easily discernible. I propose therefore that we enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them."

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