Justice Pays :
Plato’s argument for the benefits of a just life is intrinsically linked to his definition of good and its relation to people¹s desires. He begins by showing that when the objective of a desire is simple (e.g. quenching a thirst), the desire must be correspondingly simple. Since thirst is a simple desire, the man¹s objective must also be simplistic and should we assign an adjective to his objective, we would falsely complicate it. In addition, Plato believes that we would be seriously erring if we assign a value of good to a desire.
In common use, the adjective good would denote something that is good in relation to others of its kind. We consider a drink good if it contains characteristics that we look for in a drink (e.g. pleasantness or taste). Plato takes this a step further and states that something that is good must not only be good in relation to others but it must be wholly good. Thus a drink cannot be truly good if evil results from it. This poses an interesting question for Plato’s readers namely, since no one wants bad things to happen to them, why do people engage in self-destructive activities? The answer lies in the fact that the only reason that we desire to drink is that we anticipate the result of our thirst being quenched. Our appetites see no further consequences than the immediate fulfillment of our desires. They do not contemplate the results of the actions we take to fulfill our desires.
For this reason, Plato believes that we must separate the soul based on how it reacts to desires. There must be a part of the soul, Plato reasons, that contemplates the end result of our actions and makes decisions based on a higher reasoning than desire. So we see two distinct parts of the soul. The first is said to be appetite (which desires without reason) and reason (which considers the consequences).
Reason may thus work against anything that is not for the total good of the man. Plato holds that if the desire were truly for a good drink, reason would never oppose it. Our usage of the word good, however, has come to denote an expectation of usefulness to our purpose. Although this may be relative to the end result that we experience from the object. For example, we call a knife good because it is sharp and cuts well but if the end result is that we cut ourselves, we would say that the knife would have been better if it were not so sharp. We need to consider everything that is relevant to the action or object and determine its possible consequences before we denote it as good. Once we have done this, and assigned a value to each object or action, then Plato believes that we can say that everyone wants the things that really are good even if the person does not realize the true nature of what is good.
This Plato calls what we want and it does not necessarily coincide with what we think is good. In light of this difference, Plato says that a tyrannical soul will be least likely to do what it wants. Can we then say of Leontius that he perceived himself as doing something good or forwarding his happiness? Plato more represents him as a man overpowered by a tyrannical desire, led to do something that he both disapproves of and is contrary to his interests. According to Plato, if Leontius were freed of his desires, he would wish (as the tyrannical man would) that he was acting otherwise. Plato states his views on this overpowering desire by referring to the division of the soul. All desires (whether a product of the appetitive, or the desire for honor which stems from the spirit or the desire for knowledge which comes from reason) are for particular goals or objectives (e.g. drink, honor and knowledge). These objectives may be either good or bad for it is not as good that we desire them. Rather we desire them as drink, honor and knowledge. This forms the base for Plato’s argument that the unregulated life is unprofitable because one may be led to believe that an object is good by the force of the desire for it. But Plato says that if we are able regulate ourselves, we will desire what is truly good. The objective of our desire (that which is good) is not a simple one, however, nor could it be treated like other objectives such as drink, honor or knowledge.
We can see from Book IV, that since the objective is complex, the accompanying desire must be correspondingly complex. Therefore, we are unable to desire the good in the base way that we desire sustenance, prestige or even philosophical enlightenment. What this meant for Plato was that the origin of desire for the good cannot be the same as the origin of desire for simple objectives. Rather, desire for the good finds its roots in cooperation between the parts of the soul. Thus even the desire for knowledge (associated with reason) does not come from the desire for knowledge as good, for neither the appetitive nor the spirit desires knowledge, but for knowledge itself much as thirst produces a desire for drink itself rather than a good drink. In addition, this cooperation cannot be merely a base desire which fulfills the other base desires of the parts of the soul. Instead, it searches for a type of objective which precedes any other one goal. We seek the good out by choosing between multiple possibilities and selecting the one closest to the type we seek. These choices are not objectives in and of themselves but work together to form the end result of a good life.
But how we determine the end result of our choices and choose between our alternatives is determined by the kind of life we lead. In a Book, Plato provides us with an overview of four types of lives that people can lead. Plato also ranks the types of lives in descending order as to which is the most just (or will lead to a good life). The democratic must come low on the scale because he does not select out his desires. Rather he allows that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally. Thus by being indiscriminate in his desires, he will act differently on different occasions and appear to endorse contrary principles. Plato holds, however, that rather than being principles, these are merely momentary enthusiasms. His soul shows no restraint or control and no structure or purpose to his actions.
Above the democratic man are the oligarch and the democrat. These types of men lead structured lives, both works towards a unified, selective goal. The oligarch for possessions…the democrat for prestige….Plato ranks the democrat above the oligarch because presumably the spirit that governs the democrat is closer to reason than is the appetite (the mainspring of the desire for acquisitions) which governs the oligarch. Finally, at the top, comes the aristocratic or just life. Plato places the aristocratic life at the top because it is not dominated by the strength of any one particular desire that we accept as blatantly good.
Rather it satisfies the capacities for all desires and in so doing achieves the best possible situation for the person as a whole. This means that none of the three parts of the soul dominates the individual. Not even the intellectual. For should a man merely followed the strongest urge and ignored the balance, he would not be able to call his life the best. At most, his life would be a kind of psychological tyranny in which his every action would be dominated by an isolated passion. This is in fact the worst condition and the one that Plato places at the very bottom. Looking back toward the top, we can see that aristocracy is the extreme opposite of this condition. It is defined simply as freedom of choice. The aristocrat is free to choose the direction of his life, the oligarch did not choose possessions as his objective and rather it was imposed upon him by his character.
Since we have already established that everyone if given the freedom and knowledge to choose wisely will choose what is truly good for the person as a whole, we can now proceed to analyze which of the five types of souls is in the best position to choose correctly. We have said that the democrat shows no direction to his life. His decisions are not based on reason but on momentary enthusiasms. Thus he cannot be trusted to make a wise decision. We have said that the democrat, the oligarch and the tyrant are all dominated by singular passions which control every judgment. Thus they will make their decisions based on reason but their reason will show favoritism towards the part of the soul which dominates them. Thus they also cannot be trusted to make a decision that is in the best possible interest of the whole person.
This leaves the aristocrat who leads a just life with each part of his soul performing the function that is was fit to perform. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale high, low and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Since the aristocrat regulates the three parts of the soul, keeps them in order, unites them and has experienced the pleasures of each, he is in the best position to determine what is best for the whole. Thus the man who leads a just or aristocratic life also leads the best life.
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