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Plato I
His Moral Theory,
Or Why Ignorance is not Bliss or
even moral
Library courses (see Library web pg)
Where to find course info
Where to find the discussion board
Note on the texts—
– Plato and Aristotle’s works are demarcated by
paragraph numbers and letters
• ‘BCE’
Discussion Board
‘School of Humanities’
Plato (427-347 BCE)
Who was Plato?
• A wealthy Athenian, and citizen of leisure;
• Student of Socrates
• Republic and Laws expound his political
and moral philosophy, and his theory of
• Founded the Academy, an important
philosophical institution.
Athens: Agora and Acropolis
• Critic of the Athenian democracy;
– disillusioned during the Peloponnesian War
– believed democracy fosters rule of the
ignorant, immoral masses.
• Critic of the Sophists, who taught the art of
argumentation for high fees:
– = Thrasymachus in Republic, a moral cynic.
Who was Socrates?
(latter half 5th century BCE)
• Athenian stonemason,
– rich enough to be a hoplite (foot soldier—e.g.
in film ‘300’);
– details of his life practically unknown;
– teacher of Plato, Xenophon and others;
– not everyone revered him, however.
• Mocked in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds
(423 BCE)
• Aristophanes says Socrates does not
– political realities, e.g. our need for family and
– human nature: overestimates rationality;
– what the gods are.
• Found guilty in 399 BCE of impiety
(debasing the gods) and corrupting youth;
• Ordered by Athenian court to commit
suicide by drinking hemlock;
• Major speaker in several of Plato’s
dialogues, including Republic, and
• Legacy: ‘Socratic ignorance’, ‘Socratic
method’, ‘philosopher-kings’.
(Politeia, Gr. = constitution)
• Greek concept of ‘constitution’
– not limited to political institutions, e.g.
– executive, legislature, judiciary
– included education, culture—poetry, music;
– Comprises entire way of life, e.g. Constitution
of the Lacedaemonians (Sparta);
– Could be entirely unwritten, e.g. Sparta
– unlike HK Basic Law, U.S. Constitution.
Map of Ancient Greece
• Plato’s greatest dialogue;
• One of the world’s great philosophical
• Structure: dialogue among several
speakers, including Socrates;
• Key question: what is morality/justice?
• How is it cultivated or produced?
Context of Republic
• Loss of clear moral authority in late 5th
century Athens
• Traditional hierarchy of nature questioned
• Democritus (ca. 460-370 BCE), father of
atomic theory:
– all matter = indivisible particles
– particles are identical; no one is superior to
any of the others by nature.
Context of Republic
• Rejection of traditional moral teaching:
– Represented by Cephalus, the retired
businessman (328c-331d):
Help friends
Tell the truth
Repay debts;
Socrates’ objection: what if you borrowed a knife,
but return it to the lender, who has gone mad, and
poses a menace to others?
• Socrates is therefore going to go beyond tradition
in his justification of morality.
Conventional view on morality
• ‘Good guys finish last’:
– Immoral conduct confers benefits to oneself
(wealth, power, partners)
– Morality is good for others, but bad for oneself
– You should protect your own interests;
– Not those of others at the expense of your
own (338c)!
Thrasymachus’ attack
on morality of Cephalus
• A sophist, teacher of argumentation
• ‘Sophistry’ denotes arguments that sound
persuasive but are based on questionable
premises or logic;
• Thrasymachus’s position:
– Might is right; justice = interest of stronger
– Be a dictator: get all the power, money, and
human subjects that you can!
Thrasymachus 338c-e
• “My claim is that morality is nothing other
than the advantage of the stronger
• “Each government passes laws to its own
• “this is what I claim morality is: it is the
same in every country, and is what is to
the advantage of the current government.”
• But one does not want to be the victim of others’
immoral behavior;
• Socrates’ position:
– Being moral is like being expert at an art (medicine)
or craft (house-building, stonemasonry);
– An expert does what most benefits the production or
person being cared for;
– S/he strives to be good at what s/he does;
– Not what is best for him/herself (making money,
gaining power).
Ring of Gyges
• Gyges obtains a ring that makes him
invisible (recall Tolkien);
• He uses it to evil ends:
– Gyges seduces the king’s wife, and kills the
king, thereby becoming king himself.
• If you could be invisible like Gyges
• What would you do?
• Would you behave morally or immorally?
Modern version:
Woody Allen,
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Reserve: AV 791.43 C929 A
Synopsis of Crimes and
A seemingly good, law-abiding family
man and successful professional
commits a murder with no risk of being
What is Plato’s approach?
• Republic arises from deficiencies in Socrates’
initial argument w/ Thrasymachus;
• A ‘city in speech’ (hypothetical solution)
• Major problem = plurality, e.g. rich vs poor;
• City needs to be unified, not divided;
– 3 groups of citizens: philosopher-rulers, guardians,
ordinary workers;
– each performs his/her assigned task;
– analogy with the 3 parts of the soul: reason, spirit and