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Plato I
His Moral Theory,
Or Why Ignorance is not Bliss or
even moral
Preliminaries
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•
•
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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
http://www.hku.hk/discuspro/mess
ages/board-topics.html
‘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
knowledge;
• Founded the Academy, an important
philosophical institution.
Athens: Agora and Acropolis
Plato
• Critic of the Athenian democracy;
– disillusioned during the Peloponnesian War
(430-404);
– 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.
Socrates
• Mocked in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds
(423 BCE)
• Aristophanes says Socrates does not
understand
– political realities, e.g. our need for family and
city;
– human nature: overestimates rationality;
– what the gods are.
Socrates
• 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
Apology;
• Legacy: ‘Socratic ignorance’, ‘Socratic
method’, ‘philosopher-kings’.
Republic
(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
Republic
• Plato’s greatest dialogue;
• One of the world’s great philosophical
works;
• 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):
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•
•
•
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
party…”
• “Each government passes laws to its own
advantage…”
• “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.”
Counter-argument
• 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
Misdemeanors:
A seemingly good, law-abiding family
man and successful professional
commits a murder with no risk of being
caught.
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
appetite.