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Plato on happiness and justice


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on happiness and justice
Date: 19th March 2010 12:37

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 11 March with your essay for the University of London BA Plato and the Presocratics module, in answer to the question, 'Is Plato justified in thinking that the just person is happier than the unjust person?'

Your essay consists mostly of an exposition of Plato's views about the tripartite nature of the soul, and the difference between an ordered and disordered soul, and how this corresponds to Plato's understanding of justice and injustice. However, you seem to go over the same ground not once but several times, as if you were trying to convince yourself that Plato is justified in thinking that the just person is happier than the unjust person.

The exposition is clear, so far as it goes, and shows that you have a good understanding of how Plato conceived of the soul and its internal structure. However, by the end of the essay, you haven't answered the question at all. You have merely repeated Plato's claims.

You do, however, pose the one question that needs to be asked in order to give an effective answer: Does Plato succeed or fail in making the connection between what Sachs calls 'Platonic justice' and 'vulgar justice', or what would normally (prior to any particular theory of justice) be understood as just or unjust?

Well, does he? You don't offer an opinion. You merely repeat Plato's claim that a person who acts unjustly (in the ordinary sense) must have a disordered soul. You couldn't have an ordered soul in Plato's sense and commit an unjust act. That's a pretty strong claim that takes some arguing.

The question isn't specifically about Plato's analogy between the individual and the state. However, one question you could have asked is whether it is possible, in Plato's terms, for a just man to live in an unjust state. Socrates claimed that it was 'better to be wronged by others than to do wrong to others'. However, it is not at all easy to see in Plato's terms how one maintains the internal order of one's soul when there is chaos without. Surely, we can conceive of circumstances where ruthless action, ignoring questions of justice, would be unavoidable.

Can a just man in an unjust state be happy? Plato is committed to holding that the just person is happier than the unjust person in every possible circumstance, not just in favourable circumstances. The latter wouldn't be a very interesting claim.

One way to pose Sachs' question would be to try to imagine a Ring of Gyges scenario -- a man who exploits his position to do unjust acts with complete impunity -- yet who apparently has all the Platonic virtues: he exercises rational forethought and self control; he is courageous in not deviating from his plan regardless of setbacks; he is moderate in his appetites. In other words, the Perfect Villain.

So we can now pose the original question in terms of this thought experiment: Does Plato succeed in proving that there could not be such a person as the Perfect Villain?

This connects with a claim you make near the beginning of your essay, which seems patently false: 'According to the Sophists, being unjust is more advantageous as by deceiving others and disguising oneself as just, the unjust person can live a comfortable and pleasant life.' I recognize this as an allusion to the Ring of Gyges scenario: but which Sophist made this claim? I suspect that you are mixing things up here.

Thrasymachus, who was a famous Sophist of the day, asserts in the Republic that 'justice is the interest of the stronger'. That is not the same thing as saying that injustice is more advantageous than justice. What Thrasymachus means is that justice is defined in relation to the ruling power, and its interests. The state creates the laws, which are designed for the benefit of the state. That is justice. It is just that conquered peoples should be enslaved. Any war which serves the interests of the state is a just war by definition.

Is this a legitimate view? If not, why not? One could imagine a group or tribe of Perfect Villains (who treat one another with fairness honour, as befits respect for one's equals) who do not regard any action taken against members of the enslaved class as 'unjust'. You might recognize this as a caricature -- or perhaps not such a caricature -- of Nietzsche's views concerning the Ubermensch.

Why can't you be a perfect villain, or an ubermensch (I'm not necessarily saying these are the same thing) and be blissfully happy? Why can't you be blissfully happy as a Samurai slaughtering peasants? What's wrong with that? Isn't a Samurai warrior someone to be admired?

I think that the answer to this question lies in a remark I made earlier, 'he is courageous in not deviating from his plan regardless of setbacks'. What plan? Surely not Gorgias' claim (in the dialogue of the same name) that the best life is one where one has 'as many enjoyments as possible'. How about friendship? Honour amongst one's peers? Isn't there something missing from this picture, a sense of responsibility for those whose lives are in your power? Plato would say that. But why? Why is that necessary for happiness?

All the best,