Plato’s Moral Theory

When Plato’s Republic was introduced in my coursework, I approached this book just like other books that I have read. But the Republic is not written like a typical textbook, but rather, like a living conversation. And like most conversations, it develops important ideas to improve our lives. As you read this book, you notice a main idea that Plato is trying to convey: why a person should bother to be good. But in order to be good, the Republic opens with asking the reader what is justice. Plato provides us with many answers, but he doesn’t frame those answers in terms that we would expect.

Instead, Plato frames the answer in terms of how an individual should structure the different parts of his mind in order to become a just person and then enact that justice in the outside world. This paper delves into several ideas that provide a simplified outline of how to become a moral person. The Republic brings many concepts to light, but the major intent of the book is to articulate an extended definition of justice or morality and how it fulfills one’s life as a human being. Plato asserts that if humans are to live an ethical life they must do so as citizens of a just and rational state.

Plato expresses that the individual and the state must share the same principles of justice. In a state, different classes work together for the good of the state for all citizens. Likewise, within the individual, the different parts have to work together for the overall good of the individual. Plato believes that it is the soul which gives an individual the ability to be a just person. It is through the soul that one makes decisions, and making decisions is the most important activity of human beings. But in order to make just decisions we have to obtain knowledge as a foundation.

Knowledge is what allows humans to formulate moral decisions, not only for themselves but for the good of society. To achieve this state, Plato begins with the soul. The soul is the gateway to achieving a just life. But having a soul is not enough. Plato digs deeper into his explanations and constructs a series of capacities that the soul must have for a person to be moral. Let us begin to explore those capacities and other attributes that are needed to achieve Plato’s vision of a moral life. Plato held that the soul had three major capacities: reason, spirit, and appetites.

The psychologies of these three capacities are mentioned in the introduction of The Republic as The Tripartite Psychology. In order to understand the importance of the soul, we must understand the function of the three capacities. The first capacity, reason, is the part of the soul that seeks wisdom, knowledge, and truth. Plato asserts that reason must dominate the other capacities. The second, spirit, deals with ambition or being ambitious, the seeking of honor and glory. Spirit can be aggressive and competitive. The practice of control or self-mastery is needed to keep spirit in balance with the others capacities.

The last capacity is appetites or desire. This is the part that deals with the indulgence of food, money, sex, drink, and possessions. An overabundance of this capacity can lead to a corruption of the soul. While a person will experience conflict between these three capacities of the soul, Plato describes that in the well-governed soul, spirit and desire are guided by reason and knowledge. Plato has many theories which provide evidence on how a person can achieve a just life. One of the theories that can be explored is the theory of forms or the realm of forms.

For Plato, the world is divided into two realms, the realm of appearances and the realm of the forms or ideas. Plato produces an argument of perfection which is the basis of his theory of forms. One example of this is that we have knowledge of a perfect square despite the fact that it is impossible to draw one. However, the artist has to have knowledge of a perfect square; otherwise it would not be possible for the artist to reproduce a copy. Therefore, the forms not only exist but are superior to their copies. This suggests that forms are perfect and unchanging and are beyond space and time. They are the source of all things.

The objects in the physical world are merely copies of these forms. These forms are only accessible through the intellect and not through the senses. The analogy of the cave, which is narrated by Socrates, will help us understand Plato’s theory of forms. The cave analogy allows us to examine why these ideas or forms take shape. First, the prisoners in the cave are like humans, trapped in a world of shadows and copies. Second, humans will not of their own accord leave their imprisonment. Therefore they might need to be forced out of the cave, perhaps by a teacher who knows what is best for them.

Third, the prisoner who is freed becomes the philosopher. The philosopher has seen the sun and gives light to his new surroundings. The philosopher starts to take interest in the sun and all things that lead from it. Plato interprets the sun to be the perfect form of the good. This explains why the sun is so important in the analogy of the cave. The form of the good is the ultimate perfection; it is superior to all other forms, and it is the ultimate source of all things that exist in the realm of the forms and the material world. This acknowledgment becomes the pinnacle of philosophical knowledge, the contemplation of the form of the good.

This explanation is a reminder that Plato’s focus was ethical. It is why Plato favors those philosophers who aim to rise above the material world and understand the forms are in fact the people who are best equipped to rule society. Thus, it was his aim to create a society which was founded on the perfect form of justice. Justice, however, needs to be supported by happiness to continue achieving a just society. In turn, Plato’s concept of happiness suggests that we must be moral or just in order to be truly happy. Happiness comes from inward qualities of the soul.

When these qualities are controlled by reason, there is “psychic harmony,” a quality of the soul that is not vulnerable to external sources. According to Plato, the psychic harmony of the soul can be supported by the four virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. An explanation of these virtues can give us a better understanding of why these virtues are important to achieving happiness. Wisdom deals with the intellect. For Plato, a wise person uses his mind to understand moral reality and applies this concept to his life. A wise person is guided by reason, and it is through knowledge that reason is obtained.

Courage has many aspects, such as how an individual perseveres through adversity or stands up for what he believes in. Socrates exemplifies courage in choosing to stay in his cell and die rather than escape and sacrifice his beliefs. Temperance or self-control is directly related to desire, which is part of the soul. Although an individual has many desires, he cannot allow them to compromise his character. Justice is related to an individual’s overall character. Justice flows outward from this harmony, and it is directed towards other people through acts of kindness and charity.

Allowing reason and knowledge to rule over appetite and desire makes for a healthy soul and this will give us a just person who is at peace and truly happy. Now that we have established Plato’s vision of what a just society should be, now we must observe the roles which the citizens of a city-state should take. For a successful operation of the state, citizens must perform certain services for the greater good of the state. People are needed to dissolve disputes among members. A defense is needed in order to protect society from external attacks.

Weapons and armor are needed to support those who will protect society. Plato believes that society is categorized into three distinct classes. Each of these classes provides an important service which becomes necessary only because of the creation of the social organization itself. These three classes are ruler/philosopher, soldier, and tradesman/worker. Having developed a general category for the classes in an ideal society, Plato demonstrates that the proper functions of these classes, while working together for the good of society, provide the need to develop certain qualities or virtues within these classes.

But are these virtues solely indicted for a specific class, or can certain virtues be applied equally to all classes? Rulers are responsible for making decisions that can affect society; wisdom, therefore is needed to ensure that policies are adopted to benefit society. Soldiers who are charged with the total defense of the city-state against external forces need courage to stand their ground and face their enemies. But can soldiers use wisdom on the battlefield? Can rulers use courage while managing foreign affairs? The answer is yes.

Soldiers can use wisdom to enhance their strategies and be able to anticipate attacks from their enemies so they are better prepared in defense. Workers can use wisdom to provide expeditious services without sacrificing craftsmanship. Rulers are able to use courage to face a committee or a senate and explain why a certain policy or law cannot be adopted because it favors one class and not all of them. Workers can use courage to not overcharge for services rendered and not unjustly profit from those patrons who do not know the value of those services.

Although certain virtues predominate for a specific class, virtues can be utilized throughout all classes and produce benefits for society as a whole. Studying Plato’s Republic gave me a new understanding of how an individual attains justice and becomes a productive member of society. It helps readers to think about the importance of their role in society and how to continue to serve the greater good. All of us have a designated part to contribute to society. But the individual must possess justice within himself in order to make an essential contribution towards a state which achieves justice for society as a whole.