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The Good Life: Plato

Chris Surprenant (University of New Orleans) discusses the account of human well-being and the good life presented by Socrates in Plato's dialogues. He explains why Socrates closely connects his account of the good life with justice, a concept understood not just as a political arrangement but also as a state of a well-ordered individual's soul.

Speaker: Dr. Chris Surprenant, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New Orleans.

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper happy style avatar for user quintelepj
    How can a community as a whole be happy, when the individuals inside that community aren't happy?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user Makiaveli
      The mistake here is placing any concern on the community. Be rational and serve yourself. Don't bake pies because the community needs pies. Bake them because you like do it. If it pays the bills, then keep doing it. If it doesn't. make shoes to pay the bills and bake pies for fun.

      See what happened there? The community got what it needed because you were rational and fulfilled the need for shoes to make money so you could engage in your passion. Plato would say you should make shoes and nothing but shoes because that's what the Central Planning Committee said you should do.

      For more details, I recommend a short story (in the public domain so feel free to download a copy) called Anthem by Ayn Rand. It covers collectivism vs individualism in the context of one man's life. Brief, but introduced me to a whole new way of thinking.
      (3 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user chastiefol4
    I liked the way he explained how that the spirited horse was used to help control the stubborn horse
    (5 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Griffin Wong
    If anyone wants to read more about Plato, you could visit topics such as:
    Plato's allegory of the cave
    The tripartite theory of the soul
    Plato's academy
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user emmie680
    I'm having trouble understanding Plato's political theory. Is his theory that the goal of politics is to make us good citizens?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user justus kirimi
    what are the strengths and weaknesses of Plato's tripartite account of the soul in the Republic
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(intro music) Hi! I'm Chris Surprenant, and I teach in the department of philosophy at the University of New Orleans. This video is part of my series on human well-being and the good life, and it examines the account of well-being presented by Plato's character Socrates in the Platonic dialogues. If you've taken an introduction to philosophy class, it's very likely that you have read Plato's Apology. This dialogue provides Plato's version of a speech given by Socrates to defend himself against the charges of corrupting the youth and impiety, charges that Socrates ultimately was convicted of and sentenced to death. This dialogue contains one have the most frequently cited lines in the entire history of Western thought. When speaking to the jury to explain why he can't simply stop what he is doing, why he can't stop annoying people by constantly questioning them about what they believe and why, Socrates says that he can't stop examining his own life because the unexamined life is not worth living. That statement provides tremendous insight into Socrates's understanding as to what it means to live a good life. What Socrates is telling us is that the person who merely wakes up in the morning, goes to work, does his job, comes home, watches television, goes to bed, and then repeats this process, day in and day out for his entire life, never really reflecting on what he ought to be doing or what he values and why, that that life is not worth living. But for Socrates, participating in this type of rational reflection about what you value and why, that is, doing philosophy, is not enough by itself in order to live a good life. What is also needed is that an individual becomes a master of himself, using his reason to rein in his passions, as well as doing what he can to help promote the stability of his community. And these topics are explored directly in Plato's dialogue Republic. While most people think of Republic as a political dialogue that focuses on the nature of justice, it is perhaps better understood as a dialogue focusing on virtue and the role of philosophy, community, and the state in helping to create the conditions that make living well possible. At the beginning of book two, Glaucon, one of Socrates's interlocutors in the dialogue, poses a challenge to Socrates. Glaucon tells the fable of the Ring of Gyges, which, like the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings, has the power to make its wearer invisible. He notes that the person who wears the ring, through various types of deception, would be able to get anything he wanted: power, money, or even a good reputation. The moral of this story seems to be that it's not important to actually be just, but rather merely to appear to be just. And so his challenge to Socrates is: "Why must an individual be just in order to live a good life? Isn't it simply necessary for that person to appear to be just? In the remaining eight and a half books of Republic, Socrates attempts to address this challenge. His solution is to see justice not just as a political condition, but also as a state of a person's soul. Understood politically, justice requires each person in the city to mind his own business, doing the particular job that has been allocated to him to the best of his abilities. Socrates claims that operating in this manner will allow the city to thrive, which is in everyone's best interest. When the boys object that one implication of this position is that particular individuals or classes of individuals will not be happy with this arrangement, Socrates responded that he is not concerned with the happiness of particular individuals or classes of individuals, but rather with the happiness of the city as a whole. Here, we see that, for Socrates, a well-ordered society trumps individual freedom. In addition to understanding justice politically, Socrates also sees it as a state of an individual's soul. He compares the soul to a two-horse chariot. One of these horses, which he associates with a person's appetites or desires, Socrates says, is stubborn, and must be controlled. The other horse, which he associates with spiritedness, is noble and can be used by reason, which he associates with the charioteer, to help control the stubborn horse But if a person doesn't learn how reason can make use of spiritedness in order to rein in desire, then that person will be just as misdirected as the chariot controlled by the stubborn horse. When understood in this way, it seems obvious to Socrates why being just, in addition to participating in philosophical investigation, is necessary in order to live a good life. The just person not only does his part in order to maintain the stability of the society and the community, but is also in control of himself and is not ruled by his desires. Is Socrates' position reasonable? While us moderns might find it odd that his conception of the good life would be tied so closely to what appears to be a significant restriction of individual freedom, Socrates might respond that freedom outside of a well-ordered community or well-ordered soul is simply lawlessness, and lawlessness is inconsistent with any conception of human well-being and what it means to live a good life. Anyone who might want to refute Socrates's position at the very least would need to show how an emphasis on individual freedom does not lead to this kind of lawlessness. And so what we see in the Socratic dialogues is a conception of human well-being and the good life that emphasizes both the importance of rational reflection and an individual doing his part to contribute to the stability of the community as a whole.