Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

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Plato Not a Moral Absolutist (or a Relativist)

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PLATO is often wrongly associated in people’s minds with moral absolutism — that is, with the position that there are definite, absolute rights and wrongs, and, as a result, that human morality involves universal rules for things we should always or never do. However this view is mistaken. Plato’s moral theory, in fact, relies intimately on the principles of balance and proportion. Although Aristotle is usually considered the originator or populizer of the concept of virtue as a golden mean between opposite extremes, this principle is prominently featured earlier in the works of Plato, his teacher.

In the Republic, Plato’s magnificent and magisterial work on personal morals (civil politics is by no means its central theme), he supplies an important summary at the end of Book 9.  The entire preceding discussion was aimed at answering two questions: (1) who is the righteous person? and (2) is the righteous person happier than the unrighteous?  In his summary Plato supplies this key principle:

When the entire soul accepts the guidance of the wisdom-loving part and is not filled with inner dissension, the result for each part is that it in all other respects keeps to its own task and is just, and likewise that each enjoys its own proper pleasures and the best pleasures and, so far as such a thing is possible, the truest. (Republic 9.586e−587a; tr. Shorey; italics added; cf. Philebus 64d−e).

What he means is that, for example, if one emphasizes sensory pleasures or gratification of biological appetites too much at the cost of, say, work or intellectual activity, one creates inner disharmony and strife.  To illustrate this is the whole point of the elaborate city-soul analogy of the Republic; the idea is that our soul is like a city with many factions, and if one faction is overindulged, strife results.

Besides being bad in itself, inner strife has the result, Plato tells us here, of diminishing all pleasure.  Disproportionate indulgence has the effect of blunting and dulling ones experience of the pleasure.  For example, although drinking a small glass of rare wine may be a genuine pleasure, to consume half a bottle dulls the senses, lessening or eliminating the pleasure.  But on top of that, intentional overindulgence may produce inner, mental strife, and this agitation, which reduces our clear and focused attention, will further lessen the pleasure.  On the other hand, if we make a discerning choice to indulge an appetite to the exact right measure, then we may experience the best and truest form of the associated pleasure.

Hence our goal at all times should be to reach and maintain a state of harmony and balance within our soul, so that we may both (1) have the fullest level of mental integrity and clarity, meting out pleasures with wisdom and discernment, and (2) then to enjoy well-measured pleasures fully.  Seeking pleasures is natural and normal, provided they not subvert the more fundamental need to maintain a healthy-minded and virtuous disposition of ones psyche:

The entire soul, returning to its nature at the best, attains to a much more precious condition in acquiring sobriety [sound-mindedness; sophrosyne] and righteousness [dikaiosyne] together with wisdom [phronesis] . . . Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others . . . but he will always be found attuning the harmonies of his body for the sake of the concord in his soul . . . He will . . . keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul, and taking care and watching lest he disturb anything there either by excess or deficiency. (Republic 9.591 b−e; tr. Shorey; italics added)

Nor is Plato a Relativist

Nevertheless, neither can it be said that Plato is a moral relativist. His ethics, in fact, offer a third alternative (tertium quid) to moral absolutism and moral relativism.

What is non-relative is his overriding principle that harmony and sound-mindedness, and other such things which promote clear perception of justness and rightness, are absolute and objective criteria for right action.  While the same action (e.g., to drink a glass of wine) may be righteous or unrighteous in different circumstances, the overriding principle by which it may be deemed just and right — i.e., the promotion of inner harmony and ability to see truth, justice and beauty relative to circumstance — does remain the same. And this is much different than moral relativism.  Justice as harmony for Plato is understood as an objective and immutable cosmic principle.

This fits generally with Plato’s marvelous integrality, such that he is able to resolve and find answers to life’s pressing existential questions by transcending dichotomies.

 

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