Monday, December 16, 2013

Plato's Philebus

This dialogue is a debate between Socrates and Protarchus, although the discussion was begun by Philebus and he occasionally chips in.  The topic of the argument is what constitutes the good in human life – is it pleasure or knowledge.  Philebus position is that it is pleasure – this seems fitting since his name means “youth lover”.

In his introduction, the Editor, John M. Cooper, puts it this way.  Socrates will argue, NOT that the good in human life is knowledge (not pleasure), but that it is some third thing, which in fact is the principle of the proper mixture of knowledge and pleasure – both together – within a life.  Knowledge, he will argue, though not the good itself, is vastly closer and more akin to it than pleasure is.  Thus knowledge wins second prize in the contest, coming far ahead of pleasure in the final accounting.

 All quotes are form: Plato – Complete Works, Edited by John M. Cooper, Associate Editor, D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1997.

The Definitions of Pleasure and Knowledge:

Socrates: Philebus holds that what is good for all creatures is to enjoy themselves, to be pleased and delighted, and whatever else goes together with that kind of thing. We contend that not these, but knowing, understanding, and remembering, and what belongs with them, right opinion and true calculations, are better than pleasure and more agreeable to all who attain them. . .  p. 399

The Endless Nature of Debate:

Socrates: By way of making the point that it is through discourse that the same thing flits around, becoming one and many in all sorts of ways, in whatever it may be that is said at any time, both long ago and now.  And this will never come to an end, nor has it just begun, but it seems to me that this is an “immortal and ageless” condition that comes to us with discourse.  Whoever among the young first gets a taste of it is as pleased as if he had found a treasure of wisdom.  p. 403

On Literacy – Letters and Written Language: 

Socrates: The way some god or god-inspired man discovered that vocal sound is unlimited, as tradition in Egypt claims for a certain deity called Theuth.  He was the first to discover that the vowels in that unlimited variety are not one but several, and again that there are others that are not voiced, but make some kind of noise, and that they, too have a number.  As a third kind of letters he established the ones we now call mute.  After this he further subdivided the ones without sound or mutes down to every single unit.  In the same fashion he also dealt without the vowels and the intermediates, until he had found out the number for each one of them, and then he gave all of them together the name “letter.”  And as he realized that none of us could gain any knowledge of a single one of them, taken by itself with understanding them all, he considered that the one link that somehow unifies them all and called it the art of literacy.  P. 406

The Question under Consideration:

Protarchus:  Now, Philebus advocated that it is pleasure, amusement, enjoyment, and whatever else there is of this kind.  You [Socrates] on the contrary denied this for all of them, but rather proposed those other goods we willingly and with good reason keep reminding ourselves of, so that they can be tested as they are lying side by side in our memory.  You claim, it seems, that the good that should by right be called superior to pleasure, at least, is reason, as well as knowledge, intelligence, science, and everything that is akin to them, which must be obtained, rather than Philebus’ candidates.  p. 407

Knowledge Necessary:

Socrates:  Moreover, due to lack of memory, it would be impossible for you to remember that you ever enjoyed yourself, and for any pleasure to survive for one moment to the next, since it would leave no memory.  But, not possessing right judgment, you would not realize that you are enjoying yourself even while you do, and, being unable to calculate, you could not figure out any future pleasures for yourself.  You could thus not live a human life but the life of a mollusk or of one of those creatures in shells that live in the sea.  p. 409

Cause = Maker:

Socrates:  And is it not the case that there is no difference between the nature of what makes and the cause, except in name, so that the maker and the cause would rightly be called one?  p. 414

Reason Is King:

Socrates:  It is easy to settle, nevertheless. For all the wise are agreed, in true self-exaltation, that reason is our king, both over heaven and earth.  And perhaps they are justified,  But let us go into the discussion of this class itself at greater length, if you have no objection. . . Whether we hold the view that the universe and this whole would order are ruled by unreason and irregularity, as chance would have it, or whether they are not rather, as our forebears taught us, governed by reason and by the order of a wonderful intelligence.

Protarchus:  How can you ever think of a comparison here, Socrates?  What you suggest now is downright impious, I would say.  The only account that can do justice to the wonderful spectacle presented by cosmic order of sun, moon, and stars and the revolution of the whole heaven, is that reason arranges it all, and I for my part would never waver in saying or believing it.  pp. 416-417

The Soul of the Universe:

Socrates: But where does it come from, unless the body of the universe which has the same properties as ours, but more beautiful in all respects, happens to possess a soul?

Protarchus:  Clearly for nowhere else.

Socrates:  We surely cannot maintain this assumption, with respect to our four classes (limit, the unlimited, their mixture and their cause—which is present in everything): that this cause is recognized as all-encompassing wisdom, since among us it imports the soul and provides training for the body and medicine for its ailments and in other cases order and restitution, but that it should fail to be responsible for the same things on a large scale in the whole universe (things that are, in addition beautiful and pure), for the contrivance of what has so fair and wonderful a nature.  p. 418

On the Mind of Zeus:

Socrates: You will therefore say that in the nature of Zeus there is the soul of a king, as well as a king’s reason, in virtue of this power displayed by the cause, while paying tribute for other fine qualities in the other divinities, in conformity with the names by which their like to be addressed. 

Protarchus: Very much so.

Socrates: Do not think that we have engaged in an idle discussion here, Protarchus, for it comes as a support for the thinkers of old who held that view that reason is forever the ruler over the universe.  p. 418

On Pleasure and Pain:

Socrates:  Pleasure and pain seem to me by nature to arise together in the common kind.  p. 419

On Forgetting and Memory:

Socrates: . . . Forgetting is rather the loss of memory, but in the case in question here no memory has yet arisen.  It would be absurd to say that there could be the process of losing something that neither is nor was in existence, wouldn’t it?  p. 422

On Memory and Recollection:

Socrates:  So if someone were to call memory ‘the preservation of perception’, he would be speaking correctly, as far as I am concerned. . . Do we not call it ‘recollection’ when the soul recalls as much as possible by itself, without the aid of the body, what she had once experienced together with the body? p. 422

On Weakness of Sense-Perception:

Socrates:  When a person takes his judgments and assertions directly from sight or any other sense-perception and then views the images he has from inside himself, corresponding to those judgments and assertion.  Or is it not something of this sort that is going on in us?

Protarchus: Quite definitely.

Socrates:  And are not the pictures of the true judgments and assertions true, and the pictures of the false ones false?

Protarchus: Quite definitely.  p. 428

Pleasure and Pain:

Socrates:  But they hold a false judgment about pleasure, if in fact freedom from pain and pleasure each have a nature of their own.  p. 433

On Asceticism:

Socrates:  It is a nature not without nobility but out of an inordinate hatred that they have conceived against the power of pleasure, they refuse to acknowledge anything healthy in it, even to the point that they regard its very attractiveness itself as witchcraft rather than pleasure.  p. 434  

Tragedy and Comedy are Both a Mixture of Pleasure and Pain:

Socrates: And the same happens in those who watch tragedies: There is laughter mixed with the weeping, if you remember.

Protarchus:  How could I forget?

Socrates:  Now, look at our state of mind in comedy, Don’t you realize that it also involves a mixture of pleasure and pain.  p. 437

The Admonition of the Delphic Oracle vs. Ignorance:

Socrates:  It [ignorance] is, in sum, a kind of vice that derives its name from a special disposition; it is, among all the vices, the one with a character that stands in direct opposition to the one recommended by the famous inscription in Delphi.

Protarchus:  You mean the one that says “Know thyself,” Socrates?

Socrates:  I do.  p. 438

Power Plus Ignorance a Bad Thing (Think Obama):

Socrates:  So make this the point of division.  All those who combine this delusion with weakness and are unable to avenge themselves when they are laughed at, you are justified in calling ridiculous.  But as for those who do have the power and strength to take revenge, if you call them dangerous and hateful, you are getting exactly the right conception about them. For ignorance on the side of the strong and powerful is odious and ugly; it is harmful even for their neighbors, both the ignorance itself and the imitations, whatever they may be.  p. 439

On Pleasure from the Good and the Beautiful: (sights, sounds, smells, and learning)

Socrates: By the beauty of shape, I do not mean what the many might presuppose, namely that of a living being or of a picture.  What I mean, what the argument demands, is rather something straight or round and what is constructed out of these with a compass, rule, and square, such as plane figures and solids.  Those things I take it are not beautiful in a relative sense, as others are, but are by their very nature forever beautiful by themselves.  They provide their own specific pleasures that are not at all comparable to those of rubbing!  And colors are beautiful in an analogous way and import their own kinds of pleasures.  Do we not understand it better or how do you feel? 

Protarchus:  I am really trying to understand, Socrates, but will you also try to say this more clearly?

Socrates:  What I am saying is that those among the smooth and bright sounds that produce one pure note are not beautiful in relation to anything else but in and by themselves and that they are accompanied by their own pleasures, which belong to them by nature.

Protarchus:  That much is true.

Socrates: Then there is also the less divine tribe of pleasures connected with smells. . .

Protarchus: I do get your point.

Socrates:  The let us also add to these the pleasures of learning, if indeed we are agreed that there is no such thing as hunger for learning connected with them, nor any pains that have their source in a hunger for learning.  p. 441

The value of measuring: (On Modern “Art”)

Socrates:  If someone were to take away all counting, measuring, and weighing from the arts and crafts, the rest might be said to be worthless.

Protarchus:  Worthless, indeed!

Socrates: All we would have left would be conjecture and the training of our senses through experience and routine.  We would have to rely on our ability to make the lucky guesses that many people call art, once it has acquired some proficiency through practice and hard work.  p. 445

What Is the First Science? Rhetoric or the Study of Being:

Socrates:  But the power of dialectic would repudiate us if we put any other science ahead of her.

Protarchus: What science do we mean by that again?

Socrates:  Clearly everybody would know what science I am referring to now!  For I take it that anyone with any share of reason at all would consider the discipline concerned with being and with what is really and forever in every way eternally self-same by far the truest of all kinds of knowledge.  But what is your position?

Protarchus:  On many occasions, Socrates, I have heard Gorgias insist that the art of persuasion is superior to all others because it enslaves all the rest, with their own consent, not by force, and is therefore by far the best of all the arts.  Now I am reluctant to take up a position against either him or you.  p 447

On Opinion:

Socrates:  When you gave this answer now, did you realize that most of the arts and sciences and those who work at them are in the first place only concerned with opinions and make opinions the center of their search?  p. 448

The Need for Eternal Truth:

Socrates:  So how could we assert anything definite about these matters with exact truth if it never did possess nor will possess nor now possesses any kind of sameness?

Protarchus:  Impossible.

Socrates:  And how could we ever hope to achieve any kind of certainty about subject matters that do not in themselves possess any certainty?

Protarchus:  I see no way.  p. 448

Reason and Knowledge -  Most Honored:

Socrates:  And aren’t reason and knowledge name that deserve the highest honor?  p. 449

Two Kinds of Science:

Socrates:  But there was also a difference between different sciences, since one kind deals with a subject matter that comes to be and perishes, the other is concerned with what is free of that, the eternal and self-same.  Since we made truth our criterion, the latter kind appeared to be the truer one.  p. 451

In Support of a “Liberal” Education:

Socrates:  But having decided that it was innocuous or even beneficial to spend our lives in the pursuit of all the arts and crafts, we may now come to the same conclusion about the pleasures.  If it is beneficial and harmless to live our lives enjoying all the pleasures, then we should mix them in.

Protarchus:  So what are we to say in their case, and what are we to do?

Socrates:  We should not turn to ourselves with this question, Protarchus, But to the pleasures themselves, as well as to the different kinds of knowledge, and find out how they feel about each other by putting the question in this way.  p. 452

The Good = the Beautiful and the True:

Socrates:  But now we notice that the force of the good has taken refuge in an alliance with the nature of the beautiful.  For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas as beauty and virtue.

Protarchus:  Undeniably.

Socrates: But we did say that truth is also included along with them in our mixture?

Protarchus:  Indeed.

Socrates: Well, then, if we cannot capture the good in one form, we will have to take hold of it in a conjunction of three: beauty, proportion, and truth.  Let us affirm that these should by right be treated as a unity and be held responsible for what is in the mixture, for its goodness is what makes the mixture itself a good one. 

Protarchus:  Very well stated.

Socrates:  Anyone would by now be able to judge between pleasure and intelligence, which of the two is more closely related to the supreme good and more valuable among gods and men.

Protarchus:  Even if it is obvious, it is better to make it explicit in our discussion.

Socrates:  So now let us judge each one of the three in relation to pleasure and reason.  For we have to see for which of those two we want to grant closer kinship to each of them.

Protarchus:  You mean to beauty, truth, and measure?

Socrates:  Yes.  Take up truth first, Protarchus, and, holding it in fort of you, look at all three: reason, truth, and pleasure.  Then, after withholding judgment for a long time, give your answer, whether for you pleasures or reason is more akin to truth. 

Protarchus: . . . pleasure is the greatest imposter of all . . . Reason, by contrast, either is the same as truth or of all things it is most like it and most true.  p. 454

1 comment:

Riley said...


I love the reasoning in Socrates's argument (funny that he argues the importance of reason using such great reasoning as his master tool). Especially when he argues that if reason were absent, so also would come the absence of pleasure since we would be unable to realize we were feeling pleasure.

I personally need to study Socrates more in depth. I'm ashamed to say that all I know of him comes from what I've been taught and what I've read only briefly. What I do know astonishes me, though. This man was truly enlightened, in my opinion.

My favorite teaching of his is the famous: "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." It's such a powerful device for one to be able to admit to their self that they know nothing. It allows one to open their mind to the world, rather than close it off and insist that the knowledge already exists.

Thanks for the post! I enjoyed the read.