Category Archives: Plato

Is the examined life for all men?

When Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living for a man,” (97) he had meant all men. Plato, however, came to the conclusion that such examinations were not meant for all men, but that only a select few were cut out for such rigor. In this essay I will explore how both Socrates and Plato agreed on what constitutes the good life, but also how they differed in their ultimate conclusions of how this good life can be achieved.

When Socrates was executed he “seems to have kept his calm and courage to the end,” (117). Though an understandably solemn occasion for his roughly fifteen friends in attendance, Socrates seemed quite prepared to die. Socrates is prepared not only because he has no wisdom about what death even is, he says death is either “like a dreamless sleep,” (98), or an opportunity to “spend my time testing and examining people [in Hades],” (99), but because he has lived his life in harmony. Though considered a gadfly by his detractors, Socrates has done no wrong, he has willingly followed the rules of Athens by being a citizen and even refuses to escape his jailors. He has, in effect, embodied the Form of the Good by not focusing his life on selfish pursuits, such as Euthyphro, but in examining and pursuing what makes a person good. And Socrates believes this ability is open to anyone who chooses to examine their own life and live in harmony.

Plato, too believes that living in harmony is the key to the good life and that Socrates was justified in “doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul,” (150). By divorcing our desires from our souls we move from loving, for example a single beautiful body or many beautiful bodies, to moving up what he calls the Ladder of Love into the Form of Beauty itself. By moving away from the visible things of this world we can more easily enter into the abstract, intelligible world of the Forms – death will be far less painful because through this study of philosophy (the examined life), we “are cultivating dying,” (142). No longer does desire stir conflict in our bodies, but by living in harmony we can “drive toward otherworldliness,” (142).

Yet while both Socrates and Plato agree that harmony within the soul is the key to the good life, they disagree on whom may achieve this. Socrates believes anyone is capable of achieving this. For example Socrates demonstrated that even a simple slave boy could recognize the Form of Truth without ever had been previously acquainted with it, “the boy sees that taking the diagonal of the square solves the problem,” (103). Through dialectic and geometry Socrates shows that even the most humble and uneducated person can achieve a knowledge of the Forms and so it follows that anyone is capable of examining the world and their life to achieve harmony and happiness.

And while Plato agrees that education is “the art of orientation,” (137), as we have seen with how Socrates handled the slave boy by guiding him and not “stuffing the mind with facts,” (137), Plato believes only a select few of us can ultimately achieve this knowledge of the Forms.

Plato first compares our soul with society itself by showing how reason, desire, and spirit are not only the functions of the soul, but are also the functions of society. In each person desire motivates, reason guides, and spirit animates, whereas in a society reason rules, desire produces, and spirit acts. All three of these functions need to operate in harmony for their to be happiness. It then follows that since society is made up of people then everyone must fall into one of those three categories: desire, reason, or spirit and that they must all work in harmony for the overall society to be happy. This leads to a structure where reason sits at the very top because only reason has the wisdom of the Forms to guide the rest of society. The lower levels, spirit and desire, though just as necessary, do not share in the greater knowledge of the Forms because they can only focus on the tasks set out for them to complete at the rule of reason. If desire and spirit were to have access to the knowledge of reason then there would be chaos which Plato compares to a ship’s crew who likens the “captain as nothing but a windbag with his head in the clouds,” (151).

In conclusion we can see how while Socrates and Plato agreed that when we examine our lives we can move along a the divided line from a world of the visible things of this world into the intelligible, abstract world of the Forms, the two philosophers disagreed on who is capable of achieving this. Socrates takes a very democratic approach and believes we are all like the slave boy who can recognize the Forms when we are instructed well, whereas Plato believes only a select few of us can do so because only a select few are capable of providing reason and thus being the leaders of a happy and just society just as reason attempts to lead the other two parts of a harmonious soul: desire and spirit.