[Part 4] Contribution of the Western Thinkers: Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato
Introduction: Ancient Greek Philosophy
Greek Philosophers believed virtue as excellence of any kind. A virtue is a character trait or quality that is valued as good, by the society. Virtues generally further the good of the society and the individual. It is a disposition of the character to act in an appropriate and beneficial way.
Virtues can be seen in the context of values. A value is a core yardstick of measuring the desirability and appropriateness of the things we observe around. Every individual abides by some values that guide his actions and beliefs. Likewise, every society upholds certain values that are valued as important for the establishment of a good life. However, it is not necessary that an individual’s values are in conformity to the social values.
Given the broad spectrum of human values, values can be broadly categorized into four groups-
- Ethical Values– those dealing with good-bad, moral-immoral, right-wrong, and virtue-vice;
- Aesthetics– those dealing with the idea of beauty and ugliness;
- Doctrinal Values– those dealing with political, ideological, religious and social beliefs; and,
- Innate Values– those that are inherent in every human being since birth. Example- urge to procreate and to survive.
Values that guide us on the right path are of the greatest significance. Our emotional and aspirational needs can make us to adopt an unethical path. However, the values that we abide to, have the role of guiding our choices and beliefs. Thus, a person’s character is often judged by the values he/she adheres to.
Other than giving the famous Pythagoras theorem, Pythagoras believed that the individual should learn to control himself, in order to moderate one’s desires, to harmonize his soul and feelings, and to be enable to respect the authority.
He saw human soul as the life spirit which lives even after the death of the body, by residing in a new body. This concept of Transmigration of Soul is significant in his ethical framework as it proves that good actions in one birth would be rewarded in the next birth.
Plato believed that the good for a person lies in achieving the best of his potential. Only a rational person can contemplate the good of the society as well as himself. Wisdom is the highest of all virtues, and only a learned and rational soul can be a good person in real life.
Ancient Greek philosophy puts great emphasis on wisdom and contemplation. Thus, Plato also puts great significance to the intellectual exercise. Every person owns a potentiality, in his soul. However, it can only be achieved through practicing the virtues in real life. Virtue does not imply, having a theoretical knowledge alone. Rather, it is manifested through the actions of a person.
Also, virtue is different for different persons. Thus, virtue for a philosopher is to be able to contemplate; for a soldier is to be courageous; and for a artisan is to be creative and efficient.
Plato gave great importance to the education of the intellectual class, as they are to be the guides of the common masses, in their pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. It is in this sense that, Plato’s ethics is sometimes seen as the Ethics of Aristocracy. Plato accepts that not everyone can be equally capable of contemplation. Thus, one should excel in the virtue that is predominate in his soul. By doing this, we achieve justice for ourselves.
In ‘Republic’, Plato’s ideal state is the one that is ruled by a philosopher King, who is the most rational and wise of all persons. Every person should be engaged in that activity that is most suited to his inherent virtue and skills. Thus, he advocates a functional division of the society, based on the inclination of each individual. The Philosopher King rules with Wisdom. Plato divides the masses into three classes, based on their internal virtues:
|Warrior Class||Courage/Honor/Spirited||Maintenance of Law and Order|
|Artisan||Appetite/temperance||Trade and Production|
An ideal society is only established when the three classes work together, in accordance with their internal virtues. It is important to note that Plato did not allow the members of the ruling and warrior class to possess any private property. He proposes that the members of these two classes should live in common barracks, and lead a communal life. Only the artisan class is allowed to possess private property.
Some of the ideas of Plato are very revolutionary, in the sense that- he proposes to abolish the family life for the ruling and warrior classes, and proposes a state-run nursery system where all the new borns were to be nurtured. Also, he proposes a ‘community of wives’, as a mechanism to ensure the children of highest genes. Thus, he proposed to place a strict state censorship on the communion of men and women. All deformed and weak infants were to be disposed, to avoid the wastage of resources.
Plato believed that every person has four primary parts- Appetitive; Spirited; Reason; and, Justice. The inclination of a person is defined by which of the first three elements are predominant in one’s soul. The element of Justice is of architectonic nature, that is, it sets the balance among the other three virtues in the soul. Justice, at an individual level, is ensured only when there is a harmony among the various elements of the soul.
A just person acts in a just manner and thus, helps in creating an ideal society.
Socrates was a great Greek Philosopher, and the teacher of Plato. He believed that moral virtue is rooted in Practical Wisdom or Knowledge. Thus, he acclaimed that- ‘Virtue is Knowledge’. Ethical life is led by reason. A right insight leads to right action. Socrates believed in two cardinal principles of- ‘Know Thyself’ and ‘Avoid Excess’. Socrates believed that Virtue is the highest aim and greatest good one has to seek in life. Our virtues can be developed by practicing reason.
He also believed that ethics does not stop at mere acquisition of knowledge of the idea of good. Once the idea of good is gained, it starts guiding our actions, beliefs and feelings. Thus, a virtuous life cultures our soul and makes us a better person. A Virtue has a radiating impact. One virtue permeates all other virtues. The ultimate aim of all virtue is the happiness (Eudaimonia) of the individual.
Socrates also believed that-
‘An Unexamined life is not worth living’.
A Trivia for you:
Socrates was the teacher of Plato; and Plato was the teacher of Aristotle.
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