Online Problem #6

What is the Good Life?

And if we deprive the ears of their special virtue, which is hearing, then they will do their job poorly?
And doesn't the soul also have its special virtue-- to manage, to rule, to deliberate, and so on--which nothing else can do?
That's right.
So a soul which is deprived of its special virtue cannot do its work well.
And so a bad soul will manage badly, and the good soul will do well. And since we agreed that the special function of a soul is in living justly, then the just soul and the just man will live well, and the bad man and the unjust soul, will live badly.
- Plato, Republic

What is essential to the good life? Socrates' ethical philosophy was based firmly on his dialectical method of discovering the essence, the true meaning, of certain important concepts. And Plato's ethics is just a beautifully elaborated version of his teacher's. The good life for Plato is a life of virtue and goodness. Only a morally good person can really be happy, he believed, and goodness is a matter of inner harmony in which all the parts of the soul fulfill their proper functions. For example, a knife is good if it cuts effectively. That is its function. A doctor is a good doctor if he practices well the art of medicine. And so the soul is a good soul if it performs its proper function well. Since without the soul a person is not alive, the function of the soul is living. A good soul, then, is one that performs well the art of living. But what exactly does this amount to?

The soul performs the art of living well, Plato says, if each of its parts performs its proper function. The job of the spirit or will is to keep steady, not to be rash or cowardly, but to have courage. The responsibility of the appetites is to avoid extremes and practice temperance. And the role of reason is to rule the other parts of the soul wisely. When all the parts of the soul are fulfilling their functions, the soul has achieved the overall virtue of justice and the person is living the good life, and so it is essential that a person know and understand the soul and how to rule it. This is the point to Socrates' famous saying, "Know thyself." The most important aspect of a person is his or her soul, and so one must be sure to take proper care of it, and this requires the knowledge and understanding of it that come through a proper philosophical education.

So when the Sophists claim that justice and goodness are relative matters, Plato, (like Socrates) responds that his ethics is based on a true understanding of human nature, of what is good for any person in any culture. Although there are many different kinds of car, still there is one function that is essential to any car: to run. Some cars run poorly and some run well, but goodness in a car does not depend on what brand it is or what country it is made in. In the same way, the goodness of a person does not depend upon who she is or where she is from, but upon how well she lives. and so the good life for Plato, as for Socrates, depends entirely on virtue, and virtue depends upon education. If you had to choose three things that are essential to the good life, what would you say? How would Socrates and Plato respond, do you think?


Plato, The Collected Dialogues, Princeton University Press, Princeton. See especially the Phaedrus and the Republic.