Introduction to Plato: The Ethics of Philosophia

Philosophy means love of wisdom. Essential to understanding Plato is why it is important for man to strive, to seek, to move, to wisdom and how it relates to life on earth.

Everyone knows, or is familiar, that Plato established the first system of philosophy. But the system of philosophy which Plato established does not necessarily have answers as it does leave questions open-ended. The Republic, for instance, is all about seeking wisdom and living the good life—but the Republic is an incomplete work. The dialogue ends incomplete; Er is returning to the world from what he has seen and been told by the gods but we, as readers, are left in the dark. Er returns to his body but he doesn’t know how.

Why ethics are related to philosophy in Plato—and the classics more generally—is because embodying nature involves action itself. The self, and nature itself, is an act of engagement; of doing. One cannot embody goodness without action. One cannot embody justice without action. One cannot embody knowledge without action. One cannot embody nature without action because human nature—according to Plato—is fundamentally about engagement and participation. That is, Plato’s philosophy of nature is a participatory nature: Of becoming and doing.

To understand the forms requires action in the world—hence why Er is revived and given a mission of action back in the mortal world. It is not good enough for Er to simply have beheld the Good but to embody that wisdom requires involvement in life. Ethics is the manifestation of knowledge which leads to virtue which is always about engagement with the world and with others.

What drives ethics is love. This is why philosophy entails a love for wisdom. Philia and Sophia—it is attempting to befriend wisdom and cultivate a friendship with wisdom. This love for wisdom and cultivating a friendship with wisdom which has ramifications for life on earth leads to what Aristotle called phronesis—practical, or vocational, wisdom. As St. Augustine wrote in appraising Plato in The City of God, “the study of wisdom consists in action and contemplation, so that one part of it may be called active, and the other contemplative.”

The meaningful life is the ethical life. The ethical life entails engagement with others, with friends, much as philosophy has a relational and participatory ethos to it. Since man is a social animal the highest wisdom cultivated in life entails friendship with other men to live that fulfilled life of duties and relationships with others.

The philosophical pursuit that leads to a life of disengagement, or even reducing philosophical pursuits to merely intellectual ends, is a betrayal of true philosophy. This is why, on another note, that all of Plato’s written works are dialogues of engagement. Socrates, who is the principal character in most of Plato’s dialogues, is the philosophy embodying the true nature of a nature: A seeker of wisdom and engager with the world. He even forms friendships with his opponents in some of the dialogues—recognizing the wisdom in friendship—like after befriending Thrasymachus in Republic.

Philosophy, then, as a movement of love, has ethical consequences to life. This is another reason why ethics is such a major concern for Plato. The fulfilled life, the good life, is the ethical life. But what is good? Why is it ethical? That is the pursuit of philosophy. And this returns us to part of Plato’s mission in the first place: To carve out a space for ethical, meaningful, fulfilled life which the Ionian metaphysicians and sophists couldn’t do or were not interested in doing.

This movement to embodying wisdom in practical life—ethical right—leads to the birth of “classical natural right.” Right action in life moved by wisdom leading to the unity of rights and duties to each other. For rights cannot be sustained without duties and obligations. And duties and obligations for the sake of duties and obligations eventually collapse unless they are tied to higher goods. (Hence why in Timaeus, Timaeus’ speech about the teleology of the cosmos suddenly ends, 87b, with a return to the relevance of teleology and medicine to the political.)

After all, Er is revived and told to engage with the world of mortals after having glimpsed the vision of the Good. It is not good enough to simply behold; one must also take that love of wisdom and engage in the world. Furthermore, that is precisely what Socrates does whenever he is the principal character of the Platonic dialogues—the love of wisdom and for wisdom leads to engagement in the world and practicable application of wisdom in the world; even where Socrates is not the main dialogue character (like in Laws), the leading “philosopher” of the dialogues is always engaging the world rather than standing apart from it. In later Aristotelian terminology, philosophy is “purposive activity” that entails encounter and engagement with the world and others that they may begin purposive activity which is the very nature of man.

The love, or pursuit, of wisdom is itself an activity. The consummation of this wisdom now reflects back to earth as the human person embodies the wisdom of truth in their lives. This leads to a new living, a new activity, a higher living, a higher activity, by which man lives by on earth. The greatest lie about Plato and Platonism is that the ideas have no impact on how to live; on the contrary, the ideas are directly linked to how we should live as anyone who has read Plato would know.

4 thoughts on “Introduction to Plato: The Ethics of Philosophia

    • While I don’t disagree, it’s important to equally see the end in Plato’s thought: Action. It is true contemplation is first and, in a sense, primary, but it is not the end in of itself. That is most definitely ethical life which is the core in everyone of his dialogues. How should we live, act, engage, etc. They are linked. Contemplating is itself activity in Plato; after all, everything he wrote was in active dialogue. The tendency to separate the contemplative from the active is a great gnostic tendency not at all pertinent to the real life Plato and his concerns.
      Cheers!

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      • I totally agree with you. Ancient Greek philosophers thought of philosophy as a way to an ethical life, both on an individual and a political level. In a way, it was a practical philosophy but some philosophers were more practical oriented than others. Plato belonged to the latter. We still need to learn a lot from them. At least, at that time philosophy was not only an intellectual exercise that leads nowhere like we see in some current philosophies

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      • I find this to be one of the major hurdles that philosophy needs to overcome and why, in many ways, people just see it as “intellectual masturbation,” pardon my language; some people may be interested in all that deep thinking, but if philosophy is to have “relevance” it needs to get to the particular, concrete, and practical.

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