Thursday, June 25, 2020
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
Up until the mid-5th century B.C., Athens was mostly renown for being an economic powerhouse of seafaring trade but was hardly considered a centre of philosophic inquiry. Their Sophists, or "wise" men attuned their tutelage to the Athenian mercantile way of life offering wealthy youths training in rhetoric: instrumental skills in how to gain further influence in the democracy or win arguments in court. The Sophists appeared to be familiar with the activity of the various philosophers spread out among various Greek city-states over the previous 150 years; however, they seemed to be by and large sceptical of the mostly metaphysical theories that had been generated to that point. After all, Thales had claimed everything was made of water, Heraclitus fire; Democrtitus had promoted these strange things called atoms. Their theories all seemed quite unprovable and appeared to contradict each other, so what difference did devoting thought to them make? Better to leave such nonsensical musings behind and focus the mental energies on getting ahead and the business at hand.
In the midst of this intellectual milieu arrives Socrates. Outwardly, he appeared to be engaged in a similar project and was sometimes considered a Sophist himself. After all, Socrates was likewise considered a wise man and an instructor of the youth. However, there were a couple of distinguishing features of his brand of sophistry. First, he did not charge for his teaching. Secondly and more significantly, he was not helping students to prevail in their opinions; rather, his steadfast focus was to develop a thoroughgoing method of argument that would elicit the truth underlying the proper exercise of the virtues. For this reason, Plato and others christened him not just as one among many wise men but specifically as a philosopher, a "lover of wisdom".
To fully appreciate Socrates' method you have to understand his metaphysical grounding as it applies to that which animates the body: namely the soul. His view is that the soul is pre-existent and immortal and can be identified with intelligence and reason. From this stance emerges a doctrine of reminiscence. To learn of "pure" reason is the act of remembering the soul's former existence. Furthermore, from this belief is developed the Socratic method of eliciting the soul's memory through a series of careful questions, a process he referred to as dialectic. Dialectic typically begins with a request for a definition of an overarching term such as one of the virtues. An example might be, "what is justice?" The dialectical process does not merely solicit opinions, rather it uncovers or recalls from the soul's memory what "justice" e.g. must logically, necessarily consist of.
Socrates describes the philosopher's role in this process as that of a midwife. What he helps to coax and deliver from the soul is truth, that which is now and must be eternally so. As distinguished from opinion, truth is thus described as transcendent of the ever-changing physical world, being of the same nature as the soul and is in fact an integral aspect of each and every soul's awareness. The source of truth and the soul is the ultimate reality, what Socrates describes as the Good. Once the memory of truth is thus awakened, the individual can embody, act out, and orient his life towards the good, bringing body and soul into an intelligible harmony, what he calls the "good" life.
The philosophy of Plato expands Socrates' metaphysics upon which his own treatment of truth, beauty, and goodness critically depend. Plato likewise describes the pre-existence of an eternal, transmigrating soul; however, he further elaborates that this soul is quite literally individual, meaning that it cannot be divided, cannot undergo change or be destroyed, thus separate and distinct from physical things including bodies. The soul Plato describes is thus immaterial and a simple unity not a composite thing. It is this soul that he claims has real knowledge of the Forms which share its nature of being timeless, eternal, and unchanging.
What are the Forms? Well, nothing in particular. That is to say they stand independently, neither being a composite of many things or a part of anything else. They're the only things the soul can know for sure because they're stable, they never change. They're the real and only objects of knowledge, true everywhere and every when. According to Plato to use the word "knowledge" to describe experience gained through the senses is at best a metaphor, technically incorrect. Experience of changing, particular things is nothing more than opinion of which true knowledge is impossible. What Plato was in search of were the archetypal ideals that stand outside of any particular time and place. The Forms are thus "eternal truths", the very expression being a tautology since eternity (unchanging permanence) is the very essence of truth properly understood.
As with Socrates, Plato's dialectical process in eliciting knowledge is one of recollection in which truth is revealed by means of reason alone. For Plato reason is an essential character of the soul and is occupied with pure ideals. The method of dialectic directs the soul's inner eye to look beyond the changing particulars of mundane existence, unlocking the soul's consciousness to focus on the Forms, the eternal truths, the knowledge of the Good. Complimenting truth, beauty is described as the expression of the Good. Plato outlines a journey of sensible beauty towards the very ideal of beauty itself. He imagines the commonplace occurrence of a young man, blinded by love, finding a specific girl's body beautiful as no other. In time the young man is likely to notice that physical beauty is a trait distributed among many women. Perhaps he may even come to sense that there is a beauty not quite physical, an inner beauty of the woman he loves. Should the young man mature into a philosopher, he may be drawn towards the ideal of beauty itself apart from any physical or particular manifestation. Whereas truth instructs the soul about the Good, beauty motivates the soul towards it.
For Plato philosophy rests on the critical distinction between mere appearances and a direct apprehension of reality, the Good. Such a pursuit is not an wholly abstract or disinterested study either. Man and his actions are not to be reduced to mere physiological and mechanical explanations. For Plato, man is both rational and societal, motivated by purpose, having goals and ends he seeks to attain. In his allegory of the cave, Plato compares the Good to the sun. Just as the sun makes physical things visible to eyesight, the Good illuminates the soul's reason making the eternal forms comprehensible. Thus for Plato there was nothing subjective about the "inner eye" of the philosopher's vision, he simply directly comprehends excellence, the Good.
Although as Plato's student, Aristotle shares many views and assumptions in common, there is a divergence in their metaphysics that has implications for his entire philosophy including his conception of truth, beauty, and goodness. Aristotle has a lengthy description of the soul; however, In regard to the human soul specifically he asserts, contrary to Plato, that it does not have a pre-existence or any existence at all apart from the body describing it as, “the actuality of a body that has life.” In other words, the soul is the animating aspect of the body. His view of the soul is in parallel with that of the Forms as being immanent in, rather than transcendent of particular bodies. Thus the human soul is "hylomorphic", a composite of immanent form actualised in a material body, an "informed" individual.
In the composition of the soul, Aristotle considers bodies the primary substance upon which forms are dependent. The soul of living things can be thought of as having elements or aspects that can be arranged in an ascending hierarchy. At the base sits what is described as the vegetal soul, the fundamental drives of nutrition and reproduction shared by all living things. Next is the animal soul that includes the additional capacities of sensation and locomotion. Finally, there is the defining trait of humans, the rational soul capable of reason. That said, according to Aristotle humans have all three of the aforementioned aspects of soul. Whereas Plato saw the human soul as imprisoned in an animal body that could be freed by a life dedicated to reason, Aristotle viewed man as a rational animal who ought to seek fulfillment in all aspects of his being, including the vegetal and animal.
To understand Aristole's view on what constitutes the Good, it is helpful to consider his explanation of causation. He states that the cause of any physical object living or inanimate can be attributed to 4 causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Let's take the example of Socrates' statue pictured above. The material cause would be the material the statue is made of, in our example marble. Clearly had this statue been made of bronze, plaster or some other material that would very much effect how it could be made or might endure exposed to the elements. Secondly, there is the efficient cause, the craft of stone carving. Note that his view of the means of this statue coming into being is not attributed to the particular artisan, rather to the craft itself. Next there is the formal cause which refers to the shape or design of the statue, which, as the name indicates, gives it its form: Socrates dressed in his chiton, seated in thought. At last we come to the final cause, the purpose of the statue which ostensibly is to adorn the entrance to the 20th century Academy of Athens. For Aristotle the final cause has primacy among the causes, being the very raison d'être of all the others. In our example, if there was no need to adorn the Academy, a form and method of carving a selected material would never have come to pass. The Greek term he uses to describe such an end or goal is telos.
Having established a rough framework of Aristotle's metaphysics we can now get down to the business of his views on truth, beauty, and goodness. What we find is that the aforementioned concept of telos and the Good are very closely aligned. The Good is associated with fully actualising form, order, and reaching maturity according to an initial potential. For example, what is good for plants is physical health by means of nutrition that allows them to reproduce. Animals have these basic goals but their senses and mobility allow them to also actively pursue desires and pleasures while avoiding pain. A dog can have a good life for himself by being well fed, eventually mating but also by avoiding injury and finding companionship in the pack. Aristotle admits that all of the aforementioned are good for human beings as well; nevertheless, we've a further capacity to exercise intellectual virtues and contemplative wisdom. By pursuing all of these in a balanced way we can attain what in Greek is called "eudaimonia", literally "well being", a telos synonymous with the good life, human flourishing.
However, as human beings are rational, our attaining the good life means knowing all of the moral virtues previously addressed by Socrates and Plato and how to apply them in life. As Aristotle contests the idea of innate knowledge resident in an eternal soul, seeking truth will need another means other than recollection through dialectic. The method Aristotle proposes is one of induction which originates in experience and the senses. Although the senses are notoriously unreliable, cumulative experiences can allow us to distinguish patterns. Aristotle describes an elevated "common sense" existing in the mind, where the experiences of all the other senses rushing in are unified into an orgasnised experience of memory. This memory is the product of the higher, common sense of reason comparing, contrasting, and finally verifying (literally "making true") in a revelatory moment of intuitive recognition of truth. It is through this process of subjecting sense experience to reason that we abstract the Forms, truths from particulars.
At the highest level of being, Aristotle identifies beauty with the Good; it is the Unmoved Mover, the final cause of all things that is desired for its own sake and sets the entire cosmos in motion by the attraction it exercises. Beauty engenders love which is held as the highest virtue, the driving and unifying force. Aristotle relates, “if all people competed for the beautiful, and strained to do the most beautiful things, everything people need in common, and the greatest good for each in particular, would be achieved." Getting down to earth, the beautiful life is not egotistical but concerns itself with friendship and the common good, the highest fulfillment for a human being in this life.
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundation for over 2,400 years of philosophic inquiry to follow in the Western tradition. They solidified entire fields of rational inquiry regarding morals and ethics, asking how can we be sure of our knowledge, reflecting on what our purpose as human beings is, and what it is that motivates us towards those ends. Their provisional conclusion was that the Good, True, and the Beautiful at the highest actualisation of ultimate reality was indistinguishable as an unity: the One. And love is the force that draws us towards it. Nevertheless, they certainly weren't the last words on the subject. Our own concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness have been undoubtedly shaped and influenced by subsequent thought and writing about them. In our next essay we'll consider various schools that came to prominence in Hellenic Greece including the Cyrenaics, Cynics, Sceptics, and Epicureans.
Contributed by Patrick Webb