Plato: Ethics


BY JOHNATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.

The ethics of Plato is an application in practice of the principles which had been reached in the metaphysical field. We know that the soul, which was happy in the contemplation of the ideal world, now finds itself imprisoned in the body and impelled by the pleasures of sense. To give in to these impulses would mean to strengthen yet more the bonds with matter and to render oneself ever more distant from true happiness, which is in the world of Ideas.

Reason wills, therefore, that the soul overcome the obstacles which render it unworthy of participating again in the ideal world and living according to reason. The soul can be compared to the driver of a chariot drawn by two horses, one fast and the other slow: it is the duty of the driver to restrain the first and to urge on the second. These two horses are the two aspects of the irrational soul, the irascible and concupiscible. The driver, the rational soul, must restrain the first from its inconsiderate impulses, and must incite the second to good whenever it stops before the pleasures of sense.

Mastery over irascible and concupiscible impulses gives origin to two virtues, fortitude and temperance. One who is strong tempers the impulses of anger and eager enthusiasm; he who is temperate moderates the pleasures of the senses by bringing them under the dominion of reason. The actuation of fortitude and temperance is not possible without a third virtue, namely, justice. Justice is fundamental in Plato’s philosophy in so far as, granted the destiny of the soul, justice wills that during the course of earthly life the rational soul must live by dominating the two aspects of the irrational soul without being overcome by them. All three of the virtues mentioned, justice, fortitude and temperance, have their origin in a fourth, wisdom, the contemplation of the truth of the ideal world, which is in itself virtue and happiness.

This wisdom which is now found sleeping in the soul must be aroused through the images of it which are found in sensible things, and from sensible things it must arise to the invisible and supreme beauty, which is nether born nor dies. (Symposium.) In so far as we draw near to the contemplation of this supreme beauty, by so much are we separated from the illusory life. Hence Plato calls philosophy “the contemplation of death.”

Regarding the destiny of souls after death, Plato is dependent not only on his philosophy but also on the Orphic-Dionysian mysteries. In general he distinguishes three classes of souls:

  • Those that have committed inexpiable sins, and hence are condemned forever;
  • Those that have committed expiable sins;
  • Those living according to justice.

Souls in the last two categories are reborn and reincarnated in order to receive their due punishment or reward. According to Phaedo, a fourth class of souls must be added, that of the philosophers, seers of the idea, who are free forever from the temporal life.


Jonathan Dolhenty Ph.D., is the Founder of the Center for Applied Philosophy and The Radical Academy, and the Honorary Editor of Philosophy at The Moral Liberal. The Center for Applied Philosophy and The Radical Academy are presently projects of The Moral Liberal.


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