Happiness, Death, Anxiety, Resurrection – Part I: Plato


As summer turns to fall, I always become more reflective. Perhaps it’s my age. Perhaps it’s the pandemic. Perhaps it’s this new stage of my life. Perhaps it’s just, as Pascal would say, the grandeur and misery of being human. Whatever the reason, this fall I’ve been thinking about the good life. What makes for human happiness?

That is the classical question of ethics, of course. I am not going to attempt anything like a full answer, nor even a sketch thereof. Rather, for this and my next three posts, I’m going to trace a single—and, for me at least, very interesting—line of thought. It is a line of thought whose central question is honed by Plato and Aristotle, problematized by Koheleth, and ultimately resolved by the apostle Paul.

The Classical Question

In the classical Greek philosophical tradition, the question of what makes for a happy life was a central one. Reading through the literature of this period one finds that wealth, power, honor, relationships, wisdom and virtue are always in the running as potential answers. For Plato and Aristotle (and others), the question is not simply what gives us a sense of happiness; it really must be bigger than that. The question is something like, what ultimately makes for a fulfilled life—one we can, at the end, look back upon with satisfaction.

This is why, for both Plato and Aristotle, momentary and fleeting “goods” simply cannot qualify as that which makes life ultimately happy. They argued that money, for example, is only a means to something else. Power and honor are positions that are not entirely under one’s own control. They can be, and often are, lost or given to someone else. Relationships are equally out of our control and in almost every case disappoint at some level. Thus, though these “goods” can, and often do, contribute to a sense of happiness, they are far too unstable and transitory to be able to offer happiness ultimately.

For Plato and Aristotle, this leaves virtue and wisdom as the main candidates. The way they work out the relationship between the two constitutes the main differences between them on this point. We’ll take up Plato’s account here.

Plato, Justice, and Happiness

Plato’s Republic is set up as an exploration of and answer to the question Socrates poses to Thrasymachus near the end of Book I: “Or do you think it a small matter to determine which whole way of life would make living most worthwhile for each of us?” (344e). This is the central question. But it is not the question the work begins with. The question that begins  the work is the question of what justice is (331c). As it turns out, the answer to this beginning question constitutes the answer to the second, central question of the work, i.e. what whole way of life would make for the most worthwhile life. This is because Plato thought justice to be a kind of summation of the virtues. Or rather, the just person is the virtuous person. To the question of what is the most worthwhile life, Plato answers: the just life.

In Book II, one of Plato’s interlocutors, Glaucon, poses a problem: if, as Plato says, the just life is the most worthwhile, then one should be able to strip the just person of all other goods: wealth, honor, power, etc., and the just person still will be happier than those unjust persons who have those things (361d-e). In order to respond, Plato asks the readers to consider a just city (368c). The just city, he says, is one in which all its citizens are in positions proper to their natural abilities and do well what their positions require (343a-c). Suppose the city is separated into three classes of people: producers, fighters, and rulers (441a). Justice in such a city turns out to be “doing one’s own work” (433b). If the cobbler, for example, attempts to guard the city against invading forces, or the soldier attempts to rule, or the ruler shirks his responsibility in order to farm, the city will be the less happy for it. Political justice—justice of the polis, the city—consists in a kind of proper order. When all the people are working at what they do best, and all contributing their part to the city (under the guidance of a proper ruler), the city is ‘happy.’

So also, says Plato, for the individual, who is a sort of micropolis (434e). Justice in the soul consists of the proper order of its rational part, appetitive part, and spirited part (439d; 441a-b). The appetitive part of the soul is concerned with things of the body: food, drink, sex. The rational part guides and directs us. And here is where the potential internal conflict arises. If let rule, the appetitive part would lead us pursue all those transitory things, which, because of their transitory nature, would have us bouncing from one dopamine hit to the next. Each promising happiness, each slipping through the fingers when grasped.

The rational part can see the potential errors of the appetitive part and set guidelines for it. This is wisdom for Plato—reason setting up guidelines. Wisdom  is reason’s ability to govern our natural appetitive drives in conjunction with the goods at which they aim just so in order to achieve actual happiness.  Yet, if left to itself, the rational part would never get anything done. It sets the rules and guidelines, but needs a third, in-between part to make sure its dictates are followed. This is the spirited part. It takes orders from the rational part and moderates the appetitive part accordingly (441d-443c). (The spirited part, as Plato explains it, is conceptually very close to what we think of as the “will”.)

So then, the definition of justice according to Plato:

Justice isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and his own. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself (443d).

Injustice, by contrast, is a kind of internal “civil war” (444b).

How does this account of justice answer the question posed by Glaucon? Is a just person stripped of all external goods happier than an unjust person possessing external goods? The account provides an answer along two lines. First, how can one be truly happy if his inner life is in disarray? The unjust person, unfortunately, is in this exact predicament. Think, for example, of the person who seems to ‘have it all,’ and yet is miserable. The person who is internally disordered cannot fix the problem with external goods (and in many cases, external goods only serve to increase the internal disarray).

Second, when a person’s soul is ordered well—when they are truly guided by reason—they will find their utmost pleasure not in fleeting goods, but in the truly, stable Good. Goods like wealth, honor, power, relationships, etc. are the fleeting pleasures of the appetite. The Good, then, which can ultimately satisfy has to be stable and unchanging (514a-520a). This good, Plato surmises, is the pleasure of the intellect (583b-588a). This is why Plato was insistent that justice is fundamentally and primarily an internal state of order, and not primarily about external goods or actions. When your internal psyche is harmonious, you love that which cannot be taken from you.

What makes for the good life, then? According to Plato, virtue, brought all to a head in justice, is the internal ordering of one’s soul. The just person, guided by wisdom, may still use external goods in pursuit of happiness, but does not depend on them. Thus, for the just and wise person, external circumstances cannot hinder the attainment of a stable happiness. Plato’s answer, then, is both an internalist account and an individualistic one. In the next post, we’ll consider Aristotle’s response to this type of account.

Image used under Creative Commons Liscence. ©2011-2016 Michael Muraz. Original found here.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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