Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

I have always been more drawn to Aristotle than Plato, but over the past several months I have been rereading some Platonic dialogues with a few friends and have come to a greater appreciation of his works. One perennial topic of discussion among our group that has brought this greater appreciation out is Socrates’ seemingly perplexing claim that virtue is knowledge, and that it is impossible for one to know the good, and willingly do something bad.

At first blush this position on virtue and knowing the good seems absurd. Most who have committed wrongs would acknowledge that their actions were wrong, and that they knew that they were wrong while they committed them. Socrates’ claim seems to deny the reality of the experience of most of us.

So this leads to the question of what Socrates is getting at? Is Socrates just providing a nonsensical explanation that flies in the face of the obvious existential situation of human beings? Or is he trying to say something that eludes us because what Socrates means by knowledge is something entirely different from what most think of knowledge as? I tend to think that it is the latter rather than the former, and will argue that Socrates and Plato capture an interesting element of knowledge that tends to be missed when we think of knowledge in terms of intellectually being able to recall particular set of facts.

If I know that theft is wrong, but steal something, what is causing me to steal? One explanation is that my desire for the thing overpowered my knowledge that theft is wrong. But this leads to the question of what it means for desire to overpower knowledge. When I stole something did this occur as an automatic reflex that I was not cognitively aware of because my desire had overpowered my knowledge? That seems unlikely, and does not fit with our actual experience of doing something that we know is wrong. Instead the desire speaks and convinces that what we are doing makes sense in some way. When the desire speaks it might say even though theft is wrong I really need this thing and I can’t afford it at the moment. Thus, the opposition that is posed between desire and knowledge is not between a mere noncognitive state of wanting something, and knowledge of particular moral facts. Instead, despite its seeming childishness, a more appropriate image is of the angel and devil on the shoulders. Each of these figures holds different things to be true and desires those different things, but the beliefs and desires of the inherently oppositional figures are not compatible. So, we see that when we are considering what leads us to do something that we “know” is wrong it is not as if we react like automatons to some foreign desire, but rather that aspects of ourselves that say certain things about what is valuable convince us, albeit temporarily, to take action because in some sense that aspect of ourselves sees this as the best course of action possible at the time.

Now, what does the preceding discussion tell us about knowledge? It seems to me that it rejects the idea of knowledge as merely being able to recall certain facts and being convinced abstractly of the truth of particular propositions. Instead it seems to suggest to me that ethical knowledge, at the very least, is always already linked to character and valuation. This seems plausible in that what we believe in the ethical realm cannot be disconnected from the values and goods we are drawn to realize in the world. If I think that the pious life of the mind is and this is real knowledge for me than this is not just something that I believe and has no impact on my life; instead my actions will be linked with these beliefs. It is implausible to say that someone has ethical knowledge of the value of the life of the mind, if they do not find themselves called or drawn to pursue this life. This distinction between naturalistic fact and evaluative claims was not part of the lexicon of Socrates or any other Ancient Greek thinker, but it has significant weight for us, and thus I think we can recognize the truth of Socrates’ thought in the ethical realm, while finding it more implausible in the naturalistc realm.

But if our ethical knowledge is based on our fundamental commitments why do we do things that we know our wrong? In essence, the answer is that our selves, or souls, as Socrates would say are disordered, rather than properly ordered. We have deep commitments to many things that often come into conflict in life. I may really care about being healthy, but I also am drawn to the sensuous enjoyment of pizza. It is not as though I realize eating pizza is unhealthy and thus bad from the perspective of health, but am overpowered by my a noncognitive desire for pizza. Instead, the part of myself that is deeply enamoured with the sensuous momentarily takes the reins, to use a Platonic image, even though another part of myself is speaking against this action. In this sense there is not a single homogeneous self that has commitments, but rather different elements of myself have different commitments, and at times one element of the self will be stronger than another. In the classic Platonic understanding of the soul we have the appetitive part that desires sensuous pleasure, the spirited which desires honour and recognition, and the rational part of the soul which seems to desire knowledge.

At first the Platonic of moral agency may seem to say little about knowledge, as you can easily combine a moral psychology that combines a view of knowledge as naturalistic facts with the idea that in the ethical realm our selves are disordered and our desires come into a conflict with one another. However, while this explanation seems intuitive it really does not hold up. If I think it is bad to steal and this is part of my ethical knowledge, the “I” that knows this cannot disappear when another element of the self, or another “I” within me puts forward the claim that it is okay to steal as long as it from affluent people. If this was the case I would not really have ethical knowledge, instead a part of myself as a whole might have ethical knowledge that stealing is wrong, but taken in my entirety “I” do not have this knowledge, because the constituents of myself do not possess a harmonious ethical vision. But rather each constituent of myself represents a dissonant and oppositional claim of knowledge. If I actually had ethical knowledge than the entirety of myself would be acting and thinking in line with the same, as opposed to divergent ethical notions. Knowledge, on this interpretation of Plato is always already fused with practical activity, for to have ethical knowledge is to be able to act consistently according to a proper understanding of the good while recognizing why one is taking these actions. In this case, it is not that I have knowledge and then choose to apply it because I commit to being ethical, but that right action constitutes right knowledge and right reason.

I am not sure if I completely agree with this Platonic image, but is a powerful image and one that confronts us with a moral psychology that is very different from our own, and consequently something that we can learn from.

4 thoughts on “Socrates on Virtue and Knowledge

  1. I agree with much of what you say, though I’m not sure that right action constitutes right knowledge in Plato.

    To make sense of the bizarre proposition that we never knowingly do wrong, we might say, “Then the guy who steals doesn’t know what’s good for him. He doesn’t realize that stealing is not in his best interests. (This argument is at the heart of the Republic.) Therefore he does not knowingly do wrong.”

    This is a very simple explanation, but it makes sense. Taking as a given that we all want the good necessarily, as an end in itself, the fact that we don’t always DO the things that allow us to get what we want points to lack of knowledge. We don’t know what’s good for us. Very simple and clear.

    However, Plato brings in the tripartite soul, and then things get stickier.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that on your interpretation, the thief DOES have knowledge (in this instance, stealing is wrong) but he simply becomes overpowered by another desire. He lacks harmony. The rational part of him is trumped by the appetitive part, but the rational part is still there.

    But now Socrates’ statement doesn’t make sense unless we say that the self is not anyone or anything unless it’s harmonious. The thief doesn’t have knowledge because only a part of him, the rational part, has knowledge. Hm…that’s bizarre.

    The only way out is to say that the rational part of us may not be right. It must be possible for the rational part of us to be wrong, or even to be at odds with itself as well as with other parts of the soul. In this case, it’s possible to do wrong without knowing it. (After all, knowledge of the good is not something we all possess.)

    Also, there’s the whole matter of “right opinion” which allows us to do right without having knowledge of the good. It just so happens that our constitutions and inclinations fall in line with the universe, and we’re lucky and happy, but possess no knowledge. (This is exemplified by Cephalus in the Republic.)

    LOVE this topic! I love that you have friends who’ll read…RE-read!…the Platonic dialogues with you.

    • Thanks for reading, and glad you enjoy the entry and the topic. I am truly lucky to have friends who are as interested in philosophy as I am.

      The difficulty I find with the tripartite understanding of the soul is the question of what the rational part of the soul looks like. On a very Cartesian or Christian understanding, the rational part of the soul could be conceived as the willing I, or the ego in Freud. It mediates between different appetites and desires, but has freedom from those other parts of the soul such as thymos and the appetitive part of the soul. But this interpretation of the soul seems to be anachronistic in Plato, and speak to a continuous I that can disengage from the rest of the self. Many metaphors that Plato uses including the image of the chariot guided by a divine and earthly horse in the Phaedrus seem to suggest that the “I” or rational part of the self is far less independent of the rest of the soul than the Cartesian image would present.

      But if this image is a problematic interpretation of Plato, than what do we have in its place? My attempt in this blog was to elucidate an image that did not rely on viewing the rational part of the soul as merely a mediating agency, but having a substantive character of its own, although some of my metaphors undoubtedly fail in this regard. Implicit in my argument is that we can have knowledge in at least two senses. One sense is merely knowing a fact, but not having that fact as a core element of oneself, versus a sense in which a core aspect of one’s character involves having this knowledge. When we act wrongly despite knowing that we are doing is wrong, then clearly our knowledge is merely compartmentalized intellectualistic recognition, rather than something that is core to our being, as out intellectual knowledge is made subordinate to some other energy, or drive. This is the first sense of knowledge. For Plato, I think knowledge first with the second sense of knowledge and has to be more than this intellectualistic recognition, but something that is core to our being, that we understand and can provide an account of, as correct opinion too can be core to our being. If we can give an account of our knowledge than it will be far more stable and we will be apply and reintrepret in light of the concrete. Correct opinion on the other hand can fade, and can only be applied as a general to a particular, rather than in a reflexive way in which a particular allows to reinterpret the universal and re-understand it. Knowledge is thus more than knowing facts, but a certain state of being that allows us to only act rightly incidentally, but know how to act rightly whenever we are encountered with a unique situation.

      I am not sure if you disagree with me, but I thought I would elaborate.

      • I think you’re right for the most part. The only thing is that the rational part of the soul doesn’t necessarily have knowledge of the Good, so even if the soul on the whole is in accord, knowledge—or wisdom—may not be present. But you’re right in saying knowledge in Plato’s view isn’t separated from desire. Desire is the impetus that moves everything, including objects in the visible world and, of course, us.

        What is the rational part that Plato speaks of? I imagine it differs depending on your capabilities and where you are on the divided line, but I can’t see it on its own ethically. Plato acknowledged that some people are limited, and their best hope is to have inner harmony…right opinion. (Hence the necessity for “noble lies” and censorship in order to create myths that would appeal to such people and put them in the right state of mind.) Anywhere in the eikasia region (religion, picture-thinking) is probably not a bad place to be so long as your beliefs are correct, which depends a lot on the society you’re in…what you watch on TV, to put it anachronistically (although they won’t be anything more than beliefs. You won’t be able to defend them.) Anywhere in the pistis area will be problematic (Thrasymachus, for example). That’s where you don’t take anything as real unless it’s physically present or visible. In other words, justice as an ideal doesn’t really exist since it’s not exemplified anywhere in the visible world. Ethically, this would mean you’d be a relativist of sorts, perhaps holding the false belief (according to Plato) that might makes right.

        You’re right in saying correct opinion can fade, which is why Plato went to such lengths describing how culture ought to be shaped in order to preserve right opinion. It’s better, of course, to have wisdom, but he didn’t think everyone could have it.

        I hope that wasn’t off topic? 🙂

  2. That was not off topic at all and thanks for clarifying. 🙂

    I am in complete agreement with you, and was not trying to suggest that the rational part of the soul always had knowledge, but I did focus on harmony rather than the conditions of the rational part of the soul knowing anything at all, so I can see the gap that you were trying to fill.

    In essence, harmony is a necessary as opposed to a sufficient condition for knowledge in Plato, as a soul could be harmonious without possessing knowledge.

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