A Study on Plato's Theory of Happiness and Unhappiness

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A short essay I wrote about chapter 12 of Plato's The Republic.

Submitted: June 14, 2012

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Submitted: June 14, 2012

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In his book ‘The Republic’, Plato discusses three proofs, which contribute to true human happiness. The first proof discusses which of the five types of government is the most moral and happiest out of regal, timocratic, oligarchic, democratic and dictatorial. The second proof proceeds to the threefold division of the mind, and the corresponding types of people – philosophic, competitive and avaricious. His final proof looks at pleasure and pain, and how most people describe pleasure as an absence of pain and therefore reliant on pain.
 
The First Proof
Plato discusses with Glaucon as to how a dictator is both the most immoral and unhappiest person in the world. They talk of how if someone were to visit a dictatorship they would see that the people there would be the unhappiest people there can be and that under a kingship they would be the happiest people possible. Glaucon claims that a community under a dictator is under a most complete state of oppression, and that a minority are free and doing the oppressing. Plato then goes on to explain that, surely, a community under such a complete state of oppression must reflect the personality of the dictator. This means that the crazed and evil minority enslaves the truly good parts of the dictator’s mind. This means that a community under a dictator is hardly ever free to do as it wants and is constantly subject to the whims of the dictator. Necessarily, therefore, a dictator’s mind is constantly subject to the whims of lust and pride, making it inconsistent and fickle.
 
Surely then, a community under the control of such an inconsistent and fickle man must be much poorer than that which is led by a King? A man with such a mind would be in a perpetual state of poverty and need, with his community full of complaints and grievances much more than any other community. Plato, however, disagrees with Glaucon when he claims that a person with a dictatorial mind must be far unhappier than any other man is. Plato says that the unhappiest person must be a man with a dictatorial mind who is forced, by circumstance, to become an actual dictator. This means that the dictator is made to rule his community in a perpetual state of unhappiness and fear.
 
Plato makes the point that every man in their community owned many slaves, and had no reason to be afraid of their slaves because behind each man was the entire community. He goes on to describe what would happen if one man was plucked from his community, wife, children, slaves and all, and dropped in a place where there is no one from his community. He would be terrified of his slaves then, and be forced to rely on their goodwill to survive. This would be amplified if surrounding him were a community who thought that the idea of anyone owning anyone else was terrible and punishable by death. This is easily related to a dictator, for he may be greedy for new experiences but is the only one in his community who cannot travel and see something worthwhile. He is trapped in his house, resenting any of his fellows who go out to see something.
 
Plato says that a dictatorial person forced by some misfortune to take on the government of other people despite his inability to control even himself is comparable to someone ill with spastic paralysis being forced to compete in sports against athletes, or to fight in wars. A perfect analogy, in the opinion of Glaucon. Finally, Glaucon rates the five types of person in order of happiness: Regal, timocratic, oligarchic, democratic and dictatorial.
 
The Second Proof
Plato next claims that happiness is also dependent on the threefold division of the mind, and the corresponding types of person. The avaricious type of person desires drink and other things, he is driven by lust and greed, and inevitably his desires cost him and he becomes frugal and avaricious, and he describes happiness as having lots of money. The competitive person will accept knowledge, but only if it means he is better than other people are, he would describe the acquisition of money as vulgar, and he will describe happiness as winning honour in games. The philosopher, however, seeks only knowledge, and will describe pleasure as the acquisition of knowledge.
 
This leads to there being three types of pleasure, and if asked, each type of person would swear by their own way of life. With Glaucon Plato discusses how a philosopher must be the wisest, and happiest of these three types. From his earliest years onwards the philosopher has doubtlessly experienced the other two types of pleasure, and the fact that he has chosen to be a philosopher must mean that he has concluded that knowledge holds greater pleasure than the other two. There is no reason for an avaricious person to experience the sweetness of intellectual pleasure and it remains unfamiliar to him. It would be difficult for him to experience this type of pleasure anyway; so far removed it is from his own way of life. In addition, anyone can achieve respect; it is merely a matter of achieving one’s objective. All three types have therefore experienced respect, therefore, in terms of experience; it is the philosopher who is best able to make a decision about happiness.
 
Moreover, the resources needed to make a decision are available to the philosopher. Rational argumentation is necessary to make a decision, meaning that a philosopher likes and dislikes closest to the truth. If money and wealth were the best resources for making decisions then an avaricious person would be closest to perfection, and if it were prestige, success and courage then a competitive person would be best equipped to make a decision. Therefore, the best type of pleasure is that of the intellectual mind, second comes that of the competitive mind and lastly the avaricious.
 
The Third Proof
Pleasure is the opposite of pain, which would mean that if one was ill and they said that pleasure would be health, and then they would be correct. However, there is a state of mind in which there is neither pleasure nor pain. People will often say that the most pleasurable thing in the world is the absence of pain, but they would be wrong. That would bring about the conclusion that pleasure cannot be felt all the time and is therefore not pleasure, it is the intermediate state just mentioned. Therefore, it cannot be right to state that pleasure is the absence of pain; otherwise pleasure would simply be a state of inactivity in the mind. This suggests that these pleasures are merely pleasures reliant on the situation, making them false pleasures.
 
One example of true pleasure would be the enjoyment of smells. There is no preceding feeling of pain, and yet you can get immense pleasure at the scent, which does not leave you uncomfortable after it recedes. Plato gives the analogy of a man climbing upwards from the bottom of a cliff until he reaches the middle, then thinking that he had reached the top because of his ignorance of the true nature of top, middle and bottom. This would put people who have never experienced real truth to believe, rightly, that they experience pain but then to think that they are experiencing pleasure as they move away from pain to the intermediate state. They are being misled.
 
Glaucon describes that the more real something is, the more pleasure it gives. He then goes on to describe things like intelligence and truth, which never alter, as more real than things like bread, and other foods. Plato then agrees with him that things that tend to the body are less real than things that tend to the mind. Moreover, the same goes for the body to the mind. This means that ‘an object which is satisfied by more real things, and which is itself more real, is more really satisfied than an object which is satisfied by less real things, and which is itself less real.’ Therefore an object, which is more really satisfied, (that is by more real things) would be enabled to feel true pleasure whilst an object that comes by less real things would be less truly satisfied by less real things.
 
It then turns out that people to whom intelligence and goodness are unfamiliar spend their lives ‘moving aimlessly to and fro between the bottom and the halfway point, which is as far as they can reach... They are no different from cattle, they spend their lives grazing with eyes turned down and heads bowed towards the ground and their tables.’ Plato likens the search for illusory pleasure to the Trojans in Stesichorus’ story, when they fought over the mere apparition of Helen. ‘It follows, then, that when the whole mind accepts the leadership of the philosophical part, and there is no internal conflict, then each part can do its own job and be moral in everything it does and in particular can enjoy its own pleasures, and thus reap as much benefit and truth from pleasure as is possible for it. When one of the other two parts is in control, however, it not only fails to attain its own pleasure, but it also forces the other parts to go after unsuitable false pleasures.’ Plato reminds Glaucon of their previous discussion about how dictatorial desires are the furthest away from law and order and regal desires are the closest to them. He then goes on to calculate exactly how much happier a king is compared to a dictator. He declares that a king’s life is seven hundred and twenty nine times more pleasant than that of a dictator.
 
Conclusion
I find that Plato raises some interesting points about the connection between morality and happiness. He goes into detail about his points and takes care to argue each of them rationally and to be consistent with previous arguments. His claims about true and false pleasures are consistent with other philosophical beliefs, which mean that there must be some truth in them. However, when describing his first proof he focuses solely on dictatorship and although he mentions how a king must be happier than a dictator he does not go into detail about it, he is merely content that people will agree with his points. He also only uses his own points of view, which means automatically that all of his ideas are biased. Although his ideas are set out rationally, they can sometimes be difficult to understand. Plato’s description of the connection between the three parts of the brain and their corresponding personalities is logical, and he is very convincing when he explains that a philosopher is the most qualified to form an opinion, having both experience and rationality on their side. However, he did say that all three types of person would swear by their own way of life, and he is a philosopher. In addition, who is to say that a competitive person has not had experience of intellectual or avaricious pleasure? I do concede that he is correct when he writes that an avaricious is unlikely to experience intellectual pleasure, however. His opinions on true and false pleasures seem true to me, and I agree that pleasure is not dependent on pain, just as happiness is not dependent on unhappiness. Altogether, I believe that Plato makes good and reliable points on happiness and unhappiness, and good connections between pleasure, the mind and morality.
 


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