Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here )
On August 24th, 1999 I began a lecture course called “What Socrates Knew” with a lecture called “Thirty Socratic Theses.” What follows is a transcription of the second half of the lecture by V.S. The thirty theses are listed below, as are links to the audio of the lecture.
The “Thirty Socratic Theses” are:
- The primary philosophical question is: How should I live? What is the good life?
- All human action aims at happiness or well-being (eudaimonia).
- Well-being is not necessarily well-feeling, for well-being may require ill-feeling from time to time.
- Wisdom and luck are the two causes of well-being.
- Wisdom = the ability to make right use of all things.
- Wisdom is unconditionally and intrinsically good — all other things that contribute to the good life are merely conditionally and extrinsically good.
- Folly is the opposite of wisdom. It may not be unconditionally bad.
- Wisdom is not an art or technique. No technique is sufficient for the pursuit of happiness.
- Wisdom enlarges the realm of human power and efficacy, pushing back the frontiers of luck.
- All human beings intend the good; nobody intentionally does evil.
- Good action follows directly upon knowledge of the good.
- Evil action happens only out of ignorance of the good.
- Virtue is knowledge of the good; vice is ignorance of the good.
- The soul is susceptible of structural and dynamic analysis.
- The soul has parts (reason, spirit, desire) and these parts can function together in
harmony (spiritual health) and in disharmony (spiritual disease).
- The soul also has a dynamic power: eros. Eros is the soul’s longing for growth toward the good: for completion, self-actualization, and immortality. Eros is the desire for the good of the soul aroused by the beauty of the body.
- Each part of the soul has its appropriate erotic object–knowledge, ideals, the necessities of life.
- Wisdom produces the inner harmony of the parts of the soul and guides them to their completion.
- Philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom = the care of the soul.
- Happiness = the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the soul’s powers over time, just as physical health is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the body’s powers over time.
- Wisdom is itself a kind of inner harmony and completion of the soul.
- Wisdom both leads to happiness and is part of happiness itself.
- Happiness is unconditionally good as well.
- Once achieved, happiness as health of the soul, can never be corrupted by external actors; external forces can kill us, but only we can corrupt our souls.
- It is better to suffer injustice than to do it.
- True politics and true friendship aid the soul in its striving for happiness.
- False politics and false friendship (flattery) retard the soul’s striving for happiness.
- Freedom is doing what one really wants to do (pursuing happiness).
- Doing what one really wants to do is not necessarily the same as doing what one thinks one wants. (We can be ignorant of the good, mistaken about our interests.)
- One can be forced to be free.
* * *
Number twenty: “Happiness, or eudaimonia, well-being, is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the soul’s powers over time, just as physical health is the harmonious unfolding and actualization of the body’s powers over time.”
There is a dynamic conception of the soul here, just as there is of the body. It’s very much an organic conception, a biological conception. Biologists understand that organisms grow over time, and psychologists understand this as well. We go through certain developmental stages, and at each developmental stage there were certain goods that were appropriate and required so that we can get on to the next stage. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates all understand this as well, long before people like Abraham Maslow took these notions up. People like Maslow or Erik Erikson are resuscitating certain classical, eudaimonistic teachings that you would find in Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.
Number twenty-one: “Wisdom is itself a kind of inner harmony and completion of the soul.” So, wisdom isn’t just a tool that we use to pursue happiness. If it were, it would be only conditionally good, right? It would be good only on the condition that it’s conducive to happiness. But for Plato that’s not true. Wisdom is the only unconditionally good thing. But isn’t happiness unconditionally good? Yes, they’re both unconditionally good, but they’re the same thing ultimately for Plato. It’s kind of a strange part-whole relationship, because in a sense wisdom is going to be part of the proper ordering of the soul and part of it is self-actualization. But it’s the most important part. So, in a sense, it could be taken for the whole.
The analogy they use in the Republic is very useful. He says that just as reason imposes proper ordering of the soul, wisdom that resides in the rational faculty imposes the proper order on the rest of the soul and leads us to happiness, so in the city the ruling faction, the philosopher-king, imposes order on the rest of the city. Yet the philosopher-king is also part of that order. It is not extrinsic to the order that it creates. It’s both a stone in the arch, if you will, but also the thing that holds the whole arch together. It’s the keystone. So, it’s a part of happiness yet it’s the most important part, and, as it turns out, it’s almost the whole of happiness to be wise, such that given just the mere fact of biological existence, if you’ve got wisdom you’re pretty much assured of being happy on Plato’s account.
Twenty-three just says, “If happiness is the same as wisdom then happiness is unconditionally good, too.” They’re really the same thing in some way.
Number twenty-four: “Once achieved, happiness as health of soul can never be corrupted by external factors.” There’s a kind of inviolability of happiness or well-being for Plato. No external factor can make you unhappy once you’ve attained happiness as he understands it, which is the health of the soul. Now, external factors can annihilate you, they can kill you, but no external factor can induce disharmony into the soul, only you can. Only the individual can corrupt him or herself. So, there’s a kind of inviolability here of well-being, which is a really extraordinary claim.
But Socrates makes this claim in the Apology, he says, “Nothing you can do to me can make me a bad man. You can make me dead, but you can’t make me bad.” Since life at any price is not Socrates’ view but only the good, death is not such a terrible thing. He’s not willing to live under any condition anyway.
The Stoics take this notion very seriously. They made claims like, “The sage can be happy even on the rack.” That sounds a little bit extreme, but the fact of the matter is that they believed that if you achieved the maximum possible self-control and internal harmony that even being tormented could not break you or make you into a bad person. It can make you feel awful, and it’s certainly not the optimum form of existence, but it’s not the destruction of the soul. So, they would say Orwell is mistaken about how any human being can be broken and turned into a monster. Not a Stoic sage.
I’m reminded of a story, I think it’s of St. Barnabas, who was being barbecued by the Romans, and at a certain point he called out to his tormentors, “I’m done on this side, you can turn me over!”
Now, that’s a sign that a person, even in the midst of great pain, had still maintained a certain presence of mind and composure and could mock his enemies even in the midst of dying. They were killing him, but they weren’t making him a bad man, and that’s the important thing.
Number twenty-five. This sounds terribly namby-pamby, pacifistic, Quakerish, and so forth. “It’s better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Sounds like Gandhi. You know, a lot of people think this is silly, idealist nonsense. “It’s better to suffer injustice than to do it.” But Plato is absolutely serious about this.
Why is it better to suffer injustice than to do it? Because to suffer injustice is simply to be hurt physically, imprisoned, beaten, even tortured, and there are all kinds of hints about the trial in the Gorgias, and in a sense this is an apology or a defense of Socrates, too. It’s a defense of Socrates’ behavior and attitude at the trial. It gives the theoretical underpinnings for why Socrates was so unwilling to flatter his judges and tell them what they wanted to hear. And the reason is this: again, people can kill you unjustly, but they can’t make you into a bad human being. They can’t take your happiness away, though they can take everything else, if you understand happiness in this sense of the well-ordering of the soul.
However, to do injustice is to corrupt one’s self. To do injustice to Plato is to scramble up the proper ordering of the soul. It’s to make the soul ignorant of what is good. It’s to close the eyes of the mind. It’s to put one’s light under a bushel. It’s self-destructive and self-corruptive, and, therefore, does make you a bad person. So, for Plato, the people who do injustice suffer more from the injustice they do than their innocent victims, if you understand suffering in the most proper sense as internal suffering of the soul, which for Plato is ultimately the most important kind of suffering.
Number twenty-six: “True politics and true friendship aid the soul in its striving for happiness.” Many people think that having a friend is simply having a person who makes you feel good about yourself. Well, that’s not necessarily the case, because sometimes feeling good about yourself actually encourages you to remain in a state that’s less than a state of well-being. By the same token, politicians go out and say to the voters, “You’re so wise. Everything you do is wonderful, and I’m so proud to be your lackey.” No one’s ever said precisely that, but they’re schooled to say it in more subtle ways. Politicians who act that way, of course, are rewarded by election, whereas if a politician were to go out before the voters and say, “You know, you people are a mess. You’re so complacent, you’re so smug, you’re so full of yourselves, and yet you’re not happy. And why is that? Well, because you’re leading lives that are sub-optimal.” No one’s going to want to hear that! No one’s going to elect a person who’s a scold. And yet, for Socrates the definition of a true politician, a true statesman is a scold, a moralistic scold, a sort of Dr. Laura type.
For Plato, a true politician is a person who’s constantly exhorting human beings to virtue and that means making them feel bad about themselves oftentimes when they’re not virtuous or not pursuing virtue in the most earnest sort of way, and a true friend is a person who exhorts you to virtue, which is happiness in his view, ultimately. Oftentimes, you get sick of your own conscience, and it sure is galling when somebody else appoints himself your conscience in another body.
Somebody once made a crack, years and years ago, about Jesse Jackson. Something like, “Being somebody else’s conscience isn’t the same as having one of your own.”
Nobody likes a person who appoints himself your conscience and is scolding you and saying, “You ought to be better! You ought to be better!” Yet Socrates says this is what a true friend is, a person who is constantly helping you move forward towards the harmonious unfolding of your powers, which is what happiness really is.
Now, why do we need that, and why doesn’t it just happen by nature? If we have this natural, dynamic thrust towards self-actualization, why can’t we all just leave one another alone and just let things work themselves out. That’s a good question. Well, the answer is this: moving forward into something unknown is always scary, whereas staying with things that are familiar is fairly comfortable. Even when the things that are familiar are uncomfortable might consist of states of immaturity, bad habits, follies, vices. Vice that you are comfortable with is far better than a virtue that you’ve never really known. It’s far easier to accept. Life, if you understand it as a dynamic process of transformation, is going to be constantly fraught with fears and anxieties about the future, and, in a sense, there’s always going to be a little bit of dying that goes on. The day-to-day self is constantly dying and being sloughed off like dead snake skin, so that the self that’s trying to be born can come into the world. And, of course, birth pangs are often very painful.
Given certain incentives, people will tend to remain stagnated, spiritually speaking, because they can be comfortable like this. They won’t be entirely happy in that state, and you really start finding strange behavior patterns that indicate that this erotic energy that moves us forward to self-actualization is being bottled up and is not being properly expelled or properly channeled. You start finding, well, Freud would say, neurotic symptoms, repetition compulsions, strange angers, things like that. Interpersonal breakdowns are often caused by the striving of eros for self-actualization being bottled up and spending itself in self-destructive and other-destructive ways rather than allowing to carry the soul forward to its actualization.
So, people will though put up with a lot of internal unhappiness for fear of making the changes that they feel are necessary. And if you don’t know what changes are necessary then, of course, it’s even harder.
Most traditional societies have at their root a kind of dynamic understanding of the self and its unfolding over time, and this is why the various stages of life are marked with very solemn ceremonies and initiations and practices that help people get over the humps and go on to the next stage. They recognize that if you’re left alone to find your way, oftentimes you won’t know what is next, and you won’t have the courage to do it on your own. You need everybody there with you. So, Plato has a very traditional, pre-modern notion of politics as communally working together for self-actualization.
The purpose of the city, Aristotle says in his Politics, is the good life. Not mere life, but the good life. And there are certain social orders that are not conducive to the good life. Aristotle argues that living in a small village or on a farm is not conducive to human excellence. You have to live in a city. Of course, by city he didn’t mean anything on the scale of Atlanta.
Too small is bad, but too big can be bad, too, not conducive to the good life. But why do you need a certain number of people? Well, because, for instance, large amounts of people make possible the division of labor, the cultivation of the arts, and so forth, but also it’s a communal activity to strive for excellence, and you don’t do it well on your own. A large enough society can develop highly refined institutions and practices to help a person grow and transform him or herself over time. Smaller societies, hunter-gatherer groups and things like that, don’t have the population to sustain a very refined culture for the purpose of self-cultivation.
Number twenty-seven: “False politics, false friendship, flattery retard the soul’s striving for happiness.” False politics. What is false politics? Well, the key is the term flattery. Plato recognizes that, again, it’s very easy for people to become stagnated at a certain level of immaturity. This is abetted by people who encourage people who are immature that they are okay, that they’re great.
So, what would be an example of false politics? Well, in our society today, the cult of youth, the wisdom of youth. That’s an example of false politics. We’re always told to look to the young. They’re our conscience. They’re our guide. This was especially big in the ’60s, right? Trends are set by the young, and people ape the trends of the young, and there’s a sense that middle-aged people, older people, they’re made to feel out-of-date, old fogeys, and so forth, and what’s even worse is when they start acting like the youth, which is always very embarrassing. But there is a sense that the young are where it’s at. They’re the ones who’ve got life in order. And as you get older, well, that’s just sort of a tragic, you’re going to seed.
Whereas for someone like Plato, the wisdom of age makes a lot more sense Of course, there are old fools, right? But the idea is that if you live a long enough time, chances are that you’re going to be relatively wiser than somebody who’s very young. It’s just the way it tends to be. There are prodigies amongst the youth and old fools as well, but by and large age brings a certain wisdom and ripeness to a person, whereas youth doesn’t have that.
Yet we have a society that is organized around imitating and flattering the young and the desire to be young, and Plato would look upon that very dimly as a sign of bad or false politics, because the young are relatively undeveloped. If you think that being young is the end-all and be-all, that means that being eternally adolescent is the ideal for society, and there are many people who are eternal adolescents.
James Hillman has written a wonderful book called Puer Aeternus, the eternal youth, and it’s filled with very observant and acerbic comments about the permanently adolescent in our culture. I know a guy who is now 60, and basically he’s just like he was when he was 17. Falling in and out of love all the time, he’s constantly listening to new music . . .
The flattering of youth is an example of false politics, because it treats a relatively immature state as somehow normative and encourages people to stay in that state as long as possible, psychologically speaking. I’m constantly amused by all these commercials that begin with a comment like this: “Bad credit? No credit? No problem!” You know, somebody’s made some bad credit mistakes and bad spending mistakes. Well, in the past that would harm you, but now there are people who are going to cater to that population. Maybe these people will never have to change their spending patterns. They’ll pay through the nose in terms of interest, but they’re not going to have to change, right? You’re not going to have to get your credit in order any more to get a loan. So, there are certain patterns that are now being catered to that maybe people ought to want to get over.
Commercial society in general is a society of flattery, and what flattery is directed towards is, in the terms of the economists, “given preferences.” That’s what we start out with, certain preferences are just given in the consumer, and that’s the bottom line. That’s sacred. The consumer goes out to satisfy his given preferences. The merchant, if he wants to make money, caters to them. And the question is never raised, “Wait a second. Are these given preferences the preferences that ought to be given?” Because there’s always going to be somebody who satisfies the given preferences of somebody who’s 17, there will be more and more people who are 17 when they are 27 and 37 and 47 and 57. Whereas the institutions that exist in more traditional societies to challenge them and encourage a person to go along the stages of life and become more mature and deepen, are being gradually eroded and colonized by the consumer model of interaction.
Plato saw this, and in the Republic there’s a description of democracy that’s astonishingly prophetic and sounds just like our modern society, where there is a tendency for people to live lives of eternal immaturity and adolescence, because everybody caters to this in the marketplace and more traditional institutions that encourage people to overcome that have been replaced by market type arrangements and relationships.
For Plato, that is the paradigm of false politics. False politics is a youth-oriented, folly-oriented, market-oriented, flattery-oriented kind of society, a commercial society.
False friends are just the people who make you feel good about yourself even if you might not ought to feel good about certain characteristics.
Now, number twenty-eight: “Freedom is doing what one really wants to do.” Well, no one would argue with that, right? To be free is to do what you really want to do. “What do you really want to do?” Plato says: “Pursue happiness.” But then the hook comes in the next thesis.
“Doing what one really wants to do is not necessarily the same as doing what one thinks one wants to do.” The choices that one may make on a day-to-day basis and the things that one does on a day-to-day basis are not necessarily the things that you really want to do, which is a very strange and paradoxical claim.
He’s saying that if you’re allowed to make any choice and act on any choice that you have, actually you might not be free. You might not be free if you make all kinds of choices to do things and never choose to do what you really want to do, which is to pursue your happiness.
Now, what concretely does that mean? A person isn’t free, for instance, if he’s allowed to let himself get addicted to crack. Why? Because what we really want is to pursue happiness, and crack isn’t happiness. It’s a mistaken view of happiness. Being a drugged-out person is not happiness, and if you’re free to be that drugged-out person then you’re not free to do what you really want to do. So, in a sense, being a drug addict is a kind of slavery. If you’re free to be in that kind of servitude or slavery that’s not a very optimal state to be in.
So, the bottom line — and this is the last thesis, and this is Rousseau’s language, but it all comes from Plato’s Gorgias – “You can be forced to be free.” What does that mean? This is the thesis of paternalism. You can be forced by the state to be free, namely to do the things you really want to do, namely to be happy. How? By being prevented from doing certain things that you think you want to do that won’t eventually lead to happiness. So, there’s a strong kind of paternalism that’s built into these Platonic theses. It poses a choice to societies about the nature of freedom.
A society can pursue freedom in the libertarian sense. We can make it possible for people to choose to do virtually anything, and to act on those choices. That would include legalizing drugs, legalizing prostitution, legalizing all consensual activity. So, if it’s between two consenting adults, it’s okay.
The other conception of freedom is a society that maximizes the likelihood that people will do what they really want to do, which is to become happy, to become self-actualized.
Plato’s argument, the Socratic argument, is that a society that maximizes your ability to choose anything undermines your capacity to do what you really want to do, namely to actualize yourself, whereas a society that restricts your capacity to choose certain dead-ends in life is a society that actually makes your freer in the sense of making it more likely and more possible for you to do what you really want, as opposed to the things you mistakenly think you want. So, there’s a strong argument for paternalism here, which is the political hook.
I’ve given you pretty much the whole outline of the Socratic-Platonic philosophy here. It’s entirely moral and practical and political. There’s no thesis here about eternal forms or ideas existing in another realm or the immortality of the soul and so forth.
There are two reasons for this. One is that I just can’t go into all of these in this class. The other thing is this: Plato shows Socrates claiming to know all of these things in one way or another. These are the things that Socrates claims he knows. Socrates does not claim to know that the soul is immortal. He does not claim to know that there is a realm of eternal, permanent forms or ideas that exist.
What does he say? He says something short of that he knows. He says that these are likely stories, that they explain certain things, they help us make sense out of certain things that we do know, but they’re not knowledge in the strict sense. But there are certain things that he claims to know, and these are the things that have everything to do with what’s closest to us and most accessible, which is the human self and the human soul in this life and its trials and tribulations and its search for self-actualization. We know this very well, because it’s the closest thing to us. The things that are farther away, the soul beyond the veil of death, we don’t know. We can’t know anything about that. We have no experience of it. We don’t know anything about the underworld and the afterlife. We can have likely stories and myths about these things, and these myths can contribute to our this-worldly care of the soul. So, there’s some basis for speculating about these sorts of things, but these speculations are assimilated by Plato to the category of myth or narrative. They’re likely stories, and the word for story in Greek is mythos. The sequel to this class, I’ll just let you know, is called “The Myths of Plato.” What Socrates knew has everything to do with his concrete, this-worldly, moral philosophy. The myths of Plato have everything to do with telling likely stories about the things that we can’t really know but we have to have some kind of account of if we’re going to do all we can to take care of our soul in this world.
As it turns out, it makes enormous differences to how we lead our life in this world whether or not we believe the soul is mortal or immortal or whether or not we believe there’s a god or providence or the world is just random collisions of matter. These beliefs make a huge difference as to how we lead our life in this world, and, therefore, on the basis of the effects these beliefs have, we have some license for speculating about them, but we don’t really know. There’s always a kind of riskiness, a kind of imaginative and poetic quality to these beliefs that we have to just come to grips with. But the soul and its care in this world is what Socrates knows, and we have to start out with what he knows.
The core of Platonic philosophy is, if you will, a kind of psychology. It’s a doctrine of the nature of the soul, its dynamics, its struggles, and how to take care of it both as an individual and as a person in a community, as a moral agent and as a citizen. So, that’s what we’re going to focus on in the course.
Now, let’s turn to several passages in Plato’s Euthydemus. Socrates is talking in the Euthydemus to a young man named Clinias. Clinias is very cute and young and stupid. He’s very naïve, and the challenge has been put to Socrates by two sophists named Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, which means “Gift of Dionysus,” to convince Clinias that he should pursue the life of philosophy, because if you can convince Clinias, who’s sort of a dumb jock, you can convince anybody! So, this is how Socrates convinces Clinias to pursue the life of philosophy.
Socrates asks, “Do all men wish to do well?” This is his thesis that he believes that all men pursue the good.
“Or is this question one of the ridiculous ones I was afraid of just now? I suppose it is stupid even to raise such a question, since there could hardly be a man who would not wish to do well.”
“No, there’s no such person,” said Clinias, “We all wish to do well.”
“‘Well then,” said Socrates, “the next question is, since we all wish to do well, how are we to do so? Would it be through having many good things? Or is this question even more simple-minded than the other since this must obviously be the case, too?’”
Clinias agreed. We want to do well through having good things. Equipment. Stuff. Toys.
“Well then,” continued Socrates, “what kind of existing things are good for us? Or perhaps this isn’t a very difficult question, and we don’t need an important personage to supply the answer, because everyone would tell us that to be rich is a good. Isn’t that so?”
“Very much so,” Clinias said.
“And so with being healthy and handsome and having a sufficient supply of the other things the body needs.”
“Again, it is clear that noble birth and power and honor in one’s country are goods.”
“Then which goods do we have left,” Socrates said. “What about being self-controlled and just and brave?” These are virtues, right? “For heaven’s sake, tell me, Clinias, whether you think we’ll be putting these into the right place if we class them as goods or if we refuse to do so. Perhaps someone might quarrel with us on this point. How does it seem to you?”
“They are goods,” said Clinias.
“‘Very well,” said Socrates. “And where in the company shall we station wisdom? Among the goods? Or what shall we do with it?’”
“Among the goods.” Wisdom is just another good thing that we want to have.
Now, this isn’t Plato’s view. Plato thinks that wisdom is not just a good. It’s that thing that stands above all the goods and actually makes them good by directing them well, directing them to good ends. He’s dealing in terms of commonly accepted opinions that wealth is good, and health is good, and fame is good, and wisdom is just another good thing too.
Clinias is very wrong, and Socrates poses questions here, and Clinias is constantly answering the questions wrong. Socrates just lets him go on, and he draws him to the conclusion he wants to anyway.
Socrates continues: “Now, be sure we do not leave out any goods worth mentioning.”
“I don’t think we’re leaving out any,” said Clinias.
Socrates goes on: “But I remembered one and said, ‘Good heavens, Clinias, we are in danger of leaving out the greatest good of all!’”
“Which one is that?” he said.
“Good fortune! Luck, Clinias! Which everyone, even quite useless people, says is the greatest of goods.”
Why is it the greatest of goods? Well, because you need good fortune in order to actualize all of these goods and make them work for you. So, this is exactly the role for Plato of wisdom. Wisdom is the thing that makes all these putative goods actually good. Clinias thinks it’s good luck. Socrates is sort of leading him down this primrose path.
Then at the bottom though we find that wisdom appears.
“Wisdom is surely good fortune,” I said. “This is something even a child would now.” He was amazed. He was still so young and simple-minded. I noticed his surprise and said, “You know, don’t you, Clinias, that flute players have the best luck when it comes to success in flute music? And writing masters at reading and writing?”
“What about the perils of the sea? Surely you don’t think that as a general rule any pilots have better luck than the wise ones?”
“And again, if you were on a campaign, with which general would you prefer to share both the danger and the luck? A wise one or an ignorant one?” The point is that wise people make their own luck. So, they don’t depend on luck as an external factor, but they make it. Wisdom makes good fortune for you, which is another way of saying actually that wisdom isn’t a way of depending on good fortune. It’s a way of making your own destiny, taking control over it.
Socrates says, “So, wisdom makes men fortunate in every case, since I don’t suppose you would ever make any sort of mistake but must necessarily do right and be lucky. Otherwise, you would no longer need wisdom.”
So, wisdom is necessarily something that does right. It’s intrinsically good. That’s the sense here. You can always say, “Yes, I know how to play the piano, but how do I use this skill wisely.” It always makes sense to say that, but it never makes sense to say, “I’m wise. Now, how do I use this wisely?” The application question doesn’t apply with wisdom, because wisdom is the kind of thing that closes off the whole application problem. Wisdom applies itself and everything else well. That’s the sense.
Now, I’ll just try to condense Socrates’ argument here. Socrates says, “‘So, it seems,’ I said, ‘that the man who means to be happy must not only have such goods but must use them to or else there’s no advantage in having it.’” You might have lots of money, but if you can’t use it it’s not going to make you happy, right? So, it’s not having good things. It’s using good things that’s necessary for happiness. That’s clear.
Socrates continues, “Are these two things, the possession of good things and the use of them, enough to make a man happy?” Is having and using things enough to make a man happy? “‘They seem so to me, at any rate. If,’ I said, ‘he uses them rightly or if he does not?’”
“If he uses them rightly,” said Clinias.
“‘Well spoken,” Socrates said. “Now, I suppose there is more harm done if someone uses things wrongly than if he lets it alone. In the first instance there is evil, but in the second neither evil nor good. Or isn’t this what we maintain?’”
The point is that if a person has a lot of money and uses it badly he would have been better off not having any money at all. Because if he had no money at all, there would be no good or evil, but if he had money and used it badly there’s a real negative that’s been created.
So, some people, sadly enough, are better off poor if they’re too foolish to use money wisely. There’s some truth to this. A friend of mine has a father who’s been an alcoholic all his adult life, and he’s always broke, and the fact is that one time she loaned him $1,500, and he ended up in the hospital. Why? Because he had enough money to drink himself almost to the point of death, which means he’s better off having no money than having enough money to kill himself with. The sad thing about many homeless people is that if you gave them each $1,000, a significant number of them would be dead within 24 hours because a lot of them have drug and alcohol problems and would medicate themselves to oblivion if they had the funds. It’s a very sad thing.
So, Socrates is saying if you’re foolish, you’re better off having no resources than resources you can misuse, and there’s a certain truth to that. If you’re a fool, you’re better off not having atomic weapons than having them. That would be an even better example.
He goes on. The point is clear at this point. The issue is this: the good life requires certain things, but it doesn’t require just having certain things. It requires using them. And it doesn’t require just using them, but it requires using them rightly. In fact, if you don’t use them rightly, you’re better off not having them to begin with, and so the necessary condition for the good life is the right use of all things, the right use of anything that you have.
This is an extremely empowering and encouraging kind of teaching, because wisdom is a great equalizer of fortune. You come into the world. You didn’t ask to be born as the person you were born as. There’s a sort of lottery, and some of us luck out, and some of us don’t. Some of us luck out in the genetic lottery, and some of us don’t. Some of us luck out in the social lottery. We end up with good families and good communities and good schools, and others end up in bad ones. Fate is very unequal in distributing the equipment of life and characteristics that we might have.
However, if fate were all there were to it, if having this equipment were all there is to having a good life, then we would be in sad shape. But there’s more to it than just fate, because it’s not just having goods but using them that leads to happiness, which means that those who have relatively few advantages can equalize their condition and make it more likely for them to be happy if they use those meager advantages well. Whereas those who have all kinds of advantages dealt to them, if they use them foolishly, are actually worse off than people who have no advantages at all, because the more power you have, the more wealth, the more fame you have, the more potential you have to destroy yourself if you misuse them.
So, wisdom is a great equalizing force, and if you begin to see things through the Platonic lens, you realize, for instance, that there could be people sleeping under bridges and pushing around little shopping carts who are better off than the people who are at the top of the social hierarchy. Why? Because if these people play the meager hands that are dealt them well, they’re not in any way inferior in happiness to someone like Socrates, who for that matter, would have pretty much looked like the people who are pushing shopping carts around. He was sort of unkempt and walked around barefoot and had a ragged cloak and things like that. You probably would have moved if he came into the room and sat down next to you. He was a sort of unsavory looking character. But the fact is that the inner man was in a state of superlative health, and that was what mattered most.
But, by the same token, Alcibiades was a person dealt all of the advantages of life. He was fabulously handsome and wealthy, brought up by the most powerful family of Athens, the family of Pericles, who was the dictator of the city for many years. Yet he was an absolute scoundrel. He was a monster, and he died a violent death. Why? Because he had all of these advantages, none of which Socrates had, but he misused them terribly. One of the interesting things about history is that Socrates and Alcibiades were so closely associated with one another, because they really mark out two extremes: the person who was dealt a very poor hand in life, who lived very well, and the person who was enormously advantaged and lived very badly, and the two of them had this very long and strange attraction to one another.