Victor Nuovo: Plato grapples to define good and evil
Editor’s note: This is the 16th and last in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Plato’s difficulty with good and evil is this. If, as he supposed, the Good itself is the source of the very being of things, then how does one explain the presence of things that are evil, bad, etc.? His official answer is that these are mere deficiencies, and therefore they can’t really be said to be. Plato was dissatisfied with this answer. He supposed that intelligence and rational discourse on any subject depends upon the clarity of one’s ideas, and that clarity depends in turn on ideas existing separate and above the minds that think them.
But he was troubled when he imagined where it led: to the admission of real ideas of “hair, dirt, mud” and all sorts of things vile, disgusting, rank, gross and contemptible. In a later dialogue, the Parmenides, he portrays an embarrassed Socrates forced into this corner. Socrates exclaims that such base ideas are not possible or even thinkable, yet, in extremis, he allows that they are appearances, or becomings, but not beings. He does not explain where appearances or becomings come from. Whence comes evil?
Plato’s successors attempted an answer. Evil, along with change, multiplicity and materiality, are deprivations, descending outflows from the primal good, whose potency decreases as it descends until it bottoms in gross matter, which is inert and uncreative. But, in reality, this is not the way things are.
The task of the naturalist is different. What is needed is an explanation of how order, intelligence, language, creativity and free agency evolve out of the random operations of particles of matter that have neither value nor purpose. If natural things are the products of the random play of atoms, how is it that they become well-formed living bodies, that they endure and reproduce things like themselves? And how is it that along with reproduction emerge nurturing and mother love, altruism, generosity, resolution, and loyalty? And whence come civil society and all that it engenders and promotes, some good, some bad: fine art, kitsch, morality, crime, beauty, ugliness, right and wrong, kindness, cruelty, just and unjust?
Darwin blazed the trail that we must follow for answers to these questions. Trial and error, success and failure, desire and aversion, fear and assurance come into play in any attempt to explain the rise of sentiments of good and bad among sentient beings like us.
Plato thought, rightly I think, that civil society is the product of human needs. No naturalist would disagree. There are, to be sure, some of us, who prefer to live off the land, a simple, quiet self-sufficient life, far from the maddening crowd and the noise of civilization, free of the temptation of the luxuries generated by urban living. But most of us desire more, and if it were not so, there would be no cities, towns or even villages. And it is through living in these settlements that values are invented and named, schools are founded to teach them, artisans and poets to facilitate and celebrate them, governments and other agencies to promote and enforce them.
Plato, when representing these themes in his dialogues, relied on the character of Protagoras as his antagonist. He describes him variously as a philosopher or a sophist; that is, ambiguously. Protagoras was from Abdera, a countryman of Democritus. There is a tradition that Protagoras studied under Democritus, although that seems unlikely for he was his senior by 20 years. Yet there are striking coincidences in their thought, especially pertaining to human experience, cognition and value, and Protagoras seems to take for granted Democritus’ naturalism, and Democritus, like him, believed that all qualities of things and values are human conventions.
Protagoras’ specialty was “political science,” or “political virtue”; the terms were synonymous to him. His works are lost, and we have only quotations and summaries of them in other surviving works, fragments and testimonies. One of these works was entitled “On Truth,” whose opening sentence is well known. “Mankind is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.”
There are conflicting interpretations of this, but general agreement in this respect, that truth and value are products of human convention, and are often revised, refined or corrupted; they have a social milieu, and in that framework they are applied, clarified and some achieve a universal consensus. They are products of experience and reason, where the latter is not a higher capacity, but just a capacity to reflect and interpret the common experiences of everyday life, needs that arise, crises that erupt, and to discover or invent means to meet or remedy them. The human project involves superimposing on an indifferent nature, human values and institutions for our benefit and flourishing, and it is in this moment of the evolution of life, that good and evil arise.
Naturalism does not demean values. Take Plato’s idea of justice. Justice is civic excellence. It is a harmony of operating parts or working people who cooperate for the benefit of the whole, each with a special excellence: wisdom in governing, courage in protecting, and temperance in meeting needs. All participate so far as they are able and each participant respects all others. Any who are unable to participate are humanely cared for. Justice is an idea that has pragmatic truth, which is to say it can be put to work. But if vain ambition, greed, cowardice, envy, insolence, and aggression take the place of wisdom, courage and temperance, then injustice, violence and disorder result. We require no transcendent wisdom to learn about this, just experience.
There is another reason in favor of taking a natural standpoint. We have always to consider our place in nature, lest the vain belief that we are special mislead us. We are not nature’s crown, nor its master, but just one of its evolving species. Our distinction is that we are probably the most invasive species that has ever dwelt on earth. Therefore, we should not cast ourselves as saviors or stewards of earth, but its despoiler.
Also, we do cruel harm to each other. We invented war, imperial expansion, slavery, genocide, terrorism and much more. We need not search the bowels of hell to find evil; we are effective producers of it. The earth, as it runs its finite course, will take care of itself, and maybe of us too, if we are not careful. Our present duty is to mitigate and minimize the harm we cause to ourselves and many other species of life. And this involves not just reducing carbon emissions and practicing greater efficiency, but ending poverty and war, demilitarizing the earth, and establishing universal justice.
Thomas Hobbes was right, the first law of nature and founding rule of government is to make peace and keep it; only then can the kinder and gentler virtues of humanity flourish. This makes good sense, which is all the verification we need.