Plato’s argument for the benefits of a just life is intrinsically linked to his
definition of good and its relation to people’s desires. He begins by showing
that when the objective of a desire is simple (e.g. quenching a thirst), the
desire must be correspondingly simple. Since thirst is a simple desire, the
man’s objective must also be simplistic and should we assign an adjective to his
objective, we would falsely complicate it. In addition, Plato believes that we
would be seriously erring if we assign a value of good to an desire.
In common use, the adjective good would denote something that is good in
relation to others of its kind. We consider a drink good if it contains
characteristics that we look for in a drink (e.g. pleasantness or taste). Plato
takes this a step further and states that something that is good must not only
be good in relation to others but it must be wholly good. Thus a drink cannot
be truly good if evil results from it. This poses an interesting question for
Plato’s readers namely, since no one wants bad things to happen to them, why do
people engage in self-destructive activities? The answer lies in the fact that
the only reason that we desire to drink is that we anticipate the result of our
thirst being quenched. Our appetites see no further consequences than the
immediate fulfillment of our desires; they do not contemplate the results of the
actions we take to fulfill our desires.
For this reason, Plato believes that we must separate the soul based on how it
reacts to desires. There must be a part of the soul, Plato reasons, that
contemplates the end result of our actions and makes decisions based on a higher
reasoning than desire. So we see two distinct parts of the soul. The first is
said to be appetite (which desires without reason) and reason (which considers
the consequences). Reason may thus work against anything that is not for the
total good of the man. Plato holds that if the desire were truly for a good
drink, reason would never oppose it. Our usage of the word good, however, has
come to denote an expectation of usefulness to our purpose; although this may be
relative to the end result that we experience from the object. For example, we
call a knife good because it is sharp and cuts well but if the end result is
that we cut ourselves, we would say that the knife would have been better if it
were not so sharp. We need to consider everything that is relevant to the
action or object and determine its possible consequences before we denote it as
Once we have done this, and assigned a value to each object or action, then
Plato believes that we can say that “everyone wants the things that really are
good” even if the person does not realize the true nature of what is good (505d).
This Plato calls what we want’ and it does not necessarily coincide with what
we think is good. In light of this difference, Plato says that a tyrannical
soul will be least likely to do what it wants’ (577d). Can we then say of
Leontius (439e) that he perceived himself as doing something good or forwarding
his happiness? Plato more represents him as a man overpowered by a tyrannical
desire, led to do something that he both disapproves of and is contrary to his
interests. According to Plato, if Leontius were freed of his desires, he would
wish (as the tyrannical man would) that he was acting otherwise.
Plato states his views on this overpowering desire. by referring to the division
of the soul. All desires (whether a product of the appetitive, or the desire
for honor which stems from the spirit, or the desire for knowledge which comes
from reason) are for particular goals or objectives (e.g. drink, honor and
knowledge) (580d). These objectives may be either good or bad for it is not as
good that we desire them. Rather we desire them as drink, honor and knowledge.
This forms the base for Plato’s argument that the unregulated life is
unprofitable because one may be led to believe that an object is good by the
force of the desire for it. But Plato says that if we are able regulate
ourselves, we will desire what is truly good. The objective of our desire (that
which is good) is not a simple one, however, nor could it be treated like other
objectives such as drink, honor or knowledge.
We can see from Book IV, that since the objective is complex, the accompanying
desire must be correspondingly complex. Therefore, we are unable to desire the
good in the base way that we desire sustenance, prestige or even philosophical
enlightenment. What this meant for Plato was that the origin of desire for the
good cannot be the same as the origin of desire for simple objectives. Rather,
desire for the good finds its roots in a cooperation between the parts of the
soul. Thus even the desire for knowledge (associated with reason) does not come
from the desire for knowledge as good, for neither the appetitive nor the spirit
desires knowledge, but for knowledge itself much as thirst produces a desire for
drink itself rather than a good drink. In addition, this cooperation cannot be
merely a base desire which fulfills the other base desires of the parts of the
soul. Instead, it searches for a type of objective which precedes any other one
goal. We seek the good out by choosing between multiple possibilities and
selecting the one closest to the type we seek. These choices are not objectives
in and of themselves but work together to form the end result of a good life.
But how we determine the end result of our choices and choose between our
alternatives is determined by the kind of life we lead. In Book VIII, Plato
provides us with an overview of four types of lives that people can lead. Plato
also ranks the types of lives in descending order as to which is the most just
(or will lead to a good life).
The democratic’ must come low on the scale because he does not select out his
desires. Rather he allows that all pleasures are equal and must be valued
equally’ (561c). Thus by being indiscriminate in his desires, he will act
differently on different occasions and appear to endorse contrary principles.
Plato holds, however, that rather than being principles, these are merely
momentary enthusiasms. His soul shows no restraint or control and no structure
or purpose to his actions.
Above the democratic man are the oligarch and the timocrat. These types of men
lead structured lives, both work towards a unified, selective goal: the oligarch
for possessions, the timocrat for prestige. Plato ranks the timocrat above the
oligarch because presumably the spirit that governs the timocrat is closer to
reason than is the appetite (the mainspring of the desire for acquisitions)
which governs the oligarch.
Finally, at the top, comes the aristocratic or just life. Plato place the
aristocratic life a the top because it is not dominated by the strength of any
one particular desire that we accept as blatantly good. Rather it satisfies the
capacities for all desires and in so doing achieves the best possible situation
for the person as a whole. This means that none of the three parts of the soul
dominates the individual. Not even the intellectual. For should a man merely
followed the strongest urge and ignored the balance, he would not be able to
call his life the best. At most, his life would be a kind of psychological
tyranny in which his every action would be dominated by an isolated passion.
This is in fact the worst condition and the one that Plato places at the very
bottom. Looking back toward the top, we can see that aristocracy is the extreme
opposite of this condition. It is defined simply as freedom of choice. The
aristocrat is free to choose the direction of his life, the oligarch did not
choose possessions as his objective, rather it was imposed upon him by his
Since we have already established that everyone if given the freedom and
knowledge to choose wisely, will choose what is truly good for the person as a
whole, we can now proceed to analyze which of the five types of souls is in the
best position to choose correctly. We have said that the democrat shows no
direction to his life. His decisions are not based on reason but on momentary
enthusiasms. Thus he can not be trusted to make a wise decision. We have said
that the timocrat, the oligarch, and the tyrant are all dominated by singular
passions which control every judgement. Thus they will make their decisions
based on reason but their reason will show favoritism towards the part of the
soul which dominates them. Thus they also can not be trusted to make a decision
that is in the best possible interest of the whole person.
This leaves the aristocrat who leads a just life with each part of his soul
performing the function that is was fit to perform. “He regulates well what is
really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend,
and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical
scalehigh, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there
may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one,
moderate and harmonious” (443d). Since the aristocrat regulates the three parts
of the soul, keeps them in order, unites them, and has experienced the pleasures
of each, he is in the best position to determine what is best for the whole.
Thus the man who leads a just or aristocratic life also leads the best life.