On Happiness – Plato Edition

3 minute read

This is the second in a series of posts on readings from Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. The series start is here along with an index if you are interested in others.

The first reading from the book is from Plato’s The Republic and includes Books II, IV and IX. The selected readings are concerned with justice and whether or not it is a good in and of itself or if instead, as Glaucon argues, merely something irksome like gymnastics practice that we ascribe to for its results only. Said another way, should justice be something we aspire to do or have like feelings of enjoyment or is justice something we do only because of compulsion? Glaucon and his brother argue that it is the latter, that given the opportunity to be unjust without consequence, man would invariably choose to do so in the same way man would choose to avoid other disciplines aimed at the future over the present.

Plato via Socrates believes the opposite, that justice is an end, not a means and that man, being separate from the animals based on his rational capacity, will choose to be just in the same way he would choose to be happy. Plato supports his argument by discussing the rational principle versus the appetitive principle in man. He does this utilizing the emotion anger in an interesting way. Initially, Glaucon thinks that anger belongs to the appetitive or irrational side of man. But Plato points out that we are never angry with ourselves when we are overindulging or being unjust, only after the fact. Spirit, this lion that resides in us, is separate from both the appetitive impulses and the rational man.

These three concepts (appetitive, the lion that represents the spirited side, and the rational) make up the whole man. Glaucon is arguing for a mixture where the appetitive and the spirited would reign supreme while the rational would be weak and ineffective, e.g. someone who was wholly unjust while appearing to be just on the outside. Socrates argues that happiness comes from having the rational man as the strongest principle and that the other two occur in moderation.

Whether one sides with Glaucon or Socrates here seems to boil down to one’s fundamental belief about how man derives happiness from existence. On one hand, the picture is that of selfish greed, excess consumption and the immediate. This is a pessimistic view of humanity, a precursor to nihilism where nothing matters at all. On the other, rationality holds the stronger hand and that by keeping appetites in check, happiness is increased because then the higher goals of justice and meaningful pleasure via philosophy can be achieved.

In today’s world, we are surrounded by appeals to our animal nature, far more than anything Glaucon could have imagined. Consumerism and consumption is THE portrayed ideal whether it’s through acquiring more thing or drowning ourselves in the incessant fire hose of information from social media and the internet. We have become gluttons for these things because they are easier and closer to the appetitive principles in our animal nature. To achieve true happiness, Plato would likely have advised us to keep this in check and turn towards our rational side. Is the thing in the path you are striving for what’s important for happiness or is it the path itself? This shift changes how we value things and lessens the disappointment when we do not achieve the “thing” we were focused on.

The appetitive side will always lead to short term happiness and long term disappointment. We can only eat Cheetohs for dinner for so long before the effects are felt. This goes for any other concrete thing we might strive for from a new car to a promotion to a ranch. Far better, as the Stoics have taught, to curb the appetites and be satisfied with what we have, turning the energy we had focused on the short term achievement towards the underlying mechanisms that provide those achievements.

In the end, Plato advised us that happiness comes not from the immediate but from the movement towards perfection of an ideal. This also had the fortunate side effect of building a better society at the same time, something our consumerist culture should take note of. Strengthening our rational side while taming the appetitive side with the spirit’s help will lead to a happier, more meaningful life that avoids the ups and downs that come from indulging our immediate tendencies.

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