BMCR 2006.05.18

Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life

, Plato on pleasure and the good life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. viii, 272 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0199282846 $74.00/£45.00.

Dan Russell has followed a series of stimulating papers on ancient thinkers’ moral psychology and ethics with this outstanding book, in which he examines the place of pleasure in Plato’s thought, and finds considerably more coherence and philosophical interest than others have before him. The book is well and clearly written (though there are enough misprints in this first edition to be irritating: a list of those I spotted has been sent to the publisher); individual chapters may well work as reading material for undergraduates studying key ideas or passages of certain dialogues, though the book as a whole is clearly aimed for more specialist and experienced readers of ancient philosophy.

The Introduction contains preliminary philosophical matter; the first six chapters discuss the essential Platonic passages; the final seventh chapter discusses an inconsistency in Plato’s thinking about the soul; and an appendix discusses the apparent hedonism of Protagoras. The end matter consists of a good, not overblown bibliography, Index Locorum and General Index. The final chapter, being concerned with Plato’s inconsistent descriptions of the relation between the rational part of the soul and the other two (does it control them or tame them?), focuses most on Republic, Laws and Timaeus. The dialogues or passages discussed in the first six chapters are, respectively: Euthydemus 278e-282d, Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic IV and IX. These are followed by two chapters on Philebus, though the first of the two is as much on Stoicism, and especially Seneca, as on Plato. (Russell uses the Stoic take on assimilation to god to show how his interpretation of Plato is at least feasible.)

The order in which dialogues are discussed in these six chapters is, of course, precisely the canonical order in which these dialogues would be placed by developmentalists. Although Russell explicitly eschews any discussion of developmentalism against unitarianism (13), we nevertheless find more than one link from one chapter to the next along the lines of: ‘But we are still short of a full account of pleasure and the good life in some important ways . . . And here Plato’s Republic is a great help’ (104-5, after the first three chapters; see also the final paragraph of 76); Russell also talks of Plato’s views on pleasure and the good life as ‘unfolding’ (46). Since he finds a large measure of coherence within Plato’s views on pleasure and good life, from Euthydemus to Philebus, an unsuspecting reader could be forgiven for thinking that Russell holds the highly controversial view that Plato had worked out the broad outlines of his views from the start and gradually elaborated them in the course of his writing career. If, on the other hand, Russell means to imply that Plato, thinking things through in a philosophical manner, himself spotted gaps in his account and gradually filled them, he could have said so; the same goes if he believes that the dramatic and/or philosophical purposes of each dialogue prevented Plato from clarifying his views all at once.

The Introduction starts with a lucid cashing of our intuition that pleasure must be a part of anything we count as a good life, or indeed any kind of human life. Russell then develops a distinction, which will prove crucial to the book, between what he calls ‘sensational’ pleasures (mere feelings of pleasure) and ’emotional’ pleasures. The latter have content and are closely related to one’s values and what kind of person one is or aspires to be. The latter may also be unfounded, whereas the former cannot be, and so the latter but not the former have true moral content. Hence we cannot say that pleasure per se is good or bad, and hence (Russell claims, more controversially) we don’t just want more ’emotional’ pleasures, but the right ones.

It is clear that Russell holds that Plato has a great deal to offer modern philosophical ethical discussions, especially for someone working within a virtue ethical framework. In short, Plato’s view, according to Russell, is that for Plato virtue is sufficient for happiness, but because virtue just is the rational incorporation into one’s life of all the right aspects of oneself, it includes those pleasures which accompany such rational incorporation. Russell has a strong interpretation of such accompaniment, whereby such pleasures do not just go along with rational incorporation, but can be said to constitute it: pleasure is itself an attitude towards things. One of my concerns about the book is how far removed this conception seems to be from Plato’s words; there is always a danger of interpreting an ancient philosopher in the light of tidy modern philosophical packages. But Russell has to reject the weaker notion of accompaniment, even if it seems more Platonic, because it would make pleasure just an ingredient of the good life, not essential to it. I’m certainly not saying that he’s wrong about this — we all interpret Plato’s words — but just that I will have to think about it for a while longer before agreeing.

Because of the quasi-developmental aspect of the book, the first chapter, on that notoriously slippery passage Euthydemus 278e-282d, is foundational for Russell’s thesis. He starts with distinctions which more or less coincide with those that others have found useful in studying the passage, between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ goods, and between ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ goods. The clarity of his thinking is manifest when he shows (what will turn out to be very important for the thesis of his book) that even an extrinsic good (one whose goodness depends on an external source) can be a final good (one valued for its own sake, rather than as a means to some further good). To leap ahead, this will prove to be exactly the position Russell attributes to Plato as regards pleasure: it is an extrinsic good, because its goodness depends on its being incorporated into one’s life under the direction of rational wisdom, but it is, or may be, good in itself.

I have already adumbrated another distinction that Russell draws in this opening chapter, one that is equally critical for his thesis. This is the distinction between an ‘additive’ conception of happiness (in which the goodness of the good life depends on its ingredients — health, wealth, prestige, pleasure, etc.) and a ‘directive’ conception of happiness, in which the goodness of the good life depends on ‘the intelligent agency that gives one’s life the direction it needs to be healthy and flourishing’ (17). What Russell goes on to do, in this first chapter and then throughout the remainder of the book, is argue that Plato always had a directional conception of the good life: reason must rule, and must dictate what part pleasure (and everything else) plays in one’s life. The good life is pleasant, but its pleasantness does not determine its goodness.

As Russell often makes clear, he takes the distinction between the additive and directive conceptions of happiness to carry with it the further idea that while the former may well be content with episodic pleasures, the latter is bound to locate happiness not in any episodes (or even in their sum total?), but in the direction of one’s life as a whole. Holistic phrases litter Russell’s book. When he turns to analyse the Euthydemus passage, he argues, correctly, that Plato is claiming that all conditional goods are made good by practical wisdom, the only unconditional good, but he also assumes that Plato is assuming that such wisdom is directional in the holistic sense. That is, Russell moves from analysing the passage as saying that intelligence ‘gives them [the ingredients] direction in one’s life’ (19), to saying that intelligence gives a person’s ‘whole life’ direction (20, 27), and finally to saying that ‘only wisdom could have the power of intelligently directing one’s life as a whole, so that wisdom alone has the power to determine happiness’ (31). What I’m worried about here is the tacit slide from the correct assertion that wisdom brings about ‘goodness in all the areas of a person’s life’ (28) to the proposition that wisdom brings about goodness in a person’s life as a whole. Russell makes much of Plato’s talk of the ‘ruling and guiding’ function of wisdom, but wisdom may guide me episode by episode, not as a whole. When Plato comes, at 288d-292e (a passage at which Russell no more than glances), to comment on the argument of 278e-282d, the same vagueness is present: on the one hand, he talks episodically of knowledge producing particular results or products (289b); on the other hand, he talks of longer-lasting states of knowledge such as kingship.

What Plato seems to be up to is familiar from a number of arguments throughout the dialogues. Wanting to convince as many people as possible of the correctness of the conclusion, he provides a ‘template’ argument, as one might call it — an argument that is so stripped (or elliptical) that it can accommodate most or many positions. Meno 77b-79b and 87d-89a (an argument that curiously gets no mention even in a footnote in Russell’s book, despite its parallels with the Euthydemus argument) is another; so, in a metaphysical and epistemological context, is Republic 474b-480a; and there are plenty of others. The Euthydemus argument can of course accommodate holism, but it may not be designed to accommodate it exclusively.

We’re doing ancient philosophy here, not just philosophy, and so my philosophical worry coincides with an exegetical one. Russell properly translates all the important interchanges of Euthydemus before commenting on them. But there is nothing anywhere (not in this dialogue, at any rate) that even hints at holism, except perhaps the single word πανταχοῦ at 280a6, which Russell translates ‘in every case’ (others have ‘always’): ‘It is wisdom that makes people have good luck, in every case.’ Even if this translation is correct (I think my Penguin ‘in every walk of life’ is at least as plausible, since Plato has just enumerated various occupations), talk of ‘cases’ smacks as much of episodic as holistic thinking. Occasionally, Russell lapses into more obviously tendentious translation: to have Plato say, at 281b1, that wisdom leads and directs ‘our behavior’ (33), is to make Plato sound more holistic than the words τῆν πρᾶξιν need imply: others translate the phrase just as ‘action’, meaning (again, episodically) any of our actions. I’m not just quibbling here: it’s important for Russell’s whole thesis that ‘happiness means becoming a certain kind of person’ (60): only then, for instance, can pleasure (’emotional’ pleasure) be taken to be a certain kind of attitude. Russell could argue that Plato means to be holistic, or (especially with the hindsight of later dialogues) that Plato needs to be holistic, but it should take argument, not assumption. This is his foundational chapter, but the foundation could do with some strengthening.

Chapter 2, on the relevant aspects of Gorgias, is the best thing I’ve read on this dialogue for a long while. Russell interprets the dialogue as expanding his view of Euthydemus. In a more dialectical frame of mind than the protreptic nature of the Euthydemus passage allowed, Plato searches for what is unconditionally good, as the only thing that can determine a person’s happiness, and finds this to be virtue or wisdom. Russell understands Socrates’ argument with Callicles to be designed not so much to eliminate a limited kind of hedonism as to develop ‘a conception of value that rejects any attempt whatsoever to construct happiness out of the ingredients of one’s life, such as pleasure or anything else’ (71). As in Euthydemus, all other goods are conditional on the direction that wisdom can give them. Since Gorgias is often interpreted with half an eye on Protagoras, this is the occasion for me to mention that, in the appendix, Russell develops a sophisticated version of the tactic that Socrates’ apparent espousal of hedonism there is a dialectical move designed specifically to refute Protagoras himself. For Russell, Plato is no kind of hedonist — not in Gorgias, but not in Protagoras either. Pleasure can only ever be a conditional good, and it cannot give direction to one’s life as a whole: ‘Even if the life of greatest pleasure is in some sense identical to the life of virtue, it is not that the life of virtue is happy because it is the life of greatest pleasure, but that the life of greatest pleasure is happy because it is the life of virtue’ (76). This pleasure is not to be distinguished (according to Russell) from virtue; here, again, is my concern that this is too subtle for Plato, who does not seem to me to rule out, in Gorgias and elsewhere, the possibility that pleasure is a mere concomitant of virtue (as it may be of other things too), in which case it becomes once more, on Russell’s terms, a mere ingredient of one’s life, and Plato’s conception becomes ‘additive’ rather than ‘directional’. Russell is, I suspect, aware that he might be liable to criticism for over-interpreting deliberately under-determined arguments: from time to time in the book he uses phrases such as ‘Plato could be more helpful, but …’ (196).

In Chapter 3, on Phaedo, Russell argues successfully that pleasure is a conditional good, but he also wants to mitigate Plato’s apparent asceticism, so as to claim that ‘what he condemns are not pleasures simpliciter, but pleasures which reflect mistaken evaluative attitudes and priorities’ (90). Russell’s strategy here is to blur the metaphysical distinction between immaterial soul (to which the philosopher clings) and material body (which the philosopher is to shun) in favour of an ‘ethical’ (100) distinction between the ‘soul’ as that which gives direction to our lives and the ‘body’ as that which should be subject to the soul in this respect. This is a bold strategy, and although Russell argues typically well for it, he will not convince everyone to alter their reading of Plato’s apparently stark metaphysical distinction in this dialogue between ‘bad’ body and ‘good’ soul, and his unequivocal statement (even granted that it requires some interpretation) that the genuine philosopher does not find any bodily functions pleasant and has nothing to do with them (65a).

Russell needs this move, however, for the sake of his argument that, for Plato, pleasure is an aspect of the good life, provided it is rationally incorporated — provided, in fact, it just is the pleasure of rational incorporation. What the philosopher disdains, according to Russell, are all other pleasures; as pleasant, they seem to bring their own value (after all, they are pleasant, not painful), but true intelligence must refuse to see them as valuable. Now, the question of Plato’s asceticism also arises in the context of his teaching that another way of describing the good life is ‘assimilation to god’. Russell discusses this notion in Chapter 5, on Philebus. (I pass over Chapter 4, on Republic, where I might develop only minor quibbles.) Russell’s summary of the relevant aspect of Philebus is significant: he points out, quite rightly, that in this dialogue Plato is searching for the recipe for happiness for us as human beings, not as lower forms of animal life, nor as gods (20c-22e). This is why ‘Plato rejects both the life of pleasure alone — the life of a shellfish — and the life of reason alone as serious candidates for human happiness’ (148). Spot the omission: the life of pleasure alone gains the parenthetical description as the life of a shellfish, but Russell omits to inform his readers that the life of reason alone is characterized by Plato as the divine life (33b) and even as the most desirable life for a human being (55a). Asceticism and the ideal of assimilation to god seem to go hand in hand. As in Phaedo and the digression of Theaetetus, Plato seems to want us to escape not from the ‘world’s evil’ (as Russell ambiguously puts it: 160), but from the world because it is evil. This is an extreme view, and leads Plato into some inconsistency, but it does seem to be his position from time to time. The only pleasures Plato allows into the good life are those that accompany refined philosophical activities (and I continue to think that Plato includes the ‘necessary’ pleasures that accompany virtuous activity in the world as well: contra Russell 201).

Russell’s discussion of Plato’s analysis of pleasure in Philebus is another of the high points of the book. He explains better than anyone how pleasure can properly be described as false, because ‘the pleasure in question is the representation to oneself of a future state of affairs that one believes will obtain and will be satisfying’ (179). Despite criticizing others for failing to distinguish the first kind of false pleasures (37a-40e) from the second (41a-42c), when Plato explicitly says that they arise ‘in a different way’ (41a7), Russell too falls into the same error when he interprets both equally as quasi-propositional representations of future pleasure. But Chapter 6 is largely a model of lucid and persuasive argumentation.

It should be clear that my comments fall short of demonstrating flaws; they are simply responses to a good and challenging book. Anyone working in the field of ancient philosophy will want to own this book: buy it yourself, order it for your institution’s relevant libraries, and recommend it to intelligent students. It is not just that Russell develops his own views well, but he is also has the gift of expressing others’ or other possible views rigorously and fairly. This is a book to which I will return again and again; like all good academic books, it forces the reader to refine his own views.