Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Achieving Happiness: Advice from Plato

If we want true happiness, we should heed what Plato said about the virtues.

Plato
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In a previous post, I offered some thoughts from Aristotle about genuine happiness. Now I'd like to turn to some of Plato's beliefs on the matter, which are similar but not exactly the same as what Arisotle held. Plato, who was Aristotle's mentor, has a lot to say about happiness, virtue, and political life in his masterful book, the Republic.

Part of Plato's case for his view that we must be moral in order to be truly happy rests on a discussion of the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. I use The Story of Ethics in many of my classes, and the book contains an excellent discussion of Plato's philosophy regarding virtue and human fulfillment.

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Wisdom has to do with the intellect. For Plato, the wise person uses the mind to understand moral reality and then apply it to her daily life. The wise person is guided by rationality in the choices she makes.  Courage has to do with how we face adversity. It includes things like courage on the battlefield, but it also includes having the courage of one's convictions. In fact, Plato's mentor, Socrates, chose to die rather than sacrifice his deepest convictions. No doubt this deeply influenced Plato's views on the matter. Moderation (temperance, self-control) is related to our desires. Human beings have many desires, of course, and this is a good thing. The problem arises when we desire a good thing in the wrong way, or a bad thing at all. We must not let our desires for food, sex, and drink control our lives in a way that compromises our character. Justice for Plato is related to one's overall character. The just person has a healthy soul, in which reason rules the appetites and our desire for honor. The just person is fulfilled, at peace, and truly happy.

Finally, let's do a little thought experiment. Imagine a genie showed up and offered you two different types of lives. Life #1 would include a series of illnesses, injuries causing chronic pain, and ultimately a long and unsuccessful bout with cancer. In Life #2, however, you avoid these challenges. You enjoy a lifetime of good physical health, and die of old age in your sleep. Which of these lives would you choose?

If you are rational, you would clearly choose Life #2. Plato thinks that we are in the same boat with respect to our moral health. The rational person would choose a life of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, rather than one of foolishness, cowardice, a lack of self-control, and injustice. If we would choose physical sickness over physical health, we are irrational. Similarly, if we would choose moral and spiritual sickness over moral and spiritual health, we are making an irrational choice. We must choose to live well, if we want to be truly happy.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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