The Philosopher as Eudaimon

Happiness to Plato is different from how the modern mind circumscribes the concept. In modern times it is understood as a state of being, a subjective feeling people strive to attain and to perpetuate within themselves. People seek it through many means: religion and nationalism, fashion and materialism, emotional or physical highs, and so on. What these all have in common are their transient natures, they have no enduring basis in meaning and the feeling of happiness is quickly fleeting. It is obvious to most anyone who has given it serious time and contemplation that we –in the modern age– derive happiness from poor sources, and perhaps our whole way of looking at it is flawed. This engenders the question of what happiness is, and where should we look to discover its nature? This is where the relevance of Plato comes into our everyday lives; what he has to say about happiness and how to achieve it may lead us not just to a different mode of thought on the matter, but a different mode of life. It is necessary to tread lightly in some areas of the Republic, for the answer we are looking for is intertwined with several things we must exclude partially in the discussion or we will never get anywhere within the confines of the paper. That is not to say they are not important to know, but the full mechanisms, or reasoning can only be touched upon if we are to cut through to our desired destination..This is also partially due to the fact that Plato employs a heavy use of analogy, and his assertions are not categorical or Aristolean, and that type of logic colors my own way of thinking. Thus it is necessary to untangle the several concepts and simplify as best possible to gain a full grasp of what Plato really means when it comes to happiness and justice, not just for the reader but for the writer as well.

We should first understand the basic historical context of the Republic to aid us in understanding the underlaying motivations or reasons that brought forth the book. The Golden Age of Athens was a time where there was increasing trade and commerce, and the city was expansionist as well. This expansion and growth of wealth lead to pride, and others become resentful of the Athenians. Ultimately this resentment lead to a war between Athens and Sparta, which the former lost. This downfall caused not just economic devastation, but moral devastation. This was the context which gives rise to a question, which is given as: how are we to live? Historical events oriented Greek thinkers to consider more stable things on which to base their lives on, universal and natural things. Plato believes the answer is to combine physis and nomos; that is to combine things one can reason about such as universal things in nature, with nomos (conventional morality), or more specifically civic virtue. Plato using the literary vehicle of the Republic to demonstrate how there could be an ascent of the soul; to ascend from (desire of) bodily pleasure to civic virtues, and then into philosophy with the end result of an ordered soul within the individual.1 This individual would be the eudaimon (happy man), and his answer on how one should live, it serves as a model for which to emulate and strive in becoming.

What basically differentiates a bad or good life is the degree –or quantity– of punishment or reward, respectively. That is to say one who leads a bad life gains as a consequence suffering in one form or another, either in life or as those nearing death like Cephalus fears, in the afterlife. The one who leads a good life gains many advantages or pleasures, good reputation in the here-and-now, for example, or rewards in the afterlife as it is believed; the bad life is the opposite. These two different ways of life are bound together with eudaimonia (happiness). This is best summed by Socrates: “the just soul and the just man will have a good life, and the unjust man a bad one … the man who lives well is blessed and happy, and the man who does not is the opposite.”2 However Thrasymachus rejects this simple definition of the just (or good) life when he says to Socrates: “see to it you don’t tell me that it is the needful, or the helpful, or the profitable, or the gainful, or the advantageous.”3 The elucidation of what justice is, and if it leads to a good or bad life, is a necessary tangent that must be dealt with before we can fully understand Plato’s definition of eudaimonia (and how to achieve it).

This leads us to an assertion of what justice is by Thrasymachus, he states that “the just is the advantage of the stronger, and the unjust is what is profitable and adantageous for oneself”4 This counters what Socrates said makes a good life. This is more clearly explained by the legend of the Ring of Gyges which tells of a shephard who finds a ring that allows him to become invisible, and thus no one can see or discern if the wearer does injust or just deeds. Gyges goes with unjust deeds, seducing the kings wife, and committing regicide in order to take over rule of the kingdom. The full implications are explained by Glaucon,

Now if there were two such rings, and the just man would put one on, and the unjust man the other, no one, as it would seem, would be so adamant as to stick by justice … one would act no differently from the other, but both would go the same way. And yet, someone could say this is a great proof that no one is willingly just but only when compelled to do so.

This is to say, the happiest man by conventional views (at that time) is one who can fullfill all his desires without consequence, irregardless of whether he is acting justly or not, to be able to commit bad yet appear good. Adeimantus expands on this line of thinking,

Now, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it that makes the one bad and the other good. And take away the reputations … For if you don’t take the true reputation from each and attach the false one to it, we’ll say that you aren’t praising the just but the seeming, nor blaming being unjust but the seeming; and that you’re exhorting one to be unjust and to get away with it.5

He wishes to know what are the intrinsic rewards to being good, since a good man can suffer in life, and an unjust (bad) man can have a good reputation, wealth and so on. He asks Socrates to “show what each in itself [justice and injustice] does to the man who has it – and whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not – that makes the one good and the other bad.”6

The underlaying presumption held by Thrasymachus and Adeimantus is that a good life is one that is profitable, and this profit stems from the satiation of desire. However justice comes into the picture because in satisfying a desire one can cause harm and suffering to another, and the transgressor is punished by the larger society. Thus there is incentive to act justly in order to avoid punishment, but if one had the power of seeming and being that the ring of Gyges would bestow one could escape the punitive actions and gain whatever one wishes and desires. This is why Thrasymachus says, “So Socrates, injustice, when it comes into being on a sufficient scale, is mightier, freer, and more masterful than justice.”7 This directly impacts a persons happiness because a weak person cannot fully get everything they want, which is deemed to be what is necessary to be fully happy. A strong person on the other hand can take what he wants and get away with it, thus he is the happiest person since he can satiate his desires. Since the ring of Gyges is a myth, Socrates and the other interlocuters must look to real examples of who this happiest person would be under these presumptions. The one who could be this man, would be a tyrant as he would be free to act as he wills.

Now the preconditions that would allow for a existence of a tyrant is reached in the Republic by the examination of the different types of cities. There is an analogy of a city to a type of man (just or unjust), a just city would be comprised of either a few powerful just men or a majority of such, and an unjust city would have powerful unjust ones.

There is, we say, justice of one man; and there is, surely, justice of a whole city too … perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely. If you want, first we’ll investigate what justice is like in the cities. Then we’ll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler?8

At this point there is a detour into the types of cities, their composition and their level of justice or injustice. However it is a necessary detour as indicated by Socrates in Book VIII, “do you suppose that the regimes arise … not from the dispositions of the men in the cities, which tipping the scale as it were, draw the rest along with them?” Which is given the reply, “I don’t at all think they arise from anything other than this.”9 So there is not just an analogy of the city to men, but a direct connection. It is also directly connected to Thrasymachus’s earlier assertion that the unjust man profits more than the just one, this is stated in the text: “Well, we have already described the man who is like the aristocracy, a man of whom we rightly assert that he is both good and just.”10 This aristocrat is the most just man there can be, but what about the most unjust man, the tyrant? “They go into discussion of this because,

we can [then] have a complete consideration of how pure justice is related to pure injustice with respect to happiness and wretchedness of the men possessing them. In this way we may be persuaded either by Thrasymachus and pursue injustice, or by the argument that is now coming to light and pursue justice.11

The tyrant is a menace and commits injustice to not just others, but to himself. This is because there is no order to his desires, some subjegate others when it would benefit him more if reversed. As Socrates says using the city-soul analogy, “If, then … a man is like his city, isn’t it also necessary that the same arrangement be in him and that his soul be filled with much slavery and illiberality, and that, futher, those parts of it that are most decent be slaves while a small part, the most depraved and maddest, be master?”12 That is to say, that his desires are arbritrary and actually rule him, which leads to the soul of the tyrant being described thus: “the soul under a tyranny will least do what it wants – speaking of the soul as a whole. Always forcibly drawn by a gadfly, it will be full of confusion and regret.”13 This doesn’t sound like the happiest of men that Thrasymachus believes in, thus his claims have been invalidated.

To live with absolute freedom to actualize our whims has no limit and no reason to it. Thus the tyrant and his desires enslave him and possibly do him harm when he believes it is in fact benefitting him. This calls in the need to order to harmonize these desires in a way most beneficial to the owner of them, these desires within an individual can be stratified into a heirarchy within the soul. This is deliniated as the triparite division of the soul, but the reasons this is necessary to even consider stems from the function (or function) of the soul. So first we must elaborate what is the soul and why it is important to the discussion in relation to desires, which in turn is in relation to eudaimonia.

The argument presented by Socrates is done through analogy to the eye and the ears, in that they serve a function and their ability to do the function well is what would be termed virtue, “could eyes ever do a fine job of their work if they did not have their proper virtue but, instead of virtue, vice?” in which Thrasymachus replies, “How could they? For you probably mean blindness instead of site.”14 This is extended to the work (or function) of the soul with a rhetorical question, “what about living? Shall we not say that it is the work of a soul?”15 This is to say, the purpose of the soul is to live, and the capacity to live well is possible through virtue of the soul. However this virtue is engendered by the existence or precondition of a just soul. Socrates suggests this to us by posing: “Didn’t we agree that justice is virtue of soul, and injustice, vice?”16 In other words, justice is the means to fully allow the virtue of the soul to flourish best, and if it is oriented in this fashion we will live the best life. However we are then still left in the dark about the nature of justice, what is it? The text shows how important it is to find this out in relation to happiness, with: “So long as I do not know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy.”17

Plato seems to want to reconcile conventional views (nomos) with the physis (nature) when talking about justice. He hints at this when Socrates says, “it looks as if he [Simonides] thought that it is just to give to everyone what is fitting, and to this he gave the name what is owed.18 In trying to decipher justice he ends up talking about various techne’s (arts) such as horsemanship, medicine, sailorship and so on. Also through the many analogous examples put forth on the different techne’s, Socrates comes to a conclusion:

there isn’t ever anyone who holds any position of rule, insofar as he is ruler, who considers or commands his own advantage rather than that of what is ruled and of which he himself is the craftsman; and it is looking to this and what is advantageous and fitting for it that he says everything he says and does everything he does.19

In a nutshell, any art is not done for the sake of itself but for the welfare of something subordinate to it, it is also suggesting that justice is an art itself. This is another refutation that the just is the –advantage of the stronger– as posed by Thrasymachus. Since justice is meant for the good of some subordinate thing, which previously we have outlined as the soul, and is a techne; it follows that justice is a practise that is done for the good of the soul. When we practise this –justice– it nurtures the soul which allows it’s full functioning to come to fruition. Since the function of the soul is to live well, justice is a means to achieve a good life, and to achieve a good life we gain eudaimonia as a perquisite.

However, what does it mean to practise justice in relation to the soul? We have seen that the soul through analogy to the regime-types (of cities) can be good or bad depending on the quality of the desires within the individual. We have seen that if desires are given free reign, they come to dominate a persons choices and ends up enslaving that person. Plato proposes the solution to this is through the force of reason, it is through reason that we can give an order to these desires that in the end benefit us most. This is explained through his idea of the tripartite nature of the soul, in relation to desires, as Socrates asserts: “just as a city is divided into three forms, so the soul of every single man also is divided in three … It looks to me as though there were also a threefold division of pleasures corresponding to these three, a single pleasure peculiar to each one; and similarly a threefold division of desires and kinds of rule.”20 These three parts and their corresponding desires are as follows: the wisdom-loving, or love of learning; victory-loving, or the love of honors; gain-loving, or the love of money – which allows the gaining of things by said money21. What should the order of these listed desires be placed to gain the most benefit, that is to say, what is the descending order of quality of pleasure between the three? This is important to distinguish because it will determine the type of person we should be, and the mode of life to follow. Plato gives us the answer, and it is the –lover of wisdom– as suggested by Socrates: “By what must things that are going to be finely judged be judged? Isn’t it by experience, prudence, and arguement? Or could anyone have better criteria than these?”22 To be even more clear, Plato writes: “it is by means of arguments that judgement must be made … And arguments are especially the instrument of the philosopher.”23 The seeker of wisdom –the philosopher– is the one able to sort his inner desires out of his use of prudence. However what determines this quality of prudence must also be considered, more specifically we must turn to education and how it can in turn provide the necessary knowledge to excercise exceptional prudence.

To best understand who and what a philosopher is, and how he acts is best shown through a comparison to the guardians24 of the city, ones taught from birth to fit their given role. As Plato writes: “In your opinion, then, does the man who be a fit guardian need, in addition to spiritedness, also be a philosopher in his nature?”25 Which engenders the corresponding dialogue: “In what way? … In that it distinguishes friendly from hostile looks by nothing other than by having learned the one and being ignorant of the other … And so, how can it be anything other than a lover of learning since it defines what’s its own and what’s alien by knowledge and ignorance?”26 This is a hint to the kind of education that the philosopher requires in order to be truly a philosopher. A philosopher is one who fits his role by rejecting false-hoods and seeking truth, and it is through this they can learn and thus exercise prudence from the resulting experience. Plato says this most strongly with: “First, if it’s present to your mind, truth guided him, and he had to pursue it entirely and in every way or else be a boaster who in no way partakes of true philosophy.”27 Which also suggests that to be a philosopher is not an end product but a constant striving. Further proof of this is given much later in Book X: “And on this account each of us must, to the neglect of other studies, above all see to it that he is a seeker and student of that study by which he might be able to learn and find out who will give him the capacity and the knowledge to distinguish the good and the bad life, and so everywhere and always to choose the better from among those that are possible … [for] in this way a human being becomes happiest.”28 Thus a philosopher is able to discern the good and the bad, and in having this knowledge he is able to keep his soul in order and his actions in order too.

Education (or prudence resulting from philomathia) is something that is never suggested in the Republic to have an end however it is still a better path than the alternatives. This is suggested by Plato, he writes: “About philosophic natures, let’s agree that they are always in love with that learning which discloses to them something of the being that is always and does not wander about, driven by generation and decay.”29 So one must look inward instead of to the city, because the city eventually decays as we find with the regression of regimes.30 This is the exercise of justice as stated elequently by Socrates,

justice as it seems, something of this sort; however, not with respect to a man’s minding his external business, but with respect to what is within, with respect to what truly concerns him and his own. He doesn’t let each part in him mind other people’s business or the three classes in the soul meddle with each other, but really sets his own house in good order and rules himself; he arranges himself, becomes his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts … Then, and only then, he acts, if he does act in some way – either concerning the acquisition of money, or the care of the body, or something political, or concerning private contracts.31

To conclude, a major goal of Plato’s Republic is to pursuade us that it is the philosopher who is most happy of all men. First he tries to refute that injustice is more profitable, profitable in the sense in that it helps one in having a good life because it allows a full satiation of ones desires. It takes a long time but it is shown through analogy of the soul to a city, that the tyrant, the one who would be most capable of achieving this is actually unable to achieve what is best for himself. This is because there is no order or reason to his wants, and in time his desires end up ruling him, to no end. So then we have to turn to the question of desires, and how to order them, these desires emerge from the soul. Thus our attention then needs to turn to what the soul is, it’s composition and purpose. The soul turns out to have the function of living well, so then what can we do to nourish the soul in order to accomplish this? It is through the exercise of justice that we can do this, but to exercise justice we need to know how. This is where education comes in, we must seek truth in order to know how to distinguish the just from the unjust, so we can practise the former and avoid the latter, as Plato tells his readers: “Then the just man has revealed himself to us as good and wise, and the unjust man unlearned and bad.”32. This is because the just is a property of the soul, which allows for the full flourishing of that soul, injustice is like a vice that hinders or obscures this property (or capacity). Thus we need to learn and strive for the just so we can order our souls, this is what we have sovereign over, it is not subject to arbritary or inevitable change like the external world. The happiest man, the one who gains eudaimonia is the just one: “the most just man is happiest, and he is the man who is kingliest and is king of himself.”33 He stands vigilant against the transient and everchanging falsehoods of the external world, and disallows any arbritary (unreasoned) inner desires from ruling over him as well. This is what Plato means by eudaimonia, it is a strong, steadfast individual who is not subject to anyone but himself. This is very different from the modern concepts of happiness, and perhaps we should start looking inward for this illusive yet desired end, through cultivation of reason and all rejection of false-hoods.



Plato, The Republic, trans., Allan Bloom. (Basic Books, 1991)

  1. Class notes, introductory material from first few days.
  2. Plato Republic 353e-354a
  3. Ibid., 336d
  4. Ibid., 343d
  5. Ibid., 367b-367c
  6. Ibid., 367e
  7. Ibid., 344c
  8. Ibid., 368e-369a
  9. Ibid., 544e
  10. Ibid., 544e
  11. Ibid., 545a
  12. Ibid., 577d
  13. Ibid., 577e
  14. Ibid., 353b-353c
  15. Ibid., 353d
  16. Ibid., 353e
  17. Ibid., 354c
  18. Ibid., 332c
  19. Ibid., 342e
  20. Ibid., 580d
  21. Ibid., 580d-580e
  22. Ibid., 582a
  23. Ibid., 582d
  24. Ibid., 414b
  25. Ibid., 375e
  26. Ibid., 375b
  27. Ibid., 490a
  28. Ibid., 618b-619b
  29. Ibid., 485b
  30. Class notes, regression of regimes from Aristocracy to Tyranny is irreversible and inevitable.
  31. Ibid., 443d
  32. Ibid., 350c
  33. Ibid., 580c
Lee Kierstead

by Lee Kierstead