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Who Escapes Plato's Cave?

by Daniel Silvermintz

In spite of his own efforts to encourage philosophic thinking in an audience outside the academy, Geoffrey Klempner argues that Socrates' labours discoursing with his fellow Athenians were not similarly expended with the hope of impelling others to embrace the philosophic life. Geoffrey Klempner writes,

Plato's Philosopher in the Republic escapes the Cave of illusions, to experience the brilliant Sun, the Good, the Ultimate Reality, but then goes back to the cave to rescue the other poor souls who got left behind. Then he does what? — teach them metaphysics? Are you kidding?? That was not why Socrates went to the market place, why he sought to engage anyone and everyone in dialogue, challenging their prejudices and forcing them to think about their lives. The Philosopher teaches the physician to be a good physician, the statesman to be a good statesman, the stonemason to be a good stonemason, the motorcycle mechanic to be a good motorcycle mechanic... Glass House Philosopher, Notebook II, p. 5[1]

Does Socratic ethics promote, as suggested by Geoffrey Klempner, a professional ethics, encouraging individuals to be better producers in the economic order?[2] Although many Plato scholars might believe that the majority of individuals do not have either the capacity or the need for studying philosophy, I would like to challenge this diagnosis of the human condition by reconsidering the aim of Socrates' mission.

Geoffrey Klempner is certainly correct that Socrates' inquiries were primarily concerned with questions about how best to live a human life rather than abstract speculations about the nature of being.[3] In his intellectual autobiography, Socrates recounts that he had pursued cosmological investigations along the lines of the natural scientists during his youth, yet had ultimately abandoned these studies since they offered him no guidance regarding the realm of human affairs.[4] Notwithstanding the radical shift of Socrates' object of study, his ethical inquiries employ all of the rigors of the metaphysician, which he had cultivated in his earlier scientific studies. In light of Socrates' intellectual journey, one wonders if others will become more reflective about their lives without thinking like the metaphysician and philosopher.

Let us begin our analysis with the strongest evidence from the Platonic dialogues in support of a non-philosophic professional ethics. As with so many issues contested in platonic scholarship, the dramatic and dialectical form in which arguments are presented in the dialogues provide fertile ground for competing interpretations. I shall demonstrate this principle by using the same textual evidence both to defend and oppose Geoffrey Klempner's interpretation.

Why should an individual act with justice when he or she could transgress the law with impunity? This basic ethical dilemma provides the central question of the Republic. After investigating and rejecting several commonly accepted definitions of justice as philosophically insufficient, Socrates redirects the conversation from the arena of personal accountability to the justice exhibited in political communities. Since Socrates' ultimate understanding of ethics is contingent upon belief in the intangible soul, he is forced to employ an analogy as a means of explicating something that belies direct investigation.[5] The central books of the Republic are, therefore, focused upon considering justice in politics despite the fact that this is not the primary concern of the dialogue.

Once Socrates has introduced his method for studying ethics through an analogy to politics, he enlists his discussion partners as founders of an ideal city. Although the city experiences several regime changes, one principle established with the city's origins remains intact over the course of its tumultuous development. Recognizing that political communities come into being to satisfy the mutual needs of the citizens through the exchange of goods, Socrates suggests that the city will be provided with the best quality goods if each citizen labours at a single profession that best suits his or her natural abilities. Socrates here defends his notion of the division of labour leading to expertise among the city's craftsmen:

Is it so easy that a man who is cultivating the soil will be at the same time a soldier and one who is practising cobbling or any other trade, though no man in the world could make himself a competent expert at draughts or the dice who did not practise that and nothing else from childhood but treated it as an occasional business? Plato, Republic 374c[6]

Each citizen satisfies his or her civic duty to the city by devoting his or her labours to a single profession and becoming an expert in a given field.

Rather than any universal ethical imperative, it is the principle of job specialization within Socrates' ideal city that first brings to light political justice. Socrates declares,

'Listen then,' said I, 'and learn if there is anything in what I say. For what we laid down in the beginning as a universal requirement when we were founding our city, this I think, or some form of this, is justice. And what we did lay down, and often said, you recall, was that each one man must perform one social service in the state for which his nature is best adapted.' 'Yes, we said that.' 'And again that to do one's own business and not to be a busybody is justice.' Plato, Republic 433b

Prefiguring Bernard de Mandeville's notion that public benefits result from individuals pursuing their private vices, Socrates lauds the superior commercial life of a city whose citizens perfect their talents amidst the competition of the marketplace.[7]

Although this reading of the Republic has thus far supported Geoffrey Klempner's notion of professional ethics, one can already see that the justice exemplified by the moneymaking class does not, as one would expect from ethical action, result from any deliberative choice. On the contrary, the craftsmen selfishly pursue their business activities in order to satisfy their bodily desires while all the time neglecting the sort of self-examination that might result in self-imposed restraint. Once the genuine virtue of the properly ordered soul of the philosopher is revealed, the previously extolled artisan is diagnosed by Socrates as simply slavish and in need of the interdicts of outside governance:

And why do you suppose that 'base mechanic' handicraft is a term of reproach? Shall we not say that it is solely when the best part is naturally weak in a man so that it cannot govern and control the brood of beasts within him but can only serve them and can learn nothing but the ways of flattering them? Plato, Republic 590c[8]

How do we reconcile Socrates' opposing judgments of the city's craftsmen? Is the craftsman to be regarded as an exemplar of the virtuous citizen or of the vicious glutton?

Although Socrates may have lauded the role of the dedicated and specialized worker in producing superior goods for the city, he was obviously not assuming that one's expertise in a given field is in any way a reflection of one's respective virtue as a human being. There is nothing in the formation and cultivation of the artisan's skills to indicate how he or she will put these to use. The physician could just as easily apply his or her knowledge and training to kill someone as to save his life.[9]

The discrepancy between one's virtue as an artisan and one's virtue as a human being may be reconciled by remembering that the inquiry regarding justice within the city was only pursued as a means for uncovering justice within the individual. Drawing upon Socrates' analogy, Aristotle understands ethical activity as the universal work proper to us as human beings,

Are we then to suppose that, while the carpenter and the shoemaker have definite functions or businesses belonging to them, man as such has none, and is not designed by nature to fulfil any function? Must we not rather assume that, just as the eye, the hand, the foot and each of the various members of the body manifestly has a certain function of its own, so a human being also has a certain function over and above all the functions of his particular members? Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1097b[10]

Aristotle's notion of the subordinate teleology of the bodily organs is most helpful in situating one's professional virtue relative to one's virtue as a human being. The eye or the hand only serves its function when operating as part of a living organism. The statesman organizing the city for maximum efficiency and productivity had likewise reduced the individual to a functionary instrument performing his or her assigned task in the economic system. While there is dignity to work, there must be something more to a human life than one's business activities.

Socrates had initially suggested that each citizen doing his or her job exemplifies justice. While this principle benefits the commercial life of the city, it comes at a cost to the individual. Aristotle's notion of the universal job proper to all human beings allows us to re-appropriate Socrates' definition of justice, whereby all individuals must practice a single job appointed to them by nature. What then is the business of being human?

The search for the one universal job brings us back to Socrates' analogy between the individual and the city. If an individual soul is to be well-ordered, then it must do more than provide for the organism's physical well-being. Socrates declares that cities will only find peace when they are ruled by philosopher-kings who order the city with an eye fixed upon the transcendent good. While Socrates may believe this is an impractical political proposal, he declares without qualification during his trial that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' (Plato, Apology 38a).



2. While suggesting that there are more and less virtuous business people, Geoffrey Klempner ultimately argues that business is conducted in an arena outside of the realm of ethics. See his 'The Business Arena', Philosophy for Business Issue 5, 7 March 2004 For additional discussion of the ethics of the craftsman, see my 'Socrates in the Marketplace', Philosophy for Business Issue 20, 6 July 2005

3. For this characterization of Socratic philosophy, see; Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b and Cicero, Tusculan Disputations V.10-11.

4. Plato, Phaedo 96a-c

5. For Socrates' justification of the political analogy, see Plato, Republic 368d-369b.

6. All quoted Plato passages are taken from Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Apology, trans. Harold North Fowler; Republic, trans. Paul Shorey, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).

7. Bernard de Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees and Other Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997).

8. Also see Socrates' harsh judgement of the craftsmen in Xenophon, Economics IV and Aristotle, Politics 1260b, 1277b, 1328b, 1342a.

9. Socrates uses this example at Plato, Republic 332d and Plato, Lesser Hippias 375b.

10. Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934).

© Daniel Silvermintz 2005