Critical Essays Dealing With Plato's Philosophy on "The Good Life"
The Platonic Philosophy on the Good Life.
The foundation of Plato's theory on the good life rests on the idea that everything has one function or use which it is naturally suited for. The justness, beauty, virtue and excellence of the particular thing all depends on the fulfillment of that function. According to this idea, even man has one function for which he is naturally suited. Man is, of course, a bit more complicated than a chair or a horse, so figuring out his proper function is by no means an easy task and one subject to much debate. For Plato, though, man's function is dictated by nature and thus objective. There is no relativism or subjectivism involved; each man cannot decide for himself what his function is. Rather, there is one universal function dictated by nature that is the same for all people in all circumstances and situations.
In the Republic Plato argues that the proper uses or function of man and his soul is to live justly and to achieve a state of unity and harmony. Man consists of several parts, each different and with different aims, goals and appetites. He lists the intellect, spirit/courage, and physical desires as the three parts of the soul, though he may simplify this for ease of understanding. That's irrelevant though, it's just important to conceptualize the soul as composed of several conflicting parts. But this state of conflict is undesirable and man must attempt to harmonize his soul. This can be done by teaching each part to perform its function as nature dictates, without interfering in the business of other parts. It is important to realize that each part is intended to perform its role well, not just to perform it. So, in the case of physical desires, pursuing all types of luxurious pleasures is not a job well done; that part of the soul should simply aim at survival and good health. When all of these parts are pursuing their aims in an appropriate fashion, there can still be some conflicts. It is the job of reason in circumstances such as these to intervene with other aims, intent on balancing the soul, providing some satisfaction for all. When this is accomplished, when the parts of the soul are fulfilling their natural functions well and, under the guidance of reason, are in harmony and balance with the others, then the soul is just, unified, good and happy.
But for Plato this does not seem to be quite enough. This is an appropriate and fitting state of being, but surely just being is not performing one's natural function. A knife may be sharp, smooth, clean, well-balanced and of good size, but until it starts cutting it is not performing its function. And so the above description is not man's function, but merely the state of affairs or being required to properly perform his function. It is in the Phaedo and Apology that we get a sense of man's proper, natural function. He is to pursue knowledge, intelligence, and ultimate reality. This is the way man truly attains virtue and it is on par with the path of the gods. In The Republic Plato argues similarly, proposing that man is to search for the good and the other forms. In both these cases man's function is to use his mind/intellect/ reason in search of truth, knowledge and ultimate reality. The body is a hindrance, an obstacle in this search and it must be struggled against by the soul at all times. It plagues the mind with all sorts of desires and appetites, barely giving the mind time to think. So it is the job of man to remove himself as entirely as he can from his body, to use it only in the barest, simplest fashion, only to survive. In this way he will minimize its impediment and allow himself to pursue his true function to the maximum of his ability. And this quest and search is man's function and the only way to the good life. It depends on the justice and harmonization of the soul. Socrates even admits in The Republic that he himself knows not just what the good is, but he knows we should strive for it and the knowledge of it.
All of this is fine and good, a noble pursuit, but it seems like just another attempt to create meaning and give structure to our lives. The pursuit of knowledge is admirable and I think very worthy, but in terms of inherent value or meaning, I think it is the same as watching game shows all day or dedicating your life to sport or vice. One is, ultimately, just as good as the next and gets you just as far. You just need to decide what is important in your life and what you want to do with it. In addition, I think it is a mistake to place so much value on the mind/intellect. Any talk of ultimate reality and absolute truth seems overblown and arrogant. Our minds are limited, weak, fallible instruments, just as our senses are. They too, can mislead and misguide us, and I see no reason to suppose they are powerful enough to solve the riddle of the universe. For that matter, I see no reason to believe there even is a riddle to be solved. Perhaps we just developed a survival tool that, now that our survival is secure, is trying to occupy itself and keep itself busy, all for nothing. If this is accurate, then one philosophy is just as good as the next, depending solely on personal tastes.
Bibliography (Section B)