The Ethical System of Plato

Plato’s ethical system is one of the most ancient attempts to provide a full interpretation of the ethical issues through the system of knowledge. The Platonic ethical teaching is based on Plato’s general conclusions concerning the world, its metaphysical specifics and the place of humans in the system of the universe. This aspect makes Platonism self-sufficient and self-substantiating because the explanations of the main ethical norms and prescriptions of Plato exist serve as the interpretations of his more universal teaching and conclusions concerning the world provided for guiding of people and social organization. Thus, while Plato believes that the universe is a harmonic system of different elements that should interrelate in accordance with the mathematical rules, his ethics exists as the social implementation of this belief. In the same way, while Plato considered that the physical reality is determined by the supernatural world of forms or ideas existing as the ‘real reality’, the ethical teaching of this philosopher operates with the same position reconsidered through the prism of personal and social lives’ specifics. Plato’s ethical teaching is an attempt to interpret personal deeds through the prism of the universal needs and world’s harmony, thus this ethical system would inevitably lead to some form of totalitarianism because of the lack of attention to an individual.

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The Teaching’s General Overview

Through the prism of Plato’s dialogues, it is possible to underline two main levels of his ethics: the teaching about the personal development, and the theory of social improvement. Besides, it is important that these levels exist only regarding the spheres of the Platonic ethics’ realization, while both are based on the same ideas and concepts. Such theoretical core of the Platonic ethics is the belief in the universal harmony and the consequent claim to harmonize personal and social life in accordance with the universal harmony, which represents the highest good. The goal of either society and state or an individual is to achieve well-being or the state of happiness through the following Plato’s teaching.

On the personal level, the Platonic ethics mostly operates with the concept of virtue. This As Cooper claims, “Plato advances the theory that the soul has three independent parts (reason, soul and appetite)… and virtue, for us, consists in each of them playing its own role fully and in harmony with others”. This position is based on Plato’s cosmology and anthropology that interpret why people possess these three parts, while ethics teaches how it is possible to harmonize them. It is clear that reason should govern human behavior, while spirit and appetite should obey it. At the same time, only reason is pure from any uncontrolled and unwanted affects that make human behavior disharmonious: thus, spirit and appetite may bear different vices being without the needed reason’s control.  In this way, personal way of life should be led according to the virtue of Justice, which in fact represents the harmony itself in particular ‘ethical’ dimension. As long as the world exists in accordance with the rule of harmony, which should determine human behavior as well it organizes all other beings, the best way to understand the needed strategy of life it the proper education connected with the constant researches and studies of the universe. As Plato claims in his Republic, it “will be our salvation, if we believe that the soul is immortal, and hold fast to the heavenly way of Justice and Knowledge”. It is also clear that education both provides knowledge needed and develops human reason, which should keep in obedience two lower parts of personality in order to provide inner harmony. Thus, knowledge is the best mean to achieve justice, while justice is the condition of happiness.

The social dimension of Plato’s ethics is just the collective interpretation of its personal level. It is clear through Republic where the concept of Plato’s ideal state performs two functions: the image of an ideal society and the metaphor of a harmonized personality. The reason for this conclusion is clear through the book II of the mentioned text, where Socrates proposes to “enquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them”. The reason for this approach is the claim that “in in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible”. Thus, it becomes obvious that for Plato, state and individual exist in accordance with the same rules, tend to the same virtues, are corrupted by the same vices, and in fact, the difference between them concerns only their sizes. Thus, according to Plato’s teaching, “human beings are not born alike, but with different abilities that predestine them for different tasks in a well-ordered state”. Plato divides all people into three groups with a reference to a myth of the creation of people: thus, every person includes some metal in her body: philosophers include gold, warriors include silver, and others (workers and peasants) include brass and iron. It is clear that three groups of people correspond to three parts of individuality, and thus philosophers are ruled by their reason, warriors – by their spirit, and others – by their appetites. In this way, the best way to provide social ethics is to treat each person in accordance with her nature that presupposes her belonging to one of three mentioned groups. In the same way, every person should behave in society according to her nature in order to support the common harmony. Surely, this task also includes the development of such virtues as knowledge and justice, but on the collective level.

As long as the main condition of collective well-being is justice, it is clear that the collective justice is more important than any individual interest. In this way, Plato’s conclusion is that the sacrifice of personality for the collective sake is preferred because it should save the fuller realization of justice by banishing a smaller one. The ethics of Plato is also based on the teleological fundamentals because it explains different aspects of social and personal life with the reference to the world harmony, mathematical rules and other arguments that may be accepted only in a case if the world is considered to be essentially unified. Thus, the ethical teaching of Plato is the way to use the scientific knowledge to provide ‘correct’ social and personal rules of behavior.

The Ethical System’s Explanation

The theoretical core of Plato’s philosophy is his metaphysical teaching in which he explains the reality through the prism of two worlds’ opposition. The first world is the ‘real reality’ and is represented by the pure forms or ideas that include no matter and thus always remain incorruptible, indestructible and ideal in all relations. As long as there ideas have no matter, they are transcendental, and there is no way for people to approach it as any other geographical realm by their physical body. Another world, the world of idols, is represented by the physical reality in which people live. As long as matter is corruptible, this quality is also characteristic to the world of idols in general, that is why there are diseases, death and other phenomena, that do not exist in the world of ideas. As well as the reality in general, human beings also have two natures: the ideal one and the material one. The way to happiness lays through the development of the former one and the salvation from the matter’s limitations that make people suffer and die. The main goal of human life is to achieve the idea of Good, which is the highest one in the ‘real reality’; thus, individual may become free from the material world and achieve all qualities of the transcendental world. This anthropological aspect of Plato’s philosophy is the main justification of his ethics because in fact the task of education, social and personal development as well as the approaching of justice is the salvation from the material world which represents ‘evil’ in Plato’s theoretical system. The unity of the universe and the applicability of all general principles to separate spheres of reality (such as the social or personal life) is also justified by the teaching about the world of forms that determine the world of matter. The universality of mathematical rules is clear because mathematics is the most abstract field of knowledge, and in this way, it operates with numbers that are closest to inapproachable forms or ideas.

The hierarchy of human personality’s parts as well as the social hierarchy of Plato’s philosophy are also justified by the teaching about two worlds. The appetitive part of personality is the closest to the material world, and in this way it needs the highest control and the most attentive limitations. This part is inclined to disharmonious state very much because of its long distance from the heavenly world of ideas. The spiritual part may be either useful or dangerous because it may provoke either vicious fury or virtuous courage depending on the reason’s control over it. The reason for that is a higher position of the spiritual part in comparison with the appetitive one: thus, the former one is closer to the world of ideas, and this detail makes it ‘better’. At last, the reasonable part of personality has nothing with the material world, and this specifics makes possible the rational understanding of the materially inapproachable world of ideas. 

In this way, the ethics of Plato is primarily based on the metaphysical teaching about the world of pure immaterial ideas that oppose the corruptible matter, which attempts to look like its counterpart. Thus, the metaphysical justification of Plato’s ethics makes people obey the teleological interpretation of the world and behave as a harmonious part of the general cosmic structure governed by the same mathematical rules on all levels of its existence.

The Personal Evaluation of Plato’s Ethical Teaching

After the research of Plato’s ethical system, I feel ambiguously with it. In my opinion, his teaching would be very useful and effective, but only to some extent. The problem of Plato’s theory of the universe is the lack of any limitations in the applicability of this theory. Such specifics of Platonism makes it dangerous in the sphere of ethics and the sphere of social sciences in general.

Teleological approach of Plato allows him to apply his theory to all aspects of the reality. In this way, the application of Plato’s teaching to any society presupposes the totality of its implementation to all spheres of public and personal life. The reference to the metaphysical essence of the reality would justify any injustices, especially when those are committed by the ‘philosopher-kings’ who are naturally supposed to be right in any case being people who possess the virtue of knowledge. As Karl Popper also underlines, “It opens a way, in the social realm, towards some kind of social engineering; and it makes possible the forging of instruments for arresting social change, since it suggests designing a ‘ best state ‘ which so closely resembles the Form or Idea of a state that it cannot decay”. According to Popper, Plato’s approach to the reality bears such phenomenon as ‘historicism’ that interprets the history through the prism of the belief in destiny as well as through the acceptation of some social myths that organize and lead the society toward some common goal. In my opinion, such totality of ideology as well as the stable conservatism of a society, which shares the teaching of Plato, resembles such historical examples as the USSR and Nazi Germany that also were organized in order to achieve some common goal and treated the collective interested more than individual. Such ethics which justifies totalitarianism is not applicable to the today’s societies based on the acceptation of human life, dignity and private property as the highest values society has no rights to violate. I would prefer the social order with the respect to human individuality, and thus in my opinion the best way to make collective life good is to respect individual rights of the members of that society. It seems to me, that Plato’s ethical teaching contradicts to such a model.


Thus, through the analysis provided, the Platonic ethics may look ambiguously. On the right hand, it should be respected as one of the most ancient and well-known attempts to provide ethical teaching in accordance with the universal notions concerning the world. On the left hand, the universal specifics of Plato’s ethics makes possible its totalitarian implementation as well as the teleological interpretations of the social reality that undermines liberal approaches. Thus, despite the historical importance of Plato’s ethical system, its practical aspect looks very doubtful and unwanted because it contradicts to the today’s liberal views that treat an individual as the highest value of society and prohibit sacrifices of individuals for the collective sake. 

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