Thursday, September 24, 2009

Questions of Knowledge

Part 11 of Prisoners of the Real

The intellectual achievements of Athenian society before and during the life of Plato have almost no parallel in the recorded history of humanity. The small state of Athens, about the size of Connecticut, made unprecedented contributions to literature, thought, and the fine arts. After expelling the tyrant Hippias in 510 B.C., Athenians discovered a new confidence in themselves and sought forms for the expression of creative instincts and a harmonious order for ideas. For the next century the state experimented with an aristocratic approach to democracy, developed the arts of architecture, sculpture and poetry, expressed a unity of social goals, and pursued a path of hard and rigorous thought.

Plato's early life coincided with the completion of the Parthenon and the Peloponnesian War, which later shattered Athens' empire. He knew Socrates from boyhood and developed an early interest in politics. After Socrates execution, however, he cynically concluded that, "public affairs at Athens were not carried on in accordance with the manners and practice of our fathers." Thus, he began 18 years of travel in Greece, Egypt and Italy. Upon returning, he founded The Academy, and presided over it for the rest of his life. This school became the intellectual center of Greek life.

Using the ideas of Socrates as his foundation, Plato lectured regularly without manuscripts or notes, setting out his "problems" for solution through the collective effort of his students. Science, law, philosophy – all came under scrutiny. Eventually, other city-states and colonies sought out The Academy to furnish advisers on legislative and scientific matters.

Plato's ideal was a world order in which the logical process of dialectic was used to obtain and classify ideas. In The Meno, for example, he examined the features of knowledge – the need for definition, the difficulty of knowing when a true answer has been reached, the "innate" ability to recall ideas, and the existence of degrees of knowledge. It began with Socrates' suggestion, originally proposed in The Protagoras, that if virtue is based on something objective such as knowledge it can therefore be taught. A person should inquire "about that which he does not know," knowledge that is possessed by the soul and released through questioning:

“Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to inquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not; that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.”

Truth, said Socrates, could be reached through both knowledge and right opinion, with both serving as guides to right action. Meno followed up with a question about the preference for knowledge, and, according to Plato, Socrates replied by explaining that both knowledge and opinions must be "fastened":

“I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when fastened they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, Friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honorable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.”

The distinction between opinion and knowledge, both of which can be acquired through teaching, was pursued further in Euthydemus, which critiqued the exploitation of ambiguities by the Sophists while demonstrating the need for definite criteria of valid thinking:

“If a person had wealth and all the goods of which we were just now speaking, and did not use them, would he be happy because he possessed them?”

“No indeed, Socrates.”

“Then I said, a man who would be happy must not only have the good things, but he must also use them; there is no advantage in merely having them?”


“Well, Cleinias, but if you have the use as well as the possession of good things, is that sufficient to confer happiness?”

“Yes, in my opinion.”

“And may a person use them either rightly or wrongly.”

“He must use them rightly.”

“That is quite true, I said. And the wrong use of a thing is far worse than the non-use; for the one is an evil, and the other is neither a good nor an evil.”

Through their discussion Cleinias, Euthydemus and Socrates deduced that happiness is gained only through the right use of things, that this use is made possible by knowledge, and that "everybody ought by all means to try and make himself as wise as he can."

In another dialogue Theaetetus, a member of The Academy and the founder of solid geometry, explored the nature of truth. His discussion with Socrates revealed Plato's synthesis of intuition and analysis in the knowing process. Truth can't be reached only through sense impressions, he concluded, nor identified by easy intuition. The two aspects of knowing – perception and definition – must be used together; substance and structure irreducibly linked:

“Socrates: The simple sensations which reach the soul through the body at birth are given to men and animals by nature, but their reflections of the being and use of them are slowly and hardly gained, if they are ever gained, by education and long experience.”

“Theaetetus: Assuredly.”

“And can a man attain truth who fails of attaining being?”


“And can he who misses the truth of anything, have a knowledge of that being?”

“He cannot.”

“Then knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them; in that only, and not in mere impression, truth and being can be attained?”


Despite this pairing of perception and definition, however, Socrates and Plato accorded knowledge discovered through logical effort the primary role in the search for truth. Intellectual rigor was the standard in this knowledge society, and "wise men" – those most capable on analysis – were seen as the appropriate leaders of the ideal social order.

The long and arduous educative process of life, as described by Plato in The Republic, is molded by each individual's experience as a citizen of the state. Recognizing differences in and degrees of ability, the ideal state secures appropriate parentage and equal opportunity based on ability, and maintains an ethical aristocracy. Throughout the development of this model state, the values of logic, self-control and order are strongly emphasized. Plato's ideal society is ruled by the wise – that is, those who keep instincts under the control of their intellects, and populated by citizens who embody the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Speaking to Glaucon, Socrates explained that equal distribution of authority ends in degeneration; what is required is state-enforced unity of political and cultural goals. The life of the citizen must be "coordinated" in his and society's best interests. Opinions, right or not, and discussion not in accord with the goals of the ethical aristocrats must be controlled or prohibited. The alternatives are bleak: timocracy – governance based on ambition; oligarchy –rule by a privileged groups, which remains the status quo in many modern societies; democracy – defined by Plato as government by the incompetent average; or tyranny – the exercise of arbitrary power. Although Plato's ideal society calls for strict obedience to the authority of the state, it attempts to eliminate favoritism by overruling the family. All children are held in common, and those who demonstrate the highest mental ability are trained for leadership.

Clearly, Plato's description of utopia made the state essential to the full development of humanity. Unfortunately, this established a lasting precedent: that in an ideal world the organization itself determines the ends and the methods for achieving them. Socrates had argued that knowledge was the only criterion of virtue acceptable in a rational world. His student, Plato, detailed the nature of this knowledge, and provided a seminal description of a society governed by the process of thought. Their concepts led eventually to the development of philosophical systems hinged on a desire to find satisfaction in life through self-control, moderation, and the suspension of judgment.

Assuming that the "base instincts" and "selfish passions" of human nature posed a fundamental threat to an orderly world, these philosophers and their successors concluded that humanity could only be held in check through unwavering allegiance to logic, a bondage to rational explanation.

Next: The Path of Certainty

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

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