Form and Meaning of Happiness in Plato

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An Analysis of the Form and Meaning of Happiness in Plato’s Republic

I. Introduction

One of the central claims of Plato’s Republic is that justice is not only desirable for its own sake, but that it maximises the happiness of those who practice it. This paper examines Plato’s arguments in support of this thesis to determine (a) what he means by happiness, (b) to what extent it exists in his proposed ideal state, and (c) whether this in any way substantiates his claims about the benefits of justice. In particular, I will argue that there are two different conceptions of happiness at play in The Republic, and two methods of achieving its highest form, namely the pursuit of justice and philosophy, before arriving at a final definition of the Platonic Form1 of happiness—a matter that Plato touches on only briefly in the text, but that is nevertheless central to his thinking on the subject.

II. Happiness and Pleasure

I will begin by considering the distinction between happiness and pleasure, and the language that Plato uses to describe the two. The word used most often in the text to describe happiness is eudaimonia, which may also be translated as ‘flourishing’ (Vlastos: 108). In contrast to the English word ‘happiness’, this suggests a ongoing process or activity, rather than a particular state of mind or emotion. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into this linguistic distinction as Plato uses eudaimonia more or less interchangeably with ‘pleasure’ (hēdonē), and it carries the same hedonistic connotations (ibid.). Unlike ‘happiness’, however, eudaimonia can be ascribed both to the state and the soul (psychē)2 in accordance with the central thesis of The Republic that these two entities share a common structure. Indeed, Socrates states several times that societal flourishing is more important than the happiness of any individual class or citizen (420b–421c, 519d–521a),3 implying that personal happiness is a means to an end rather than an end in its own right. This runs contrary to the tradition of ancient Greek thought, in which happiness is seen as the ultimate end and motivation behind all human activity (Vlastos: 108). This suggests that Plato has his own, more novel conception of happiness in mind.

Despite the lack of a consistent terminology, the distinction is made between pleasures of the flesh arising from bodily desires for food, sex, etc., and the superior pleasures of the intellect enjoyed by the guardian class (485d). Indeed, when Glaucon suggests that pleasure may be the Form of the good, he is soundly rebuked by Socrates who tells him to ‘Be silent … Do not even mention the word.’ (509a; cf. 505c). The descriptions of the pleasure seeking nature of democratic individuals (561b) and the just man, who pursues a balanced and harmonious lifestyle, not surrendering himself to ‘savage and unreasoning pleasure’ (591c) show that Plato’s view was that pursuit of happiness and pleasure for its own sake leads only to injustice and enslavement. This amounts to a clear condemnation of hedonism, and is illustrated by the example of the tyrant who is not only unhappy but is a ‘true slave’ to his own desires (579e).

In defence of pleasure, Plato has two different accounts to offer. The first arises from the distinction between ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’ desires or appetites, which are said to produce corresponding types of pleasure (559c–d). The desire for bread and simple food, for example, is seen as both productive and necessary, whereas the desire for Sicilian à la carte and Attic pastries is considered extravagant, unnecessary and therefore to be avoided (404d).4 However, this distinction fails to take into account the happiness or pleasure of the philosopher, which cannot be described as ‘necessary’ in any ordinary sense, and so the analysis must be rejected as incomplete. This defect is resolved in the second account, which identifies three forms of pleasure that correspond to the three...
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