Archive for September 2004

Plato’s Theory of the Forms: A Refutation of Psychological Egoism

September 29, 2004

Class: Philosophy 42, Professor Flanagan

This paper is a response to Plato’s Republic. I will discuss his use of the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave to repudiate psychological egoism, which is the belief that man always acts in his own self-interest. First, I will review the egoist position which Thrasymachus and Glaucon advocate in Books I and II. Second, I will recount the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave from Books VI and VII. Third, I will explain the connection between the stories, Plato’s view of the epistemological plight of the ordinary person, his vision of man’s epistemological and moral development, and his reason for believing that only the man who reaches the highest stage of development is truly happy. Finally, I will argue that Plato successfully defeats the egoists’ claim that man always works in his own self-interest. I will note the strength of his explanation of the existence of transcendent values and his reasons man should follow them instead of his own self-interest, and I will address the weaknesses of these views.

Thrasymachus and Glaucon argue that man is only just when it is advantageous for him; therefore, he is inherently selfish. According to Thrasymachus, a just man who obeys the laws is weakening himself because the rulers write the laws to benefit themselves, not their subjects (338c-e, 339b, 343c). The man who breaks these laws is acting in his own self-interest outsmarts his superiors and proves himself virtuous and wise (343c-d, 348b-349a). A truly brilliant man can manipulate his fellow citizens so well that he conquers the city and becomes the source of justice himself (344a-c). Glaucon says that justice is also a product of selfishness (358e-359a). Men agree to act justly so they will not destroy each other; however, if they could do whatever they wished without fear of retaliation, they would act completely unjustly (360d). Glaucon illustrates this truth through the Myth of the Lydian Shepherd. The shepherd discovers a ring which gives him the power of invisibility (359d-360a). Given total freedom of action, he seduces the queen, kills the king with her help, and takes the throne for himself (360b-c).

Plato expresses his metaphysics with the analogy of the Divided Line (509d-511e). He first cuts the line into two unequal sections; the lesser part is the physical world, and the greater part is the spiritual world. He then divides the physical world into a lesser part, Imagination, and a greater part, Belief, and the spiritual world into a lesser part, Thought, and a greater part, Understanding. Each section of the line represents a different level in the hierarchy of reality. The lowest plane of existence is the world of Imagination (509d-e). This is the world of shadows and reflections of physical objects. The world of Belief contains actual physical entities such as rocks, animals, and plants (510a). The next stage is spiritual; we cannot perceive it with the five senses, but this extrasensory dimension is more real than ours. The plane of Thought contains the ideal forms of the objects we encounter in the physical world (510c-e). Whenever I think of a chair, I imagine not a physical chair but the form of the chair. These incorporeal forms are essential for knowledge, including the sciences. Mathematicians, for example, draw physical representations of objects, but they are actually concerned with the ideal objects: the triangle, the square, the circle. Euclid’s ideal line has no width, but our senses are too limited to see it, so all drawings of the line have width.
The world of Thought gives us great freedom, but the knowledge it gives us depends on “first principles,” also known as assumptions (511a-b). For example, Euclidean geometry is based on the postulates of the point, the line, and the plane. The largest and most advanced section of the Divided Line, Understanding, treats these principles as mere hypotheses. In this level, I gain understanding of those concepts and jump from them to still higher levels of knowledge (511c-d). This realm includes abstract virtues such as love, moderation, and justice. At the very top of the line is the Form of the Good, which Plato says is so beautiful that we cannot comprehend it (507b). Plato compares it to the Sun; it is too bright for our eyes to see it, but by its light we perceive everything else in the world (507a-509c). This form illuminates all the others.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave provides his view of man’s epistemological and moral growth. In this example, a group of men have been chained inside a cave since childhood (514a). The cave is a long tunnel which declines from the world above to the depths of the earth; these men are at the bottom. They are bound so tightly that they can only see the wall directly in front of them. Behind them is a screen like the kind used for puppet shows; behind the screen is a fire (514b). Sometimes, men walk between the screen and the fire carrying different objects (514c-515a). The captive men see the shadows of the objects on the wall and think they are the full extent of reality; they hear the conversations of the other men and think the shadows are speaking to them (515b-c).

One day, one of the men is freed from his bondage. He turns around and sees the fire; the bright light causes pain, and he feels confusion because there are objects and men in place of the shadows (515c-d). He denies the reality of these things and wishes to return to his previous existence (515e). Someone drags him out of the cave and into the outside world, nonetheless (515e-516a). The sun initially blinds him, but after his eyes adjust, he studies this new world and comes to understand its ways and the falsehood of his previous existence (516b-c). He pities his ignorant fellows below (516c-d). Eventually, he returns to the cave, despite the disorienting darkness and the abuse of his arrogant associates who think his eyesight is ruined, to free the others from their bonds and to teach them about the light (516e-517a).

In this story, the captive men represent humanity; the cave is the physical world, and the lands above are the spiritual world (517b). The man’s journey from the bottom of the cave to the outside world mirrors his journey through the sections of the Divided Line; the more he learns in the higher planes of reality, the better he understands the lower ones. The Sun represents the Form of the Good. It is good for its own sake; if it disappeared, the entire world would plunge into impenetrable darkness and die, including the men in the cave. Once man understands this form, all of existence becomes clear to him. The common man’s epistemological plight is that without the help of education and a good society, he will spend his entire life chained in his corner of the world thinking that it is all that exists. His moral and epistemological development is extremely painful; his muscles have never been used, and his eyes are accustomed to total darkness. Plato says that enlightenment must be worth the effort because the man who sees the sun never wants to leave it, and he considers his happiness in his previous life incomprehensible. He even returns to the cave despite the danger and discomfort because he feels compassion for his brothers and wants to show them the truth.

Plato successfully refutes Thrasymachus’s and Glaucon’s claim that man always works in his own self-interest by proving that transcendent values exist; they are good, and choosing them over self produces happiness. Especially strong is his substantiation of the existence of abstract concepts like justice. Whereas the egoists say justice is difficult to define because it is a subjective value which depends on the whims of mankind, Plato explains that men cannot define it because their minds are not yet advanced enough to comprehend it. Our failure to understand something does not preclude its existence. The egoist could then respond that the forms are purely theoretical and might not exist at all. Admittedly, the theory of the forms is impossible to prove; nevertheless, it provides satisfactory explanations for abstractions like mathematical thought or our innate sense of right and wrong, and egoism does not. Plato explains these phenomena, and the egoists do not; therefore, Plato has the upper hand.

Plato also provides compelling reasons for man to put justice ahead of himself. The spiritual realm is good; the philosopher loves it, and he feels so strongly that others should see it that he returns to the cave to show fellow men the way to the light. Thrasymachus could reply that man does these things because they make him happy, an egoist reason. In this case, the egoist misunderstands the nature of choice. I choose an action because I want to do it, but this does not mean it is in my self-interest. Re-entering the cave is a selfless action because man intentionally risks his own life for other people. He does it because it is the right thing to do; his own happiness is merely a side effect.

Thrasymachus and Glaucon argue that justice is a powerless concept, and man only acts in his own self-interest. Using the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave, Plato refutes their claims. He proves that abstract forces like justice and goodness have objective existence and intrinsic value, and man should devote himself to understanding them despite the hardships of the journey towards knowledge. Man can only achieve true happiness when he accepts something greater than himself.

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Sherlock Holmes’s Appeal

September 23, 2004

Sherlock Holmes’s drug use, boxing ability, disinterest in women, and gloomy outlook on life surprise and interest me.  Doyle might have created such a character to engender trust in his readers; I know that Holmes will never get distracted while solving a case because improving his mind and solving mysteries are his sole source of enjoyment.  His inductive abilities inspire thinkers everywhere.  His predilection for cocaine and morphine make me very concerned for his health; I hope he always has crimes to solve!  Holmes’s characteristics show that nineteenth century Englishmen considered the world a dark and dangerous place (Watson’s descriptions of grimy London contribute to the effect) in which the criminals are more intelligent than the police.  Holmes alone is dark and brilliant enough to match these adversaries.

Response to Charles Dickens’s “Hunted Down”

September 21, 2004

In “Hunted Down,” Charles Dickens says that a student of humanity can immediately, intuitively pinpoint a criminal – “hate at first sight,” if you will.  It is as if a criminal exudes “evil” pheromones that only people with keen insight can detect.  Nevertheless, the miscreant can fit perfectly into society and can fool most people, including his closest friends and family members.  He can be very intelligent, weaving a cunning web of deceit and manipulating institutions to his advantage.  He is perfectly confident in his skills until he is caught red-handed; then, he despairs and destroys himself.

It is ironic that the narrator of this story is named Mr. Sampson because Dickens’s statement that some people are innately evil comports with the sentiments of M. B. Sampson and Lombroso.  These two authors believed that the skull and facial structures, respectively, were clues to the character of a man.  The narrator believes that a man’s face provides clues of his villainy; Julius Slinkworth (an exceptionally evil name) has a dark complexion with parts his hair up the middle of his skull, an unusual practice.  Slinkworth’s sneaky strategy of buying insurance policies for his friends and family and then slowly poisoning them to death mirrors the tactics of Doctors Palmer and Pritchard in Altick’s “Murder and the Victorian Mind.”  Slinkworth resembles Jonathan Wild of the Newgate Calendar because both use high social status to achieve great villainy.

On the Extraordinary Difficulty of Changing a Man’s Mind

September 20, 2004

In the first chapter of Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault assesses the transformation of the penal system during the last few centuries: “From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights” (11).  He says that today’s justice system punishes the beliefs of the criminal rather than the crime; the punishments are delegated to a bevy of psychologists and social workers, and sentencing is relative to the beliefs, mental condition, and good behavior of the convicted man: “’We punish, but this is a way of saying we wish to obtain a cure’” (17, 19, 21-22).  M. B. Sampson anticipates Foucault with his account of the radical Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania which tried to reshape criminals’ minds rather than attacking their bodies (69).  Both writers deny this process is more humane than physical torture; Sampson even says it is more uncomfortable than the old method (76).  M. B. Sampson’s Rationale of Crime and Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish agree that psychological punishment is intensely painful because it is an expression of power over a criminal and a direct attack on his beliefs in order to change his soul, strengthening Foucault’s claims about the changes in criminal justice procedures in recent centuries.

The authors state that a warden who holds psychological power over a criminal can completely control his life, leaving the prisoner frustrated, desperate, injured, and helpless.  In Sampson’s example, the jailer controls the people and activities with which a criminal has recourse and can thus manipulate his thoughts and feelings.  The jailer first removes his charge from all sources of negative influence, including his peers, using solitary confinement (69-71).  There, “he is abandoned to that solitary anguish and remorse which his reflection must inevitably produce.”  This tactic starves a prisoner’s mind so much that he accepts anything the warden gives him. He learns to love forced manual labor and contact with “persons duly qualified,” probably priests, doctors, and the jailers themselves (72).  Foucault states that the mental methods are as brutal as the psychological ones because both types are manifestations of the countless power struggles that define human relationships (22-25, 30).  The medieval government punished a man’s body because that’s all he could threaten (25).  In our more sophisticated era, freedom is valuable, so the government tortures criminals by restricting their rights (30).   Prisoners find this loss of autonomy revolting, so they revolt even though modern prisons are relatively comfortable.  When a man loses power over his life, the texts agree, he feels stung, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

Sampson and Foucault further assert that when a prison attempts to reform a prisoner’s soul, it shocks his identity and thus causes him profound pain.  Sampson’s warden explains: “the most severe pain which can be inflicted upon any offender is precisely that pain which results from a philosophical treatment for his cure” which he will “afterwards remember with mingled feelings of gratitude and terror” (76).  Whereas torture and death merely satisfy a wrongdoer’s love for destruction, psychological punishment completely alters his view of the world (80-81).  The institution notes that it annually addresses cases of dementia as consequences of the treatment (73-74).  Foucault quotes Mably to make explicit the goal of the penal system: “Punishment, if I may so put it, should strike the soul rather than the body.  Is there a diminution of intensity?  Perhaps.  There is certainly a change of objective” (16).  Foucault says that the soul is the recipient of society’s constant imposition of values upon its captive victims, and these assaults on a man’s consciousness are analogous to body blows (29-30).  According to the authors, efforts to help a man by reshaping his values and worldview are as harsh as flogging.

Michel Foucault claims that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a period when prisons shifted the focus of their penalties from the body to the soul, but this did not make them happier or more humane institutions.  M. B. Sampson anticipates and confirms his argument when he lauds the Eastern State Penitentiary for its liberal strategy of scouring and reinventing criminals’ souls.  This method only seems gentler; thanks to its exertion of will over an individual and its effort to change the lynchpins of his identity, it is as painful as the rack, the pillory, drawing and quartering, or any of the other torture devices of antiquity.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

September 15, 2004

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that time is neutral, and humanity moves forward not because of benevolent historical forces but because some individuals have worked to radically change their environments within their lifetimes. In effect, he is saying that mankind is revolutionary, not evolutionary. One can expand this thesis to repudiate Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, which teaches that human relations are based on the principle of the “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists hold that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants dominate society because they are genetically superior to other races and will eventually achieve victory over all other people.

According to King’s theory, WASPs hold power and privilege not because of genetic superiority but because they have taken positive action to get it and to exclude other people from sharing their wealth. Blacks have inferior social status only because of their restrictive social environment and their previous unwillingness to revolt against the power structure and demand change. Whites’ current power is no justification for their continued power because such relations are fluid and dependent on the actions of specific individuals. Distinctions in the genetic makeup of men are minimal compared to distinctions in their actions. It is the man who works, not the man who waits, who achieves happiness.

Problems with my Objectivist Professor

September 15, 2004

The trouble with Objectivists is that they think they’re objective. This is a special problem because one of this school’s (Objectivism’s) most unique traits is its misinterpretation of certain terms, movements, institutions, and philosophers. Half of the work I do for Philosophy 56S (named “Reason, Virtue, and Rights in History” but actually an exercise in indoctrination) is checking my professor’s distortions of the truth. Dr. Gary Hull is a leading member of the Ayn Rand Institute and an editor of her books, and he has already given us a logically frivolous proof against the existence of God, lies about the teachings of major religions, Aristotle, and Immanuel Kant, and a misrepresentation of the state of philosophy during the Middle Ages. Part of the problem is that he isn’t a real Philosophy teacher; he used his pull in the academic world to snag this class against the will of the Philosophy Department. I don’t mind having such an adversarial teacher because he inspires me to do research which makes my faith stronger, but he sometimes frustrates me. Henceforth, I will research each professor before I decide to spend a semester with him.

I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has experienced this dilemma. To my friends experiencing the same, I say: keep your faith, and check your sources. We must be wary of people who base sound logic on unsound facts.

Response to “Apology”

September 13, 2004

Socrates’s argument in the Apology that exile is not a feasible punishment for him is an unjustified repudiation of his filial responsibilities. When he took a wife and produced children, Socrates assumed the responsibility to provide care for them. As long as they are his dependents, he must do everything within the bounds of morality to help them. In exile, he can provide masculine, paternal support and education to his house. To abandon his family is to break his agreement with them and to commit a sin of omission.

At one point, Socrates protests this option by saying people would speak ill of him if he left the state which raised him, and that no other place would accommodate him as much as Athens did. This argument is inconsistent with Socrates’s own philosophy; at the beginning of Crito, he states that a man must always do the right thing no matter what other people say. In this situation, taking exile is the most moral choice, so he must take it regardless of the grumbling of men.

My claim is also consistent with Socrates’s theory of the social contract. During that discourse, he compares Athens to a loving parent: “We have given you birth, nurtured you, educated you; we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could.” To him, disobedience to the state is like disobedience to the family. This metaphor shows that he considers the filial contract important; thus, he should honor his own. Accepting exile would not break his contract with Athens, either, for it would give him the sentence. It is Socrates’s most moral choice.