Plato and the good life
21 September 2013 § Leave a comment
I’m listening to Thelonious Monk as rain patters steadily, casting my vision of this afternoon’s outing to a music festival in a perspective rather dripping than otherwise. The petrichor is marvellous, though.
I wrote this a while ago after reading Gorgias and an article that was written more recently. Better to publish splintered musings than to leave them sitting there forever?
Consider this: rhetoric as unethical knack.
If we seek the good life—that is, if we decide what the good life is and set our minds and hearts to seek it—we must eventually run up against questions about the relationship between our personal lives and tenets of individualism on one side and the life of the community on the other.
The main point of Plato’s Gorgias (the title echoes a Greek Sophist who is a figure in the book) is Socrates’s argument that to do wrong is worse than to suffer wrong. Defining “worse” as more harmful and, specifically, as more disastrous to the soul, Socrates extends his argument to the realm of contemporary politics and to oratory more generally. His conversation partners, teachers and practitioners of oratory, assert the importance of rhetoric as a weapon in one’s arsenal in view of the contemporary culture: Individual citizens had to defend themselves in court.
As securing the jury’s support was essential, then, to one’s self-protection, one employed language to his own ends, whether right or wrong—if he was shrewd. If smart, he perhaps noticed that this was counter-productive in light of his convictions about society, culture, and government. If wise, he used rhetoric for good ends only and as fitting with his underlying philosophical stance; that is, how he defines the good life. The good life, rather than a vague idea of the correct way to secure one’s happiness, must be seen as the result of a specific posture of the mind.
Sticking to our own contemporary ideas, we may consider the good life as something that extends from our conception of success. What is best?—we seek this, and we seek to be the fittest, so that we can succeed in what we think is best. Fittest, though, may be shrewdest and not necessarily best; and good may be better than best, according to this definition.
If you really want to know about the good life, read War and Peace.