The Desirable Beauty of Virtue in Plato’s Republic

In light of the above quote, it is interesting to note that Plato begins the Republic with the premise that living a virtuous life, however difficult it may be at times, brings happiness to the individual and to the community. (An idea foreign or even repugnant to many who live in the 21st Century.)  In fact, he equates what we might translate as justice, virtue, and/or excellence in English from one Greek term.

But over five thousand years later, in today’s United States, the usual understanding of  “justice” is ever evolving toward the latest group to be awarded victim status and their demands for reparations of some sort as social justice. I doubt that such an idea ever occurred to Plato.

Today, virtue signaling carries much more weight than virtue lived out. Actually, the lived out version has almost been forgotten. If mentioned in secular society, “virtue” is regarded with the same the same red faced tittering usually saved for stories about one’s aging maiden aunt who never quite fit in with the real world of fun, games, and good times.  Perhaps, elderly women drinking tea together in the afternoon might mention virtue without blushing, but both cool kids and adults  “know for a fact” that it’s a poisonous term that’s totally incompatible with happiness.  

Interestingly enough our word “virtue” came to the English speaking world from the Latin word, vir, for men.  Today, however, most men would cringe at being called virtuous even though it originally referred to manly valor. Virile is probably the most common English word derived from vir, although virago is reserved for a woman who acts bravely – like a man. It used to refer to women like Judith or Joan of Arc, but now is associated with a difficult woman, full of anger, who adopts masculine actions.             

In this century, many reserve the word “excellence” for either athletic or musical performances; it would never occur to  most writers, readers, or speakers to associate it with virtuous actions or decisions. 

Only to the extent that we’re virtuous, are we able 

to thrive in our human relationships.”  

*Dr. John Cuddeback

Fortunately, for us sceptics who silently seethe as we watch dishonest people thrive, grow rich, and become famous even though they proudly show no interest in living a virtuous life, **Plato  also thoroughly defends his premise in later chapters.  He does so, not only on the personal level, but on the level of the city-state. Thus, the great effort required to live virtuously benefits both the person and society as a whole. In fact, Plato posits that not only does living a life of virtue bring happiness; it is happiness. 

One after another Plato records the objections and examples from those ancient Greeks who questioned his premise. Their challenges resemble similar arguments that come to our minds as we read Plato. The conversations are presented as a debate, not a series of  ***ad hominem attacks. Plato is both thorough and eloquent as he elaborates and explains his ideas. 

My favorite part is where he refutes those who think that if they are clever enough to disguise their self serving ways in order to have the reputation for being virtuous while still lying, cheating, and stealing, can find the same level of happiness as the man who actually does act justly. It almost sounds like Plato had been watching the shenanigans of some of the current denizens of our nation’s capital. 

Plato ices his cake with his explanation that not only does the self-serving man not enjoy true happiness, even his supposed pleasure of living out wrong desires does not provide the satisfaction he seeks. It’s easy to see his point if one has ever watched a friend or family member descend from pursuing the escape of pain to addiction to the depths of despair and loss that often end in suicide. Or, if one observes the beautiful desire for sexual fulfillment being used selfishly until it degrades the whole culture.  As time goes by, practices that were once perversions become accepted. Then applauded. And finally defended legally to the extent that those who abstain must keep their beliefs private to avoid litigation, fines, and possible imprisonment. Meanwhile, the perpetrators walk around still somewhat dissatisfied and disappointed.

Frankly his book inspired me more than many lectures and homilies about ethicial behavior from Christian or Jewish leaders. These two Greeks  who lived and wrote centuries before the coming of Christ figured out logically the practical aspects of living happily even without the Jewish and Christian concepts and books that are generally considered inspired. I am amazed.

When asked how he values justice in Book II, Socrates replies: 

I myself put it among the finest good, 

as something to be valued 

by anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness, 

both because of itself and because of what comes from it.

 

 

* Dr. John Cuddeback is a Professor of Philosophy at Christendom College and author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. Some of these ideas came from two of his lectures: Plato’s Republic and The Discovery of Virtue.

**Plato wrote the book, but most of the dialogue and ideas come directly from Socrates, his mentor. So one could easily attribute this work to either philosopher since Socrates did not leave any written record.

***”When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.” Socrates

9 thoughts on “The Desirable Beauty of Virtue in Plato’s Republic

  1. This is a very good analysis of the loss of the valuable Western ideals that formed what is good, beautiful and important in our culture. Hedonism seems to be the recognized virtue of our time. It’s a shame!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree, Carol. What I appreciate about Plato and Socrates is that they came to their conclusions about happiness by observing, then thinking logically about the data. This is not a Sunday School lesson or a Goody-Two-Shoes idea, this is a premise that has withstood millions of debates over thousands of years.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment and your follow. Plato makes me wish I’d majored in Philosophy instead of English Literature. Thank heavens for the Internet, Audible, Great Courses, etc. for the education they make available to all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry to be late telling you how much I appreciate your comment. I’ve recently rediscovered Plato and Socrates and almost feel like they’re my new best friends. Hope I don’t bore everyone with my new appreciation of their wisdom.

      Like

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