The good life examined


Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...
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It is in the wit of the character of Socrates within Plato’s late work Philebus that one finds the ideals and necessities of living the ‘good life’ discussed by the central protagonist in uncharacteristic terms.  That is, here the reader finds Socrates’ wit not keen or ironic [as one might find in the early Dialogues], nor apparently ignorant of all knowledge [as one might find in the middle  Dialogues]; rather, one finds that the author’s mentor has been situated in the narrative such that a development of argumentation serves as a context from which the, as yet, unforeseen condemnation and death [Phaedo] of the master becomes a meter to the poverty of the unexamined life lived through the type of pleasure-seeking hedonism weakly espoused and personified by the character Philebus, albeit, through his mouthpiece and advocate Protarchus. It is here then that the character responsible for the introduction to the dialogues of the doctrine of desire, the character of Philebus, appears as little more than a very occasional, often foolish, voice in the proceedings that follow.  But why is this?  Perhaps the answer to this question lies at the very heart of the Philebus; the doctrine of pleasure our eponymous arch-fool has been charged with defending is merely the vehicle for an analysis which prepares the way for a far greater prize, that is, how one might not just cogitate idly upon the summum bonum but rather use as something to engage with experientially, something tangible to take in and use to inform the good life in a most practical sense.

As has been said by the scholar of ancient Greek, Waterfield,  the suggestion can be made that the character of Protarchus (as the stand-in for Philebus’ feebleminded oratory) is pointed up as a character to the fore in the exchanges precisely because of the dramatic effect which results on the ensuing dialogical exchange. This dramatic staging serves as if to position pleasure and knowledge per se in as a direct comparative analysis as plausibility would allow. Each making clear their claim to rightful sovereign perspective on the introspective moral composition of the ‘good life’ as a ideal; and, perhaps in equal measure, the dialogical dual at hand is staged between Protarchus and Socrates in order to heighten considerably the freight of moral argument against the waste of a life of hedonistic pleasure, as exampled through Philebus’ seeming complete inability to in part or full compliment grasp the position taken by the probing questioning Socrates. It is in this way perhaps that Protarchus ‘becomes’ Philebus’ mouthpiece from the immediacy of an insufficiency and necessity born directly out of Philebus’ own physical limitations. In other words, the pleasure-seeker does not possess the skills of reasoning required to take on the import of that which Socrates subtly introduces for consideration as the rational course of action.

For Plato, even at the acknowledged zenith of his philosophical powers, the issuing debates cannot be said to be a thing for the comfortable amusement of those in the know. Rather, the text laboriously moves through an interesting but quite easily guessable progression of logical inferences in pursuit of false arguments: (i.) that both pleasure and knowledge are both insufficient in themselves to inaugurate or sustain the ideal of the good life; (ii.) that both pleasure and knowledge may, if adequately analysed, be found to coextensively be the two component parts of the ideal of the good life, (iii.)  that the combination of pleasure and knowledge is still insufficient for living the good life, if living the good life is then examined through individual ethical actions [praxis], (iv.) that the praxis of living the ‘good life’ is not the same as discovering the goodness of the good life, and that perfection, sufficiency and desirability must be applied to both pleasure and knowledge in turn to discover the true or false nature of the good, or goodness, in the good life.

That said, the continuance of pleasure and reason is of course the main natural concern of the dialogue; here the reader may recall the battle cry of Bentham’s much later utilitarianism, where “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Bentham, 1789)[1].

Notwithstanding, one might also recall that the revolution in thought demanded by Freudian and post-Freudian notions of a human being decentred – psychoanalysis – is based squarely in the early tripartite model upon the imposition of a psychic primacy for the avoidance of unpleasure, only later to be supervened upon in the structural model by the agency of ego as the embodiment of the reality principle (see also this succession as a development in Freudian thought, 1895; 1900; 1911; 1920; 1923). That is, psychoanalysis can be said to be based upon the enduring assumption of an ontogenesis for pleasure as a need and gratification and wish-fulfilment cast within the energetic precipitation mechanisms of an architectonics of systems and primary-processes of mental systems. That is, the subject with agency is impelled toward a sublimation of drives deriving from a substrate of consciousness, continually shifting in representative formations through the powers of the imagination (as displeasure avoidant and dread-fear avoidant), by the specific means of sub-processes known as condensation and displacement (primary processes) prior to the mediation of secondary process (egoic) thought. It is therefore conspicuously because of this main concern of the Philebus work with the nature of pleasure set in motion against reason, and cast as component analyses of the resultant ‘good life’, perhaps, that Plato’s Philebus offers more than a pinch of seasoning to the history of psychoanalytical ideas and the ethical basis for right thought and action.


[1] Bentham, J., (1789), ‘An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation’ cited in Warnock, M., (ed. 1962) Utilitarianism, London and Glasgow: The Fontana Press

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