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Philebus is one of latest writings by Plato. Perhaps for this reason this dialogue is more complex and deep comparatively to other dialogues. The famous irony of Socrates is absent in Philebus, his reasoning is more philosophical and less poetical as usual. In many of previous dialogues the personality of interlocutor was important for understanding the dialogue. In Philebus the main interlocutor Protarchus, the son of Callias, is just a person who agrees with Socrates’ sentences or ask him suggestive questions, and his personality doesn’t influence on the dialogue.
In Philebus Socrates develops some ideas started previously and touches many other issues. Researches consider Philebus as the dialogue resuming all the main points of Plato’s philosophy. However, the multitude of themes makes some of them contradictory, unfinished, and vogue.
Nevertheless, the few leading ideas are deeply discussed in Philebus: the unity of contradictions, the relation of one and many, the nature of pleasure and suffering, the four main elements, the concept of good, the nature of knowledge and wisdom and so on.
It this work I stop on the Socrates concept of pleasure and try to give my own interpretation to some unclearness in it.
At the very beginning of the discussion Socrates reminds his audience the words of Philebus about the pleasure making them the starting point of his reasoning:
“Philebus was saying that enjoyment and pleasure and delight, and the class of feelings akin to them, are a good to every living being, whereas I contend, that not these, but wisdom and intelligence and memory, and their kindred, right opinion and true reasoning, are better and more desirable than pleasure for all who are able to partake of them, and that to all such who are or ever will be they are the most advantageous of all things.” (11c)
As it obvious from this passage, Socrates puts wisdom on the top position in his hierarchy of values. This is just the confirmation of his views because the thought of wisdom supremacy could be often found in other dialogues. Such the beginning of the dialogue makes the reader thinking that this discussion is concentrated around the comparative analysis of pleasure and wisdom, but the range of problems in the dialogue is wider.
Socrates starts the dialogue with the discussion of multiple nature of pleasure and goes to groundlessness of all theories proclaiming the unity of opposites.
“Do not rely upon this argument, which would go to prove the unity of the most extreme opposites.” (13a) This sentence he uses to start the discussion of one and many (14с – 16с), and the dialectical reasoning about the nature of good.
Then Socrates scrutinizes the pleasure without wisdom and intelligence and the mind without pleasure or pain, going to the life with the mixture of them.
“Then now there can be no doubt that neither of them has the good, for the one which had would certainly have been sufficient and perfect and eligible for every living creature or thing that was able to live such a life; and if any of us had chosen any other, he would have chosen contrary to the nature of the truly eligible, and not of his own free will, but either through ignorance or from some unhappy necessity.” (22c)
Operating with the simple and easy-understandable comparison with eating and hunger, thirst and moisture, Socrates defines pleasure and pain:
“Hunger, for example, is a dissolution and a pain. (…) Whereas eating is a replenishment and a pleasure? Thirst again is a destruction and a pain, but the effect of moisture replenishing the dry Place is a pleasure. (…) And would not the general proposition seem to you to hold, that the destroying of the natural union of the finite and infinite, which, as I was observing before, make up the class of living beings, is pain, and that the process of return of all things to their own nature is pleasure?” (32, b,c)
Through the consecution Socrates analyzes the true pleasure and states that the strongest pleasures aren’t the true pleasure because the strongest pleasures are related to painful state of body and soul. In some way Socrates put on the same footing love as well as other strong emotions and diseases. True pleasures, on Socrates opinion, are related to moderateness. At the end of the dialogue Socrates substantiates his criteria of true pleasure with the dialectical approach to existence and formation.
Despite the fact the main idea of Philebus in the concept of pleasure, Socrates starts his reasoning from the very abstract ideas, and his logical connectives sometime are rather unclear. On the one hand, Socrates provides the easy-to-understand examples and arguments for his audience. Thus, speaking about the nature of pain and pleasure he appeals bodily to feelings without going far to the spiritual pain and pleasure. On the other hand, his approach leaves many open questions and contradictions. Thus, the most clear and coherent part of the dialogue, which describes the dialectics of existence, Socrates should speak about the dialectics of pleasure, but he goes to the good, as in many other places of this dialogue (53с – 65е). Even the final five-staged hierarchy of goods in the end of the dialogue is vogue and contradictory, mostly because Socrates doesn’t mention the good, though earlier he proved the good was the initial cause of mixture.
The structure of this dialogue is rather inhomogeneous, and it seems that even students couldn’t follow their teacher Socrates. Among the other opinions about the origin of this structure Dorothea Frede proposes the one that is related to “the riddle of Academy.” She thinks that this dialogue should go in relations with other discussions of different philosophical issues in the Academy, this is the kind of response. The very name of this dialogue – Philetus – is the evidence of this point of view. Philetus is the name of another teacher or lector in Academy. He presents in the Socrates audience, but doesn’t take part in conversation. Philetus views are mostly unknown, though some of them are obvious from Socrates sentences.
Frede supposes this structure and Plato’s writing style were among the reasons of students’ questions absence. Really, in many Plato’s dialogues questions help to understand the high level of abstraction and investigate some complicated issues. In Philebus Plato had difficulty making himself understood. Probably he intentionally cloaked his dialogues’ meaning, or students all too often may not have been in position to raise relevant questions, despite their proximity to their master and teacher.
Nevertheless, the structure and contradictions of the dialogue can’t overshadow the number of brilliant sentences and reasoning in the dialogue.
Returning to the nature of suffering it would be interesting to discuss one of the contradictions of Philetus. As was stated above, Socrates doesn’t approve unity and multitude discretely; he speaks that these ideas can’t go separately as well as limit and infinite. The logic can be implemented to ideas of pain and suffering: they can’t go one without other, and pleasures without pain are false.
The interesting issue can be tracked in this reasoning; Socrates tells that only preceded and imperceptible pleasures are true pleasures, but us is quit different to classify the pleasure of eating or drinking. Socrates himself named hunger and thirst as the pains, but can it be concluded that the eating and drinking are pleasures without pain, and that is why they are false pleasures? I think this philosophical issue can be solved in the following way: the philosophers should divide the eating and gluttony, the drinking and the debauchery. If we discuss eating, this is preceded pleasure: most of people know that they will eat soon. If the person moderately eats ordinary meals, the pleasure of eating is imperceptible. We even can find some pain in this pleasure: wise person always stop eating before he or she overeat, though the stomach still demands for more food.
However, if we speak about the gluttony, it can be confidently stated that this pleasure is the pleasure without pain, according the anti-hedonistic classification of Socrates.
Here it should be mentioned that hedonists philosophers built their agenda around the pleasure, the pleasure was the core concept of this branch of philosophy. In simple words the main idea of hedonism could be explained as “more pleasure – more good.” That is no wonder that the ideas of hedonists were the object of severe criticism for other philosophers, and Socrates was one of them.
Thus, the eating for pleasure is the false pleasure because true pleasure is the eating to liquidate hunger, which is to say to remove the pain.
The same principle can be used for the pleasure of drinking. Drinking as the process of suppression thirst is the true pleasure, and drinking for the process of drinking or for the further alcohol intoxication is the false pleasure.
Thus, the pleasure of eating and drinking in general don’t excessively or deficiently fit into the schema; however distinguishing eating and drinking by the aim of the process we can classify these pleasures according the scheme of Socrates.
Another contradiction of this dialogue is that Socrates, in establishing the elements involved in the mixture that is the good life, allows these pleasures into the mixture as necessary to sustain human life (62e). However, they don’t appear in the final ranking of the goods:
Then, Protarchus, you will proclaim everywhere, by word of mouth to this company, and by messengers bearing the tidings far and wide, that pleasure is not the first of possessions, nor yet the second, but that in measure, and the mean, and the suitable, and the like, the eternal nature has been found. (…)
In the second class is contained the symmetrical and beautiful and perfect or sufficient, and all which are of that family. (…)
And if you reckon in the third class mind and wisdom, you will not be far wrong, if I divine aright. (…)
And would you not put in the fourth class the goods which we were affirming to appertain specially to the soul-sciences and arts and true opinions as we called them? These come after the third class, and form the fourth, as they are certainly more akin to good than pleasure is.” (66a-67b)
Summarizing the final ranking of goods, Dorothea Frebe describes it as the following:
(1) measure, (2) the proportioned, fine, complete, etc. (3) reason and intelligence, (4) the sciences and arts, (5) pure pleasures.
The question of inclusion of pleasure to eat and drink to this final ranking of the goods is still open because the position of Socrates isn’t clear. If he considered eating and drinking as true pleasures, it is impossible to understand why he missed it in the final ranking of good. However, the pleasure of eating and drinking doesn’t correspond to Socrates’ concept of false pleasure, and it would be coherent to allow these pleasures into the mixture as necessary to sustain human life.
Frebe supposes that the eating and drinking was viewed by Socrates as a necessity and not a good that is why they are absent in the final ranking. This argument could be easily proven wrong by looking at the final ranking. Reason and intelligence, which take the third stage in the ranking, can be also viewed as a human necessity to survive, thus they should be removed from ranking of goods. Thus, the absence of eating and drinking in the final ranking of good is incoherent.
On the other hand, probably Plato didn’t include the most intense and the greatest pleasures in a good life because they are false. Above the division of eating and drinking was provided, but Plato didn’t make such division. It made the classification of these pleasures more complicated, but at the same time it helped to explain the absence of eating and drinking among the goods. Plato claimed that only the purest and highest forms of pleasure and knowledge are central to the good life. The eating and drinking were considered as the lower types of pleasure could interfere with the higher ones, so they have to be barred.
The “Philebus” is the very important part of the Plato’s oeuvre because of its textual and philosophical uniqueness. The main ideas and concepts of Plato’s philosophy appear in this dialogue one way or another. Again Plato demonstrates the brilliant understanding and development of the dualistic philosophy. His mastery in this sphere could be observed in that part of dialogue, in which Socrates speaks about the unity and multitude, pain and suffering.
The main question of Philebus is the eternal competition between good and happy life, between pleasure and insight. Together with Socrates Plato studies these issues from different perspectives and goes to the final conclusion about the mixture of insight and pleasure, which is necessary to the happy life. Plato’s conception of pleasure is interesting and differentiated, though at the same time it is rather hard for understanding. It is worth mentioning that the subjective opinion, under Socrates arguments, can have an influence on pleasure, and sometimes pleasure consists of an opinion.
Plato didn’t include the pleasure of eating and drinking to the solution of discussion: the final ranking of good. Though Dorothea Frebe supposes eating and drinking is a necessity no good, this point of view doesn’t correspond to the final ranking.
Plato. Philebus. Dorothea Frede (tr.): Translated with Introduction and Notes. Pp. lxxx+83. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993