Musings About Platonic Virtues and Forms

Last week, I traveled down to Felician College in northern New Jersey to give a talk, or more specifically, a current research workshop session, hosted by the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs -- "Just What is A Platonic Virtue?" (video of the talk and discussion is available here)

This is a topic about which I've been thinking for quite some time, and intending eventually to write an article, so given an opportunity to present my current reflections on the topic to an audience of interested philosophy majors and professional colleagues -- the latter of whom I could count on to know Plato's texts and key ideas well -- I was very happy to come down, lay out the problematic as I had come to envision it, and get some useful feedback from my peers.

At its most basic, if I were to put the matter in bullet-point form -- which admittedly ends up being a bit reductive and misleading (but also does have its benefits) -- here's how I'd frame it:
  • In his moral theory, Plato is a virtue ethicist -- an important innovator in that tradition -- for whom four (or perhaps five) virtues are central.
  • These virtues -- Wisdom, Justice, Courage, Temperance (and perhaps Piety) -- exist in persons, specifically within their souls.  On that basis, we can speak of and identify acts, communities, and other types of things as being "virtuous" or instances of virtues as well.
  • These virtues are also Platonic Forms, the unchanging patterns in which the virtues as existing in human souls participate, to which they bear some imperfect resemblance, and by which the virtues in human beings can be identified and understood as virtues.
  • Plato does not tell us much that is determinate about these Forms of Virtue -- Justice itself, Courage itself, Wisdom itself.
  • When we examine the texts in which Plato depicts, or speculates about, virtues as they exist in human beings, he does tell us considerably more about what these patterns in the human soul comprise.
  • Possessing a virtue in one's soul involves having knowledge or understanding about some matters.
  • In at least in some of the virtues possessing a virtue also involves other aspects (e.g. in the case of courage a sort of endurance in relation to affects like pain or fear, as well as a proper ordering of the thumotic part of the soul in itself and in relation to the other parts).
  • When considering the role of knowledge in Plato's account of virtues, we can distinguish between a person having knowledge of the Form of that Virtue (e.g. knowing the Form of Justice, and thereby knowing what justice is) and a person having knowledge of the matters that virtue bears upon or involves (e.g. justice seems to involve knowing what the proper ordering of the parts of the soul are, and knowing how to create or preserve that ordering).
  • One key question then is: Given that we have some understanding of what virtues in a human soul are, comprise, or ought to look like, what are the more real, unchanging, entirely-what-they-are Virtues as Forms?  What do they look like?
  • Another key question:  What precisely is the relationship of participation between the Form of a Virtue and the multiple, material, mutable instantiations of that virtue in human souls?
  • Part of what is particularly problematic:  Clearly there will be some differences between the Form of a Virtue and that virtue as existing in human souls. Specifically, certain of the aspects -- both of knowledge and of other matters (e.g. endurance, affect, ordering) -- constituative of a virtue as a pattern in a human soul cannot possibly be also in the Form of the Virtue.
  •  The other part: It would be tempting to say that these aspects are just a function of the fact that virtue as existing in human souls is patterns impressed upon multiple, materialized, changeable things entangled within a whole world of such things.  But. . . at least in the case of virtues, these aspects aren't unessential dross -- they're at the very heart of what it means to be virtuous, to have those virtues.
  • So then, as we try to reconstruct what we might cheekily call the Platonic "metaphysics of morals". . . just what is a virtue in a person, and just what is a Virtue as a Form, and just how are these actually related to each other, as participating to participated-in, as copy to original pattern?

As I remarked during the presentation, thinking through all of this may seem to inevitably lead to a simple conclusion -- Plato's account, as such, simply can't work.  I noted that if we do adopt such an interpretation, there are several directions we can go as we think about the ontological status of virtues, one of them leading us to Aristotle, and another into theistic (mainly Christian) neo-Platonism -- though a Stoic approach would be another possibility.

At the very least, what we can say is that when we try to thoughtfully integrate as many of the accounts of virtue worked out or suggested in the Platonic body of dialogues, what seems to result is a problematic in which, we might say, everything makes sense enough locally, but doesn't globally.  For me, that's a puzzle and a shame, not least since I'm attracted -- perhaps irrationally, if I think it all the way through -- to some variation of Platonism when it comes to the virtues (I'm not in bad company, of course, since it includes Augustine and Anselm). 

When I started out on this project of poring back over all the Platonic dialogues, drawing myself diagrams, thinking through implications, I had in mind that I'd be able to develop and articulate some entirely coherent account of just precisely what virtues -- in both senses -- are and how the Form is related to the pattern in a person's soul.  What I have learned is that there are no simple, straightforward answers to this that really hold up when they're pushed, when they're put to further questions -- not surprising, of course, since as Plato himself has Socrates remark, we really want accounts that are able to answer our questions, not only initial ones, but also the more difficult and on-point ones arising in the process of inquiry.

The last bit that I'll say here -- reserving some additional discussion for followup posts -- is that presenting at the workshop has been particularly helpful for me for getting a much better sense of what explanatory groundwork I'll need to do in order to push this project further, in the direction of an essay or article.  It's very easy when one is immersed in a thinker, going over and over their texts, thinking along their lines of thought, drawing connections, distinctions, and conclusions, to forget just how much one's perspective becomes a kind of "from the inside" viewpoint -- and how much work is required to align that perspective with those of one's peers and colleagues who are not mulling over that particular issue or problematic, who are not revisiting those texts, with anything like the frequency characteristic to one's own studies, reflections. . .  or obsessions.

As it turned out -- if you watch or listen to the talk, this becomes readily apparent -- I was less than entirely clear in some parts of my presentation, and in setting out the architectonic of the basic problem itself.  Fortunately, I had three interlocutors in particular -- each challenging me, and the interpretation of Plato's texts I advanced on a different set of issues.  One (who has written a very nice blog entry here) suggested that my real issue was with Platonic forms as such, and virtues only secondarily.  Another suggested that it was confusions about types and objects of knowledge that was generating the problematic.  A third brought up the possibility of Platonic mystical experience as a resolution for the issues I was raising.

So, that's good. . . Doubtless these aren't all of the likely responses I need to anticipate and respond to as I begin transforming notes into actual writing -- but they certainly provide some excellent starting points for engaging potential critics as I develop my own sympathetic criticism of Plato himself on these matters of the ontology of virtue.