The Philebus appears to be one of the later writings of Plato, in which the style has begun to alter, and the dramatic and poetical element has become subordinate to the speculative and philosophical. In the development of abstract thought great advances have been made on the Protagoras or the Phaedrus, and even on the Republic. But there is a corresponding diminution of artistic skill, a want of character in the persons, a laboured march in the dialogue, and a degree of confusion and incompleteness in the general design. As in the speeches of Thucydides, the multiplication of ideas seems to interfere with the power of expression. Instead of the equally diffused grace and ease of the earlier dialogues there occur two or three highly-wrought passages; instead of the ever-flowing play of humour, now appearing, now concealed, but always present, are inserted a good many bad jests, as we may venture to term them. We may observe an attempt at artificial ornament, and far-fetched modes of expression; also clamorous demands on the part of his companions, that Socrates shall answer his own questions, as well as other defects of style, which remind us of the Laws. The connection is often abrupt and inharmonious, and far from clear. Many points require further explanation; e.g. the reference of pleasure to the indefinite class, compared with the assertion which almost immediately follows, that pleasure and pain naturally have their seat in the third or mixed class: these two statements are unreconciled. In like manner, the table of goods does not distinguish between the two heads of measure and symmetry; and though a hint is given that the divine mind has the first place, nothing is said of this in the final summing up. The relation of the goods to the sciences does not appear; though dialectic may be thought to correspond to the highest good, the sciences and arts and true opinions are enumerated in the fourth class. We seem to have an intimation of a further discussion, in which some topics lightly passed over were to receive a fuller consideration. The various uses of the word 'mixed,' for the mixed life, the mixed class of elements, the mixture of pleasures, or of pleasure and pain, are a further source of perplexity. Our ignorance of the opinions which Plato is attacking is also an element of obscurity. Many things in a controversy might seem relevant, if we knew to what they were intended to refer. But no conjecture will enable us to supply what Plato has not told us; or to explain, from our fragmentary knowledge of them, the relation in which his doctrine stood to the Eleatic Being or the Megarian good, or to the theories of Aristippus or Antisthenes respecting pleasure. Nor are we able to say how far Plato in the Philebus conceives the finite and infinite (which occur both in the fragments of Philolaus and in the Pythagorean table of opposites) in the same manner as contemporary Pythagoreans.
There is little in the characters which is worthy of remark. The Socrates of the Philebus is devoid of any touch of Socratic irony, though here, as in the Phaedrus, he twice attributes the flow of his ideas to a sudden inspiration. The interlocutor Protarchus, the son of Callias, who has been a hearer of Gorgias, is supposed to begin as a disciple of the partisans of pleasure, but is drawn over to the opposite side by the arguments of Socrates. The instincts of ingenuous youth are easily induced to take the better part. Philebus, who has withdrawn from the argument, is several times brought back again, that he may support pleasure, of which he remains to the end the uncompromising advocate. On the other hand, the youthful group of listeners by whom he is surrounded, 'Philebus' boys' as they are termed, whose presence is several times intimated, are described as all of them at last convinced by the arguments of Socrates. They bear a very faded resemblance to the interested audiences of the Charmides, Lysis, or Protagoras. Other signs of relation to external life in the dialogue, or references to contemporary things and persons, with the single exception of the allusions to the anonymous enemies of pleasure, and the teachers of the flux, there are none.
The omission of the doctrine of recollection, derived from a previous state of existence, is a note of progress in the philosophy of Plato. The transcendental theory of pre-existent ideas, which is chiefly discussed by him in the Meno, the Phaedo, and the Phaedrus, has given way to a psychological one. The omission is rendered more significant by his having occasion to speak of memory as the basis of desire. Of the ideas he treats in the same sceptical spirit which appears in his criticism of them in the Parmenides. He touches on the same difficulties and he gives no answer to them. His mode of speaking of the analytical and synthetical processes may be compared with his discussion of the same subject in the Phaedrus; here he dwells on the importance of dividing the genera into all the species, while in the Phaedrus he conveys the same truth in a figure, when he speaks of carving the whole, which is described under the image of a victim, into parts or members, 'according to their natural articulation, without breaking any of them.' There is also a difference, which may be noted, between the two dialogues. For whereas in the Phaedrus, and also in the Symposium, the dialectician is described as a sort of enthusiast or lover, in the Philebus, as in all the later writings of Plato, the element of love is wanting; the topic is only introduced, as in the Republic, by way of illustration. On other subjects of which they treat in common, such as the nature and kinds of pleasure, true and false opinion, the nature of the good, the order and relation of the sciences, the Republic is less advanced than the Philebus, which contains, perhaps, more metaphysical truth more obscurely expressed than any other Platonic dialogue. Here, as Plato expressly tells us, he is 'forging weapons of another make,' i.e. new categories and modes of conception, though 'some of the old ones might do again.'
But if superior in thought and dialectical power, the Philebus falls very far short of the Republic in fancy and feeling. The development of the reason undisturbed by the emotions seems to be the ideal at which Plato aims in his later dialogues. There is no mystic enthusiasm or rapturous contemplation of ideas. Whether we attribute this change to the greater feebleness of age, or to the development of the quarrel between philosophy and poetry in Plato's own mind, or perhaps, in some degree, to a carelessness about artistic effect, when he was absorbed in abstract ideas, we can hardly be wrong in assuming, amid such a variety of indications, derived from style as well as subject, that the Philebus belongs to the later period of his life and authorship. But in this, as in all the later writings of Plato, there are not wanting thoughts and expressions in which he rises to his highest level.
The plan is complicated, or rather, perhaps, the want of plan renders the progress of the dialogue difficult to follow. A few leading ideas seem to emerge: the relation of the one and many, the four original elements, the kinds of pleasure, the kinds of knowledge, the scale of goods. These are only partially connected with one another. The dialogue is not rightly entitled 'Concerning pleasure' or 'Concerning good,' but should rather be described as treating of the relations of pleasure and knowledge, after they have been duly analyzed, to the good.
(1) The question is asked, whether pleasure or wisdom is the chief good, or some nature higher than either; and if the latter, how pleasure and wisdom are related to this higher good.
(2) Before we can reply with exactness, we must know the kinds of pleasure and the kinds of knowledge.
(3) But still we may affirm generally, that the combined life of pleasure and wisdom or knowledge has more of the character of the good than either of them when isolated.
(4) to determine which of them partakes most of the higher nature, we must know under which of the four unities or elements they respectively fall. These are, first, the infinite; secondly, the finite; thirdly, the union of the two; fourthly, the cause of the union. Pleasure is of the first, wisdom or knowledge of the third class, while reason or mind is akin to the fourth or highest.
(5) Pleasures are of two kinds, the mixed and unmixed. Of mixed pleasures there are three classes—(a) those in which both the pleasures and pains are corporeal, as in eating and hunger; (b) those in which there is a pain of the body and pleasure of the mind, as when you are hungry and are looking forward to a feast; © those in which the pleasure and pain are both mental. Of unmixed pleasures there are four kinds: those of sight, hearing, smell, knowledge.
(6) The sciences are likewise divided into two classes, theoretical and productive: of the latter, one part is pure, the other impure. The pure part consists of arithmetic, mensuration, and weighing. Arts like carpentering, which have an exact measure, are to be regarded as higher than music, which for the most part is mere guess-work. But there is also a higher arithmetic, and a higher mensuration, which is exclusively theoretical; and a dialectical science, which is higher still and the truest and purest knowledge.
(7) We are now able to determine the composition of the perfect life. First, we admit the pure pleasures and the pure sciences; secondly, the impure sciences, but not the impure pleasures. We have next to discover what element of goodness is contained in this mixture. There are three criteria of goodness—beauty, symmetry, truth. These are clearly more akin to reason than to pleasure, and will enable us to fix the places of both of them in the scale of good. First in the scale is measure; the second place is assigned to symmetry; the third, to reason and wisdom; the fourth, to knowledge and true opinion; the fifth, to pure pleasures; and here the Muse says 'Enough.'
'Bidding farewell to Philebus and Socrates,' we may now consider the metaphysical conceptions which are presented to us. These are (Section 1) the paradox of unity and plurality; (Section 2) the table of categories or elements; (Section 3) the kinds of pleasure; (Section 4) the kinds of knowledge; (Section 5) the conception of the good. We may then proceed to examine (Section 6) the relation of the Philebus to the Republic, and to other dialogues.
Section 1 - The Paradox of Unity and Plurality.
The paradox of the one and many originated in the restless dialectic of Zeno, who sought to prove the absolute existence of the one by showing the contradictions that are involved in admitting the existence of the many (compare Parm.). Zeno illustrated the contradiction by well-known examples taken from outward objects. But Socrates seems to intimate that the time had arrived for discarding these hackneyed illustrations; such difficulties had long been solved by common sense ('solvitur ambulando'); the fact of the co-existence of opposites was a sufficient answer to them. He will leave them to Cynics and Eristics; the youth of Athens may discourse of them to their parents. To no rational man could the circumstance that the body is one, but has many members, be any longer a stumbling-block.
Plato's difficulty seems to begin in the region of ideas. He cannot understand how an absolute unity, such as the Eleatic Being, can be broken up into a number of individuals, or be in and out of them at once. Philosophy had so deepened or intensified the nature of one or Being, by the thoughts of successive generations, that the mind could no longer imagine 'Being' as in a state of change or division. To say that the verb of existence is the copula, or that unity is a mere unit, is to us easy; but to the Greek in a particular stage of thought such an analysis involved the same kind of difficulty as the conception of God existing both in and out of the world would to ourselves. Nor was he assisted by the analogy of sensible objects. The sphere of mind was dark and mysterious to him; but instead of being illustrated by sense, the greatest light appeared to be thrown on the nature of ideas when they were contrasted with sense.
Both here and in the Parmenides, where similar difficulties are raised, Plato seems prepared to desert his ancient ground. He cannot tell the relation in which abstract ideas stand to one another, and therefore he transfers the one and many out of his transcendental world, and proceeds to lay down practical rules for their application to different branches of knowledge. As in the Republic he supposes the philosopher to proceed by regular steps, until he arrives at the idea of good; as in the Sophist and Politicus he insists that in dividing the whole into its parts we should bisect in the middle in the hope of finding species; as in the Phaedrus (see above) he would have 'no limb broken' of the organism of knowledge;—so in the Philebus he urges the necessity of filling up all the intermediate links which occur (compare Bacon's 'media axiomata') in the passage from unity to infinity. With him the idea of science may be said to anticipate science; at a time when the sciences were not yet divided, he wants to impress upon us the importance of classification; neither neglecting the many individuals, nor attempting to count them all, but finding the genera and species under which they naturally fall. Here, then, and in the parallel passages of the Phaedrus and of the Sophist, is found the germ of the most fruitful notion of modern science.
Plato describes with ludicrous exaggeration the influence exerted by the one and many on the minds of young men in their first fervour of metaphysical enthusiasm (compare Republic). But they are none the less an everlasting quality of reason or reasoning which never grows old in us. At first we have but a confused conception of them, analogous to the eyes blinking at the light in the Republic. To this Plato opposes the revelation from Heaven of the real relations of them, which some Prometheus, who gave the true fire from heaven, is supposed to have imparted to us. Plato is speaking of two things—(1) the crude notion of the one and many, which powerfully affects the ordinary mind when first beginning to think; (2) the same notion when cleared up by the help of dialectic.
To us the problem of the one and many has lost its chief interest and perplexity. We readily acknowledge that a whole has many parts, that the continuous is also the divisible, that in all objects of sense there is a one and many, and that a like principle may be applied to analogy to purely intellectual conceptions. If we attend to the meaning of the words, we are compelled to admit that two contradictory statements are true. But the antinomy is so familiar as to be scarcely observed by us. Our sense of the contradiction, like Plato's, only begins in a higher sphere, when we speak of necessity and free-will, of mind and body, of Three Persons and One Substance, and the like. The world of knowledge is always dividing more and more; every truth is at first the enemy of every other truth. Yet without this division there can be no truth; nor any complete truth without the reunion of the parts into a whole. And hence the coexistence of opposites in the unity of the idea is regarded by Hegel as the supreme principle of philosophy; and the law of contradiction, which is affirmed by logicians to be an ultimate principle of the human mind, is displaced by another law, which asserts the coexistence of contradictories as imperfect and divided elements of the truth. Without entering further into the depths of Hegelianism, we may remark that this and all similar attempts to reconcile antinomies have their origin in the old Platonic problem of the 'One and Many.'
Section 2 The Table or Categories of Elements.
The first of Plato's categories or elements is the infinite. This is the negative of measure or limit; the unthinkable, the unknowable; of which nothing can be affirmed; the mixture or chaos which preceded distinct kinds in the creation of the world; the first vague impression of sense; the more or less which refuses to be reduced to rule, having certain affinities with evil, with pleasure, with ignorance, and which in the scale of being is farthest removed from the beautiful and good. To a Greek of the age of Plato, the idea of an infinite mind would have been an absurdity. He would have insisted that 'the good is of the nature of the finite,' and that the infinite is a mere negative, which is on the level of sensation, and not of thought. He was aware that there was a distinction between the infinitely great and the infinitely small, but he would have equally denied the claim of either to true existence. Of that positive infinity, or infinite reality, which we attribute to God, he had no conception.
The Greek conception of the infinite would be more truly described, in our way of speaking, as the indefinite. To us, the notion of infinity is subsequent rather than prior to the finite, expressing not absolute vacancy or negation, but only the removal of limit or restraint, which we suppose to exist not before but after we have already set bounds to thought and matter, and divided them after their kinds. From different points of view, either the finite or infinite may be looked upon respectively both as positive and negative (compare 'Omnis determinatio est negatio')' and the conception of the one determines that of the other. The Greeks and the moderns seem to be nearly at the opposite poles in their manner of regarding them. And both are surprised when they make the discovery, as Plato has done in the Sophist, how large an element negation forms in the framework of their thoughts.
2, 3. The finite element which mingles with and regulates the infinite is best expressed to us by the word 'law.' It is that which measures all things and assigns to them their limit; which preserves them in their natural state, and brings them within the sphere of human cognition. This is described by the terms harmony, health, order, perfection, and the like. All things, in as far as they are good, even pleasures, which are for the most part indefinite, partake of this element. We should be wrong in attributing to Plato the conception of laws of nature derived from observation and experiment. And yet he has as intense a conviction as any modern philosopher that nature does not proceed by chance. But observing that the wonderful construction of number and figure, which he had within himself, and which seemed to be prior to himself, explained a part of the phenomena of the external world, he extended their principles to the whole, finding in them the true type both of human life and of the order of nature.
Two other points may be noticed respecting the third class. First, that Plato seems to be unconscious of any interval or chasm which separates the finite from the infinite. The one is in various ways and degrees working in the other. Hence he has implicitly answered the difficulty with which he started, of how the one could remain one and yet be divided among many individuals, or 'how ideas could be in and out of themselves,' and the like. Secondly, that in this mixed class we find the idea of beauty. Good, when exhibited under the aspect of measure or symmetry, becomes beauty. And if we translate his language into corresponding modern terms, we shall not be far wrong in saying that here, as well as in the Republic, Plato conceives beauty under the idea of proportion.
4. Last and highest in the list of principles or elements is the cause of the union of the finite and infinite, to which Plato ascribes the order of the world. Reasoning from man to the universe, he argues that as there is a mind in the one, there must be a mind in the other, which he identifies with the royal mind of Zeus. This is the first cause of which 'our ancestors spoke,' as he says, appealing to tradition, in the Philebus as well as in the Timaeus. The 'one and many' is also supposed to have been revealed by tradition. For the mythical element has not altogether disappeared.
Some characteristic differences may here be noted, which distinguish the ancient from the modern mode of conceiving God.
a. To Plato, the idea of God or mind is both personal and impersonal. Nor in ascribing, as appears to us, both these attributes to him, and in speaking of God both in the masculine and neuter gender, did he seem to himself inconsistent. For the difference between the personal and impersonal was not marked to him as to ourselves. We make a fundamental distinction between a thing and a person, while to Plato, by the help of various intermediate abstractions, such as end, good, cause, they appear almost to meet in one, or to be two aspects of the same. Hence, without any reconciliation or even remark, in the Republic he speaks at one time of God or Gods, and at another time of the Good. So in the Phaedrus he seems to pass unconsciously from the concrete to the abstract conception of the Ideas in the same dialogue. Nor in the Philebus is he careful to show in what relation the idea of the divine mind stands to the supreme principle of measure.
b. Again, to us there is a strongly-marked distinction between a first cause and a final cause. And we should commonly identify a first cause with God, and the final cause with the world, which is His work. But Plato, though not a Pantheist, and very far from confounding God with the world, tends to identify the first with the final cause. The cause of the union of the finite and infinite might be described as a higher law; the final measure which is the highest expression of the good may also be described as the supreme law. Both these conceptions are realized chiefly by the help of the material world; and therefore when we pass into the sphere of ideas can hardly be distinguished.
The four principles are required for the determination of the relative places of pleasure and wisdom. Plato has been saying that we should proceed by regular steps from the one to the many. Accordingly, before assigning the precedence either to good or pleasure, he must first find out and arrange in order the general principles of things. Mind is ascertained to be akin to the nature of the cause, while pleasure is found in the infinite or indefinite class. We may now proceed to divide pleasure and knowledge after their kinds.
Section 3 - The Kinds of Pleasures.
1. Plato speaks of pleasure as indefinite, as relative, as a generation, and in all these points of view as in a category distinct from good. For again we must repeat, that to the Greek 'the good is of the nature of the finite,' and, like virtue, either is, or is nearly allied to, knowledge. The modern philosopher would remark that the indefinite is equally real with the definite. Health and mental qualities are in the concrete undefined; they are nevertheless real goods, and Plato rightly regards them as falling under the finite class. Again, we are able to define objects or ideas, not in so far as they are in the mind, but in so far as they are manifested externally, and can therefore be reduced to rule and measure. And if we adopt the test of definiteness, the pleasures of the body are more capable of being defined than any other pleasures. As in art and knowledge generally, we proceed from without inwards, beginning with facts of sense, and passing to the more ideal conceptions of mental pleasure, happiness, and the like.
2. Pleasure is depreciated as relative, while good is exalted as absolute. But this distinction seems to arise from an unfair mode of regarding them; the abstract idea of the one is compared with the concrete experience of the other. For all pleasure and all knowledge may be viewed either abstracted from the mind, or in relation to the mind (compare Aristot. Nic. Ethics). The first is an idea only, which may be conceived as absolute and unchangeable, and then the abstract idea of pleasure will be equally unchangeable with that of knowledge. But when we come to view either as phenomena of consciousness, the same defects are for the most part incident to both of them. Our hold upon them is equally transient and uncertain; the mind cannot be always in a state of intellectual tension, any more than capable of feeling pleasure always. The knowledge which is at one time clear and distinct, at another seems to fade away, just as the pleasure of health after sickness, or of eating after hunger, soon passes into a neutral state of unconsciousness and indifference. Change and alternation are necessary for the mind as well as for the body; and in this is to be acknowledged, not an element of evil, but rather a law of nature. The chief difference between subjective pleasure and subjective knowledge in respect of permanence is that the latter, when our feeble faculties are able to grasp it, still conveys to us an idea of unchangeableness which cannot be got rid of.
3. In the language of ancient philosophy, the relative character of pleasure is described as becoming or generation. This is relative to Being or Essence, and from one point of view may be regarded as the Heraclitean flux in contrast with the Eleatic Being; from another, as the transient enjoyment of eating and drinking compared with the supposed permanence of intellectual pleasures. But to us the distinction is unmeaning, and belongs to a stage of philosophy which has passed away. Plato himself seems to have suspected that the continuance or life of things is quite as much to be attributed to a principle of rest as of motion (compare Charm. Cratyl.). A later view of pleasure is found in Aristotle, who agrees with Plato in many points, e.g. in his view of pleasure as a restoration to nature, in his distinction between bodily and mental, between necessary and non-necessary pleasures. But he is also in advance of Plato; for he affirms that pleasure is not in the body at all; and hence not even the bodily pleasures are to be spoken of as generations, but only as accompanied by generation (Nic. Eth.).
4. Plato attempts to identify vicious pleasures with some form of error, and insists that the term false may be applied to them: in this he appears to be carrying out in a confused manner the Socratic doctrine, that virtue is knowledge, vice ignorance. He will allow of no distinction between the pleasures and the erroneous opinions on which they are founded, whether arising out of the illusion of distance or not. But to this we naturally reply with Protarchus, that the pleasure is what it is, although the calculation may be false, or the after-effects painful. It is difficult to acquit Plato, to use his own language, of being a 'tyro in dialectics,' when he overlooks such a distinction. Yet, on the other hand, we are hardly fair judges of confusions of thought in those who view things differently from ourselves.
5. There appears also to be an incorrectness in the notion which occurs both here and in the Gorgias, of the simultaneousness of merely bodily pleasures and pains. We may, perhaps, admit, though even this is not free from doubt, that the feeling of pleasureable hope or recollection is, or rather may be, simultaneous with acute bodily suffering. But there is no such coexistence of the pain of thirst with the pleasures of drinking; they are not really simultaneous, for the one expels the other. Nor does Plato seem to have considered that the bodily pleasures, except in certain extreme cases, are unattended with pain. Few philosophers will deny that a degree of pleasure attends eating and drinking; and yet surely we might as well speak of the pains of digestion which follow, as of the pains of hunger and thirst which precede them. Plato's conception is derived partly from the extreme case of a man suffering pain from hunger or thirst, partly from the image of a full and empty vessel. But the truth is rather, that while the gratification of our bodily desires constantly affords some degree of pleasure, the antecedent pains are scarcely perceived by us, being almost done away with by use and regularity.
6. The desire to classify pleasures as accompanied or not accompanied by antecedent pains, has led Plato to place under one head the pleasures of smell and sight, as well as those derived from sounds of music and from knowledge. He would have done better to make a separate class of the pleasures of smell, having no association of mind, or perhaps to have divided them into natural and artificial. The pleasures of sight and sound might then have been regarded as being the expression of ideas. But this higher and truer point of view never appears to have occurred to Plato. Nor has he any distinction between the fine arts and the mechanical; and, neither here nor anywhere, an adequate conception of the beautiful in external things.
7. Plato agrees partially with certain 'surly or fastidious' philosophers, as he terms them, who defined pleasure to be the absence of pain. They are also described as eminent in physics. There is unfortunately no school of Greek philosophy known to us which combined these two characteristics. Antisthenes, who was an enemy of pleasure, was not a physical philosopher; the atomists, who were physical philosophers, were not enemies of pleasure. Yet such a combination of opinions is far from being impossible. Plato's omission to mention them by name has created the same uncertainty respecting them which also occurs respecting the 'friends of the ideas' and the 'materialists' in the Sophist.
On the whole, this discussion is one of the least satisfactory in the dialogues of Plato. While the ethical nature of pleasure is scarcely considered, and the merely physical phenomenon imperfectly analysed, too much weight is given to ideas of measure and number, as the sole principle of good. The comparison of pleasure and knowledge is really a comparison of two elements, which have no common measure, and which cannot be excluded from each other. Feeling is not opposed to knowledge, and in all consciousness there is an element of both. The most abstract kinds of knowledge are inseparable from some pleasure or pain, which accompanies the acquisition or possession of them: the student is liable to grow weary of them, and soon discovers that continuous mental energy is not granted to men. The most sensual pleasure, on the other hand, is inseparable from the consciousness of pleasure; no man can be happy who, to borrow Plato's illustration, is leading the life of an oyster. Hence (by his own confession) the main thesis is not worth determining; the real interest lies in the incidental discussion. We can no more separate pleasure from knowledge in the Philebus than we can separate justice from happiness in the Republic.
Section 4 - The Kinds of Knowledge.
An interesting account is given in the Philebus of the rank and order of the sciences or arts, which agrees generally with the scheme of knowledge in the Sixth Book of the Republic. The chief difference is, that the position of the arts is more exactly defined. They are divided into an empirical part and a scientific part, of which the first is mere guess-work, the second is determined by rule and measure. Of the more empirical arts, music is given as an example; this, although affirmed to be necessary to human life, is depreciated. Music is regarded from a point of view entirely opposite to that of the Republic, not as a sublime science, coordinate with astronomy, but as full of doubt and conjecture. According to the standard of accuracy which is here adopted, it is rightly placed lower in the scale than carpentering, because the latter is more capable of being reduced to measure.
The theoretical element of the arts may also become a purely abstract science, when separated from matter, and is then said to be pure and unmixed. The distinction which Plato here makes seems to be the same as that between pure and applied mathematics, and may be expressed in the modern formula—science is art theoretical, art is science practical. In the reason which he gives for the superiority of the pure science of number over the mixed or applied, we can only agree with him in part. He says that the numbers which the philosopher employs are always the same, whereas the numbers which are used in practice represent different sizes or quantities. He does not see that this power of expressing different quantities by the same symbol is the characteristic and not the defect of numbers, and is due to their abstract nature;—although we admit of course what Plato seems to feel in his distinctions between pure and impure knowledge, that the imperfection of matter enters into the applications of them.
Above the other sciences, as in the Republic, towers dialectic, which is the science of eternal Being, apprehended by the purest mind and reason. The lower sciences, including the mathematical, are akin to opinion rather than to reason, and are placed together in the fourth class of goods. The relation in which they stand to dialectic is obscure in the Republic, and is not cleared up in the Philebus.
Section 5 - The Conception of the Good.
Thus far we have only attained to the vestibule or ante-chamber of the good; for there is a good exceeding knowledge, exceeding essence, which, like Glaucon in the Republic, we find a difficulty in apprehending. This good is now to be exhibited to us under various aspects and gradations. The relative dignity of pleasure and knowledge has been determined; but they have not yet received their exact position in the scale of goods. Some difficulties occur to us in the enumeration: First, how are we to distinguish the first from the second class of goods, or the second from the third? Secondly, why is there no mention of the supreme mind? Thirdly, the nature of the fourth class. Fourthly, the meaning of the allusion to a sixth class, which is not further investigated.
(1) Plato seems to proceed in his table of goods, from the more abstract to the less abstract; from the subjective to the objective; until at the lower end of the scale we fairly descend into the region of human action and feeling. To him, the greater the abstraction the greater the truth, and he is always tending to see abstractions within abstractions; which, like the ideas in the Parmenides, are always appearing one behind another. Hence we find a difficulty in following him into the sphere of thought which he is seeking to attain. First in his scale of goods he places measure, in which he finds the eternal nature: this would be more naturally expressed in modern language as eternal law, and seems to be akin both to the finite and to the mind or cause, which were two of the elements in the former table. Like the supreme nature in the Timaeus, like the ideal beauty in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, or like the ideal good in the Republic, this is the absolute and unapproachable being. But this being is manifested in symmetry and beauty everywhere, in the order of nature and of mind, in the relations of men to one another. For the word 'measure' he now substitutes the word 'symmetry,' as if intending to express measure conceived as relation. He then proceeds to regard the good no longer in an objective form, but as the human reason seeking to attain truth by the aid of dialectic; such at least we naturally infer to be his meaning, when we consider that both here and in the Republic the sphere of nous or mind is assigned to dialectic. (2) It is remarkable (see above) that this personal conception of mind is confined to the human mind, and not extended to the divine. (3) If we may be allowed to interpret one dialogue of Plato by another, the sciences of figure and number are probably classed with the arts and true opinions, because they proceed from hypotheses (compare Republic). (4) The sixth class, if a sixth class is to be added, is playfully set aside by a quotation from Orpheus: Plato means to say that a sixth class, if there be such a class, is not worth considering, because pleasure, having only gained the fifth place in the scale of goods, is already out of the running.
Section 6 - The Relation of Philebus to The Republic And Other Dialogues.
We may now endeavour to ascertain the relation of the Philebus to the other dialogues. Here Plato shows the same indifference to his own doctrine of Ideas which he has already manifested in the Parmenides and the Sophist. The principle of the one and many of which he here speaks, is illustrated by examples in the Sophist and Statesman. Notwithstanding the differences of style, many resemblances may be noticed between the Philebus and Gorgias. The theory of the simultaneousness of pleasure and pain is common to both of them (Phil. Gorg.); there is also a common tendency in them to take up arms against pleasure, although the view of the Philebus, which is probably the later of the two dialogues, is the more moderate. There seems to be an allusion to the passage in the Gorgias, in which Socrates dilates on the pleasures of itching and scratching. Nor is there any real discrepancy in the manner in which Gorgias and his art are spoken of in the two dialogues. For Socrates is far from implying that the art of rhetoric has a real sphere of practical usefulness: he only means that the refutation of the claims of Gorgias is not necessary for his present purpose. He is saying in effect: 'Admit, if you please, that rhetoric is the greatest and usefullest of sciences:—this does not prove that dialectic is not the purest and most exact.' From the Sophist and Statesman we know that his hostility towards the sophists and rhetoricians was not mitigated in later life; although both in the Statesman and Laws he admits of a higher use of rhetoric.
Reasons have been already given for assigning a late date to the Philebus. That the date is probably later than that of the Republic, may be further argued on the following grounds:—1. The general resemblance to the later dialogues and to the Laws: 2. The more complete account of the nature of good and pleasure: 3. The distinction between perception, memory, recollection, and opinion which indicates a great progress in psychology; also between understanding and imagination, which is described under the figure of the scribe and the painter. A superficial notion may arise that Plato probably wrote shorter dialogues, such as the Philebus, the Sophist, and the Statesman, as studies or preparations for longer ones. This view may be natural; but on further reflection is seen to be fallacious, because these three dialogues are found to make an advance upon the metaphysical conceptions of the Republic. And we can more easily suppose that Plato composed shorter writings after longer ones, than suppose that he lost hold of further points of view which he had once attained.
It is more easy to find traces of the Pythagoreans, Eleatics, Megarians, Cynics, Cyrenaics and of the ideas of Anaxagoras, in the Philebus, than to say how much is due to each of them. Had we fuller records of those old philosophers, we should probably find Plato in the midst of the fray attempting to combine Eleatic and Pythagorean doctrines, and seeking to find a truth beyond either Being or number; setting up his own concrete conception of good against the abstract practical good of the Cynics, or the abstract intellectual good of the Megarians, and his own idea of classification against the denial of plurality in unity which is also attributed to them; warring against the Eristics as destructive of truth, as he had formerly fought against the Sophists; taking up a middle position between the Cynics and Cyrenaics in his doctrine of pleasure; asserting with more consistency than Anaxagoras the existence of an intelligent mind and cause. Of the Heracliteans, whom he is said by Aristotle to have cultivated in his youth, he speaks in the Philebus, as in the Theaetetus and Cratylus, with irony and contempt. But we have not the knowledge which would enable us to pursue further the line of reflection here indicated; nor can we expect to find perfect clearness or order in the first efforts of mankind to understand the working of their own minds. The ideas which they are attempting to analyse, they are also in process of creating; the abstract universals of which they are seeking to adjust the relations have been already excluded by them from the category of relation.
The Philebus, like the Cratylus, is supposed to be the continuation of a previous discussion. An argument respecting the comparative claims of pleasure and wisdom to rank as the chief good has been already carried on between Philebus and Socrates. The argument is now transferred to Protarchus, the son of Callias, a noble Athenian youth, sprung from a family which had spent 'a world of money' on the Sophists (compare Apol.; Crat.; Protag.). Philebus, who appears to be the teacher, or elder friend, and perhaps the lover, of Protarchus, takes no further part in the discussion beyond asserting in the strongest manner his adherence, under all circumstances, to the cause of pleasure.
Socrates suggests that they shall have a first and second palm of victory. For there may be a good higher than either pleasure or wisdom, and then neither of them will gain the first prize, but whichever of the two is more akin to this higher good will have a right to the second. They agree, and Socrates opens the game by enlarging on the diversity and opposition which exists among pleasures. For there are pleasures of all kinds, good and bad, wise and foolish—pleasures of the temperate as well as of the intemperate. Protarchus replies that although pleasures may be opposed in so far as they spring from opposite sources, nevertheless as pleasures they are alike. Yes, retorts Socrates, pleasure is like pleasure, as figure is like figure and colour like colour; yet we all know that there is great variety among figures and colours. Protarchus does not see the drift of this remark; and Socrates proceeds to ask how he can have a right to attribute a new predicate (i.e. 'good') to pleasures in general, when he cannot deny that they are different? What common property in all of them does he mean to indicate by the term 'good'? If he continues to assert that there is some trivial sense in which pleasure is one, Socrates may retort by saying that knowledge is one, but the result will be that such merely verbal and trivial conceptions, whether of knowledge or pleasure, will spoil the discussion, and will prove the incapacity of the two disputants. In order to avoid this danger, he proposes that they shall beat a retreat, and, before they proceed, come to an understanding about the 'high argument' of the one and the many.
Protarchus agrees to the proposal, but he is under the impression that Socrates means to discuss the common question—how a sensible object can be one, and yet have opposite attributes, such as 'great' and 'small,' 'light' and 'heavy,' or how there can be many members in one body, and the like wonders. Socrates has long ceased to see any wonder in these phenomena; his difficulties begin with the application of number to abstract unities (e.g.'man,' 'good') and with the attempt to divide them. For have these unities of idea any real existence? How, if imperishable, can they enter into the world of generation? How, as units, can they be divided and dispersed among different objects? Or do they exist in their entirety in each object? These difficulties are but imperfectly answered by Socrates in what follows.
We speak of a one and many, which is ever flowing in and out of all things, concerning which a young man often runs wild in his first metaphysical enthusiasm, talking about analysis and synthesis to his father and mother and the neighbours, hardly sparing even his dog. This 'one in many' is a revelation of the order of the world, which some Prometheus first made known to our ancestors; and they, who were better men and nearer the gods than we are, have handed it down to us. To know how to proceed by regular steps from one to many, and from many to one, is just what makes the difference between eristic and dialectic. And the right way of proceeding is to look for one idea or class in all things, and when you have found one to look for more than one, and for all that there are, and when you have found them all and regularly divided a particular field of knowledge into classes, you may leave the further consideration of individuals. But you must not pass at once either from unity to infinity, or from infinity to unity. In music, for example, you may begin with the most general notion, but this alone will not make you a musician: you must know also the number and nature of the intervals, and the systems which are framed out of them, and the rhythms of the dance which correspond to them. And when you have a similar knowledge of any other subject, you may be said to know that subject. In speech again there are infinite varieties of sound, and some one who was a wise man, or more than man, comprehended them all in the classes of mutes, vowels, and semivowels, and gave to each of them a name, and assigned them to the art of grammar.
'But whither, Socrates, are you going? And what has this to do with the comparative eligibility of pleasure and wisdom:' Socrates replies, that before we can adjust their respective claims, we want to know the number and kinds of both of them. What are they? He is requested to answer the question himself. That he will, if he may be allowed to make one or two preliminary remarks. In the first place he has a dreamy recollection of hearing that neither pleasure nor knowledge is the highest good, for the good should be perfect and sufficient. But is the life of pleasure perfect and sufficient, when deprived of memory, consciousness, anticipation? Is not this the life of an oyster? Or is the life of mind sufficient, if devoid of any particle of pleasure? Must not the union of the two be higher and more eligible than either separately? And is not the element which makes this mixed life eligible more akin to mind than to pleasure? Thus pleasure is rejected and mind is rejected. And yet there may be a life of mind, not human but divine, which conquers still.
But, if we are to pursue this argument further, we shall require some new weapons; and by this, I mean a new classification of existence. (1) There is a finite element of existence, and (2) an infinite, and (3) the union of the two, and (4) the cause of the union. More may be added if they are wanted, but at present we can do without them. And first of the infinite or indefinite:—That is the class which is denoted by the terms more or less, and is always in a state of comparison. All words or ideas to which the words 'gently,' 'extremely,' and other comparative expressions are applied, fall under this class. The infinite would be no longer infinite, if limited or reduced to measure by number and quantity. The opposite class is the limited or finite, and includes all things which have number and quantity. And there is a third class of generation into essence by the union of the finite and infinite, in which the finite gives law to the infinite;—under this are comprehended health, strength, temperate seasons, harmony, beauty, and the like. The goddess of beauty saw the universal wantonness of all things, and gave law and order to be the salvation of the soul. But no effect can be generated without a cause, and therefore there must be a fourth class, which is the cause of generation; for the cause or agent is not the same as the patient or effect.
And now, having obtained our classes, we may determine in which our conqueror life is to be placed: Clearly in the third or mixed class, in which the finite gives law to the infinite. And in which is pleasure to find a place? As clearly in the infinite or indefinite, which alone, as Protarchus thinks (who seems to confuse the infinite with the superlative), gives to pleasure the character of the absolute good. Yes, retorts Socrates, and also to pain the character of absolute evil. And therefore the infinite cannot be that which imparts to pleasure the nature of the good. But where shall we place mind? That is a very serious and awful question, which may be prefaced by another. Is mind or chance the lord of the universe? All philosophers will say the first, and yet, perhaps, they may be only magnifying themselves. And for this reason I should like to consider the matter a little more deeply, even though some lovers of disorder in the world should ridicule my attempt.
Now the elements earth, air, fire, water, exist in us, and they exist in the cosmos; but they are purer and fairer in the cosmos than they are in us, and they come to us from thence. And as we have a soul as well as a body, in like manner the elements of the finite, the infinite, the union of the two, and the cause, are found to exist in us. And if they, like the elements, exist in us, and the three first exist in the world, must not the fourth or cause which is the noblest of them, exist in the world? And this cause is wisdom or mind, the royal mind of Zeus, who is the king of all, as there are other gods who have other noble attributes. Observe how well this agrees with the testimony of men of old, who affirmed mind to be the ruler of the universe. And remember that mind belongs to the class which we term the cause, and pleasure to the infinite or indefinite class. We will examine the place and origin of both.
What is the origin of pleasure? Her natural seat is the mixed class, in which health and harmony were placed. Pain is the violation, and pleasure the restoration of limit. There is a natural union of finite and infinite, which in hunger, thirst, heat, cold, is impaired—this is painful, but the return to nature, in which the elements are restored to their normal proportions, is pleasant. Here is our first class of pleasures. And another class of pleasures and pains are hopes and fears; these are in the mind only. And inasmuch as the pleasures are unalloyed by pains and the pains by pleasures, the examination of them may show us whether all pleasure is to be desired, or whether this entire desirableness is not rather the attribute of another class. But if pleasures and pains consist in the violation and restoration of limit, may there not be a neutral state, in which there is neither dissolution nor restoration? That is a further question, and admitting, as we must, the possibility of such a state, there seems to be no reason why the life of wisdom should not exist in this neutral state, which is, moreover, the state of the gods, who cannot, without indecency, be supposed to feel either joy or sorrow.
The second class of pleasures involves memory. There are affections which are extinguished before they reach the soul, and of these there is no consciousness, and therefore no memory. And there are affections which the body and soul feel together, and this feeling is termed consciousness. And memory is the preservation of consciousness, and reminiscence is the recovery of consciousness. Now the memory of pleasure, when a man is in pain, is the memory of the opposite of his actual bodily state, and is therefore not in the body, but in the mind. And there may be an intermediate state, in which a person is balanced between pleasure and pain; in his body there is want which is a cause of pain, but in his mind a sure hope of replenishment, which is pleasant. (But if the hope be converted into despair, he has two pains and not a balance of pain and pleasure.) Another question is raised: May not pleasures, like opinions, be true and false? In the sense of being real, both must be admitted to be true: nor can we deny that to both of them qualities may be attributed; for pleasures as well as opinions may be described as good or bad. And though we do not all of us allow that there are true and false pleasures, we all acknowledge that there are some pleasures associated with right opinion, and others with falsehood and ignorance. Let us endeavour to analyze the nature of this association.
Opinion is based on perception, which may be correct or mistaken. You may see a figure at a distance, and say first of all, 'This is a man,' and then say, 'No, this is an image made by the shepherds.' And you may affirm this in a proposition to your companion, or make the remark mentally to yourself. Whether the words are actually spoken or not, on such occasions there is a scribe within who registers them, and a painter who paints the images of the things which the scribe has written down in the soul,—at least that is my own notion of the process; and the words and images which are inscribed by them may be either true or false; and they may represent either past, present, or future. And, representing the future, they must also represent the pleasures and pains of anticipation—the visions of gold and other fancies which are never wanting in the mind of man. Now these hopes, as they are termed, are propositions, which are sometimes true, and sometimes false; for the good, who are the friends of the gods, see true pictures of the future, and the bad false ones. And as there may be opinion about things which are not, were not, and will not be, which is opinion still, so there may be pleasure about things which are not, were not, and will not be, which is pleasure still,—that is to say, false pleasure; and only when false, can pleasure, like opinion, be vicious. Against this conclusion Protarchus reclaims.
Leaving his denial for the present, Socrates proceeds to show that some pleasures are false from another point of view. In desire, as we admitted, the body is divided from the soul, and hence pleasures and pains are often simultaneous. And we further admitted that both of them belonged to the infinite class. How, then, can we compare them? Are we not liable, or rather certain, as in the case of sight, to be deceived by distance and relation? In this case the pleasures and pains are not false because based upon false opinion, but are themselves false. And there is another illusion: pain has often been said by us to arise out of the derangement—pleasure out of the restoration—of our nature. But in passing from one to the other, do we not experience neutral states, which although they appear pleasureable or painful are really neither? For even if we admit, with the wise man whom Protarchus loves (and only a wise man could have ever entertained such a notion), that all things are in a perpetual flux, still these changes are often unconscious, and devoid either of pleasure or pain. We assume, then, that there are three states—pleasureable, painful, neutral; we may embellish a little by calling them gold, silver, and that which is neither.
But there are certain natural philosophers who will not admit a third state. Their instinctive dislike to pleasure leads them to affirm that pleasure is only the absence of pain. They are noble fellows, and, although we do not agree with them, we may use them as diviners who will indicate to us the right track. They will say, that the nature of anything is best known from the examination of extreme cases, e.g. the nature of hardness from the examination of the hardest things; and that the nature of pleasure will be best understood from an examination of the most intense pleasures. Now these are the pleasures of the body, not of the mind; the pleasures of disease and not of health, the pleasures of the intemperate and not of the temperate. I am speaking, not of the frequency or continuance, but only of the intensity of such pleasures, and this is given them by contrast with the pain or sickness of body which precedes them. Their morbid nature is illustrated by the lesser instances of itching and scratching, respecting which I swear that I cannot tell whether they are a pleasure or a pain. (1) Some of these arise out of a transition from one state of the body to another, as from cold to hot; (2) others are caused by the contrast of an internal pain and an external pleasure in the body: sometimes the feeling of pain predominates, as in itching and tingling, when they are relieved by scratching; sometimes the feeling of pleasure: or the pleasure which they give may be quite overpowering, and is then accompanied by all sorts of unutterable feelings which have a death of delights in them. But there are also mixed pleasures which are in the mind only. For are not love and sorrow as well as anger 'sweeter than honey,' and also full of pain? Is there not a mixture of feelings in the spectator of tragedy? and of comedy also? 'I do not understand that last.' Well, then, with the view of lighting up the obscurity of these mixed feelings, let me ask whether envy is painful. 'Yes.' And yet the envious man finds something pleasing in the misfortunes of others? 'True.' And ignorance is a misfortune? 'Certainly.' And one form of ignorance is self-conceit—a man may fancy himself richer, fairer, better, wiser than he is? 'Yes.' And he who thus deceives himself may be strong or weak? 'He may.' And if he is strong we fear him, and if he is weak we laugh at him, which is a pleasure, and yet we envy him, which is a pain? These mixed feelings are the rationale of tragedy and comedy, and equally the rationale of the greater drama of human life. (There appears to be some confusion in this passage. There is no difficulty in seeing that in comedy, as in tragedy, the spectator may view the performance with mixed feelings of pain as well as of pleasure; nor is there any difficulty in understanding that envy is a mixed feeling, which rejoices not without pain at the misfortunes of others, and laughs at their ignorance of themselves. But Plato seems to think further that he has explained the feeling of the spectator in comedy sufficiently by a theory which only applies to comedy in so far as in comedy we laugh at the conceit or weakness of others. He has certainly given a very partial explanation of the ridiculous.) Having shown how sorrow, anger, envy are feelings of a mixed nature, I will reserve the consideration of the remainder for another occasion.
Next follow the unmixed pleasures; which, unlike the philosophers of whom I was speaking, I believe to be real. These unmixed pleasures are: (1) The pleasures derived from beauty of form, colour, sound, smell, which are absolutely pure; and in general those which are unalloyed with pain: (2) The pleasures derived from the acquisition of knowledge, which in themselves are pure, but may be attended by an accidental pain of forgetting; this, however, arises from a subsequent act of reflection, of which we need take no account. At the same time, we admit that the latter pleasures are the property of a very few. To these pure and unmixed pleasures we ascribe measure, whereas all others belong to the class of the infinite, and are liable to every species of excess. And here several questions arise for consideration:—What is the meaning of pure and impure, of moderate and immoderate? We may answer the question by an illustration: Purity of white paint consists in the clearness or quality of the white, and this is distinct from the quantity or amount of white paint; a little pure white is fairer than a great deal which is impure. But there is another question:—Pleasure is affirmed by ingenious philosophers to be a generation; they say that there are two natures—one self-existent, the other dependent; the one noble and majestic, the other failing in both these qualities. 'I do not understand.' There are lovers and there are loves. 'Yes, I know, but what is the application?' The argument is in play, and desires to intimate that there are relatives and there are absolutes, and that the relative is for the sake of the absolute; and generation is for the sake of essence. Under relatives I class all things done with a view to generation; and essence is of the class of good. But if essence is of the class of good, generation must be of some other class; and our friends, who affirm that pleasure is a generation, would laugh at the notion that pleasure is a good; and at that other notion, that pleasure is produced by generation, which is only the alternative of destruction. Who would prefer such an alternation to the equable life of pure thought? Here is one absurdity, and not the only one, to which the friends of pleasure are reduced. For is there not also an absurdity in affirming that good is of the soul only; or in declaring that the best of men, if he be in pain, is bad?
And now, from the consideration of pleasure, we pass to that of knowledge. Let us reflect that there are two kinds of knowledge—the one creative or productive, and the other educational and philosophical. Of the creative arts, there is one part purer or more akin to knowledge than the other. There is an element of guess-work and an element of number and measure in them. In music, for example, especially in flute-playing, the conjectural element prevails; while in carpentering there is more application of rule and measure. Of the creative arts, then, we may make two classes—the less exact and the more exact. And the exacter part of all of them is really arithmetic and mensuration. But arithmetic and mensuration again may be subdivided with reference either to their use in the concrete, or to their nature in the abstract—as they are regarded popularly in building and binding, or theoretically by philosophers. And, borrowing the analogy of pleasure, we may say that the philosophical use of them is purer than the other. Thus we have two arts of arithmetic, and two of mensuration. And truest of all in the estimation of every rational man is dialectic, or the science of being, which will forget and disown us, if we forget and disown her.
'But, Socrates, I have heard Gorgias say that rhetoric is the greatest and usefullest of arts; and I should not like to quarrel either with him or you.' Neither is there any inconsistency, Protarchus, with his statement in what I am now saying; for I am not maintaining that dialectic is the greatest or usefullest, but only that she is the truest of arts; my remark is not quantitative but qualitative, and refers not to the advantage or repetition of either, but to the degree of truth which they attain—here Gorgias will not care to compete; this is what we affirm to be possessed in the highest degree by dialectic. And do not let us appeal to Gorgias or Philebus or Socrates, but ask, on behalf of the argument, what are the highest truths which the soul has the power of attaining. And is not this the science which has a firmer grasp of them than any other? For the arts generally are only occupied with matters of opinion, and with the production and action and passion of this sensible world. But the highest truth is that which is eternal and unchangeable. And reason and wisdom are concerned with the eternal; and these are the very claimants, if not for the first, at least for the second place, whom I propose as rivals to pleasure.
And now, having the materials, we may proceed to mix them—first recapitulating the question at issue.
Philebus affirmed pleasure to be the good, and assumed them to be one nature; I affirmed that they were two natures, and declared that knowledge was more akin to the good than pleasure. I said that the two together were more eligible than either taken singly; and to this we adhere. Reason intimates, as at first, that we should seek the good not in the unmixed life, but in the mixed.
The cup is ready, waiting to be mingled, and here are two fountains, one of honey, the other of pure water, out of which to make the fairest possible mixture. There are pure and impure pleasures—pure and impure sciences. Let us consider the sections of each which have the most of purity and truth; to admit them all indiscriminately would be dangerous. First we will take the pure sciences; but shall we mingle the impure—the art which uses the false rule and the false measure? That we must, if we are any of us to find our way home; man cannot live upon pure mathematics alone. And must I include music, which is admitted to be guess-work? 'Yes, you must, if human life is to have any humanity.' Well, then, I will open the door and let them all in; they shall mingle in an Homeric 'meeting of the waters.' And now we turn to the pleasures; shall I admit them? 'Admit first of all the pure pleasures; secondly, the necessary.' And what shall we say about the rest? First, ask the pleasures—they will be too happy to dwell with wisdom. Secondly, ask the arts and sciences—they reply that the excesses of intemperance are the ruin of them; and that they would rather only have the pleasures of health and temperance, which are the handmaidens of virtue. But still we want truth? That is now added; and so the argument is complete, and may be compared to an incorporeal law, which is to hold fair rule over a living body. And now we are at the vestibule of the good, in which there are three chief elements—truth, symmetry, and beauty. These will be the criterion of the comparative claims of pleasure and wisdom.
Which has the greater share of truth? Surely wisdom; for pleasure is the veriest impostor in the world, and the perjuries of lovers have passed into a proverb.
Which of symmetry? Wisdom again; for nothing is more immoderate than pleasure.
Which of beauty? Once more, wisdom; for pleasure is often unseemly, and the greatest pleasures are put out of sight.
Not pleasure, then, ranks first in the scale of good, but measure, and eternal harmony.
Second comes the symmetrical and beautiful and perfect.
Third, mind and wisdom.
Fourth, sciences and arts and true opinions.
Fifth, painless pleasures.
Of a sixth class, I have no more to say. Thus, pleasure and mind may both renounce the claim to the first place. But mind is ten thousand times nearer to the chief good than pleasure. Pleasure ranks fifth and not first, even though all the animals in the world assert the contrary.
From the days of Aristippus and Epicurus to our own times the nature of pleasure has occupied the attention of philosophers. 'Is pleasure an evil? a good? the only good?' are the simple forms which the enquiry assumed among the Socratic schools. But at an early stage of the controversy another question was asked: 'Do pleasures differ in kind? and are some bad, some good, and some neither bad nor good?' There are bodily and there are mental pleasures, which were at first confused but afterwards distinguished. A distinction was also made between necessary and unnecessary pleasures; and again between pleasures which had or had not corresponding pains. The ancient philosophers were fond of asking, in the language of their age, 'Is pleasure a “becoming” only, and therefore transient and relative, or do some pleasures partake of truth and Being?' To these ancient speculations the moderns have added a further question:—'Whose pleasure? The pleasure of yourself, or of your neighbour,—of the individual, or of the world?' This little addition has changed the whole aspect of the discussion: the same word is now supposed to include two principles as widely different as benevolence and self-love. Some modern writers have also distinguished between pleasure the test, and pleasure the motive of actions. For the universal test of right actions (how I know them) may not always be the highest or best motive of them (why I do them).
Socrates, as we learn from the Memorabilia of Xenophon, first drew attention to the consequences of actions. Mankind were said by him to act rightly when they knew what they were doing, or, in the language of the Gorgias, 'did what they would.' He seems to have been the first who maintained that the good was the useful (Mem.). In his eagerness for generalization, seeking, as Aristotle says, for the universal in Ethics (Metaph.), he took the most obvious intellectual aspect of human action which occurred to him. He meant to emphasize, not pleasure, but the calculation of pleasure; neither is he arguing that pleasure is the chief good, but that we should have a principle of choice. He did not intend to oppose 'the useful' to some higher conception, such as the Platonic ideal, but to chance and caprice. The Platonic Socrates pursues the same vein of thought in the Protagoras, where he argues against the so-called sophist that pleasure and pain are the final standards and motives of good and evil, and that the salvation of human life depends upon a right estimate of pleasures greater or less when seen near and at a distance. The testimony of Xenophon is thus confirmed by that of Plato, and we are therefore justified in calling Socrates the first utilitarian; as indeed there is no side or aspect of philosophy which may not with reason be ascribed to him—he is Cynic and Cyrenaic, Platonist and Aristotelian in one. But in the Phaedo the Socratic has already passed into a more ideal point of view; and he, or rather Plato speaking in his person, expressly repudiates the notion that the exchange of a less pleasure for a greater can be an exchange of virtue. Such virtue is the virtue of ordinary men who live in the world of appearance; they are temperate only that they may enjoy the pleasures of intemperance, and courageous from fear of danger. Whereas the philosopher is seeking after wisdom and not after pleasure, whether near or distant: he is the mystic, the initiated, who has learnt to despise the body and is yearning all his life long for a truth which will hereafter be revealed to him. In the Republic the pleasures of knowledge are affirmed to be superior to other pleasures, because the philosopher so estimates them; and he alone has had experience of both kinds. (Compare a similar argument urged by one of the latest defenders of Utilitarianism, Mill's Utilitarianism). In the Philebus, Plato, although he regards the enemies of pleasure with complacency, still further modifies the transcendentalism of the Phaedo. For he is compelled to confess, rather reluctantly, perhaps, that some pleasures, i.e. those which have no antecedent pains, claim a place in the scale of goods.
There have been many reasons why not only Plato but mankind in general have been unwilling to acknowledge that 'pleasure is the chief good.' Either they have heard a voice calling to them out of another world; or the life and example of some great teacher has cast their thoughts of right and wrong in another mould; or the word 'pleasure' has been associated in their mind with merely animal enjoyment. They could not believe that what they were always striving to overcome, and the power or principle in them which overcame, were of the same nature. The pleasure of doing good to others and of bodily self-indulgence, the pleasures of intellect and the pleasures of sense, are so different:—Why then should they be called by a common name? Or, if the equivocal or metaphorical use of the word is justified by custom (like the use of other words which at first referred only to the body, and then by a figure have been transferred to the mind), still, why should we make an ambiguous word the corner-stone of moral philosophy? To the higher thinker the Utilitarian or hedonist mode of speaking has been at variance with religion and with any higher conception both of politics and of morals. It has not satisfied their imagination; it has offended their taste. To elevate pleasure, 'the most fleeting of all things,' into a general idea seems to such men a contradiction. They do not desire to bring down their theory to the level of their practice. The simplicity of the 'greatest happiness' principle has been acceptable to philosophers, but the better part of the world has been slow to receive it.
Before proceeding, we may make a few admissions which will narrow the field of dispute; and we may as well leave behind a few prejudices, which intelligent opponents of Utilitarianism have by this time 'agreed to discard'. We admit that Utility is coextensive with right, and that no action can be right which does not tend to the happiness of mankind; we acknowledge that a large class of actions are made right or wrong by their consequences only; we say further that mankind are not too mindful, but that they are far too regardless of consequences, and that they need to have the doctrine of utility habitually inculcated on them. We recognize the value of a principle which can supply a connecting link between Ethics and Politics, and under which all human actions are or may be included. The desire to promote happiness is no mean preference of expediency to right, but one of the highest and noblest motives by which human nature can be animated. Neither in referring actions to the test of utility have we to make a laborious calculation, any more than in trying them by other standards of morals. For long ago they have been classified sufficiently for all practical purposes by the thinker, by the legislator, by the opinion of the world. Whatever may be the hypothesis on which they are explained, or which in doubtful cases may be applied to the regulation of them, we are very rarely, if ever, called upon at the moment of performing them to determine their effect upon the happiness of mankind.
There is a theory which has been contrasted with Utility by Paley and others—the theory of a moral sense: Are our ideas of right and wrong innate or derived from experience? This, perhaps, is another of those speculations which intelligent men might 'agree to discard.' For it has been worn threadbare; and either alternative is equally consistent with a transcendental or with an eudaemonistic system of ethics, with a greatest happiness principle or with Kant's law of duty. Yet to avoid misconception, what appears to be the truth about the origin of our moral ideas may be shortly summed up as follows:—To each of us individually our moral ideas come first of all in childhood through the medium of education, from parents and teachers, assisted by the unconscious influence of language; they are impressed upon a mind which at first is like a waxen tablet, adapted to receive them; but they soon become fixed or set, and in after life are strengthened, or perhaps weakened by the force of public opinion. They may be corrected and enlarged by experience, they may be reasoned about, they may be brought home to us by the circumstances of our lives, they may be intensified by imagination, by reflection, by a course of action likely to confirm them. Under the influence of religious feeling or by an effort of thought, any one beginning with the ordinary rules of morality may create out of them for himself ideals of holiness and virtue. They slumber in the minds of most men, yet in all of us there remains some tincture of affection, some desire of good, some sense of truth, some fear of the law. Of some such state or process each individual is conscious in himself, and if he compares his own experience with that of others he will find the witness of their consciences to coincide with that of his own. All of us have entered into an inheritance which we have the power of appropriating and making use of. No great effort of mind is required on our part; we learn morals, as we learn to talk, instinctively, from conversing with others, in an enlightened age, in a civilized country, in a good home. A well-educated child of ten years old already knows the essentials of morals: 'Thou shalt not steal,' 'thou shalt speak the truth,' 'thou shalt love thy parents,' 'thou shalt fear God.' What more does he want?
But whence comes this common inheritance or stock of moral ideas? Their beginning, like all other beginnings of human things, is obscure, and is the least important part of them. Imagine, if you will, that Society originated in the herding of brutes, in their parental instincts, in their rude attempts at self-preservation:—Man is not man in that he resembles, but in that he differs from them. We must pass into another cycle of existence, before we can discover in him by any evidence accessible to us even the germs of our moral ideas. In the history of the world, which viewed from within is the history of the human mind, they have been slowly created by religion, by poetry, by law, having their foundation in the natural affections and in the necessity of some degree of truth and justice in a social state; they have been deepened and enlarged by the efforts of great thinkers who have idealized and connected them—by the lives of saints and prophets who have taught and exemplified them. The schools of ancient philosophy which seem so far from us—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and a few modern teachers, such as Kant and Bentham, have each of them supplied 'moments' of thought to the world. The life of Christ has embodied a divine love, wisdom, patience, reasonableness. For his image, however imperfectly handed down to us, the modern world has received a standard more perfect in idea than the societies of ancient times, but also further removed from practice. For there is certainly a greater interval between the theory and practice of Christians than between the theory and practice of the Greeks and Romans; the ideal is more above us, and the aspiration after good has often lent a strange power to evil. And sometimes, as at the Reformation, or French Revolution, when the upper classes of a so-called Christian country have become corrupted by priestcraft, by casuistry, by licentiousness, by despotism, the lower have risen up and re-asserted the natural sense of religion and right.
We may further remark that our moral ideas, as the world grows older, perhaps as we grow older ourselves, unless they have been undermined in us by false philosophy or the practice of mental analysis, or infected by the corruption of society or by some moral disorder in the individual, are constantly assuming a more natural and necessary character. The habit of the mind, the opinion of the world, familiarizes them to us; and they take more and more the form of immediate intuition. The moral sense comes last and not first in the order of their development, and is the instinct which we have inherited or acquired, not the nobler effort of reflection which created them and which keeps them alive. We do not stop to reason about common honesty. Whenever we are not blinded by self-deceit, as for example in judging the actions of others, we have no hesitation in determining what is right and wrong. The principles of morality, when not at variance with some desire or worldly interest of our own, or with the opinion of the public, are hardly perceived by us; but in the conflict of reason and passion they assert their authority and are not overcome without remorse.
Such is a brief outline of the history of our moral ideas. We have to distinguish, first of all, the manner in which they have grown up in the world from the manner in which they have been communicated to each of us. We may represent them to ourselves as flowing out of the boundless ocean of language and thought in little rills, which convey them to the heart and brain of each individual. But neither must we confound the theories or aspects of morality with the origin of our moral ideas. These are not the roots or 'origines' of morals, but the latest efforts of reflection, the lights in which the whole moral world has been regarded by different thinkers and successive generations of men. If we ask: Which of these many theories is the true one? we may answer: All of them—moral sense, innate ideas, a priori, a posteriori notions, the philosophy of experience, the philosophy of intuition—all of them have added something to our conception of Ethics; no one of them is the whole truth. But to decide how far our ideas of morality are derived from one source or another; to determine what history, what philosophy has contributed to them; to distinguish the original, simple elements from the manifold and complex applications of them, would be a long enquiry too far removed from the question which we are now pursuing.
Bearing in mind the distinction which we have been seeking to establish between our earliest and our most mature ideas of morality, we may now proceed to state the theory of Utility, not exactly in the words, but in the spirit of one of its ablest and most moderate supporters (Mill's Utilitarianism):—'That which alone makes actions either right or desirable is their utility, or tendency to promote the happiness of mankind, or, in other words, to increase the sum of pleasure in the world. But all pleasures are not the same: they differ in quality as well as in quantity, and the pleasure which is superior in quality is incommensurable with the inferior. Neither is the pleasure or happiness, which we seek, our own pleasure, but that of others,—of our family, of our country, of mankind. The desire of this, and even the sacrifice of our own interest to that of other men, may become a passion to a rightly educated nature. The Utilitarian finds a place in his system for this virtue and for every other.'
Good or happiness or pleasure is thus regarded as the true and only end of human life. To this all our desires will be found to tend, and in accordance with this all the virtues, including justice, may be explained. Admitting that men rest for a time in inferior ends, and do not cast their eyes beyond them, these ends are really dependent on the greater end of happiness, and would not be pursued, unless in general they had been found to lead to it. The existence of such an end is proved, as in Aristotle's time, so in our own, by the universal fact that men desire it. The obligation to promote it is based upon the social nature of man; this sense of duty is shared by all of us in some degree, and is capable of being greatly fostered and strengthened. So far from being inconsistent with religion, the greatest happiness principle is in the highest degree agreeable to it. For what can be more reasonable than that God should will the happiness of all his creatures? and in working out their happiness we may be said to be 'working together with him.' Nor is it inconceivable that a new enthusiasm of the future, far stronger than any old religion, may be based upon such a conception.
But then for the familiar phrase of the 'greatest happiness principle,' it seems as if we ought now to read 'the noblest happiness principle,' 'the happiness of others principle'—the principle not of the greatest, but of the highest pleasure, pursued with no more regard to our own immediate interest than is required by the law of self-preservation. Transfer the thought of happiness to another life, dropping the external circumstances which form so large a part of our idea of happiness in this, and the meaning of the word becomes indistinguishable from holiness, harmony, wisdom, love. By the slight addition 'of others,' all the associations of the word are altered; we seem to have passed over from one theory of morals to the opposite. For allowing that the happiness of others is reflected on ourselves, and also that every man must live before he can do good to others, still the last limitation is a very trifling exception, and the happiness of another is very far from compensating for the loss of our own. According to Mr. Mill, he would best carry out the principle of utility who sacrificed his own pleasure most to that of his fellow-men. But if so, Hobbes and Butler, Shaftesbury and Hume, are not so far apart as they and their followers imagine. The thought of self and the thought of others are alike superseded in the more general notion of the happiness of mankind at large. But in this composite good, until society becomes perfected, the friend of man himself has generally the least share, and may be a great sufferer.
And now what objection have we to urge against a system of moral philosophy so beneficent, so enlightened, so ideal, and at the same time so practical,—so Christian, as we may say without exaggeration,—and which has the further advantage of resting morality on a principle intelligible to all capacities? Have we not found that which Socrates and Plato 'grew old in seeking'? Are we not desirous of happiness, at any rate for ourselves and our friends, if not for all mankind? If, as is natural, we begin by thinking of ourselves first, we are easily led on to think of others; for we cannot help acknowledging that what is right for us is the right and inheritance of others. We feel the advantage of an abstract principle wide enough and strong enough to override all the particularisms of mankind; which acknowledges a universal good, truth, right; which is capable of inspiring men like a passion, and is the symbol of a cause for which they are ready to contend to their life's end.
And if we test this principle by the lives of its professors, it would certainly appear inferior to none as a rule of action. From the days of Eudoxus (Arist. Ethics) and Epicurus to our own, the votaries of pleasure have gained belief for their principles by their practice. Two of the noblest and most disinterested men who have lived in this century, Bentham and J. S. Mill, whose lives were a long devotion to the service of their fellows, have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of utility; while among their contemporaries, some who were of a more mystical turn of mind, have ended rather in aspiration than in action, and have been found unequal to the duties of life. Looking back on them now that they are removed from the scene, we feel that mankind has been the better for them. The world was against them while they lived; but this is rather a reason for admiring than for depreciating them. Nor can any one doubt that the influence of their philosophy on politics—especially on foreign politics, on law, on social life, has been upon the whole beneficial. Nevertheless, they will never have justice done to them, for they do not agree either with the better feeling of the multitude or with the idealism of more refined thinkers. Without Bentham, a great word in the history of philosophy would have remained unspoken. Yet to this day it is rare to hear his name received with any mark of respect such as would be freely granted to the ambiguous memory of some father of the Church. The odium which attached to him when alive has not been removed by his death. For he shocked his contemporaries by egotism and want of taste; and this generation which has reaped the benefit of his labours has inherited the feeling of the last. He was before his own age, and is hardly remembered in this.
While acknowledging the benefits which the greatest happiness principle has conferred upon mankind, the time appears to have arrived, not for denying its claims, but for criticizing them and comparing them with other principles which equally claim to lie at the foundation of ethics. Any one who adds a general principle to knowledge has been a benefactor to the world. But there is a danger that, in his first enthusiasm, he may not recognize the proportions or limitations to which his truth is subjected; he does not see how far he has given birth to a truism, or how that which is a truth to him is a truism to the rest of the world; or may degenerate in the next generation. He believes that to be the whole which is only a part,—to be the necessary foundation which is really only a valuable aspect of the truth. The systems of all philosophers require the criticism of 'the morrow,' when the heat of imagination which forged them has cooled, and they are seen in the temperate light of day. All of them have contributed to enrich the mind of the civilized world; none of them occupy that supreme or exclusive place which their authors would have assigned to them.
We may preface the criticism with a few preliminary remarks:—
Mr. Mill, Mr. Austin, and others, in their eagerness to maintain the doctrine of utility, are fond of repeating that we are in a lamentable state of uncertainty about morals. While other branches of knowledge have made extraordinary progress, in moral philosophy we are supposed by them to be no better than children, and with few exceptions—that is to say, Bentham and his followers—to be no further advanced than men were in the age of Socrates and Plato, who, in their turn, are deemed to be as backward in ethics as they necessarily were in physics. But this, though often asserted, is recanted almost in a breath by the same writers who speak thus depreciatingly of our modern ethical philosophy. For they are the first to acknowledge that we have not now to begin classifying actions under the head of utility; they would not deny that about the general conceptions of morals there is a practical agreement. There is no more doubt that falsehood is wrong than that a stone falls to the ground, although the first does not admit of the same ocular proof as the second. There is no greater uncertainty about the duty of obedience to parents and to the law of the land than about the properties of triangles. Unless we are looking for a new moral world which has no marrying and giving in marriage, there is no greater disagreement in theory about the right relations of the sexes than about the composition of water. These and a few other simple principles, as they have endless applications in practice, so also may be developed in theory into counsels of perfection.
To what then is to be attributed this opinion which has been often entertained about the uncertainty of morals? Chiefly to this,—that philosophers have not always distinguished the theoretical and the casuistical uncertainty of morals from the practical certainty. There is an uncertainty about details,—whether, for example, under given circumstances such and such a moral principle is to be enforced, or whether in some cases there may not be a conflict of duties: these are the exceptions to the ordinary rules of morality, important, indeed, but not extending to the one thousandth or one ten-thousandth part of human actions. This is the domain of casuistry. Secondly, the aspects under which the most general principles of morals may be presented to us are many and various. The mind of man has been more than usually active in thinking about man. The conceptions of harmony, happiness, right, freedom, benevolence, self-love, have all of them seemed to some philosopher or other the truest and most comprehensive expression of morality. There is no difference, or at any rate no great difference, of opinion about the right and wrong of actions, but only about the general notion which furnishes the best explanation or gives the most comprehensive view of them. This, in the language of Kant, is the sphere of the metaphysic of ethics. But these two uncertainties at either end, en tois malista katholou and en tois kath ekasta, leave space enough for an intermediate principle which is practically certain.
The rule of human life is not dependent on the theories of philosophers: we know what our duties are for the most part before we speculate about them. And the use of speculation is not to teach us what we already know, but to inspire in our minds an interest about morals in general, to strengthen our conception of the virtues by showing that they confirm one another, to prove to us, as Socrates would have said, that they are not many, but one. There is the same kind of pleasure and use in reducing morals, as in reducing physics, to a few very simple truths. And not unfrequently the more general principle may correct prejudices and misconceptions, and enable us to regard our fellow-men in a larger and more generous spirit.
The two qualities which seem to be most required in first principles of ethics are, (1) that they should afford a real explanation of the facts, (2) that they should inspire the mind,—should harmonize, strengthen, settle us. We can hardly estimate the influence which a simple principle such as 'Act so as to promote the happiness of mankind,' or 'Act so that the rule on which thou actest may be adopted as a law by all rational beings,' may exercise on the mind of an individual. They will often seem to open a new world to him, like the religious conceptions of faith or the spirit of God. The difficulties of ethics disappear when we do not suffer ourselves to be distracted between different points of view. But to maintain their hold on us, the general principles must also be psychologically true—they must agree with our experience, they must accord with the habits of our minds.
When we are told that actions are right or wrong only in so far as they tend towards happiness, we naturally ask what is meant by 'happiness.' For the term in the common use of language is only to a certain extent commensurate with moral good and evil. We should hardly say that a good man could be utterly miserable (Arist. Ethics), or place a bad man in the first rank of happiness. But yet, from various circumstances, the measure of a man's happiness may be out of all proportion to his desert. And if we insist on calling the good man alone happy, we shall be using the term in some new and transcendental sense, as synonymous with well-being. We have already seen that happiness includes the happiness of others as well as our own; we must now comprehend unconscious as well as conscious happiness under the same word. There is no harm in this extension of the meaning, but a word which admits of such an extension can hardly be made the basis of a philosophical system. The exactness which is required in philosophy will not allow us to comprehend under the same term two ideas so different as the subjective feeling of pleasure or happiness and the objective reality of a state which receives our moral approval.
Like Protarchus in the Philebus, we can give no answer to the question, 'What is that common quality which in all states of human life we call happiness? which includes the lower and the higher kind of happiness, and is the aim of the noblest, as well as of the meanest of mankind?' If we say 'Not pleasure, not virtue, not wisdom, nor yet any quality which we can abstract from these'—what then? After seeming to hover for a time on the verge of a great truth, we have gained only a truism.
Let us ask the question in another form. What is that which constitutes happiness, over and above the several ingredients of health, wealth, pleasure, virtue, knowledge, which are included under it? Perhaps we answer, 'The subjective feeling of them.' But this is very far from being coextensive with right. Or we may reply that happiness is the whole of which the above-mentioned are the parts. Still the question recurs, 'In what does the whole differ from all the parts?' And if we are unable to distinguish them, happiness will be the mere aggregate of the goods of life.
Again, while admitting that in all right action there is an element of happiness, we cannot help seeing that the utilitarian theory supplies a much easier explanation of some virtues than of others. Of many patriotic or benevolent actions we can give a straightforward account by their tendency to promote happiness. For the explanation of justice, on the other hand, we have to go a long way round. No man is indignant with a thief because he has not promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but because he has done him a wrong. There is an immeasurable interval between a crime against property or life, and the omission of an act of charity or benevolence. Yet of this interval the utilitarian theory takes no cognizance. The greatest happiness principle strengthens our sense of positive duties towards others, but weakens our recognition of their rights. To promote in every way possible the happiness of others may be a counsel of perfection, but hardly seems to offer any ground for a theory of obligation. For admitting that our ideas of obligation are partly derived from religion and custom, yet they seem also to contain other essential elements which cannot be explained by the tendency of actions to promote happiness. Whence comes the necessity of them? Why are some actions rather than others which equally tend to the happiness of mankind imposed upon us with the authority of law? 'You ought' and 'you had better' are fundamental distinctions in human thought; and having such distinctions, why should we seek to efface and unsettle them?
Bentham and Mr. Mill are earnest in maintaining that happiness includes the happiness of others as well as of ourselves. But what two notions can be more opposed in many cases than these? Granting that in a perfect state of the world my own happiness and that of all other men would coincide, in the imperfect state they often diverge, and I cannot truly bridge over the difficulty by saying that men will always find pleasure in sacrificing themselves or in suffering for others. Upon the greatest happiness principle it is admitted that I am to have a share, and in consistency I should pursue my own happiness as impartially as that of my neighbour. But who can decide what proportion should be mine and what his, except on the principle that I am most likely to be deceived in my own favour, and had therefore better give the larger share, if not all, to him?
Further, it is admitted that utility and right coincide, not in particular instances, but in classes of actions. But is it not distracting to the conscience of a man to be told that in the particular case they are opposed? Happiness is said to be the ground of moral obligation, yet he must not do what clearly conduces to his own happiness if it is at variance with the good of the whole. Nay, further, he will be taught that when utility and right are in apparent conflict any amount of utility does not alter by a hair's-breadth the morality of actions, which cannot be allowed to deviate from established law or usage; and that the non-detection of an immoral act, say of telling a lie, which may often make the greatest difference in the consequences, not only to himself, but to all the world, makes none whatever in the act itself.
Again, if we are concerned not with particular actions but with classes of actions, is the tendency of actions to happiness a principle upon which we can classify them? There is a universal law which imperatively declares certain acts to be right or wrong:—can there be any universality in the law which measures actions by their tendencies towards happiness? For an act which is the cause of happiness to one person may be the cause of unhappiness to another; or an act which if performed by one person may increase the happiness of mankind may have the opposite effect if performed by another. Right can never be wrong, or wrong right, that there are no actions which tend to the happiness of mankind which may not under other circumstances tend to their unhappiness. Unless we say not only that all right actions tend to happiness, but that they tend to happiness in the same degree in which they are right (and in that case the word 'right' is plainer), we weaken the absoluteness of our moral standard; we reduce differences in kind to differences in degree; we obliterate the stamp which the authority of ages has set upon vice and crime.
Once more: turning from theory to practice we feel the importance of retaining the received distinctions of morality. Words such as truth, justice, honesty, virtue, love, have a simple meaning; they have become sacred to us,—'the word of God' written on the human heart: to no other words can the same associations be attached. We cannot explain them adequately on principles of utility; in attempting to do so we rob them of their true character. We give them a meaning often paradoxical and distorted, and generally weaker than their signification in common language. And as words influence men's thoughts, we fear that the hold of morality may also be weakened, and the sense of duty impaired, if virtue and vice are explained only as the qualities which do or do not contribute to the pleasure of the world. In that very expression we seem to detect a false ring, for pleasure is individual not universal; we speak of eternal and immutable justice, but not of eternal and immutable pleasure; nor by any refinement can we avoid some taint of bodily sense adhering to the meaning of the word.
Again: the higher the view which men take of life, the more they lose sight of their own pleasure or interest. True religion is not working for a reward only, but is ready to work equally without a reward. It is not 'doing the will of God for the sake of eternal happiness,' but doing the will of God because it is best, whether rewarded or unrewarded. And this applies to others as well as to ourselves. For he who sacrifices himself for the good of others, does not sacrifice himself that they may be saved from the persecution which he endures for their sakes, but rather that they in their turn may be able to undergo similar sufferings, and like him stand fast in the truth. To promote their happiness is not his first object, but to elevate their moral nature. Both in his own case and that of others there may be happiness in the distance, but if there were no happiness he would equally act as he does. We are speaking of the highest and noblest natures; and a passing thought naturally arises in our minds, 'Whether that can be the first principle of morals which is hardly regarded in their own case by the greatest benefactors of mankind?'
The admissions that pleasures differ in kind, and that actions are already classified; the acknowledgment that happiness includes the happiness of others, as well as of ourselves; the confusion (not made by Aristotle) between conscious and unconscious happiness, or between happiness the energy and happiness the result of the energy, introduce uncertainty and inconsistency into the whole enquiry. We reason readily and cheerfully from a greatest happiness principle. But we find that utilitarians do not agree among themselves about the meaning of the word. Still less can they impart to others a common conception or conviction of the nature of happiness. The meaning of the word is always insensibly slipping away from us, into pleasure, out of pleasure, now appearing as the motive, now as the test of actions, and sometimes varying in successive sentences. And as in a mathematical demonstration an error in the original number disturbs the whole calculation which follows, this fundamental uncertainty about the word vitiates all the applications of it. Must we not admit that a notion so uncertain in meaning, so void of content, so at variance with common language and opinion, does not comply adequately with either of our two requirements? It can neither strike the imaginative faculty, nor give an explanation of phenomena which is in accordance with our individual experience. It is indefinite; it supplies only a partial account of human actions: it is one among many theories of philosophers. It may be compared with other notions, such as the chief good of Plato, which may be best expressed to us under the form of a harmony, or with Kant's obedience to law, which may be summed up under the word 'duty,' or with the Stoical 'Follow nature,' and seems to have no advantage over them. All of these present a certain aspect of moral truth. None of them are, or indeed profess to be, the only principle of morals.
And this brings us to speak of the most serious objection to the utilitarian system—its exclusiveness. There is no place for Kant or Hegel, for Plato and Aristotle alongside of it. They do not reject the greatest happiness principle, but it rejects them. Now the phenomena of moral action differ, and some are best explained upon one principle and some upon another: the virtue of justice seems to be naturally connected with one theory of morals, the virtues of temperance and benevolence with another. The characters of men also differ; and some are more attracted by one aspect of the truth, some by another. The firm stoical nature will conceive virtue under the conception of law, the philanthropist under that of doing good, the quietist under that of resignation, the enthusiast under that of faith or love. The upright man of the world will desire above all things that morality should be plain and fixed, and should use language in its ordinary sense. Persons of an imaginative temperament will generally be dissatisfied with the words 'utility' or 'pleasure': their principle of right is of a far higher character—what or where to be found they cannot always distinctly tell;—deduced from the laws of human nature, says one; resting on the will of God, says another; based upon some transcendental idea which animates more worlds than one, says a third:
on nomoi prokeintai upsipodes, ouranian di aithera teknothentes.
To satisfy an imaginative nature in any degree, the doctrine of utility must be so transfigured that it becomes altogether different and loses all simplicity.
But why, since there are different characters among men, should we not allow them to envisage morality accordingly, and be thankful to the great men who have provided for all of us modes and instruments of thought? Would the world have been better if there had been no Stoics or Kantists, no Platonists or Cartesians? No more than if the other pole of moral philosophy had been excluded. All men have principles which are above their practice; they admit premises which, if carried to their conclusions, are a sufficient basis of morals. In asserting liberty of speculation we are not encouraging individuals to make right or wrong for themselves, but only conceding that they may choose the form under which they prefer to contemplate them. Nor do we say that one of these aspects is as true and good as another; but that they all of them, if they are not mere sophisms and illusions, define and bring into relief some part of the truth which would have been obscure without their light. Why should we endeavour to bind all men within the limits of a single metaphysical conception? The necessary imperfection of language seems to require that we should view the same truth under more than one aspect.
We are living in the second age of utilitarianism, when the charm of novelty and the fervour of the first disciples has passed away. The doctrine is no longer stated in the forcible paradoxical manner of Bentham, but has to be adapted to meet objections; its corners are rubbed off, and the meaning of its most characteristic expressions is softened. The array of the enemy melts away when we approach him. The greatest happiness of the greatest number was a great original idea when enunciated by Bentham, which leavened a generation and has left its mark on thought and civilization in all succeeding times. His grasp of it had the intensity of genius. In the spirit of an ancient philosopher he would have denied that pleasures differed in kind, or that by happiness he meant anything but pleasure. He would perhaps have revolted us by his thoroughness. The 'guardianship of his doctrine' has passed into other hands; and now we seem to see its weak points, its ambiguities, its want of exactness while assuming the highest exactness, its one-sidedness, its paradoxical explanation of several of the virtues. No philosophy has ever stood this criticism of the next generation, though the founders of all of them have imagined that they were built upon a rock. And the utilitarian system, like others, has yielded to the inevitable analysis. Even in the opinion of 'her admirers she has been terribly damaged' (Phil.), and is no longer the only moral philosophy, but one among many which have contributed in various degrees to the intellectual progress of mankind.
But because the utilitarian philosophy can no longer claim 'the prize,' we must not refuse to acknowledge the great benefits conferred by it on the world. All philosophies are refuted in their turn, says the sceptic, and he looks forward to all future systems sharing the fate of the past. All philosophies remain, says the thinker; they have done a great work in their own day, and they supply posterity with aspects of the truth and with instruments of thought. Though they may be shorn of their glory, they retain their place in the organism of knowledge.
And still there remain many rules of morals which are better explained and more forcibly inculcated on the principle of utility than on any other. The question Will such and such an action promote the happiness of myself, my family, my country, the world? may check the rising feeling of pride or honour which would cause a quarrel, an estrangement, a war. 'How can I contribute to the greatest happiness of others?' is another form of the question which will be more attractive to the minds of many than a deduction of the duty of benevolence from a priori principles. In politics especially hardly any other argument can be allowed to have weight except the happiness of a people. All parties alike profess to aim at this, which though often used only as the disguise of self-interest has a great and real influence on the minds of statesmen. In religion, again, nothing can more tend to mitigate superstition than the belief that the good of man is also the will of God. This is an easy test to which the prejudices and superstitions of men may be brought:—whatever does not tend to the good of men is not of God. And the ideal of the greatest happiness of mankind, especially if believed to be the will of God, when compared with the actual fact, will be one of the strongest motives to do good to others.
On the other hand, when the temptation is to speak falsely, to be dishonest or unjust, or in any way to interfere with the rights of others, the argument that these actions regarded as a class will not conduce to the happiness of mankind, though true enough, seems to have less force than the feeling which is already implanted in the mind by conscience and authority. To resolve this feeling into the greatest happiness principle takes away from its sacred and authoritative character. The martyr will not go to the stake in order that he may promote the happiness of mankind, but for the sake of the truth: neither will the soldier advance to the cannon's mouth merely because he believes military discipline to be for the good of mankind. It is better for him to know that he will be shot, that he will be disgraced, if he runs away—he has no need to look beyond military honour, patriotism, 'England expects every man to do his duty.' These are stronger motives than the greatest happiness of the greatest number, which is the thesis of a philosopher, not the watchword of an army. For in human actions men do not always require broad principles; duties often come home to us more when they are limited and defined, and sanctioned by custom and public opinion.
Lastly, if we turn to the history of ethics, we shall find that our moral ideas have originated not in utility but in religion, in law, in conceptions of nature, of an ideal good, and the like. And many may be inclined to think that this conclusively disproves the claim of utility to be the basis of morals. But the utilitarian will fairly reply (see above) that we must distinguish the origin of ethics from the principles of them—the historical germ from the later growth of reflection. And he may also truly add that for two thousand years and more, utility, if not the originating, has been the great corrective principle in law, in politics, in religion, leading men to ask how evil may be diminished and good increased—by what course of policy the public interest may be promoted, and to understand that God wills the happiness, not of some of his creatures and in this world only, but of all of them and in every stage of their existence.
'What is the place of happiness or utility in a system of moral philosophy?' is analogous to the question asked in the Philebus, 'What rank does pleasure hold in the scale of goods?' Admitting the greatest happiness principle to be true and valuable, and the necessary foundation of that part of morals which relates to the consequences of actions, we still have to consider whether this or some other general notion is the highest principle of human life. We may try them in this comparison by three tests—definiteness, comprehensiveness, and motive power.
There are three subjective principles of morals,—sympathy, benevolence, self-love. But sympathy seems to rest morality on feelings which differ widely even in good men; benevolence and self-love torture one half of our virtuous actions into the likeness of the other. The greatest happiness principle, which includes both, has the advantage over all these in comprehensiveness, but the advantage is purchased at the expense of definiteness.
Again, there are the legal and political principles of morals—freedom, equality, rights of persons; 'Every man to count for one and no man for more than one,' 'Every man equal in the eye of the law and of the legislator.' There is also the other sort of political morality, which if not beginning with 'Might is right,' at any rate seeks to deduce our ideas of justice from the necessities of the state and of society. According to this view the greatest good of men is obedience to law: the best human government is a rational despotism, and the best idea which we can form of a divine being is that of a despot acting not wholly without regard to law and order. To such a view the present mixed state of the world, not wholly evil or wholly good, is supposed to be a witness. More we might desire to have, but are not permitted. Though a human tyrant would be intolerable, a divine tyrant is a very tolerable governor of the universe. This is the doctrine of Thrasymachus adapted to the public opinion of modern times.
There is yet a third view which combines the two:—freedom is obedience to the law, and the greatest order is also the greatest freedom; 'Act so that thy action may be the law of every intelligent being.' This view is noble and elevating; but it seems to err, like other transcendental principles of ethics, in being too abstract. For there is the same difficulty in connecting the idea of duty with particular duties as in bridging the gulf between phainomena and onta; and when, as in the system of Kant, this universal idea or law is held to be independent of space and time, such a mataion eidos becomes almost unmeaning.
Once more there are the religious principles of morals:—the will of God revealed in Scripture and in nature. No philosophy has supplied a sanction equal in authority to this, or a motive equal in strength to the belief in another life. Yet about these too we must ask What will of God? how revealed to us, and by what proofs? Religion, like happiness, is a word which has great influence apart from any consideration of its content: it may be for great good or for great evil. But true religion is the synthesis of religion and morality, beginning with divine perfection in which all human perfection is embodied. It moves among ideas of holiness, justice, love, wisdom, truth; these are to God, in whom they are personified, what the Platonic ideas are to the idea of good. It is the consciousness of the will of God that all men should be as he is. It lives in this world and is known to us only through the phenomena of this world, but it extends to worlds beyond. Ordinary religion which is alloyed with motives of this world may easily be in excess, may be fanatical, may be interested, may be the mask of ambition, may be perverted in a thousand ways. But of that religion which combines the will of God with our highest ideas of truth and right there can never be too much. This impossibility of excess is the note of divine moderation.
So then, having briefly passed in review the various principles of moral philosophy, we may now arrange our goods in order, though, like the reader of the Philebus, we have a difficulty in distinguishing the different aspects of them from one another, or defining the point at which the human passes into the divine.
First, the eternal will of God in this world and in another,—justice, holiness, wisdom, love, without succession of acts (ouch e genesis prosestin), which is known to us in part only, and reverenced by us as divine perfection.
Secondly, human perfection, or the fulfilment of the will of God in this world, and co-operation with his laws revealed to us by reason and experience, in nature, history, and in our own minds.
Thirdly, the elements of human perfection,—virtue, knowledge, and right opinion.
Fourthly, the external conditions of perfection,—health and the goods of life.
Fifthly, beauty and happiness,—the inward enjoyment of that which is best and fairest in this world and in the human soul.
The Philebus is probably the latest in time of the writings of Plato with the exception of the Laws. We have in it therefore the last development of his philosophy. The extreme and one-sided doctrines of the Cynics and Cyrenaics are included in a larger whole; the relations of pleasure and knowledge to each other and to the good are authoritatively determined; the Eleatic Being and the Heraclitean Flux no longer divide the empire of thought; the Mind of Anaxagoras has become the Mind of God and of the World. The great distinction between pure and applied science for the first time has a place in philosophy; the natural claim of dialectic to be the Queen of the Sciences is once more affirmed. This latter is the bond of union which pervades the whole or nearly the whole of the Platonic writings. And here as in several other dialogues (Phaedrus, Republic, etc.) it is presented to us in a manner playful yet also serious, and sometimes as if the thought of it were too great for human utterance and came down from heaven direct. It is the organization of knowledge wonderful to think of at a time when knowledge itself could hardly be said to exist. It is this more than any other element which distinguishes Plato, not only from the presocratic philosophers, but from Socrates himself.
We have not yet reached the confines of Aristotle, but we make a somewhat nearer approach to him in the Philebus than in the earlier Platonic writings. The germs of logic are beginning to appear, but they are not collected into a whole, or made a separate science or system. Many thinkers of many different schools have to be interposed between the Parmenides or Philebus of Plato, and the Physics or Metaphysics of Aristotle. It is this interval upon which we have to fix our minds if we would rightly understand the character of the transition from one to the other. Plato and Aristotle do not dovetail into one another; nor does the one begin where the other ends; there is a gulf between them not to be measured by time, which in the fragmentary state of our knowledge it is impossible to bridge over. It follows that the one cannot be interpreted by the other. At any rate, it is not Plato who is to be interpreted by Aristotle, but Aristotle by Plato. Of all philosophy and of all art the true understanding is to be sought not in the afterthoughts of posterity, but in the elements out of which they have arisen. For the previous stage is a tendency towards the ideal at which they are aiming; the later is a declination or deviation from them, or even a perversion of them. No man's thoughts were ever so well expressed by his disciples as by himself.
But although Plato in the Philebus does not come into any close connexion with Aristotle, he is now a long way from himself and from the beginnings of his own philosophy. At the time of his death he left his system still incomplete; or he may be more truly said to have had no system, but to have lived in the successive stages or moments of metaphysical thought which presented themselves from time to time. The earlier discussions about universal ideas and definitions seem to have died away; the correlation of ideas has taken their place. The flowers of rhetoric and poetry have lost their freshness and charm; and a technical language has begun to supersede and overgrow them. But the power of thinking tends to increase with age, and the experience of life to widen and deepen. The good is summed up under categories which are not summa genera, but heads or gradations of thought. The question of pleasure and the relation of bodily pleasures to mental, which is hardly treated of elsewhere in Plato, is here analysed with great subtlety. The mean or measure is now made the first principle of good. Some of these questions reappear in Aristotle, as does also the distinction between metaphysics and mathematics. But there are many things in Plato which have been lost in Aristotle; and many things in Aristotle not to be found in Plato. The most remarkable deficiency in Aristotle is the disappearance of the Platonic dialectic, which in the Aristotelian school is only used in a comparatively unimportant and trivial sense. The most remarkable additions are the invention of the Syllogism, the conception of happiness as the foundation of morals, the reference of human actions to the standard of the better mind of the world, or of the one 'sensible man' or 'superior person.' His conception of ousia, or essence, is not an advance upon Plato, but a return to the poor and meagre abstractions of the Eleatic philosophy. The dry attempt to reduce the presocratic philosophy by his own rather arbitrary standard of the four causes, contrasts unfavourably with Plato's general discussion of the same subject (Sophist). To attempt further to sum up the differences between the two great philosophers would be out of place here. Any real discussion of their relation to one another must be preceded by an examination into the nature and character of the Aristotelian writings and the form in which they have come down to us. This enquiry is not really separable from an investigation of Theophrastus as well as Aristotle and of the remains of other schools of philosophy as well as of the Peripatetics. But, without entering on this wide field, even a superficial consideration of the logical and metaphysical works which pass under the name of Aristotle, whether we suppose them to have come directly from his hand or to be the tradition of his school, is sufficient to show how great was the mental activity which prevailed in the latter half of the fourth century B.C.; what eddies and whirlpools of controversies were surging in the chaos of thought, what transformations of the old philosophies were taking place everywhere, what eclecticisms and syncretisms and realisms and nominalisms were affecting the mind of Hellas. The decline of philosophy during this period is no less remarkable than the loss of freedom; and the two are not unconnected with each other. But of the multitudinous sea of opinions which were current in the age of Aristotle we have no exact account. We know of them from allusions only. And we cannot with advantage fill up the void of our knowledge by conjecture: we can only make allowance for our ignorance.
There are several passages in the Philebus which are very characteristic of Plato, and which we shall do well to consider not only in their connexion, but apart from their connexion as inspired sayings or oracles which receive their full interpretation only from the history of philosophy in later ages. The more serious attacks on traditional beliefs which are often veiled under an unusual simplicity or irony are of this kind. Such, for example, is the excessive and more than human awe which Socrates expresses about the names of the gods, which may be not unaptly compared with the importance attached by mankind to theological terms in other ages; for this also may be comprehended under the satire of Socrates. Let us observe the religious and intellectual enthusiasm which shines forth in the following, 'The power and faculty of loving the truth, and of doing all things for the sake of the truth': or, again, the singular acknowledgment which may be regarded as the anticipation of a new logic, that 'In going to war for mind I must have weapons of a different make from those which I used before, although some of the old ones may do again.' Let us pause awhile to reflect on a sentence which is full of meaning to reformers of religion or to the original thinker of all ages: 'Shall we then agree with them of old time, and merely reassert the notions of others without risk to ourselves; or shall we venture also to share in the risk and bear the reproach which will await us': i.e. if we assert mind to be the author of nature. Let us note the remarkable words, 'That in the divine nature of Zeus there is the soul and mind of a King, because there is in him the power of the cause,' a saying in which theology and philosophy are blended and reconciled; not omitting to observe the deep insight into human nature which is shown by the repetition of the same thought 'All philosophers are agreed that mind is the king of heaven and earth' with the ironical addition, 'in this way truly they magnify themselves.' Nor let us pass unheeded the indignation felt by the generous youth at the 'blasphemy' of those who say that Chaos and Chance Medley created the world; or the significance of the words 'those who said of old time that mind rules the universe'; or the pregnant observation that 'we are not always conscious of what we are doing or of what happens to us,' a chance expression to which if philosophers had attended they would have escaped many errors in psychology. We may contrast the contempt which is poured upon the verbal difficulty of the one and many, and the seriousness with the unity of opposites is regarded from the higher point of view of abstract ideas: or compare the simple manner in which the question of cause and effect and their mutual dependence is regarded by Plato (to which modern science has returned in Mill and Bacon), and the cumbrous fourfold division of causes in the Physics and Metaphysics of Aristotle, for which it has puzzled the world to find a use in so many centuries. When we consider the backwardness of knowledge in the age of Plato, the boldness with which he looks forward into the distance, the many questions of modern philosophy which are anticipated in his writings, may we not truly describe him in his own words as a 'spectator of all time and of all existence'?