of the first great written works of Philosophy The Republic asked a critical question in its first scroll: Why should we try to be good? What is in it for us to be just and virtuous? It was a powerful question at a critical time in history. At the end of the Pelopennysian Wars, a new, more unified Greek culture was beginning to form*, and would grow into an empire the reached to the China Sea in the East and the Rock of Gibraltar in the West; from the headlands of the Rhine to the North and into modern-day Ethiopia in the South.
Pulling Greece together at after decades of ruinous warfare, in spite of radically different cultures and ideals, was critical to the survival of the Greeks as whole; diplomats and traders were desperate to figure out how to deal with the other city-states of Greece. To fill the gap a new class of educators arose – The Sophists. The Sophists were amoral and irrational – they believed that the only thing that mattered was appearing to be smart, charismatic, and trustworthy. They taught that there were no such things as good or bad, justice or politeness – only illusions based on the beliefs of the culture you were visiting. There was no point to trying to be a just person, only to understand how to imitate Athenian attitudes of Justice when in Athens, and Spartan attitudes towards justice in Sparta.
This time also spawned the Sycophants, a group of people who used courts of law to control ideas. The Sycophants would protest, demand the arrest, or sue anyone who offended them. Winners of lawsuits in most Greek cities could be awarded a chunk of the losers’ property, and so the Sycophants could make a living by abusing the legal systems of Greece. They could also terrorize people into agreeing with them for fear of being their next target.
The idea of anything being real, meaningful, and true was dying out, replaced by a form of moral relativism that said that no action was wrong or evil – unless you got caught doing it, and pissed people off in the process.
Plato’s mentor, Socrates, had declared a one-man war on the Sophists. He would corner powerful Sophists and people who had become powerful applying sophistry to their careers, and publicly question them until he made them look like idiots. He was an icon among young men who saw that something was going wrong in their culture, and it was costing the Sophists their grip. Eventually they had him arrested, tried, and executed for “corrupting the youth”.
Plato’s question: Why should we bother being good? Was the first shot in a cultural rebellion against the Sophists and Sycophants… because they came up with good and compelling answers.
While the answers have evolved with the invention of logic, and thousands of years applying it, the rules Plato set down in the first rule of The Republic to answer those questions have been at the core of our cultural development ever since:
- Any moral system has to make sense, be free of glaring hypocrisy, and have consistent rules.
- It also has to prove that being a good person is good for you – and not just because other people like you for being good.
- It has to a a system where any person can be a good person.
- It has to be a system that doesn’t demand we give up on civilisation and go back to living in caves.
- In the end you have to be able to be happy while following it. A system that makes you good and miserable isn’t worth following.
Western Philosophy rejects “Because I say so” morality. It also doesn’t accept that the crowd is always right. The popular decision is not necessarily the right one. In fact, Plato argued that a person who doesn’t think and decide for themselves can’t be considered a good person – they are good only by accident, not because of choices that they have made.
It also demands that we can’t settle with just “how to be good” we need to talk about “how to be happy” and “how to make good decisions.”
Philosophy has been a battleground of ideas ever since. What it means to be good, what it means to be happy, how much we owe to our society, and how much we are really individuals, whether there is a God, and if so, what does he want with us…
And battleground is an apt description. Wild rivalries, vicious wars of words, wild diatribes, and straight insults, and subtle blasphemies have been a part of the evolution of our philosophies. When you share a philosophy, you have to share your entire thought process, and one hole in your reasoning, and your fellows will happily -and skillfully – tear your ideas to pieces. Because that is the only way we can create a philosophy that is as true, wise, and human as we can make it… Human happiness is serious business.
And we have learned, as Plato suggested at the very beginning, that being a good person and being genuinely happy usually come hand-in-hand.
*Edit: The idea of a unified Greek culture bears some clarification. Greece did not become a unified nation or a single culture until 50 years after the Pelopennysian wars when Alexander the Great forced them into unity. In the time of Plato and Socrates, Greece was a group of fragmented city states that had just spent the last 200 years warring with each other, they had a common language, and much the same technology, but very different beliefs. In the time of Plato, they were still clearly separate but had so overextended themselves in war that trade and diplomacy was necessary for survival. With former enemies needing to trade in order to feed themselves, the climate was ideal for the rise of the Sophists.
Thanks to Robert Rock for asking me to clarify that bit of history.