One of the most familiar features of ancient philosophy is the identification of the good life with the life of virtue. The attractions of the identification are obvious: if the best life is shown to be the virtuous life, then we all have an interest in being virtuous, since to be less virtuous is to live a worse life. Indeed, one might even say that we have a selfish reason for being virtuous, even though virtue may involve consideration of others. As Aristotle put it, the good life is the happy life, and we all want to be happy. Here then is a theory of morality that has no trouble motivating us to pursue a moral life. But is the theory true?
Aristotle argued for it by pointing out that people generally consider the happy life to revolve around pleasure, honour, wealth or virtue. Since the first three possibilities can all be shown to be inadequate, only the life of virtue remains to be identified with the good life. Many ancient philosophers – including the Stoics – agreed that the good life is a life of virtue. Thus, in ancient philosophy the question of what it is to lead a good life was often tantamount to the question of what it is to be virtuous. On this matter, views diverged. But one of the most prominent answers was that virtue is the same as knowledge. This answer was first put forward by Socrates, and later taken up by the Stoics. For these thinkers, the question of the good life for humanity has a straightforward answer: the good life is the life of virtue, which is the life of knowledge.
It may seem strange that the father of this view was Socrates, a man who claimed to know only that he knew nothing. Yet the equation of knowledge with virtue was inextricably intertwined with his claim that “no one does wrong willingly”. According to Socrates, if I steal money or kill an innocent person, I can only do this against my will. One can imagine how this might happen. As Aristotle points out, if I do something in ignorance then in a sense I am doing it against my will – when Oedipus murdered his own father, he did not know who he was killing. But could it really be the case that I always act against my will when I do wrong?
Socrates had a simple but powerful argument that this is indeed the case. When I do wrong I do something bad, and no one wants what is bad, they want what is good. This is, in fact, how we manage to choose actions: we choose the action that seems best at the time. So if I do something bad without being forced into it, this can only be because I am somehow ignorant. Either I have tragically incomplete information (like Oedipus) or I am in some other way ignorant about what is best for me to do.
For Socrates, then, wrongdoing always involves ignorance. If we knew what was good, we would not choose what is bad. In fact, on his view, being a bad person is simply being a person who is ignorant about what is best. If one were in a Greek frame of mind, one might say, “Surely this is at most only one way of being a bad person. One could also know what is best, but be unable to do it, because one is for instance too weak or incompetent.”
A bad soldier isn’t always someone who doesn’t know what to do in battle. It could also be someone who knows what to do, but is too puny to fight effectively. Socrates would say to this, I think, that the best thing for the puny soldier to do is the best course of action available to him, and this will not be the same course of action someone like Achilles might pursue in the same situation. The puny soldier’s good is perhaps to die bravely in battle, rather than single-handedly smash a few battalions of Trojan warriors.
The next step is obvious: if vice is ignorance, then virtue can only be knowledge. Socrates has further arguments to confirm the inference. He says that anything good or beneficial will be useless or even harmful if it’s used without knowledge. For instance money can be used to do bad, as well as good. If money has any value, it is knowledge that makes it valuable – knowledge, that is, of how money can be used to achieve what is best. Thus money is of no use to the ignorant person. In fact, it may be positively harmful: if you use money to pursue bad aims instead of good ones, then it would be better for you not to have any money at all. Indeed, the more money you have without the relevant knowledge, the worse off you will be.
This applies even to such apparently obvious goods as health. A bad (that is, ignorant) person would be better off if they were chronically ill, since their illness would hinder them from doing what is bad. As Socrates argues in several Platonic dialogues, the “powerful” tyrant is in fact the least powerful and most miserable of men, because his ignorance means that all his political domination and wealth is used in the service of bad aims, that is, aims that are in fact against his will. For if he knew the aims for what they really are – namely bad things – he would not want them.
I said at the outset that this seems like rather a strange view. Surely, we want to say, people do bad things all the time, knowing all the while that what they are doing is bad. If so, then Socrates’ basic assumption – that no one wants what is bad – is flawed. This phenomenon, if it really ever happens, is called akrasia, “weakness of will” or “incontinence”. Familiar examples are the smoker who can’t seem to quit, the compulsive overeater who tries unsuccessfully to go on a diet, and so on. Haven’t we all had the vivid experience of doing something bad while thinking, “This is bad, and I really shouldn’t do it”? We might even take a kind of perverse pleasure in doing bad things on occasion. So if there really is such a thing as akrasia, then Socrates was wrong. Virtue is not knowledge. At most virtue can only have knowledge as a necessary condition, while also requiring something else, namely the self-control required to make one do what one knows one ought to do.
One might think the phenomenon of akrasia is so powerful and obvious that it one thing, namely the pleasure of eating the donut. Or at least, this consideration has been allowed to dominate all others. According to this argument, cases of apparent akrasia arise because we have competing values and desires, and we claim to think that some values, like health, outweigh other values, like pleasure. That is, as it were, our official position on the matter.
You know you shouldn’t eat that donut, even while you eat it renders Socrates’ view untenable. Yet Plato and Aristotle both portray him as sticking to his guns and arguing explicitly that akrasia doesn’t ever actually happen. It may seem to you that you know you shouldn’t eat that donut, even while you’re eating it. But Socrates might say that you don’t really know, and the proof of this is the very fact that you are eating that donut. After all, we discern people’s views about what is good, or we might say rather “what is preferable”, by observing what they do. Apparently akratic donut-eaters do something they know they shouldn’t do, and thus something they have a preference for not doing, all things considered. But why would anyone do something they would, all things considered, prefer not to do, unless they were somehow compelled? It’s as if the donut-eater is saying, “I prefer to do this thing that, all things considered, I’d prefer not to do”. This sounds worse than akratic – it sounds incoherent.
Socrates and Aristotle propose that in such cases, all things are not being considered. Rather, the donut-eater is considering only, namely the pleasure of eating the donut. Or at least, this consideration has been allowed to dominate all others. According to this argument akrasia arise because we have competing values and desires, and we claim to think that some values, like health, outweigh other values, like pleasure. That is, as it were, our official position on the matter.
But our actions show that our real values are not what we think: pleasure must weigh more heavily in our deliberations than health, at least at the moment of choice. Again, our actions are the surest, even the only, guide for telling what preferences are guiding us when we act. So if I choose the donut now that shows that pleasure is the dominant preference for me at the moment, however much I might talk about the diet I’m on.
How could knowledge save me from akrasia? Well, Socrates might say that genuine knowledge of good and bad would prevent me from having competing desires in the first place. If I really know what is best, why would I be seduced away from it by the second-best, to say nothing of what is actually bad? Furthermore, even if I did have competing desires, I would know which one should take precedence in any given situation. So again, I would never prefer an inferior thing to a superior thing knowingly and willingly.
How might one respond to this view? One avenue was explored by Plato in the Republic. He posits a kind of complexity in the soul: our reasoning and knowledge can be undermined by desires from a different aspect of the soul. With my reason, I genuinely – not just apparently, as Socrates would have it – believe that the donut is not preferable, but my desires well up and defeat my knowledge, rendering it impotent.
Aristotle too had a view something like this, since he posited that the belief or knowledge of what is good is actually eliminated – although only temporarily – in moments of akrasia. For both Plato and Aristotle it was possible, as Plato puts it, for desires to “drag around reason like a slave”. As Plato argues at length in the Republic, virtue will therefore mean not just knowledge but also an appropriate distribution of power or control among the parts of the soul. “Justice” in the soul, Plato claims, happens when the knowledgeable, reasoning part of the soul rules over desire.
Another avenue was explored by the Stoics. Like other schools of Hellenistic philosophy, the Stoics were pleased to consider themselves followers of Socrates. And in this case at least, they could make this claim with some justification. They were aware of theories like Plato’s which ascribed complexity to the soul, and they rejected them. After all, they point out, what is it to act on a desire if it is not assenting to a proposition? They are thus able to re-integrate apparently non-rational features of the soul into the rational part.
For the Stoics, the human soul is in fact entirely rational, even if our rationality is frequently confused and abused, so that we endorse falsehoods. They even believed that emotions could be construed as a kind of assent to propositions. If I am afraid, this is because I believe that something is fearful.
A highly intellectualist ethical theory such as this has advantages. For instance, it gives us a clear account of how we can make people good. We must simply instil the correct beliefs in them. We should teach them, for instance, to be more afraid to show cowardice than to die in battle. This simply means convincing them that the following belief is true: “cowardice is more fearful than death”. Moral education becomes simply a subspecies of intellectual education generally.
Just as being a mathematician is having true beliefs about numbers and the like, so being a virtuous person is having true beliefs about action and value. In fact the Stoics thought these were inseparable, because for them all true beliefs were somehow connected. Thus they envisioned the possibility of a perfect sage who would never fall into false belief. Those who are not sages – that is, all of us – are like madmen compared to the sage. It’s a strong and provocative claim, but it makes sense given the Stoic’s adherence to the idea that anyone who is ignorant – anyone who is not a sage – is constantly acting against his own will.
Yet before the Stoics, Aristotle had already shown the limitations of such a view. Moral education, as he argued in Nicomachean Ethics, does not typically take the form of attempting to instil beliefs. We do not educate by teaching true propositions, but rather by rewarding and punishing. This is intended to train the educated person to take pleasure in good things and find bad things repulsive. Perhaps the person will become able to entertain and assent to true propositions like “cowardice is worse than death”, but this can come later. The belief typically comes along only after one has formed a habit to prefer what is really preferable and to take pleasure in it.
Here Aristotle pointed to the fact that we begin to teach people virtue when they are very young, indeed younger, according to him, than the age of reason. All this suggests that moral education is, as Plato envisioned it in the Republic, adapted to a complex soul in which desires can occur independently of, and thus undermine, reason. But train the desires well, and the mature, virtuous person will have the self-control needed to act on their knowledge of what is best.
Still, suppose for the sake of argument that Socrates and the Stoics were right: the good life is the life of virtue, virtue is knowledge, and therefore all we need to live the good life is knowledge. If this is right, then we should see a very close connection between two fields of philosophy which are nowadays kept well apart, namely ethics and epistemology. Indeed, if the good life and virtue consist in knowledge, then the study of knowledge just is the study of ethics.
At a minimum, this is an implication of great importance for the historian of philosophy. For it means that, in order fully to understand the ethics of the Stoics and other followers of Socrates, we must understand their views on what knowledge is and how it can come about. This is only one example of the tendency in ancient philosophy to treat all of philosophy as a tightly interconnected set of issues and problems. And in this, if not necessarily in their claim that virtue is knowledge, I’d say that Socrates and the Stoics were onto something.