Plato is one of the greatest philosophers ever. Born in Athens, in 427 BC, and died in 347 BC. Socrates taught him. Socrates not only taught Plato, but was also Platos best friend. Socrates was put to death in 399 BC, because of his ideas. After Socrates death, Plato devoted his life to philosophy (Plato). In Platos book The Republic, the main focus is on justice, and trying to define what justice exactly is. In this book Socrates speaks Platos ideas. Through the Socratic method of trying to find a definition of justice, the theory of arete is often used, and is a central part of the book.
Arete is the ability of something to do what it is supposed to do, and do it well. It is virtue, skill, and knowledge. The function of the soul is to live. The virtue (arete) of the soul is to live well. Through trying to define justice, Plato often uses the concept of arete.
Thrasymachus says that justice is simply what the ruling party calls right or just. They call what is in the interest of the stronger party, or the rulers, justice (Grube 338c). Socrates responds by saying that the rulers should only by regarded in how well they perform their function. Their function being to serve the interest of the people which he rules, not his own interest (338c).
Socrates says that everything has a function:
The function of a pruning knife is to prune trees; the function of the eye is to see. Also, everything has a virtue; a virtue is a quality that makes something perform its function well. Thus, sharpness is the virtue of a knife; sight is the virtue of the eye. Now the function of man is to live. What, then, is his virtue? Well we agreed that injustice is a source of disunity and chaos; so it is a defect. Its opposite, justice, must there fore be a virtue, if not the only virtue, of man. But without its virtue, a thing cannot perform its function well. So without justice, a man cannot live well. And if he cannot live well, he cannot be happy. Injustice, then, cannot bring happiness.
With out even using the word arete, he has just defined its concept (Cliffs 16).
When trying to organize his state Socrates is describing what the state will need in order to be just. He says that each man will be assigned the job that he is best suited for. Each man will only get one job, so he can devote his life to that job, and do it well (Grube 369a-370c). They will need farmers, builders, and tailors, among others. But they will also need someone to make the tools for these people, in order for them to perform their tasks well (Cliffs 23).
The guardians of the state have an extremely important job. For them to be able to perform their task well, they have to be selected and trained very carefully. They have to be courageous, and strong. They need to know when, and when not to attack. They must have knowledge and a love of knowledge in order to be able to discriminate well. These guardians are not just soldiers. They are the leaders of the state. They must have a philosophic temperament (Cliffs 23-28).
In order for the guardians to perform their task well, they must be very carefully educated and trained. While they are children Socrates wants them to learning of the gods, and heroes. But he does not want them to learn the stories in which the gods commit murders and crimes. He is afraid that this may corrupt them. They must also never learn of stories, which will make them afraid of death. So they must never learn of the afterlife, and the underworld. They must only learn of the stories that will have good moral affects on them (Grube 392a-c). In other words, Plato uses censorship as an educational and persuasive tool.
The guardians are then divided into two groups. The rulers, who will govern the state, and the auxiliaries, who will assist the rulers and enforce their decisions. The rulers will consist only of the very best guardians. They are the older wiser men. All of their actions must be directed toward the community as a whole (Cliffs 28-30).
The rest of the community is the craftsmen, or all the rest of the citizens who do not govern or protect the state. This group consists of the doctors, farmers, and laborers.
These three classes have the four great virtues: wisdom, courage, discipline (temperance), and justice. Wisdom is found in the ruling class. For they judge what is right and wrong, good and bad. Courage is found in the auxiliaries. Discipline (temperance) does not fit into any one class alone. Discipline is a mastery of ones self; and is found in the way the classes relate to each other. Justice can only be found when the three prior virtues are there. And the three prior virtues can only be found when everyone does their jobs, and does them well (Cliffs 34).
This has defined a just state. A just man is also very closely defined. There are three parts of the mind, and these relate to the three classes of the state. Reason corresponds to the rulers. Emotion corresponds to the auxiliaries. And desire corresponds to the craftsmens class. The four cardinal virtues will again only be present if the three parts of the mind perform their function well. Wisdom comes from wise reasoning, in the reasoning part of the mind. Courage comes from a courageous emotional mind. Discipline again does not fit into any one part, but only comes when the other tow parts interact well with each other. A mans reason must be in charge of his emotions and desires (Grube 434d-435a).
Justice again is only present when the other three parts of the mind perform their functions well. They must all play their proper functions and not interfere with each other. Justice in the mind is like health in the body. A just man is one whose mind is in good order; A healthy man is one whose body is in good order. (Cliffs 38-39)
Socrates has now said that a philosopher will make the best ruler. A philosopher will always be able to administer justice and act for the good of the community. A philosopher will always be honest and forthright. They will be well disciplined and not give into bodily desires. Money and possessions will not matter to them. They will not be cowardly. They will poses all four cardinal virtues. They will be best able to rule the state, and rule it well (Cliffs 41-44).
He also goes on to say that to grow up to be a good ruler, their lives must be divided into six stages, as a child. Up until the age of 18 they will learn a small amount of mathematics, warfare, and watch battles. Then the best of that group will go through intense physical and military training for two-three years. The best of that group is now chosen and will take an advanced mathematics course, for ten years. Those not chosen from this group will form the auxiliary class. At the age of 30 after the mathematics course is completed, another selection is made. The best of this group will study dialectic for five years. At the age of 35 they will be philosophers. They will then have to receive practical experience. At the age of 50 they are now fully formed philosophy rulers (Grube 535a-540a). This process will enable the rulers to do their job well, which will in turn enable everyone they rule to do their jobs well, and to live well.
The concept of arete is not hard to understand, but it is hard to put into words. Although he never uses the word arete in his book, Plato does put it into words, just by trying to define justice.
1.Cliffs notes on. PLATOS THE REPUBLIC. Lincoln, Nebraska:1997
2.Grube, G.M.A.(translated by). Plato REPUBLIC. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, INC. 1992
3.Plato. Comptons Interactive Encyclopedia.99.Dec 2, 1999