Plato's Laws IX, 4: Akratēs

Akratēs is the Greek word for today's puzzle, the puzzle of someone who knows what is right but does the wrong thing anyway. This is linked with several other puzzles about virtue that Plato wrestled with all his life without solving; Aristotle came up with a set of answers to the puzzles that he found satisfying. 

One of the allied problems is whether or not virtue is a kind of knowledge. Socrates thought it was: that virtue was a kind of knowing what the right thing to do is. Since the virtuous man knows what is best, naturally he will do it, since to act as if the best thing was not really best would be an expression of ignorance rather than knowledge. 

If that is a correct account of virtue, then virtue (being knowledge) should be easily taught. Yet the sons of virtuous men often turn out bad, or weak, in spite of their father's example and all the wealth poured into educating them. (This is the subject of Plato's Protagoras.)

Also, the account seems a little insufficient. All a teacher of courage needs to do is to teach the student to know what is right to do in a dangerous circumstance like war, and that suffices. Only it doesn't, obviously. (This is the subject of Plato's Laches.)

Temperance, too: all I need to know in order to be temperate is the right amount of alcohol to drink, food to eat, etc. Knowing this, I will obviously lead a temperate life. Or will I? It doesn't seem like it always works out that way, leading to a puzzle about what it means for one to exercise self-control. How could a thing like knowledge regulate itself? Eyes see color, not 'sight'; ears hear sounds, not 'hearing'; so what kind of knowledge is this that isn't about knowing something, but about knowing what ought to be known? (This is the subject of Plato's Charmides.)

Another allied problem is the unity of the virtues. If virtue is a kind of 'knowing what is right,' how could you have one virtue without having all of them? There are many brave men who fight in bad causes. Consider this fellow, a highly decorated soldier and unrepentant evildoer. He clearly has the virtue of courage, but not the virtue justice. Now Aristotle will say that justice is 'fairness plus lawfulness,' where the laws (like the ones Plato is designing here) are supposed to be derived from human nature and seek to perfect human nature. Thus, unjust laws will lead a lawful man to injustice, because the laws themselves are inhumane. But if virtue is a kind of 'knowing the right thing to do,' how can it not be obvious to the virtuous man that the laws are unjust?

With all these background debates, the Athenian makes one last stab at trying to argue that virtue is a kind of knowledge -- only, he admits, somehow we don't always do what we know to be best. 

Ath. When any one commits any injustice, small or great, the law will admonish and compel him either never at all to do the like again, or never voluntarily, or at any rate in a far less degree; and he must in addition pay for the hurt. Whether the end is to be attained by word or action, with pleasure or pain, by giving or taking away privileges, by means of fines or gifts, or in whatsoever way the law shall proceed to make a man hate injustice, and love or not hate the nature of the just-this is quite the noblest work of law. But if the legislator sees any one who is incurable, for him he will appoint a law and a penalty. He knows quite well that to such men themselves there is no profit in the continuance of their lives, and that they would do a double good to the rest of mankind if they would take their departure, inasmuch as they would be an example to other men not to offend, and they would relieve the city of bad citizens. In such cases, and in such cases only, the legislator ought to inflict death as the punishment of offences.

Cle. What you have said appears to me to be very reasonable, but will you favour me by stating a little more clearly the difference between hurt and injustice, and the various complications of the voluntary and involuntary which enter into them?

Ath. I will endeavour to do as you wish:-Concerning the soul, thus much would be generally said and allowed, that one element in her nature is passion, which may be described either as a state or a part of her, and is hard to be striven against and contended with, and by irrational force overturns many things.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. And pleasure is not the same with passion, but has an opposite power, working her will by persuasion and by the force of deceit in all things.

Cle. Quite true.
Ath. A man may truly say that ignorance is a third cause of crimes. Ignorance, however, may be conveniently divided by the legislator into two sorts: there is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offences, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing. This second kind of ignorance, when possessed of power and strength, will be held by the legislator to be the source of great and monstrous times, but when attended with weakness, will only result in the errors of children and old men; and these he will treat as errors, and will make laws accordingly for those who commit them, which will be the mildest and most merciful of all laws.

Cle. You are perfectly right.
Ath. We all of us remark of one man that he is superior to pleasure and passion, and of another that he is inferior to them; and this is true.

Cle. Certainly.
Ath. But no one was ever yet heard to say that one of us is superior and another inferior to ignorance.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. We are speaking of motives which incite men to the fulfilment of their will; although an individual may be often drawn by them in opposite directions at the same time.

Cle. Yes, often.
Ath. And now I can define to you clearly, and without ambiguity, what I mean by the just and unjust, according to my notion of them:-When anger and fear, and pleasure and pain, and jealousies and desires, tyrannize over the soul, whether they do any harm or not-I call all this injustice. But when the opinion of the best, in whatever part of human nature states or individuals may suppose that to dwell, has dominion in the soul and orders the life of every man, even if it be sometimes mistaken, yet what is done in accordance therewith, the principle in individuals which obeys this rule, and is best for the whole life of man, is to be called just; although the hurt done by mistake is thought by many to be involuntary injustice[,]

This is Plato's final attempt at a resolution of the puzzle. Virtue is a kind of knowledge, but two different kinds of ignorance are possible. The first one is a simple ignorance of the good, which is easy to repair through admonishment and education. The second is a determined ignorance, one that has settled upon the wrong answer and pridefully refuses to be corrected. 

If that sounds familiar, it is approximately the difference between error and heresy. Heresy is a matter of the will, which refuses correction even in theory, and adamantly holds to and even teaches that the wrong thing is actually right. (This was Meister Eckhart's ultimate defense against the charge of heresy for his mystical teachings; to whit, that he believed what he believed but he was open to correction if someone could show him that he was wrong about it, and would recant anything proven to be in error. Some of his doctrines were found heretical, but he himself was not condemned as a heretic.)

Plato's solution is likewise the same as the solution to the problem of heresy: when you find someone who is determined and fixed upon the wrong answers, you must kill him. 

Plato is still trying to explain actions in terms of knowledge; obviously, if you know the right thing you will do the right thing. If you don't do the right thing, you must somehow be ignorant. 

Aristotle's account of this puzzle is in Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. (Note that akratēs is given as 'incontinence' and its variants in this translation.) He says the issue is that it is possible to 'have' knowledge in one sense and 'not have' it in another; thus, one might know how to calculate properly in one sense, but be unable to do it when drunk or asleep. You haven't forgotten how to calculate, but in certain states you can't do what you would know how to do in the correct state. 

Aristotle has a lot more to say about it than that; the first ten parts of that book are on the subject. The basic answer, though, is to introduce a new concept that Plato wasn't using: the idea of being in a state. Virtue itself will become a kind of state of character, cultivated and lasting, rather than a kind of knowledge. You must still know the right thing to do; but the virtuous man will have also cultivated the character that does it

That doesn't actually solve the puzzle either. You still need knowledge, not just a state of character. And it turns out -- Aristotle says this over and over through his work -- that the virtuous man is the right judge of the right thing to do. So it isn't just a form of knowledge, but a state of character that produces knowledge that can only be judged by someone in that state. How would you know it if you got there, then? How would you recognize it from the outside, in order to see that you still had something to learn? 

This is the point at which a professor would say:  "Discuss." 


Tom said...

On one hand, there is a difference between knowing how to play basketball and actually being able to play it well. For example, a lot of great coaches can't actually play very well, but somehow they are telling the greatest players in the world how to improve.

I mean, I can read a bunch of books about how to play basketball, and theoretically know how to play like a pro, but I still won't be able to make 9 out of 10 baskets I try. I suck at basketball. (Well, not the charging, foul-getting parts -- I played football, after all. When the other team has the ball, it's clear what you have to do, right?)

Aristotle talks about forming habits. So, virtue would not only be knowing, but the habit of doing.

I think this is where things get confused for me. Why isn't virtue that? Why do some argue it is JUST a form of knowledge? Was there no category for practiced or habitual knowledge?

What about knowledge and will? The knowledge of what is virtuous, and the will to do it?

Two other random thoughts. St. Paul also dealt with this problem, and Scripture tells us the law is inborn; somehow, the law is written on the human heart. So ... inherent knowledge?

The Greeks (er, some Greeks) thought mathematics was inherent, didn't they?

Yes, feeling gregarious tonight. Cheers!

Tom said...

So then, I guess, a solution could be Aristotle's state of character and then the law written upon the heart, if one believes in that sort of thing.

Grim said...

Good for you. Now, what 'some' Greeks thought about mathematics is stronger than that it is somehow impressed upon the heart. The Pythagoreans thought -- still do think, as there remain some abroad -- that everything really just is math. Thus it couldn't avoid being impressed upon us, because there was nothing else except that. Not really.

You probably need to read Plato's Parminedes. Socrates was very young when that conversation is supposed to have happened; and it raises all these questions beyond the practical to the metaphysical.

Tom said...

I'll check it out.

Here's a recent relevant article on civic virtue:

Grim said...

Yes, that fellow is correct. What he's raising there re: natural rights vs. human rights is the problem of 'getting an ought from an is,' which we were discussing a few days ago.

Both Plato and Aristotle are bothered by this propensity for people to know what is right and not do it. What that guy is talking about is actually further down the road: to have disposed of the ways that might have let you come to know what was right in the first place.