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Plato’s Big Mistake by Louis Markos

Plato

Plato’s Big Mistake

Plato never cared much for the sophists, viewing them as amoral peddlers of a relativistic kind of wisdom with the potential to corrupt the souls of those who hired them. It is therefore not surprising that when they appear in his dialogues, they are generally treated in a negative or at least suspect manner. InProtagoras, however, Plato treats the sophist of the title with considerable respect. He even has Socrates debate with Protagoras—on fairly equal terms!—a two-part question that Plato considered vital: what is the nature of virtue and can it be taught to others? Although the more elitist Socrates begins the dialogue by asserting that virtue cannot be taught, as the dialogue proceeds, he slowly adopts a position concerning the nature of virtue that drives him—almost against his will—toward the necessary conclusion that virtue can be taught.

In striking contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin, Plato argues in Protagoras—and elsewhere—that human evil is not the result of rebellion or disobedience. Although G. K. Chesterton was certainly right when he claimed that original sin was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” Plato seems to have overlooked this proof in favor of a different cause for vicious behavior. “For myself,” says Socrates, “I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetrates any evil or base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary” (345e). Later in the dialogue, Socrates explains more clearly what the cause is of this involuntary evil:

…when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains—that is, of good and evil—the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge….no one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better. To “act beneath yourself” is the result of pure ignorance, to “be your own master” is wisdom. (357e, 358c)

Evil actions, that is to say, are caused not by sin but by ignorance. If we knew of another, better course of action, we would take it. Continue reading

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