In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle is considering the question, “What is the highest of all the goods pursued in action” (1095a15)? In order to answer this question, we must begin with things that we know (1095b). He proceeds to answer the question by considering and ruling out what vulgar people and socially cultivated people regard as the highest goods to be pursued. These things are not sufficient for Aristotle, as they are not self-sufficient. They are transitory and fragile. He states that “the best good is apparently something complete” (1096a25) and he understands the best good to be happiness, as this is the thing we aim at in all our activities and investigations. He says, “we regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing; and that is what we think happiness does” (1097b10).
Aristotle is absolute in stating “Every craft and every investigation, and likewise every action and decision, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims” (1094a). However, this does not mean that everything aims at the same ‘goods’. As he says, “there is an apparent difference among the ends aimed at” (1094a). Whereas humanity shares the characteristics of plant and animal life, and whereas the same things which are good for the wellbeing of plants and animals are also good for us (nourishment, health, etc) the good at which we aim is different and greater than the good at which a plant, for example, aims in growing and reproducing. This is because of the specific difference between humans and other living things, plant or animal.
What makes humans unique? What is our function that differentiates our good from other goods? “The human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reason, or requires reason” (1098a5). This expression and requirement of reason is for the human “a certain kind of life” which when completed well expresses “proper virtue” (1098a10). As this is regarded as the right function of the human being, the virtue of living well according to reason is the human good. “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15).
In essence, the myth tells us Socrates’ view of the city and its people.
First of all, the people of the city (humans in general) are shackled in intellectual darkness (Republic, 514). This is understood as meaning that we confuse our material existence, the material world with which we interact, and the way by which we interact with it, as being real and true, when in fact it is best understood as a shadow of what is actually real and true, namely the world of the forms and ultimately the Good itself (515c). Secondly, the vast majority of humans are unconcerned about the falseness of their existence and find anyone suggesting otherwise as ridiculous to the point of perhaps trying to kill them (517a). Third, as a consequence, the vast majority of people in the city do not recognize the Good, and thus do not truly recognize the things derived from the good (e.g., justice).
However, the fact that there are individuals within the City (true philosophers) who try to inform the people regarding the reality of the Good etc., means that there is the possibility of movement between the life of intellectual bondage in darkness and intellectual knowledge in the light. So, fourth, it is necessary for those who are rulers to recognize both the basic deceit which shrouds the majority of the citizens and the need for those who know the reality of the Good to provide leadership and instill justice (etc) in the city by way of its laws and the ordering things in a harmonious way (520). Fifth, this further requires a deliberate approach to education by the founders so that those who are liberated from the cave are further examined to determine their suitability for leadership and instill a sense of obligation to return to the realm of the cave for the good of the city (532ff). Sixth, those who return must be fully aware that the majority of the people in the city are unconcerned about the true reality of the Good, and so they are allowed to continue in deceit (and are in fact further deceived) in order to instill (or perhaps coerce and deceive) and sustain (or perhaps enforce) harmoniousness in the city for all people (519e). Finally, the philosopher-kings, mere philosophers, mere rulers, and founders are to order the procreation of the citizens and their education in such a way to ensure that there will be future philosopher-kings able to lead for a time for the benefit of the city before being relieved to withdraw from sensory and material concerns and to return to pure contemplation of the Good (519c, 540b).
It is extraordinary that Socrates makes such an unambiguous and absolute statement regarding what the purpose is of philosophy. He states, “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death” (Phaedo, 64a).
Question: In relation to Socrates and his trial, is the act of submitting to an unjust law and/or punishment itself an unjust or just act?
In terms of Socrates’ relation to Athens and his situation before the Council, I believe that this act of submission is a just act for the following reasons:
1) Socrates willingly submits to the laws of Athens, knowing that they are not an expression of the ideal laws of the ideal city. Throughout his adult life, he has been a free citizen of Athens and could have left at any time with all his possessions. This free association is key. As he states in the Crito it is not right to respond in an unjust way to unjust laws. The act of submission is a recognition that the laws one has consented to live beneath have force regardless of whether or not they are totally just because the health of the city depends upon the enforcement of laws.
Question: In terms of Crito and Apology in a society formed by social contract, is it possible to oppose any given law as unjust without appeal to divine law?
1) In Crito Socrates draws a link between an obvious understanding of what is best for physical training (natural training) and what is best for training in the virtues (intellectual or spiritual training). This leads me to think that if one is willing and able to consider the matters humbly and honestly, the way forward towards increased justice will be as self-evident as the way forward in physical training. Both will enable one to live a good life, though the life of the soul is of far more importance than the life of the body.