Plato and gandhi: justice and ahimsa

Download 102.09 Kb.
Size102.09 Kb.
  1   2   3

(An examination and a comparison of Plato’s and Gandhi’s most fundamental virtues; how these virtues were influenced by their respective epistemes; and why these virtues are necessary for a democratic culture, or nation – state)

My keen interest in the topic of this paper was influenced by my long held belief that the fundamental virtues of Plato and Gandhi, namely, justice and ahimsa, respectively, are necessary for a democratic culture or nation – state as well as a virtuous life of an individual. At this stage of the paper, let us take ahimsa to mean non-harm and compassion. When I turn to Gandhi’s thought, I will expand and elaborate upon the term.


Based upon the foregoing considerations and the theme of this conference, the objective of this paper is to examine and compare the fundamental virtues of Plato and Gandhi, namely, justice and ahimsa and to consider the need of these virtues within a democratic culture and/or nation state. Both Plato and ‘Gandhi were interested in moral character and they believed that character was formed by the development of certain virtues. Furthermore, they held that when a person has developed a virtue, he or she would be disposed to act in accord with that virtue. In addition, Plato and Gandhi each thought that his fundamental virtue was necessary for a harmonious society. Also, although Plato’s ideal polis1 was not a democratic state2 and his sense of justice was not what it is taken to be in a democracy, I will argue that a view of justice, as a virtue and a right, as well as Gandhi’s view of ahimsa are necessary for a democratic culture or society.


In researching and writing about any philosophy or people, especially that of the ancient past, the approach or methodology must take due account of hermeneutical considerations, especially that of an episteme, i.e. body of knowledge.3 I take this body to include: whatever a given culture or society believes to be truth or fact, accepted myths4 as well as environmental and historical influences. In fact, the body of knowledge includes whatever could influence the values and beliefs of a people. Thus, we philosophers of today need to avoid the mistakes which a number of philosophers have made in the past. These mistakes include: applying our modern methods and logical tools of analysis to a philosophy before understanding the episteme; and/or either ignoring or not taking due account of aspects of an episteme which are germane to a subject under consideration.5

Focusing again on justice as described in The Dialogues of Plato, let us determine what Plato meant by “justice.” In order to do this, we will examine his metaphysics as well as his views on the tripartite soul and an ideal state. His metaphysics includes: the Forms; the Good; and particular myths, which he describes, having to do with rebirth and the eternality of the soul. So, incorporating the hermeneutical approach, as stated, I will examine what Plato says about these subjects and based on the findings, state what I take justice to be for him. What will emerge from this study is a view according to which Plato believed that the universe was ordered and that order was necessary to establish harmony. Also, he thought that both the state and the individual’s soul or character should be ordered. Both kinds of ordering are undertaken to achieve harmony. Also, although the thrust of the Republic seems to be political, in that the state seems prior to the individual, we need not be concerned because the ancient Greeks believed that the individual was part of the state. In fact, they were viewed as one.6 Thus, we need not fall into an epistemic mistake of thinking of the state and the individual as separate. As we shall see, harmony in the state and the individual require justice. What we will learn, however, is that Plato’s sense of justice is not that which we in the modern world hold. It has more to do with ordering than fairness as we conceive of it today.

After examining what Plato’s sense of justice is in the individual and the state, I will turn to the thought and practice of Mahatma Gandhi, Being a Gandhi scholar,7 I am very familiar with his fundamental virtue, namely, ahimsa. Actually, the term ahimsa, which originally meant non-harm, non-injury and nonviolence, later came to mean both non-harm and compassion. As we shall see, for Gandhi, these two virtues of non-harm and compassion were broad in meaning and scope.

One cannot appreciate Gandhi’s thought or action unless she or he understands the profound influence that ahimsa had upon his life. I would go so far as to say that ahimsa was fundamental to all of his actions. In making this point clear, I will adumbrate the origin of ahimsa in the ancient Vedic literature and its development in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Then, I will show how Gandhi’s own thoughts about

ahimsa were influenced by the three great Vedic traditions and a few persons and beliefs which also influenced him. Finally, I will show how he introduced ahimsa into the social/political arena by making it the foundation of his Truth or Soul Force against oppression. With this movement, he was able to end much of the oppression of the Indian population in South Africa and ultimately to free India from Great Britain’s colonial rule.

In comparing Gandhi’s fundamental virtue of ahimsa to Plato’s views of justice, I will be emphasizing their shared beliefs that virtues are basically dispositions to act and that the more one has developed a virtue, the more she or he is disposed to act upon that virtue. Also, I will be looking at Gandhi’s view of a harmonious society and how we can counteract conflict and violence with ahimsa. Finally, even though Plato believed that democracy was a flawed system of government, I will argue that both justice, as a virtue and a right, and ahimsa are needed for a democratic culture or nation - state.



As stated earlier, in order to understand what Plato meant by “justice”, we need to examine his metaphysics and what he said about the tripartite soul and ideal state. To this end, let us begin with his metaphysics.

The Forms:

Plato’s metaphysics involves a realm that is transcendent to the world, namely, a realm of Being. Plato speaks of or alludes to this realm as one of Forms [Eidos]. Although he uses many words to describe the Forms, basically, they seem to be eternal, unchanging, non-material, verities that can be divided into at least three categories, namely: principles or standards,8 such as justice and beauty; eternal truths;9 and patterns.10 Also, he speaks of things in the world having reality because they partake of the Forms.11 Apparently things in the world receive their being or existence from the Forms, and a system of Forms. Thus, the Forms would seem to be causal. However, in the Theaetetus, a later Dialogue in which Socrates is not the main speaker and guide of the dialogue, Plato has the main character, Theaetetus, involved in seriously questioning what knowledge is. Since we know the Forms by knowledge, the Forms would also be in question.

Apropos of Plato questioning what knowledge is, which would put into question what he says about the Forms, the authors of one of the translations of The Dialogues suggest that this questioning is in keeping with Plato’s thought because he always questioned himself. 12 I am not convinced of this suggestion. For one thing, Plato’s view that the Forms [somehow] cause things in the world seems to clash with his views of rebirth of the soul and immortality. How can a Form cause a human being to be, if her or his soul or character is eternal and subject to rebirth? The only answer would be to draw a sharp distinction between the soul and body, as Descartes did later between mind and body. The soul, in this case, would be altogether different from the material self. However, this raises the problem with the tripartite soul which I will discuss shortly. Whatever final view that Plato came to hold about the Forms, in general, I do believe that he continued to hold that there was some ordering principle in the universe which he called the “Good” and which he did associate with what he viewed as the supreme Form. Let us consider what he said about the Good.
The Good:

The Form of the Good:

One view of the Good is that of the supreme Form.13 Perhaps, it would be better call this a “Form of Forms”. For, as it is described in the Parmenides, it would seem to be that which gives order to the other Forms, the system of the Forms, and indeed to the universe or scheme of things entire.14 Another possible view of the Good which is found in the Timaeus, is the myth of a personal deity [demiurgus] or an imaginative personification of the good which created the world or was its cause. Thus, it is not clear exactly what the nature of the Good is. However, A. E. Taylor, speaking about this subject, says that for the Greeks, there was not the sharp distinction between the personal and the impersonal. 15 Even so, given Plato’s many references regarding ordering and the importance of ordering needed to establish and/or maintain harmony, I think that whatever else it may be, the Good, for Plato, is an ordering principle or law. As such, I take it to be the supreme Form of the good. Furthermore, this Good, i.e., this ordering is what he seems to believe gives harmony to the universe.

Although the Theory of the Forms itself is a myth, I tend to think of it as a speculation rather than pure fiction. As I suggested earlier, I think that Plato observed order in the universe and he gave an explanation of it based upon the episteme of his time. Based on that order, he thought that human life and the state should be ordered and wrote theories to explain that ordering. Even the tripartite soul can be considered myth, but I think that this is also a speculative attempt to explain an ordering whereby harmony can be achieved. However, in these speculations, Plato appealed to several myths which were ancient even in his time. Based upon what I have said about myth, let us turn to a consideration of its role in metaphysics.
Metaphysics and Myth:

As most philosophers know, metaphysics is steeped in myth. Let us take “myth” in the broad and positive sense of: a sacred story of a people, the social purpose of which is to explain and support their most fundamental values and beliefs. As we know myth can and usually does involve fiction, and also speculation. However, as Joseph Fletcher realized in his vast work on myth, it is pervasive in human understanding. In myth

there may also be truth or what is taken to be so, especially involving the history and culture of a people. Nonetheless, since the time of the empiricists, especially David Hume,16, many of our modern or recent philosophers have either ignored or diminished the myth embedded in the writings of the rationalists, including Plato.17 This is an epistemic mistake. Myth played an important role in the philosophy of Plato and furthermore, as stated earlier, some of what we would call “myth” in his writings was what I take to be speculation rather than sheer fancy. I take a number of myths that Plato puts forth in this light. Let us look then at what we gather about a weltanschuung or world view which Plato seems to have held or at least entertained.18 To that end, let us first consider what he had to say about the myth of immortality and pre-existence. Here I quote a passage from A. E. Taylor on the subject.19

Myths of Immortality and Pre Existence:
In the great myths of the Gorgias, Republic, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and the half-mythical cosmology of the Timeaus, the convictions as to immortality and pre-existence are made the basis for an imaginative picture of fortunes and destiny of the soul, in which the details are borrowed partly from Pythagorean astronomy, partly from Pythagorean and Orphic religious mythology, the main purpose of the whole being to impress the imagination with a sense of the eternal significance of right moral choice. The as yet unembodied soul is pictured in the Phaedrus under the figure of a charioteer borne on a car [chariot] drawn by two winged steeds (spirit and appetite), in the train of a great procession of gods whose goal, as they move round the vault of heaven is that ‘place above the heavens’ where the eternal bodiless Ideas [Forms] may be contemplated in all their purity. The soul which fails to control its coursers sinks to earth, ‘loses its wings’ and becomes incarnate in a mortal body, forgetting the ‘imperial place whence it came.’ Its recollections may, however, be awakened by the influence of beauty. [Kalos refers to both beauty and good.], the only ‘Idea’ [Form] which is capable of presentation through the medium of the senses. Love of beauty rightly cultivated develops the love of wisdom and of all high and sacred things; the ‘wings’ of the soul thus begin to sprout once more. After one early life is over, there follows a period of retribution for the good and evil deeds done in the body, and, when that is ordered, the choice of a second bodily life. The soul which has thrice in succession chosen the worthiest life, that of a lover of wisdom is thereafter dismissed to live unencumbered by the body in spiritual converse with heavenly things. For others, a pilgrimage of ten thousand years’ retribution after each life is necessary before the soul can become fully ‘winged’ and return to her first station in the heavens.20

In the Republic, Plato relates from the mouth of a witness from the world of the dead what happens at the time of incarnation. Destiny here is key, as it was and is in Hinduism. Also, as in Hinduism, virtues depend not on fate, but on the character of the soul. A. E. Taylor expresses this view:

According to the tastes and dispositions of the individual souls, and to the degree of wisdom derived from philosophy or from experience, they make their choice, and this once made is irrevocable.21
Based upon A. E. Taylor’s description of Plato’s accounts of rebirth and the eternality of the soul, let us turn now to an examination of what Plato says about the tripartite soul.

The Tripartite Soul:
Of the numerous questions and problems associated with Plato’s Dialogues, I agree, at least in part, with one of the twentieth century Plato scholars, W.K.C. Guthrie.22 In his discussion of the problem, he quoted and expressed his agreement with R. Hackforth who was another Plato scholar of the same period. The quote was: “The problem of the tripartite soul is the thorniest of all Platonic problems and in spite of the vast amount of discussion in recent years, it cannot be said to be solved.”23 I would say that this is one of the “thorniest” of Platonic problems. However, I believe that if we are careful to consider the pertinent aspects of Plato’s episteme, we can make sense of the tripartite soul and its relation to the city-state.

First, we must agree with a number of scholars who have made clear that the accounts of the soul in the Gorgias, Republic, Meno, and Timeaus are not the same. In the Republic, we have the view of the tripartite soul. A.E. Taylor gives a good account of the three parts.24 According to him, the parts are:

The reasoned part:

the part with which we reason, the calculative or rational part.

The appetitive part:

the part with which we feel the appetitive cravings connected

with the satisfaction of our organic bodily needs.

The spirited part:

the part made up of the higher and nobler emotions, chief among

which Plato reckons the emotions of righteous indignation.

The three parts form a unified soul, although Plato made clear that reason must be in control of the other two parts.

In the Republic, Plato argues that the soul is eternal. However, in the Timaeus, we read that only the reasoned part of the soul is eternal.25 This view is in keeping with what Socrates said about virtue. He held that knowledge alone is virtue. The problem with such a view is that there are other parts to the human soul or character and if the soul must be virtuous in order to achieve an eternal state in the realm of Being, then such a state is impossible. Surely, Plato must have considered this problem. However, in the Meno he may have been focusing on purification. If the soul must be purified in order to “see” into reality, and eventually to gain release from the cycles of rebirth and to achieve a permanent state of life in the realm of Forms,26 then how can the parts that are tied to the body and cannot be purified, be eternal? Or put another way, how could a human being ever achieve the virtuous state needed for immortality? This is a quandary. However, in the Phaedrus, Plato had implied that purification takes place in the repeated cycles of rebirth including the time when a soul is disembodied and can chose what kind of life to pursue in the next life-time. Whatever Plato came to hold about this matter, I think that the tripartite state of the soul is psychologically correct as it makes sense of our individual experiences related to both the appetites and the spirited parts of ourselves which he called “soul” and we call “character.” It would not be an adequate account of character to just emphasize the intellectual aspect of our natures, as Socrates did. One scholar suggested,that the tripartite soul may have been Plato’s attempt to overcome the problems with Socrates’ view.27

Granted, the foregoing accounts of rebirth and immortality of the soul are myths and, as stated, they involve fiction. However, it is interesting to me that the ‘myth’ of rebirth has existed in India for thousands of years. It is fundamental to Hinduism, Jainism, and to some extent Buddhism.28 I view this more as a speculative world view or scheme of things entire than simply fiction. As Kant made clear, such views are beyond what can be proven, but so are the views of the monotheistic religions that speculate about an after life in a heavenly state.

What I find interesting is that some of the early Western Christians, who wrote about Plato and the Hindus, emphasized the myth of rebirth as fiction. Yet, they did not view their own myth of creation and salvation as fiction. In contrast to a Christian or religious lens, some of the more recent philosophers who write about Plato either ignore or diminish the myths. I believe that this is an epistemic mistake.

The Ideal State:

Plato’s ordering of the state, as we shall see, was based on guardian rulers who were just in their actions. Plato did not see that kind of justice in the democratic system of Athens which had taken the life of Socrates. So he wanted rulers who could be counted on to act justly. So he wrote his view of an ideal state. In his ideal state, people had different roles. Some were to be rulers and some soldiers, both of which he called “guardians,”29 and some were merchants and skilled workers. He reasoned, as did the ancient thinkers of India, that the city-state would be more ordered and hence harmonious, if each class of person were to become expert at her or his work. Thus, his ideal city-state would be what we would call “closed.” It was not democratic, as the people were ruled by an elite group of intellectuals who ruled because they could, not for gain or fame. What is significant about Plato’s ideal state, is that the guardian rulers had to be just in order to form and exact just laws that would establish and maintain order and thus harmony for the people of the state. That is why I think Plato was so keen to argue for the ordering and thus harmony of the soul. Let us turn now to a discussion of justice and the soul.


Justice and the Soul:

For Plato, a just person was virtuous because his or her soul was in harmony, i.e., reason was in charge of the appetites and spirited part of the soul. Thus, this person could be expected to act in a just way. This is a difficult claim to substantiate because most people would argue that even if one were to know, via reason, what was just, this would not ensure that the person would always act in a just way. In order to strengthen this claim, I think that Plato’s myths about rebirth and purification of a soul that enable it to live eternally in the realm of being, are required. Given these myths, let us take a very close look at Plato’s view of the soul and justice.

Plato makes very clear that the reasoned soul or the soul that is devoted to wisdom is a soul that is ordered. Reason is in control of the appetites and the spirited part of the soul. If the soul is ordered, it is in a state of harmony. Such being the case, and given the belief in a soul’s rebirth and gradual purification, a soul that is in harmony and focused on what he called “the love of wisdom”, cannot help but be just. The persons with such a soul are those whom Plato believes should be the leaders that are chosen to rule the state.

Because souls are reborn, they must learn about the physical world, so they must be educated. Education of the rulers is based on the recognition of possible rulers. This takes place with young boys and girls. The chosen children are reared and educated by the state. The education is lengthy, but various tests are given which eliminate those students who do not excel. Thus, the students will either prove themselves worthy of being rulers or fail to do so. Of course, given the view of purification of the soul, those who have the love of wisdom will excel at their studies and become guardian rulers or philosopher kings. Let us turn now to the explanation of how Plato’s ideal state would be governed

Justice and the State:

Justice is the virtue that is needed for the guardian rulers of the state and thus, those rulers must be counted on to act with justice. Also, even though they will have a long education in how to become rulers, it is their souls, or as we would say, their character, which will determine how they act. Hence, Plato’s analysis of the soul is such that, according to him, it must, as the state, be ordered so that it is in harmony. If it is, he argues, the person will be just to others.

Plato’s seems to strengthen the foregoing belief when he compares the parts of the soul with the classes of persons in the state.30 A. E. Taylor and Paul Shorey suggest that what Plato meant by “justice”, as applied to the state, was that each part of the society was concerned with its own duties and developing its crafts [techne].31 Apparently, he meant the same for the soul. Those who, by nature and or training are wise should be the ruling guardians of the state while those who by nature respond to the appetites and/or their spirited natures, will have to abide by the law of the guardian rulers. These persons will have to learn temperance and moderation. They include the merchants and the skilled workers. However, even the soldier guardians, who have courage as a basic virtue, must obey the dictates of the ruling elite.

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page