An Intellectual Conception of Desire

Desires are Beliefs about What is Good and What is Bad

In the Protagoras, Plato has Socrates make a point about what "rules" a human being. Socrates suggests to Protagoras and Protagoras agrees that "knowledge is a leader and a ruler" in human beings. In the Gorgias and Meno, Socrates can seem to have a view of human action inconsistent with the intellectualist conception of desire he expresses in the Protagoras. This seems to presuppose what is known as Socratic Intellectualism: that all desire in the human soul is or stems from beliefs about what is good and what is bad.


  "Come, Protagoras, and reveal this about your mind: What do you believe about knowledge (ἐπιστήμην)? Do you go along with the majority? They think this way about it, that it is not powerful, neither a leader nor a ruler (ἡγεμονικὸν), that while knowledge is often present, what rules is something else, sometimes desire, sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain, at other times love, often fear. They think of knowledge as being dragged around by these other things, as if it were a slave. Does the matter seem like that to you? Or does it seem to you that knowledge is a fine thing capable of ruling, and if someone were to know what is good and bad, he would not be forced by anything to act otherwise than knowledge dictates, and that intelligence would be sufficient to save him?
  Not only does it seem as you say, but it would be shameful for me of all people to say that wisdom and knowledge are anything but the strongest in human affairs" (Protagoras 352a).

  "Well is there something you call dread, or fear? And is it—I address myself to you, Prodicus [a Sophist and contemporary of Socrates]—the same as I have in mind—something I describe as an expectation (προσδοκίαν) of bad, whether you call it fear or dread?
  Protagoras and Hippias agreed to this description of dread or fear; but Prodicus thought this was dread, not fear.
  No matter, Prodicus, I said, but my point is this: if our former statements are true, will any man wish to go after what he dreads, when he may pursue what he does not? Surely this is impossible after what we have admitted—that he regards as evil that which he dreads? And what is regarded as evil is neither pursued nor accepted willingly, we saw, by anyone" (Protagoras 358c).

Desire is Part of Reason

Socratic Intellectualism conceives of desire as part of reason. In human beings, according to this conception of desire, there is an on-going process of forming beliefs about what is good and what is bad in the circumstances. No antecedent desire sets this psychological process in motion. This process is a fixed part of the human psychology. All desires stem from these beliefs.

This understanding of how the soul functions in human beings is in direct opposition to the view according to which "reason" in human beings consists simply in a general process of forming and retracting beliefs and not in any specific process to solve a particular problem.

This understanding also is in opposition to the view Socrates attributes to "the majority," that it is possible to know the better course of action but to act for the sake of a worse one because belief is overpowered by desire. The "majority" say that this can and does happen in human beings.

How to Control Action

It seems uncontroversial that a human being controls his actions, and thus the direction his life takes, by controlling his desires. The question is how a human being takes control of his desires, and Socrates proposes an answer: care for the soul so that reason controls belief.

If, as Socrates thought, desires are or stem from beliefs about what is good and what is bad, then a human being controls his desires by controlling his beliefs. If his beliefs are true, he desires the right things, chooses wisely, and hence makes the best of the situations he encounters.

The problem is that most people are confused about what is good and what is bad. They have false beliefs about these things, and the suggestion in the early dialogues is that Socrates thought that the love of wisdom eliminates these false beliefs by eliminating inconsistency in belief.

A Corollary to Intellectualism

The English word 'paradox' comes from the Greek adjective παράδοξος, which transliterates as paradoxos and means "contrary to expectation, incredible." Socratic paradoxes are thus propositions that Socrates endorses but that are contrary to common belief and hence are "paradoxical."

This interpretation of Socrates allows us to understand a Socratic paradox.

"For Simonides was not so ill-educated as to say that he praised a person who willingly did no bad, as though there were some who did bad willingly. I am fairly sure of this--that none of the wise men considers that anybody ever willingly errs or willingly does base and evil deeds; they are well aware that all who do base and evil things do them unwillingly (ἑκόντα)..." (Protagoras 345d).

Simonides of Ceos was a lyric poet, c. 566 - 468 BCE. Protagoras 345d occurs in a discussion of the meaning of certain of his remarks about being and becoming good.

Socrates does not explain what the "wise men" know that makes them "well aware that all who do base and evil things do them unwillingly," but he may think their knowledge has its basis in the argument he uses to show the many that they themselves are committed to believing that "no one willingly goes after what is bad or what he thinks is bad."
"[S]urely no one willingly (ἑκὼν) goes after what is bad or what he thinks is bad; it is not in human nature (ἐν ἀνθρώπου φύσει), apparently, to do so..." (Protagoras 358c).

It seems possible that someone who tries to bring about something he believes is bad need not be confused. This, however, is not possible if Socrates is right about desire.

Socrates does not describe very clearly what it is for someone to "willingly (ἑκὼν) go after what is bad or what he thinks to be bad," but he may have the following in mind:

S does not believe that doing b is better than than doing a
S believes that doing b is worse than than doing a
S believes that he can do a
S does b and so "willing goes after what he thinks is bad"

Given Socratic Intellectualism and an assumption about what motivates action, this description of "willingly going after the bad" entails a contradiction and hence is inconsistent.

Here is the proof. Since S does b, and since all action is motivated by desire, it follows that S desires to do b. Where does S get this desire? According to Socratic Intellectualism, all desires are or stem from beliefs about what is good and what is bad. So, given Socratic Intellectualism, it follows that this desire is or stems from a belief about whether b is better than a. Hence, given Socratic Intellectualism and the assumption about what motivates action, it follows that

S believes that doing b is better than doing a

This contradicts the first proposition in the description of what it is for someone to "willingly go after the bad." So one of the following must be false: Socratic Intellectualism, the assumption that all action is motivated by desire, or one of the propositions in the description.

"[T]o Socrates it appeared ... that knowledge alone could really make men free. Only good conduct, he maintained, is truly voluntary; a bad man is constrained by ignorance to do what is contrary to his real wish, which is always for his own greatest good: only knowledge can set him free to realise his wish" (Henry Sidwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 5th edition. (Macmillan, 1902), 25). Further, given Socratic Intellectualism, it is false belief and thus ignorance that constrains those who go after what is bad. In the soul, as a part of reason, there is an on-going process of forming beliefs about what is good and what is bad in the circumstances. A human being desires to go after what he believes it is good and desires to avoid what he believes is bad. So if goes after what is bad, it is because his ignorance has constrained and prevented him from acting correctly.

The Project Remains Incomplete

At this point in Plato's project to understand Socrates, given the discussions in which the character engages in the Euthyphro, Laches, and Protagoras, the answers to

• what is the thinking in the soul that leads to action
• what is it to control this thinking and thus the direction one's life takes
• how does questioning lead to this competency in living

are a little clearer. So it is a little easier to understand the competency in living Socrates has in mind in the Apology when he castigates the Athenians for not giving enough attention to "wisdom and truth and the best state of [the] soul," but the project remains incomplete.

First Question

How is inconsistency the obstacle to the good life?

Socrates, as Plato portrays him, assumes that his interlocutors are confused and that this confusion is eliminated by eliminating inconsistency in belief. This presupposes that the problem is the presence of false belief, not the absence of knowledge. Human beings have the necessary knowledge, but their false beliefs confuse them and prevent them from living a good life. Yet, it is not obvious that human beings have the knowledge they need and that false belief is the problem. Further, Socrates assumes that the knowledge that constitutes wisdom cannot be eliminated in eliminating the inconsistency in belief. Yet, it is not obvious that humans have beliefs they cannot abandon. Finally, from a logical point of view, consistency does not imply truth. So even if one's beliefs are consistent, it does not follow as a matter of logic that these beliefs are all true.

Second Question

How is knowledge of the virtues part of the good life?

Socrates, as Plato portrays him, seems to suppose that in the definitions of the virtues only the reference class varies. In the Euthyphro, he hints that piety is what is appropriate in matters involving the gods. The definitions of the other virtues are instances of this general form. Justice is what is appropriate with respect to human beings, courage is what is appropriate in fearful situations, and so on. Socrates' interlocutors fail to understand this. They try to identify the virtues with some of their salient instances. This in part is why they contradict themselves.

Given this understanding, it seems that knowledge of what the virtues are alone provides no guidance about what to do in particular situations. To know what to do, it is not enough to know the definitions. It is necessary to know what is appropriate in particular situations.

So it is unclear why knowledge of what the virtues are is important.

The Beginning of an Understanding

It is traditional to describe Socrates in the early dialogues as searching for a "definition" of courage and the other things he uses his "what is it?" question to ask about, but he is not asking to be told about the meaning of words. Socrates wants to know what courage and the virtues are. It is not obvious what the answers to these questions are, but it seems clear that Socrates thinks that knowledge of ethical matters is knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

In the Laches, Nicias says that Socrates and Laches have not been "defining courage" in the right way (194c). Laches had been defining courage in terms of salient examples. He says that someone who is courageous "is willing to stay at his post and face the enemy, and does not run away" (190e). Nicias suggests a different approach: that "courage is a kind of wisdom (σοφίαν)" (194d). Socrates seems to encourage this suggestion and seems further to suggest that wisdom is knowledge of what is good and what is bad (199a-199e).   "Now do you think, Nicias, there could be anything wanting to the virtue of a man who knew all good things, and all about their production in the present, the future, and the past, and all about bad things likewise? Do you suppose that such a man could be lacking in temperance, or justice, and holiness, when he alone has the gift of taking due precaution, in his dealings with gods and men, as regards what is to be dreaded and what is not, and of procuring good things, owing to his knowledge of the right behaviour towards them?
  I think, Socrates, there is something in what you say" (Laches 199d).



In the Protagoras, in the discussion with Protagoras about the unity of virtue, Socrates suggests that the virtues and wisdom are the same thing (Protagoras 329b).



  "Well now, the cause of cowards being cowardly, do you call this cowardice or courage?
  Cowardice, I call it.
  And were they not found to be cowards through ignorance (ἀμαθίαν) of what is dreadful?
  Certainly.
  And so they are cowards because of that ignorance?
  Yes.
  And the cause of their being cowards is admitted by you to be cowardice?
  Yes.
  Then ignorance of what is dreadful and not dreadful will be cowardice?
  Yes.
  But surely courage, is the opposite of cowardice.
  Yes.
  Then the wisdom that knows what is and what is not dreadful is opposed to the ignorance of these things?
  Yes.
  And the ignorance of them is cowardice?
  Yes.
  So the wisdom (σοφία) that knows what is and what is not dreadful is courage, being opposed to the ignorance of these things? Why is it, Protagoras, that you neither affirm nor deny what I ask you?
  Finish it, Socrates, by yourself" (Protagoras 360c ).
The idea, then, in the case of courage, is that a person who knows what is good and what is bad knows what courage is in circumstances that inspire fear and hence does what is appropriate in these circumstances.

These discussions suggest that the prior understanding of Socrates was incomplete. It was that

• the soul has virtue just in case the human being has a certain wisdom
• this wisdom is knowledge about ethical matters

To this characterization, it is necessary to add that

• knowledge about ethical matters is knowledge of what is good and bad

What Socrates wants, it seems, when he presses his interlocutors to say what the virtues are, is to focus their attention on the question of how a human being should live.

Given the truth of Socrates' intellectual conception of desire in terms of belief, it follows that

• wisdom is necessary and sufficient for the virtues

The human being who has wisdom has the virtues of character. He acts in terms of the virtues of character and thus lives in a way that he is "happy" (εὐδαίμων).

This gives Plato an understanding of the life in the love of wisdom he takes Socrates to have lived, but to vindicate Socraets and defend this life as the good life, he needs to show that

• the elimination of inconsistency is sufficient for wisdom
• a life in terms of the virtues is a life of "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία)

Plato needs to explain how human beings have the knowledge of good and bad they need to live the good life. Further, he needs to explain what activities constitute "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία) and why a life in terms of the virtues is a life in which these activities predominate.

Initially, at least, it looks like neither of these explanations will be easy for Plato to give.





Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Laches, Protagoras

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀκρατής, (ἀ + κράτος), akratēs, adjective, "without strength"
ἑκών, hekōn, adjective, "of one's own accord"
ἡγεμονικός , hēgemonikos, adjective, "capable of command, authoritative"
παράδοξος, paradoxos, adjective, "contrary to expectation, incredible"
προσδοκίαν, prosdokian, noun, "expectation"



"[I]n the Protagoras, Socrates seems to argue as if the soul just were reason, and the passions were reasoned beliefs or judgments of some kind, and as if, therefore, we were entirely guided or motivated by beliefs of one kind or another. On this picture of the soul, it is easy to see why Socrates thinks that nobody acts against his knowledge or even his beliefs: nothing apart from beliefs could motivate such an action" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," xxx. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).

"[Socrates] relied on a substantial notion of the soul as what guides our behavior and whose health and well-being should thus be a primary concern of ours. His extreme intellectualism seems to have been based on a conception of the soul as a mind or reason, such that our desires turn out to be beliefs of a certain kind [and thus that it is these beliefs we need to control because they guide our behavior]" (Michael Frede, "The Philosopher," 10. Greek thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge, edited by J. Brunschwig and G.E.R. Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3-16).

"[If] virtue is a certain kind of wisdom... [it]] is not just one among several virtues. Rather, one must wonder whether wisdom is also a necessary condition for the other virtues or even whether the other virtues are not just parts of this wisdom. Perhaps, indeed, one and the same wisdom, applied in different contexts, grounds or even guarantees a courageous or pious or just response, as the context demands" (Michael Frede, "Introduction,: xxii. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).

"[I]f the [Protagoras] does suggest a positive thesis, it is the strong thesis that the virtues are identical with wisdom, the knowledge of what is good and bad. ... Being virtuous, Socrates suggests, is being wise, possessing a science or an art of properly evaluating things" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," xxiii, xxxii. Plato. Protagoras. Translated by S. Lombardo and K. Bell, introduction by Michael Frede (Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), vii-xxxii).



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