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Plato and Mencius: Virtue Ethics

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Both Plato and Mencius believed we could live the virtuous life through self-control, introspection, and working to better ourselves internally. Plato’s world view is based on the assumption that human nature is inherently bad, while Mencius believed that human nature was inherently good, and this is demonstrated in their instructions on how to realize our full potential in living the virtuous life.

Much of The Republic revolves around justice and politics, however its application is more about how we can use the principles of justice, harmonious community, and philosophical education to live Plato’s idea of the Good Life, or a life of true virtue and happiness. Plato’s philosophy of the World of Forms, which is the idea that the physical world we live in is an imperfect, shadowy representation of the ideal, timeless, perfect concepts we see around us, is clearly tied to his belief that human nature is inherently evil. We Plato’s philosophy of Forms in his Allegory of the Cave, which is the story of a chained up prisoner held inside a dark cave who has only ever seen literal shadows of the things of the real world passing along the cave walls finally escaping and realizing his flawed perception of the world is a lie, seeing things in their ‘true’ form for the first time. (Plato, Book VII/514A). By the logic of the World of Forms theory, of course human nature is naturally bad, because everything on earth is imperfect and deceptive.

Glaucon, one of the participants in the philosophical conversation in The Republic, challenges Socrates, asking him to explain why it’s wrong to simply appear virtuous rather than actually living a virtuous life. He uses the ‘Ring of Gyges,’ a story about a shepherd who finds a ring that turns him invisible, allowing him to get away with atrocities without the fear of retribution. This story exemplifies the inherently evil human nature that is the foundation of Plato’s philosophy, but that in no way means he agrees with Glaucon’s idea of an insincere appearance of justice. (Plato, Book II/359d). Another central point in his philosophy is the idea that justice is not only a political idea, but actually can refer to the state of one’s soul.

Looking at justice through both a political and a philosophical lens leads us to the two main things that make a person virtuous in Plato’s eyes: working hard to contribute to the community through an individualized talent or passion and achieving harmony in the soul. (Plato, Book IV/420b). This is done by learning to balance the three parts of the soul: Reason, Courage, and Desire. This is why education is so highly valued in the ideal city Plato lays out in The Republic; he preaches that we can only strive for virtue by learning to control our worldly, impulsive appetite with pure, well-grounded rationality. In fact, the Allegory of the Cave is a representation of what Plato says being a philosopher is like: when the enlightened prisoner (the philosopher) returns to the cave to tell the other prisoners (the general public) about the real world he’s now seen, they call him insane and don’t want to hear any of it, comfortable in their ignorance. (Plato, Book VII/514A). This is why Plato argues that the ideal form of government should mirror his concept of the tripartite soul, with only the truly wise and rational “philosopher-kings” as the Rulers, the courageous and spirited fighters as the Guardians, and the rest of society, or the commoners, as the Producers.

Mencius’ idea of the Good Life is one that adheres to the Confucian Way, or the Dao, which translates literally to the “path” or “way,” and refers to a certain code of behavior. Unlike Plato, Mencius believes that human nature is inherently good, and his philosophy focuses on the cultivation and development of core virtues like benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. This inherent goodness is more of an innate predisposition towards these virtues; when describing human nature, Mencius uses the ‘seed’ metaphor to represent the tiny, intrinsic bit of virtue that is planted in our hearts, so to speak, leaving us with the responsibility to cultivate our sprouts, and bring these virtues or predispositions to full fruition, with the ultimate goal of attaining this sort of practical wisdom that will inform us on how to act when faced with difficult situations. (Mencius, 2A2).

Mencius uses the story of the child and the well to prove his thesis: that human nature is inherently good. He proposes that if anyone saw a young child toddling around near a well, they would feel immediate alarm and compassion, an involuntary gut reaction which acts as proof for our inclination towards benevolence. (Mencius, 2A6). A valid question that follows is: why is evil so widespread, if human nature is naturally good? Mencius claims that the evil in the world is not the fault of human nature, but that of other external factors that push people to reject the mission to cultivate their inherent goodness. He uses two examples to explain this point: The Parable of Ox Mountain and the water analogy. The former is a story of a luscious, green mountain that was drained of all its resources and beauty by people cutting down trees and animals grazing constantly, but this doesn’t mean that it was naturally barren.

The water example compares human nature to flowing water, which doesn’t care whether it goes east or west, but it does have one natural predisposition, which is to flow downward, to which Mencius equates humanity’s tendency towards goodness. He points out that even though the nature of water is to flow downwards, it can still be manipulated on by external forces to move upwards in an unnatural way, just like humans can be affected by environmental factors that can cause their predisposition towards goodness to fail. (Mencius, 6A2).

A very interesting person to look at through the perspective of Plato and Mencius is Jon Snow, a fictional character from the TV show Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s book series. It tells the many intertwining stories of “two powerful families — kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars and honest men — playing a deadly game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and to sit atop the Iron Throne.” Analyzing the life and actions of any character from Game of Thrones with a modern perspective would be very difficult, since the moral standards in this ‘medieval fantasy epic’ are far different than ours are- the audience quickly loses count of how many deaths are on the hands of even the most “virtuous” people, as violence is commonplace and almost necessary for survival. Deceit, manipulation, and greed are parts of almost every interaction and relationship, and the ‘good’ people in Game of Thrones are those who use their violence, deceit, and manipulation with good intentions for generally good causes.

Jon Snow, however, is a very notable outlier in this dog-eat-dog world where it is arguably foolish to do anything other than what is in one’s own self-interest. When analyzing where he would fall on a scale of Platonic virtue, it’s important to note Jon’s most unique, admirable, but sometimes very dangerous traits: he has a strong sense of honor and duty, as well as a strict, personal moral code that he follows without fail. As the bastard son of Ned Stark, Jon has never been fully accepted by his influential, noble family, and as soon as he is old enough he decides to join the Knights Watch, which is about the most radical contribution to their society that anyone could make. The Watchmen are largely made up of criminals who are serving a life sentence by pledging their service (as well as swearing to never marry or have children) to guarding the kingdom from the wild dangers beyond the wall, but Jon joined voluntarily, searching for a purposeful life that would help others, even if they never know of his sacrifice. This utter commitment to serving his community, as well as his willingness to risk himself for the sake of saving the majority are core components of a virtuous life according to Plato.

He also is very wise and discerning which allows him to rise through the ranks quickly, putting him in positions where he is offered great deals of power, and duly so, but Jon is extremely humble and isn’t power hungry in any sense, which is probably what makes him such a good leader. Although he will use violence if necessary, Jon is unique in his wisdom and perceptiveness in dealing with conflict. He is one of the only people from Westeros who doesn’t blindly hate the ‘Wildlings,’ who are basically the more tribal, indigenous people group that was pushed out of their own lands and then barricaded out by the huge wall surrounding the kingdom. Jon reasons with both leaders of the Wildlings and of Westeros armies in the brewing of a war, begging for a chance at peaceful compromise.

Although Plato would admire Jon’s rationality in the midst of everyone else’s hatred-fueled actions, I’m not sure how he would feel about Jon advocating for Wildlings to have rights and access to Westeros, since Plato idealized a society built on huge social divisions and hierarchies and might agree with the southern royalty that the Wildlings are nothing more than barbarians. Jon Snow embodies Mencius’ idea of virtue a lot more clearly than that of Plato in that in the midst of a society that exudes evil, Jon is a beacon of hope for the optimists who believe in intrinsic human goodness. He even acts as an exception to Mencius’ proposition about how an environment will affect someone’s cultivation of goodness; Jon definitely was raised with good morals and in a good home, however he personally was in a toxic situation because as Ned’s bastard son, Ned’s wife despised him for nearly all of their relationship simply because of his father’s mistakes, and he was never really treated like one of the family (he bears the bastard surname, Snow, as well).

He also has dealt with the deaths of literally dozens of family members and friends, but despite all these environmental conditions that could foster evil or resentment, Jon remained virtuous to the core. Jon is extremely loyal and dutiful, but he shares Mencius’ belief that some relationships are more important than anything, even duty and honor, which are the things he values highest. At one point, Jon is forced to make a choice between adhering to his vows to the Nights Watch and leaving his duties in order to try to save his younger brother’s life, and he ultimately chooses to go help his brother, knowing the punishment for desertion is death.

Both Plato and Mencius had high standards and expectations for humanity’s capacity for goodness, but I think both of them would most likely agree it’s impossible to hold any human being to the standard of perfection that is embodied in the Platonic ideal form of a virtuous man. There is a sort of spectrum of morality or virtue, and what seems to matter most consistently is the intentions and the effort that an individual puts into his actions and character.

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