When looking at the question of the meaning of life, who else to consult on this difficult question but Plato, one of the most influential thinkers of all time? In this article we will explore what Plato thought about this eternal question and his remarkable solution in the face of doubt and corruption.
Plato believed that the meaning of life was to be in tune with the universe. The Cosmos exists for a reason, and was created by the creator to embody his virtue and wisdom and as such it strives towards perfection. We’re a small part of this large machine and our lives are meaningful when we move in tune with it.
A meaningful life for Plato has two dimensions, ethical and political. We should first examine what being virtuous and a good citizen entails. Without these pillars, we will be misled on life’s purpose.
Virtue and Justice
Greeks did not think of the universe the way we typically do in our modern era, as a pointless mass of stars and galaxies moving aimlessly across space. For Plato, the universe had a reason for its movement, embedded in it by Gods. This was its Telos. Telos is the point towards which all things move, the expression of their own intimate nature.
For Plato, the core virtues are knowledge, justice, piety, courage and temperance, with justice playing the biggest role in organizing the psyche and the other virtues being part of it. A person can be said to be just when each part of his brain performs its dedicated task, when we seek and utilize knowledge, when we act with courage, when we control our temper and appetite. If, in one of these regions corruption takes hold, it can throw everything else off balance.
For example, if irrationality takes over rationality, it will be very hard to deliver just decisions since they will be taken irrationality and won’t conform to virtues nor the telos of the universe. Only the balance between these regions leads man to justice and inner harmony. As Plato states directly
“[a man’s] highest good is to become as virtuous as possible” (Laws, 707d)
State and Citizen
A virtuous life, however, is unimaginable outside of a society and it is always grounded in its context. We’re all political animals and cosmopolitans. Our virtues are tied and practiced in our immediate community. In an ill run state, virtue and corruption will become increasingly difficult to tell apart. Therefore, the meaning of life involves creating a state which practises justice and upholds virtuous behaviour, hence Plato’s long description of the perfect Republic. It is your duty as a cosmopolitan to revolt against corrupted states and to promote just ones. Justice is in tune with the telos of the universe, it is inscribed in it and therefore necessary for us to live meaningful lives.
The Republic for Plato should be governed by a philosopher king. He believed that justice and virtue aren’t things we construct amongst ourselves as humans but forms we can discover in the Cosmos itself. Only a great philosopher will be able to seize the perfect form of justice. Others can still be blinded by shadows and deformations. Everything for Plato had an ideal form which existed on a higher plane of existence. In his famous cave allegory, humans are trapped in a cave and only have access to the shadows of the ideal objects which are perfect. A philosopher king is someone who was able to step out of the cave and stare directly into the blinding light of the perfect objects. He knows justice in its perfection. He knows virtue in its perfection. He knows telos in its perfection. As such, he should guide the rest of society towards the light he has already seen.
The state should also be relatively small, consisting of about 25.000 citizens. A state with more citizens can often hide the character of its citizens and lead to corruption. A small state guarantees the transparency of its citizens and makes their character traits more obvious. Within a just state, citizens should know each other enough to judge their character, keep track of those who might be corrupted and promote those who act virtuously.
The Divine Meaning of Life
Human meaning is connected to the nature of the Gods. Our purpose should be to get as close to the divine as humanly possible. This is done by acting virtuously within a perfectly run state by a philosopher who has had contact with the ideal forms. Someone who has lived his whole live in shadows shouldn’t act in his judgment but should follow the advice of those more enlightened than him if he is to live meaningfully. A meaningful life is therefore not a personal creation which we can subjectively make up as we go along. Our meaning is carved in the stars themselves. It is very difficult to lead a meaningful life, however.
The biggest reason for this is that shadows are more comforting than the light of truth which can burn those who aren’t prepared to discover it. It is far easier to give in to temptations, to act irrationally, to take advantage of your fellow men and to become a tyrant than it is to live virtuously, to act in justice with a full rational mind and also guide others towards it. This is because the light wants your undivided devotion. It is not enough to act virtuously once. You have to do it time and time again. It is not enough to take a just decision once. You have to do it time and time again. This can be overbearing to a lot of people but failing to do so will necessarily lead us to a meaningless life, out of step with the rest of the Cosmos.
Our meaning, therefore, is divine and eternal. Finding what that meaning consists of can be quite difficult but acting in accordance with it might prove to be the real challenge. For Plato, human nature can easily be corrupted and mislead. A meaningful life requires you to resist corruption and to guide the already corrupted towards justice. The meaningful live consist in listening and singing the tune of the Cosmos.
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