Monday, August 12, 2013

The Practical Dialectic in Kant and Plato

   This will be a simple attempt to expand my understanding of thinkers by thinking them through each other, and also an illustration of such thinking through.  This procedure runs along these lines: structures in philosophical thought are actually few in number, despite the rich variety in language, and so when two philosophers have thought about the same subject, it can be helpful to compare the structures they employ to see if they are actually indicate results that are only implied in the other, or which can be seen by structuring elements in one system by those in another.  The comparison here is between Kant and Plato, and concerns the highest Good in Kant and Beauty itself (which is also the True, Good, &c) in Plato, and how both thinkers see these highest ideas as providing for the highest objectives of human life.
   Kant sees man's practical life divided between two universal ends that are in conflict: virtue and happiness.  To be virtuous means to obey the autonomous moral law (duty), while happiness is the fulfillment of our heteronomous desires.  These universal aims are in conflict since our desires may always lead us astray from our duty.  These conflicts in human nature have been recognized through the history of philosophy, and attempts have been made to resolve the conflict intellectually.  Kant contrasts the attempt of Stoics in supposing that virtue is happiness with that of Epicureans in supposing that happiness is virtue and finds that both the popular Stoic and Epicurean positions ignore one side of the conflict, rather than actually resolve the struggle between autonomy and heteronomy.
   Kant names the fulfillment of perfect virtue and happiness the "highest Good", and notes that striving for its attainment is in our nature.  However, this goal cannot be accomplished by us, and so requires supernatural assistance for its possibility.
   For Plato, there are primarily two ways of thinking 'love': as philos and eros.  Philos is associated by us with friendship, and for Plato I will emphasize the motto (maybe maxim), "friends share all things in common" (Phaedrus, Lysis).  Eros is thought by us in connection with erotic love, and Plato considers it more broadly as the result of our feeling the lack (Symposium, Phaedrus).  I will associate philos with the demands of autonomy (virtue), and eros with heteronomy (happiness), and thereby use Kant's practical dialectic as a foil to predict some thing we can expect in these terms.
   Plato understands love (eros) of Beauty itself to be obtainable, and so it is not an ideal that guides us onward indefinitely.  Perfect fulfillment of heteronomous desire is an unobtainable ideal in Kant, and so not to be made equivalent with loving Beauty itself.  We should understand education in eros as the unveiling of new kinds of eros, and so new things that we lack and pursue.
   Beauty is manifest in all objects of desire, however, but there is an exclusivity involved in the love of finite things which does not exist for Beauty itself.  Still, even when we attain a love Beauty itself, we are still susceptible to finite objects of desire, and so are tempted to exclude others from them.  For Kant, a limit on our ability to attain to perfect virtue is exactly this constant possibility of desire for things, and so the struggle to attain a love of Beauty itself parallels the development of virtue somehow.  Now, erotic love is still heteronomous, and so the cultivation of it at any level will never suffice for autonomy, and so we should see if the cultivation of eros provides a foundation for virtue rather than its attainment.
   It is, at first, hard to see how philos has a relationship to the cultivation of virtue.  But, supposing that the cultivation of eros develops the ground for virtuous practice, we may find how this cultivation concerns philos.  Considering the motto, "friends share all things in common", we can project the development of relationships between people where conflict arises due to limited resources.  The perfect management of these resources, so far as we must have them, will be a progress towards universal freedom sustained mutually between agents, as well as an economy of objects desired.  If we were to only love things that were limited, then it would require a great deal of laws to keep us in a relation as friends (but this would itself not work without love of law - even begrudgingly).  However, so far as we can attain to a love (eros) of things which are not subject to limited resources, then sharing becomes much easier.  Here we can clearly see how the cultivation of eros lays the ground for the pursuit of philos as a maximum in sharing, freedom under laws, and how a perfect development of eros (so that we only love Beauty itself) would produce no need for laws.  However, so long as we are finite beings, we have finite needs which prevent us from a perfect love of Beauty itself.
   To review: if friends are to share all things in common, we will have great difficulty so far as we find ourselves needful of things that are limited and of which we have a limited amount.  The cultivation of loving (eros) Beauty itself (Good, Truth, &c) orients us towards a domain of things that are not subject to limitations.  This means that the cultivation of eros is at the same time the development of philos, but this development will still be on the side of a single individual, and so only makes an individual suitable to be a part of a community of friends without creating that community.  This can indicate the importance of education in Plato, and that education should not be seen in terms of passing on knowledge of finite things or even particular cultural mores, but rather is for cultivating eros to allow for better friends, and citizens (this also should be understood relative to letting things stand in their own light, as in the allegory of the cave`).
   Reflecting off of this insight into Plato's thought we can find insight into Kant.  We can see that Kant's description of virtue in the Metaphysics of Morals as the cultivation of our inclination for duty is exactly this cultivation of eros in Plato.  The universality of the Categorical Imperative illustrates how Kant considers duty to involve such a possibility of a community of friends in relation to individual developments of virtue.  Situating the universality of the moral law in these terms of the conditions of maximum sharing in common (philos) represent Kant's understanding of morals more accurately, and avoids the harmful reception of Kant himself pronouncing what one ought to do.
   Happiness (in Kant) is only attainable so far as we can bring about conditions of universal philos in ourselves and others, and for this we will always be striving in this life in our cultivation of eros or virtue.  Perhaps this life long striving revealed in Plato can provide us a good basis to move on to understanding the afterlife myths that involve the familial relationship he draws between the laws of a state and those of the afterlife (Crito), or the striving after the forms (Phaedrus), or the expression of power to free us from long standing tyranny (Republic), or Socrates easygoing relation to death (Phaedo).
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