This is one of the late Platonic dialogues, also known in antiquity by the subtitle peri hēdonēs, ēthikos (On pleasure, pertaining to ethics). Plato’s stated aim here is the investigation of the nature of the ‘good’, and the relative contribution of pleasure and knowledge to hapiness (eudaimonia). Philebus includes the most elaborate inquiry into pleasure in the Platonic corpus (nevertheless, dialectics and ontology are also discussed at considerable length).

Persons, setting, date of composition.

The conversation between Socrates, Philebus and Protarchus is conducted in front of a silent audience of anonymous young Athenians. No further details are provided as to the setting, and the historical authenticity of Socrates' interlocutors is questionable. The moral thematic and formal aspects of the dialogue are reminiscent of the early dialogues. However, there are strong indications pointing toward a late date of composition (probably sometime in the decade 360-350 BC), thus linking Philebus with Timaeus, Statesman and the Laws.

The structure and content of Plato's Philebus

The dialogue assumes as its starting point an opposition between two different conceptions of the Good (personified by their respective exponents, Socrates and Philebus). In the first case the good is identified with knowledge, while, alternatively, it is equated with pleasure. In the opening scene, Socrates’ original interlocutor, the incorrigible hedonist Philebus, decides to drop out of the debate, asking Protarchus to take his place instead. From that point on, Protarchus becomes the spokesman for pleasure, but in the course of the dialogue undergoes a gradual conversion from opponent to consensual follower of the Socratic viewpoint. The substitution of Philebus might be taken to indicate either that extreme hedonism is not a position worth taking seriously enough for a philosophical discussion, or that the refutation of the Phileban thesis is, in fact, not the primary objective of the dialogue. Soon, a third alternative is presented, whereby the good life for humans is neither one of pure contemplation nor one focused solely of enjoyment, but one that entails a mixture of knowledge and pleasure. In essence, the debate turns into an educational process through which Socrates’ interlocutor (and, by extension, the reader) is to be persuaded as to the correctness of the third option, i.e. the mixed life.

The dialogue is articulated in 3 parts.

Part 1: The notion of the human good and the competing claims of knowledge and pleasure – The dialectical and metaphysical premises of the investigation (11a-31b).

Taking as their starting point a disagreement about the different varieties of pleasure, the interlocutors examine the problem of the one and the many, of unity and plurality in general, and consider whether the philosophical method of Collection and Division is suitable for their investigation. The discussion eventually leads them to a decision to exclude ‘pure’ forms of life from consideration. The ‘mixed’ life prevails through the process of elenchus (cross-examination), and a mixture of knowledge and pleasure is deemed to be the only choice adequately meeting the criteria of the ‘good’. Knowledge and pleasure as such are then left competing for second place, namely, as to which of the two is ultimately responsible for the goodness of the mixed life. In pursuit of this revised aim of the debate, a fourfold ontological division of all beings is now introduced. There are four ultimate genera (23c-31a): the Infinite (apeiron), the Finite (peras), the Mixture of finite and infinite, and the cause (aitia) of such admixtures. The Infinite consists of the pairs of opposite qualities, things without definite measure, which are in constant flux and instability. The Finite comprises numbers, proportions and measures, which are causally superimposed on infinite pairs, thus giving rise to harmonious mixtures. The cause of such mixtures is Reason (nous). On the basis of this scheme the world of becoming is seen as an orderly, harmonious mixture of the finite and the infinite. This fourfold ontology can be traced to the cosmology of the Timaeus and the notion of the work of the Divine craftsman who imposes order and harmony on the world by dint of mathematical proportions. In the Philebus, the good life is a mixture of pleasure and knowledge that belongs to the genus of the Mixture. Reason belongs to the genus of Cause, and pleasure is subsumed under the genus of the Infinite. On the basis of a conception of the microcosm and the macrocosm as analogical to each other (27c-31a), human Reason, albeit imperfect in comparison with the divine reason on which it depends, is the cause of order and goodness in the body-soul mixture, and therefore superior to pleasure.

Part 2: The analysis of pleasure and knowledge (31b-59d).

The aim of the central part of the dialogue is to arrive at a classification of types of pleasure and knowledge that will end up becoming integrated into the final composition of the mixture that is the Good. An analysis of the physiology and psychology of pleasure precedes a detailed examination of the different forms of pleasure and pain (31b-55c). The diverse pleasures (31b-55c) are elucidated in accordance with a model of disruption and restoration of psychosomatic harmony, and are further subdivided into true and false, and pure and mixed ones. The various factors that account for the specific character of diverse pleasures are analyzed in detail: the role of body and soul, their origin, size, duration and intensity, their object and its relation to belief, the role of sensation, memory and expectation, the various forms of pleasure-pain coexistence, the causes and forms of confusion and erroneous judgment, the emotions, etc. The analysis of pleasures is followed by the examination of the diverse forms of knowledge (55c–59d). The sciences and the crafts are classified and ranked according to their purity, which depends on the degree of mathematical precision that characterizes them (55c–59d).

Part 3: The mixture that is the good life, and the hierarchy of goods (59d-67b).

Once the classification of types of knowledge and pleasure has been completed, the dialogue proceeds to tackle their admixture. In the context of the good life there is a place for all kinds of knowledge and all crafts. However, only certain kinds of pleasure are worthy of inclusion, namely: a) true and pure pleasures, b) pleasures necessary for survival, and, c) pleasures attached to the virtues. The goodness of the mixture is not predicated on the ingredients as such (pleasure and knowledge), but rather on Measure, Beauty, and Truth, the three forms of the Good. These determine the relationships between the ingredients that account for the harmonious nature of the mixture, and in their absence the mixture turns into a patchwork lacking Measure. This is why Measure (and whatever entails Measure) assumes, in the final ranking of the various goods, the first and second place, while reason and wisdom only the third. The arts, sciences and right opinions attain the fourth place, while the pure pleasures of the soul are ranked last.

Commentary

Discomfort often accompanies the reading of Philebus, and commentators have complained of its apparent lack of cohesion, abrupt transitions, vagueness of expression, and ambiguity of subject-matter. The undeniable obscurity of the dialogue is not limited to the complicated analysis of the psychology, physiology and typology of the different forms of pleasure, nor can it be traced simply to the aggravating and confusing multitude of cryptic references to other philosophers as well as to earlier Platonic views.

Rather, the interpretative uneasiness stems from the fact that Philebus’s view of the human Good proposes a compromise that is at odds with the strict dichotomies of the dialogues of Plato’s middle period. Without denying the platonic Forms, the Philebus prioritizes the sovereignty of the Measure. However, this is not just a conventional accommodation, which seeks to temper the severity of platonic rationalism by adopting a more positive attitude towards at least some of the pleasures. The notions of Measure and harmony are combined with the metaphor of the mixture, and the inquiry into the Good is incorporated in a reformed platonic ontology. The concepts of number and measure attain prime importance in the context of moral theory and practice, and the platonic natural teleology becomes essential to its understanding.

The mixed life is a model for humans who attempt to realize the Good while no longer presupposing knowledge of the Form of the Good. It suffices for them to turn their gaze on the world’s order, as described in the creation story of Timaeus: humans are invited to look on the mathematical relationships that govern the harmony of the world in order to comprehend the Measure that will enable them to achieve the right mixture of knowledge and pleasure and that disposition of the soul in which needs, desires and motivations will be regulated in accordance with the aspirations of reason. In the Philebus Plato’s erstwhile negative attitude towards pleasure is tempered. Nevertheless, the hierarchical ranking of superior and inferior forms of pleasure vouchsafes the primacy of Reason, subordinating pleasure to a metaphysically grounded conception of Measure.

Philebus’s analysis is of paramount importance for platonic and hellenistic moral philosophy, and the study of hedonism in particular. This dialogue contains the most thorough analysis of pleasure in the Platonic corpus, and one through which Plato also refutes or complements some of his earlier positions (such as the questionable equation of pleasure with the Good in the Protagoras, the rejection of hedonism in the Gorgias, the renunciation of bodily pleasure in the Phaedo, and the theory of pleasure as replenishment and the distinction between true, pure and impure pleasures in the 9th book of the Republic). The Philebus is also a valuable source for Plato’s dialectic and theory of Forms, the Unwritten doctrines, the internal debates at the Academy (mainly in connection with Eudoxus and Speusippus), the views of Philolaus, and the theory of the emotions. Philebus was also the focus of two important philosophers of the 20th century at the start of their careers: it was the subject of H.G. Gadamer’s habilitation thesis (1928), as well as D. Davidson’s doctoral thesis (1949).

Author: Lampros Spiliopoulos
  • Hackforth, R. Plato's Examination of pleasure : a translation of the Philebus. Cambridge University Press, 1958.
  • Brisson, L., Dillon, J. eds. Plato's Philebus. Symposium Platonicum VIII. Academia Verlag, 2010.
  • Frede, D, Plato Philebus. Indianapolis, 1993.
  • Frede, D, Platon Philebos: Übersetzung und Kommentar. Göttingen, 1997.
Plutarch

Plutarch

Platonist philosopher and historian, who lived between...

The immortality of the soul and the doctrine of reincarnation

The immortality of the soul and the doctrine of reincarnation

In his dialogues of maturity, Plato endorses the...

Hermias

Hermias

Neoplatonist philosopher who was active in Athens and...

Cynosarges

Cynosarges

The third most important gymnasium in Classical Athens is...