PlatoPortrait convener
Dr Amber Carpenter
Yale NUS

Introductory Lecture (mp3 file)



The translations of Plato’s dialogues published by Hackett Publishing are reliable and readable; if you want to get a copy of your own to bring to the meeting, I recommend these. The links above are to Jowett’s 100-year-old translations, which are freely available online. The Republic excerpt is from Christopher Rowe’s new translation for Oxford Classics.


Introduction to readings

Even without a Greek word for ‘integrity’, Plato looms large in our understanding of the nature and value of integrity.

We might attend to two contributions Plato bequeathed to us: First, his theories of human psychology and the good stress the central importance of having a unified, well-integrated psyche, and identify a vital sort of consistency in valuing, speaking and action that follows from this (and fails without it). Second, Plato uses the dialogue form to depict characters that have and lack integrity, both in the special sense of ‘having integrated souls’ and in the broader sense of a lack of consistency and fit between values, speech and action.

For the first key contribution, one could read the whole of the Republic, or at least the whole of Book IV. I have here taken this part of Plato’s thought as familiar to all, and decided instead to focus on the second sort of contribution identified above. However, I include in our readings for discussion the culmination of Socrates’ argument in Book IV, that the person of integrated soul (psyche) can be counted on to behave with integrity, with the recommendation that this familiar passage be read in this light. This passage also sets us up for the further important observation that reason only unifies when, and because, it aims it the good.

The Apology could also be read as contributing to some of these themes. It is also an important locus for Socrates’ daimonion, which as he says at 31c, only holds him back from doing wrong – and might be a relative of the notion of ‘conscience’. But I include the Apology here as illustrative of Plato’s second key contribution to our understanding of integrity. Socrates is here depicted as a person of utmost rectitude, and extraordinary integrity. He will not be party to corrupt uses of the law, and he will not allow his priorities to be corrupted by lesser goods of money, reputation or power. Gregory Vlastos, one of the most important Plato scholars of the 20th Century, challenges this judgement of Plato’s portrait of Socrates. Drawing on his own experience of American post-war politics, he cannot overlook the moral demand to get our hands dirty. Maintaining one’s own integrity, as Socrates does, is not enough.

Finally, I include two portions of Plato’s Gorgias, as offering three portriats of persons wrestling with integrity issues. While Polus might seem to represent the unscruplulous pragmatist, he is genuinely committed to his view of human nature and the good, and suspects Socrates of being the one who does not mean what he says. Callicles, in the next excerpt, is here offered as the archetpye of the dis-integrated psyche. He values too many things as ultimately good to be able to think and speak consistently – and so, Socrates suggests, to be able to act morally. We may question whether Socrates’ single-minded devotion to wisdom makes him a moral monstrosity or an exemplar of integrity.

There are many other places in Plato one could go for reflection on components of our concept of integrity – for instance, Socrates’ occasional “say what you mean” rule; the discussion with Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic; the ‘unity of virtue’ thesis, and denials of akrasia, which see all virtue as knowledge (the Progatoras, for instance, the Euthydemus, and the Gorgias again). But these passages, below, from the Apology, the Republic and the Gorgias will be our starting-point.

[For information about the Portraits of Integrity project, click here]



3 Responses to Plato

  1. rachaelwisemanintegrity says:

    One theme that came up a lot in the text, and in our discussion, was the question of what it is to mean what one says, to stand behind one’s words. The idea of being serious in what one says seems to me to be at the heart of questions about integrity. This means not being flippant, ironic, cliched, or careless in what we say, but owning our words and meanings. (I imagine we’ll talk a lot more about this in our Arendt meeting, Alex?)
    Callicles and Socrates each accuse the other of not meaning what they say, but their reasons for doing so are very different.
    Callicles thinks Socrates is not serious because the views he expresses are so unconventional: Callicles simply refuses to believe that Socrates means what he says.
    There is a kind of failure of moral imagination on Callicles’ part – something Amber speaks about in her introduction – behind this charge. It is like the person who refuses to take seriously someone who says that all international borders should be abolished, simply because the perspective from which such a view makes sense, and the kind of world in which that could be a reality, is so alien to his own. Socrates is rightly irritated by such a charge because the view that Callicles rejects is one that he has reached by careful argument.
    The difficulty for someone who holds a view like the no-borders view might, then, not be one that requires more argument. It is not that Callicles doesn’t see the argument, its just that he can’t accept the conclusion. Cora Diamond’s article ‘Anything but Argument’ seems relevant here. Callicles needs to be brought to see the word from a different perspective, and this shift in aspect may not be one that is reachable by reason alone. Discussions about the difficulties in communicating the findings of climate scientists have tended to focus on ‘merchants of doubt’ and on the epistemic dimension; thinking about Callicles suggests to me that showing people what they (rationall) ought to believe may not be enough; what is required is that people are able to take seriously that conclusion.
    Socrates’s charge of lack of seriousness, contrastingly, is based on Callicles’ own inconsistency in what he says. The kind of integrity that is lacking is not, it seems to me, connected with hypocrisy or corruption, but with a kind of culpable thoughtlessness, a lack of interest in seeing things clearly. I think that this is something we’ll come to again when we look at Arendt next month. One thing I worry about is on making the concept of integrity require a certain kind of intellegence – one that is connected to learnedness and cleverness. The kind of thoughtfulness that Callicles lacks better not be one that only a person with a certain kind of education could achieve. Thinking about thoughtfulness as a kind of commitment to seeing how things really are (again, another Arendtian theme) might help to mitigate this worry.

  2. ack77 says:

    I’ve now posted the audio recording of Amber’s introduction to the session. It’s available at the top of the page.

  3. Amber says:

    Nice idea, that ‘what is required is that one be able to take that conclusion seriously’. There is something about us, how we are (our psychology? our outlook? our character?) that makes a difference; and it is something which we have a responsibility to get right. Is this quality of a person (integrity?) that makes it possible for them to ‘take the conclusion seriously’, and to speak seriously about what is serious, the same thing that enables one to speak in one’s own voice? Polus *thinks* he is saying what he really thinks; but Socrates claims authority on that question. If Socrates is right, Polus is not being disingenuous – rather, he can’t speak in his own voice, even if he tries.
    This relation between ‘speaking in one’s own voice’, or ‘speaking for oneself’, and integrity made me think of Nietzsche, and Emerson; but also, of course, of Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann.
    I suspect we dismiss Polus’ skepticism of Socrates’ sincerity too easily – not because Socrates is secretly being insincere; but because we flatter ourselves if we forget how very odd, how ‘atopos’ (strange, out of place, inappropriate) and simply incredible someone with integrity does look from the perspective of everyday life. We flatter ourselves because we suppose we are not so in the grip of that perspective as Polus is, and we would not think Socrates incredible and (as Callicles insinuates) slightly distasteful. There is something seductive in how Plato depicts his characters – we readers easily and complacently suppose ourselves immune to the failings of Socrates’ interlocutors, because we so readily detect them. One of the things that came out strongly for me in our conversation is how much our own integrity is on the line in how we read and relate to each of the various characters and conversational situations that Plato depicts.

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