by Steve W. Lemke
delivered at the 1998 Southwest Regional meeting
of the Evangelical Theological Society

Socrates and Plato: Framing the Question

One of the problems raised by Socrates and Plato was that of "akratic" action--that is, why people believe they should do action x, but do action z instead. The term "akratic" is derived from an adjectival transliteration of the Greek word akrasia, often translated "incontinent." Many contemporary philosophers have used terms such as "weakness of will," "lack of self-control," and "moral weakness" to describe this phenomenon. Unfortunately, these translations are interpretive, and may raise other issues not implied in the original Greek nomenclature.(1) This issue of moral weakness was voiced classically in the Christian Scriptures by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 7:12-25, who lamented that he knew what was right but could not bring himself to do it. In this paper, I will survey the major philosophical approaches to this issue, and propose an answer from a Christian voluntarist perspective which takes the Augustinian view of the will very seriously.(2)

For Socrates and Plato, akratic action presented something of a dilemma. Their rationalist paradigm assumed that given the right information, people will do the rational thing. But in akratic action, persons appear to act against their best judgment. In his dialogue with Protagoras, Socrates denied that true weakness of will exists, because he believes that no one willingly pursues evil. He also found it an absurd explanation that agents fail to do what they believe is best because they are overcome by passion.(3) Socrates recognizes that this doctrine was contrary to public opinion, but his belief was grounded in a firm conviction of the correctness of psychological hedonism. Socrates cannot conceive of someone intentionally doing what they believe will be painful.(4) His explanation, then, for apparently akratic behavior is ignorance--we are misled by appearances to form the wrong beliefs about the situation. We might see pleasure in the short run in drinking alcohol, for example, but we fail to see its long- term painfulness.(5) So, for Socrates, akratic action essentially did not exist.

Plato (or, as some would have it, the later Plato) offers a somewhat more sophisticated psychology and action theory than had Socrates, in which he essentially endorses the Socratic doctrine concerning akrasia with some important qualifications.(6) Plato describes Leontius as being akratic when his strong desire to observe those who had just been executed overcomes his recognition that this act is shameful and inappropriate. Plato finds this phenomenon not to be an isolated event, for "we often see this elsewhere, when his appetites are forcing a man to act contrary to reason, and he rails at himself with that within himself which is compelling him to do so."(7) Plato accounts for the phenomenon as somewhat of a civil war within the soul between the reason, spirit, and appetite. In at least one reading of Plato,(8) each of these faculties is relatively independent, capable of forming opinions or beliefs and acting on them. Each of the three parts of the soul has its own pleasures, desires, and motivations. So the non-rational elements of the soul have their own goods, but these are often only apparent goods rather than the all-things-considered good demanded by reason. Plato, then, retains the essential elements of the Socratic doctrine, especially the commitm

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