Monday, December 9, 2013

The Platonic Fallacy

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Those of you who know me well know that I am a voracious reader. I read lots of book on a wide variety of topics. I've been reading a fascinating book on Irish History (one that I lost and had to buy again) called "How the Irish saved Civilization" by Thomas Cahill. It's a pretty good book, and quite insightful. One of the things that he mentions at one point is the Platonic Fallacy, which was something that I wanted to delve into a little more.

The Platonic Fallacy, of course, derives from the great Greek philosopher, Plato. The crux of the fallacy is the thought that "knowledge is virtue". This is something that I had encountered before as a youth and as a teenager, but I never really paid much attention to the deeper meaning of it until now, especially not in the context of what Plato actually meant.

According to Plato, knowledge is virtue. In his mind, the two words are synonymous and interchangeable. But are they really? The dictionary defines virtue as "behavior showing high moral standards", and lists synonyms; goodness, righteousness, morality, integrity, dignity, rectitude, honor, decency, respectability, purity, etc. Never once does the dictionary list knowledge as a literal synonym for virtue. 

Knowledge is many things. As one adage expresses, knowledge is power. That might be true, but if knowledge is power, and if Plato was right, wouldn't that also make power equal virtue? Power is many things, but Virtue it is not. As another old adage says, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". So, either this adage is wrong and power is virtue, or else Plato is wrong. Based on the words and actions of the people who are often in power, I would tend to believe that the adage is right and Plato is wrong.

Knowledge can be many things. Knowledge can be respectable. Knowledge can be pure (especially knowledge that is pursued for the sake of simply knowing and not trying to prove or disprove anything). Knowledge can also be dignified, to a point. But that is where I think the similarities between knowledge and virtue end. Am I saying that knowledge is an ill-gotten endeavor to be discredited and shunned? Hardly. I wouldn't be a PhD student if I felt that way. But, I am saying that knowledge itself does not posses any intrinsic properties which make it morally just or righteous. Knowledge is a tool. And, like all tools, the purpose and intent of the tool is shaped and defined by the will of the person who wields that tool.

Let's think about this in more depth. There are ethics; rules by which society mandates we should abide. Then there are morals; rules that our own personal beliefs and convictions mandate that we must abide. Knowledge may help shape and inform these different rules, but knowledge in and of itself is not the same as these rules.

To put this into a practical, philosophical example, let us speak of the digital age and computers. With practice, experience, and a little tutelage, anyone can learn to use computers, and learn to use them well. With copious amounts of practice, and knowledge gained through experience, some people can become quite skilled at modifying lines of computer code to change the way that the computer behaves. This is knowledge. By itself this knowledge is neither good, nor evil. It is simply knowledge that exists in a state completely devoid of moral or ethical implications, as all knowledge does. But, when a person decides to use this knowledge, then it takes on the moral and ethical implications of their actions. For example, if a person decides to use the knowledge of changing lines of computer code to steal information, or forge fake identities, or steal money, then society would typically say that the knowledge of "hacking" is evil and shouldn't be learned. However, without understanding how hacking works, then other people cannot use that same knowledge to build software and tools to protect people from those who would use that knowledge for ill.

Just because a person possesses knowledge does not automatically make them virtuous; their actions determine that. And there are certainly many people who perform virtuous actions that do not have much education or knowledge. The amount of education that a person has doesn't automatically make them better than anyone else, or more important, and certainly not more virtuous. Virtue has one simple and unequivocal measure; the intent and actions of an individual. I have more to say on that topic, so maybe "intent" will be the topic of another post in the near future. 


  1. One lesson I learned in life is that words often do not mean what people think they mean. People throw around words like "Successful" and "Powerful" and "Virtuous" and the meaning taken from context is completely different from that in the dictionary.

    "Successful" is a prime example of this. Rarely are individuals with very little money considered successful in The United States. This is very likely true in much of the world. However - by definition - that person may be very highly successful. The difference here is that although they have accomplished all of their goals in life (which is what makes someone "successful") and continue to work to improve themselves none of their goals were particularly linked to financial success.

    Therefore many of the most successful people in the world are likely regarded as "failures".

    Virtue is another word within this maybe not-so-unique group. By definition knowledge is not virtue, but then - for Plato - that word ... I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

    Of course, the definitions can become fuzzy here, too. Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes "high moral standards". Everyone has their own set of morals and ideals. Once upon a time - for example - it was moral to enslave a person as long as their skin was a particular color. Hell it was practically an imperative. The Bible supported this. Therefore to those who held to this moral standard anyone who did NOT enslave peoples of that color were immoral. They lacked virtue.

    So - given Plato's particular moral structure - what is to say that the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself does not constitute a virtuous being. Could the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself be a display of high moral standards? Certainly - given that your moral standards require the pursuit of higher knowledge.

    Thus you can reach the conclusion that "knowledge is virtue". Although - again - that's really not quite what the word actually means.

  2. "You keep using that word...I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya.

    I completely agree with your assessment about what defines a person as "successful", in fact one my earlier posts talks about the "Measurement of Success". After all, how "successful" would a billionaire be if they are perpetually lonely or unhappy? Surely those things must count towards success in some fashion.

    As for your discussion of virtue, you bring up an excellent point. Virtue, as opposed to Ethics, are almost entirely moral-based, and therefore, arguably unique to each individual. Clearly the perception of Plato and his own moral standards have colored and influenced what he considers virtuous. Perhaps you are correct, perhaps, to Plato, maybe knowledge is virtue.


These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.