30 September, 2003

Plato, Boethius, & Marcus Aurelius: Happiness Through Logic & Ockham’s Razor

The following is an assigned essay which was completed for a grade. Unfortunately, some formatting has been lost in the transition to LJ.

Eric J. Herboso
ENG 243
Father Williams
30 September, 2003

Plato, Boethius, & Marcus Aurelius:
Happiness Through Logic & Ockham’s Razor

The concept of logic has consistently been used throughout history by most of the cherished thinkers of the Western world, starting with the ancients themselves. It is this ideal of logical consistency combined with the space-saver of Ockham’s Razor that has served as the foundation for the arguments toward happiness given by three of the greatest thinkers in the Western tradition: Plato, Boethius, and Marcus Aurelius. Unfortunately, whether due to biases of their time, or perhaps misunderstandings of the limits of logical thought itself, all three of these thinkers made grave errors in their logical arguments, not quite living up to the ideal that they themselves put up for themselves.

Plato wrote most of his dialogues just before and during the birth of Aristotlean logic. Because of this, one might expect his logical arguments to be the most consistently valid of all three of the writers commented upon in the previous paragraph; however, because Plato used common sense in order to go through his logic (this was, of course, the accepted form of using logic before Aristotle formalized the language), it is not always clear that his logic holds consistently. Indeed, at some points during his tougher dialogues, it becomes unclear as to exactly what he himself means in his questioning, which is not exactly the best way to go about when composing a logical argument. However, instead of focusing on such parts of his writings, which could after all be nothing more than the limitations of the understanding of Plato by the author of this paper, it seems more worthwhile to focus upon those parts of Plato’s writings that most clearly illustrate his skilled use of logic and also those few parts that most clearly illustrate his worst failures in logical thought.

In “Euthyphro”, Socrates goes into the question of where morality arises from; it is his intention to be able to define “piety” (though it must be pointed out that in the Greek use of this word, much more is meant from the word than is connotated by its English translation) – and through this definition, Socrates hopes to be able to more accurately determine in what way he may be helped in his upcoming trial. However, it can be easily seen that if this definition were truly arrived at, then it could serve Socrates in that of his explanation of happiness, and in how it may be arrived.

During Socrates’ interrogation of Euthyphro, an attempt is made by Euthyphro to define what “all the gods love [as] pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious” (9 Plato). However, Socrates questions in this further in his usual dialectic way: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods” (9). What Socrates is asking here is whether a thing is good because the gods deem it to be good, or whether the gods deem it good because it is already good for some other reason. Because, Socrates says, if it is good merely because the gods deem it to be good, then it does not matter what it is that the gods deem good, for whatever they so choose as the good will necessarily be the good, and there is no higher authority to which one could appeal. If a thing is neither good nor bad until the gods either deem it good or bad, then what they choose as good or bad is entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand; if the gods say that murder or stealing is good, then it is good – and there is no getting around that, because we are defining whatever they love as what happens to be good in and of itself. This viewpoint makes all the things that we consider good to be completely and utterly arbitrary, for they had no value or preference toward good or evil until the gods deemed it good or evil. This is a completely reprehensible view to take on the matter, and so it must be (by disjunctive syllogism, to use Aristotlean logic terminology) that what is good is good before the gods deem it to be good; and so the gods are not making a thing good by considering it good – rather, that thing is good by the existence of some other attribute that the gods can somehow discern, and they relay the fact of it being good in the act of deeming it good. The parallel that Plato uses is that: “a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this” (10). Therefore what is good is not good because the gods say it is; rather, those things are good in and of themselves, and the gods must observe that they are good before they are able to deem (in other words: inform others) that they are good.

Socrates’ logic here is impeccable, though difficult to comprehend at first. He used the Aristotlean logical forms of disjunctive syllogism, modus ponens, and modus tollens to systematically prove that whatever the good may in fact be is not good because of any gods’ existence. Whatever makes a thing good is some attribute of it that is not placed there by any deity saying it is so. This, of course, does not deny the idea that whatever a god may say is good may in fact be quite good; but it does deny the idea that it is good merely because the god considered it good.

But Socrates’ logic is not always impeccably valid. Consider Plato’s “Phaedo”, for example. In it, Socrates is awaiting the end to come, and is talking with his friends before he is to end his life. During the conversation, Socrates considers the question: “Are not all things which have opposites generated out of their opposites” (68)? Socrates wants “to show that this [generation from opposites] holds universally of all opposites” (68). He goes on, giving specific examples from which to compound his data, asking whether what is greater must have once been lesser, and whether what is worse must have once been better, and whether what is swifter must have once been slower. In each of these examples, his criterion holds true; however, he then goes on to ask: “is this true of all opposites? And are we convinced that all of them are generated out of opposites” (68)? His implication here and the answer which is given to him is that of all things coming from their opposites, regardless of what they are. He is employing the method of Ockham’s (also known as Occam’s) Razor here, taking numerous examples from thought-experiment data, and constructing a general rule about everything from these numerous examples. There is no facet of logic which necessitates Ockham’s Razor to be true; instead, it is a maxim that is generally accepted to be true without any actual logical necessity of it, and this is a concept that Socrates himself either did not entirely grasp, or else ignored during his last day of life, perhaps to help himself feel better. It seems more likely that he was just unaware of Ockham’s Razor not being a necessary condition, since Aristotlean logic does not go into detail on the subject, and Aristotle was Plato’s greatest disciple.

The reason why it is clear that Socrates did not understand this point is because he misuses Ockham’s Razor: “is there not an opposite of life, [death,]… [a]nd these then are generated, if they are opposites, the one from the other, and have there their two intermediate processes also” (69)? He continues, further down: “What is generated from life? / Death. / And what from death? / I can only say in answer—life” (69). It is clear here that Socrates is taking the specific principle illustrated in his earlier examples with what is stronger, swifter, or better; and he is now applying that same precept to a basic generality which does not necessarily have to hold true. In “Phaedo”, then, Socrates uses logic only up to a certain point, and then veers off into speculation – educated speculation, of course – but still just speculation. (In Plato’s defense, it must be mentioned here that this same misuse of Ockham’s Razor is prevalent even in scientific circles, whenever a finding is made that bases its presuppositions upon ideas which do not necessarily have to be true. Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics are two of the biggest examples of this.)

Boethius, too, uses logic to arrive at the route to happiness. In his book, The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy helps Boethius to understand as to how happiness may be achieved. One of the best examples of Lady Philosophy’s use of logical argument is when she reminds Boethius of the nature of the goddess Fortune: “You are wrong if you think that Fortune has changed toward you. This is…the way she always behaves. She is changeable, and so in her relations with you she has merely done what she always does” (21 Boethius). Lady Philosophy continues on, explaining why Boethius should not be saddened by his new position: “[T]he misfortunes which are now such a cause of grief ought to be reasons for tranquility. For now she has deserted you, and no man can ever be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune” (22). She then attacks the same argument from another perspective: “If you cannot keep [the goddess Fortune], and if it makes you miserable to lose her, what is fickle Fortune but a promise of future distress” (22)? Her attitude toward logic here is as impeccable as Socrates’ logic was in his argument for the causation of the good being separate from the gods deeming it so, though it must be noted that Lady Philosophy tends to use many more rhetorical and psychological ploys than Socrates did. Still, even if you strip away the emotional rhetoric, repetition, and psychological arguments, Lady Philosophy’s logic remains intact and immovable (though sparse).

However, Boethius did not always write with complete logical clarity. Like Plato before him, he neglected the limitations of Ockham’s Razor. Consider Lady Philosophy’s treatise upon the Good as being what she maintains it to be: “[N]othing which can be lost can be a supreme good…because it is obviously less good than that which cannot be lost” (29). She asserts here that the supreme good must not have anything better than it; this, of course, holds perfectly true. But then she states that that which can be lost can never be considered a supreme good, since that which cannot be lost is necessarily better than that which can. However, this only holds true if you presuppose that there will always be a thing that is wholly identical to a thing that can be lost, except in that it cannot be lost. In other words, the logic only holds if for every instance of a thing that can be lost, there exists a thing which is just as good in every detail, plus it has the additional attribute of not being able to be lost. Now, it could be the case that for every instance of a thing that can be lost, there really does exist a thing which is just as good, but cannot be lost. If so, then Lady Philosophy is correct by concurrence; but the method by which she reaches this true conclusion is still just as invalid as before. The reason why it is necessarily invalid is because it is not necessarily the case that for every instance, there exists its counterpart. The assumption that it is the case is an assumption by Ockham’s Razor. Again, it must be stressed that this says nothing against Ockham’s Razor per se; after all, Ockham’s Razor is not an actual logical principle, but rather a useful device for cutting away what is generally considered to be unnecessary information. This is fine when one is constructing general forms of rules for the physical laws of the universe or for predicting whether the stock market will rise or fall on the long term – but because Ockham’s Razor is not a purely logical instance of modus ponens, the laws of the universe are still not distinct in their entirety with each individual interaction, and the particular ups and downs of the stock market on any given day are not accurately predicted using the methods of Ockham’s Razor. It is not wise to rely on Ockham’s Razor in rigorous mathematical proofs, and it is this lack of rigor that Lady Philosophy suffers from in her attempt to define the supreme good as that which cannot be lost. Again, it may be true that the supreme good is that which cannot be lost; but it is not necessarily true that this is the case.

In Marcus Aurelius’ “Stoicism and Self-Discipline”, a similar search for the path to happiness is attempted. He, too, tries to use logic to arrive at his conclusions, but generally relies more upon reason and common sense to clarify his approach to the ideal of happiness. Aurelius observes the world around him, and uses that observation to influence his outlook upon life: “Nobody is surprised when a fig-tree brings forth figs. Similarly, we ought to be ashamed of our surprise when the world produces its normal crop of happenings” (537 Aurelius). He also goes into logical thought later in his Meditations, when he says that: “No event can happen to a man but what is properly incidental to man’s condition…. Then if all things experience only what is customary and natural to them, why complain? The same nature which is yours as well as theirs brings you nothing you canot bear” (542).

However, in each of these instances, his logic is not that of sound or unsound valid forms, but rather of strong or weak invalid forms. This type of logic is not conducive to complete proof, but rather to merely an attempt at convincing others of what proof (or lack thereof) there is. It is clear that he fails in the category of absolutely proving what he has to say; but it is not clear that he has the intention of doing so, anyway. After all, he does not have the same amount of time to write a well-polished essay as the previous authors mentioned did.

With each of the above examples, logic was used in the pursuit of happiness; but in no such case was that logic used one-hundred percent effectively. But the question remains: does an argument have to be completely necessarily true in order to be worthwhile to write or even to read? Certainly not, for each of these authors has done extremely well in their pursuit of the true way of approaching happiness, and that is all that truly matters.

Aurelius, Marcus. “Stoicism and Self-Discipline”, Meditations. Maxwell Staniforth, trans.
Class Handout; unknown citation.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Richard Green, trans.
Library of Liberal Arts: New York, 1962.

Plato. “The Apology”. Weller, Shane, trans.
Dover Thrift: Toronto, 1992.

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