Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A balanced life

I’m looking at bit of Laws V where there is an argument for the choiceworthiness of a virtuous life on the grounds that it is more pleasant than a vicious life. As part of that argument the Athenian distinguishes three kinds of life: one with large and intense pleasures and pains (call this a Calliclean life) one with mild pleasures and pains (call this a ‘quiet’ life) and a third, what the Athenian calls a ‘balanced’ or isorropos life: 733c-d. This is the bit I’m interested in right now:

ἐν ᾧ δ’ αὖ βίῳ ἰσορροπεῖ, καθάπερ ἐν τοῖς πρόσθεν δεῖ διανοεῖσθαι• τὸν ἰσόρροπον βίον ὡς τῶν μὲν ὑπερβαλλόντων τῷ φίλῳ ἡμῖν βουλόμεθα, τῶν δ’ αὖ τοῖς ἐχθροῖς οὐ βουλόμεθα.

As is the case for the other two kinds, of such ‘balanced’ lives we prefer those in which what is dear to us predominates and not those in which what is harmful to us predominates. It is often thought that this is a life that is balanced in the sense that neither pleasures nor pains predominate. But Saunders argues that this cannot be correct since the Athenian is quite prepared to identify preferences even within this category of life between such lives in which what is ‘dear to us’ predominates and those in which ‘what is hostile’ to us predominates. Rather, on his view a ‘balanced’ life is one in which it is neither the case that both pleasures and pains and numerous, intense, and large, nor that both are few, mild, and small [1]. Another advantage of this interpretation is that it the Athenian to give an exhaustive classification: a life will either be a ‘Calliclean’ life, or a ‘quiet’ life, or it will be a balanced life, this latter being understood simply as a life that is of neither of the two first kinds. On Saunders’ view, it seems that most lives will in fact turn out to be ‘balanced’ in this way since in most lives it will be the case that some pleasures and some pains are mild, some intense, some large and some small.

I like this reading but I am wrestling with two worries about it. I wonder if anyone can help.

[A] On Saunders’ reading, such a life is balanced because it falls between two extremes. But in his comments it is not clear whether this does in fact allow a range of lives that will count as balanced in this way and make or whether it denotes a particular life ‘half-way’ between the other two kinds that will allow there to be other lives that a not ‘balanced’ but nevertheless also fail to be one of these extreme kinds. He writes: ‘The equal-balanced life must then be that life which is equal- or well-balanced in the sense that it is balanced equidistant from two polar states: it does not topple over either to emotional extremes (life A [= my ‘Calliclean life’]) or to near ἀπάθεια (life B [= my ‘quiet life’).’ Here the notion of being ‘equidistant’ suggests a rather specific hedonic profile. However, in the very next sentence, he adds: ‘The feelings of a man who lives a βίος ἰσόρροπος are moderate (cf. 728e), but obviously this moderation does not prevent them from varying in number and intensity etc. over a limited range; and it is in this limited range that there is scope for pleasures to outweigh pains and vice versa.’ So there is some degree of variation allowed within the set of balanced lives.

[B] Saunders assumes that when in 733d1 the Athenian describes us distinguishing between balanced lives on the basis the preponderance of ‘what is dear to us’ and ‘things that are hostile to us’, he is referring respectively to pleasures and pains. This is perhaps a reasonable assumption given the general thrust of this passage and the careful exposition of basic hedonic preferences so far. However, I wonder whether it is right. Just a little later, at 733e1, the Athenian appears to distinguish between what is dear to us (to philon) and what is pleasant (to hēdu). This is rather important since, if balanced lives  are distinguished by some other criterion than their pleasantness, then we are once again at liberty to understand the balance in question as indeed an equivalence between the pleasures and pains in such a life.

[1] Saunders, T. J. 1972. Notes on the Laws of Plato. BICS supplement 28, University of London Institute of Classical Studies, 25-7.


chris said...

The only other time Plato deploys “ἰσορροπέω” in The Laws is at 794e:

τῆς φύσεως γὰρ ἑκατέρων τῶν μελῶν σχεδὸν ἰσορροπούσης, αὐτοὶ διὰ τὰ ἔθη διάφορα αὐτὰ πεποιήκαμεν οὐκ ὀρθῶς χρώμενοι.

Here the Athenian says there’s no natural difference between the right and left hand that makes one better suited for a task than another. The difference comes from our misuse. If this is a clue, a life in equipoise may enjoy about as much pleasure as it suffers pain. We only wish for it when it offers more of our likes than our current lot (presumably because we derive more pleasure from our likes). But, as you say, the shift in vocabulary is worth further thought.

James Warren said...

Yes, I've been looking at 794e too. I think I've got a solution that keeps the assumption that all 'balanced' lives contain as much pleasure as pain (which Saunders rejects) based on denying what Saunders also accepts, namely that any preferences between lives in this passage must be on the basis of the relative preponderance of pleasure and pain. It also requires that the three categories of lives described in 733c1-d2 are not exclusive.