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Opposites Leading to the Same Outcome - Comparing the Good Life in Plato's the Republic and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

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Opposites Leading to the Same Outcome:

Comparing the Good Life in Plato's The Republic and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching

Christopher Bunker

Ralkowski: Final Research Paper


Everybody wants to live the best life possible. This idea goes without saying, but the question has been pondered over since the beginning of time. What life is the best possible life to live? Because of this question, people from all over the world began dedicating their lives to finding the correct answer. These people, philosophers, began to write texts to show the world their own interpretations of how to live the best life. Plato and Lao Tzu are two of the philosophers whose views on this topic are widely known. In both Plato's The Republic and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, the examination of what helps us reach the good life is the main focal point. These two philosophies, one from the West and one from the East, have both connecting and conflicting ideologies on how to obtain the good life. A lot of their reasons for getting to the good life match up though their main layouts of the good life completely differ. The best life for Plato is that of a philosopher, and for Lao Tzu, a sage. Through examination of their views on knowledge, the ideal state, and the true philosopher/sage, I will prove that in today's modern society, though the Taoist state may last longer, neither gives a perfect way to reach the good life. In order to show that both philosophies do not hold the key to the perfect life in today's society, I will have to first exam each philosophy's ideology.

I. Platonism's Good Life

Plato believes solely that the good lies within knowledge. Plato's philosophy stems completely from this idea that knowledge will inevitably lead to the good life if pursued properly and with the guidance of a true philosopher master. In order for a true person to reach the true good, they must step out of the darkness and know the true forms. Plato, with much detail, describes: For a person to reach the good life, according to Plato, they must attain Noesis. They must break free of the sensible world and into the intelligible. In order to reach Noesis, one must step out of the Allegory of the Cave. To do so is to step into the light and see the truest forms. Once one has accomplished this, they now have knowledge of true forms and know that everything we see is just copies of copies of real things. Plato's description of the cave shows us not only that knowledge is necessary to become a philosophic ruler; it also tells us that knowledge is the only way to truly live a good life. I find this metaphor difficult to wrap my head around, but I also take the idea that nothing in this world can be perfect so we only see imitations as a metaphor. Because of this, I find it easier to understand what Plato means: that we must stop being blinded by how society defines things and understand objects for what they truly are, not for what we have been taught to see them as. Plato finds this to be true knowledge, I believe. Without knowledge one cannot escape from this metaphorical cave and realize the truest forms of life. Without knowledge, we would be stuck chained to the cave floor looking at copies of copies of real things for our entire lives.

Many scholars agree with this idea that in order to lead the good life there is a "requirement for philosophic knowledge [that] might be justified synchronically or diachronically; it might be justified by its overall effect or, more narrowly, purely for its epistemic features. True belief, for example, might do as well as philosophic knowledge as long as it remains, but true belief is more precarious and may be undermined over time." What this scholar means is that knowledge, when compared to just pure belief, will inevitably remain or last longer. So if a ruler rules by knowledge, then their kingdom will have a longer life than if the ruler rules on belief. His people will also trust and obey him on just belief and not knowledge. I find this to be almost self-evident, in my opinion at least, only because--in today's society--rulers who rule on pure belief and do not have much knowledge about the world are seen as either crazy or a threat to the world. So not only does Plato believe that knowledge leads to the good life for the individual, but also knowledge leads to the best city because the best city needs an all knowing philosophic ruler. What we can take away from Plato is that in order to leave the good life, one must have knowledge of the true forms and be able to walk in and out of the 'cave'. Knowledge, in Plato's mind, holds the key to a good life.

II. Taoism's Good Life

Taoist ideas differ greatly from the main, broad layout of how to reach the good life according to Plato. It all starts with understanding that the "Tao that can be spoken of, Is not everlasting (ch'ang) Tao. Name that can be names, Is not Everlasting (ch'ang) name." What this means is that Tao is omnipresent, Tao is something that cannot be defined and cannot be understood; it just is. Once we know of Tao, then the good life starts to unravel in front of us. Lao Tzu starts by describing the "person with superior goodness (shan) [who] is like water, Water is good in benefiting (li) all beings, Without contending (cheng) with any." Taoists have a way of explaining things very clearly and simply, so it makes it easy to understand the advice given. By comparing a good person to water, Lao Tzu easily shows us that the person who leads the best life must be beneficial to all beings; one must help all and detract from none. Scholars view this as "the recommended style of life [which] involves freedom rather than rule following and has strong links to the emotions." This style of life, to me, seems more of a way to get in touch with one's inner self by way of putting one's emotions above reason. Obviously, I will find this idea outlandish, but I must take into account that this idea of mine could very possibly be from what my society has taught me. We have been warned to not let emotions get in the way of judgment, but that could just be society's way of keeping us in check. This style of life that Lao Tzu discusses brings me to the next necessity for the good life according to Taoism: Wu wei.

To live a good life, according to Lao Tzu and Taoists, you must understand and practice wu wei--which in essence is a paradox in itself. Lao Tzu masterfully describes wu wei in terms of knowledge and learning: "To pursue (wei) learning one increases



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