How to Be Happy According to Plato

Achieving happiness is a commonly shared goal. What did Plato, one of history’s most renowned philosophers, think about how to become a happy person?

Jul 28, 2022By Claire Johnson, BA Philosophy
plato happy people philosophy

 

Human happiness has long been discussed throughout history, from scientists looking at the happiness receptors in our brains all the way through to philosophizing about human nature and purpose. Yet perhaps the most important and long-lasting ideas about human happiness date back 1000s of years to the ancient Greeks, especially the young Athenian philosopher, Plato. Plato’s teachings on human nature and happiness continue to shape western philosophical thought and modern science today.

 

Who was Plato? 

plato marble portrait athens
Classic marble statue of Plato at Academy of Athens

 

Plato was arguably one of the most infamous ancient Greek philosophers to have lived in his time (and beyond). As the eager student of Socrates and the astute teacher of Aristotle, Plato would write down and record the lessons and conversations exchanged with his wise teachers and peers, which has played a crucial role in the history and evidencing of ancient Greek philosophical thought.

 

More than 2000 years ago, when Plato founded and opened his school, The Academy, he expanded the scope of philosophical ideas by creating a place where Athenian men could theorize about the deepest questions of the age, one of which was how to reach human happiness.

 

Happiness, Nature and Society Are All Interconnected

academy plato raphael painting
The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509-11, in The Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, via Visit Vatican

 

Questions about human nature and happiness were integral to Plato’s teachings, who believed that happiness, nature, beauty and society were all interconnected and each served a purpose in our ability to flourish and live fulfilled lives.

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In his book, The Republic, Plato argues that only when we truly understand human nature can we find individual happiness and social stability. He also emphasized that humans are not self-sufficient but in fact benefit greatly from social interaction and friendships.

 

However, happiness itself was not dependent on external affairs, society or friendships. For Plato, the quest to find individual happiness ran parallel to the quest to control our inner self, namely our temptations, desires and emotions.

 

“The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily”
Plato, The Republic

 

The Charioteer and His Two Horses

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Attic Black-Figure Neck-Amphora, 530-20 BCE, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

In his book of teachings, The Phaedrus, Plato used monologues, plays and allegories to express his ideas of happiness. Plato’s allegory of The Charioteer and His Two Horses is possibly his most important teaching on how to achieve inner happiness…

 

Imagine a charioteer is holding the steeds of two horses as he attempts to move his carriage forward along a path ahead.

 

One of these horses is a wild horse, described by Plato as a “crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow…of a dark color, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.” – Plato, The Phaedrus

 

The second horse is a noble horse, it is “upright and cleanly made…his color is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honor and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.” – Plato, The Phaedrus

 

To the charioteers discontent, the wild horse is more interested in instant pleasures than moving forward, constantly tempted and distracted by food, sex, sleep and other physical desires. This horse makes it difficult for the charioteer to travel with ease.

 

The noble horse on the other hand, motivated by glory and victory, stays on track like it has been trained to do. Of course, this horse also has desires, temptations and emotions to contend with, and just like the wild horse, could lead the charioteer astray. However, the charioteer has instilled good habits and training to help the noble horse avoid distractions. As long as these good habits are firmly instilled and second nature to the noble horse, it will find pleasure in staying on track and travel forward with ease.

 

The Wild Horse Cannot be Trained, but it can be Controlled; The Noble Horse can be Trained, but it Needs Reasoning and Good Habits

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The Fall of Phaethon with the Sun Chariot (Chute de Phaéthon avec le char du soleil) by Pablo Picasso, 1930, via MoMA

 

For Plato, the wild horse represents the hedonistic pleasures and appetites that are shared by humans and animals alike. This horse cannot be trained since it merely acts instinctively and no amount of reason or rationality will divert its attention away from temptation.

 

Instead, the charioteer must be wise, it must avoid all temptations in its path in order to stay in control of the wild horse.

 

The noble horse represents the way in which we can live a virtuous life, even when emotions and desires might threaten to throw us off track. With the right amount of understanding and the cultivation of good habits, we can travel forward along our path with ease.

 

Plato acknowledges that it is in our human nature to have conflicting thoughts, desires and emotions, but we can train ourselves to take pleasure in the things that take us naturally along the right pathway.

 

As the charioteer moves forward along his path with a hand on each steed, he must understand his two horses and their inner tendencies and desires. He must understand what may lead them astray or pull them in different directions.

 

Only with this knowledge can he propel forward with control, ease and efficiency. With distractions out of sight and good habits instilled, the charioteer is aligned with the path ahead, and in this he will find happiness.

 

Happiness and Harnessing Control of Our Minds

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Mosaic of the Academy of Plato/Seven Philosophers, 1st century BC, via Roman National Archaeological Museum, Naples 

 

The Charioteer and His Two Horses highlights that human beings must navigate the world with a sense of control and inner reflection of their own minds in order to find happiness. We cannot remove our instinctive temptations and natural desires or emotions, but we can try our best to avoid the things that will tempt and distract us, whilst cultivating good habits to keep us on the right path.

 

Once the charioteer, wild horse and noble horse are cooperating, they need not rely on willpower or control alone, the path forward will be natural, pleasurable and easy.

 

Aristotle’s Four Cardinal Virtues

four virtues statues
Statues of the Cardinal Virtues, Jacques Du Broeucq, 1541-1545, via Web Gallery of Art

 

But reflection, control and good habits don’t always come easy. What qualities does one need in order to harness inner control of their own mind? Perhaps the second most important teaching on happiness came from Plato’s student, Aristotle, whose four cardinal virtues expand on Plato’s teachings of achieving happiness.

 

With enough practice, one could utilize these character traits without thinking about it, and like the charioteer, can live with ease and happiness.

 

The first cardinal value is temperance. For Aristotle, temperance is the middle road between excess and deficiency. It is needed to exhibit restraint in one’s actions and stay balanced.

 

The second cardinal value is fortitude, also known as courage and inner strength in the face of adversity. It is only when one is courageous that they can resist temptations and overcome difficulties.

 

The third cardinal value is prudence. Those who are happy are able to self-judge and act in a moral way. They can be mindful, learn from their mistakes and strive to be better.

 

The fourth and last cardinal value is justice, which Aristotle defines as the middle road between being selfless and selfish. Like Plato, Aristotle claimed that while one should pursue their own desires, it is important to help those around them to flourish as well. A happy person will contribute to a better functioning and fairer society.

 

Aristotle vs Plato on Happiness

aristotle plato rembrandt
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, by Rembrandt, 1653, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Both Plato and Aristotle agreed that humans should strive for happiness since this is the essence of how to live a good life.

 

More so than Aristotle, Plato was concerned with human virtue and knowing what is good. Knowing the right thing to do will lead one to automatically doing the right thing, and this is why control, understanding and habits are important. In this sense, happiness could be sought and reflected on internally, determined by the individual and their mind state.

 

Aristotle on the other hand taught that just knowing what was right was not enough – one had to choose to act in a proper manner. For Aristotle, virtue and happiness was a practical and external matter rather than reflective and theoretical. Aristotle held that in order to achieve happiness one must also have experienced fortunate and pleasant circumstances in life.

 

In this sense, Aristotle took a more scientific approach to grasp the meaning of a good life. This required studying both human character as well as the conditions and circumstances that made a life, as a whole, well-lived.

 

“The Good”

allegory wisdom painting giordano
Allegory of the divine wisdom, by Luca Giordano, 1685, via the National Gallery.

 

Another important concept at the heart of Plato’s teachings on virtue and happiness was rooted in his ideas of “The Good”.

 

For Plato, The Good is the highest object of the “Intelligible World”, which is made up of essential forms and mathematics. This Intelligible World corresponds to the states of knowledge (episteme) and thinking (dianoia) in man.

 

Plato taught that the Form (or the idea) of the Good is the origin of all knowledge, but it is not knowledge itself. Humans should pursue the Good but this cannot be done without philosophical reasoning and rationality.

 

For Plato, true knowledge is not about material objects and desires which we might encounter in daily interactions; it is about the nature of purer and perfect patterns which are models after which all created beings are formed. These are what Plato calls Forms or Ideas.

 

Plato splits all of existence into two realms: the visible realm and the transcendent realm (intelligible realm) of forms. The visible realm is the physical world that is perceived through senses, and is susceptible to “becoming” and “ceasing to be”. On the other hand, the intelligible realm represents the ultimate reality, is enduring, and is accessible only via reasoning or intellect.

 

In the Republic, Plato teaches that a life committed to knowledge and virtue will result in happiness and self-fulfilment. To achieve happiness, one should render himself immune to changes in the material world and strive to gain the knowledge of the eternal, immutable forms that reside in the intelligible realm.

 

How Have Plato’s Ideas on Human Happiness Shaped Modern Day Thinking?

four stages habit
The four stages of habit via Atomic Habits, James Clear, 2018

 

Plato’s teachings on happiness seem more relevant than ever in today’s fast paced world. 2000 years before smartphones, technology, emails and calendar alerts even existed, Plato was already acknowledging the internal battles we all face in a world where we are surrounded by temptation and distractions.

 

Plato’s teachings are consistent with modern day psychological and scientific theories on habit forming and self control, whereby numerous studies have shown that creating small changes in our daily habits and behaviors can lead to a more productive and happy life.

 

Want to stop eating unhealthily? Remove unhealthy foods from the house. Want to think more positively? Cultivate good habits by writing in a gratitude journal each day.

 

When we understand our internal human nature and what pulls us in different directions, we can be aware of what truly makes us happy and what threatens to throw our happiness off course. Understanding and harnessing our inner horses will let us move through life peacefully, efficiently and happily.



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By Claire JohnsonBA PhilosophyClaire Johnson is a contributing writer in Philosophy and History. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of Manchester and has six years of experience in writing about Philosophy and Life Sciences. Claire has traveled across Europe, South East Asia, North America, and Central America to explore different cultures and world views.