Plato’s Reflections on Human Evil and Malice

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

What can be the classic definition of what a philosopher does? A philosopher reflects about how people think about events. Over the years, philosophers have pondered about what they consider to be evil. Plato’s thinking about evil also developed significantly over time. Initially, he seems to have thought that evil is a consequence of ignorance.

A famous Socratic phrase, 'I know that I know nothing' inscribed on stone.
The phrase, ‘I know that I know nothing’, is commonly referred to as the Socratic Paradox. (Image: zapomicron/Shutterstock)

The Greek tragic tradition met a certain kind of internal resistance within the Greek context. These philosophers certainly take reality and history seriously, but they are also interested in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of people’s views of reality to determine how best to think about these matters.

Plato, the Philosopher

Statue of Plato.
Plato was an Athenian philosopher. (Image: Dimitrios P/Shutterstock)

Plato was born around 428 B.C.E. and died in 347 B.C.E. He was an Athenian. He was a disciple of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. We know that Plato wrote not just the dialogues we have, but a number of lectures that were also compiled into books and were available in the ancient world. These dialogues purport to tell stories of events in Socrates’s life; in other words, Socrates is commonly always the main character in these dialogues.

The earliest dialogues have a historical reporting of actual events in Socrates’s life, especially the ones around the death of Socrates. Those seem to be almost journalistic reports of what happened. In those, Plato is largely trying to tell the story of Socrates’s life.

But over time, in the dialogues, the character Socrates becomes less of a historical and more of a literary figure that Plato uses to convey the story he wants to tell. Indeed, the older Plato gets, the more he is his own person, his own thinker, and not just Socrates’s student.

The more fictional the character Socrates gets in Plato’s dialogues—and that means the more Plato uses this figure in combination with the others in his dialogues to promote the idea that Plato’s thoughts are arising from the conversation itself—Plato’s thoughts are, in some sense, in between the various figures of the dialogue. Plato—who people think of as someone who really hates art or despises or suspects poetry—has always been a remarkable artist and a fantastic writer.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Development in Plato’s Views on Evil

Plato’s thinking about evil developed significantly over time. Initially, in his early dialogues and for the first few years of his own kind of free-thinking on things, he seems to have thought, or at least reported that Socrates thought, and young Plato believed him that evil is a consequence of ignorance; that no one goes against their well-formed judgment, and that such a well-formed judgment can never be truly evil. This is the view that is expressed in his early dialogue, the Protagoras.

In this dialogue, ignorance of the most serious kind, truly dangerous ignorance, is the basis of all wrong action. In the passage that follows, you will notice how fundamentally evil relates to the fact that the evil doer here must simply not be thinking right.

Socrates says, “No one willingly pursues evil, or at least what he takes to be evil; human nature forbids that; furthermore, faced with the choice of two evils, no one will choose the greater if he can choose the lesser.”

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Evil Is a Matter of Ignorance

Plato’s idea, as presented by Socrates here, is that because virtue is teachable, because we can be informed and made better by the possibility of people giving us new information or data about our situation; and because the process of teaching is the informing of the person with knowledge that they did not have before; and because fault can usually be corrected in our ordinary experience  by giving someone more articulate help in seeing the full character of the situation, evil, therefore, is a matter fundamentally of not being in the right situation to know what to do. Evil is a matter of ‘miseducation’, and this can be corrected by better information.

A page from 'Meditations' written by Marcus Aurelius.
Meditations is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. (Image: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, R. Graves – Private Collection of S. Whitehead/Public domain)

For us today, we do often believe that a lot of the evil we face in the world is simply a matter of ignorance. We do think that a lot of people make bad choices in their lives precisely because they don’t know any better.

An example of this can be taken from Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations.

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.

Learn more about Greek philosophy-human evil and malice.

Modern Ramifications of Plato’s Views

What’s crucial about this for our purposes here, though, is that the picture here Aurelius offers, which reinforces Plato’s picture, suggests that people are pretty much the same inside, except that some people just have one set of skills better developed and a little bit more information than other people.

If every other person had the ability to tell right from wrong in this way, they wouldn’t be so bad; and if they had more information, they’d be able to make better judgments. Aurelius’s views give an optimistic picture of evil.

Common Questions About Plato’s Views on Evil and Malice

Q: Who was Plato?

Plato was an Athenian philosopher. He was a disciple of Socrates.

Q: What are Plato’s early views on evil in Protagoras?

In Protagoras, Plato believed that evil is a consequence of ignorance; that no one goes against their well-formed judgment, and that such a well-formed judgment can never be truly evil.

Q: How is evil perceived in the modern world?

We often believe that a lot of the evil we face in the world is simply a matter of ignorance. We think that a lot of people make bad choices in their lives precisely because they don’t know any better.

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