Intellectual Responsibility and the Epistemic Search: Comparing Plato and Augustine

By Leah M. Palmer
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

In the earliest stages of education, children naturally start to interrogate their elders with the question “why?” This is not surprising and it would often even be concerning if a child did not show signs of curiosity early in life. This natural curiosity, the search for knowledge, follows necessarily from man’s rational nature—the pride and joy of humanity—what sets us apart from the animals. The words, “All men desire to know” (Arist. Meta., 1.980a) have become a cornerstone for explaining the nature of humanity. Epistemology takes this desire to its core by concerning itself with the nature and scope of knowledge. The epistemic search has taken place since the beginning of time throughout culture. Endeavoring along this search, this paper raises a questions that penetrates the epistemic search even further—the same question that the child asks: Why? Why do we take this epistemic search so seriously?

There is something which motivates the epistemic search throughout time and culture, something that universally drives our desire to have knowledge. Yes, all men desire to know, yet it seems to follow necessarily that it is our duty to grow in knowledge, and therefore, to learn the truth. We are responsible for cultivating our rational intellect which sets us apart from the beasts. It is this underlying principle of our intellectual responsibility that motivates the epistemic search and unites it throughout time and cultures.

This intellectual responsibility has changed throughout various times and the cultures. For many ancient pagan philosophers such as Plato, this responsibility was attributed to both a good earthly life as well as a means to a good afterlife. For many Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Aurelius Augustine or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, knowledge was considered—in different ways—the means to God. During the Enlightenment Period education and philosophy had even a certain political importance.

In modern ages, the majority of first-world countries have instituted mandatory primary education in order to cultivate a better society. Again, in different religions, knowledge is often considered very valuable: for Christianity, a balance between faith and reason is vitally important, and for Islam, the amount and type of knowledge obtained in this life will affect one's place in the afterlife. Regardless of the particular motivation for this responsibility, consistent motivation behind the epistemic search is responsibility of some kind, whether it be hope, faith, happiness, community embetterment, etc. This paper explores the specific motivations behind both Plato's and St. Thomas Aquinas’ epistemology.

Responsibility in Plato’s Epistemology

The epistemic search for knowledge and truth has much significance in Plato’s dialogues, where he spends a great deal of time discussing the nature and scope of knowledge. The Meno is a key dialogue for understanding Plato’s epistemological view of the nature of knowledge while his myths and analogies can be used to better understand his views on the scope and form of knowledge. In the Meno, Socrates says that it is necessary for men to at least believe they can know truth in order to lead a better life:

“I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know.” (86b-c)

However, in the Meno, while Socrates’ and Meno discuss the nature of knowledge, Meno unintentionally brings up what Socrates refers to as a “debater’s argument,” (80e) that is, a paradox which questions how we can actually come to know anything. The argument puts the knower in a seemingly impossible paradox:

“He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” (80e)

This argument appears to turn the epistemic search towards skepticism which is dangerous if we are to consider seriously the necessity of the epistemic search. Socrates however says that the “debater’s argument” is not sound. (81a) His solution to the dilemma is in proposing the theory of recollection. This theory suggests that through incarnation, our souls already have knowledge from our past lives that we “forget” when reborn into new bodies. Recollection is simply remembering truths already known that are not immediately recognized. Epistemic responsibility for Plato, then, has its purpose in a fruitful earthly life but ultimately becomes driven by the hope for a rewarded afterlife, a beneficial reincarnation and the hope to eventually become eternally rewarded in the afterlife.

Plato’s Myth of Er sheds much light on Socrates’ theory of recollection and incarnation and its effect on the epistemic search. In the myth, Er is a soldier who was brought to the afterlife after dying in battle but was returned to his current life of a soldier. He tells his comrades that after being slain in battle, he woke to find himself in a great valley being filled with souls coming from either heaven or hell. These souls had spent a thousand years either in reward or in punishment for their past lives. The souls from heaven floated down from a giant hole in the sky and comfortably made their way through the valley. At the entrance from hell (a great hole in the ground) there were guards. The souls coming up from hell were much more timid and occasionally the guards would not allow certain souls to come through. These souls were of the worst kind in their past life: murderers, tyrants, etc. All the souls that were allowed through gathered there, talking, sharing their experiences of the afterlife.

After several days, the souls had to travel very far and after many days they reached the spindle of necessity where Lady Necessity and her three daughters, the Fates, sat. All the souls—except for Er, since he was to continue in his former life—were then given a lot by Necessity, according to which each soul were to come forward and choose their next life. Er relates that the first soul to choose had led his previous life virtuously “by habit, without philosophy” (619d). This soul, choosing rather carelessly, chose the life of a powerful dictator without considering the terrible fate that would be his in that life. Souls come and go, some pondering their decision more than others. The last soul to make the decision was Odysseus. Odysseus, Er says, wandered around in search for a very specific life: that of a “private individual who did his own work” (10.620) Once all the souls had chosen their lives, their fates were set in place by Necessity and the Fates. The souls were then brought through a hot, dry, barren place called the Plain of Forgetfulness. They came upon the River of Unheeding, where each soul, again excepting Er, drank from the river, forgot everything, and went to sleep. At midnight the sleeping souls were carried away “like shooting stars” (10.621b) to the birth of their new lives. When Er woke up, however, he found himself on the pier with full remembrance of everything he had seen.

The Myth of Er has been interpreted numerous ways in order to gain insight on different aspects of Plato’s philosophy and serves as a powerful example for the importance of knowledge. For the purpose of epistemic responsibility, the importance of this myth lies within the choices made by the souls who are to be reincarnated. Although each soul chooses his next life, they have been given a specific lot by which their decision is limited. The first soul to choose has the largest variety to choose from, yet he chooses carelessly. Er tells us that this man formerly lead a habitually just life, without philosophy, for which he was rewarded a thousand years. The careless choice of the habitually just man exemplifies the importance of knowing rather than just doing. In his previous life, if the man had philosophy and had known true justice, then he would have recognized that the life of a tyrant was not just, and would not have chosen it. He would have adequately considered the consequences of living a tyrannical life and saw his terrible fate. Marina McCoy asserts that

Although this man has been to the heavens and witnessed the rewards allotted to the just, he still lacks an adequate preparation to consider, i.e., more literally, he is not capable of ‘looking around’ and understanding the totality of the life of a tyrant, its losses as well as its seeming appeals. He does not know how to see. (136)

While the soul of the habitually just man was rewarded for having lived a good life, he lacks the knowledge necessary to choose a better life to come.

On the other hand, Odysseus is the last soul that gets to choose and yet he chooses very carefully even from his somewhat limited options. Odysseus has been on many great adventures in his past life and has learned many things, and for our purpose, his choice could be considered the culmination of the myth. He seems to understand the importance of the life he searches very carefully for: the life of a private man in which he can pursue philosophy. Odysseus, using McCoy’s phrase, knows how to see; he understands that we are responsible for pursuing knowledge in order to be eternally rewarded. That being said, Odysseus chooses the life of a philosopher in hopes of being able to remain eternally rewarded in the afterlife once he pursues knowledge as fully as possible in his next embodied life.

When the souls come to the River of Unheeding, Er explains that the souls “were to drink a certain measure of water, but those who weren’t saved by reason drank more than that, and as each of them drank, he forgot everything and went to sleep.” (10.621) The souls that were not saved by reason gained through their past life drank more than they were supposed to, and consequently will not have as much to recollect in their next life. The Myth of Er then exemplifies how, in Plato’s epistemology, knowledge is essential for being prosperous in the cycle of life.

St. Augustine’s Epistemology

Augustine’s epistemology is spread throughout most of his work. It is broad and varies greatly throughout his conversion to Christianity and therefore varies according to the time of his theoretical development in which each work was written. Augustine started out as a firm Platonist but as his conversion took place, his epistemology shifted away from pagan thought along with it. Regardless of how far Augustine ended up setting his own theories apart from those of Plato’s, the dilemma of the Meno paradox remained with him. In the first book of his Confessions, Augustine poses a similar paradox to that of the Meno: in prayer, Augustine asks how one may seek God without already knowing Him, and why one would need to seek him if one already knew Him. (Conf. 1.1) Separating himself from Plato, Augustine ultimately finds his own answer in something similar to that of Plato’s recollection, yet still very different: divine memory. Augustine acknowledges that God is all knowing and posits that we can gain knowledge and truth through Him who is Truth.

In Book X of his Confessions St. Augustine firmly states that all men desire happiness: “It is then known unto all, and could they with one voice be asked whether they wished to be happy, without a doubt they would all answer that they would.” (10.29) But since the memory retains all things, (10.20) there must be something in the memory by which we know what a happy life is. In Book X Augustine categorizes different parts of memory for its different functions: retaining images of physical things, concrete non-physical things such as numbers, abstract things that we posses such as eloquence or wit, and emotions that we can remember without feeling them such as joy, sadness or anger.

The question then becomes, in which part of our memory does the happy life reside? He concludes that it must be from the same part of the memory in which we retain joy: for the happy life is not physical, nor is it like numbers since we can know it yet still long for it, nor is it like eloquence since we can know it without possessing it. Yet we can know joy while still longing for it and without currently possessing it, which is the same way that the the happy life is remembered. (10.30) Joy and the happy life are necessarily related. True joy, says Augustine, is in knowledge of the truth which is God Himself. God, therefore, is Augustine’s epistemological goal. Through God we are able to come to know Him and to know ourselves who are made in His image. With this perspective, to have happiness is to know, and since all men desire happiness, they desire to know. The epistemic responsibility for Augustine lies within gaining a happy life; a life that has knowledge of the Truth which is God.

Both Plato’s and Augustine’s epistemic search is one that is duty-driven. They differ significantly due to their cultures and time eras yet the motivation of responsibility remains consistent. Both men see the epistemic search as beneficial to earthly life to the extent of cultivating happiness, courage and productivity. For this life, knowledge is beneficial and to the next life, it is necessary. Plato’s Myth of Er shows that without reason and knowledge, souls will get stuck in a vicious cycle of choosing bad lives and will never remain in eternal reward. Augustine’s epistemology points to knowledge being a teleological gift from God that comes through our divine memory; to know love and serve God is the goal of our lives and is our reward to follow.

These are just two examples of how the epistemic search can be motivated by responsibility. As mentioned above, many other philosophers have their own ideas about the goal and motivation of the epistemic search, and it is exemplified through modern culture and organized religions around the word as well. Epistemic responsibility is key to the survival of the epistemic search whether or not it is clearly recognized. Thanks to epistemic responsibility the search for truth has gone on from ancient times and the desire to know has been given purpose.


Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Joseph Green Pilkington. Black and Gold ed. New York: Liveright Pub., 1943.

McCoy, Marina. “Freedom and Responsibility in the Myth of Er” Ideas y Valores 61 (2012): 125-141.

Plato. "The Meno." In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1997.

Plato. "The Republic." In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1997.

Teske, Roland. "Augustine's Philosophy of Memory." In The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, 148-158. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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