|© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE||Last updated November 21, 1998|
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This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.
To: sophia <email@example.com>
Date : March 28, 1995, 21:06:32
Subject : Re: Pursuing Goodness
Warren Dawkins, Brandeis University Graduate, asked:
> My present question is of a rather different nature: do you think Plato and Aristotle are right? Is it true that pursuing goodness, or at least pursuing what we believe to be good for either us or others at the time of our decision (whether we judge rightly or wrongly), is the motivation behind all human action?
> I know many philosophers simply define the good as that which we desire, thus making psychological agathism seem to be nothing more than a tautological truism. For my own part, I would be very hard put to define the nature of goodness; the best I can do at present is agree with G.E. Moore that it is an indefinable quality that must simply be intuited and experienced directly. Nevertheless, using whatever definition of goodness you accept, would you support the notion of psychological agathism as being true, and if not, why? And what definition of goodness are you basing your criticism on? If, on the other hand, you think psychological agathism is a truism, could we perhaps call it axiomatic?
"... pursuing what we believe to be good for either us or others..." These are two very different things, and I'm not sure that's what Plato said. The way I understand the so-called Socratic paradox that nobody does willingly evil, is that nobody does willingly something that he thinks evil for him, or at least worse than any other thing he could do in the situation. You are right in stressing that it involves our judgment, which can be right or wrong (hence the importance of education for Plato), but you are wrong in my opinion in adding "or to others" because Plato does not think that men are all philanthropists, looking for other people's good. On the contrary, he probably knows that most people look only for what they beleive to be their own good (whatever that may be to them), even at the price of harming other people. And besides, most of them are wrong in what they believe their good to be.
So what is the good for Plato? Well! the good is the fulfillment of one's own being, his telos, his "measure". Eros is the magnet that may orients us toward it, and pleasure is "the way towards one's own being (tèn eis tèn autôn ousian odon)" (Philebus, 32b). The good is twice described in the Philebus (whose whole purpose is to search for the good of man in this life) as perfect (teleos), self-sufficient (ikanos) and seeked by all conscious beings (20d, 60b). And the good does not have a contrary: it is not the one end of a scale whose evil would be the other end; it is a measure on any scale, depending on what "being" you are talking about, whose both ends are "bad", whether by excess or by default. And evil is not a positive reality, but a mere lack of being (see also St Augustine). Even matter is not evil (as it might be for Plotinus), and as "being", matter itself has a "form" (see the Timæus' triangles), and some sort of goodness. At worse, it has its own laws ("forms" are laws), which have to be dealt with even by the demiourgos, and that's "necessity", anagkè, but not "evil".
Very seldom does Plato talk about the evil (to kakon) the way he talks about the good, but he rather talks about "bad things". And in many places, he rather talks about "poneria", or "lack of something", using a word which has some resemblance with penia, the poverty which, according to Diotime in the Symposium, is Eros' mother. And he is very concerned about the poneria of the soul, which is injustice, and has to be dealt with by Dikè (Sophist, 227d-229d) in much the same way the lack of health of the body has to be dealt with by medicine.
So the good we are to look for is not the good of one part against another, of body against soul, of sex against brain, of me against my neighbor, and so on... but the good of a compound, which can only be the harmony between all its parts, the "mean" that lets each part find some pleasure, body and soul, sex and brain, me and my neighbours, ... in a "justice" that is both internal, private, and external, social; and that can only be social if it is first internal (this is the whole message of the Republic, which intertwines considerations on the soul and its justice and the city and its policy). Justice is the ultimate "form" of man, and that's why the Timæus starts with a "reminder" of the Republic (before the beginning of the "muthos" because this form is outisde time and space), at the beginning of its search for all the "forms" of man (soul, form of the body that hosts the soul, form of the matter he is made of).
And "justice", the good of man in this life, is possible for him because he is a rational being, able to use his logos to organize his internal and external word, himself and the city he is a part of, into a "kosmos" through laws that he must either design or obey, and "laws" are the last words of Plato. And "logos" is both reason and the words that manifest it, which are spoken under the urge of eros (see the Phædrus).
And what about death? The answer is in the Phædo: we don't know for sure and never will. But it is a worthy guess to assume that the logos in us does not perish, no more than the "ideas" he partakes with. What does that means? Only muthos can attempt an answer at that point. But it is better to accept that hypothesis and live according to logos and justice than to reject it and live like wild beast as if we had no brains. Because what distinguishes man from beasts is logos. And fulfilling our "being" can only be in using our logos.
That's the way I understand Plato, and I agree with all of that. Is that me puting my thoughts in Plato? Maybe, maybe not! Anyway, even if that were, I think it is exactly what Plato would like us to do with his dialogues: philosophizing... seeking the good!
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
First published December 8, 1996 ;
Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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