What is Good

Plato, Image: Pixabay

In my last article I mentioned that Plato lamented the Sophists use of language as a game, rather than as a tool to get to Truth.  Since Plato, and his student Aristotle, had a major effect on both our modern scientific thought process and philosophical view of the world, it would be worth it to explore briefly some of his more important ruminations.


In Plato’s “Republic” he sets about to explore what is the good life.  In that analysis he discusses the very nature of goodness.  He postulates that all things are good if they fulfill their intended role in the world.  So, a chair is good if it serves as a place to sit (or perhaps a place to pile unfolded laundry in my house).  We don’t expect much from the chair except that it performs as it was designed.  The chair must have form otherwise it could not be created by the artisan, and that form is the essence of the chair, it’s nature.  Hypothetically, you could destroy all the chairs in the world but the form of a chair would still exist because our hypothetical artisan could create another. But since two artisans might create different chairs, there are elements of “chairness” that are its essence that exist outside of the mind of an individual artisan or in an actual chair since, in our hypothetical, all have been destroyed.  But if, hypothetically, all of the chairs AND all of the artisans who build chairs were also to be destroyed at the same time, another artisan might come along later and build a chair.  That means the form of a chair exists somewhere other than as a creation or in the mind of an artisan.  The form itself has existence independently of the existence of the physical chair or even the thought of a chair.  This is a critical point in modern abstract thinking. Feel free to take a brief wine break to contemplate this.


We tend to think of things in paired antonyms, light and dark, life and death, heat and cold, and good and evil.  Another way of looking at those pairings would be that they are not really opposites.  Darkness has no nature, it is merely the absence of light, death is the absence of life, cold is the absence of heat and evil is the absence of good.  In addition, Plato uses the example of the sun as an overflowing good.  While the sun is a wonderful thing, and life would indeed not be possible without it, the sun’s goodness is so great that its goodness overflows in the presence other things, like our vision.  Because of the sun there is light, and that, combined with our sight, makes the sun that much greater. They have compatible goodness.  Without our vision the sun would not be as good.  Without the sun our vision would be worthless.  There is, if you will, a divine rationality to this pairing.  You can see how this simple pairing could be extended to cover many things.  The horse is a majestic creature by itself.  When paired with a skilled rider, both the grace of the horse and the skill of the rider are magnified.  What Plato would say is that the pairing increases the goodness of each.


A quick aside here.  In another article I mentioned that this view of good and the absence of good is similar to that of the plains Indians.  While these ideas are fascinating in and of themselves, they are even more so when we contemplate their universality.  I am pretty sure that none of the Indians read Plato, yet as they studied the world around them, they came to the same conclusions as a philosopher a half a world away from them.  Nature was never disordered, evil things might be done by a creation, but that creation was not, of itself, evil.  The concept of Christian Hell sometimes includes the absence of God as opposed to an actual place. When we think about the immutable nature of man, these connections become more and more significant because they point to a universality of thought.  


Feel free to get a refill here.


Plato would argue that a good human life is one where the individual fulfills his own intended role.  Just like the chair.  The Greek word telos would probably be best interpreted as a man’s “measure”. Unlike the chair however, that may mean more than holding my unfolded laundry.  But certainly, different people have different “measures” that they are capable of achieving.  While this is probably unpopular in modern thought, it is not hard to see the reality of this in nature. I passed differential equations, barely.  You do not want me designing your next bridge project. I probably achieved my mathematical telos in middle school.


Plato’s presumption was that most people do not set out to do evil.  Most men will do what they believe to be right in any given circumstance and that is what makes a proper education so important.  Leaders especially must be educated since they will be relying on their knowledge of good to do good.  But neither does man really act in an altruistic manner.  Even if he tried, he would likely be wrong because he would have a limited understanding of what good is in reference to another person.  And again, neither does Plato talk a great deal about evil.  As I mentioned above, this is more about a lack of good, or a lack of understanding, or an imbalance in the larger body.  For instance, man has appetites that might be less good, but they can exist, and even be indulged, in harmony in a healthy whole body.  When those appetites affect those outside of the individual, then there is a balance that needs to be struck.  My neighbor’s needs have to be taken into account as well.  It is possible to have a lack of goodness at either end of the spectrum.  Perhaps it is helpful to think in terms of the person who works to stay healthy, and the zealot who makes life miserable for himself and others in that same pursuit.  In that sense, the pursuit of a good can be both good, and lacking in goodness.  In addition to Appetites, people are also affected by Spirit and Reason.  The balance of those three aspects of the Soul is what determines a person’s ideal place in society.


Ultimately this is about the ordered life.  I mean the title is the “Republic” after all. Plato saw three groups of people in an ordered society.  The artisans were those who were mostly driven by their Appetites (food, drink, wealth, and sex).  As such they were ideal for productive labor.  Those who were driven more by Spirit were suited to be the defenders of the state from both internal and external threats.  They were the auxiliaries.  Finally, there exists those who are driven by Reason.  They were suited to be the rulers with the appropriate education and training.   


Why does any of this matter beyond an excuse for me to contemplate the nature of the chair rather than fold the clothes that are sitting there?  Plato was widely read, and his thoughts on the natural order of things and people had implications in science and society for centuries.  We may chuckle a bit at the thought of chairness, but the idea of something existing in the absence of a physical object, or even a person’s thought, is one of the key assumptions of modern mathematics and it has its origins in Plato’s philosophy.  We can plot the location of X=2, Y=3 but the very existence of a point itself is a hypothetical.  It exists only as a concept, just like chairness. An electron has existence even if we can only predict, generally, where it is.  And we know that to stop one would be antithetical to its nature (that word keeps popping up does it not?) and would thus result in its destruction.  If there is a natural order that makes the sun / sight combination greater than the creation of either individually, then there would likewise be a natural order that allows a serf to be under the rule of the king, and the king to be ruled and subservient to a god.


These were some key assumptions in the ordering of society for centuries and, as such, is worthy of our contemplation some quiet evening with a glass or two of wine.


I am SUCH an artisan.[1]  


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