PLATO ON THE GOOD

Within this section I want to look at Plato’s conception of The Good.  The concept of what Good is has importance for someone’s political perspective as much of any political thought is centred around the idea of creating a better world.  To deal with people’s thoughts on this we do need to look at what they actually consider to be better or best.  In doing so we can learn much about where Plato is trying to lead us to in his work, what his aim is.  I will begin by looking at the different ways in which Plato uses this term in his writing and my own interpretations of these. I will then look at three different interpretations of Plato’s Good and compare how these people have understood what Plato has had to say about this crucial subject. Finally I will try and summarise the useful lessons we can take from these sources and Plato himself.

Within Plato’s work when he is talking of the idea of “The Good” and different “goods” his thoughts are at times elusive.  There are many ways in which he refers to what his conception of good can be linked to, compared to or even included with.  To start with however I want to look at an example where he chooses to be very specific on the subject.  The below quote comes from Laws Book One:

Now goods are of two kinds: there are human and there are divine goods, and the human hang upon the divine; and the state which attains the greater, at the same time acquires the less, or, not having the greater, has neither. Of the lesser goods the first is health, the second beauty, the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally, and the fourth is wealth, not the blind god (Pluto), but one who is keen of sight, if only he has wisdom for his companion. For wisdom is chief and leader of the divine class of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage. All these naturally take precedence of the other goods, and this is the order in which the legislator must place them[i]

The separation of the divine and human again reflects Plato’s belief in the existence of ideal attributes and a realm of ideals that we should aim for[ii].  There are the four divine goods that he identifies for us to aspire to.  These are also referred to as the Virtues at times and these are something I shall look at separately shortly.  In contrast to these are the human goods, those that relate to the physical realm and feed into how we act within this, something that Plato views as inferior to the divine idealistic realm[iii].  Of the goods he has chosen I think all of them can be considered as part of what makes a good life even though they may not all be a necessary part.

Within the quote there is also a fairly clear order.  The divine goods are best and wisdom is the best of these.  Temperance comes next and then justice (although justice needs the other three to arise) and then finally courage.  Health, beauty, strength and then wealth complete the scale at the lower half.  Numerous examples could be given as to why these are all valuable in life for different reasons and counter examples could also be provided as to maybe why they should not be, or why they might be written in a different order e.g. When people found out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction they may have wished for a little more of any of the four virtues had been present around the time the decision as made to invade, or as to why they might not be seen as valuable, someone may counter argue that it was the right decision with the available evidence at the time and even with these eight goods a better decision could not have been made without better information, so why isn’t correct information one of these ‘goods’.

For myself, and as some interpretations I will share later will touch on, I think the divine goods are, whilst not equivalent, dependent upon each other.  If I had to pick a peak of the four I would have to choose either wisdom or temperance.  Objectively wisdom may be better, but for me it is something that grows out of experience and thus temperance is on a par, if not more important, than wisdom, as it is what can get you to wisdom eventually through a measured approach to your experiences.  Having got you there, they are then so intertwined that it would be hard to separate the two: Temperance is such a big contributor to becoming wise that you wouldn’t be able to stop the habit as soon as you crossed the line into wisdom, where ever that line may be.  I’d agree with Plato that justice is important but can arise successfully from the habit of the other three, and whilst courage is a valuable asset in times when the going gets tough its influence may not be as all pervasive as the top two.

Of the human goods health should be seen as the utmost, and I would think is convincingly so to anyone who could recall their worst moments of illness and how incapacitating that can be. Beauty, strength and wealth are all things that I would move further down the scale the more excessive the amounts are.  So whilst an average amount of any of the three may be desirable (most of us would admit to wanting to fit in physically to some extent, and having enough money to be able to make choices and strong enough to at least lift a pen or walk where we need to), the more excessive they become the further away from a need they get (so to have sixty billion pounds may be seen by some as a want but not by many as absolutely necessary to have a good life.  The same might be said about looking like Helen of Troy or being as strong as Sylvester Stallone).

Plato’s choices of these prioritised goods make sense, especially in terms of his putting the divine ahead of the human goods given his metaphysical beliefs.  These may be seen as similar to some religious perspectives or as a reflection that human beings prioritise their internal behaviour over control of the external much of the time.  Buddhism often emphasises the middle (or temperate) way, as well as the value of right thinking (wisdom), right action (justice), and right concentration (courage).  This is without the obvious parallels to Catholic Virtues where Plato’s four have been added to.  This may be because these things can often be more in our control than external things that aren’t, such as the human goods.  However in no way would I consider his list as exhaustive and a far larger variety would be needed if you wanted to include everyone’s personal priorities.  From the modern day there are some notable absentees from the list: Love, Empathy and Security are three that instantly spring to mind amongst others.

With a little thought it is easy to see how Plato could perceive how the human goods “hang upon the divine”, as they are all contributory in their own way.  People being treated justly and acting justly are less likely to get hurt and damage their health or those who are wise may know when to stop building muscles so as to maintain a good level of strength before they overdo it and tear a muscle you may argue.  On the other hand there are possible counter examples that swing the other way:  Gordon Brown’s blindness may be considered bad in terms of health but surely is not down to lack of any of the four virtues, is it? Had he been wiser, more temperate, more courageous or just would it have not happened in the rugby match?  Maybe here Plato believes there is some previous form of justice coming into play, maybe through reincarnation? How about beauty, is it such that wisdom can bring beauty?  I don’t believe people who would have seen Socrates would have agreed.  Thus it would seem that there are innumerable examples and counter-examples to back up either side of this argument, but maybe the words “hang upon” become important as it is not that the human goods are dependent upon the divine completely, but that they are good foundations for them and they can lead to the human goods in certain circumstances (I don’t think any amount of wisdom will make Gary Neville look like Johnny Depp, but if he is wise enough not to trap his head in a vice then he will not lose any of his admittedly good looks).  Plato’s drawing of a link between the two does seem, in a general way, and based on the premises that they are the goods, like a valid move.

The statement, and here the word state is important, “the state which attains the greater, at the same time acquires the less, or, not having the greater, has neither.” seems important for two reasons.  Firstly it reinforces Plato’s perspective that the state is like a larger reflection of the individual.  Secondly it seems that this thought holds better for the State than the individual.  In an individual it is surely possible to be healthy/beautiful/strong/wealthy without being wise/temperate/courageous or just.  For the four human goods can all be born into to some extent and assumed by a person before they even begin to make choices on the matter in some circumstances.  In a State however, which is a group of people, the dynamics are different.  Many would think that justice is important for a state to be healthy (and can contribute to the other three aspects also).  For if a state is unjust you could argue it is more likely to be changed from within, and thus its situation is not a healthy one as it needs to change to maintain itself.  A wise governance of a state may also contribute to the four human goods in that if it is well governed it may be more likely to produce great cultural works or increase the wealth of the citizens (living in Nepal currently the governance situation suggests they may not have been able to host the Olympics, like London has just done or raise their finances to a level comparable with Germany, although admittedly this may not be just down to a lack of an effective government being established.  However new businesses may find it easier to operate once there is a constitution and then government, hopefully).  Comparative examples like these can be attuned to fit temperance and courage also.  Equally it seems that there could be counter examples that show that states could exist where the four human goods are present in different ways but the divine ones are not: so (debatably many may say) Stalinist Russia was certainly a strong state and maybe a beautiful one at times, but it may be argued it wasn’t just or temperate, others may go further and suggest it was neither wise nor courageous also.  These examples could continue in either direction given enough time but I feel that the reference to state by Plato is an apt one in that an individual is far abler to continue with the four human goods and without the divine goods than a state is, which I feel is the point Plato is hinting at here.  This does suggest a weakness in Plato’s analogy, as if the state and individual are comparable in such a way, then this is to highlight a difference that pushes them further away from each other.  So a state is in need of coherence, much more than an individual, to maintain it’s integrity.  This may simply come from the fact that an individual is locked into one physical substance, where as a state is a collection of beings, but this is still a point to be reckoned with that may make a difference in the long run when trying to plan out a political structure.

When, in the passage, Plato says “All these naturally take precedence of the other goods” he is referring to both sets in that he thinks there are other goods also that should contribute to fulfilling these, and that the human goods should look to achieving the divine and the divine are looking to achieve The Good in an overarching sense, so it seems they all form a pyramid structure with the divine near the top just below an overall idea of good.  Other examples of what Plato considers to be good can be found throughout his works but they are usually subservient to these four goods, or virtues that I shall look at more specifically later.  To give one brief example he mentions within Meno that amongst the goods of the soul (or divine goods) some others that might be considered are quickness of apprehension, memory and magnanimity[iv].

Within Plato’s perspective there is room such that each individual will need different things to attain The Good.  He recognises that people will have different characters and so to bring them all to his idea of the good they will need different prescriptions.  Here it seems is the beginning of an ability to see things from a pluralistic perspective.  Plato is aware that people having different starting points will need different resources or guidance to get to the idealistic endpoint he has in mind for everyone, this can be seen in the Statesman where he explains how a legislator cannot legislate for every single need for every single individual, but must do so for all in general:

And now observe that the legislator who has to preside over the herd, and to enforce justice in their dealings with one another, will not be able, in enacting for the general good, to provide exactly what is suitable for each particular case[v]

What Plato misses here is that there are different endings for people as well. So to start from a different point doesn’t mean we should all end up at the same point, or even, as The Republic seems to suggest, that we should all contribute in a different way to the same ending, and even if we don’t think that this is the ending then we should be made to conform through a number of different influences and manipulations (more on this later however when I look at totalitarian accusations toward Plato).  However in response to this Plato may have argued that they will have different ends, but for those ends to be good (for them and the system) they will in some way have to contribute to the greater good.

Bearing in mind in Plato’s discussions on knowledge in some of his works the absolute conviction of his idea of good being the idea of The Good seems at times hypocritical.  Whilst I can understand that the desire to have some form of positive action to aim at is highly appealing, I am not sure whether it over-rules the need to protect people’s rights to self determination.  Here I think Plato’s position, where those considered in the political sphere are able to determine themselves sufficiently, and the rest of society is used to being ruled, can lead him to a different conclusion to my own of a post twentieth century individual with all the rights and concepts that underpin that idea. This outlook may have arisen as a response to the political turmoil of Plato’s time that he was no doubt witness to, leading him to the conclusion that a sacrifice of some inclusion of people was better for the order it brought than trying to have a system which was less responsive or more dominated by one person for their own sake.  This fixation on order, that may relate to Plato’s personal perception of Athens’s problems he observed in his early life will recur throughout my writing on Plato.

Whilst Plato seemingly believed that there were ultimate objective ideals, in a more refined sense it may have been (though many may doubt this) that Plato placed value on having a definite ideal to aim to give people direction and purpose.  This second suggestion would put Plato even further ahead of his own time but may just be my own interpretation of a possibility (as it feels like a response to Durkheim’s concept of anomie).  I feel that the first perspective (of ultimate objective ideals) feels less than wise bearing in mind some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

Within the passage[vi] from The Statesman on the inability of the legislator to provide for all however Plato does also suggest that it is not possible to satisfy all the individual needs as well as providing rules in general.  In this he identifies a distinction between individual goods and societal goods and the aims that may come from these.  This refers to a problem that passes through politics throughout the ages in trying to balance the individual and the community, even though his solution may be that of let us legislate for what we think is good and then others will have to work within that framework.  There arises in Plato’s work acknowledgement of the incompatible cross over between different freedoms that in future may lead into some of what Isaiah Berlin had to say on negative and positive freedom (freedom from interference from certain sources and freedom to be able to do things).

Next I want to move to look at some of the more elusive passages in which Plato mentions something of the good.  The first is from The Republic Book Six:

I am sure, I said, that he who does not know how the beautiful and the just are likewise good will be but a sorry guardian of them; and I suspect that no one who is ignorant of the good will have a true knowledge of them.[vii]

The simplest thing to say about this passage is that it is reaffirming Plato’s thoughts that the beautiful and just are good things.  However there are two further thoughts that come out from here: Firstly that the good is something worth guarding, and to do a good job of this you need to be aware of how these things are good. I think this is reasonable to say in that if you view something positively you will want to maintain or increase it, and this can be considered guarding something as you don’t want it to be destroyed.  The second half of this may be open to debate (need to be aware), as if we look at the army or secret services people often refer to things as “on a need to know basis” and there are examples that can be imagined where you might not want to give particularly valuable information to people as it may be let out undesirably.  However this is different sort of information and you could counter-argue that armies may be motivated the best by knowing what is about what they are fighting for that is good (e.g. WWII has often been seen as fought for freedom and liberty and democracy) and so whenever anyone is trying to maintain the good the more they know about why it is good, Plato might suggest, means the more they will be prepared to sacrifice for a good thing.  Secondly is the suggestion that you need to know what The Good is to be able to know the properties of those things that are considered to be good.  This to me feels like a circular argument in that if we are, or Plato was, trying to define The Good then it would seem helpful to have some examples to help us understand.  But if the examples to help us understand are reliant on us understanding The Good, and our understanding of The Good is reliant on these examples, where can we go? This is a similar trap that was noted earlier to that of knowledge when it was compared to looking for words in a dictionary in that we enter a circular argument.  However the solution in both cases seems similar in that at times we have to bite the bullet and accept that we feel satisfied in some form of understanding (that may be more of a feeling than a definable linguistic idea) from looking at the parts that make up the circular whole.

This next passage, again from The Republic Book Six, has a few more good points we can draw from it:

Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honour yet higher.[viii]

Here the passage seems to say firstly that truth exists in things (imparts truth to the known) and those things are given their truth by The Good, so The Good is a creative force.  How we come to know things also comes from the same source (and the power of knowing to the knower).  The Good is also the cause of how we distinguish between things by classifying them, as the etymology of science shows it to come from the practise of separating or dividing things to tell them apart (the cause of science).  It also causes the truth to be known through this chain of truth existing and then being known through science (and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge).  The Good is therefore more beautiful than truth or knowledge, and has a higher place of honour than either, and the placing of The Good so highly again suggests at an overarching nature.

Recalling the section on knowledge, one of the reasons that defining The Good completely might be difficult is because part of it is that which gives us knowledge, and as it so hard to define completely how we get knowledge this has a knock on effect of making it hard to define The Good completely.  From a critical perspective you may consider it impossible to completely bridge the gap of uncertainty to define knowledge and thus realising The Good, completely, becomes impossible.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth aiming for though. This idea of finding it difficult to really know something is hinted at within the passage itself in that Plato says “of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge” which suggests that truth may not be known at points. It seems that Plato thinks there aren’t truth’s that are unrealisable eternally for humans, as suggested previously[ix], however from a modern perspective he is at least pointing to the idea that truth is something that exists, and knowledge is something that arrives at it at times, when it does it is the best form of knowledge, but at other times it may not arrive there.

In my own opinion there are still some truths that we may not be able to arrive at, maybe simply because of the apparatus we have to use to get to knowledge, to give a few examples; how does it feel for a bat to “see” something; does God exist; if so what does it feel like to be God; what is the outside of the universe like?  The question of if The Good is one such thing is hard to be certain of but I am extremely wary of the idea that there is One Good that is applicable to all people considering other peoples who have held this view and the activities that have arisen from this. A form of pluralistic perspective seems much more morally acceptable and at times seems to be what some of Plato’s later writings hint at[x] before he steps back toward the absolutist perspective.  This difference in position again may be because of a difference in culture, with Plato having a large experience of the Hellenistic world at his time through his travelling, but it was just that: A world with a variety of cultures dominated by Greek culture.   This would have given him some exposure to multi-culturalism but nowhere near as much as the modern “globalized” world and with far less of the pressures of integration as now, due to many cities still being fairly polarised around a certain dominant group.

The final mysterious passage I want to look at on The Good also comes from Book Six of The Republic:

You would say, would you not, that the sun is not only the author of visibility in all visible things, but of generation and nourishment and growth, though he himself is not generation?

 Certainly.

 In like manner the good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.[xi]

Here there are a number of qualities of The Good that are mentioned and need further exploration. The Good comes as something that creates (or authors) not only the knowledge that we know but also makes those things that we have knowledge about (being) as well as what makes them essentially what they are (essence).  To give an example then it means The Good not only makes us able to know what a dog is, it also makes that dog exist (being) and makes it so that the dog is a dog (it’s essence). The Good, however, is not just essence, but goes beyond it being more powerful as well as having more dignity.

An author of being and essence hints at something that is creative (this may link to the idea of a demiurge Plato puts forward as a creative force for the universe in some sense, in the Timaeus) and also creation in a certain ordered way suggests the possibility of another way and thus ultimately some kind of aim or direction to the process, although whether this is intentional (in the form of a consciousness) or not is not made clear.

Again Plato gives us qualities in a vague manner with no clear description of a history or how these thing come into being.  This may be because if there is/was some creative being it would seem that Plato’s eternal truths would have existed for an eternity and so before the demiurge begins time.  If this were true then The Good must also precede the demiurge as it is the source for the other goods that follow The Good, unless, possibly, the demiurge is also eternal and the source of The Good.  So it may be that even the demiurge acts toward The Good and The Good is also the inspiration for this beings creations.  Stretching the possibilities even further it may also be that as The Good acts as an inspiration: Some of it’s qualities rub off on the inspired and so leads the inspired also to become good in new ways (not unlike a virus).

Going beyond the elusive descriptions of Plato’s ideas about The Good there are plenty of opportunities to see obvious accounts of what Plato sees as good.  To pick a few, in The Republic, Book Eight, Plato refers to aristocracy as a good thing (as opposed to democracy) and those who use it as also good[xii],  I will later touch on why Plato thinks this is so.  Within Laws Book One he refers to the idea of self control as good and within this the ability to govern ourselves[xiii].  Book Five of Laws shows truth to be at the root of all good things as well as pointing out those who are untrustworthy will get their comeuppance[xiv]. Finally in Book Twelve of laws Plato suggests that it is a good thing to seek to have the reputation of a good person, but only on condition that it is based on really being good and not on reputation alone[xv].

The last thing I’d like to look at in direct reference to Plato’s discussions of the good is his negative examples i.e. What he thinks the good isn’t. Here Plato takes a really negative view of pleasure holding sway over our actions, he believes we should be ruled by our knowledge, opinion and reason as should a state be ruled by laws and those superior (or wiser) people who form the rulers group.  This idea is shared with us in Book Three of Laws[xvi] and within this passage the most revealing part of actually seems to be this:

for the principle which feels pleasure and pain in the individual is like the mass or populace in a state.

Considering the terms Plato uses to describe someone who follows their sense of pleasure; folly, the greatest ignorance, worst ignorance, this seems to give some indication of how Plato feels about the greater mass or populace within a state.  It seems that Plato feels the good can be reached through methods that disregard many of the people and these people’s existence is subservient to this ideal of The Good in some sense.  This for me is the crux of the matter in that I think the importance of an objective or aim is not just about reaching the final destination but the journey to get there is as important if not more so at times.  To put this in the context of a job, it may not be the end product that is most important, but equally or more so is what you do, or how you do it, to get to the end product.  This seems especially important in terms of such domains as morality.  I would also disagree that you should always rule over yourself by making your pleasures subject to your reason as Plato thinks[xvii][xviii], I think it is probably healthy for people to let go and go against their reason at times.  So intimate relationships, going on rides at theme parks which scare you or taking a risk in a business or hobby or sport can all be good examples of when your pleasure may healthily overrun your reason (here again Plato may disagree with me)[xix].

Plato states that there can be good as well as bad pleasures in Book Six of The Republic[xx], but whereas he see this as a counter argument for someone making pleasure their good, I would feel that something that has a positive and negative side can be part of The Good as The Good may be as much about learning the balance of things as it is about maximising one specific ideal.  So here at the same time I agree with Plato’s idea of temperance but feel that by combining this with pleasure, we can take pleasure in, and into, The Good.  Having said that I think this is something Plato would agree with[xxi][xxii] and would reply that what he means is that pleasure should not solely be put on a pedestal as our only good as it can lead us astray and in his eyes the idea of The Good is something far purer than pleasure could ever be.

Having looked at Plato’s description and my own interpretations of some of the passages I will move on now to look at some different interpretations of Plato’s work beginning with Richard Kraut’s. In analysing Plato’s claim that justice is always a better option than injustice Kraut (1992, p. 319)[xxiii] states that the basis for understanding this claim is in interpreting Plato’s Forms as the greatest good, explaining the value of reason as the tool enabling us to do so.  The Form of the Good should also be taken as the greatest of these Forms.  Kraut (1992, p.321) interprets the Form of the Good, in light of Aristotle’s criticism, as something that can be possessed.  However it is not something that can be possessed in terms of ownership, like a house, but more as we might have friends, a relation of emotional attachment and intellectual understanding.  In trying to interpret how Plato could identify something as good, looking to the Form of the Good as an exemplar, Kraut see Plato’s conception of good as resting in characteristics such as harmony, balance and proportion that thus constitute order.  He draws this conclusion from Plato’s examples of equating a healthy body (in good condition) with a harmony of its parts, as well as equating justice (good condition of the soul) as a harmony amongst its elements.  So he extends this to the goodness of anything of a certain kind as being the harmony that is appropriate for things of that kind (Kraut 1992,  p.322).   This interpretation of good he sees as being at its maximum when considering Forms:

According to this suggestion, the goodness of Forms consists in the fact that they possess a kind of harmony, balance, or proportion; and their superiority to all other things consists in the fact that the kind of order they possess gives them a higher degree of harmony than any other type of object. (Kraut 1992, p. 322)

As Kraut is only considering whether Forms are things that can be considered “good” or not, he does not consider this in much depth, however his perception is that Plato hadn’t quite worked out what harmony is for Forms, or what it consists in, and as such could not characterise harmony in a general way.  So Kraut (1992, p. 323)sees Plato’s interpretation of The Good as being that which attains the highest order, and Forms are those things that have the highest potential for the highest degree of order.

White (2006, p. 356 )[xxiv] argues that in the Republic the main concept is actually goodness and not the commonly assumed justice, due to Plato’s insistence that justice be grounded in a knowledge of goodness.   He (White, 2006, p. 358) also points to the need for awareness that Plato can be seen to shift his use of the term good in his arguments.

White (2006, pp. 359-60) wants us to recognise a new way of exploring ethical concepts from Plato, away from looking at them as properties of actions and toward them being considered by those conditions which they bring about or maintain.  So that a just action is just because of that personality or condition it will cause.  So our ethical concepts focus on a causal relation where the condition of a personality is primary and the action is considered secondary:

Notice now that this division of applications of “justice” – into primary and secondary, with the secondary use applying to things that lead causally to things to which the primary use apply – resembles what Plato says about goodness at the beginning of Book II (357b–358a). There Plato distinguishes between things that are good for themselves, things that aren’t good for themselves but are good for their consequences, and things that are good both for themselves and for their consequences. (White 2006, p.360)

Having identified these primary aspects, he then goes on (White 2006,  pp. 360-1) to ascribe to them the ethical concepts as structural properties, so that a person or condition is just or good because of the way they are structured.  The features identified in a good structure are stability, coherence, unity and a capacity to work for the benefit of the whole especially in their counteracting of decay and internal strife.

Within White’s explanation (2006, p.362) to grasp or understand a concept is to understand what it is for something to exemplify that concept ideally and what it is to apply a concept is to be able to determine the degree to which something approximates that ideal.  Another feature of Plato’s understanding of the physical world identified (White 2006, p.363-4) is that it is not static but dynamic.  As such all the motions are also subject to patterns and so have their own concepts and Forms too (and these can be a-priori and not empirically discovered).  This dynamism that has regularity then suggests that the leaders of the State (and reason for the individual) can be a force for good by working out how to causally influence the city (or individual) to reach to the ideal of good.  So grasping goodness is also a matter of grasping causal connections.

White(2006, p.364) then analyses the concept of the Good through struggling with the statement that the knowledge of the Good is necessary and sufficient for understanding all Forms. In answer to this he raises two solutions.  Firstly considering the structure of the Forms are seen to be good and each part of the structure is good through its contribution to that structure White moves to suggest that understanding the good of each part would then arguably be necessary for an understanding of the whole structure’s goodness.  Also a grasp of the Good would be sufficient for understanding each part as if we understand the ideal structure of the physical cosmos we could be said to understand the Good and this in turn would entail understanding all the parts.  Alternatively White (2006, p.365) suggests that when we speak of grasping a concept we must know it’s ideal exemplification.  Here Plato may be blurring the lines between good and ideal such that to know an ideal exemplar is to know a good exemplar and so to know any concept we necessarily need to know goodness (or The Good).  Consequently to grasp goodness is to grasp the way in which each concept that you some across can be idealized and therefore is sufficient for understanding all other concepts. Additionally White points out we shouldn’t assume Plato was certain of everything, but that this may have been a work in progress that he knew he would have to come back to (this is an important point in itself that I will come back to later).

Finally, from White (2006, p.371), he interprets Plato’s concept of the Good as being distinct from individuals.  As such it does not have good in mind for anyone (whether it be yourself or other people)  but simply it is Good.  So to do Good is good for you because you are part of everything and the Good is all encompassing, but it is also imperative as it is Good and so philosopher kings will be drawn to do it rather than pleasantly philosophise as they become aware of their own role in reaching the Good that is independent of individual motivations whilst at the same time individually motivating as communally it helps people be the best they can be.

White agrees with Kraut in that goodness is identified through a maintenance of order and it is also seen as important because of the outcome it creates not simply a property of an action.  Both also see it as being epitomised in the harmony/unity of Forms. Where White goes further than Kraut (partly because of the focus of his work) is he identifies how actions (secondary) feed into good structural qualities (primary) by helping to create the right outcome.  Both Kraut and White suggest that Plato’s thoughts on The Good were incomplete, at least as recorded, and White tries to develop The Good further in speculating how the concept of Good is intertwined with all the Forms.  The need to know a concept fully involves knowing it at its best which ultimately means when it is achieving or contributing to The Good.  He also looks to explain how a philosophical understanding of The Good would move those who understand it to go beyond thinking about it to acting on it.

Seel[xxv] (2007, p.173) begins by emphasising that Plato never actually affirms that the Form of the Good is an aim for human beings and goes on to suggest that Aristotle (Plato’s pupil) seemingly admits, through his silence, that the Form of the Good could be not the aim of our striving, but the pattern by which we can judge whether our aims of our actions are good or not.

He (Seel 2007, p. 174) asks how can intellectual ideas have effects in the physical world?  His answer is that Plato’s idea of The Good is the formal cause (in the Aristotelian sense: by formal cause it is meant the part of a cause that gives a thing it’s specific form, or shape: A formal cause of a building will be the blue prints/design) of goodness’s other forms that are in turn the formal causes of good things.   This Form of Good depends on efficient causes (again in the Aristotelian sense: meaning the specific thing that causes the subject to change, so for a building it would be the builders, and for a set of blue prints the architect) which are part of the sensible world but have access to the intelligible world. So humans or the divine will be able to enact good works as they are able to be efficient causes through their inhabiting of the physical world, and the formal cause will have an influence through them as they are able to comprehend and digest the Form of the Good and act upon the information.

There is a move (Seel 2007, pp.178-9) to discussing Plato’s dialectical method, which is often proposed as a way of creating genera and species that allow things to be defined properly so they are contained under the proper concept.  The way this is done is from hypothetical starting points, looking at what concepts that are used in a hypothesis presuppose, and by finding the more general concepts these presuppositions are based upon. The process is then repeated for these general concepts, considering what they presuppose and what these presuppositions are based on. The dialectical process keeps moving up through more general concepts until it comes to a concept or small number of concepts at the top that presupposes no other and this is seen as the starting point for everything else.  The dialectician then proceeds down from this by division (remembering here the etymology of science: division), categorising each thing and enhancing their understanding of each things place and it’s nature as they go. This is then used to inform whatever the current debate is.  The traditional conception is that the form of the Good is at the end of the upward movement as the overarching climax that fits all other things into its grand boundaries.  Seel (2007, p.179) points out, however, that Plato describes The Good as the end and aim of the dialectical process, thus an alternative interpretation is that it will only be complete if the downward movement (of division) is finished and it is then that we grasp The Form of the Good.

Considering the idea of The Good as an overarching concept (from the peak of the upward movement) that all other concepts are included within, the conclusion that follows is then all concepts must be considered as part of The Good, surely this would be too big a commitment to make (as you couldn’t have bad concepts)?   Another problem noted with The Good as the highest genus (Seel 2007, p.182) is that it would thus be beyond definition, as if all other concepts are within it then there are no concepts external to it to define it by.

The alternative perception of the Form of the Good that Seel perceives is best left to his own words:

What we rather see are the logical relations among the essences that allow us to define them, and finally the organisation and the perfect, thorough-going regularity and clarity of the system, an organisation and regularity that deserve the predicate ‘beautiful’. If this conjecture is right, the Form of the Good would be either the system of the logical relations between the essences itself or the set of the properties of this system. (Seel 2007, p.182)

From this explanation Seel decides which of the two suggestions he follows based upon his interpretation of  Plato as saying The Good is beyond essences. Within the passage “logical relations between the essences” would refer to a Form of Essences, in a sense an essence of essences.  This, for Seel, does not go far enough as it is still really an essence. He wants to detach The Form of the Good (Seel pg 183) still further so it is that which dictates the system that essences occur within, not simply what they have in common (“the set of the properties of this system”) or as he says himself “If the Form of Essence is the form of each element in the system of essences, the point then is that Goodness is the form of the system itself.” (Seel 2007, p.183) Here again it is best left to Seel’s excellent example to explain this further:

Let us explain this using the essence of ‘republic (polis)’ as example. If we sum up Plato’s theory as given in the Republic, we can draw the following tree of genera and species:

Now, it is evident that on each level the relation among the members of the community is improved if it has the property displayed at the right-hand side. We reach the best possible relation on the third level, when not only do the best (the philosophers) rule, but also each of the other classes of the population does its own business well. This is the definition of justice Plato reaches in 433A-B (cf. 441D). So justice is defined as a certain relation between the members of a state. This relation has the properties of order, measure, equilibrium, stability and beauty. Therefore justice is good and a just state is good. But this implies also that the other forms of the state are less good. Or, as Plato emphasizes in Republic IV 445C, there is only one form of virtue, but infinitely many forms of vice.” (Seel 2007, p.194)

So here justice fits the Form of the system that is indicative of The Good.  The Form is one of order, measure, equilibrium, stability and beauty.  The final sentence here also answers the criticism of the description of Good as the highest genus, as it shows there can be bad concepts also and not that everyone has to be good.

Having such a definition of the Form of the Good (the Form of the system that essences/ideals are part of) means he can solve one of the contradictions that arises in Plato:  When Plato says the most splendid among the beings, he may simply mean amongst the things that participate in being (not physically existing in this world), and this definition participates in being through characterising what is good and what is not.  So there is nothing contradictory in suggesting the Form of the Good lies beyond the essences and on the other hand it is the most splendid of beings.

So it is that Seel seems to provide a coherent interpretation of the elusive good from the passages I previously looked at in describing the Form of the Good as that which dictates the properties of the system that all Plato’s ideals/forms fit into.  At the same time this allows for bad forms, it means that The Good does not have to be an aim but simply a kind of overlay for us to judge whether our aims are good or not and it removes some of the contradictions  found in Plato’s works.

Seel agrees with White and Kraut in seeing The Good as deeply characterised by ideas of harmony and order.  He also joins with White’s deeper exploration of the structural involvement of goodness.  Where he differs from White is that White’s conception of The Good sees it as characterising the structure of parts as well as for the whole whereas Seel takes this in a slightly different direction and suggests there is a Good framework that can be overlaid upon the outcomes to check whether they are Good or not, thus making the distinction between the outcomes and the Good much stronger.  It may be that Seel’s and White’s views are compatible in that where White talks about how a part can be good he may not mean internally but as contributing to a good structure, which would be similar to Seel laying his overlay on the part and saying “yes this fits the model of a good system or Form”.  However White’s focus on the primary being about the condition or personality could be taken to suggest The Good is to be found in these, as well as locating it in the parts of each thing.

One of the problems, noted by Seel (2007, pp.183-4), is that much of his writing feels very much like his own interpretation, as at times he chooses specific interpretations of the Greek words (as we all must) that suit his purposes.  This line of thought could lead us down a dead-end where there is no solution as none of us can know what Plato was thinking unless we translate his works into what for each of us is the best fit.  However this point is worth bearing in mind for the section where I conclude on what we can learn from Plato as a variety of interpretations coming from his work may have been his intention.

What feels good about Seel’s perspective is that it does seem to add something more tangible and concrete to some of Plato’s writings, for instance explaining how The Good can go beyond truth and knowledge in terms of dignity and power.  At the same time it also provides an explanation as to why those parts of the text, on a first reading, felt so intangible and beyond grasping.

In trying to summarise what we can learn about Plato’s concept of The Good from all this there are a few easy things to begin with.  Plato believes that the soul is more important than the body, and that those goods (wisdom, temperance, justice and courage) that belong to the soul’s sphere of influence are more important than those of the body (health, beauty, strength and wealth) and exert a greater influence on those of the body than the influence in the opposite direction.  However there are also plenty of other examples of goods (e.g. Quickness of apprehension, memory and magnanimity).  There is something akin to a linear scale that these virtues can be placed upon in a certain order of importance, with wisdom being the uppermost according to Plato. Having said this, the virtues are all interdependent and affect each other.  These virtues are applicable to an individual and a state in their own way. In a negative sense Plato feels that pleasure is not a way to get to The Good and if anything it can be corrupting, as well as believing that there is a need for some bad however to balance with the good.

For Plato each person may have a different role to play in achieving The Good or attaining their own good, so here there is some acknowledgement of difference in people’s make up.  Plato’s conception of The Good is of something unchanging and external to us in some way.  Characteristic of The Good is order, often coloured by harmony or unity (these could equally be influenced by Athens’s disordered history or Plato’s background in the highly ordered Mathematics, or both).  He also feels that if you are going to be part of this unity, to fight for it, then it will make you stronger in your cause if you understand what it is you are working for.

It becomes more difficult to relate to this idea of the Good when we try to see how it fits with the metaphysical as it has an integral role to play in what we understand of as knowledge and truth as well as in the very basics of being.  It is also deeply related to his idea of The Forms and may be a characteristic of our actions, actions that lead us certain good states or an underlying framework that dictates which of the Forms can be seen as Good.  So in this sense even though it may seem as one thing at times, the one thing it might be defined as could be so broad that it is never really singular until you try and pin it down to a definition.  Its breadth, depth, variety, power, creativeness, necessity and elusiveness may be explained due to it being an extremely deep understanding of how all things are structured, or even at the core of everything.  The Form of the Good may be something that is possessed or it may be a standard which we can measure ourselves against.   However it is difficult to know for sure as Plato is never direct in his explanation of it.

If there is one message to take forward from Plato’s idea of The Good it would be that at its core Plato’s concept of good is characterised by order, harmony, unity, balance, coherence and proportion.


[i] Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 5016-5021). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] whereas the greatest and highest truths have no outward image of themselves visible to man, which he who wishes to satisfy the soul of the enquirer can adapt to the eye of sense, and therefore we ought to train ourselves to give and accept a rational account of them; for immaterial things, which are the noblest and greatest, are shown only in thought and idea, and in no other way, and all that we are now saying is said for the sake of them. Moreover, there is always less difficulty in fixing the mind on small matters than on great.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 22468-22471). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Then, in general, those kinds of things which are in the service of the body have less of truth and essence than those which are in the service of the soul? Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 20294-20295). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[iv] let us consider the goods of the soul: they are temperance, justice, courage, quickness of apprehension, memory, magnanimity, and the like?  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Location 11327). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[v] Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 22641-22643). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[vi] And now observe that the legislator who has to preside over the herd, and to enforce justice in their dealings with one another, will not be able, in enacting for the general good, to provide exactly what is suitable for each particular case.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 22641-22643). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[vii] Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 19063-19064). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[viii] Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 19109-19113). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Many very respectable institutions of this sort have been framed by good men, and from them the guardians of the law may by reflection derive what is necessary for the order of our new state, considering and correcting them, and bringing them to the test of experience, until every detail appears to be satisfactorily determined; and then putting the final seal upon them, and making them irreversible, they shall use them for ever afterwards.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 10170-10173). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[x] Because the law does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all and therefore cannot enforce what is best. The differences of men and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of -any universal and simple rule. And no art whatsoever can lay down a rule which will last for all time.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 22625-22627). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xi] Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 19116-19119). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xii] Him who answers to aristocracy, and whom we rightly call just and good, we have already described.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Location 19634). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xiii] And we agreed before that they are good men who are able to rule themselves, and bad men who are not.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Location 5237). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xiv] Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both to Gods and men; and he who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted; but he is not to be trusted who loves voluntary falsehood, and he who loves involuntary falsehood is a fool. Neither condition is enviable, for the untrustworthy and ignorant has no friend, and as time advances he becomes known, and lays up in store for himself isolation in crabbed age when life is on the wane: so that, whether his children or friends are alive or not, he is equally solitary.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 6593-6597). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xv] he who is really good (I am speaking of the men who would be perfect) seeks for reputation with, but not without, the reality of goodness.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 10053-10054). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xvi] Athenian: That the greatest ignorance is when a man hates that which he nevertheless thinks to be good and noble, and loves and embraces that which he knows to be unrighteous and evil. This disagreement between the sense of pleasure and the judgment of reason in the soul is, in my opinion, the worst ignorance; and also the greatest, because affecting the great mass of the human soul; for the principle which feels pleasure and pain in the individual is like the mass or populace in a state. And when the soul is opposed to knowledge, or opinion, or reason, which are her natural lords, that I call folly, just as in the state, when the multitude refuses to obey their rulers and the laws; or, again, in the individual, when fair reasonings have their habitation in the soul and yet do no good, but rather the reverse of good. All these cases I term the worst ignorance, whether in individuals or in states.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 5955-5962). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xvii] Then the imitative poet who aims at being popular is not by nature made, nor is his art intended, to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul; but he will prefer the passionate and fitful temper, which is easily imitated?

 Clearly.

And now we may fairly take him and place him by the side of the painter, for he is like him in two ways: first, inasmuch as his creations have an inferior degree of truth—in this, I say, he is like him; and he is also like him in being concerned with an inferior part of the soul; and therefore we shall be right in refusing to admit him into a well-ordered State, because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 20571-20576). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xviii] And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 20598-20601). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xix] And is there any greater or keener pleasure than that of sensual love? No, nor a madder. Whereas true love is a love of beauty and order—temperate and harmonious? Quite true, he said.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 17467-17469). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xx] And those who make pleasure their good are in equal perplexity; for they are compelled to admit that there are bad pleasures as well as good.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 19055-19056). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xxi] Socrates: Evils, Theodorus, can never pass away; for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good.  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 24420-24421). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xxii] For I maintain that the true life should neither seek for pleasures, nor, on the other hand, entirely avoid pains, but should embrace the middle state, which I just spoke of as gentle and benign,  Aristotle; Plato (2009-01-25). The Works of Plato & Aristotle – 35 Works (Kindle Locations 7530-7531). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

[xxiii] Kraut, R. 1992.  The defense of justice in Plato’s Republic. In: Kraut, R, ed. 1992. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge.  Cambridge University Press. Ch 10.

[xxiv] White, N.  2006.  Plato’s Concept of Goodness. In: Benson, H. H, ed.  2006. A Companion to Plato. Oxford.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  Ch 24.

[xxv]Seel, G. 2007. Is Plato’ Conception of the Form of the Good Contradictory? In: Cairns, D. Hermann, F-G.  Penner, T. Ed. 2007. Pursuing The Good:Ethics and Metaphysics in Plato’s Republic.   Edinburgh.  Edinburgh University Press Ltd.  Ch 8.

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