Analects of the Core: Plato on the idea of good

Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place… A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true.  At all events, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and with considerable effort, is the idea of good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything…

- Socrates, as quoted by Plato in The Republic (Book VII: 517, translated by Allan Bloom)

4 Comments

Bill posted on November 30, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Without context, this reads as rather bizarre. This seems a poetic, rather than a philosophic, account of Socrates. The language is imaginative, rather than specific. The evidence for contemplation would be in the loftiness of the ideas he aims to understand, though his conclusions do not derive from any apparent form of reasoning. If this were sent to me by a friend, I would, in all seriousness, suspect the influence of a drug of some kind, which allows for this sort of imaginative speculation without filtering it with some form of humility.

I am interested by what he says about “the idea of the good.” When Socrates says that the good is “the cause of all that is right and fair in everything,” I can appreciate that Socrates is calling for attention to “the good” and its role in “all that is right and fair,” because it allows us to imagine that “good”ness could exist with a permanency external to human affairs. However, to attribute it to an “idea” removes the responsibility from human beings themselves and their actions, since “good”ness is responsible for things “right and fair,” not us. I am working with the assumption that “all that is right and fair” implies a moral, rather than aesthetic, goodness. It is unsettling, certainly, to imagine that “good” is a construct of human beings.

John McCargar posted on December 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

This quote comes in Book VII after establishing the allegory of the cave; here, Socrates is trying to make more literal what he was allegorically referencing earlier. That is not to necessarily preclude the influence of drugs, but he does have a kind of reasoning insomuch that he is working from the perspective that the highest form of existence is the “idea” of a thing which is more pure than it can be found in “reality” as we understand it. For Socrates, and maybe by extension Plato, the chair with the most chair-like qualities doesn’t actually exist anywhere but in dialectic form. Likewise, nothing has goodness so good like “Good” in form.

Further, things can have qualities approximating this “good in form,” but again can never make manifest it. In our tangible reality, good will always be imperfect and heuristic. The good is “the cause” for all good things in the same that light “causes” vision; it is an antecedent condition necessary for the existence of approximate good, but is far from sufficient.

Socrates may well be removing from humanity the burden of constructing goodness from nothing. But he is placing an understanding of the concept on people wishing to conform to the good. In that sense you can reconcile both your moral dilemmas– there is goodness external human activity, but those wishing to be truly good will have to find a way to first understand and second conform to this dialectic form. This is no easy task.

Hope that helps clarify, or at least further inquiry.

I should remark that these opinions are mine and mine alone. I may be horribly incorrect in my interpretation.

- John

Bill posted on December 6, 2010 at 1:33 pm

John,

The “Platonic” form sounds like the anxiety of a perfectionist manifested as a philosophical ideal.

In order for the idea of the “Platonic” to make sense, then there must be something inherently imperfect about human beings which prevents them from achieving it, or else there would not be a separation at all between human beings and this ideal.

A chair is designed specifically for use by a person, so a “Platonic” chair would be relative to a person. If people are imperfect, and chairs are designed for use by people, then the chair must be imperfect, or at least have multiple manifestations, via Goldilocks and her Three Bears thereof.

I may be failing to distinguish the difference between the Platonic chair as “chair-like” instead of the “perfect chair” as I describe it. However, “chair-like” is qualitative, and I can’t think of a circumstance in which something qualitative isn’t considered subjectively.

Plato/Socarates’ idea of the Good starts with its ending point, that the Good “is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything,” instead of starting from something knowable, and then progressing to that point. The sequence is illogical, as the steps cannot be followed both ways, from beginning to end, and then end to beginning. That is not to say that I disagree with the sentiment in a poetic sense. Though, I would account for the capacity to do “Good” as a series of actions which improve with an increased awareness of how certain actions affect myself, other people, or any broader phenomena. These actions may or may not be in line with how I perceive them to be, and I have no way of knowing. For certain, I wouldn’t be able to find someone who agreed entirely with how I conceptualized it.

The desire for “Good” can be accounted for within many contexts, none of which are purely philosophical, and some, like avoiding guilt, stem from fear!

The most apparent parallel to this is religion, in which the supernatural being and the doctrines reinforce each other, without drawing on evidence that would be recognizable to a human being’s experience. However, once a supernatural being is believed to exist, much of the ways in which the world works seems to conform to the notion of its existence; and that, then, seems to be the way in which we reaffirm its existence.

Thoughts?
Bill

John McCargar posted on December 8, 2010 at 11:06 am

I’m inclined to agree with most of your criticisms– they are very Aristocratic in design. But, in the interest of defending what was once my philosophy of choice, I’ll endeavor to parse out some salvageable pieces from Platonic Forms.

In this example, anything which exists in the real world and is observable in some sense (thus can be experienced empirically by any means, including secondary evidence) has a dialectical parallel which is the perfect version of this.

There are many, many, many “chairs” in the world. Some are designed by people, some are just convenient stumps or cement blocks that are co-opted into chairs. But when we use the word “chair” (not referring to a specific chair) we invoke the dialectical form of that chair, which in its essence as an idea contains all the qualities of a chair perfectly manifested. As you correctly noted, this chair cannot exist in our world– only in form.

Similarly, there are various types of human beings of all shapes and sizes. But when I invoke “human being” (without reference to a specific human being) I am referring to the dialectical form of humanity– a person with all the qualities which constitute human beings in perfection; a human in form.

So, a human in form could use a chair in form, if we invoke the dialectical idea of a person sitting in a chair. but any actual human being sitting in an actual chair is, as you mentioned, imperfect.

Goodness is a little different, as it is a quality which can be ascribed to almost anything. People can be various degrees of good and bad, work can be good or bad, even chairs can be good or bad. The empirical notions of “good” vary by relation to what we are discussing, not all of which converge to a single concept of “goodness” as far as we can see. (Goodness in people being normative, but in chairs being functional, for example).

Socrates proposes that, since we have a kind of conceptual convergence for “chairs” when we invoke the concept without a real counterpart, we similarly have a convergence for “good” when not making reference to a specific quality of something. This good in form is then “the cause of all that is right and fair in everything” insomuch that it is the holistic idea which we appeal to when ascribing goodness to anything.

There is a similar logic involved in religion, I’m inclined to agree, and that may explain why Plato is a favored philosopher of the budding protestant. But, consider that Plato is referring to ideas, and while there is a small recursive problem with this, ideas can (according to the ideology) have a kind of potential existence prior to being expressed or known. Chairs, as an idea, existed before we had a word to express the concept. Similarly, goodness in form exists, even though we presently lack the dialectical or mental capacity to make sense of it. This is distinct from proposing the existence of any supernatural beings in an alternate dimension, though I can see how the two can be so related.

I would also suggest reading “Euthyphro” (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html), as Plato has very clear issues with invoking supernatural beings to justify a concept. For Plato, even the gods appeal to “piety” or “goodness” in form– the form is the highest mode of existence for all things.

- John

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