plato

The True and the Good

It has been a common assumption in the Western world since at least the time of Plato that that which is true is also necessarily that which is good. A basic premise of the Western philosophical and scientific projects, for example, has been the axiom that a greater understanding of man and of the world in which he lives lead inevitably to an increase in the quality of his life, whether individually or in communities. The search for truth, then, has been prompted by the belief that such truth would be for the ultimate good of human beings. This equation of truth and goodness persists as an essential aspect of the paradigm of Western thought. Yet, given the largely naturalistic framework which has emerged as the dominant mode of thought, there does not seem to be reason to believe that that which is good for man must be that which is true nor that that which is true is necessarily good for mankind.

Charles Darwin, writing during the emergence of our contemporary naturalistic framework in the nineteenth century, presents a curious case of the desire to cling to philosophical principles—especially moral principles—which seem ill-fitted to the incipient naturalistic framework to which he contributed a great deal in its development. In his Descent of Man, Darwin moves quickly—nearly imperceptibly—from a descriptive to a prescriptive mode of thinking and writing as he attempts to discuss the development of the sense of moral responsibility humans feel toward other humans. “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him,” he writes. As in this sentence, he goes on to waver several more times between ought and is as he simultaneously advocates for and believes himself to be describing the extension of sympathy to “all sentient beings.”

Such attempts to grasp at the equation of goodness and truth within a paradigm that excludes the necessity of this connection are, it should be added, hardly a relic of the early development of modern naturalism. One of the key aspects of the argumentation of so-called “New Atheist” figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is the assertion that religious faith and practice have a deleterious effect on individuals and societies. That “all religions are bad,” to use Dawkins’ blunt phrasing, does not inevitably lead one to believe that any or all of them are untrue unless one presupposes that the good and the true are always aligned.

It can hardly be the case, however, that goodness and truth always coincide within the frameworks of a universe that was not designed for the ultimate good of man and for man’s rational inquiry into that good. In a universe that is indifferent to mankind qua mankind and person qua person, it just as possible that what is true may be harmful for mankind and what is false may be of benefit to him. To return to the example of Dawkins’ pontification on the goodness and badness of religion, there is good evidence that religions in a general sense do in fact contribute positively to mankind, as in the development of the various cultural, philosophical, and literary traditions of the world. One could hardly deny the marked positive influence of Buddhist religion in the development of East Asian culture, for example. While this does nothing to prove the truth of Buddhist doctrine, it does provide an example of the ways in which the potentially false serves the role of the good for mankind.

If older frameworks are to be abandoned in favor of one that is purely naturalistic, the assumptions of the older frameworks must also be abandoned along with them. Among these assumptions is, of course, the assumption that goodness and truth are identical. It has been a key component of the Western perspective for more than 2000 years. A naturalist paradigm of thought, however, necessarily excludes it and must be willing to say that what is true may in fact be bad for mankind and what is good may in fact be false.

Aristotle and Plato on Virtue

The typical denizen of modernity sees in the notion of virtue a curious and antiquated notion that is, at best, a remnant of a prudish and stringent moral absolutism. Instead of virtues—perhaps most succinctly defined as personal characteristics that are good everywhere always for all—contemporary popular thought speaks of values— that is, personally-defined preferences that are almost certain to differ from one individual to another. The idea of virtue, however, plays a central role in the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, among other ancient and premodern philosophers. For both philosophers, virtue is essential both to the individual in his formation and in the attainment of his happiness as well as to the functioning of people collectively in societies. Given the significance of these philosophers in the development of Western thought, it is undoubtedly worthwhile to consider their thought on virtue and whether it has a place in the modern world.

First, it is necessary to define the term virtue, a term of Latin origins most frequently used to translate the Greek term ἀρετή (arete). The Greek term, however, does not, in its origins, possess the moral connotations that immediately come to one’s mind in response to the English word “virtue.” Rather, arete refers to any excellence in anything whatsoever. In The Republic, Plato, for example, is able to refer to “the virtue of dogs . . . [and] horses” nearly in the same breath as he refers to “justice” as “human virtue.” Similarly, in The Apology, Socrates refers to “the virtue of a judge” as the ability to determine whether things “are just or not” and the virtue “of an orator” as the ability “to speak the truth.” Of course, the universal moral virtues of prudence and honesty can easily be extrapolated from these virtues specific to certain vocations, but each remains singly the excellence pertinent to its domain.

Defining virtue as the excellence proper to human nature, then, Plato sees justice as its realization and end. Significantly, Plato applies this equation of virtue with justice to both individuals and societies. The premise of The Republic as a whole, after all, is Socrates’s notion that “perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely” so that it is profitable in a discussion of the nature of justice to “first . . . investigate what justice is like in cities” and “then . . . consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler.” The individual and his society are, then, alike in that their excellence, or virtue, must tend toward justice. A just society must, in fact, according to Plato, consist of virtuous individuals.

Why it should be so that justice and virtue are necessary to individuals and societies leads to the axioms inherent in Plato’s ethics. Ultimately, Plato begins with the basic assumption that all humans have a concern for their own self-interest and a desire for happiness. Ironically, it is one of Socrates’s interlocutors, Thrasymachus, who introduces this assumption into the discussion in The Republic. Thrasymachus is the first to use the word εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia), a Greek word referring to a state of happiness or well-being. Perhaps more ironically, Thrasymachus introduces this key term in the midst of his defense of an ethic of “might makes right,” in which he claims “those who are ruled do what is advantageous for him who is stronger, and they make him whom they serve happy but themselves not at all.” It is only after this point—beginning with his responses to Thrasymachus but continuing throughout the rest of the book—that Socrates takes up the language of happiness. It can perhaps be inferred from this that Plato takes up and builds upon this concern as a foundation because it is one that is so basic as to be common both to those of his own position and, simultaneously, to those quite different modes of thought. It is the common basis upon which he is able to build his particular philosophical vision.

While Aristotle departs from or builds upon Plato in a number of ways, the student remains committed to his teacher’s assertion of an inherent link between virtue and happiness. Like Plato, Aristotle too holds happiness to be the end toward which human activity naturally aims and that virtue is the means by which this end is achieved. “None of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue,” he writes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, “those who are blessed live out their lives engaged . . . in these activities.” Such an individual, he continues, “will be such [that is, a happy person] throughout his life.” Virtue, then, is, according to Aristotle, the means to human happiness for the individual.

Aristotle’s thought also resembles that of Plato in his insistence on a link between virtue and the well-functioning society as well. According to Aristotle, “the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.” It is the case, therefore, he goes on, that his inquiry into the best sort of life is in fact “a sort of political inquiry.” One aspect of Aristotle’s attempts to define virtue, in fact, is the need for laws that will help “to make the citizens good” and thereby form a just society. Virtue, then, is a social as much as it is a personal necessity according to the thought of Aristotle. And, just as it is productive of happiness for the person, it is productive of the well-functioning society.

If, as Aristotle and Plato hold, virtue is the means by which to attain personal happiness and social harmony, it is undoubtedly worth considering whether overlooking this link between virtue and well-being is a significant factor contributing to our contemporary troubles. The link between the abandonment of the belief in the concept of a universal good in human behavior and the lack of fulfillment and social cohesion among denizens of modernity may indeed be a causative one. If Plato and Aristotle are correct in their assessments, we may in fact have created unhappiness for ourselves.

The problem of modernity has been variously identified as the alienation of the working class, according to Marxist philosophy, to, in Freudian thought, the development of neuroses and other mental illnesses as a result of the failure to adequately sublimate primitive instinct to the demands of civilization. And the solutions proposed have been as various, including the need for a reformation of the economic and social order to the need to explore and repair the unconscious of the individual. Perhaps, however, it is worthwhile for moderns to consider that the apparent ethos of the modern world—including especially the relativity of the modern world and the notion of radical individualist self-determination—are the primary sources of modern malaise. And it may be necessary to look to the thought of earlier periods for the wisdom it can impart to guide us toward a happier, more complete life both singly and collectively.