Form of the Good

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Plato describes "The Form of the Good", or more literally "the idea of the good" (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα, agathou), in his dialogue the Republic (508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. The Sun is described in a simile as the child or offspring (ἔκγονος ekgonos) of the Form of the Good (508c-509a), in that, like the sun which makes physical objects visible and generates life on earth, the Good makes all other Forms intelligible, and in some sense provides being to all other Forms, though the Good itself exceeds being.[1] It is an absolute measure of justice. Plato also explains his theory of justice in the Republic, in relation to his conception of a city in speech, both of which necessitate rule of the rational mind; in other words, philosopher-kings, who can grasp the Form of the Good.

Plato writes that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge, although it is not knowledge itself, and from the Good, things that are just, gain their usefulness and value. Humans are compelled to pursue the good, but no one can hope to do this successfully without philosophical reasoning. According to Plato, true knowledge is conversant, not about those material objects and imperfect intelligences which we meet within our daily interactions with all mankind, but rather it investigates the nature of those purer and more perfect patterns which are the models after which all created beings are formed. Plato supposes these perfect types to exist from all eternity and calls them the Forms or Ideas.[2] As these Forms cannot be perceived by human senses, whatever knowledge we attain of the Forms must be seen through the mind's eye (cf. Parmenides 132a), while ideas derived from the concrete world of flux are ultimately unsatisfactory and uncertain (see the Theaetetus). He maintains that degree of skepticism which denies all permanent authority to the evidence of sense. In essence, Plato suggests that justice, truth, equality, beauty, and many others ultimately derive from the Form of the Good.

The Form of the Good has been described as one of the more cryptic doctrines[3] in Plato's metaphysics and epistemology and there is no scholarly consensus as to its meaning in the abstract or how it is supposed to exercise its influence in practice. In antiquity it was already a byword for obscurity. Amphis, a comic playwright of Athens, has one of his characters say: "And as for the good that you are likely to get on her account, I know no more about it, master, than I do of the good of Plato."[4] There is an ancient anecdotal tradition that Plato gave a public lecture entitled "On the Good" which so confused the audience that most walked out.[5] Aristotle discusses the Forms of Good in critical terms several times in both of his major surviving ethical works, the Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics.[6]

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  1. ^ "You'll be willing to say, I think, that the sun not only provides visible things with the power to be seen but also with coming to be, growth, and nourishment, although it is not itself coming to be."—"How could it be?"—"Therefore, you should also say that not only do the objects of knowledge owe their being known to the good, but their being is also due to it, although the good is not being, but superior to it in rank and power". Republic 509b, translation G.M.A. Grube.
  2. ^ "Idea" from the Greek ἰδέα, often transliterated in the past but now typically translated as "character". The archaic sense must be distinguished from the modern sense meaning "thought". Cf. Russell: "It must not be supposed that 'ideas', in his sense, exist in minds, though they may be apprehended by minds.... The word 'idea' has acquired, in the course of time, many associations which are quite misleading when applied to Plato's 'ideas'. (The Problems of Philosophy, chapter 9).
  3. ^ Georgios Anagnostopoulos (ed.), Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian Studies: Essays in Honor of Gerasimos Santas, Springer, 2011, p. xxviii: "Plato's notoriously cryptic account of the Form of the Good".
  4. ^ Diogenes Laertius 3.27
  5. ^ Aristoxenus, Harmonics 30–31; see A. S. Riginos, Platonica (1976), pp. 124 ff., for further testimony.
  6. ^ See NE I.6