A reflection on Plato’s Protagoras
Throughout my previous musing, I have privileged the idea that contemplation and learning are the most positive things in life. However, it is important to note that this opinion is not the only, and not even the most popular, amongst the majority of humanity. As such I think it is due time to examine the idea of the good in the abstract, and attempt to deduce from its nature the way in which we can conduct our lives to attain the best possible outcome.
The most commonly held view, both in ancient times and modern utilitarian and hedonistic philosophies, is that pleasure is equitable to goodness. In this paradigm, the good life is the pleasurable life. However, as I have previously mentioned (see on Pleasure), a lifetime spent in the pursuit of pleasure is the life of an addict. Having an insatiable hunger cannot be considered goodness. Furthermore, if we accept that a short life free of anguish is better than a long life full of potential sorrow, then taking this argument to its logical conclusion the best experience would be to die immediately after birth from an opioid overdose – maximising your life to pleasure ratio.
The next most commonly held view is that the good is the same as power. In this model to aspire to a position of command or social status could be seen as the best forms of life available to humankind. However, this presupposes that a situation of absolute material power allows for a person to attain supreme good, for themselves and for others. If a person has supremacy but wields it incorrectly, then they can do great harm to themselves and others. Furthermore, if a person wrongly coverts power and deprives their opponents of their liberty, health or lives in its pursuit, then that person not only commits wrongs to others but will live in fear of the same thing occurring to them – even the most secure tyrant is reliant on their bodyguard. In this sense, power is neither good nor bad but is a tool that can be used well or poorly.
The platonic ideal to overcome these abortive definitions was to think of contemplation as the good. The belief was that engaging in deep thought was a pure pleasure, without the similar destructive effects on the body and mind, and that the pursuit of knowledge would temper those in power and assist them in using their authority without fear of destroying themselves through its misuse. However, this definition begs the question, can we ever have a complete understanding? Furthermore, if our knowledge is incomplete, then can our wrong ideas be equally dangerous to us as unrestrained desires or misused power? The only way to refute this sceptical position is to accept the corpus of knowledge handed down to us as infallible.
To discard these three ancient definitions of good and to defend against sceptical critique is to abandon the idea of intellectual growth. We can adopt the familiar refrain, although less frequent with the proportionate drop in religiosity in western cultures, that goodness is a trait which is drawn from following the customs and laws – divine and secular – which compose the fabric of society. With this injunction I posit two counterpoints. Firstly, if we accept our individual paradigm as the path to the good, then we have to admit that anyone beyond that paradigm as damned, heretics beyond salvation – worldly or godly. Secondly, I suggest that any form of commandment can, at best, only prevent the bad – never achieve the good. As a negative restraint, the codified traditions of our ancestors punish those who transgress the normative bounds of suitability, but if goodness has anything to do with virtue it must be done freely, for a good decision made without good intent is not virtuous.
If we reject the idolatry of custom and law the lurking shadow of scepticism once again raises its head. What if the concept of the ‘good’ is also nothing more than an idol which we use to justify our actions, the pursuit of which gives meanings to what is otherwise meaningless existence? To counter this rather acidic position there are two options available to us. The first is that we can accept the premise in concept and then live our lives ignoring the pessimistic reality, ‘creating’ our own meaning as the sands of time continue to trickle lower – what I would argue is intellectual suicide. The other is to continue in the pursuit of truth, even if it is unattainable or a non-existent concept. If we fail, we should take heart in the boldness of the endeavour.
Guido Reni, Aurora, 1613–14