Victor Nuovo: Defining the Good itself
11th in a series
The theme of my last four essays has been Good and Evil, but so far I have failed to define these words. I have taken for granted that my readers will know what I mean when I use them, as though it were common knowledge. But to be honest, I doubt that this is so. Not because of any fault in your intelligence or in mine, but on account of the difficulty of the topic. Good and Evil are very hard to understand. And yet I don’t believe that life can have meaning without this understanding.
If we could bring Socrates into the conversation, he would observe that our problem is not that we can’t identify good and evil actions, but that we haven’t a clear idea of what makes them good and evil. Therefore we don’t really know what we’re saying when, for example, we condemn Putin’s cruel war against Ukraine, his lying, his nihilistic hubris, and we praise President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine for their courageous resistance; and we call the former evil, and the latter good.
But we must mean what we say, and know what we mean. Life does not derive its meaning from mere slogans, no matter the righteous passion that accompanies them. We must know what we mean, and mean what we say.
So, where do we go from here? Back to Plato, Socrates’s greatest pupil, and to Plato’s “Republic,” his greatest work, and to its central idea, the Good itself. But I must begin with caution in the words of the great Plato scholar Raphael Demos (1892–1968): “Plato’s mind is inclined to paradox … and in his treatment of the Good this propensity receives full play. The Good is beyond truth; it is also the highest truth. It is an indefinable notion; yet it is exemplified by the notions of Truth, Beauty, and Measure. It is a being, and is also beyond being. It is present in all things; and it haunts them as an ideal never to be attained.”
The theme of the Plato’s “Republic” is justice: what is it and whether it is better to live justly than unjustly. Justice is a virtue or moral excellence, and because it applies both to individuals and civil societies, Socrates, who is leading the inquiry, chooses to consider how a civil society is just; for it is larger and easier to observe. This leads to a discussion of who should rule, and how they should be educated. These select persons were called “Guardians.” Plato did not believe that everyone was fit to be a Guardian; he supposed that there was a certain class of individuals, male and female, who were born fit to rule. They should be sought out and properly trained and educated. The substance of their education consists of a knowledge of values.
To explain all this, Plato presented a parable, the famous allegory of the cave. Imagine that all mankind exist as prisoners in a cave. The inmost wall of the cave is flat like a great screen, and everyone is chained so that they can only look at the screen. Behind the prisoners are puppet-like figures that move back and forth on a stage running parallel to the screen, and behind them a great fire, so that the images and shadows of the figures are cast upon the wall of the cave. The prisoners believe that the images are reality, the things themselves.
Now imagine what would happen if the prisoners were unchained and allowed to turn around? First they would see the moving objects and the fire that illuminates them, and some of them would recognize that what they took for reality was really only a display of shadows and images on a wall.
Yet the light of the fire dazzles their eyes even as it enlightens: It is painful, to discover truth. Mankind has grown accustomed to shadows, has become resistant to change. But not all. These have discovered their freedom, and the truth beckons them to what is outside the cave.
They discover that beyond the fire there is an even greater light shining in through the mouth of the cave. It is dazzling, it too beckons, and draws them onward and upward. There is a path that leads from where they were seated, and it ascends to that greater light beyond. That greater light radiates from the Sun, which is the visible image or representation of the Good itself.
The Good itself is greater than being itself; it is the source of being; it is the source of all value in existence; it is the light that enlightens the mind; it is the guarantor of truth.
Plato calls those who make this intellectual journey Philosophers. And they, male and female, are those who are fit to rule; only then would a city be just. Philosophers must become kings.
But we must recall, that this is all an allegory. The city stands for every individual. Recall, Socrates’s purpose was to prove that only the just life is worth living. The city is a metaphor for the individual; we must learn to rule ourselves. The Good itself is the source of all value in life for every individual, alone or in society. And like prisoners in the cave of existence, we must rise and turn around and proceed to what is greatest and best. The Good itself is the ground of our existence, the source of every value in life.
And what of evil? What is it? Plato dismissed it as unworthy of a definition. In fact, is it indefinable, just because it is the mere negation of Good, the negation of all value. It is exemplified by lies, ugliness, depravity, mismeasure. Vladimir Putin along with his friend Donald Trump embody it perfectly; unfortunately, they are not alone. Their number is legion. There is nothing more to say: read Dante’s “Inferno” and hope for the best.
What can I or any other person do in the face of seemingly intractable problems?
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