Book 01
Chapter 06
Our debate with Plato and his followers.

We should probably talk about what it means for something to be good universally-speaking. But I have to say, this is going to be tough since this notion of the Forms has been introduced by the Platonists, who are our friends. Still, we are philosophers, and still we have to seek truth, even if it means tearing down the arguments of our friends.

Now the people that bring these Forms into the picture did not also put forth Ideas of classes that have inside of them notions of "comes before" and "comes after" (and this is the reason why they do not say that there is any single Idea that has inside of it all the numbers). But this term 'good' gets used in the category of substance and in that of quality and in that of relation. Further, what exists on its own (substance) naturally comes before, and any relations between things that exist come after. So, because we use the term "good" in so many different ways and yet there are no Ideas we can use to cover things which come before or after -- because both these things are so, we cannot agree there is some one common Idea that can cover all these goods. It just does not work.

What's more, since the term "good" has as many different senses as the term "being", clearly we cannot also have it be one single thing that is universally present inside of all the many different things and also mean something different when we say each of the things is good. No, if it could be the case that there was just one single good that was inside of all the other things, and that is the reason why we call them good, then we would always mean the same thing when we said "that is good"; we would use the term "good" in the same sense where ever we pointed to something and said it was good. But that is not the case! And it cannot be the case, and from that we know there is not just one single good that is inside of everything.

Here is another argument: Each science studies various things. These various things come under one Idea (e.g. for the science of medicine it is health and for strategy it is victory). OK, that is fine. But from this it would follow that there should exist some one science that studies each and every thing that is good, a science of the Good, but no such science exists. And why not? What can we think to be the reason, except that it is because it is not even possible.

And one could ask the question, what are they talking about when they say "a thing itself"? If we say "man himself" and some particular man, then when we use the word "man" we mean the same thing, there is no difference there. Well, OK, but from that we would then also say that "good itself" and any particular thing that is good are not different from each other insofar as they are good. Yet from this, we get that "good itself" is no better than any particular thing that is good, even though "good itself" is supposed to be eternal. How can it be that lasting forever does not make something a better thing? That does not make sense. But that is what one gets from this, since some thing that is white is no more or less white than "white itself" even if the particular white thing is gone in a day (while "white itself" is eternal). (On a side note, the Pythagoreans seem to have a better theory than the Platonists about these things. The Pythagoreans put the One in the column of good things; and even Speusippus (Plato's nephew and the person that took over his school) seems to have followed them rather than Plato.)

Someone may object to our arguments by saying the following: When the Platonists are talking about goods, they do not mean anything and everything the average person does. When we say something is "good" we may mean two different things: (1) the thing is good by itself and (2) the thing is good because it is good for something else. Now perhaps, the Platonists are only talking about the first kind (things good in themselves) when they say that good things all have the Form of some one single Idea of the Good. Well, OK, but what sorts of things would we call good by themselves? We might guess that it is those things that we will always want, no matter what. What I mean here is things like intelligence, sight, certain pleasures, and honors. Yet here again, all these can be thought of as good because we can do something with them. But it does not make sense to say something is good by itself when the reason why you want it is so that you can do something with it. Why would a blind man want to be able to see if there was nothing at all to look at? So sight and the others are not really good by themselves, they only seem to be. Maybe the Platonists think that there is not anything besides the Idea of the Good that is good by itself. In that case there will not be anything that has the Form of the Good; there is no actual thing that is good in and of itself, and so the Form is empty.

Again, if those things that we called out as good in themselves are really good in themselves, then what that means will be the same thing in each of the cases. When we say snow is white and some rock is white, we mean the same thing when we use the word "white". But when we talk about honor and wisdom and pleasure as being good, we do not mean the same thing. They are good in different ways, and if someone asked us how each is good, we would give a different answer for each. But if someone asked us how each thing is white, we would always give the same answer. So the good is not some common element in things that comes under one Idea.

Fine, if the good is not that, then just what do we mean by "the good"? Well, it is surely not like the case where things just so happen to have the same name. There is something to the word "good" we have to figure out about.

Let's try this: sight is in the body in the same way that reason is in the soul. ...No, this is not so easy. This type of thing is for some other branch of philosophy, and it is too far outside of Ethics for us to go on with it as part of our study here.

Again, about the Idea of the Good: even if there is some one good that we can find to be in everything that we say is good and also it can exist by itself, clearly this is something that is too far beyond to be got at by people. But what we are trying to do here is talk about things people are able to get at. We are talking about things people can understand and relate to like health or wealth.

OK, now, we can imagine one of the Platonists countering us by saying: Still it is better to understand our thinking because once you understand it, you will see the pattern behind all that is good, the pattern that all good things match up with. Once you have this then you can figure out what is really good for you and then get it.

Well, that seems reasonable, except it also seems to clash with how science really works. All sciences have something that they try to get knowledge of. But none of these deal with this Idea of the Good that the Platonists use. It is hard to believe that this thing, if it really would help with science, should be ignored by all the scientists, and yet they are still able to figure things out. It is also hard to see how a craftsman like a weaver or a carpenter will get any help in their work by knowing about this "good itself" or how such a thing is going to make someone a better doctor or better general. A doctor does not even study health like this (in the abstract) but the health of humans, or the health of some particular person (doctors care for individuals and not abstractions).

Anyhow, this is enough of these topics. Let us move on.


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