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For most people today, being a good person simply means following a set of commonly agreed upon moral guidelines. However, those guidelines have increasingly been getting blurred and convoluted from culture to culture and generation to generation. The question remains whether the definition of morality really can be universal, and whether this definition can be the only prerequisite for goodness. As it is in modern times, goodness, or the act of being a good person, was a major philosophical question in ancient Greece. Some of the world’s most famous philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, both discussed at length this concept of goodness as well as pondered the correct way to be a good person, what that meant, and why it was important to live that way. While both authors wrote books centered around other concepts (The Republic by Plato focuses on justice and The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle primarily deals with happiness), “the good” underlies the motivations to pursue the questions of their main themes, such as being the reason to seek justice in The Republic, is the center of their metaphors, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, and is the solution to several of the questions they pose, like in Aristotle’s studies of virtue and happiness. While being very different books with very different perspectives, both Plato and Aristotle, in The Republic and The Nicomachean Ethics respectively, address goodness as something positive to strive for and attribute it to leading to a better, more fulfilling life. Plato sees good as a universal concept that acts as a being with the same powers as God and causes knowledge, and believes it is possible to find through special education, while Aristotle, in his work, writes a more convincing argument relating goodness to being happy and virtuous, and, more realistically, cites imitation of virtue as the way to achieve it.
In The Republic, Plato describes the good in a way that resembles God, because of his depiction of good as a being that is the creator and ultimate giver of knowledge to humans. He begins his discussion on goodness because it is integral to his investigation into justice and the perfect city, as the philosopher kings that Plato decides are the best choices to run the Republic are set apart by the fact that they have reached goodness (Plato VII.214). Plato defines goodness as “the very cause of knowledge and of truth,” and, “the chief objective in the pursuit of knowledge” (Plato VI.198). He also claims that the good “imbues the objects of knowledge with truth and confers upon the knower the power to know” (Plato VI.198). In this way, the good is depicted as an all-powerful God, because He is the creator of knowledge itself and chooses who is allowed to discover truth and when. Without the good, one cannot find truth on their own, but instead must solely depend on and pursue the good. The whole reason to get an education and gain knowledge is not for the truth itself, but to be given the ability to discern truth by God, the good. Plato helps the reader to understand this concept of goodness by using a metaphor of the sun: he relates the ability of the sun to allow for vision to the ability of the good to allow for reason (VI.197). Just as vision would be rendered useless without the light of the sun, so reason would be ineffective without the good, or God, allowing people to use reason to effectively solve problems. In this way, the sun is the version of the good of the material world, and the good plays the role of the sun in the intelligible world. This explains why, sometimes, God is inaccurately depicted as the sun, because their similarities make way for comparison when people unintentionally blur the line between the physical and intellectual. According to Plato, goodness is also “the source of happiness” (II.75). A bad man cannot be happy, but instead must obtain goodness first, and happiness will then follow. This could also be translated, if the good is God, to mean that finding Him is the source of happiness, and that people who do not know God may think they are happy, but do not actually know what true happiness feels like. Plato’s views on the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing goodness are outlined in his metaphor of the cave. In this metaphor, the sun again represents the good, or God, and people live in a dark cave with no knowledge of the sun, trapped by their ignorance of God. When one of the people leaves the cave and experiences the sun for the first time, they have a new view of reality and try to return to the cave to bring each of the other people out (Plato VII.209). In this situation and in life, it is beneficial to find goodness and see the truth, which is why the escapees were eager to show everyone else in the cave what they were missing. However, from the prisoners’ point of view, ignorance is bliss, and they have no reason to leave the darkness that they are used to. They may even feel that it would be harmful to leave the familiar to seek goodness. So, in reality, there are no disadvantages to reaching goodness, since it will lead to all the best things in life, such as happiness and wisdom, but instead, the disadvantages exist only in certain perspectives. This may be like atheists who think they know the truth and see no benefit to seeking God, because from their perspective, they have no reason to. However, pursuing goodness is not only what is best for oneself, but it also positively affects others. If rulers are good, then they have wisdom and know truth, and they are able to properly rule a city and its people, so that everything under the good ruler thrives. Good people inspire others to be good, as the people who escaped the cave did, so that goodness can spread. This can be seen in Christians who feel strongly about spreading knowledge of God because they want others to benefit from the happiness and wisdom that they benefited from in finding Him. Plato’s definition of good cannot be found in any real person, as everyone needs laws to guide their actions and behaviors, and even Jesus needed the commandments. On the other hand, Plato equates evil with injustice, that is, all of the vices combined. An example of an evil person in the mind of Plato would be a fictional villain, like Voldemort, who kills without hesitation or reason and acts based on extremes. However, just as with goodness, it is difficult to pinpoint a truly evil person, as many bad people believe they are doing what is just. To become what Plato qualifies as a good person, or to “escape the cave,” education is the most important step to take. Education is what brings people out of the metaphorical cave and into the light, which is truth and God (Plato VII.214). However, not all education will place one on the right track toward goodness. After several lengthy discussions in which Socrates and his fellow interlocutors found answers and subsequently disqualified them, they eventually came to the conclusion that the best types of education are the study of calculations and geometry, the study of perfect harmonies, and, most importantly, the study of the dialectic. This education works best when given to the young and “must not be compulsory” (Plato VII.230). If these topics, except for the dialectic, are studied as a child, one will grow into a good adult who does not need laws or rules because he can govern himself well. If one is exceptionally good at the dialectic, he is especially good and is a candidate for one of Plato’s philosopher kings. In the end, Plato concludes that someone who is good, or knows God, and is educated in philosophy will lead the best life with the most happiness, and will even have success in the afterlife.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle equates goodness with happiness. Because his purpose in the book is to find a way to achieve happiness, goodness is weaved throughout many of the discussions. From the beginning of the novel, he claims that “the good has been rightly defined as ‘that at which all things aim’” (Aristotle I.i). In other words, everything that everyone does has the same end goal: happiness. In addition to not depending on others, this is what Aristotle deems as the definition of “self-sufficient”, and he claims that, “it is a generally accepted view that the perfect good is self-sufficient” (I.vii). This means that goodness is not needed to achieve anything more; it is what everything strives to achieve. There is no goal that goodness leads to, and it is because happiness qualifies as this that he dubs it the supreme good. No one wants to be happy for the sake of something else, but instead everyone pursues happiness solely because it will make them happy. Other goals such as honor, intelligence, and wealth, are really just means of getting to the ultimate goal of happiness. Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s claim of one universal good, so to keep up with metaphor, Aristotle did not believe that all good stems from one all-knowing, all-powerful God. He instead believed that good could also come from inside oneself, and portrays different kinds and categories of goodness (Aristotle I.vi). If goodness is happiness, Aristotle does not need to outline the advantages of this way of life, as people naturally want to be happy. If he is giving away the secret to happiness, people are going to try everything he lists. As with Plato’s concept of goodness, there are not real disadvantages to living a good, happy, virtuous life, but there can be from other perspectives. For example, temperance is an important factor in such a life, but some people enjoy their excesses of pleasure and wealth and would not want to relinquish that. Again, happiness is an obvious benefit to one pursuing the good, and to achieve it, they must become virtuous, so their character is largely improved both morally and emotionally in the pursuit of goodness. Not only does this benefit the one person, but it affects those around them. Aristotle claims, “Only the friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect” (VIII.iii). So, goodness must be reached in not just one, but both friends, to attain a complete form of friendship, which is necessary for a happy life. Goodness, as described by Aristotle, can be found, for example, in someone who embodies all the virtues and contemplates life. If he were alive in the 20th century, he may have viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as a good person, because of his wisdom and justice in the civil rights movement and his temperance and courage in his protests. Aristotle views evil as someone who commits crimes or has vices that do not even have a mean, such as murder or malice, where “it is not the excess or deficiency of them that is evil,” but instead, “in their case, then, it is impossible to act rightly; one is always wrong” (II.vi). Adolf Hitler fits this description, where genocide and discrimination do not have means. Aristotle uses his entire book to outline the way to achieve goodness and be happy. The primary way he gives to begin this pursuit is to become both an intellectually and morally virtuous person. First, Aristotle asserts, “Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth chiefly to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience” (II.i). So, intellectual virtue must simply be taught, unlike moral virtue, which, according to Aristotle, can be acquired in a few different steps. The first and most important method is by habituation, and without habituation, there is no way to become truly virtuous. This means that one must constantly, intentionally, behave morally and virtuously in order to become a good and happy person. A simple way to start acting this way is to follow the laws of a good constitution, for Aristotle explains, “Legislators make their citizens good by habituation; this is the intention of every legislator” (II.i). By following the laws that restrict people from engaging in evil activities, one will begin to be naturally inclined to only participate in moral activities and to shy away from evil. Virtue can also be pursued through acting only on the mean that falls between vices, that is, finding a moderate way to act or feel that is neither excessive nor deficient (Aristotle II.vi). Someone is following this “doctrine of the mean” when they act with courage, temperance, or patience, for example, instead of cowardice, licentiousness, or irascibility (Aristotle II.vii). These will also come easily with habit. Once virtue is a habit, one also needs to have friends to be truly happy. However, not just any friends, but only perfect friendships instead of friendships for utility or pleasure, will do (Aristotle VIII.iii). This kind of friendship can only be formed between two virtuous people who wish the best for each other, which is why it must be the second step after attaining virtue. Solitude is not beneficial for the good person, because then, they will have no one to direct their goodness toward. Aristotle’s last step to live a happy life is to live a life of contemplation, since happiness is contemplation. This is because it is the best activity one can take part in and because it can take place for a prolonged period of time, unlike most other activities. Contemplation is also the only self-sufficient action, which is a requirement for something truly good, because it is the goal in itself and it requires no one and nothing else to happen (Aristotle X.vii). In conclusion, as long as one leads a virtuous, contemplative life among true and virtuous friends, they will be a good, and consequently happy, person.
Although Aristotle was a student of Plato’s, they disagreed on a few fundamental concepts. Their primary disagreement addressed in The Nicomachean Ethics was Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s theory of a universal good. Instead, Aristotle believed that different things could be good in different ways, as opposed to one good from which all truth stems. This theory has more support than Plato’s theory, as good can come in various forms, such as how both qualities and beings can be described as good. Plato also believed that laws would be unnecessary if people were good and were given the right education, but Aristotle claimed that laws were what enabled people to get into the habit of goodness. The modern world agrees with Aristotle on this point, as no existing country is without rules or laws. While Aristotle highlighted their disagreements, he and Plato both placed value on the importance of virtues in the pursuit of goodness. Virtue is what ties their definitions of goodness to those of the modern world. Most people believe a good person is to be wise, courageous, temperate, and, most of all, just, just as Plato and Aristotle wrote. It is the path to get there that varies among theories, and Plato’s path poses a few questions. If the good is God and the good is the goal of knowledge and the controller of truth, why should we seek out truth? If we were just to seek out God and let him decide whether we can understand the truth of the world or not, there would be no purpose to philosophy. In fact, philosophy would be the opposite of good, because philosophy’s goal is knowledge and truth itself, when apparently we should primarily be aiming for goodness. In fact, knowledge would be irrelevant if we had already found God. This contradicts Plato’s conclusion of The Republic that philosophy is the best way to succeed in the afterlife. Secondly, the strict rules of the education system that Plato proposed in order to reach goodness are far more difficult to enact in the real world, especially when compared to Aristotle’s steps to happiness. Aristotle’s definition of goodness is also a more accurate description of what most people believe to be true. So, Aristotle’s method of law-abiding and imitating are realistic steps that people can take today to begin their journey toward goodness, described by Aristotle most accurately as virtue and happiness.
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