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6.6: The Form of the Good

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    See 504a-505b. It has been clear from passages such as 484c-d and 500b-501b that, in Socrates’ opinion, nothing is more practical for ruling a city than knowing the forms. His thought is basically this: to do it well, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Just as it would be ridiculous for someone who has never seen a giraffe to attempt to paint the image of a giraffe, it is ridiculous for someone to attempt to rule a city who has never contemplated the relevant forms. What forms are these? Presumably not straightforward things like the form of being three in number; for while it is well worth knowing what things are and what things are not three in number, common opinion with respect to three-ness isn’t going to lead anyone astray. But things like the form of justice are another matter entirely. Common opinions about justice can be very misleading. And then there is the form of the good. In positing a form of the good, most valuable of all things to understand and yet most easily misunderstood, Socrates is suggesting that there is an essential nature that all things of value have in common. Various things may be variously good in various respects, but they are all variously the same one thing: good. To come to know the form of the good is to achieve wisdom.

    • Do you think there is such a thing as the form of the good? If so, can you explain its nature? Socrates doesn’t think he can give a direct account of it. Instead, he will try to describe it through analogies. Can you do any better?

    • Is everything that is graspable by the mind capable of being defined? (Complex things can often be broken down and explained in terms of simpler things. But is everything like this? Is anything so basic that, though it may be indicated, it cannot be explained?)

    • Aristotle is of the opinion that what it is to be good is not one thing, a single form, but many things, somewhat loosely grouped together under the word “good.” (See Nicomachean Ethics I.6.1096a23-28Eudemian Ethics I.8.1217b26-34, and Topics I.15.107a3-11.) The chief reason he gives for holding this view is that the many things we call “good” – Fido the dog, God, justice, a line of verse, carrots, a flower arrangement, Henry being at the starting line, Henry being over the finish line, and so on – are just too different in kind for the term “good” to mean the same thing when applied to each of them. Suppose someone were to raise this objection, basically that the word “good” is ambiguous. How might Socrates reply?

    This page titled 6.6: The Form of the Good is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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