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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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THE IDEA OF THE GOOD (502d-509c)

Socrates returns to the education of the philosopher kings. In Books II and III he outlined the basic education for all future guardians. In the remainder of this book and in Book VII he outlines the program of higher education for future kings. And he reveals what type of wisdom true rulers must have and love.

Adeimantus ventures to speculate that the philosophers' knowledge is gained from studying the principles of justice and the other virtues. To his surprise, Socrates disagrees. The greatest study is the idea of the good. Without an understanding of what is good, other subjects are worthless. Under the idea of the good all other ideas, including justice, are subsumed. What does this mean? Socrates is elaborating on the Greek notion that the greatest knowledge must be the knowledge of the ultimate values toward which all human life aims. The highest good for mankind is the most important object of knowledge and the source of all knowledge. Truth, beauty, and justice, for example, are only several of the ideas that comprise the most comprehensive study of all-the idea of the good, the highest form in the Theory of Forms.

Socrates says that most people believe that pleasure is the greatest good. But are not some pleasures bad? The good cannot be pleasure because to say that a thing is both good and bad is contradictory. The "finer spirits," on the other hand, claim that knowledge is the good. But this definition is circular because, when pressed to explain, the same people say that the good is knowledge and so no insight is gained. Could the good be a grand combination of pleasure and knowledge? At the moment, Socrates finds it easier to state what the good is not than to discover what it is.



Socrates admits that he has no adequate knowledge of the good. Glaucon nevertheless insists that Socrates attempt an account of it. Socrates offers a compromise: He will present an account of "the offspring of the good," the sun.

The Analogy of the Sun is Socrates' image for explaining the highest form of knowledge. He introduces his image by referring to particulars and universals. Particulars are the many things that can be seen with the eye, but not thought; universals can be thought but not seen. For instance, you can see a beautiful sunset-it is a particular-but you can understand beauty-a universal quality of sunsets and countless other particulars-only with the mind.

Light is what makes things visible and the best source of light is the sun. The sun is not identical with visible things, but it is the cause of vision itself. Likewise, the good is not identical to the objects of knowledge, but it is the source of knowledge. To see requires sun, to know requires reason. Thus, the idea of good is to reasoning as the sun is to seeing. As Socrates says, the idea of the good gives "truth to the objects of knowledge and the power of knowing to the knower."

Just as the sun provides the source of growth and nurture to living things, so the idea of the good provides the very existence and essence of the objects of knowledge. Nevertheless, the idea of the good is not identical to the essence it imparts; it "transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power."

Glaucon complains that Socrates is overstating his case. What he means is that he doesn't understand what Socrates is talking about. The idea of the good is an elusive notion, as Socrates earlier warned. But, in yet another image, Socrates will attempt to explain the idea of the good, the highest form of knowledge.

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The Republic by Plato - Barron's Booknotes
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