Knowledge Of Good In Plato's The Republic

970 words - 4 pages

An Intellectual Knowledge of Good in Plato’s Republic

Socrates might be a wise philosopher but one of his ideas strikes me as particularly naive. In the allegory of the cave, he tells Glaucon that "in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort [·] and that this is the power upon which he [the intellectual] would act rationally" (517b-c). In other words, he seems to be implying that knowledge of goodness is a sufficient condition for being good. A person who has seen what goodness is will henceforth act in a way that is good. Is this belief justified? For instance, we sometimes do things that we know are not good but we do them nonetheless and feel guilty after that. If, as such cases imply, knowledge of goodness is not a sufficient condition for being good, then Plato's dream of a utopia ruled by philosopher-kings could well be a nightmare. The philosophers who are supposed to have attained the "idea of good" (and are thus privileged to hold the citizens together "by persuasion and necessity" [519e]) might turn out to be dictators.

What is this idea of good which Socrates is talking about? According to him, it is the "universal author of all things beautiful and right" and the "source of reason and truth in the intellectual" (517c). But it does not make any sense to me that a mere idea alone can produce great achievements with attributes like beauty, justice, reason and truth. Could it be that my interpretation of Socrates' "idea of good" as a mere idea is mistaken? Perhaps what Socrates means is more than just an intellectual idea of good. Perhaps what he means when he says that one sees the idea of good is that one experiences goodness itself directly. In that case, seeing the idea of good would be equivalent to being good. But in the passage from which I extracted the quote used in the first paragraph, Socrates is explicitly talking about the idea of good in the "world of knowledge". In the sentence preceding the quote, he referred to the journey of the prisoner out of the cave as "the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world" (517b; emphasis mine). What he means is clearly an intellectual understanding of the idea of good and not a mysterious understanding of any other sort.

Why would Socrates think that an intellectual knowledge of good is a sufficient condition for being good? Well, Socrates also seems believes that goodness is innate in human beings and that people who have seen what goodness is will want to be good. According to him "the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already" and there is "some art which will effect conversion in the easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of...

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