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Memories of the 28th Century

Good, What Is It?

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After writing a little about Cynicism I started wondering about good and virtue, as used in relation to the Cynics. What are they, and should we care? That's what happens when one thinks about Ancient Greek philosophy.

So what is "good"? There are many books by noted philosophers that comment on that question. Personally, I don't think there is a good definition, unless one circumscribes the word with so many conditions that it means barely anything. What's good for whom? The answer of that would vary for each individual. And the answer is also dependent on time; what's good this week may not be good next week.

It is also traditional to define "good" in relation to evil. It might be possible for both good and evil can exists separate from the other, but is still a matter of definition. This also brings up my opposition to the greeting questions that have become so common in the U.S. I mean “How are you?” and “How’s it going?” How am I what? And how is what going? What do you mean by that? Most people answer those questions without considering accuracy or utility; they just say that they are fine or good or something along those lines. Here we end up with “good” meaning absolutely nothing, and it is not desirable for any word to be devoid of meaning. In many situations “good” is a filler; either something else is meant, or it is intended that it is preferable to avoid the truth. For these reasons I think it might be better to define “good” as a situation that is not painful in any way.

At this point I decided to look into what the Ancient Greeks called “virtue”. Actually, the Romans called it “virtue”; the Greeks called it “arete”. It is said to have meant “goodness” or “excellence”, so I looked into how they might have been used. I started reading Plato’s Socratic dialogue “Meno”. After reading most of the dialogue it became clear that “virtue” (arete) didn’t mean goodness, but it means something like the fundamental nature of a person or thing; “by virtue of being a woman she did such and such” is the closest that we would get to that meaning these days.
This is from an online glossary of Greek terms.
“Arete ἀρετή Virtue, excellence, can also mean goodness. Arete understood as “excellence” is tied to the end/goal/ or purpose of something. A thing’s excellence comes from its successfully meeting its end or goal well– excellence for a herding dog is quite different than excellence for a draft horse. Recall Meno’s description of aręte/excellence for a man, for a woman, etc.—his answering Socrates with a list of virtues, each tired to something different was consistent with the common use of “arete” though of course, Socrates is looking for the definition, not examples of virtue. Many Greek philosophers offered theories about the nature of human virtue, that is, what constitutes excellence, virtue for the human being—and these theories are closely tied to what they believed was the end/goal of human life—our purpose as human beings as well as what constitutes the “good” life and the “just” life.
Consider a key question raised in the Meno: can virtue be taught? Of course, the opening question in the Meno is not, can virtue be taught—it is, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught…”
“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue can be taught, or is acquired by practice, not teaching? Or if neither by practice nor by learning, whether it comes to mankind by nature or in some other way?”

I started out looking for a good idea of what ancient philosophers meant when they referred to “good” and/or “virtue”, and I succeeded, but the answer is quite different from what I expected.

My virtue is being myself, and what greater glory could there be? This gave me more understanding than I expected. You might want to read the whole dialogue. Like most of Plato's work it is interesting, but this one seems to have an easier answer, because "virtue" probably can't be taught but is innate. That leads to the question of whether it is possible to change one's fundamental nature, to learn another "virtue". In my experience a person's "virtue" can't be greatly changed, but it's possible to make minor adjustments around the edges.

What do you think? To me this post was sort of disappointing, because I hoped to learn what goodness was, but I learned instead that that was a mistranslation.
Plato’s Meno