"You have often heard that the greatest thing to learn is the idea of good (τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα) by reference to which just things and all the rest become useful and beneficial" (Republic VI.505a).

"[T]hose who have survived the tests and approved themselves altogether the best in every task and form of knowledge must be brought at last to the goal. We shall require them to turn upwards the vision of their souls and fix their gaze on that which sheds light on all, and when they have thus beheld the good itself (τὸ ἀγαθὸν αὐτό) they shall use it as a pattern (παραδείγματι) for the right ordering of the state and the citizens and themselves throughout the remainder of their lives..." (Republic VII.539d-540a).

"Every art and every investigation, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good (ἀγαθοῦ). Hence the good is well describes as that which all things aim. ... Will not a knowledge of this good be of great importance for the conduct of life? Will it not better enable us to attain our end, like archers having a target to aim at? If so, we ought to make an attempt to determine at least in outline what the good is, and of which the sciences (ἐπιστημῶν) or capacities it is the object. Now this good seems to be the object of the most authoritative science, the one that, more than any other, is the ruling science. And the science of politics (ἡ πολιτικὴ) seems to be this science. For this science ordains which of the sciences are to exist in cities, and which ones each class in the city should learn, and how far. Again, we see that even the most highly esteemed of the capacities, such as generalship, household management, and oratory, are all subordinate to the science of politics. Further, it uses the other sciences concerned with action, and moreover lays down laws as to what people shall do and what things they shall refrain from doing" (Nicomachean Ethics I.1.1094a-b).

"Let us, then, begin again. Since all every sort of knowledge and choice is directed to the attainment of some good, what is the good which we say the aim of political science? That is, what is the highest of all the goods pursued in action? As far as the name goes, we may say that the great majority of mankind agree, since the multitude and persons of refinement say it is happiness (εὐδαιμονίαν), and suppose that living well and doing well are the same thing as being happy. What they disagree about is what happiness is" (Nicomachean Ethics I.1.1095a).


Two Perspectives on Ethics

Plato and Aristotle share what one might call a "teleological" perspective on ethics.

For Plato and Aristotle, very broadly speaking, the good is primary and defined independently of the right. The right is secondary. It is understood relative to the good. An alternative to the teleological perspective on ethics is what one might call the "deontological" perspective. On this perspective, the relationship between the good and the right is reversed. The right is prior to the good. The deontological perspective has the important consequence that it allows for pluralism about the good. It frees individuals to pursue any life that make sense to them as long as this pursuit is permitted by the right, where the right consists in principles minimally necessary to give individuals the freedom to pursue lives that they themselves understand to be good lives.

Given these two perspectives on ethics, two questions arise. One is which perspective is correct. This is a philosophical question. It is the question of the appropriateness of a single determinate conception of the good life as a basis for formulating moral and political principles, given the existence of substantive diversity and conflict about how to live.

The other question is a historical question. It is the question why the teleological perspective seems so natural to Plato and Aristotle.


An Answer to the Historical Question

The answer to the historical question is difficult to know, but in part the answer seems to turn on the ancient idea that the explanation for regularity of behavior always involves intellect and intelligence. If something displays regularity in its behavior but is not itself intelligent, its behavior is thought to be a matter of design by an intellect.

Philosophers in the Presocratic Period tried to identify staring-points or principles of reality and to explain everything in terms of these principles. Plato and Aristotle thought that an explanation just in terms of material constituents was inadequate to explain the existence of objects and their behavior. They thought that an object behaves in its characteristic way because its constituents have a certain organization and order. Further, as part of the project of identifying the principles of reality, they thought that this order results from an agent who determines and providentially governs reality.

Plato's "demiurge" (δημιουργὸς) is an example of this sort of starting-point or principle (Timaeus 29a).

"[The δημιουργὸς] was good, and in him that is good no envy can arise. So, being without envy, he wished that all should be so far as possible like himself. This principle (ἀρχὴν) we shall be wholly right in accepting from men of wisdom as the supreme principle of becoming and the cosmos (κόσμου). Wishing, then, that as far as possible that all things should be good and nothing imperfect, the god (ὁ θεὸς) took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder..." (Timaeus 29e-30a).

(Timaeus refers to demiurge as the "the maker and father of this universe (ποιητὴν καὶ πατέρα τοῦδε τοῦ παντὸς)" (Timaeus 28c), "the best of causes (ὁ δ᾽ ἄριστος τῶν αἰτίων)" (Timaeus 29a), and says that the cosmos has "come to be through the providence of god (διὰ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ γενέσθαι πρόνοιαν)" (Timaeus 30b).)

(The noun κόσμος transliterates as 'cosmos' and means "order." The corresponding verb κοσμέω (which 'cosmos' lacks) means "to order, arrange, rule." The cosmos is thus the order of the universe.)

Given this understanding of the order in things, it is possible to think that the orderly and regular behavior that characterizes human beings is somehow imposed by an intellect for an end. In the Timaeus, the demiurge "wished that all should be so far as possible like himself" (Timaeus 29a). This, then, determines which life above all others is best for a human being.



The Life of Contemplation (θεωρία)

The demiurge is an intellect. He imposed order on things according to a pattern "comprehensible by reason (λόγῳ) and thought" (Timaeus 29a).

It is part of this order that the demiurge that the cosmos is a living thing and, like all living things, has a soul. The demiurge makes the world-soul and places it in the body of the world so that the whole rotates in a circle and is a blessed god (Timaeus 34b-36d). It is somehow part of the cosmos that the fixed stars, the earth, and the planets exist. The fixed stars are part of the outer sphere of the heaven, earth is at the center, and the planets in between (Timaeus 37c-40d). Further, it is part of the cosmos that human beings have their senses and in particular their sense of sight so that they can become like the world-soul. In this way, human beings also become like the demiurge since creates the cosmos to make things as much like him as possible.

"Let us conclude our discussion of the auxiliary causes that gave our eyes the power they now possess. We must next speak of that supremely beneficial function for which the god gave them to us. As my account has it, our sight has proved to be a source of supreme benefit to us, in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun or heaven. The ability to see the periods of day-and-night, of months and of years, of equinoxes and solstices, has led to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time and opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe. These pursuits have given us the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφίας), a gift from the god to the mortal race whose value neither has been nor ever will be surpassed. This is the supreme good our eyesight offers us. ... The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share their ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god" (Timaeus 46e-47c).


The Demiurge versus the Unmovable First Mover

Aristotle does not accept the demiurge, but his disagreement with Plato is not with the teleology. Aristotle argues that there can be no first or last moment of time, that time is a function of motion, and that the ultimate cause of this everlasting motion must itself be completely free from change. This understanding seems to rule out the craftsmanship model for teleology in nature.

"It is impossible that movement should come into being or cease to be; for it must always have existed. Nor can time come into being or cease to be; for there could not be a before or after if time did not exist. It follows that movement is continuous in the way time is; for time is the same thing as movement or an attribute of movement. And there is no continuous movement except movement in place, and of movement in place only that which is circular is continuous. ... If something acts, this will not be enough if its substance is potentiality; for there will not be eternal movement; for that which is potentially may possibly not be. There must be a starting point (ἀρχὴν) whose substance (οὐσία) is actuality (ἐνέργεια)" (Metaphysics XII.7.1071b). "There is, then, something which is always moved in an unceasing motion, which is motion in a circle; and this is plain not in theory only but in fact. The first heaven (πρῶτος οὐρανός) must be eternal, and there is something which moves it. And since that which is moved and moves is intermediate, there is a mover which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, actuality (ἀΐδιον καὶ οὐσία καὶ ἐνέργεια)" (Metaphysics XII.7.1072a).

Aristotle seems to think that the sphere of fixed stars continuously and eternally moves in a circle around the earth and that all other motion and change depends on the motion of this outermost sphere in the universe. (The fixed stars appear to rise and set. The wandering stars are the planets, which seem to change their position relative to the fixed stars.) There are unmoved movers for each of the planetary spheres below the sphere of the fixed stars. These unmoved movers move without themselves moving. They are teleological causes of motion and change. There is an unmoved mover for sphere of the fixed stars, and this unmoved mover is one in number (Metaphysics XII.8.1074a). It is the unmovable first mover. The order in the world derives from it.

Further, just as sight in the Timaeus is for an end of becoming like the demiurge, Aristotle seems to think that human beings have some of their specific behavior (the behavior that belongs to individuals as members of a species) for the sake of becoming like the unmovable first mover. This behavior makes their existence like that of the unmovable first mover.

This is part of the idea in Aristotle's view that human beings acquire reason through the process of "induction" (ἐπαγωγή).

"All animals have an inborn discriminatory capacity, called perception. In some animals retention of the percept comes about, but in others it does not. ... When many such things come about, a difference comes about, so that some come to have reason (λόγον) from the retention of such things, and others do not. From perception there comes memory, and from memory (when it occurs often in connection with the same thing), experience (ἐμπειρία); for memories many in number from a single experience. From experience, or from the whole universal (καθόλου) that has come to rest in the soul (the one apart from the many, whatever is one and the same in all those things), there comes a starting-point of art (τέχνης) and of knowledge (ἐπιστήμης), of art if it deals with coming to be, of knowledge if it deals with being. Thus the states neither belong in us in a determinate form, nor come about from other more cognitive (γνωστικωτέρων) states; but they come about from perception—as in a battle when a rout occurs, if one man makes a stand another does and then another, until a position of strength is reached. The soul is such as to be capable of undergoing this" (Posterior Analytics II.99b-100a).

"All men naturally strive for knowledge (πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει)" (Metaphysics I.1.980a21).

"According to the Aristotelian view which is that of Greek philosophy generally, and has been widely taken in later times the primary subject of ethical investigation is all that is included under the notion of what is ultimately good or desirable for man ; all that is reasonably chosen or sought by him, not as a means to some ulterior end, but for itself" (Henry Sidwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 5th edition. (Macmillan and Company, 1902), 1-2).


Freedom in the City and in the Individual

The Greek word ἐλευθερία means "freedom."

A human being has political freedom if he is a citizen, not a slave, living in a city in which there is no despotic rule. "It is clear then that those constitutions that aim at the common advantage are in effect rightly framed in accordance with absolute justice, while those that aim at the rulers' own advantage only are faulty, and are all of them deviations from the right constitutions; for they have an element of despotism (δεσποτικαὶ), whereas a city is a partnership of free men (ἡ δὲ πόλις κοινωνία τῶν ἐλευθέρων ἐστίν)" (Aristotle, Politics III.1279a).

In analogy with the political notion, a human being is free if there is nothing in the world generally that plays the role of "despotic rule." This "despotic rule" is anything that would in a systematic way prevent him from doing what it takes to live a good life. For Plato and Aristotle, what plays the role of "despotic rule" has to do with the soul and reason.

In the Theaetetus, Plato has Socrates observe that an education in rhetoric as opposed to "philosophy" warps the soul in its natural development so that the person becomes a "slave." He does not explain in detail what happens to the soul, but the point is easily understandable against the background of the Tripartite Theory of the Soul in the Republic.

"[This] makes me think, my friend, as I have often done before, how natural it is that those who have spent a long time in the study of philosophy (φιλοσοφίαις) appear ridiculous when they enter the courts of law as speakers.
What do you mean, Socrates?
Those who have knocked about in courts and the like from their youth up seem to me, when compared with those who have been brought up in philosophy and similar pursuits, to be as slaves in breeding compared with freemen (ἐλευθέρους).
In what way is this the case?
In this way: the latter always have that which you just spoke of, leisure, and they talk at their leisure in peace; just as we are now taking up argument after argument, already beginning a third, so can they, if as in our case, the new one pleases them better than that in which they are engaged; and they do not care at all whether their talk is long or short, if only they attain the truth. But the men of the other sort are always in a hurry—for the water flowing through the water-clock urges them on—and the other party in the suit does not permit them to talk about anything they please, but stands over them exercising the law's compulsion by reading the brief, from which no deviation is allowed; and their discourse is always about a fellow slave and is addressed to a master who sits there holding some case or other in his hands; and the contests never run an indefinite course, but are always directed to the point at issue, and often the race is for the defendant's life. As a result of all this, the speakers become tense and shrewd; they know how to wheedle their master with words and gain his favor by acts; but in their souls (ψυχάς) they become small and warped. For they have been deprived of growth and straightforwardness and independence (ἐλευθέριον) by the slavery they have endured from their youth up, for this forces them to do crooked acts by putting a great burden of fears and dangers upon their souls while these are still tender; and since they cannot bear this burden with uprightness and truth, they turn forthwith to deceit and to requiting wrong with wrong, so that they become greatly bent and stunted. Consequently they pass from youth to manhood with no soundness of mind (διανοίας) in them, but they think they have become clever and wise" (Theaetetus 172c-173b).

In the Gorgias, prior to the Republic, Callicles argues for a contrary understanding in which the good life is not a life in "philosophy" but is a life of doing what one pleases. (Polus, previously in the conversation with Socrates, had tried to argue that orators have the best lives because they live like despots insofar as both do what they please (Gorgias 466c).) Callicles is not able to hold his position against Socrates' questioning, but the details of the position that Socrates seems to presuppose does not become clear until he sets out the Tripartite Theory in the Republic.

"For how can a man be happy if he is a slave to anybody at all? No, natural fairness and justice, I tell you now quite frankly, is this—that he who would live rightly (ὀρθῶς βιωσόμενον) should let his desires (ἐπιθυμίας) be as strong as possible and not chasten them, and should be able to minister to them when they are at their height by reason of his manliness and intelligence, and satisfy each appetite in turn with what it desires. ... No, in good truth, Socrates—which you claim to be seeking—the fact is this: luxury and licentiousness and liberty (τρυφὴ καὶ ἀκολασία καὶ ἐλευθερία), if they have the support of force, are virtue and happiness (ἀρετή τε καὶ εὐδαιμονία), and the rest of these embellishments—the unnatural covenants of mankind—are all mere stuff and nonsense" (Gorgias 491e-492c).

According to the Tripartite Theory of the Soul, "it is appropriate for the reasoning part to rule, since it is wise and exercises foresight on behalf of the whole soul, and for the spirited part to obey and be its ally (οὐκοῦν τῷ μὲν λογιστικῷ ἄρχειν προσήκει, σοφῷ ὄντι καὶ ἔχοντι τὴν ὑπὲρ ἁπάσης τῆς ψυχῆς προμήθειαν, τῷ δὲ θυμοειδεῖ ὑπηκόῳ εἶναι καὶ συμμάχῳ τούτου)" (Republic IV.441e4-6).

"Then the tyrannized soul—to speak of the soul as a whole—also will least of all do what it wishes.... Then it is the truth, though some may deny it,2 that the real tyrant is really enslaved to cringings and servitudes beyond compare, a flatterer of the basest men, and that, so far from finding even the least satisfaction for his desires, he is in need of most things, and is a poor man in very truth, as is apparent if one knows how to observe a soul in its entirety; and throughout his life he teems with terrors and is full of convulsions and pains" (Republic IX.577d, 579d-e).

Why, according to Plato, is it good for the reasoning part to rule? The answer, it seems, is that this is how a human being participates in the objectively good existence the demiurge enjoys.

Further, at least according to Aristotle, some human beings lack the capacity to develop so that reason rules. These are slaves by nature. "[T]his is the condition of those whose function (ἔργον) is the use of the body and from whom this is the best that is forthcoming. These are by nature slaves (φύσει δοῦλοι).... For he is by nature a slave who ... participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it (ὁ κοινωνῶν λόγου τοσοῦτον ὅσον αἰσθάνεσθαι ἀλλὰ μὴ ἔχειν); for the animals other than man are subservient not to reason, by apprehending it, but to feelings (παθήμασιν). And also the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both, from slaves and from domestic animals alike" (Politics I.1254b).


"[W]hat men say is the nature and origin of justice"

On two of the conceptions of justice that Plato makes Socrates reject, justice is a set of rules to maintain social stability. There are ways to maintain social stability that intuitively do not seem just, and neither conception especially clear on how to determine which ways to maintain social stability are just and which are unjust. On the conception in the Protagoras, the suggestion is that Zeus is responsible for the change in human beings that allows for group stability and that the specific form this potential takes is a matter of agreement reached through rhetorical persuasion. In the Gorgias and the Republic, there is no appeal to the traditional gods. In the Gorgias, the "weaker" who are the "more numerous" engage in a program of indoctrination to reach agreement. In the Republic, those who "lack power" use some unspecified means to come to an agreement. This emphasis on justice as a set of publicly agreed upon rules is not worked out in detail, but the perspective seems to be "deontological." No very specific conception of what lives are good seems to be presupposed. Instead, the assumption seems to be that multiple conceptions are possible within the confines of justice.

"Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities (πόλεις) there were none; so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no civic (πολιτικὴν) art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of civic art (ἠδίκουν ἀλλήλους ἅτε οὐκ ἔχοντες τὴν πολιτικὴν τέχνην), and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish. So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right (αἰδῶ τε καὶ δίκην) among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together. Then Hermes asked Zeus in what manner then was he to give men right and respect: 'Am I to deal them out as the arts have been dealt? That dealing was done in such a way that one man possessing medical art is able to treat many ordinary men, and so with the other craftsmen. Am I to place among men right and respect in this way also, or deal them out to all?' 'To all,' replied Zeus; 'let all have their share: for cities cannot be formed if only a few have a share of these as of other arts. And make thereto a law of my ordaining, that he who cannot partake of respect and right shall die the death as a public pest.' Hence it comes about, Socrates, that people in cities, and especially in Athens, consider it the concern of a few to advise on cases of artistic excellence or good craftsmanship, and if anyone outside the few gives advice they disallow it, as you say, and not without reason, as I think: but when they meet for a consultation on civic art, where they should be guided throughout by justice (δικαιοσύνης) and good sense (σωφροσύνης), they naturally allow advice from everybody, since it is held that everyone should partake of this excellence (ἀρετῆς), or else that states cannot be" (Protagoras 322a-323a).

"The makers of the laws (τοὺς νόμους) are the weaker sort of men, and the more numerous. So it is with a view to themselves and their own interest that they make their laws and distribute their praises and censures (τοὺς ἐπαίνους ἐπαινοῦσιν καὶ τοὺς ψόγους ψέγουσιν); and to terrorize the stronger sort of folk who are able to get an advantage (πλέον), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement (πλεονεκτεῖν) is foul and unjust (αἰσχρὸν καὶ ἄδικον), and that wrongdoing is just this endeavor to get the advantage of one's neighbors: for I expect they are well content to see themselves on an equality, when they are so inferior. So this is why by convention it is termed unjust and foul to aim at an advantage over the majority, and why they call it wrongdoing: but nature, in my opinion, herself proclaims the fact that it is right for the better to have advantage of the worse, and the abler of the feebler. It is obvious in many cases that this is so, not only in the animal world, but in the states and races, collectively, of men--that right has been decided to consist in the sway and advantage of the stronger over the weaker" (Gorigias 483b-d).

"I will renew the argument of Thrasymachus and will first state what men say is the nature and origin of justice.... By nature, they say, to commit injustice is a good and to suffer it is an evil, but that the excess of evil in being wronged is greater than the excess of good in doing wrong. So that when men do wrong and are wronged by one another and taste of both, those who lack the power to avoid the one and take the other determine that it is for their profit to make a compact with one another neither to commit nor to suffer injustice; and that this is the beginning of legislation and covenants between men, and that they name the commandment of the law the lawful and the just, and that this is the genesis and essential nature of justice (γένεσίν τε καὶ οὐσίαν δικαιοσύνης)" (Republic II.358b-359a).


What all of nature naturally pursues as good

Glaucon does say that "[a]dvantage (πλεονεξίαν) is what all of nature naturally pursues as good..." (Republic II.359c). The noun he uses is the accusative form of πλεονεξία. This is a compound word that derives from the adjective πλείων and the verb ἔχω ("to have"). The adjective πλείων ("greater in number") is comparative form of πολύς ("great in number"). The word is often used with a negative connotation to mean "greediness, assumption, arrogance," but Glaucon may be using it more neutrally to mean that everyone prefers more, not fewer, of his goals to be satisfied.

"The licence (ἐξουσία) that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. They relate that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler at that time of Lydia, and that after a great deluge of rain and an earthquake the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he saw and wondered and went down into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature, and that there was nothing else but a gold ring on its hand, which he took off and went forth. And when the shepherds held their customary assembly to make their monthly report to the king about the flocks, he also attended wearing the ring. So as he sat there it chanced that he turned the collet of the ring towards himself, towards the inner part of his hand, and when this took place they say that he became invisible to those who sat by him and they spoke of him as absent and that he was amazed, and again fumbling with the ring turned the collet outwards and so became visible. On noting this he experimented with the ring to see if it possessed this virtue, and he found the result to be that when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, and when outwards visible; and becoming aware of this, he immediately managed things so that he became one of the messengers who went up to the king, and on coming there he seduced the king's wife and with her aid set upon the king and slew him and possessed his kingdom. If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others and not touch them, though he might with impunity take what he wished even from the marketplace, and enter into houses and lie with whom he pleased, and slay and loose from bonds whomsoever he would, and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god. And in so acting he would do no differently from the other man, but both would pursue the same course. And yet this is a great proof, one might argue, that no one is just of his own will (ἑκὼν) but only from constraint, in the belief that justice is not his personal good, inasmuch as every man, when he supposes himself to have the power to do wrong, does wrong. For that there is far more profit (λυσιτελεῖν) for him personally in injustice than in justice is what every man believes, and believes truly, as the proponent of this theory will maintain. For if anyone who had got such a licence (ἐξουσίας) within his grasp should refuse to do any wrong or lay his hands on others' possessions, he would be regarded as most pitiable and a great fool by all who took note of it, though they would praise him before one another's faces, deceiving one another because of their fear of suffering injustice" (Republic II.359c-d).




Perseus Digital Library:
Protagoras, Gorgias, Republic
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἄκων (Attic contraction for ἀέκων), akōn, adjective, "unwilling, under constraint,"
ἑκὼν, hekōn, adjective, "wittingly, purposely," opposite of ἄκων,
ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, noun, "freedom,"
ἐξουσία, exousia, noun, "power to do a thing,"
ἰσονομία, isonomia, noun, "equality of political rights,"
λυσιτελής, (λύω ("unbind, unfasten") + τέλος ("end")), lysitelēs, adjective, "profitable,"
πλεονεκτέω, pleonekteō, verb, "to claim more,"
πλεονέκτης (= ὁ πλέον ἔχων), pleonektēs, adjective, "one who has or claims more,"
πλεονεξία, pleonexia , noun, "advantage"