Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

SO the son of the Home Secretary Jack Straw has been arrested for allegedly peddling drugs. Well, well, it just shows that goodness ('virtue', 'excellence', arete) cannot be taught, Socrates would have said smugly.

One of the most famous Socratic paradoxes concerned the relationship between knowledge and goodness. Socrates agreed that we could all point to examples of what was undeniably 'good' behaviour, but when it came to defining what 'goodness' actually was, it turned out to be remarkably difficult. But, if we cannot define goodness (and Socrates never managed it), how can we recognise 'good' behaviour when we see it? Even more important, if we cannot define it, how can we teach it?

In a famous passage in the dialogue Protagoras (named after a leading intellectual of the day) Socrates raises the matter with the man himself. Protagoras has argued that if students are taught by him, they will end up `better citizens'. Socrates disagrees, for two reasons. First, he says, take meetings of the Assembly (attended by male citizens over the age of 18 to determine all matters of state). When technical matters are discussed (like temple construction or shipbuilding), anyone who is not an expert is shouted down. …

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