Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

LAST week Socrates expressed no surprise that Jack Straw's son should have been arrested for allegedly peddling drugs: goodness (excellence, virtue, arete) cannot be taught, Socrates argued, even by good fathers like Pericles to their very own sons. But Socrates was arguing against the influential Greek intellectual Protagoras, and Protagoras was not about to let him off so lightly.

Protagoras replies that arete which he defines as respect for others and a sense of justice - has been acquired because it is essential to human survival. Without learning to take concerted action, humans could never have learned to live in communities and defend themselves against hostile external forces. So all men possess arete by simple virtue of being human, or the state would not exist. Indeed, in the unlikely event that anyone entirely lacking it were to be found, he would have to be put to death. But since everyone possesses it to different degrees, everyone is also capable of improvement.

To prove that Athenians think arete can be taught, Protagoras goes on, consider how they continually correct and punish wrongdoers, clearly because they think this will remedy defects and teach goodness. …

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