Plato's Theory of Ethics: The Moral Criterion and the Highest Good

By R. C. Lodge | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

HISTORIANS of philosophy assert with one voice that the supreme achievement of ancient ethical reflection was the determination of the conception of a highest good, and that the fundamental outlines of that determination were drawn once for all, by Plato. On a subject of such importance, we should expect modern scholarship to have probed the evidence and to have come to a unanimous verdict, so that the case might well be regarded as closed. But when we turn to the literature, and examine, sympathetically but critically, the method. scope, and results of the treatises, general and special, which deal with this subject, what do we find?

In the first place, we find that modern scholars generally adopt towards Plato the attitude, not of a pupil, but of a judge. The stage is set beforehand, usually by reference to Kant's distinction between a complete and a highest good, and Plato's text is compelled to answer the questions of a definitely alien interpreter. This at once imports a certain foreign element into the modern reconstruction; and whether it is the standpoint of Kant, or of Hegel, or of Mill, which is adopted by the interpreter, the result is necessarily a more or less distorted platonism.

In the second place, the special method of approach is usually to set forth (1) the views of other Greek writers, from Homer to Antisthenes, on the highest good; (2) the various reflections of these views opposed in the platonic Dialogues; and (3) Plato's "own" views, especially as revealed in the Philebus. In practice, however, it is found difficult to separate (1) and (2) in such a way as to do no injustice to the other Greek writers, and to separate (2) and (3) without doing severe injustice to Plato. The treatment of (1) and (2) lends itself to uncritical insistence upon identities in the form of expression, without much reference to

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