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

By R. C. Lodge | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
IMMORTALITY, AND ITS ETHICAL VALUE

TO the average Hellene of Plato's time, no less than to the average modern civilized man, life as he found it seemed good. He too had his instincts to drive him on to found a family, acquire a residence, fine clothing, friends, servants, a bank account, and the means of travel and enjoyment of beauty, whether natural or artificial. He too had a dash of poetry in his composition, and an interest in the things of the mind, which coloured his otherwise sensuous disposition and made his grasping after pleasure and power seem a less crude thing than it appears to more critical eyes. If he thought at all about physical death and a possible after-life, his mental processes were vague and a little discouraging. The religious traditions created by his poets had it that there was an after-life, but so pale, bloodless, and shadowy, that the gibbering ghosts in the realm of shades would give anything for the meanest position on the "real" earth.1 In addition to tradition, the ancient Hellene, like the modern inquirer, had, of course, his spiritualism, particularly if he could afford to pay for it. But if he was of a thoughtful turn of mind, he found this unsatisfying; for its messages seemed to be either a naïve tribute to his position and power and supposed desires, promising an eternity of feasting and merry-making, or else were so obscure and uncertain as to task the powers of trained experts to find an interpretation of them.2 Of one thing only he was sure: that life as he knew it through his senses and emotions was good; and that, if he were to look for a "highest" good, this could be found only in more of what he knew to be good, i.e., in continuing to satisfy his senses and emotions, possibly in a somewhat more artistic way. Everything else was uncertain tradition or poetic fiction, to be taken seriously only by those unfortunates who had come face to face with the thought that they must die and leave this pleasant place.3

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