Stoic Serenity 1.2: What is Good?

Is there anything that has intrinsic value? Is there anything that is wholly and completely good, no matter the context or angle from which approached? As we strive for well-being and to live “good lives,” what should we aim for?

A lot of what Stoic ethics were based on was written even a century before Zeno opened his school. Below is an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue, Euthydemus. In it, Socrates is conversing with a young man named Clinias, son of Axiochus. I’ve changed the language to be more current and to show my understanding of the dialogue:

Now, Clinias, let me ask you a question. Doesn’t everyone want to be happy? This is possibly an absurd question that’s too ridiculous to even ask, and no man in his right mind would even bother asking it: but is there anyone on earth who doesn’t want to be happy?

Of course not, said Clinias, everyone wants to be happy.

Well if we all want to be happy, then how can we achieve happiness? — that’s the next question. Will we be happy if we have a lot of good things? This is probably an even more ridiculous question than the first one I asked you, for we both know the answer to this question.

Clinias nodded in agreement.

And what things do we consider to be good? No expert needs to tell us the answer, because the answer is easy; everyone would say that wealth is considered a good.

Of course, said Clinias.

And what about health and beauty and other personal gifts, aren’t they goods too?

Clinias agreed.

Can we also agree that pedigree, power, and honor and fame are goods?

Clinias agreed once more.

What other goods exist? What about self-control, justice, and courage: don’t you agree, Clinias, that we would be more correct to categorize these three things as goods than to not consider them goods? An argument might come up if we don’t consider them goods. What do you think?

Yes, they are goods, said Clinias.

Ok, and into which category should we place wisdom? Is wisdom a good or not?

It is a good.

(Plato, Euthydemus 278e-279c)

Now the book provides an assignment:
Make a list of all the goods that Socrates identifies. There are two groups of goods: 1) the ones mentioned first by Socrates, and 2) the ones he mentions last. Think of category names for the two types of goods.

  • wealth
  • health
  • beauty
  • “other personal gifts”, perhaps “talents”?
  • pedigree
  • power
  • honor
  • fame
  • ————————————
  • self-control
  • justice
  • courage
  • wisdom

Looking at the two groups of goods, I notice that the first group seems to be more material or superficial goods, while the second group seems to be made up of character traits or personal qualities. The ancient philosophers called this second group “Virtues“. These Virtues are of utmost importance and are the key to living well. 

Now let’s address the issue of naming the first category. The dialogue continues:

Now do you remember when we both decided that we would be happy if we had many good things?

Clinias nodded.

And by reason, if we had many good things, should we be happy if they benefited us or if they did not benefit us?

If they benefited us, Clinias said.

Would these good things benefit us if we possessed them but didn’t use them? For example, if we had cupboards overflowing with food, but we still did not eat, or if we had stores upon stores of water, but did not drink, would these things benefit us?

Of course not, said Clinias.

How about an artist who has all the materials he needs to create something, yet he doesn’t use them. Is he any better off that he possesses the materials than if he does not have the materials, since he does not use them regardless?

No, Clinias said, it is the same as if he did not possess them.

Now what if a person had wealth and all of the goods we named earlier, but he did not use them? Would he be happy just because he possessed them?

Of course not, Socrates.

Therefore, in order for a person to be happy, they must not only have the good things, but they must also use them, correct? There’s no advantage in merely having them?

True.

So Clinias, if you both have and use good things, is that enough to bring about happiness?

Yes, in my opinion.

And should a person use these things rightly or wrongly?

He should use them rightly, of course.

That is quite true. Using one of these things wrongly is far worse than not using it at all; for to use it wrongly would be an evil, but to not use it at all would be the same as not possessing it at all, and would therefore be neither good nor evil. Do you agree?

Yes.

(Plato, Euthydemus 280b-281a)

Now another assignment: Explain why, according to Socrates, it is not enough to simply possess good things in order to be happy. What does Clinias conclude is sufficient for happiness?

According to Socrates, it is not enough to simply possess the good thing because if the good is not used, then it does not benefit us at all. It is as if we never possessed the good at all. But if we go on to use the good, then we must use it rightly. Clinias concludes that we must possess, use, and use rightly a good in order to be happy. To use the good wrongly would be evil, and it is better to not use the good at all because not using it is neither good nor evil. By not using it, it would benefit the same as if it were not even possessed at all.

Socrates concludes:

Therefore, Clinias, the point seems to be that the goods we named earlier are not even goods in themselves. It appears that how good or evil they are depends on whether they are used under the guidance of knowledge. If they are used under the guidance of ignorance, they are greater evils than their opposites because they speak more to the evil principle which rules them. But when they are under the guidance of wisdom and virtue, they are greater goods. But in and of themselves, they are nothing.

That appears to be true.

So what is the result of all of this? The result is that other things are neither intrinsically good nor bad, but wisdom is good, and ignorance is evil?

Clinias agreed.

(Plato, Euthydemus 281d-e)

So we will call the first group of goods that we listed “conventional goods.” These are the goods such as wealth, health, and power. The conventional goods can only benefit the possessor if they are used properly, that is, “under the guidance of wisdom and virtue” as Socrates stated. In other words, the first group of goods listed can only be of benefit if they are used under guidance of the second group of goods. Conventional goods are only useful if they are used under the guidance of Virtue. Virtues are key to living well because they alone can turn the rest of the “goods” that we possess to be used for good.

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