Book 6 of the Republic is the work’s core section where Plato lays out his metaphysics. Appealing to his signature Theory of Forms, Plato offers a transcendent vision of the Good as the ultimate source of human knowledge.
Joining us to help us unpack this theory is Gabriel Richardson Lear, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and author of the book Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
Transcript of the Episode's Prologue:
I know I’ve said this about almost every book of the Republic so far, but book 6 has a lot going on in it. For real, this might be the most difficult and crucial of all the books. I mean, this is the core of that onion-like structure that we talked about in previous episodes that characterizes the entire work. It is the nucleus, the kernel, where Plato lays out what modern philosophers call his metaphysics. It’s where the theory of forms comes into play.
We’ll definitely need two episodes to even attempt to unpack it all, and we’ll need all the help we can get. In this episode, we’ll be joined by a renowned scholar to help guide us through book 6. But first, by way of introduction, I’d like to solicit help from an unlikely source.
I’d like to begin by taking us all back to the year 1982, when a new sword-and-sorcery film was catapulting its main actor into stardom. I’m speaking of none other than the former “governator” of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played the titular role in Conan the Barbarian.
The film takes place in a fictional world set after the fall of Atlantis, but long before the rise of the oldest civilizations we know of, like Egypt, Sumer etc. At some point in the movie, Conan is sitting around a campfire with a tribe of warrior steppe nomads he has encountered, who look a lot like the Huns or Mongols.
The chief of this tribe turns to Conan who is sitting nearby and says, “Conan, I fear that my sons will never understand me.” He then calls out to one of his sons sitting across the fire and asks, “Son, what is best in life?” A dashing, handsome young man replies, “Oh father, it is the open steppe, a swift horse, a falcon at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.”
To which, the big chief retorts. “Wrong! Conan what is best in life?”
And Conan goes, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” To which the whole tribe erupts in cheers of approbation.
What am I getting at here? This question, What is best in life? is one of the fundamental questions of ethics. What is good? What does it mean for something to be good? What makes it good? What is the nature of goodness? This movie, Conan the barbarian, presents us with at least three separate conceptions of the good, which are current in our society and were known to the ancient Greeks as well. On the one hand, you have the view of the chief’s son, which is that the good lies in being young, free, good-looking, and able to appreciate physical beauty and pleasure. Such a view falls under the category of hedonism, a philosophical outlook championed in the Greek philosophical tradition by numerous figures, including an associate of Socrates named Aristippus of Cyrene.
Then you have Conan’s view, which is essentially the Homeric hero’s conception of the good. As we talked about way back in episode 3, the Trojan hero Sarpedon perhaps sums up this attitude the best, when he says something to the effect of: Life is short, and so we fight, kill, and plunder so that during our brief time here, we can live like gods among men. According to this view, the good lies in strength, power, and the ability to project that power onto others.
Finally, there’s a third view of the good that is apparent in the broader story arc of Conan the Barbarian. And that is the classic Hollywood good vs. evil motif. While Conan is not a paragon of moral virtue – in fact he’s unapologetically brutal – he is the good guy, because he is fighting against a monster.
These three conceptions of the good – as pleasure, as power, or as fighting against evil – are arguably the most common conceptions in our society today. Just pay attention next time you see a commercial, or video, or political ad, and ask yourself, what notion of the good is being implied here? “Buy this because it will bring you pleasure.” “Do this to succeed in your career.” “Vote for this person, so that that evil one doesn’t win.”
All three of these conceptions were also common in Plato’s day. You could debate the existence of the last one and argue that the concept of evil as such didn’t really exist in classical Athens. And I think that’s right, but the idea of a hero being good because he is a vanquisher of beasts, of monsters. That is present all over the ancient Greek tradition and probably exists in all cultures.
So, these three conceptions of the good were common in ancient Athens—perhaps just as common as they are today. And yet, in the Republic, when this question comes up – What is the Good? – Plato steers clear of all three of these common conceptions. The good isn’t pleasure, he says. It’s not power and glory. And it’s not vanquishing the wicked.
Instead, Plato offers a metaphysical vision of the Good as a form that exists eternally and is the source of all complexity in this world and of our knowledge. If you’re already scratching your head and saying, huh? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. This conception of the good is part and parcel of the theory of forms, which is one of Plato’s main claims to fame. So, what is the theory of forms? And how does it relate to Plato’s conception of the good?
To try to answer those questions, I sat down with a scholar who has spent many years investigating not just Plato’s conception of the good, but also Aristotle’s. Gabriel Richardson Lear is professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago Happy Lives and the Highest Good: An Essay on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as well as numerous articles and publications on the topics we’ll be discussing today. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Gabriel Richardson Lear on Republic book 6 and Plato’s conception of the good.