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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Antiquity. In ancient times the juridical mode of
thought had its marked development in Hebraic reli-
gion, with God as the lawgiver, the Decalogue and
associated rules as the code of right and wrong, obliga-
tions under original compact for the Hebrew people
with God, sanctions of a familial or paternal type with
a fusion of awe and love, and decision-modes that grew
increasingly legalistic in Talmudic jurisprudence. The
appropriate character for men and women was set in
this framework, and the good operated as rewards for
obedience. The spread of this outlook in Christian
morality, with a change to a universalistic form, the
coordination of each soul directly to the divine, and
the shift to other-worldly salvation as the unifying
good, paralleled by eternal damnation as a major moral
sanction, set the background for most Western moral-
ity, affecting the basic framework even when the ex-
plicit religious justification receded in philosophical

In pre-Platonic Greek thought, the concept of nomos
had an incipient juridical character. This expressed a
customary morality whose rules were static and con-
ceptualized as an eternal traditional order, eternal
betokening usually divine as well. When class conflicts
arose in the Greek city-states and philosophical reflec-
tion grew on the cultural variety of moral codes, the
notion of nomos became interpreted as merely cus-
tomary in the sense of conventional. This was the
dominant trend in the Sophists. The social impact of
this view varied somewhat. For the most part, morality
was regarded as rules, different in different cultures
to be sure, but directed under these varying conditions,
and more or less successfully, to the maintenance of
stability and social order as human needs. To an ex-
tremist wing (such as Thrasymachus in Plato's Repub-
), it became construed as merely the rules of the
stronger imposed for their own interests to keep the
masses in check, so that the really wise individual could
quietly pursue his own predatory interests. In a few
radical views the conventional character of morality
meant it could be altered and improved; slavery, for
example, being thus a conventional institution, not a
natural requirement. In all of these, though the inter-
pretation of what was natural for man varied, the direct
contrast became that between custom (nomos) and
nature (physis).

Socrates and Plato refined the goal-seeking frame-
work. In Socrates' persistent inquiry, some of the gen-
eral properties of the good began to emerge. The good
has a magnetic power on us, for no man willingly does
what he knows to be evil. It is in some sense capable
of being grasped as an object of knowledge, or perhaps
capable of being sought and glimpsed, for Socrates
more modestly, constantly claimed his wisdom lay in
knowing his ignorance. The knowledge involved will
in some sense thus be intellectual and practical and
affective, either fused or at any rate undifferentiated.
When we try to understand any of our particular
virtues, such as courage or temperance, we find that
they lose their essence if they do not involve a knowl-
edge of the good. Virtues are thus found to be appli-
cations, through knowledge, of the good, so that no
issue arises of the possible conflict of a man's moral
behavior and his true well-being. Insofar as Socrates
has any explicit view of the right that is not directly
bound up in the quest of the individual's soul for the
good, it is seen as a contractual commitment with the


institutions of one's community to share in a given
mode of life and take the sufferings and even injustices
when they fall on one. In this way, Socrates, in the
Crito, justifies his refusal to escape from prison.

Plato develops both the basic theory of the good
as a goal-seeking ethic and the theory of right or justice
as an order in the soul which enables it to move toward
the good. The former is seen in Socrates' speech in
the Symposium, which expounds the concept of love
(eros) as a searching of the soul for the Absolute Good.
Specific aims—such as to have children, to create
works of art, to order the lives of men, to achieve
knowledge—are simply forms of this one ultimate
quest for the Absolute. In the Republic, the Idea of
the Good is presented as the analogue, in the domain
of the eternal, to the visible sun in the changing sensi-
ble world—the source of all being, of illumination and
intelligibility, and of value in existence. This gathering
of the real, the rational, and the valuable into a single
bundle, persisted through the religious picture of the
divine, and the attempts in the modern period to derive
an ethics from the picture of the order of nature and
human nature. The structure did not fall apart until
the twentieth-century demands for the complete au-
tonomy of ethics.

In Plato, the part of the human being engaged in
this quest is identified as the rational element (the
human part). But the soul is assigned two other parts,
the spirited and the appetitive (compared to the lion
and the dragon). The comprehensive theory of justice
or the right in the Republic is an attempt to justify,
in both social and inner individual life, a repressive
order in which reason rules and with the aid of the
lion keeps the dragon in his place. Selection of goals,
specific virtues, aims in life, are all assessed in terms
of the character of the part of the soul involved and
its contribution to the harmonious order. Even Plato's
theory of history as an unavoidable deterioration from
an aristocratic society through oligarchic and demo-
cratic forms down to tyranny (Republic, Book VIII),
sees this change as the descent of the soul as the dragon
is progressively unleashed. Plato's theory of right thus
embodies a conservative program to control the masses
by a dominant elite which in its single-minded devotion
to the ultimate good will overcome the war of the rich
and the poor that beset the Greek cities of his epoch.

Aristotle gave the goal-seeking framework its fullest
systematic development. His Nicomachean Ethics is the
first systematic treatise of Western moral philosophy.
The framework is an immanent or indwelling teleology
in things. Nature works like the artist or craftsman with
a plan governing its action. Every species has its own
governing plan, and its good lies in the development
in its individuals of the capacities with which they are
endowed. Man is a rational animal, reason supervening
on and imbuing his vegetative and animal capacities.
Aristotle thus rejects the unified Platonic Idea of the
Good. Ethics is a practical science concerned with the
human good, part of the whole science of politics in
which the plan of the good for man is grasped as a
guide to practice. The human good, what all men aim
at, is identified as happiness or well-being, though men
debate the activities in which it lies and the mode of
life it demands. While the Ethics explores the kinds
of character this life points to—the varieties of virtues
and the nature of virtue, and the inner nature of asso-
ciational bonds—the Politics deals with desirable insti-

The place of the right in Aristotle's teleological
ethics is revealing. There is no central “ought” com-
manding in the name of the moral law. The various
functions which such a concept combines in the juridi-
cal framework are here patterned in a different way.
Reason is, of course, central in the philosophy, but its
ethical job is less to enunciate universal laws than to
work out applications of our knowledge of the good
and the virtues in which that knowledge is expressed.
The concept involved is rather doing what is fitting
in particular situations that differ in time, place, con-
text of persons and relations, and with a view to the
special powers and limitations of the persons and
groups involved. (This is the just-right, as against too
much and too little, which appears in Aristotle's doc-
trine of virtue as the mean.) Men pray, he tells us, for
the good, but they should pray that what is good
generally or simply be good for them; and in the
Politics he compromises on a balance of democracy
and oligarchy as the most suitable for the Greek city-
states as they exist. The element of universality appears
in a concept of natural political justice, a precursor
of the later conception of natural law, but without the
latter's idea of divine command; in Aristotle it is the
universally applicable rules of the structure of the good
life. Decision, too, is not seen by Aristotle as subsump-
tion under rule, but as means-end analysis; the man
of practical wisdom, whose experience and upbringing
have brought to maturity his logical power and aware-
ness of the good, is most sensitive in relation to the
particular, and can serve as a useful model for the less
mature and the uncertain.

In the individualistic ethics of the Hellenistic period,
when the common social good disintegrates (together
with the city-state) as a governing ideal, the good
becomes cast in individualistic terms. In the Epicurean
philosophy, it is pleasure, peace and relief from pain,
and, if possible, quiet joy rather than hectic pursuit.
The metaphysical background is an atomic materi-
alism, including rejection of teleology, acceptance of


mortality and a denial of punishment in a hereafter.
Since the Epicurean sociology of human development
pictures the growth of human learning and the shed-
ding of superstition, the right appears as naturalistic
rules or practices or institutions, servicing the human

The Stoics too seek internal peace or tranquillity
of spirit as the basic good, but tie it to a notion of
individual virtue as its single condition and manifesta-
tion. Their outlook represents a point of transformation
away from the goal-seeking framework. A juridical
element enters in their concept of nature as a rational
divine order in things. Their point of view is cosmic,
beginning with the cosmopolitan impulse of Alex-
ander's conquests and going on to the late Roman
empire. The moral community is that of all men, each
with a fragment of the divine fire. A duty-like concept
makes its appearance in that one should do what the
divine has ordered or arranged, but the order comes
in the assignment of role, or what befits one's place.
Particular decisions are thus expressive of the jobs or
offices in which one finds oneself. This conception of
an ordered system of reason for man was extremely
influential in the development of the idea of natural
law. Yet back of this whole juridical aspect is a view
of the world in which there is no permanence and all
is precarious. As Marcus Aurelius vividly depicts it,
life and achievement and memory go by in a Heracli-
tean flux. The only real good throughout is virtue, the
maintenance of integrity of the self by stern inner
rational control of what alone is in our power—our
response or reaction to what happens to us, and a
resignation to whatever befalls us in which our tenden-
cies to violent emotion undergo a rational dissolution.

Thus, although Stoic ethics enters the scene under
the classical concept of the good, and finds a place
in practice for a system of the right, its central stress
on virtue and the self is working towards a newer
framework, a kind of self-development model which
is, in the history of ethics, a major alternative to the
right and the good. It is this framework too which best
fits the many ethics of salvation that characterized the
decline of the Roman world, such as the Neo-Platonic
vision of the path of the self in its attempt to overcome
its original estrangement from divine unity and to
merge eventually with the One. Christian ethics with
its early inner stress has many elements of this model,
but it is firmly kept within a juridical framework by
its Hebraic origin and heritage.

Yet even a self-development framework will find
within itself the tension of the good and the right, or
of their surrogates. This is well seen in the ethics of
Augustine. The good is found in the blessedness for
which he longs, the right in the straining of every effort
to keep on the path to its achievement. The wrong
is more evident in the multitudes of temptations that
lie along the way. Even the most harmless pleasures
may distract one from the goal, and even in the act
of prayer Augustine is suspicious of the seductive
beauty of language and of music. It is this deep probing
into the willfulness of the will and the ultimate charac-
ter of man's responsibility (in spite of God's selection
of only a chosen few for salvation) which gives force
to the Augustinian concept of sin, whether he addresses
himself to portraying the child in the cradle or the
youth in exuberant folly, or the whole history of man-
kind from creation to resurrection. The analysis of sin
shows the individual soul as the battleground, for moral
evil lies in acquiescence or yielding in the will itself,
rather than in the consequent natural action.