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Friday, November 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Goodness and Justice, Then and Now

Goodness and Justice: Plato, Aristotle, and the Moderns by Gerasimos Santas. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, x + 300 pages, $64.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

What is goodness? What is justice? Sometimes the most fundamental concepts – despite, or perhaps because of, their crucial centrality to one’s world-view – are the most difficult to pin down and define. They offer a specious familiarity, suggesting that of course we know what they mean. But try and actually articulate a definition for such words – a lucid, specific definition, which will accommodate all their multifarious senses – and you begin to see just how slippery they actually are.

Then take your project a step farther, and consider how stable those definitions are across time and space. Was “justice” the same thing, substantively, for the ancient Greeks as it is for us today? For that matter, who is “us”? Within a current context, is “justice” substantively the same thing (for example) for George Bush and Osama bin Laden?

Only step off this pier, and you find yourself straightaway in very deep water indeed. Apart from the stringently philosophical questions entailed here, we also find that we are embroiled in the question of whether, and how, the ancient classics are relevant to “us” today – one of the most persistently nagging questions in the academy, and one that I (as a professional classicist) find of urgent personal importance. Can these dry bones live? Can texts composed almost two and a half millennia ago speak to our most urgent ethical needs in the twenty-first century?

Comes now Gerasimos Santas, whose work on ancient philosophy – and its relation to modern thought – is already well-known. Santas has provided us with a closely argued and subtly considered assessment of how the notions of goodness and justice were articulated, and connected, by two giants of fourth-century Athens, Plato and his most brilliant student, Aristotle. The book’s subtitle might be taken to indicate that there are three sections to it, propounding, respectively, the Platonic, Aristotelian, and modern approaches. Instead, Santas’s aim is to explicate what we might think of as an ancient Athenian conversation about goodness and justice – what they consist of, how they relate to each other, and how they affect human lives, both individual and in society – and to illuminate this conversation with the relevant opinions of modern thinkers. This strategy has a number of advantages: it immediately demonstrates how vitally the dialogue between the ancients and us continues today; it moreover enables Santas to inquire into the possibility that “the moderns” (his shorthand for moral philosophers from Hobbes to Rawls) may actually have made some philosophical advances over the ancients; and it makes the classical material directly accessible to those who may only be familiar with more recent philosophers.

Santas begins his book with a discussion of the Good: its role in ancient and modern philosophies, its connection to science, and an overview of various disputes and questions about it. His introductory chapter makes very clear what his aims are: he wants to reconstruct Plato’s and Aristotle’s theories of the Good, to show how they used these to develop their theories of virtue, and to illuminate their merits and limitations by providing a critical comparison of the ancients and moderns. He warns us, meanwhile, that the book is not going to be comprehensive with respect to historical periods, writers, or problems (a project that would have inevitably required numerous volumes).

In the service of these goals, Santas begins by sketching out what he calls the Socratic Good of knowledge. (His careful terminology reminds us that we ought not to be too quick to assume that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is not necessarily expressing the opinions of Plato himself – nor, for that matter, of the historical Socrates, who left no written remains. In what follows here, “Socrates” will mean “the character Socrates in the Platonic dialogues.”) This begins a pattern that will continue in ensuing chapters, whereby Santas identifies the most relevant passages in Plato and Aristotle, summarizes their positions on relevant topics, and offers intermittent reflections from, and connections to, modern thinkers. Two of Santas’s greatest virtues are his formidable and nuanced grasp of all these philosophers, and his ability to explicate them in clear, unpretentious prose. In Chapter 2, he explores the complex nexus of relationships drawn by Socrates among knowledge (as distinct from opinion, even right opinion), power, goodness, justice, and happiness. Santas’s principal texts here are the Gorgias, Euthydemus, and Meno.

The Republic of Plato is surely the most famous and important of his dialogues, and arguably one of the half-dozen or so most significant texts from ancient Greece over all, so it is not surprising that Santas devotes three entire chapters to it. The continuity is smooth because Santas makes it clear that the central issues of this massive dialogue are integrally connected with those he has just discussed. His own argument continues to take shape, as he demonstrates lucidly that Plato is concerned with justice in the individual psyche, with justice in the polis as a whole, and with the organic link between them. More than that, Santas contends (rightly) that justice in the individual and justice in the polis are isomorphic. And he makes eminently clear the connection, for Socrates, between goodness and reality. Those who have read enough Plato to wonder what in the world Socrates might have meant by his notion of the Forms will find Santas’s Chapter 5 to be especially helpful.

Chapters 6–8 move from Plato to Aristotle, who himself made crucially important contributions to this philosophical conversation. (Indeed, it would be odd if he had not, having worked in Plato’s Academy for something like 20 years. Plato liked to refer to him by the nickname “Nous,” i.e., “the Mind” or “the Brain.”) Aristotle, like Plato, wrote dialogues, which in antiquity were renowned for their literary beauty. Because they are lost to us, however, we must rely on his treatises, above all the Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics here. These works differ from Plato’s dialogues not only because they have Plato’s own work to build on, but also, of course, because they dispense with the narrative/mimetic format of the dialogue, purporting instead to present their author’s ideas in straightforward fashion. So Santas’s task in these chapters is somewhat different. He does, however, continue his procedure of careful, perspicuous exegesis, commenting on the relevant implications of the ancient text and adducing the observations of other modern scholars when appropriate. What emerges in this part of the book is a presentation, not only of Aristotle’s ideas, but also of his (and Santas’s) awareness of how these interact with Plato’s. Over the course of these three chapters, Santas builds his argument that Aristotle’s theory of justice (being teleological) is not only unlike Plato’s, but is in fact anti-Platonic in some important ways. While this is not, in itself, a startling proposition – I have often heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world, Platonists and Aristotelians – one nonetheless rarely finds the material laid out and explicated, or the conclusions drawn as elegantly, as Santas does here. In addition, his asides about the readings of current scholars offer a compendious guide through the labyrinth that is modern academic philosophy.

Although he does not confront this for its own sake, Santas brings to mind a question that is widely debated and endlessly fascinating: Advances in technology aside, has the human race made any actual progress over the past 3,000 years or so? Are we becoming better, that is, qua human beings? Our answers to this can be categorized any number of ways, but we might begin, for convenience, with the theory/practice distinction. Setting aside the question of practice for the moment – Do we actually behave more justly, more nobly, more beautifully? – what about theoretical (that is, philosophical) progress? Has our very understanding of the world around us advanced substantively since the time of Plato and Aristotle?

Santas proposes that it has, specifically in terms of our understanding of the nature of the Good. Here, par excellence, is where the moderns come in – John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice (1971), above all. Santas suggests that “we can have reasonable or rational agreement on major means to ultimate good even though we have no agreement on ultimate good itself…this appears to be a discovery of the moderns” (p. 5, emphasis in text). This proposition is so provocative that I wish he had elaborated it further; it might well have received a chapter of its own.

I have commented on the spare cleanliness of Santas’s prose. Let the reader be aware, however, that simplicity of form cannot guarantee simplicity of content, least of all when the latter entails matters of such profundity as those treated in this book. Santas keeps the professional/disciplinary jargon to an admirable minimum, but there is no getting round the fact that this is a book primarily for specialists, or at least for those who have some extensive familiarity with the ancient texts. To reap the full value of Santas’s erudition and subtlety, one should be conversant with modern scholarship on Plato and Aristotle, particularly that of the Anglo-American tradition of the past half century or so. This group of scholars is in extraordinarily close communication on the major issues in its field, regardless of agreement, and the published scholarship is commensurately allusive. One must begin somewhere, however, and if one has read at least some Plato and Aristotle, one will be able to derive substantial benefit from Goodness and Justice.

John T. Kirby is professor of classics and comparative literature at Purdue University.
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