Plato's ideal of the Common Good

Anatomy of a concept of timeless significance

by Harald Haarmann (Author)
©2017 Monographs 166 Pages


This study documents various historical instances in the development of the concept «Common Good». The author reflects about Plato's theory of Forms, which is infused with the idea of good, as the first principle of being. Plato was not the first philosopher to address the theme of the Common Good although he was the first to construct a political theory around it. This theme has remained a central agenda for philosophers throughout the ages

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The dream of social harmony
  • Plato as idealist
  • An indispensable premise: Positioning the Common Good in a contextualized approach to Plato’s philosophical endeavor
  • 1. Plato and the homo politicus
  • Ingredients of Plato’s political theory: The Common Good in focus
  • To agathon (“The Common Good”): History of a word revealing an idea with a long tradition
  • 2. The Common Good: Its multilateral relations with society and state
  • The Common Good and its Old European foundations
  • – The communitarian spirit in the pre-Hellenic communities of southeastern Europe
  • – Communal self-governance from the Neolithic through Greek antiquity
  • The communitarian spirit in the light of early statehood: Local communities vis-à-vis political power in the Mycenaean city states
  • 3. The Common Good: Its role as an agent of social cohesion
  • Pan-Hellenism as a signifier of the Common Good: Cultural stereotyping and the emergence of Greek ethnicity
  • – The myth of Athenian aboriginality
  • – The Common Good in the light of cultural stereotyping: Greeks versus Barbarians
  • Central places and early agencies advancing the Common Good for Hellas: The sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia
  • – Delphi as the symbolic center of Hellas
  • – The Council of the Greek tribes at Delphi
  • – Olympia’s role in pan-Hellenism as the Common Good of all Greeks
  • – The Council of elder women at Olympia
  • The Common Good as political practice: The Athenian model of democratic governance
  • – The Common Good as reflected in the pragmatic-political framework set up by Cleisthenes in his reforms
  • – The manifestation of the Common Good as self-administration and self-determination in the village communities (demes)
  • – Athenian democracy: Who shared in the advantages of the Common Good?
  • 4. Plato’s idealization of the Common Good as valuable knowledge
  • Mythical trails of knowledge-retrieval from the past
  • – Knowledge-construction in pre-Socratic philosophy and its transmission to Plato’s world of ideas
  • – Retrieving ancient knowledge from mystery cults
  • Anchoring the Common Good: Agents of divine law in the service of communitarianism
  • The pursuit of happiness and the measure of goodness in its relation with virtue and beauty
  • The Common Good as an overarching maxim in a system of cultural values
  • 5. Plato’s demands for the materialization of the Common Good
  • Plato’s metaphor of the charioteer steering toward goodness and virtue
  • Sacrifice for the Common Good: Protecting the community from outside threats
  • Education for safeguarding the Common Good: The selection of instructive myths to teach the young generation
  • The Common Good for all: Blindfolded justice as a key to gender equality
  • – The heroïne in mythical genealogies
  • – The dream of perfect orderliness
  • – Partnership of the sexes in the light of blindfolded justice
  • Epilogue: The Common Good – Contested perspectives of community life
  • Bibliography
  • Figures
  • Appendices
  • Appendix I: The myth of the Sun (Republic 507 ff.)
  • Appendix II: Plato’s dream (1756)
  • Indices

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Introduction: The dream of social harmony

“We should never underestimate what a word can tell us, for language represents the previous accomplishment of thought”

(Hans Georg Gadamer)

In his seminal study Principia ethica which was published in 1903, the British philosopher George Edward Moore makes a case for the indefinability of the concept ‘good(ness)’:

It may be true that all things which are good are also something else, (…) And it is a fact, that Ethics aims at discovering what are those other properties belonging to all things which are good. But too many philosophers have thought that when they named those other properties they were actually defining good; (…) (Moore 1903, § 10).

If Moore had been more of a cultural scientist he would have been aware of the fact that any item in whatever culture can be defined in relation to other items of the same cultural system. Defining an item in relation to some other item does not denote sameness or similarity. Rather, the procedure of relating one item to others in the system sets up a conceptual frame to the item in question, and the contents of what is delimited by the frame can be identified and specified. In other words, one can define the concept ‘good’ by a process of conceptual contextualization. Contextualization highlights the focal points of concepts within an associational grid but this procedure does not make those concepts the same when set in relation to one another.

If Moore had been more of a linguist he would have been attentive to the fact that the meaning of any expression in whatever language defines itself by means of a grid of lexical items that belong to a particular domain (i.e., language use regarding social and cultural self-identification, the vocabulary of social interaction, the terminology of civic actions within a given society). The idea of good belongs to the realm of values which associates relevant expressions denoting qualities, their connotative underpinnings and their individual and/or collective (= society-oriented) evaluations. When the grid of relevant terms (including the word for expressing ‘good’) is established for a given language then the single expression for ‘good’ can be contextualized, within the particular grid, for the speakers of that language and their habits of using the term. ← 9 | 10 →

According to Moore it might be futile to try to define Plato’s concept of the Common Good. And yet we should not feel discouraged by Moore’s assessment. There are ways of clarifying the relationships in the conceptual network of Plato’s political theory in which the idea of the Common Good plays a key role. Such clarification is not only called for to facilitate an understanding of Plato’s philosophy. The concept ‘Common Good’ itself is worth a thorough discussion. This key concept has been commonly treated as a self-understood value of societal organization.

The political climate has changed, though. In our time, the conditions for the Common Good have become more and more restricted in many states so that we are challenged to reflect upon the contents and purpose of the Common Good anew. The clarification of Plato’s position in his own society, of the inspiration he took from previous periods and reworked in his political scheme and of his idealistic view of the Common Good offers itself as a starting-point for a modern debate on relevant issues such as active citizenship and the pursuit of social harmony in society.

Plato as idealist

There were times when Plato’s ideas were widely criticized; the twentieth century in particular “was pervasively anti-Platonic” (Reinhard 2012: viii). Many kinds of anti-Platonism have emerged. There were the representatives of vitalist anti-Platonism (i.e. Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze), of analytic anti-Platonism (i.e. Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap), of Marxist anti-Platonism who portray Plato as “ideologue of slave owners”, of existentialist anti-Platonism (i.e. Kierkegaard, Sartre), of Heideggerian anti-Platonism, of political-philosophical anti-Platonism (i.e. Popper, Arendt).

On the other hand, it is generally agreed that Plato has inspired generations of philosophers, “creating the first imaginary utopia, fundamental theories of forms and of immortality, an influential cosmogony, a far-ranging critique of knowledge, and a famous analysis of love” (Davies 1996: 111). Nobody denies that Plato’s teachings “have involved significant philosophical progress” (Chalmer 2015: 354). Plato has been praised as “the most significant Western philosopher” (Prosser 2009). In addition to the appreciation of Plato as a philosopher, it has been emphasized that he was also “perhaps the greatest exponent of Greek prose writing, or a dramatist of the first order” (Rowe 2009a: 13).

Plato’s political theory has been subject to all kinds of criticism, often because his text was misread and misinterpreted. What we observe is a kind of paradoxical situation. Despite the surge of anti-Platonism, some explicitly ← 10 | 11 → positive approaches have been entertained. As a counterbalance, a movement arose that has been described as “mystical Platonism” (Reinhard 2012: ix), represented by Guy Lardreau, Christian Jambet and Alain Badiou. Yet, much of Plato’s wealth of ideas on the relationship between the individual, society and state organization has remained beyond the reach of mainstream philosophy. The dialogue Laws is the longest of Plato’s works and makes up about one fifth of the philosopher’s total production, and it is “what Plato clearly intends to be his principal intellectual legacy” (Mount 2010: 187 f.). And yet, until recently, the dialogue Laws has remained “long understudied (…) and is now considered to be his major work of political philosophy besides the Republic” (Bobonich 2010b).

Plato’s theory of Forms is infused with the idea of good, as a principle of being, which itself provides the foundation for the positioning of the Common Good in his political theory. Arguably, the discussion of the idea of good has not produced any consensus as to its overall significance as part of Plato’s endeavor. “A measure of the difficulty can be taken by perusing the literature on Plato’s metaphysics in the English-speaking world, where strategies range from completely ignoring the problem to incoherent and absurd characterizations of the Idea of the Good” (Gerson 2015: 226).

The implications of Plato’s scheme of an ideal state are impressive, especially when viewing them against the background of a panorama of expanded cultural history, spanning a time-frame from the era of the Danube civilization by way of the ancient Aegean cultures into Greek antiquity. Plato was not the first philosopher to address the theme of the Common Good although he was the first to construct a political theory around it. This theme has remained a central agenda for philosophers throughout the ages (Santas 2001).

In this study, I present a survey, documenting various historical instances in the development of the concept ‘Common Good’, from the Neolithic through classical antiquity. There may be those who think that this survey is not overall conclusive since several of the links cannot be proven, in a satisfactory way, on the basis of empirical data and their reconstruction has remained a matter of circumstantial evidence. Hopefully, there are those who will reflect upon the findings of my study in light of Plato’s concept eikos mythos (“a plausible story”). If plausibility is acknowledged for the insights I present, then there will be ample grounds for debate. ← 11 | 12 →

An indispensable premise: Positioning the Common Good in a contextualized approach to Plato’s philosophical endeavor

Many misreadings of Plato’s texts may be explained by the lack of their contextualization in the network of cultural history. For a proper assessment of Plato’s concepts, his ideas have to be contextualized, that is set in perspective vis-à-vis the conditions of Greek society in antiquity. Such a contextualization holds the key to an understanding of the entire Platonic enterprise. The need to apply a comprehensive contextual methodology has been emphasized recently (Haarmann 2016b). Of equal significance for evaluating the impact of Plato’s ideas on his contemporary audience is the definition of the pre-Greek heritage in the Greek worldview of antiquity, that is to say an assessment of the persistent, long-term underpinnings in the Greek belief system that formed the background for Plato’s selection of topics and for his method of argumentation.

Plato did not engage in his philosophical endeavor in order to describe the world. Rather, his aim was to construct the contemporary world in a verbal performative act, as he and other people in antiquity experienced it. Plato went a step further with his utopia – an ideal society in which he distilled the useful knowledge gained from experience with the real world. Plato was the first intellectual to practice what may be called ‘performative philosophy’ although this term is of recent coinage (see Hinrichs 2016 for an outline).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Political philosophy Philosophy of antiquity Plato's utopia of an ideal society Gender equality Blindfolded justice
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 166 pp., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Harald Haarmann (Author)

Harald Haarmann is a German linguist and cultural scientist. He is Vice-President of the "Institute of Archaeomythology" in Sebastopol (California/USA) and director of its "European Branch" in Finland. His research fields are linguistics, cultural studies, and history of religion.


Title: Plato's ideal of the Common Good