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Plato's ideal of the Common Good

Anatomy of a concept of timeless significance

Harald Haarmann

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

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1. Plato and the homo politicus


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1.  Plato and the homo politicus

Plato’s political theory has been misinterpreted by many philosophers because its true essence simply does not make itself manifest to them. In part, this may be due to the tacit underpinnings that underlie Plato’s reasoning and which reflect a certain intellectual zeitgeist. These underpinnings have to be laid bare for the purpose of setting Plato’s endeavor in perspective. Philosophers who read Plato usually do not pay much attention to the embedding of Plato’s work in the Greek society of antiquity the analysis of which holds the key to an understanding of Plato’s motivation to engage in his philosophical discourse. And there are those who treat Plato’s texts as reflecting the fame and glory of their author. “Blinded by his glory and bewitched by his poetry many see only what they wish to see (…); others, infuriated by his inhumanity and his lordly affectation of knowledge, lose patience with the task of trying to understand him” (Sinclair 1951: 166).

As regards the basics of Plato’s political philosophy, this seems to have been shared by his disciple Aristotle whose ideas otherwise deviate from the teachings of his mentor.

Aristotle – though he rejected the Platonic identification of polis and oikos, asserting the pluralistic structure of the former [Aristotle, Politics, I, 1, 1252a 8 ff.; II, 2-3, 1261a 10-1262a 24] – never truly departed from the Platonic program that we may call “ethics of the polis,” the essence of which...

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