Aphrodite, Athena, Hera and Zeus, acc. by Apollo
Archaistic relief showing five divinities: Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Hera, and Zeus.

The Good, the True, the Beautiful...and Justice

From the mythical to the philosophical...





Homer's gods

 

Plato's Good


Olympic hierarchy
Zeus is supposed to be in charge. He boasts of being stronger than all the other gods together but appears to avoid putting it to the test. See 'the golden rope', Il. 8.19. Hera is number two though she wants more, Athena is Tritogeneia, third-born (just as Zeus became first-born) and Aphrodite is fourth, though sometimes stronger than Zeus himself.

Plato's view of the Absolute Good

The solid red part is our Nomos, its border is Sophrosyne



concept:

the Good

the True

the Beautiful

Justice

god:

Hera

Athena

Aphrodite

Zeus

gift:

Power

Victory

Beauty

-

Homer:

status

cleverness (μῆτις), know-how,

know-when (boldness)

"have" beauty or "be" beauty

Fate

Plato:

Spirit(1), thumos

Reason, calculation

Desire, Eros

-

class:

auxiliaries (soldiers)

rulers

working class

-

object(1):

status

success

pleasure

share

subject(1):

excellence (ἀρετή),

'unchanging'-ness

truth

beauty

proportion

virtue:

(Plato)

ἀνδρεία

courage, manliness

φρόνησις, σοφία

wisdom

σωφροσύνη

moderation

-

vice:

hubris

deception

indulgence

-

wife(4):

Χρυσόθεμις

"golden order"

Λαοδίκη

"people (or army)'s justice"

Ἰφιάνασσα

"she rules by force"

-

trinity(5):

God the Father

the Good is first

the Holy Spirit

we see that it's True

the Son

the hero who dies for us like Achilles

-



What is Good?

What is Good in Plato's Republic is made clear by the postulated similarity between the soul and the polis. The three classes of the population (


What is best?

First, one important caveat: 'good' here is the qualitative good, not the moral good. It is a-moral (see the gods). Our platonist and christian habits of speech have really shifted the meaning of the word. So what is the good in ancient Greece?

A member of Plato's class, the aristocracy, would soon know the answer to that: 'we are'. We are Kalos kagathos; our fathers were the best men and we inherited their ἀρετὴ; we boast of being warriors and winners. Here is one characteristic of the good: it is that which gives status. But birth or boasting alone is not enough: a good man must be manly (ἀνδρεία) with all that implies: brave, dominant, steady (not going this way and that, ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα(2) but straight on), and possessing spirit (the Homeric word is thymos, θῡμός)(3), an important concept which describes the man of quality. It implies all the above character traits and also a dynamic quality: ambition, energy, drive.

There is another aspect of the ancient Greek 'good': it is unchanging. A good apple is one that does not rot, a good sword stays sharp. Again, a natural point of view for an aristocrat. The proper order of society (themis) has the best people on top and this ought not to change. To be able to resist the onslaught of change, a thing needs power, strength. Thus the semantic range of the concept includes status, quality, power, courage(4).




  1. Plato actually distinguishes two levels of 'the Good': the lower, which is 'Spirit', the declared aristocratic quality, and the higher, which is the highest Platonic Good, the source of everything. This one appropriates the place of Zeus.
  2. "what it gives"
  3. "what it is about"
  4. One of Agamemnon's daughters, promised to Achilles if he will come back to fight (Il 9.287)
  5. Historically there is some debate about which of the Trinity is which.
    Diderot: "Truth, which is the father begets goodness, which is the son, whence proceeds the beautiful, which is the holy ghost". The neoplatonists maintained rightly that the Father is the Good but they saw the Son as the True.
  6. As in the metaphor in Il 2.397 or 2.779
  7. One can have too much of it, it is also related to anger. It may lead to hubris (ὕβρις) and ἀγηνορίη, like the lion in Il 12.46, Achilles in Il 24.42, Hector in Il 22.457 or the suitors.
    Unfortunately the Homeric style is not really geared to precise use of individual words so we have to struggle to decide by context what words such as thumos mean.
  8. I use 'courage' here in the sense of 'not turning to run, not giving up'. There is a related kind of courage more associated with Athena, that is 'boldness', know-when, grabbing the opportunity.