The Idea of the “Good”
The concept of prayer didn’t exist until the first step outside the garden. And Adam and Eve’s prayers had to be maddened ones, predicated upon a new and shockingly acquired paranoidic consciousness, completely unlike their prelapserian paranoic1 state wherein the primal couple didn’t know hope or prayer inside the amoral edenic, in the egregious garden where anything was possible anytime.
And that is why you don’t notice the word “good” in the original account of creation in Genesis; that is, the “J” account, written around 1000 B.C.E. during the reign of Solomon—the account wherein Adam and Eve are formed of the dust of the earth and given life through the intimacy of divine breath, with God planting the garden and asking Adam to help him name things (cocreator?), and giving Adam and Eve the garden to “tend” and to “caretake”—as opposed to the “P” account, written around 400 B.C.E. during the high point of Greek culture, wherein Adam is told to “subdue” and “have dominion.” Hence the timeless Western duality regarding a human being’s proper relationship to nature: are we morally obligated to caretake, or are we free to subdue and have dominion?
In ancient Hebrew the word “good” (tov) meant pure or unalloyed. But there was no need to emphasize this notion in the J account because Adam and Eve were already in a paranoic state and free to think and do anything they wanted (except eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). And the Jews themselves, at the time of J’s composition, [End Page 285] had no need to be reminded of their purity, of remaining “unalloyed,” since, during the reign of Solomon, Jewish tribal culture was at its historical high point and the Jewish people were free, powerful, and culturally paranoic.
But in the second account of creation, the P account, which actually appears first in the Bible with “In the beginning” (even though it was composed six hundred years later by Jewish priestly leaders), the word tov repeats over and over, almost in incantation, as the methodical six days of creation unfold (“and God saw that it was good”). The Jewish priests undoubtedly believed that this paranoidic reminder—to remain “unalloyed”—was necessary at a time when Jewish culture was altogether threatened by an overwhelming Greek cultural hegemony. The P account appears, then, as a kind of coded lament for the Jews who feared for their identity inside the Hellenistic world, a lament for the lost splendor of high paranoic Hebrew consciousness that was, by 400 B.C.E., in decline.
And paranoic splendor was what the first couple experienced in their primeval garden before being cast out into the world’s premier wasteland, and the mystically great J author knew this.
The two Hebrew creation accounts were fused together by the redactors (Jewish priestly editors) around 200 B.C.E., and the result was two very different visions of God. In the earlier J account (which appears second in the text) God seems more like an artist, shaping and building and gardening and giving the breath of life; and in the later P account (which appears first) God is more like a magician, pulling creation rabbits out of a hat on a daily basis.
The shift from the God of J to the God of P is clearly a movement away from an ancient anthropomorphic deity one could be intimate with, to one who, in keeping with the Greek cultural emphasis on logos and the power of reason, was more distant and rationally powerful. In the end, the “believer” is left to decide which God is more likable: a God who shapes humans out of dust and intimately offers the breath of life, who likes to picnic in the shade of the garden; or a God who cranks out the machinery of the universe in a chronological and compulsive fashion; who, from a distance, grants us the right to have dominion.
It is also interesting to note here that in ancient Hebrew, Eve is actually created from Adam’s “side,” not rib, indicating that Adam and Eve are equals before God and undermining Milton’s patriarchal dictum that women must find their way to God through men—“Hee for God only, shee for God in him.”2 In fact, Greek translators introduced the word “rib” since they had no word to approximate for “side.” [End Page 286]
More important, however, than the dualism of God in Genesis is the startling Hebrew notion, in the J account, of something higher than the “good”; that is, knowledge of the “good.” Thus, the good is not an action or state of being, but knowledge itself, a notion for which we are indebted to Eve, since she was the one who willingly ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Thus, when faced with the question of whether anything higher than the good exists, the answer, from the prophetic J account, is yes, knowledge of the good is higher than “the good” since, without being beyond the good, the good as knowledge can’t know what the good is. This marvelous and maddening notion of “moral knowledge” is perhaps the greatest Hebrew contribution to the Western idea of the good.
Between the time of the Hebrew writing of the J account and the P account is the oral composition of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 B.C.E.), which includes several Greek words for the good: agathos (well born, brave); kalos (beautiful, noble); aristos (most excellent); kratistos (strongest). Not surprisingly, Achilles exemplifies all of these traits, for Achilles is a “good” warrior and the seeming tragic hero of Homer’s Iliad (considered by many to be the first tragedy in the Western literary tradition). Achilles can kill lots of Trojans and he expresses the four chief values of the Heroic (Mycenaean) Age (1600–1200 B.C.E.)—courage, strength, pride, and honor.
The Trojan War occurred at the end of this great age, sometime between 1200 and 1180 B.C.E., which was also the end of the Bronze Age. And Homer, living in the struggling times of the Iron Age, presents his oral tale with a certain degree of nostalgia for the supposed glory of the heroic past about which his audience longed to hear.
What Homer’s audience didn’t expect to hear, however, was the subversive notion, considered by Hector, of suspending the values of the entire Heroic Age by the frailest strands of paranoic, moral thought:
so Hector, grim and narrow-eyed … in his brave heart bitterly reflected: “Here I am badly caught. If I take cover, slipping inside the gate and wall, the first to accuse me for it will be Poulydamas, he who told me I should lead the Trojans back to the city on that cursed night Achilles joined the battle. No, I would not, wiser though it would have been. Now troops have perished for my foolish pride. … Better, when that time comes, that I [End Page 287] appear as he who killed Achilles man to man. … Suppose, though, that I lay my shield and helm aside, and prop my spear against the wall, and go to meet the noble Prince Achilles, promising Helen, promising with her all treasures that Alexandros brought home by ship to Troy. … Then I might add a portion of all the secret wealth the city owns … share and share alike … all that is here within the walls. Ah, no, why even put the question to myself? I must not go before him and receive no quarter, no respect! … Better we duel, now at once, and see to whom the Olympian awards the glory. …”
These were his shifts of mood. … Now close at hand Achilles like the implacable god of war came on with blowing crest, hefting the dreaded beam of Pelian ash on his right shoulder.3
This climactic moment in the Iliad, certainly a precursor to modern moral sensibility, occurs just before Hector runs around the citadel of Troy in an effort to flee from the charging Achilles. Instead of relying upon instinct to know the “good,” as Achilles would (indeed, as nearly all the warriors of Homer’s Heroic Age would), Hector reflects inwardly in order to discover the right thing to do. And, thus, the idea of the “good” as moral reasoning is born in the West.
Hector’s prophetic attempt to figure the right action is what modern ethicists term “secondary morality,” that is, relying upon reason to choose the good. Such moral reasoning did not fully arrive in Greece until the sophists introduced it with their rhetorical teachings in the fifth century. In Homer’s time, “primary morality,” or acting instinctively in accord with accepted and inherited codes of behavior (Achilles), was still the heroic rule of thumb. And the most important code of behavior during the Heroic Age was honor. Moreover, it was precisely the notion of honor that Hector paranoically dared to undermine by considering sharing Troy’s wealth instead of fighting Achilles. By repudiating the convention of “honor,” Hector was, in fact, overthrowing the “age” itself and, more precisely, Achilles’s exaggerated sense of honor, which caused the great Greek hero to retreat and pout after Agamemnon, king of kings, took away Briseis, Achilles’s Trojan woman war prize.
Achilles’s ethical authority weakens more when he prays to his goddess-mother, Thetis, and asks her to intercede with the gods in order to ensure enemy victories, which in turn would lead to the Greeks begging Achilles to fight, thus keeping his honor intact. In the Heroic Age, such treason is forgiven, because a hero’s honor is actually a higher good than hapless soldiers’ deaths. [End Page 288]
Homer, however, subversively wants to undermine this value system, which is why he frames his epic tale between Achilles’s withdrawal from the battle at the beginning of the epic and his acquiescence at the end (book 24), when he allows Priam to recover Hector’s body. Homer is very interested in exposing the flaw in the Greek notion of the good that allows the hero to acquire sacred status at the expense of his soldiers on the field. Before his “reflection speech,” Hector ironically echoes this flaw when he states that “someone inferior to me may say: he kept his pride and lost his men, this Hector!”
To accentuate this cultural flaw, Homer offers the barbaric and unforgettable image of Hector’s corpse being dragged around the citadel. Such a scene makes it clear, even to the audience in Homer’s time, that Achilles has lost his high seat as champion by choosing vengeance over moral duty.
Against such heroic fallenness, Homer subversively offers Hector, the true hero of the epic who, in terms of cultural values, is so paranoically “beside the mind” as to actually consider the unthinkable—surrendering—giving up the riches of Troy and “sharing” in order to secure safety and peace.
In the Classical period, the presocratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (fl. 500 B.C.E.) argued that “logos”—rational pure thought and being—was the “good” for which all should strive. However, Heraclitus believed people were too ignorant to care for the Logos, which exists above the corporeal world of flux and fire. The unenlightened masses only wanted to spend their lives in the realm of ceaseless becoming (genetia). For Heraclitus, real knowledge was with the Logos, the transcendent good beyond the world of flux and change.
A generation later, the philosopher Parmenides (fl. 460 B.C.E.) countered Heraclitus by arguing that reality was unchanging being (esti) because “not-being cannot be.”4 Things only seem to be created and destroyed when perceived by the senses. But, when viewed with pure reason, there is only indestructible being. In what would become the metaphysical formula for Platonic and Christian thought, Parmenides imagined existence as a vertical construct: what is good moved upward toward light, air, reason, and truth; and the nongood moved downward toward darkness, earth, flesh, and error. [End Page 289]
By the middle of the fifth century the sophists, the first moral philosophers, were flourishing in Athens and their teachings served to bring down the “good” to a pragmatic level. They equated Âreté (virtue) with success in everyday life. A good life, therefore, meant achieving wealth, power, and social status, and the sophists hired themselves out to teach the skills necessary to acquire such a “successful” life.
For Socrates, the sophist’s material notion of the good was a call to philosophic arms. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates challenges the sophists in the streets of Athens by redefining Âreté as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This is Socrates’s idea of a “good” life, and it has nothing to do with success in the material sense.
Socrates’s idea of the “good” is the high-water mark of Greek moral thinking, and it can be directly connected to Hector’s act of “reflection” in order to know the good, as well as to the Hebrew notion of the good as predicated upon the knowledge of good and evil.
Ultimately, for Socrates, pursuing knowledge for its own sake would enable glimpses of transcendent ideals that exist beyond the corporeal world. However, viewed collectively, the sophist-Socrates debate would lead to a key Western dualism: is knowledge valuable only if it results in material gain and comfort, or can knowledge be valuable as an end in itself, separate from any material measurement?
The sophist and Socratic notions of the good would profoundly intersect in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.), particularly in Pericles’s famous funeral speech delivered after the first battle between Athens and Sparta in 431. In Pericles’s visionary and paranoic speech, he defines a good citizen and a good city in terms that are both practical and ideal, unity that has rarely been matched in Western history, as proven by Lincoln’s weighty reliance on Pericles’s speech for his magisterial Gettysburg Address.
For its dauntless anticontentment message, the funeral oration is in keeping with Socrates’s high idealism as recorded in Plato’s Apology, wherein “a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chances of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong, acting the part of the good man or the bad.”5
Pericles, in his speech, sounds so expansive that he actually tells the Athenians to throw “open the city,” and let everyone in because, as a great democracy, Athens fears no one. All should be welcome, he asserts, to partake of the Athenian political and cultural experience. [End Page 290]
Thus, for Pericles, the “good” of Athens isn’t so much a place to be secured but a state of being. In stark contrast to Sparta, the “good” of Athens cannot be destroyed even if all the buildings are burned to the ground. (It was rumored that Pericles burned down his own house after the speech in order to prove that Athenians had nothing to fear, even if Sparta sacked the city.)
Pericles not only reasons that cultural superiority meant Athens has nothing to fear from Sparta but that great sacrifice is sometimes necessary in order for the goodness of Athens to survive:
Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way—if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. …
If we turn to our military police, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our openness, trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.
… And it is only the Athenians who, fearless of consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of free men. … In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas. …6
Of course, the Athenians could hardly live up to such demanding idealism. The plague of 431 served to weaken their resolve (they blamed the calamity, which killed almost one-quarter of the population in Athens, on foreigners); and paranoidic fears in general, in conjunction with weak political leadership (Pericles died in 429), fostered an increasing need to intimidate their neighbors in order to prove their own inner stability and worth. Such paranoidic behavior led to the Melian massacre [End Page 291] of 416 and to the Sicilian military disaster of 413, which marked the beginning of the end for Athens, for its democracy, and for its high paranoic notion of the good.
In the fourth century Aristotle, Plato’s star student, brought the idea of the good down from Plato’s ethereal sky by fostering a pragmatic system of ethics based on the notion of the golden mean—a moderate and secure method for achieving contentment. Aristotle’s golden mean was a rational but relative means for avoiding excess on any continuum; for example, plotting the point of happy moderation between pride and humility.
Aristotle connected happiness with the acquisition of virtue (Âreté), which he often defined as the “excellence of a thing,” and virtue to “entelechy,” or the ability for all things to achieve their potential. Human potential would be realized through a life of reason since the practice of “reason” is what made human beings “excellent” and therefore virtuous.
Aristotle actually employed the term eudemonia, which in Greek means “happiness through a life governed by reason.” And for more than two thousand years we’ve been stuck with the often undisputed connection between eudemonia and the idea of the good. Paradoxically, the more happiness we think we have, living our life of reason, the more we become irrationally paranoidic over losing it. And, thus, the story of philosophy after the fourth century in Greece becomes largely a series of variations on the theme of contentment, at the expense of pursuing a paranoic vision of the good.
At least Socrates had demanded expansive consciousness in order to grasp absolute virtue, and at least Plato had relied upon transcendent vision in order to outline his ideal state of justice. But after Alexander the Great, the expanding world seemed too much of a burden (especially with the empire rising and then falling). Instead of focusing on “being” in relation to the idea of the good, thinkers chose methodologies that would ensure the safety of the individual’s private earth-space amid the ever-complicated political-cultural world.
This is why the history of philosophy, from Aristotle through the Romans, became largely a battlefield between the Epicureans and the Stoics: the former crying “Retreat, retreat—into your garden, into your pocket of controlled happiness, the safest happiness being intellectual—away from the busy world looming beyond your windows”; and the latter crying “Endure, endure—venture into the world but don’t let what you can’t change affect your peace of mind; and, no matter what, don’t let your emotions destroy you.” [End Page 292]
The Romans managed to translate stoicism into a far-reaching cultural and moral code, and this code eventually influenced the burgeoning spirit of Christianity down all the westfall years.
In the twelfth century a Teutonic notion of the good—gutten (to bring together or unite)—entered the English lexicon. Its semantic opposition to the Hebrew tov (unalloyed, pure) added complexity to the Western tradition’s central ethical dilemma: is it better to remain separate, or should we gather and unify? Is the greater good to be found in self-development or in communal expression and acting for others?
In this context, the idea of the “good” can seem quite ironic at times. For instance, the Nazis hubristically believed in their “unalloyed” Aryan superiority, even though Germanic culture in general championed the antonymous notion—to unify (gutten).
Historically, Western philosophy has mostly failed when trying to mediate the competing goods of self vs. community; from Socrates’s “turn to the self first,” to Plato’s “turn toward the State first,” to Hegel’s trusting in the Absolute Idea, to Nietzsche and Heidegger depending on will and creativity to overcome nihilism, to Sartre’s naive theory of intersubjectivity whereby in choosing for our self we simultaneously choose for all.
The Western failure to solve the ethical conflict between public and private interests resulted in a modern legacy where people must choose between purported social utopias wherein one gives up freedoms and self-expression for security and so-called happiness, or the free existential underworld of self-expression and greater consciousness.
For Rousseau in the eighteenth century, these competing notions of the good become more confusing with the growing influence of the “bourgeois,” or those who have been taught to live for themselves in the midst of people for whom they do not care but in whom they are nonetheless obliged to feign interest. Rousseau laments that there is no longer a “good” in which all can share and bond, that people are attached only by bonds of self-interest.
Rousseau’s answer is “general will,” or people acting and voting for what is best for all, rather than for what benefits their self-interest. Unfortunately, Rousseau’s Social Contract doesn’t offer an effective way to convince the individual to act for the general will, especially if the intended good doesn’t seem to benefit that individual, which leads to Kant devising his bloodless “moral imperative.” [End Page 293]
In the nineteenth century the idea of the “good” becomes equated with utilitarianism, a philosophy predicated on the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Growing out of the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the increasing cultural influences of science and technology, utilitarianism actually stretches back to Aristotle’s pragmatic ethics. The term itself comes from the Latin utilis, meaning profitable and advantageous. Some of the more extreme utilitarians (Jeremy Bentham, for example) believed that the utilitarian “good” could actually be quantifiably measured.
In 1852, John Henry Cardinal Newman, fearing that utilitarian thinking was undermining the ideals of education, delivered his seminal lecture, “The Idea of the University.” Newman argued for a “good” that transcended his culture’s obsession with utilitarian thinking and quantifiable ethics. His paranoic contravention was that the “useful” was not always good, whereas the good was always useful. Moreover, the good is not a fixed goal but rather a process of thinking, an outward and inward journey. The good multiplies and overflows. And for Newman, the idea of the good evolves just as human beings evolve.
Let us take “useful” to mean, not what is simply good, but what tends to good, or is the instrument of good. … “Good” indeed means one thing, and “useful” means another; but I lay it down as a principle … that though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific; it is not only good to the eye, but to the taste; it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself; it excites first our admiration and love, then our desire and gratitude. … A great good will impart great good. … It must be useful to the possessor and to all around him; not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or a power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world. I say then, if a liberal education be good, it must necessarily be useful too.7
Twenty years later (1872) Friedrich Nietzsche, in his essay “The Birth of Tragedy,” posited an oppositional understanding of the “good” based on his philological studies.8 Nietzsche found that in almost every language the origin of the word “good” was synonymous with the ruling class or aristocracy; such as the word “noble,” meaning both a good action as well as an upper-class person. On the other hand, the idea of “evil,” according to Nietzsche, arrived much later and was always based [End Page 294] on resentment felt by the people who didn’t have power and who were, therefore, caught up in “slave morality.”
In Nietzsche’s later writings the “good” would eventually become equated with anything that benefits an individual’s will to power. And anything that hides this painful truth is in league with the “lies of the millennia”; which means that Jesus himself had to be reevaluated because he preached in favor of humility and meekness.
Even though Nietzsche questioned the presumed virtues of Jesus, he never took issue with John’s notion of the logos in the opening of his New Testament gospel. The Greek logos, which had been interpreted in various ways by the early philosophers, was now, according to John, the “word” itself from God. And as an expression from God, the word had to be the “good,” emanating toward all human beings.
And maybe the “word” is what Adam and Eve heard as well, upon their dismissal from the garden, just before the primordial wasteland closed around them—before they began to suffer the consciousness of a finite life within their infinite minds. The “word”: sourced from eternity, nourished their paranoic notions of the good amidst a fallen and paranoidic world.
1. “Paranoia,” from the Greek, literally means “beside [para] the mind [noia].” “Paranoidic” and “paranoic” are terms from my book, Paranoia and Contentment: A Personal Essay on Western Thought (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005). The terms express two fundamentally different notions of the paranoia concept: paranoic refers to off-track thinking that is dangerously creative and expansive, a notion lost after Plato and Hypocrites; paranoidic refers to off-track thinking in the modern, clinical sense of fears and delusions, and dread of the loss of contentment.
2. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: The Odyssey Press, 1957), 4.299.
3. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 22.115–59.
4. Wheelwright, Phillip, ed. and trans., The Presocratics (New York: Odyssey Press, 1966), p. 96.
5. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, ed. J. D. Kaplan (New York: Washington Square Press, 1951), p. 21.
6. Thucydides, “The Funeral Oration of Pericles (431 B.C.),” in The Portable Greek Historians, ed. M. I. Finley (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 269. [End Page 295]
7. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “The Idea of a University,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Carol T. Christ and Catherine Robson (New York: Norton and Company, 2006), p. 1038.
8. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). [End Page 296]