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 Kalos and Agathos in Plato's Meno?
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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 14 Jun 2007 :  08:43:36  


Please forgive me for cluttering this board with an inconsequential question.

In W. K. C. Guthrie's translation of Plato's Meno, Meno at 77b proposes a definition of virtue - that it is to desire fine things and to be able to acquire them. Socrates responds with a question: When you speak of a man desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires? Meno agrees. And Socrates then proceeds with an argument, not relevant for our purposes here, that all men desire good things, so that Meno's proposed definition should reduce simply to 'the power of acquiring good things' (78c).

What are the Greek terms Plato employs in this passage for Guthrie's "fine" and "good"? Might they happen to be our old friends from the Gorgias, "kalos" and "agathos"?

And can anyone explain why Plato takes such an elaborate approach here? That is: why start Meno off with "fine" and then secure his agreement to switch over to "good"? (If I were writing the dialogue and thought "good" differed in some important way from "fine", I might just save a step and start Meno off with "good".) This question seems especially puzzling if it is "kalos" and "agathos" that are in play here, terms which we seem to be agreeing in the Gorgias thread mean pretty much the same thing.

Finally and less consequentially, Meno at 77b says his definition rephrases "the words of the poet, 'to rejoice in the fine and have power'." Does anyone happen to know who this poet might be? Plato is forever quoting Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, and Pindar. But Guthrie here doesn't venture to say who "the poet" may be.

Don


 

George

Greece
615 Posts

Posted - 14 Jun 2007 :  12:31:00  

 

Hi Don,

You guessed right, these very terms are used also here: "desire fine [=kala] things", is turned by Socrates to "desire good [=agatha] things". Guthrie doesn't mention the poet referred by Meno, probably because his works are lost. A quick search that I made did not return any results, at any rate.

Thanks for noticing the turn from kalos to agathos. One can think of it from many aspects, and I believe that in any case we are at least sure about a presupposition, that all fine things are also good. The opposite may not be true, but this it is, according to Socrates' use. Yet indeed, why Plato started this way?

We can guess that he took a known dictum and built upon it, wanting to connect his talk with popular knowledge. The turn itself, as I understand it, is made to be used in the discussion that follows. Socrates makes the point that some people want harmful things by thinking they are useful, because no one wants deliberately to be miserable. To say the same argument by terms of beauty and ugliness would be more abstract and subjective, at a level when one may not have in mind the high beauty, the "brightest" (phanotaton), which is revealed in the conversation with God.

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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 15 Jun 2007 :  05:20:05  

 

Why the shift? "We can guess that he took a known dictum and built upon it, wanting to connect his talk with popular knowledge." Why might Plato suppose agathos supports his argument better than kalos? "To say the same argument by terms of beauty and ugliness would be more abstract and subjective . . ." Those speculations make sense to me. I can't think of anything better.

A wild question now, groping in the dark. Might it be that, in Greek, there's a well-defined opposite of agathos, but no well-defined opposite of kalos? Let me explain. In the English translations I work with, it seems to me that what drives Socrates' argument is not goodness (agathos), but rather the opposite of goodness, evil. It's because evil clearly is harmful that Socrates can so plausibly suggest no one would desire it. But again, in the English translations I work with, the opposite of kalos seems more indefinite. You in this thread treat it as "the ugly"; but in my translation of the Gorgias argument, the opposite of kalos comes out as "the shameful". So here's my speculation. Plato started off with kalos in order, as you say, to connect with popular usage. But all sorts of problems might have arisen if he had tried to pose his argument in terms of the opposite of kalos. ("No, not at all. I wouldn't say no one desires the ugly. After all, Socrates is ugly, and Alcibiades desires him." And so on and so on.) But these problems might vanish if we allow Plato to switch from kalos to agathos. Because agathos does have a well-defined opposite, which we plausibly can construe as harmful.

Anyway, whether or not the above speculation makes sense, could you please tell me what is the opposite of agathos, the word which Guthrie translates as "evil"? And similarly, what in Greek is the opposite of kalos? Does the opposite of kalos indeed seem indefinite, or does kalos perhaps seem to have several differing opposites?

Don

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George

Greece
615 Posts

Posted - 15 Jun 2007 :  07:35:42  

 

The opposite of kalos is aishros (αἰσχρός), meaning ugly and shameful (cf. e.g. Theaet. 185e, Symposium 201e, Alk I 107b). In Symposium (187d-e) there is the distinction between kalos eros (fine love) and pandimos eros (popular love, mainly sexual). Thus Kalos may mean also the superior, high and right. Cf. kalos hreisthai (καλῶς χρῆσθαι) meaning the proper use of something. All of these mean that kalos may have various opposites according to the context (ugly, not-suitable, improper, wrong, etc).

The opposite of agathos is kakos (evil, bad, wrong). Yet isn't also evil an opposite of kalos? I think that both epithets tend to be identified, with kalos emphasizing more the agreement with the harmony of the world, belonging to the fundamental logos and harmony of the creation, while the emphasis of agathos goes to the more practical consequences of that agreement. Their opposites respectively emphasize distance from that harmony, which is ugliness (aishros) and the consequences of that distance and distortion, which is evil.

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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 17 Jun 2007 :  06:46:24  

 

Thank you, George. That was extremely helpful. I especially appreciated your comparison of aishros as a circumstance of departure from harmony with kakos as the consequences of such a circumstance. That seems to make clear to me how these concepts are closely related yet can point in differing directions. It also seems to me to clarify why Plato should want, in this Meno passage, to argue in terms of agathos-kakos rather than kalos-aishros - since kakos (with its connotation of consequences) would more clearly be something harmful, which no one would desire.

Don

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