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By Alasdair C MacIntyre

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But a coward may feel more relief than a courageous man when danger is avoided, and so more pleasure. Callicles is therefore persuaded to concede a distinction between kinds of pleasure, and this is just what the Platonic Socrates needs. Socrates then develops his own positive view, and in so doing, gains certain permanent ground in moral philosophy. Callicles’ ideal is of a good which consists in the pursuit of one’s desires without limit. Socrates had already suggested that limitless desire is unsatisfiable desire; now he argues that the concept of good is necessarily bound up with the concept of observing a limit.

By dialectic Plato understands a process of rational argument which is a development from the dialogue of the Socratic interrogation. Beginning from some proposition which has been advanced for consideration, one ascends in one’s search for justifications up a deductive ladder until one reaches the indubitable certainties of the Forms. What Plato presents in the Republic is a progress in Plato: the republic 29 rational argument, culminating in a vision of the Form of the Good (that is, in a vision of what the predicate good stands for–that in virtue of which it has meaning).

A very brief reconsideration of the central arguments of the Republic makes it clear why on Plato’s terms this has to be so. The argument begins from the need for an understanding of the meaning of ethical predicates apart from their particular applications. This starting point will recur in the history of philosophy in writers as different from Plato as St. Augustine and Wittgenstein. When we inquire about what it is for something to be just or red or equal, the rational first move is to offer examples, to try and give a list of just actions or red objects or cases of equality.

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