By Alasdair C MacIntyre

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The passages about the Cave picture men chained so that they cannot see the daylight; behind them a fire and a puppet show are so contrived that the prisoners see a procession of shadows on the wall. They believe that the words in their language refer to the shadows and that the shadows are the sole reality. A man who escaped from the Cave would slowly accustom himself to the light of the world outside. He would pick out, first, shadows and reflections; then physical objects; and finally, the heavenly bodies and the sun.

Just this is what Socrates’ successors undertake, and they move in two main directions. Plato accepts the fact that moral concepts are only intelligible against the background of a certain sort of social order; he then tries to delineate it, providing or attempting to provide at the same time a justification in terms of the order of the universe. The Cynics and Cyrenaics by contrast seek to provide a moral code independent of society, tied only to the individual’s choices and decisions, and attempting to make the individual moral life self-sufficient.

From these examples he draws the conclusion that we are entitled to call something καλ ς if it is useful or pleasant, or both, in the eyes of a disinterested spectator. Thus if Polus agrees that to suffer injury undeservedly is more honorable, it must be because it is pleasanter and more beneficial. But for Polus these define the content of “what a man wants,” so he can no longer consistently dissent from Socrates’ view. A further very simple conceptual point is at issue here which Plato does not bring out explicitly.

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