posted by UK, September 8, 2023
It is easy to understand theoretically how the sound of a violin is produced. But it is very difficult to turn this intellectual understanding into the actual ability to play the violin well. Similarly, as humanity, we have already grasped many profound concepts a long time ago, but in some cases it has taken us thousands of years to put these concepts into practice. For example, humanity has been aware of the concept of zero since the 3rd millennium BCE when the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians already used a placeholder symbol for it, but we did not harness its practical significance for a very long time. In the 6th century BCE, the Pythagoreans already promoted universal fraternity based on the idea of a common humanity, but we cannot say that we have had great success yet in putting this into practice.
The same can be said of another ancient concept I came across in our classes at New Acropolis: the concept of ‘metaphysical goods’. To illustrate this, there is a well-known story about Socrates at the marketplace where he asks a young man: “Where can I find bread?” After receiving a polite reply, Socrates asks: “And where can I find wine?” The young man responds again with patient courtesy. “And where can I find the Good and the Noble?” The young man was perplexed and did not know what to answer. “Follow me to the streets and learn”, said the philosopher.
This story, told by Xenophon, shows in a very simple way the distinction between physical and metaphysical goods. Metaphysical goods are not tangible goods, but they are ‘goods’ or ‘values’ that belong to a different ‘dimension’ of reality. They are very difficult to measure, to define and to produce. And yet, for philosophers like Socrates and Plato, these are the most important goods that we can produce, and that we are all looking to obtain. Examples of these goods are wisdom, benevolence, serenity, a sense of responsibility, understanding, compassion, etc.
We can see that most of these metaphysical goods can be called ‘virtues’. Plato taught that if we only produced physical goods and had no virtues, then the material goods would corrupt us and lead to greed, envy, laziness, addiction, distraction, selfishness… On the other hand, if we had wisdom, generosity, perseverance, kindness, etc. we would not only be able to use the material goods wisely but also be more likely to succeed in all our endeavours.
Today, we consider the production of physical goods as one of the most important factors for the economic development and well-being of a country. But Socrates and Plato taught that the production of physical goods would not lead to the production of virtues whereas the production of metaphysical goods would naturally lead to material goods.
In the Apology, Plato writes: “Wealth does not bring about virtue [or excellence], but virtue makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” And in the Laws: “All the gold upon the earth and all the gold beneath it does not compensate for lack of virtue”.
So, these ideas are not new; they have been around for a very long time, even if they sound quite ‘radical’ today. But how much longer will it take us humans to apply these insights to the way we live? When are we going to realize that it is us, every single one of us, who must produce these metaphysical goods within ourselves? And when are we seriously going to think how we could provide an education that could bring out these ‘meta-physical’ qualities that are latent in all of us?
However, it is good to see at least that these ideas are still expressed today by well-known public figures, as the following quotes show.
Václav Havel: “Without commonly shared and widely entrenched moral values and obligations, neither the law, nor democratic government, nor even the market economy will function properly.” And from the same author: “We still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science, and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of our actions – if they are to be moral – is responsibility. Responsibility for something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success.”
Martin Luther King Jr.: “Vanity asks, is it popular? Politics asks, will it work? But conscience and morality ask, is it right?”
Helen Keller: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
But the question remains: are we as individuals ready yet to put these insights into practice?
Image Credits: By Said | Pexels | CC0