Good – what is the meaning of ‘good’? What does it take to be good? Is goodness innate in man? These are just some of the questions that these philosophers have spent time pondering and preaching about through their books and teachings. Though this simple word may have a variety of definitions, its idea is universal.
Born of poverty in Zou, Lu of ancient China in 551 BC, Confucius has been able to work his way up the political ladder by spending most of his life traveling across China spreading word of his teachings. His most famous principle, which is considered to be the Golden Rule, states, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.’ He had lived his life as an example of this belief. He wrote a series of works about what is now known as Confucianism, but it is in the piece called ‘The Analects’ that his teachings are the most palpable. He believed that, as a ruler, one’s primary goal should be the welfare of his people. Moral uprightness and a life lived in accordance to exacting guidelines leading toward the attainment of harmony remain to be the essential principles of Confucianism today.
2. Mencius – Mengzi (372 ”œ 289 B.C.)
Mencius, also born in Zou, China, was a great Chinese thinker who was indisputably most similar to Confucius himself. He asserted that man is innately good, and society’s influence is what causes man to acquire a bad moral character. Two of his famous quotes are: ‘He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature’ and ‘The way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind.’ He suggested that we were born with goodness, but as we grow, we learn to be bad through the pressures of society. However, after acquiring more knowledge about ourselves, we are able regain our goodness. Mencius himself is widely regarded in China as the greatest writer among the ancient philosophers.
3. Socrates (469 ”œ 399 B.C.)
Socrates, who is famed for the saying, ‘The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance’ believed that the best way to live out one’s life is to focus on developing oneself and on gaining material wealth. He believed that man has virtues which he considers to be the most valuable of all possessions. He also suggested that people are able to change and reform because they are inherently good. In The Republic, he describes the ‘divided line,’ as a continuum of ignorance to knowledge with the good on top of it all. Only at the top of this line do we find true good and the knowledge of such.
4. Plato (427 ”œ 347 B.C.)
‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ This philosophy was practiced by Plato who was a Greek philosopher and a student of Socrates who, in turn, taught Aristotle. He was born into a noble family which entitled him to be educated in all fields of knowledge. Just like his teacher, Plato was searching for a greater purpose and meaning in life. He was in search of truth.
5. Aristotle (384 ”œ 322 B.C.)
According to Aristotle, everything that we pursue or aim at is good. He believed that one’s virtue is equal to a person’s ability to fulfill his purpose which refers to the optimum activity of the soul in regard to one’s happiness or complete well-being. He also asserted that to achieve this, one should attain excellence which he defines through this quote, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’
6. Rene Descartes (1596 ”œ 1650)
Descartes started out his career as a mathematician scholar. This French philosopher is famous for his principle ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He studied and redefined human wisdom. His universal doubt theory states that man should not believe anything other than his own existence. Nothing is dependable except one’s own thinking. We should only trust ourselves and our ability to make the right decisions in life.
7. John Locke (1632 ”œ 1704)
John Locke was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of the Enlightenment thinkers. Although Locke is famed for his belief that man is born with an ’empty’ mind, a tabula rasa, which is developed by experience through the different senses, he still believed that man is basically good. He believed that education makes man what he is ”œ whether good or bad, useful or ineffectual. He believed that a system of rewards and punishment affects the actions of man being the rational creature that he is.
8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 ”œ 1778)
Rousseau is considered one of the most important persons of the French Enlightenment with works such as The Social Contract and L’Emile. He believed that freedom was essential. In the field of education, he theorized that parents should only aid their children in their natural growth. He made his mark, however, in the field of politics. According to Rousseau, the concept of government is equated with the desire of the people for balance and common good, a state which he called the ‘people’s general will.’ His major philosophical statement is that man is born inherently good, but it is society that corrupts him as evident in his well-known quote ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’
9. Immanuel Kant (1724 ”œ 1804)
This German philosopher believed that the performance of one’s duties is of greater importance than happiness for self or others. He also believed that while scientists have the ability to predict the future actions of man, man’s free will remains unaffected by such predictions. His Critique of Pure Reason (1781) refuted philosopher David Hume’s contention that scientists should not assume that they know much of the universe and should, therefore, not even try to explain it based on their theories. Kant claimed that man’s knowledge was neither limitless nor his theories too assuming. Kant also adopted Rousseau’s belief in the inherent goodness of man upon birth. Kant maintained that man can trust in and give importance to his innate ideas only.
10. John Stuart Mill (1806 ”œ 1873)
John Stuart Mill, a British academic, is considered to be the most significant philosopher of the 19th century. He is one of the two philosophers who contributed to the theory known as Utilitarianism. Mill perceives Utilitarianism as a way to answer the question, ‘What is man born to do?’ and his answer to this sensible question was that man has to act to reach the most positive outcome in life. He justifies this theory with his belief in intrinsic value which, according to Mill, ‘Something is held to be good in itself apart from further consequences, and all other values are believed to derive their worth from their relation to this intrinsic good as a means to an end.’ He proffered that man is intrinsically good and could find a way to reach the ultimate goal which is overall ‘happiness.’
In philosophy, the concept of ‘goodness’ is equated with something that is important or valuable. With this definition, these philosophers can be considered as exemplars of goodness as they not only brought forth many important ideas, but they themselves are considered persons of great import and value and are, therefore, good.