What is a “Good” Person? An Incomplete Definition.

A few days ago an old and dear friend raised a deceptively simple question in an online discussion.  How do you define a “good” person?  This caught my eye.  Since this blog is supposed to be about Agathos, the “good” in human life, I thought maybe I’d have something to add to the conversation.  I would at least be enthusiastic about the topic if not convincing.

Since I gave a quick response via social media I don’t think it was the most comprehensive or even coherent statement I’ve ever given on the subject.  But the fast response was revealing.  It had the virtue of exposing some of my biases as well as some insights I think I’ve gained over time.  Sometimes one can learn a lot from an unvarnished response.

I think you have to distinguish between two different ideas of “the good” that have informed our western mindset. There is “good” moral behavior in the sense of what we choose NOT to do. We refrain from causing harm, from being unfair to others, we choose not to be unfeeling or greedy. Refraining from that which causes suffering can perhaps be accounted enough. Maybe.

For myself, after a long time, I came to the conclusion that the Greeks (and later Romans) had it right. The only true good is that which is done. “Agathos” in the pre-Christian sense tells us that the moral good is that which is demonstrated. Nobody is good because they wish to be. People are good because they do something good. Compassion is meaningless without a compassionate act. Courage is hot air without doing something courageous. Nobody is just until they perform a just act.

That isn’t to say that there will be universal agreement on the justice or wisdom or even compassion of a given act. Not everyone will be happy about it. The good is sometimes terrible, both beautiful and cruel at the same time. Nature gives us plenty of examples.

In short, “the good” is what we do to both actively diminish unnecessary suffering and promote what is fair. The ancient Greeks (words take on slightly different meaning in old testament Greek) used the word Dikaios. From my admittedly limited reading and spotty Greek, the Homeric Greeks saw that Dikaios (fairness) was the basis of honor. Fair dealing is demonstrable. Either you show it through your actions or the rest is sound and fury signifying nothing. As an addendum I would say that goodness is an ongoing practice. Aristotle had that right when he said that an excellence is a matter of habit (paraphrase). It is not innate. It is cultivated.

Not exactly a dissertation but I think I got the idea across.  What I noticed when I reread that passage was the two references to the reduction of suffering.  I wasn’t really aware that I considered that such a key component.  It likely comes from years of exposure to Buddhist and Taoist ideas.  It may also be some sort of residual Catholicism.  One never really does leave behind a Catholic education completely.  For the Greeks and Romans my impression has been that being fair or just was the more important action.  Reducing suffering through fairness and justice might well be a happy byproduct rather than a goal by itself.

Even though this blog focuses heavily on using Greek and Roman ideas for a good life I am content if the other influences in my life seep in.  I’m not trying to resurrect fossilized traditions.  I’m okay with a little syncretism especially if it helps to decide what is indeed a “good” person.

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