Ancient Paradoxes and the Good Life

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Sophocles_statue_in_lateranMost are already familiar with many of the thoughts driving the Ancient Paradoxical ethical tradition. Surely we’ve all either thought and endorsed or at least heard someone express thoughts along the following lines:

It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get.

Being good is its own reward.

Let’s first note an important terminological point about the paradoxical tradition. Paradox is a Greek word that, in its classical usage, that meant something counter intuitive, something surprising. Para, meaning alongside or against, and doxa, belief. So a paradox is something that runs against what we normally believe. In short, those who belong to the paradoxical tradition say surprising things. Now, the paradox is most clearly in view for us, as we endorse sentiments like It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game, but we nevertheless cheer for winners, and nobody makes it to any Halls of Fame simply for being a good sport. The same goes for all the familiar old saws – we think they are right, but nevertheless don’t live in accord with them. The paradoxical tradition is one of consistently living in accord with sentiments like these.

Socrates was one of the first great paradoxicalists, and one of the most famous. One particular paradox he announces after the Athenians sentence him to death for impiety and corrupting the young. He says he does not believe “a good man can be harmed in life or in death” (Apology 41d). And so we have the first of the ancient paradoxes of the good life, call it:

The paradox of invulnerability: Insofar as you are virtuous, you cannot be truly harmed.

Now what makes this view paradoxical is that Socrates says this in the face of a jury who’ve sentenced him to death. Having to drink hemlock and suffer its effects. That sounds like a harm. Dying? It certainly seems worse than living on and being Socrates. How else might someone consider it a punishment?

The paradoxical perspective on this is that these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would be harms only if they harmed our souls. A death sentence is a harm only if it makes you willing to grovel, lie and cheat to avoid it. Poverty and suffering are harms only if it makes you a horrible person, violent, or selfish. Illness is a harm only if it makes you resentful and empty.

The world can destroy us, but if we live well, it cannot destroy the good in us. The world can take the light of goodness inside you only if you let it. Our job is to tend and care for that light of decency and goodness inside us. Virtue ensures it’s not snuffed out.

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