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In this paper, I investigate the meaning of the collocation, κοινὸν á¼€γαθÏŒν, “common good,” an expression to be found in two passages in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, viz., Charmides 166d4 and Gorgias 505e6. I argue that the meaning of this expression refers to what is “good for all,” that is, not merely to what is good severally for each individual.

Recent years have seen an intense interest in the ethics of Socrates. Central to several of these studies is the thesis, variously expressed, that Socrates is the discoverer of a psychological truth to the effect people inevitably act to advance their own interests (Reshotko; Penner and Rowe), or of a theory of action, to the effect that all rational action is self-interested action (Irwin). Can it really be that Socrates is to be credited with the 'discovery,' so to say, of egoism?

I answer in the negative, by arguing that to hold that Socrates is committed to egoism (as is common in the literature) violates the force of the Socratic paradigm in general, given that Plato and the other Socratics portray a Socrates who is supremely devoted to the well being of his community. Moreover, Socrates explicitly ascribes to himself regard for other human beings in their own right (contra Vlastos).

I. Socrates’ motivations

Does Socrates himself operate within the constraints of psychological egoism, according to which it would impossible for him, as well, to seek other than what is in his own interest? Although it is common to deny any altruistic motivations to Socrates, I suggest that we notice what kinds of reasons Socrates invokes as an explanation for his activity as a philosopher. In two passages Socrates tells us that he investigates the truth for “the common good.” In the Charmides Socrates says

So too now I say that this is what I am doing, investigating the argument especially on my own behalf, but perhaps as well on behalf of my other companions; or do you not think that it is a common good for all human beings, for each thing to be completely evident, as to what it is in reality? (Charmides166d4)

II. The meaning of “the common good”

I argue that the meaning of this expression here and in its counterpart in the Gorgias refers to what is “good for all.” I base this argument on the meaning of the collocation, κοινὸν á¼€γαθÏŒν, common good, in Platonic passages outside of these two dialogues and on the subsequent history of this expression. The adjective, κοινÏŒς, is especially significant in the Republic, where for example explaining the adage, friends have all in common, Socrates suggests that the women of Callipolis will all belong to all men in common:

Τá½°ς γυναá¿–κας ταύτας τῶν á¼€νδρῶν τούτων πάντων εἶναι κοινάς, á¼°δίᾳ δá½² μηδενὶ μηδεμίαν συνοικεá¿–ν (457c9-d1) These women must be the common wives of all of these men, and no woman may live privately with an individual man.

Again, Plato suggests that the state is founded on the principle that while each person performs her own work, she nevertheless distributes the produce from that work to the community:

ἕνα ἕκαστον τούτων δεá¿– τὸ αὑτοῦ á¼”ργον á¼…πασι κοινὸν κατατιθέναι, οá¼·ον τὸν γεωργὸν ἕνα ὄντα παρaσκευάζειν σιτία τέτταρσιν (369e2-5)

Each single individual is required to place his own produce at the common disposal of all citizens, as for example the farmer, although he is one person, is required to furnish food for four persons.


Plato explicitly denies that Socrates only pursues his own interests. Moreover, Socrates in this respect is paradigmatic: though it is possibly true that people in general tend to be self-interested, far from recommending egoism or the pursuit of self-interest, in these Socratic dialogues, Plato attributes the motivations of friendship and universal generosity to Socrates in pursuing the truth. He does so on behalf of all human beings.


  • Vlastos, G.1973. “The individual as an object of love,” in Platonic Studies. Princeton.
  • Irwin, T. 1995. Plato’s Ethics. Oxford University Press.
  • Penner, T. and Rowe, C. 2005. Plato’s Lysis. Cambridge University Press.
  • Penner, T. 2007, “The Good, Advantage, Happiness and the Form of the Good: How
  • Continuous with Socratic Ethics is Platonic Ethics,” in Cairns, Hermann, and Penner 2007, 93-123.
  • Reshotko, N. 2006. Socratic Virtue: making the best of the neither good-nor-bad. Cambridge.

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