To judge from elections, the purpose of politics is to win power by promising to make people better off. Plato, feeling this made the politician the equivalent of a procurer or pimp, argued that the purpose of politics was to make people not better off, but simply better — better humans, and therefore better able to run their own lives, as well as better citizens, able to make sound judgements about the qualities required to run a better state. In other words, politics had a high purpose — the moral good of the whole community, guaranteed by both citizens and their leaders driven by the same purpose.
In a famous allegory, the philosopher Prodicus (c. 465–395 bc) put the choice available to citizens, and by implication communities, in the starkest possible terms. The hero Heracles was setting out on life, and reflecting on which road to take: vice or virtue. Two women then appeared to him: the one clean-limbed, modest and sober, the other soft, plump, brazen and scantily clad. The latter offered him an irresponsible life of uncontrolled ease and pleasure, with no shortage of delightful food, drink, sights, sounds and lovers, dedicated to self-advantage and the effortless enjoyment of the fruits of others’ labours. Her enemies called her Kakia (Vice), she said, but her friends Eudaimonia (Happiness).
Aretê (Virtue) then spoke, offering Heracles nothing in the way of future ease but only the hard, self-disciplined toil needed by any honourable activity designed to bring benefits to Greece and win an admirable reputation. Kakia intervened: she would offer the short and easy route to happiness. Aretê rounded on her: all Kakia offered was fulfilment of desire — food, drink, sex, sleep — before any need for it, and an old age of squalor and disgrace. Aretê was the mark of the real man, loved by friends, honoured by country and celebrated for all time.
One wonders how a political programme centred on Aretê’s vision of the good life would even be framed today, let alone received. No ancient Greek would have dismissed it with sneers of ‘Goody Two-Shoes’.
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