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The Meaning of Good—A Dialogue   By: (1862-1932)

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Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and Author of a Modern Symposium




How do the waves along the level shore Follow and fly in hurrying sheets of foam, For ever doing what they did before, For ever climbing what is never clomb! Is there an end to their perpetual haste, Their iterated round of low and high, Or is it one monotony of waste Under the vision of the vacant sky? And thou, who on the ocean of thy days Dost like a swimmer patiently contend, And though thou steerest with a shoreward gaze Misdoubtest of a harbour or an end, What would the threat, or what the promise be, Could I but read the riddle of the sea!


An attempt at Philosophic Dialogue may seem to demand a word of explanation, if not of apology. For, it may be said, the Dialogue is a literary form not only exceedingly difficult to handle, but, in its application to philosophy, discredited by a long series of failures. I am not indifferent to this warning; yet I cannot but think that I have chosen the form best suited to my purpose. For, in the first place, the problems I have undertaken to discuss have an interest not only philosophic but practical; and I was ambitious to treat them in a way which might perhaps appeal to some readers who are not professed students of philosophy. And, secondly, my subject is one which belongs to the sphere of right opinion and perception, rather than to that of logic and demonstration; and seems therefore to be properly approached in the tentative spirit favoured by the Dialogue form. On such topics most men, I think, will feel that it is in conversation that they get their best lights; and Dialogue is merely an attempt to reproduce in literary form this natural genesis of opinion. Lastly, my own attitude in approaching the issues with which I have dealt was, I found, so little dogmatic, so sincerely speculative, that I should have felt myself hampered by the form of a treatise. I was more desirous to set forth various points of view than finally to repudiate or endorse them; and though I have taken occasion to suggest certain opinions of my own, I have endeavoured to do so in the way which should be least imprisoning to my own thought, and least provocative of the reader's antagonism. It has been my object, to borrow a phrase of Renan, 'de présenter des séries d'idées se développant selon un ordre logique, et non d'inculquer une opinion ou de prêcher un systême déterminé.' And I may add, with him, 'Moins que jamais je me sens l'audace de parler doctrinalernent en pareille matière.'

In conclusion, there is one defect which is, I think, inherent in the Dialogue form, even if it were treated with far greater skill than any to which I can pretend. The connection of the various phases of the discussion can hardly be as clearly marked as it would be in a formal treatise; and in the midst of digressions and interruptions, such as are natural in conversation, the main thread of the reasoning may sometimes be lost I have therefore appended a brief summary of the argument, set forth in its logical connections.



I. After a brief introduction, the discussion starts with a consideration of the diversity of men's ideas about Good, a diversity which suggests primâ facie a scepticism as to the truth of any of these ideas.

The sceptical position is stated; and, in answer, an attempt is made to show that the position is one which is not really accepted by thinking men. For such men, it is maintained, regulate their lives by their ideas about Good, and thus by implication admit their belief in these ideas.

This is admitted; but the further objection is made, that for the regulation of life it is only necessary for a man to admit a Good for himself, without admitting also a General Good or Good of all. It is suggested, in reply, that the conduct of thinking men commonly does imply a belief in a General Good... Continue reading book >>

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