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Ancient & Modern

Should the Tories follow Frank Field’s lead and, in the light of their ‘broken society’ campaign, make it their policy to produce ‘the good citizen’? 

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

28 October 2009

12:00 AM

Should the Tories follow Frank Field’s lead and, in the light of their ‘broken society’ campaign, make it their policy to produce ‘the good citizen’? 

Should the Tories follow Frank Field’s lead and, in the light of their ‘broken society’ campaign, make it their policy to produce ‘the good citizen’?

In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, this famous intellectual is said to produce the ‘good citizen’ by teaching him ‘proper management of his own business and of the city’s too, so that he can make the most effective contribution to its affairs both as a speaker and man of action’. But Socrates rejects this claim, arguing that ‘goodness’ (Greek aretê) is not a teachable management skill, but something more akin to our ‘virtue’, with strong moral overtones to it — a difference not of degree but of kind. They found no meeting of minds.


Perhaps Mr Field meant something much simpler, e.g. obeying the law. Socrates would certainly have applauded that. For example, in his death-cell in 399 bc he did not disagree that he had been wrongly condemned to death, but absolutely refused to do anything about it: the law must never be undermined, and so brought into disrepute.

So will David Cameron’s ‘social responsibility’ agenda be enforced by more laws? Plato (429-347 bc) would have been horrified. In his Republic, he likens philolegislative societies to the sick, who imagine they will get better by stuffing themselves with medicines, when they should be changing their way of life instead.

Plato’s contemporary Isocrates developed the theme. He argued that those who believe good citizens are produced by precise and detailed laws miss the point. If that were true, a state simply had to copy a successful country’s law codes to solve all its problems. As he says, ‘our forefathers did not make it their first priority to discover the best ways to punish the lawless, but instead to produce citizens who would never dream of doing anything wrong’. ‘Upbringing’ was, as usual, the answer. One is reminded that, once, the purpose of education was said to be ‘virtue’. Happy days! Now, it is (how the spirit sinks) ‘jobs’.

How about an Aristotelian solution? He argued that ‘democracy’ meant ‘citizens taking their turn in (political) office and in the courts’. That would make each of us directly accountable for public welfare — the ultimate exercise in personal responsibility. Oh dear. Bit too radical, that. There are limits to allowing mere citizens to argue with nanny.

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