The Good as the Fragility of Being: Levinas’ Renewal of the Platonic Good

Huaiyuan Zhang (Pennsylvania State University)

The concept of “the Good beyond being” (Pl. Resp. 509b5–9) is a central idea in Plato
(Gerson 2023), indicating that ethics is more fundamental than ontology. However, the
meaning of transcendence, being, and the Good remains a subject of debate (De Vogel, C. J.
1986, 45–50). By contrast to the usual view that the Good is either a highest intelligible form
(518c) or a value that is rationally unintelligible (509b5–10), Sarah Broadie recently proposed
a somewhat radical interpretation of the Good, arguing that it is both down-to-earth and what
makes the polis ideal, because it guides the philosopher-king’s interrogation into whether a
project is good to carry out in society. And yet Broadie’s view has an illuminating predecessor
in Emmanuel Levinas, who sets a countercurrent goal for contemporary philosophy “to return
to Platonism in a new way” (Levinas 1964/2006, 101) and encapsulates Platonism in the
formula “the Good beyond being” (Pl. Resp. 509b5–9). Unlike Broadie’s understanding of the
Good as a practical principle for the common good, Levinas views this transcendence as an
affective commitment to the Other that a subject experiences involuntarily. Both aim to
explore the relationship between is and ought in response to the crisis of being human and the
possibility of philosophy in Plato’s time and today. By appreciating Plato’s work from the
complementary perspectives of both authors, we can gain a deeper understanding of ethics as
an epistemic responsibility of the subject correlative with the realism of the Good beyond
being; we can also gain insight into the source of ethics in the subject’s encounter with
oneself as an Other in one’s existential disquietude. If Plato’s beyond is the rupture (faille) of
essence, Levinas’ Good is none other than the weakness (défaillance) of being human (Mattéi
2000, 87).

Broadie, S. (2021). Plato’s Sun-like Good: Dialectic in the Republic. Cambridge University
De Vogel, C. J. (1986). Rethinking Plato and Platonism. Brill.
Gerson, L. P. (2023). Plato’s Moral Realism. Cambridge University Press. 
Levinas, E. (1964/2006). Humanism of the Other (N. Poller, Trans.). University of Illinois
Mattéi, J. F. (2000). Platon et Lévinas: au-delà de l’essence. In Marion, J. -L. (Ed.),
Emmanuel Lévinas: positivité et transcendance suivi de Lévinas et la phénoménologie (pp.
73–87), PUF.