In the Jowett translation of Plato's Republic, this quote

The moral (good) man would not exceed or overreach or go beyond the just action
- The Republic 349b

is compared with a quote from Shakespeare's "King John I"

When workmen strive to do better than well,/ They do confound their skill in covetousness
- King John I, V. ii. 28

I cannot understand the philosophical meaning implied here. I have been taught that we should work to improve our skill and we should work upon our skills to make them better. These quotes seems to deny that. Am I reading this correctly? If not, how should they be interpreted?

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    But this is not Plato... it is a quote (form Jowett's Introduction) of Shakespeare's play King John; in the play is said by Earl of Pembroke. Jan 7, 2017 at 18:15
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    This is more about applying skills than developing them, and the kind of skill. "Covetous" means craving material things, the earl apparently means that workmen should not focus on applying material skills more than necessary for "well", perhaps because it distracts from higher pursuits.
    – Conifold
    Jan 7, 2017 at 23:44
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA I edited the context you provided into the question body. Jan 9, 2017 at 17:17
  • 1
    'Just' & 'well' aim at the good; to exceed or not to try misses. Jan 12, 2017 at 8:03
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    @ChrisSunami. Sometimes I wish there was a way to upvote particularly good edits.
    – TRiG
    Dec 14, 2019 at 0:15

2 Answers 2


Plato's Republic

a. Anything beyond or different to a just action is unjust.

Shakespeare's "King John I"

b. If you try to make something "better than well", you won't be able to make it at all. (overestimating your skills)

There is a way to make something well. Trying to make it "better"/differently (often) leads to disaster. (overzealous is regarded problematic)

The saying does not refer to not try to get better, but that we should have as a goal the good, and that good is enough. If we try to go beyond good, often we will not find the better but will simply move away from the good and we will do the mediocre or even the bad.

In pursuance of the analogy between the virtues and the arts the moral idea πλεονεξία(overreaching, getting more than your share; see on 359 C) is generalized to include doing more than or differently from. English can hardly reproduce this. Jowett's Shakespearian quotation (King JohnIV. ii. 28), “When workmen strive to do better than well,/ They do confound their skill in covetousness,” though apt, only illustrates the thought in part.


When workmen strive to do better than well, 
They do confound their skill in covetousness; 
And oftentimes excusing of a fault Doth make
the fault the worse by the excuse, 
As patches set upon a little breach
Discredit more in hiding of the fault 
Than did the fault before it was so patch'd.

There is no "philosophical meaning" as both are nothing more than aphorism and as such have no heuristic value. That said, Plato is asserting that just actions have their limits. The desire for justice can go too far such that the administration of law may become unjust. The Shakespeare quote distinguishes "well", as in adequacy to the occasion, in contrast to "better" which is never quite good enough. The two are making a similar point in that "good enough for now" is attainable, whereas striving for something beyond reasoned measure is unreasonable.

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