What does "idea" in the following text mean?

Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

None of the meaning that I could find for "idea" (concept, notion, point, thought, belief, estimate, ...) means anything in the above text. And how could someone approach an "idea"?

  • Concept and notion both have plenty of meaning in this context, even if you don't agree.
    – oerkelens
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:56
  • 'Idea' means to me something transitory, a light bulb moment. But a concept is a permanence.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 24, 2017 at 21:23

1 Answer 1


In this case, idea is being used to mean a concept (Look at definition 1-b), specifically

an idealized concept of 'a perfectly wise and virtuous man'

If you're having trouble parsing that, it refers to the mental image a person would conjure if they were told to think of a wise and virtuous man. The passage is implying that the 'unbelieving friend' comes close to this conjured ideal.

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