Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, December 19, 2016

PLATO: Meno (Knowledge and Virtue)

Meno begins this dialog by asking Socrates if virtue is something which can be taught or, if not, if there’s some other method of acquiring it.  Socrates gives the somewhat surprising answer that he doesn’t even know what virtue is, much less if it can be taught.  This is the classic path of the Socratic dialog; begin by doubting that we know very much about a subject and then proceed from there to explore our options.  In the case of virtue Socrates says “it is not from any sureness in myself that I cause others to doubt: it is from being in more doubt than anyone else that I cause doubt in others. So now, for my part, I have no idea what virtue is, whilst you, though perhaps you may have known before you came in touch with me, are now as good as ignorant of it also. But none the less I am willing to join you in examining it and inquiring into its nature.”  This is an invitation to enter into the spirit of philosophic inquiry.  Meno thought he knew what virtue was until he began talking with Socrates.  Socrates shows Meno that he doesn’t know much about virtue at all.  But Meno is an intelligent man and quickly picks up the thread of the argument.  He asks “on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?”  His point is this.  If we don’t know what virtue is, then how do we go about searching for it?  And even if we found it, if we don’t know what it is to begin with, then how can we be sure we’ve found the thing we’ve been looking for?

In a very short time the focus has shifted from (1) can virtue be taught, to (2) what is virtue, to (3) what is the relationship between virtue and knowledge?  Before we can answer the first question we have to be able to answer the second one.  But before we can answer the second one we have to determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge.  And before we can determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge we have to take up a fourth question: what is knowledge?  So many questions.  Meno was right to wonder where we could even start looking for answers.  How can we get a handle on this multi-faceted philosophical problem of teaching virtue and gaining knowledge?  Socrates has a suggestion.  He proposes we start with a rather strange interpretation of knowledge: “They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. Consequently one ought to live all one's life in the utmost holiness… Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things.”  Somehow the soul has already acquired knowledge of “virtue and other things.”  Knowledge, including the knowledge of virtue, is already within the student.  The teacher’s job is not so much to “teach” the student what virtue is; the teacher’s job is to draw out what the student already knows within the soul.  Socrates demonstrates this to Meno by asking a series of questions to one of Meno’s uneducated servant boys.  Even though the boy “knows” nothing of geometry and mathematics, Socrates leads him through a series of questions to resolve a difficult geometrical problem.  See, Socrates says, I didn’t teach him anything he didn’t already know.  “Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions put to him, he will understand, recovering the knowledge out of himself.”  In other words, we can’t “teach” people about virtue.  But we can help them recover the knowledge of virtue that already slumbers within them.  Awakening this knowledge (of virtue or anything else) is the ultimate goal of philosophy.  Socrates wants to lead us to wisdom and knowing that we don’t know something is just the first step on that path. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

PLATO: Meno (What is Virtue?)

The question seems simple enough.  Do we get virtue from teaching or do we get it by practice or do we get it using some other method?  It’s an important question.  The way we answer will have a profound effect not only on our educational system but on the whole structure of society.  So we need to dig deeper and get below the surface of the original question.  Meno rephrases it a little and asks whether virtue is a natural quality or is it an artificial quality?  If it’s natural then we’re born with it; all we really need to do is nourish it and otherwise just let it grow on its own.  But if virtue is an artificial quality then it’s something we need to develop just like we develop any technology.  This is the kind of problem philosophy is uniquely equipped to deal with.

Gorgias is a philosopher.  He was living in Thessaly at that time.  Remember Thessaly?  It was the place Crito proposed for Socrates to escape to as a kind of sanctuary city.  Socrates declines the invitation.  In this dialog Socrates says Gorgias speaks the language of “those who know.”  This is an ironic, back-handed compliment.  In Socrates’ opinion philosophy, as practiced in Thessaly, was practiced on a very crude level.  That was one of the reasons he didn’t want his sons to grow up there.  The Athenians, on the other hand, were very sophisticated when it came to philosophy; some would say too sophisticated.  If you asked a Thessalian whether virtue comes from nature or from human invention, you would likely get a very polished answer in the mode of “those who know” (or, as Socrates would jest, of those who think they know).  Ask an Athenian the same question and you’re likely to get a much humbler answer: I don’t know if virtue comes from nature or from art.  In fact, I don’t even know what virtue is.  Now the stage is set to get down to some serious philosophy, Athenian style.  And Socrates is a true Athenian.  He claims he doesn’t even know what virtue is, much less how it can be obtained.  Meno feels confident that he does know.  Meno thinks there’s a different virtue corresponding to the different conditions of life.  There’s one virtue for a man, a different one for a woman, one for a child, another for an elderly person, etc.  Socrates seems impressed with Meno’s wisdom.  “I ask for one virtue and you give me a whole swarm of them.”  But what Socrates really wants to know is this: what is the nature of virtue?  What are the qualities that makes virtue what it is?  Take an example from the natural world.  What makes a bee a bee?  A honey bee looks different from a bumblebee but they’re both still bees.  What is it that they have in common so we can recognize them both as bees?  Similarly, all “virtues” must have something in common with other virtues in order to be called “virtue.”  What is it?

Socrates is answering the question of how can we get virtue with the more fundamental question of what is virtue.  To understand virtue we have to find the common thread that runs through every quality we call virtue.  Health, for example, means the same thing whether we’re talking about a man or a woman, a child or an elderly person.  People can be evaluated by a standard we call good health.  What standard can we use to evaluate virtue?  Socrates suggests temperance and justice as examples.  But we’re not done.  Temperance and justice are general notions and Socrates says “we are landed in particulars.”  We haven’t found the common qualities between temperance and justice, much less their relationship to virtue.  This is confusing but Socrates tries to make it clearer by talking about “particulars” rather than generalizations.  “Round” and “straight” are terms we use to describe figures.  Round is not more “figure” than straight is.  So temperance isn’t more of a virtue than justice is.  See.  Does that help?  Let’s let Meno answer: “Socrates, even now I am not able to follow you in the attempt to get at one common notion of virtue as of other things.”  Simple questions aren’t that simple and Socrates is just getting started.