Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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