75. The Essence of Virtue – Plato’s ‘Meno’ Part 1
What is virtue? The Essence of Virtue is a difficult concept to define, Although most people can identify examples of virtue, such as courage or justice, defining the concept of virtue, as well as those individual concepts. This is what the dialogue of Meno is all about: defining virtue.
Plato’s other dialogues, like this one, frustrate us because they never provide clear answers. However, it is important to note that the Greeks were more focused on asking questions than providing answers. This is how they viewed the world: that the key to understanding is asking the right questions. Before we become critical of the Greeks, we must realise that we moderns have just the opposite problem. Modern man is more interested in answers than questions. In our haste to make sense of the world, we fail to ask the right questions and, as a result, end up with a superficial understanding of the world around us.
A good example of this is the Pass it On. On organization, which seeks to instill in people what I would term “good behaviors” into people. Its list includes a litany of things like peace, innovation, compassion, and optimism, among others. Although some virtues may have partial definitions, there is no common thread that unites them all. In other words, what are we talking about in the grand scheme of things? We have answers, but what is the question? This is the goal of Plato’s dialogue, Meno.
Meno and the Quest for Virtue
Meno centres around the nature of virtue (aretê in Greek). In this regard, it is similar to other Platonic dialogues. One of Plato’s favourite subjects was discussing the nature of virtue and justice. The Greeks believed that, without these elements, a society becomes a failed state. That is why discussions around such matters were central to many of Plato’s dialogues.
In the West, we’ve abandoned such discussions about the nature of virtue and justice in a universal sense and instead attempted to construct a moral framework for society based on the philosophies of utilitarianism and pragmatism prevalent in the 19th century. Since then, this has degenerated into a morality based upon a rights-based, hyper-individualistic narcissism. This is why countries like the United States and England are rapidly becoming failed states.
But there is an answer. We must, first of all, acknowledge that universal truth exists and then pursue the true, objective definitions of virtue and justice rather than constructing our own definitions based on our passions and desires. Can Congress conduct unbiased inquiries to create just legislation for society, and not just for special interest groups? Sadly, considering the makeup of Congress at this present time, I cannot.
The Question of Virtue
Unlike other dialogues that have a brief introduction leading to the main topic, Meno begins abruptly. Immediately, out of the starting gate, a young Meno asks an older Socrates the operative question that establishes the course of the rest of the dialogue:
Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue acquired by teaching?-70a
Or not by teaching but by training? Or neither by training nor learning but comes to men naturally or in some other way?
These are very good questions—the kinds of questions that one asks in order to try to formulate a thesis statement. But of course, Socrates is never content to deal with things at face value but must probe more deeply into the subject. Meno is from Thessaly, and, according to Socrates, they are known for their wisdom. Of course, knowing Socrates by now, we can safely venture that he is using a bit of sarcasm here. He states that, compared to the Thessalonians, “around here,” people would respond to such a query as follows:
If you put a question like that to anyone here, there’s no one who won’t laugh and say, “My friend, you must think me to be one of the fortunate few to know whether virtue is acquired by teaching or in what other way it comes to be. I am so far from knowing whether or not it is teachable that I don’t at all know what virtue itself is.-71a
In other words, compared to the Thessalonians, we citizens of Athens are just a bunch of common folk who lack wisdom, Socrates included among them:
And indeed, I myself, Meno, am in the same state. I am impoverished along with my townsfolk in this matter, and I scold myself for not knowing the first thing about virtue. And when I don’t know what something is,-71b
how can I know what sort of thing it is?
Socrates shifts the question from how virtue is acquired to what the very nature of virtue itself is. “What is it? or “Ti esti”. This idea of finding the very nature of something would be more fully developed by Aristotle, with later Latin translators rendering the phrase “Ti esti” as essentia or essence. Socrates point is a valid one. How can one talk about acquiring virtue when we don’t even know what it is and he claims ignorance of such matters?
Socratic Method and Detective Columbo: A Comparison of Cross-Examination Techniques
This is also vintage Socrates, declaring himself to be in a total state of ignorance concerning the matter at hand. While acknowledging what his interlocutor, in this case Meno, thinks is true about himself: that he possesses wisdom concerning that which they are discussing. The stage is now set for the “ignorant” Socrates to start cross-examining his “wise” companion in order to expose his ignorance.
This method of examination reminds me of one of my favourite television shows that I watched as a kid, Columbo. Peter Falk brilliantly portrayed Lieutenant Columbo, a disheveled and often clumsy homicide detective who consistently faced off against cunning, sophisticated, and highly intelligent murderers. From their first meeting, the suspect would often dismiss the bumbling detective, with his trademark rumpled raincoat, as a non-threat. Columbo himself would often build his opponent up as being far more talented than himself. They underestimated Columbo’s shrewdness, realizing too late that despite lacking sophistication, he was perceptive.
In this way, like the barefooted, unsightly Socrates, he would disarm his adversary. Once that happened, the cross-examination began as Columbo slowly wore down the suspect with an incessant string of probing, but seemingly innocuous, questions until he confessed his guilt. In the end, the murderer was brilliantly outwitted by the unsophisticated detective. For those who want to get a concrete idea of how the Socratic method works from a modern perspective, an episode of Columbo would be perfect.
The Intersection Of Political Unrest and Philosophical Inquiry in Plato’s Meno Dialogue
The events in Meno take place just a few years before Socrates death, whereas in Athens, the political situation was anything but settled. The “Thirty Tyrants”, an oligarchic faction put in charge of Athens by Sparta, had been defeated by pro-democratic forces in 403 B.C. This dialogue takes place a year later, when events are still fresh and the new governmental system is still being worked out.
The Meno dialogue discusses Athens’ future governance, making it relevant, not just abstract concepts. Today, such discussions may seem irrelevant to society’s “real problems,” making it hard to comprehend their significance. We Americans, especially, are pragmatists and want to go directly to “what works.” But unless we answer such questions about the nature of things like essence of virtue, justice, and what it means to be human, we will never make headway into such practical matters as what political system is best suited for our present time.
Socrates interlocutor, Meno, had political problems of his own.
Tragic Fate of the Thessalian Youth and his Lack of Virtue.
Thessalian aristocrats sent a youth to Athens for political help in their ongoing struggles. He would have found the discussion relevant, but he lacked the virtue to apply what he learned. Despite his important deligatory role, accounts of him by both Xenophon and Plato were anything but flattering.
He was portrayed as ambitious, especially for things like money, wealth, and power, but he was lazy and wanted the easy path. Lack of his essence of virtue was manifested in other ways too. He viewed people as a means to an end, and therefore, friendship was not important to him. He was very selfish, what we would term today as narcissistic, as well as very arrogant and manipulative. A year after this dialogue took place, Meno hired himself out to the Persians as a mercenary. They eventually captured him and subjected him to slow torture until he died, which they deemed a fitting end for such an overt scoundrel.
Anytus and the Perils of Seeking Truth in Meno
Another significant figure in Meno is a prominent Athenian politician named Anytus. Unlike Meno, Anytus was a self-made businessman with considerable wealth, who had strong connections within the political class in Athens. 3 Anytus had a disdain for professional teachers such as the sophists, and, even though Socrates was not one, he had contempt for him as well. But according to Xenophon, there were other reasons why Anytus hated Socrates.
In Meno, Socrates impugned the ruling class of Athens for failing to teach virtue to their sons, and by implication, that meant Anytus also. Xenophon stated that Socrates actually accused Anytus directly of failing to teach his sons and, because of that, said that they would amount to nothing. Either way, Anytus was not happy with Socrates, to say the least. In this dialogue, Anytus even threatens to harm Socrates if he doesn’t stop asking questions about education. And just three years later, in 399, Anytus, along with two other accusers, brought Socrates to trial.
Anytus’ example goes to show us that pursuing truth is not just an intellectual exercise but can often have serious repercussions for the truth seeker. Truth is an enemy of the unjust and the wicked, so when confronted with the truth, they will often attack the message by attacking the messenger.
Part I – The concept of Platonic Forms and its relevance to the discussion of virtue in Meno
Meno can be divided into three sections. The first section sets the table for the rest of the dialogue by simply asking the question, “What is virtue? The rest of this article deals with that question. In the next post, I will cover the other two sections of Meno. As previously mentioned, Meno poses the question of how virtue is acquired to Socrates. However, Socrates contends that the more fundamental inquiry concerns the essence of virtue itself. Socrates admits his own lack of knowledge on the topic and denies having encountered anyone who knew. “not met anyone else who knew.” Then, he turns to Meno to continue their discussion.
But you yourself, divine Meno, what do you say virtue is? Speak and don’t deny me.-71d
Meno readily admits that the answer to that question is easy:
But it’s not hard to say, Socrates. To begin with, if you want the virtue of a man, it’s easy. A man’s virtue is this: to attend to the affairs of the city effectively, and in the process to benefit his friends, harm his enemies, and make sure that he suffers nothing similar himself.
If you’re looking for the virtue of a woman, it’s not hard to express. It’s to manage her home well, preserve her possessions, and be obedient to her husband. And there’s a different virtue for children, both male and female, and for an old man; and, if you want, for a free man; and, if you so desire, for a slave. And there are so many other virtues that there’s no problem saying what a virtue is, since there’s a virtue for each occupation and stage of life with respect to each function of each person. And I take the same to hold for vice, Socrates.71e-72a
I would summarize this view of virtue as consisting of the duties of one’s station in life. The answer seems solid at face value, but, of course, Socrates wastes no time in poking holes in Meno’s construction.
It seems I’ve had some great good fortune, Meno, if, when looking for a single virtue, I have discovered in your possession some kind of swarm of virtues. And in keeping with that image of swarms, if I asked you what the essence of a bee was and you were to say that there are many different kinds, how would you answer me?72a-b
Socrates’ response is humorous, to say the least, likening Meno’s definition to a “swarm of virtues”. Socrates is saying that when he asked for a single definition of virtue, for all of the different virtues to have a common essence, he got a swarm instead. This discussion, in a way, prefigures the later development of platonic forms. According to later Platonic thought, we cannot comprehend individual aspects of a particular class of things unless we grasp the essence of that very class of things. For example, there are many varieties of dogs, but in the theory of Plato’s Forms, he would say that we cannot make any sense of any individual dog unless we have an ideal form of “dogness”.
The Form of the Essence of Virtue
I would not go as far as to say that Plato is introducing his theory of forms here. But I would say that if this is how Plato thinks, then it is not surprising that we see his ideas in seminal form here. We must remember also that there is always the difficulty in the Platonic dialogues of figuring out what is truly Socrates and what are Plato’s ideas coming through Socrates. Despite the fact that we will never fully understand the solution. I believe that Socrates’ earlier dialogues, written shortly after his death, depict him as more virtuous. But even with that being the case, in presenting Socrates in his purest form, it would be difficult for Plato not to interject his own thoughts, albeit even subconsciously, since he was the author.
Returning to our dialogue, what is the answer to Socrates’s question above? He elaborates further:
Do you mean that with this respect to this, their being bees, that there are many different kinds, different from one another? Or do they differ not at all in this respect but in some other, such as beauty, size, or something else of this sort? Tell me, how would you answer when asked this?-72b
Meno answers that they do not differ at all in that they are all bees, but they are all alike. Socrates now uses Meno’s admission that they are all alike to undercut his original definition that virtue means different things to different people. This is typical Socratic method where the examiner uses something his opponent affirms as a means to dismantle his argument. Socrates goes on:
The same applies to the virtues, too. Even if there are many72c-e
different kinds, they all have some one form the same, on account of which they are virtues, and which, I suppose, a person who is answering another who asked for what virtue actually is to be made clear would rightly have paid attention to. Or don’t you understand what I mean?…Does it seem this way to you only concerning virtue, Meno, that
there is one for a man, another for a woman, and so on, or is it the same for health and size and strength, too? Do you think there is one health for a man and another for a woman? Or is it the same form in every case?
The Concept of Shape and its Relationship to Essence of Virtue
Meno admits that there is only one “health,” like there is only one idea of virtue. If Meno had originally answered that there are many different kinds of virtues, he would have been further from giving a definition of the essence of virtue. By admitting that there is a single essence of virtue, he brings himself back to the original question that he still has to answer.
Also, I italicised “form” above, which is the Greek word eidos, since this is the same word that Plato would later use in discussing his theory of forms. It is the general world for “form” or “shape”, but at the same time, I think, it contains Plato’s idea of form that he will later develop. This is really a valid question, for just because we can name individual instances of a certain thing, we do not really know that thing unless we can define it in an ideal sense. This dialogue also foreshadows the much later debate, which I hope to address in this blog, about the struggle between nominalism and realism that arose in mediaeval times and really is the source of a lot of the problems that we are facing in the West today. But that is a topic for another time.
Socrates continues the question and answer for several more pages, referencing concepts like shape and color to make his point. For example, how can “roundness” and “straightness” both be shapes and be at the same time opposite? Despite being opposite, they still must share in the concept of “shape”. How so? This section ends with Socrates tying the concept back to the idea of virtue:
What is it then that this names, ‘shape’? Try to say. If you say to-75a
the one questioning you in this way, either about shape or color, ‘But I
don’t understand what you want, sir, or even know what you are saying’,
he would probably be amazed and say ‘Don’t you understand that I am
looking for what is the same in all these cases?’ Or would you have nothing to say, Meno, if someone asked you ‘What is it in roundedness and straightness and the others that you call shape, the same in all of them?’ Try to say, so that you can also get some practice for the answer about virtue.
Meno’s feeble attempt to define virtue through ruling
In addition to the major argument above about Meno’s primary definition of virtue, he makes two smaller, albeit feeble, attempts to define virtue. He states in verse 73 that the ability to rule over people is a virtue common to all people. Socrates shoots this argument down rather quickly:
S: That is indeed what I’m looking for. But is this also the virtue of a child, Meno, or of a slave, for these to be able to rule the master,and do you think the person who rules would still be a slave? I hardly think so, Socrates.-73d
Meno argues in 77b that virtue involves desiring and obtaining honorable objects, which are inherently good. He cites Simonides to support his claim. Therefore, virtue is about pursuing and achieving goodness.
Socrates’ questioning reveals that some people choose evil thinking that they are choosing good. No one deliberately chooses evil as it leads to misery and unhappiness – something no one desires. Some individuals, while pursuing good, may choose wrongly and end up unhappy. Therefore, Meno’s definition cannot be accurate. If Meno’s definition were true, then some “virtuous” people would actually be choosing evil while thinking that they were choosing good.
In addition, the part about being able to acquire good things has its own problems, for if one sought to acquire good things like silver and gold through unjust means, then that would undermine this definition of virtue. Not only that, but to make this definition sound, virtue would have to be tempered with justice, which is another virtue, and this becomes nonsensical at the very least. And that is how Socrates ends this section:
You say that every action is a virtue, so long as it is done with a part of virtue (justice), as though you had told me the whole of virtue and I recognized it now, even as you broke it up into parts. I think we need for you to answer the same question over again from the start, my dear Meno, ‘What is virtue?” If every action done with a part of virtue, then this is what a person means when she says that every action done with justice is a virtue. Don’t you think the same question needs answering, or do you think that someone knows what a part of virtue is without knowing essence of virtue itself?79b-c
The Role of Conscience in Moral Decision Making
I wanted to point out an interesting point from Meno’s third argument about choosing good. Do humans always incline towards the good, or do they also willingly choose evil? According to Aristotle and later Aquinas, it is in human nature to always choose the good. The problem arises when one thinks, because of a faulty conscience, that what is evil is really good. Therefore, he chooses what he perceives as good, but in reality, it is evil. Someone may rob a bank with the belief that gaining a significant amount of money quickly will bring them happiness. However, this action goes against the law and can result in severe consequences. Nobody ever chooses what they think will make them miserable and unhappy because the essence of virtue entails seeking what is good. Even someone who gets addicted to drugs and alcohol does so because they are pursuing happiness.
Aquinas termed this tendency to always choose the good “synderesis”. 5 He states the following:
According to the philosopher [Aristotle] (Metaph. viii, 2), “rational powers regard opposite things. “But “synderesis” does not regard opposites but inclines only to good (my italics). Therefore, “synderesis” is not a power. If it were a power, it would be a rational power since it is not found in brute animals… Whence “synderesis” is said to incite to good and shun evil, since through first principles we proceed to discover and judge what we have discovered. It is therefore clear that “synderesis” is not a power but a natural habit.-Aquinas, Summa, First Part, Question 79, Article 12
Synderesis is the basis of Aquinas’ Natural Law theory that morality could be deduced through correct reasoning. Therefore, societies that did not have the Bible could still theoretically make just laws. This also has implications for non-virtuous societies. Just because society considers something that is against natural law to be good, such as sexual perversion or abortion, does not make it so. Perceived happiness or fulfilment is not the final criterion for goodness. One must align their consciousness with objective truth.
Meno’s Frustration and Attack on Socrates
Poor Meno! How frustrating and humiliating it must have been to argue with someone like Socrates about deeper understanding of the essence of virtue and be wrong at every turn. Rather than humble himself, he turns and attacks Socrates, calling him an ugly stingray.
Socrates, I heard before I even met you that you are always perplexed and make others perplexed. And now, as it seems to me, you are bewitching and flattering me and being enchanting, so that I have become completely perplexed. You seem to me if it is possible to joke a little, to be, in appearance and in every way, exactly like the broad electric ray of the sea, for it to numbs anyone who approaches and comes into contact with it, and now you seem to have put me in something like the same state. For truly I am numb, both my spirit and my tongue, and I do not know what response I could give you.79e-80 a-b
And even though I have on countless occasions said many things to many people about virtue and done so well, as it seemed to me anyway, now I cannot say at all what it is. I think you are wise not to sail away from here or go abroad because if you acted in this way as a foreigner in another city, you would probably be arrested for sorcery.
In the next post, Socrates will attempt to answer Meno’s question. How can we pursue Essence of virtue if we don’t know what it is?
Virtue and happiness are mother and daughter.-Benjamin Franklin
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From Amazon: “MacIntyre’s arguments deserve to be taken seriously by anybody who thinks that the mere acceptance of pluralism is not the same thing as democracy, who worries about politicians wishing to give opinions about everything under the sun, and who stops to think of how important Aristotelian ethics have been for centuries.” ―The Economist
- Rawson, Glenn, “Plato: Meno”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- “Abstract 5, Synderesis and Aquinas”, Philosophical Investigations, July1, 2010
Aquinas, St. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Dumb Ox Books (January 1, 1993)
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press; 3rd edition (March 6, 2007)
McInerny, Ralph M., Ethica Thomistica, Revised Edition: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, The Catholic University of America Press; Revised ed. edition (September 1, 1997)
Virtue and Their Vices, Edited by Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (February 17, 2016)
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