or Can virtue be taught?

“ANYTUS: You seem to me, Socrates, to be too ready to run people down. My advice to you, if you will listen to it, is to be careful. I dare say that in all cities it is easier to do a man harm than good, and it is certainly so here, as I expect you know yourself.”

Plato, Meno, c.387 BCE. W.K.C. Guthrie translation. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1961


Reading Plato (c.427-347 BC) is a lot easier, and much more enjoyable, than we might expect. He has often, perhaps justifiably, been portrayed as a political totalitarian. This is partly because of the way he envisages the constitution and customs of the ideal society in Republic. Such a characterisation is yet another example of how a useful and interesting thinker has come to be regarded as a dangerous, obscure and irrelevant figure. He finds himself cast as one of the characters living on the road between the fire and the screen in his own analogy of the cave, and many of those who teach Plato can perhaps be compared to the chained prisoners in the cave, only seeing and hearing the actions and words of the shadows of those who live behind the screen; philosophers, and parasites of philosophy that is, the self-professed ‘lovers of wisdom’, the original Greek word being a combination of philo meaning love, and sophia meaning wisdom.

It is issues surrounding the current general perception of philosophy and its role in our society that make studying Plato so important. He is only one amongst many other supposedly, dangerous, irrelevant or difficult writers such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Hegel, Joyce and Derrida. Reading Plato helps us to understand all of them, as well as many other things. After all, as A.N. Whitehead said:

“The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

In what sense is European philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato though? Is it the continuing, over-specialised and, for most of us, totally incomprehensible search to discover what we can know for certain, as in the fields of logic and epistemology? Or is it the continuing, and often catastrophic, quest to create the perfect society, to supply a definitive set of rules for living?

Plato always refers to logic in the context of moral and political questions. Mathematics and geometry serve mainly as the most powerful analogy available to explain the nature of teaching and learning. Their study is said to be very important for the development of the rational part of the soul. They also have the certainty, consistency and unity that Plato is looking for in morality and politics at the same time as giving us a tantalising glimpse of the nature of the realm of the forms, the heavenly blueprint of all reality.

However, in almost every one of Plato’s works it is Socrates (c.469–399 BC) who puts forward the arguments. As we read, it becomes obvious that he was a man who relentlessly questioned the dominant religious and moral beliefs of his society, leading to his trial and execution for corrupting the minds of the young, questioning the authority of the gods and manufacturing new ones. The death of Socrates can be seen as the reason why Plato decided to become a philosopher in the first place. He simply could not understand why his mentor and friend was tried and executed for rationally examining the truth of the accepted moral and political beliefs of his time. The simple fact that Socrates is usually the main character, and as such the representative of Plato’s view, itself shows that it is the moral and political questions that are most important for Plato. The mathematics and geometry are just tools for explaining himself and perhaps owe more to the influence of Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC) than Socrates.

Socrates and Meno

Before looking at Republic, exploring the analogy of the cave and how it can be applied to Plato’s social context as well as our own, it is a useful introduction to some key Platonic ideas to refer to the Meno (c.387 BC), an earlier dialogue, that clearly exhibits the nature and motivation of Plato’s project in a relatively straightforward manner.

In this dialogue, a wealthy young aristocrat called Meno asks Socrates if it is possible to teach virtue. Is it possible, that is, to teach a person the right way to act? Socrates replies that nobody in Athens even knows what virtue is and that teaching it would therefore seem to be impossible. This naturally leads to the question: What is virtue?

Meno answers this question by listing the virtues, the actions or duties that are commonly expected, of men, women, husbands, wives, children, the elderly, those who are free, and those who are slaves, but Socrates wants to know the one quality that is present in every particular example of virtuous activity.

“… I wanted one virtue and I find that you have a whole swarm of virtues to offer …”

Typically, Socrates then explains himself by using an analogy, by carrying on this metaphor of the swarm. What is a bee? What makes bees different from one another? They are all different but they are all bees? What is the essential nature of bees? Meno agrees that it is possible to speak meaningfully about this question. To find out the thing that all bees have in common, their beeness as it were:

“Then do the same with the virtues. Even if they are many and various, yet at least they all have some common character which makes them virtues.”

This is the key to answering the question: ‘What is virtue?’ says Socrates. For example, virtuous men and women, or children and old men are only recognised as virtuous when their particular roles are carried out with “temperance and justice” these are qualities that are common to all particular forms of virtuous activity, although they are not the whole of virtue, they are a part of it.

Meno then suggests that the “capacity to govern men” is virtue. Do children and slaves govern? Socrates asks. Furthermore, doesn’t Meno mean to say govern justly, rather than just govern?

Analogies about shape and subsequently colour are then used by Socrates to try and clarify his point. Roundness and straightness are both shapes, white and red are both colours. So what is it that they share in being shapes or colours? Similarly, we can ask what is common to both the virtue of a husband and a wife and so on?

Rather than just looking at particular examples of it, the attempt to find out what virtue itself is relates to the important and more fundamental question: Do those who act without virtue do so because they are naturally bad or because they are confused by their incorrect view of the world, their misunderstanding of the true nature of virtue? Is it possible to know what virtue is, and if so, are those who know, or find out what it is, destined to act correctly forever or will they be led astray as the concerns of everyday life obscure their view of the truth leading them to the bad application of their rational faculties?

At the end of this first part of their investigation Meno tries to give a more general definition of virtue as “the desire of fine – or good – things and the power to acquire them”, but again Socrates shows this to be unsatisfactory because it is possible to do this without acting justly. By now Meno has become completely confused. He says that Socrates is like a “sting-ray” or a “wizard” and that, although he has spoken many times about virtue in front of large audiences in the past, Socrates’ persistent questioning and demolition of his definitions has now left him feeling unable to talk about it any more.

Socrates again pounces upon the simile in order to explain himself further, thus showing us why people might have become annoyed, like Anytus in our framing quote, by Socrates’ habit of questioning the commonly held beliefs and practices of his day:

“As for myself, if the sting-ray paralyses others only through being paralysed itself, then the comparison is just, but not otherwise. It isn’t that knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself. So with virtue now. I don’t know what it is. You may have known before you came into contact with me, but now you look as if you don’t. Nevertheless I am ready to carry out, together with you, a joint investigation and inquiry into what it is.”

Socrates and the Slave

Meno, in view of the fact that it seems impossible to know what virtue is, now poses a commonly discussed philosophical problem regarding what can be known:

“But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?”

We should note that this question is especially important in the case of virtue; as is shown in Plato’s writings as well as the development and historical influence of political philosophy from Ancient Athens to present day Washington DC. Socrates is obliged to refer to “men and women who understand the truths of religion … the priests and priestesses” who “say that the soul of man is immortal” and is never “finally exterminated” in order to convince Meno that it is possible to find out what virtue is. He believes that we already know the answer. The problem is that we have forgotten what it is and are no longer able to recognise it:

“… the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is. So we need not be surprised if it can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge – learned it, in ordinary language – there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are nothing but recollection.”

For Plato/Socrates, our souls, our true selves, are perfect and immortal. This is perhaps the common, unifying belief and foundation, of all Plato’s works. Deep down inside we know what virtue is, but because our souls are trapped inside bodies with all the desires, needs and wants that being inside a body imposes upon our souls, we lose sight of the truth, our reason is all too easily led astray, by hunger or greed and everything in between.

An important and often overlooked implication of this belief in the immortality of the soul and the innateness of knowledge is that absolutely everybody is capable of remembering everything that is known, and achieving the clarity of vision and purpose that goes with it. It is therefore probably not a coincidence that Plato shows Socrates teaching Meno’s slave how to solve a geometrical problem in order to demonstrate the innateness of knowledge. Through a process of questioning Socrates brings out the slave’s pre-existing knowledge, as opposed to putting it into him, the slave begins to understand the application of principles and works out the geometrical problem himself.

Socrates thus, apparently, shows that education is a process of remembering our pre-existing knowledge through a process of questioning. The slave’s knowledge and understanding was previously obscured, because of his soul being imprisoned inside his body. The idea is that by engaging in rational pursuits, geometry and mathematics providing perhaps the most powerful examples of this, we gain a clearer vision of the world that we inhabit as embodied souls. Everybody has a soul in which true knowledge is present. It is its imprisonment inside a body that causes problems and we don’t all have the wealth or the time required to properly engage in the pursuit of knowledge, loving wisdom, being philosophers.

Regardless of the validity of Plato/Socrates’ belief in the immortality of the soul and Socrates’ demonstration of the innateness of knowledge, the important fact is that the dialogue aims to convince us that everybody, even a dim-witted and subservient slave, innately possesses knowledge and is capable of a true understanding. The slave’s knowledge had been obscured by the consequences of the soul being trapped inside a body, along with all the needs and wants that go with it: feeding, procreating, finding security, operating within a particular social system and code of behaviour and so on and so on. In short we could just say that having a body means that we need to concentrate on looking after our selves much more than we would need to if we didn’t have a body. Our reason is led by needs and wants rather than a desire to act virtuously. For example, a poor man’s hunger and a rich man’s greed can lead them into error because their needs and wants prevent them from seeing the correct course of action. The need to get along within a particular social group also affects the correct operation of our rational faculty.

A slave is perhaps particularly lacking in the ability to use reason precisely because he is mostly concerned with the lower level problems of having his soul trapped inside a body. Plato and Socrates on the other hand were men of leisure who were able to devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of philosophy. Socrates was a social misfit with few possessions, or at least with little regard for them. Plato was a member of the Athenian aristocracy. They are only two amongst many others, across at least 5,000 years, who have engaged in the pursuit of philosophy where we repeatedly encounter the question: Is there a lowest common denominator that enables the recognition of virtue that is present in all particular examples of it? Say, for example between the virtuous actions of a priest, a warrior, husband, wife, slave, citizen, social misfit, and so on. Socrates’ general answer to this question is that virtue is wisdom or at least a part of it:

“… we may say in general that the goodness of non-spiritual assets depends on our spiritual character, and the goodness of that on wisdom. This argument shows that the advantageous element must be wisdom; and virtue, we agree, is advantageous, so that amounts to saying that virtue is wisdom, either the whole or a part of it.”

Luck, True Opinion and Knowledge

Obviously, this leads us to ask: What is wisdom and how is it acquired? Is virtue exactly the same as wisdom or is it just part of it? If only a part, what are the other parts and how do we get to know them? Socrates then asserts that goodness is not innate and asks again if it can thus be taught:

“If so, good men cannot be good by nature … (and) … Since then goodness does not come by nature, is it got by learning?”

As far as Socrates is concerned there is nobody that he knows of who can or has taught goodness. Some sophists taught it for a fee and often made a very good, but decidedly un-virtuous, living out of it. There have been plenty of good statesmen in Athens but none of them has been capable of teaching it. Poets and historians have failed too. He concludes that it must be unteachable because nobody is capable of teaching it.

Instead he makes a distinction between two types of knowledge. This time the analogy is that of a man who has been given the directions to Larissa and a man who has actually made the journey. If the directions given are sound, then his opinion, his believing in the truth, is as good as if he actually knew it from experience. In this way a division between right or true opinion and actual knowledge is made.

Doesn’t that imply that right opinion is just as good as knowledge? Meno asks. No says Socrates. Opinion changes, it becomes unhinged from knowledge, leading us into confusion. Staying attached to knowledge by working out the reason … recollecting, tying the principle down and being able to apply it to a variety of questions or problems, enables the exercise of right opinion. Apart from luck, he says, true opinion and knowledge are most likely to produce goodness.

Good people, priests, prophets, poets and statesmen do, and have, existed because the gods bless them, Socrates concludes:

“If all we have said in this discussion, and the questions we have asked, have been right, virtue will be acquired neither by nature nor by teaching. Whoever has it gets it by divine dispensation … But we shall not understand the truth of the matter until, before asking how men get virtue, we try to discover what virtue is in and by itself.”

Thus Meno’s original question remains unanswered but before moving on to look at Plato’s Republic and Plato/Socrates’ attempt to provide an answer to what virtue is and how it should be taught, we must stay aware of the fact that the innateness of knowledge implies that everybody has access to it. We must also anticipate the ultimate question: Do those who act without virtue do so because they are naturally bad or because they are confused by their incorrect view of the world, their misunderstanding of the true nature of goodness? In short: Why is it better to act with virtue, whatever it turns out to be, than to act without it?

July 2010.


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Emily Robbins-Pugh

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