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Plato’s Views on Virtue and Whether It Can Be Taught

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In his work, “Meno”, Plato discusses human virtue and whether or not it is taught to us. Structured as a dialogue between Socrates and Meno, Plato defines virtue, what it means to be virtuous, and how virtuosity is determined, through these characters. As Meno and Socrates discuss their beliefs on whether or not virtue can be taught, the Socrates dialogue is extensively used to question and invalidate Meno’s views on virtue. The Socrates dialogue, or an argument type that uses the question-and-answer method to critique and discuss classic, moral and philosophical problems, is repeatedly employed by Socrates in Plato’s Meno. By using this technique, Socrates not only proves there is no tangible answer to the question “what is virtue”, but he also differentiates between knowledge and belief, terms which were, and still are seemingly interchangeable.

Plato first introduces the discussion on virtue, with Meno asking Socrates if virtue can be taught. Although Socrates is unable to answer Meno, he posits that no one really knows what virtue is or if it can be taught. Meno then begins the dialogue of differentiating the virtue of man and women, in an attempt to explain that virtue can indeed be taught. Meno persists, stating that a man’s virtue is found in how he conducts himself, and in his interactions with others, while a woman’s virtue is found in her obedience and domestic abilities. In his response, Socrates firmly dissents. There is no age or gender- dependent scale on which virtue is measured, according to Socrates. Virtue must be common to all people, man or woman, young or old, master or servant, and its application must be universal. As he argues, Socrates begins to point out this universality of virtue, and how it might be considered an inherent value all humans possess, irrespective of their status or place in society. To support his argument, Socrates references the slaveholder and slave that have gathered before Meno and himself. According to Socrates, whether or not the slaveholder “governs well” must not be deemed “a virtue of a slave, because then he would not be a slave.”

Meno finally agrees that virtues are common to all people, and presents his definition of virtue, which is to “desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them”. Socrates once again disagrees, contending that telling good and evil apart is no easy feat. In his argument against Meno’s definition of virtue, Socrates references the social climate both he and Meno live in, to give proof to the fact that few among them are able to discern right from wrong. Socrates also questions Meno on whether or not the means justify the acquiring of good things. Shouldn’t good things be acquired with virtue for them to be deemed good ? Although neither Socrates nor Meno present a legitimate definition of virtue, Socrates’ arguments suggest that “virtue” is an amalgamation, not separate virtues as previously posed by Meno. Most striking in Plato’s “Meno”, is the “Meno paradox”: “how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? ” In response, Socrates explains that souls hold knowledge within them, regardless of what the body knows or has learned. This allows people to simply “recollect” inborn knowledge, as proven in Socrates interrogation of the slave boy.

Predominant in “Meno”, is also the disagreement between Meno and Socrates on whether or not Sophists or Athenians are the “true teachers of virtue.” Socrates continues this discussion by asserting that it is “better to know that one does not know” than to “bolding and grandly” claim knowledge – an attack on Sophist teachers and principles. Socrates further interjects with his Athenian opinion of the distinction between “true belief” and “knowledge”. According to Socrates, true beliefs are very useful, but must be restrained so as to not be considered part of our learned knowledge. With at times confusing explanations, admonishment of Sophist principles, and the use of the Socrates dialogue, Socrates reiterates that virtue is indeed good, but only when it is in “directed by wisdom”. As the exchange between Socrates and Meno draws to a close, both agree that virtue cannot be taught and that it is instead “a gift from the gods”.

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