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In the latter half of Plato’s Meno, Socrates doubts whether virtue is a type of teachable knowledge and instead argues that it is a result of “true opinion” (97b). In reading Socrates’ argument, I find that, while his doubt that virtue is teachable knowledge is justified, the evidence he uses is flawed.
After Meno insists that Socrates approach the original question Meno posed to him namely, “whether…virtue is something teachable, or is a natural gift, or in whatever way it comes to men” (86d) Socrates begins by laying down the first presupposition, “if virtue is a kind of knowledge, it is clear that it could be taught” (87c). This leads to a new question, is “virtue knowledge or something else” (87c)? Meno and Socrates then agree that “virtue is itself something good” (87d). Therefore, if there
“is anything else good that is different and separate from knowledge, virtue might well not be a kind of knowledge; but if there is nothing good that knowledge does not encompass, we would be right to suspect that it is a kind of knowledge” (87d).
They both find that virtue makes people good and if people are good they are beneficent “for all that is good is beneficial” (87e). Therefore, virtue is something beneficial since virtue is good. Socrates then examines other things that a beneficial to people such as health, strength and beauty. (87e). He points out “that these same things also sometimes harm one” (88a). Whether or not a good or a quality of the soul is used rightly determines whether or not it harms or benefits a person (88a). For example, if someone is courageous without wisdom then their recklessness will harm them. If they are courageous with wisdom then they are benefited. The same dynamic, of benefit coming when a good is used with wisdom and of harm coming when a good is used in ignorance, applies to other things such as moderation and mental quickness (88b). Therefore, “all that the soul undertakes and endures, if directed by wisdom, ends in happiness, but if directed by ignorance, it ends in the opposite” (88c). Therefore, it would seem that since the qualities of the soul, such as courage and moderation, are “in themselves neither beneficial nor harmful” while virtue is beneficial, it follows that virtue “must be a kind of wisdom” since wisdom helps direct the qualities of the soul to be beneficial (88d). It would appear then that if virtue is a kind of wisdom then virtue must be a kind of knowledge (88c). Moreover, good people are not good by nature but rather by learning since virtue appears to be a kind of knowledge and if it is knowledge it is teachable. (89c)
Socrates takes issue with the conclusion drawn that virtue is teachable knowledge saying, “I am not saying that it is wrong to say that virtue is teachable if it is knowledge, but look whether it is reasonable of me to doubt whether it is knowledge” (89d). He maintains the original presupposition that knowledge is teachable and instead takes issue with virtue being a kind of knowledge. The first argument he presents against virtue being knowledge is the fact that he “often tried to find out whether there were any teachers of [virtue], but in spite of all [his] efforts [he couldn’t] find any” (89e). Socrates points out that if someone were to wish to learn a trade such as shoemaking [90c], being a physician, flute playing, or any other crafts [90d] one would go to someone who is knowledgeable in those respective crafts. There are no tradesmen of virtue. Those that claim to be able to teach virtue or, at least, imply that they can teach virtue, the sophists, are, at a minimum, misleading their pupils (91b-92c). When Socrates asks Anytus who would be these teachers of virtue, Anytus says that any of the gentlemen of Athens could teach someone virtue and that those men learned it from virtuous gentlemen of the past (92e-93a). Socrates replies that if that were true then many of the men known to conduct their affairs with virtue would then teach their children virtue in addition to all the other lessons that their children are taught (93a-94e). Socrates gives examples of such virtuous men who failed to teach their children virtue. Therefore, Socrates says, since some of the most virtuous gentlemen of Athens failed to teach their children virtue, “virtue can certainly not be taught” (94e). There are no teachers therefore there are no pupils learning virtue from teachers (96c). Therefore, since virtue cannot be taught, it cannot be a kind of knowledge since knowledge is teachable.
Socrates then posits that the deeds of virtuous men could be the result of “true opinion” (97c). Meno takes issue that those with true opinions would only be correct in action and view some of the time (97c). Socrates disagrees saying that when it comes to virtue, “true opinion” is like a tied down statue in one’s soul, with the beholder tying down the opinion “by giving an account of the reason why” (97e-98a). Socrates harkens back to a prior discussion where he asserted that the soul is immortal and that all learning of theoretical information is recollection of information the soul already knows (80-86, 98a). Knowledge therefore, is, in reality, ‘true opinions’ that are ‘tied down’ and in being ‘tied down’ “they become knowledge” (98a). In the end, Socrates states that he still is uncertain and asserts that virtue “comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods “and it is not “an inborn quality or taught” (99e-100a).
There are multiple points in this argument that I take issue with. First of all, I find Socrates using examples of virtuous men failing to teach their sons virtue to be an anecdotal fallacy. Saying that one has not found a person who can teach virtue is not the same thing as saying that it is impossible to teach virtue. If anything, Socrates has pointed out the pedagogical limitations of those specific men and not of all humanity as a whole.
Second, I do not agree with Socrates’ presupposition that all knowledge is teachable. There is plenty of knowledge that people have come to know over the course of life and of trial and error that simply could not be taught by a teacher teaching a pupil. The pupil instead has to go out into the world or into a given trade and over time begin to realize certain things about that craft or about life that frankly cannot be put into words or into a lesson. For example, many experienced cooks, musicians, first responders, and people in other professions have said that while a teacher can give you a lot of information, there is a lot of knowledge to be gained from experience that must be learned by oneself through one’s own abilities and actions. Socrates would reply that this is because the soul is immortal and learning from experience is really just recollection of knowledge one already possesses. However, such an assertion demands that one consider which is more likely: that people possess all knowledge and simply do not remember it, or that there are other ways of gaining knowledge besides teaching that Socrates fails to take into account.
Overall, Socrates’ is in the correct realm of thought by asserting that virtue is not teachable knowledge. If virtue was purely teachable knowledge like flute playing or shoe making, it would be possible to claim that virtue, like flute playing or shoe making, was an invention of humanity. Virtue, and our desire to be virtuous, is not something that comes from a school lesson but rather from our common humanity itself.
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