Online Great Books recently hosted a live discussion session on Plato’s Meno. That encouraged me to pick it up again. It’s such a fun read.
So, as Meno asked, can virtue be taught?
Before answering the question, Socrates tells Meno that he needs an explanation of what virtue means. Meno lists a few virtues, but Socrates objects to any answer that uses a list of virtues to explain what virtue is.
Socrates Will Only Accept a Certain Kind of Explanation for Virtue
Socrates uses bees to explain the type of answer he’d accept. He claims that just as a swarm of bees doesn’t explain what a bee is, in the same way a list of virtues doesn’t explain what virtue means. Socrates guides Meno into asserting there are characteristics which are universal to all bees, and these very characteristics are what make them bees. So, rather than showing a swarm of bees to answer “what is a bee?” the answer should instead be the universal characteristics of bees. In the same way, Socrates wants an explanation of virtue that presents the characteristics that are universal to all virtues. Meno appears to accept this and continues the conversation while earnestly attempting to conform to Socrates' requirements.
But Was Meno Wrong to Offer a List of Virtues?
But, wait a minute. I have questions. What was wrong with the list of virtues approach? Why is having a list of virtues inferior to having a list of the universal characteristics of virtues? I don’t think I see a practical difference in how the information for either approach could be obtained, nor applied.
Regarding application, both approaches make virtues known. For the sake of argument, assume you have a true list of virtues. Anyone can read the list and know the virtues on it. in the same way, if you have a true list of universal characteristics of virtue, then you know what virtue is. So the practical application of both approaches seem equivalent to me because both approaches show virtue.
Regarding how such lists could be obtained; how could we know what belongs on each list? Isn’t it true that both lists require an authority? The list of virtues would require an authority to identify each virtue, but wouldn’t list of characteristics also require an authority in exactly the same way? I believe it does, because otherwise nothing is keeping “vice” characteristics off the list.
Both Socrates and Meno seem to take for granted that justice is virtuous, and they use justice as a test to rule out several definitions of virtue. But is that not using a list with a length of one? Yes, it is! This seems to be compelling evidence that both approaches necessarily must stand on the foundation of some kind of authority.
Requiring an Authority
Starting at the question of “Can virtue be taught?” we then must ask “What is virtue?” and then we seem to need an answer for “Who is the authority?” This is perhaps the question, even above questions like “What is the meaning of life?” because the authority capable of defining virtue is probably also capable of giving meaning to life.
I have bias here. I’ve written about identifying virtue before in my post called Building Strength of Character and I arrived at two practical options for identifying the authority.
First, I think the authority is God. This might not have been something Socrates and Meno could comprehend, because they believed in a plethora of god characters. But it’s very much within the reach of monotheists, like Christians.
Second, I think you should consider your community as the authority. I think the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written about this, and his work was covered in an episode of the Online Great Books podcast.
I think the ideal arrangement is to implement both options. Be in a community that reinforces God as the authority, such as a Church.
What is Virtue?
My answer today is: virtue is behavior that pleases God.