Sunday, December 02, 2012

Plato: Meno and Virtue

This dialog is between Meno and Socrates with the topic being virtue.  The question is whether or not virtue can be defined and whether or not virtue can be taught.  Meno thinks he knows what virtue is and gives a list, but after being quizzed by Socrates it is apparent that he cannot come up with any sensible general definition of virtue that applies to all the individual cases.  Several candidate teachers are then proposed, with the Sophists being the only ones who meet all the criteria.  (Sophists believe that there is no such thing as truth, only persuasion.)  This is clearly unacceptable, with the end conclusion that virtue cannot be taught either.  To this Socrates adds that even the most virtuous and wealthy Athenians produce children who show no signs of virtue, and their parents would surely have educated them otherwise if it were possible.

My understanding of their conclusion is that virtue is innate and something provided by the gods, leaving virtue corresponding to what we might call "good character".  There is almost a sense of predestination to the whole thing.  A hole I see in this is that we are not given any idea whether virtue might be improved, or bad character lessened through training.  Another bothersome idea is that Meno and Socrates believe that even those who are evil believe that they will experience some good for their actions. This I am not so sure of.


Delirious said...

Through the ages there have been many who believed that we are born evil. But the Bible clearly teaches that we are the offspring of God. So how could we be evil by nature? But on the other hand, we have to be carefully taught about virtue because the world has evil opinions about it.

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

A post with a title? Who are you and what have you done to Looney? LOL :)

I am divided here: I don't think that bad character can be lessened through training (because it is a choice to nurture a bad character; an individual would have to choose to change ways) but I do agree that those who are evil can experience some good in their actions (specially because they might be serving a Divine purpose, as nonsensical as it may sound).

Is virtue innate? I believe that it is. We all have it (because we were created under God's Image); however some choose not to nurture it and nurture bad character instead.


Looney said...

@Delirious, I tend to have a mixed view ... we are born with character, we are trained in our character, and we also learn character from the world. What do you think of this verse?

"The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies". - Psalm 58:2

Looney said...


I believe that behavior can certainly be changed by discipline, but you have me wondering: Is Behavior just a mask or veneer over the core character that can't be changed?

Max Coutinho said...


"Is Behavior just a mask or veneer over the core character that can't be changed?"

Excellent question. I would say that yes, Behaviour can be a mask or veneer over the core character. Now, can character change? Some would say that it changes through the cycle of re-birth, as if at each life it would peel off its less good traits; others would say that it never changes (because bad character is part of the Purpose - which, I guess, would take us back to the predestination debate?).