The Examined Life

June 12, 2007

Socrates claimed that he never knew any one who knew what virtue was (Plato Meno). The virtues could be named: justice, temperance, courage, magnanimity, holiness, honesty, but the concept of virtue could not be known. Socrates distinguishes between things that profit us such as health and strength, and beauty and wealth and the goods of the soul: temperance, justice, courage, quickness of apprehension, memory, magnanimity. In Plato’s Dialogue between Meno, Socrates, Meno’s slave and Anytus, Menos asks Socrates, “whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way? (Plato Meno)”

Meno responded that he indeed did know what virtue was.

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man–he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates. (Plato Meno)

Further on Meno described virtue as “the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.’ To which Socrates responded, “And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?”

But Socrates finally confronts Meno with the impossibility of his definition,

What of that! Why, did not I ask you to tell me the nature of virtue as a whole? And you are very far from telling me this; but declare every action to be virtue which is done with a part of virtue; as though you had told me and I must already know the whole of virtue, and this too when frittered away into little pieces. And, therefore, my dear Meno, I fear that I must begin again and repeat the same question: What is virtue? for otherwise, I can only say, that every action done with a part of virtue is virtue; what else is the meaning of saying that every action done with justice is virtue? Ought I not to ask the question over again; for can any one who does not know virtue know a part of virtue?

And again,

And we too, as we know not the nature and qualities of virtue, must ask, whether virtue is or is not taught, under a hypothesis: as thus, if virtue is of such a class of mental goods, will it be taught or not? Let the first hypothesis be that virtue is or is not knowledge,–in that case will it be taught or not? or, as we were just now saying, ‘remembered’? For there is
no use in disputing about the name. But is virtue taught or not? or rather, does not every one see that knowledge alone is taught?


1. Most of the list refers to virtues compiled by the ©1993, 1997 The Virtues Project

2. List of virtues1: acceptance, assertiveness, beauty, caring, cleanliness, commitment, compassion, confidence, consideration, contentment, courage, courtesy, creativity, detachment, determination, devotion, diligence, discernment, enthusiasm, excellence, faith, faithfulness, flexibility, forgiveness, friendliness, generosity, gentleness, grace, gratitude, helpfulness, honesty, honor, humility, idealism, integrity, joyfulness, justice, kindness, love, loyalty, mercy, moderation, modesty, obedience, orderliness, patience, peacefulness, perseverance, purity, purposefulness, reliability, respect, responsibility, reverence, righteousness, sacrifice, self-discipline, service, steadfastness, tact, thankfulness, tolerance, trust, trustworthiness, truthfulness, unity, wisdom, wonder

3. The free plain vanilla electronic texts of Plato’s Meno is hosted by Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=38866&pageno=1


Kavelin-Popov, Linda; Popov, Dan; Kavelin, John. 1991. The Virtues Project. http://www.virtuesproject.com/overview.html

Plato. Meno . Trans. Jowett, Benjamin. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=38866&pageno=6

Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. >> Speechless.

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