Saturday, June 10, 2006

Socrates on Virtuous Men

In Plato's Meno, Socrates and Meno are attempting to define 'virtue'.
In his first attempt to define virtue, Meno lists a number of virtues that each of men, women, or other people should have, such as benefiting others, ruling over people, etc.

Socrates says: You are mentioning virtues.. But what I want is virtue itself. If all these things you mentioned are virtues, then there is one thing they must have in common that makes them virtuous. If we find this one thing that is in common, that makes all these things virtuous, we find virtue.

They come to the conclusion that actions must be accompanied by wisdom or knowledge in order to be virtuous. If all virtuous actions are accompanied by wisdom or knowledge, then virtue must be either partly or wholly knowledge.

Now knowledge and wisdom are not inborn qualities. The fact that men have them would then mean they must be taught.

Yet virtue itself cannot be taught. There are no students or teachers of virtue. Many virtuous people have sons who are not virtuous, despite any attempts to teach them virtue. It simply cannot be taught.

So if the knowledge that leads to virtue is not inborn, and is not taught, does that mean virtue does not exist? But virtue does exist, and it exists in many people who were neither born virtuous (as it is not inborn) nor taught the knowledge that makes actions virtuous.

Since knowledge must be taught, and we here see that these people can be virtuous without being taught it, then virtue cannot be knowledge. So the only other possibility is that virtue is right opinion. Right opinion is like knowledge, but is not taught. You can have right opinion about something, and that opinion need not be based on experience or knowledge, it is just opinion that happens to be right.

Therefore the actions of virtuous people are guided by right opinion, which is similar to knowledge but need not be taught. So what is the reason certain people have right opinions about things (without being taught them), and are thus virtuous? They must be inspired these opinions by God (or the gods). God inspires some people with the right opinions to direct their actions, making their actions virtuous. They do not necessarily have an understanding of what it is that makes their opinions right.

Virtuous people are then divinely guided, in that their opinions about things are divinely inspired. This is what makes them virtuous.

It is possible then to call such people divine. NOT because they themselves are divine, but because their opinions are divinely inspired. They are virtuous because God (or the gods) inspire(s) their opinions about things, and these opinions guide their actions. They are illumined and inspired by God, even possessed of God. Thus it is possible to call them divine (even though they themselves are not divine).

So argues Socrates, in Plato's Meno.

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