Feb 11, 2013

Virtues and Knowledge in Plato's Meno

Anyone who has read the Meno in an Introduction to Philosophy class -- as I started my own batch of students on this semester -- carries away from it the commonplace that the dialogue is about trying to define virtue, and all of the interlocutors fail in this project, though not without making certain efforts and attempts.  This is one of those things that "everybody knows" about that text, a bullet-point, a blurb equally fit for inclusion in Wikipedia, as an examination question, or on a Trivial Pursuit card.

Certainly no useful definition gets arrived at in the back and forth between Socrates and Meno -- the real centerpiece attraction and achievement being articulation of the Platonic doctrine of recollection.  In its failures, the dialogue bears affinities with other aporetic dialogues where specific virtues are supposed to be -- but turn out not to be -- defined through dialectic:  the Euthyphro, where it turns out nobody really knows what piety is; the Laches, where it's courage that remains an enigma; the Lysias, with friendship, the Charmides with temperance -- and one might point out as well, throughout a number of these, justice and wisdom get brought up, but never really worked out.

Justice and Wisdom as Plato's Architectonic Virtues.

Interestingly, the same proposed virtues keep coming up over and over again, and not just as idle, off-the-cuff examples, jumbled together however you like.  They seem to maintain a more or less constant constellation in relation to each other.  Interlocutors keep on referencing them, floundering about, getting into similar dialectical dead ends, falling through the same trap-doors of argument, concerning the same virtues.

Of course, if one has read ahead in the Platonic corpus -- and this makes it a bit difficult when one is coming back from the"greater" dialogues of Plato, where so much is not only getting examined, asked about, argued for and against, but actually -- and fairly definitively -- addressed, resolved, defined.  Back to where?  These seemingly "minor" dialogues where nothing much of anything gets settled, except for the fact that the interlocutors, and even the Socrates narrated there, don't seem to understand moral matters as well as they assumed they had.

If one had to pick two virtues that assume the greatest roles in Plato's moral theory -- in some sense underlying the other virtues --and if one was going to draw these out of the Republic, the Phaedo, the Gorgias, perhaps even the Symposium and Phaedrus, what would those two virtues be?  Justice -- since after all, in the Republic, it is not just a matter of a part of the soul, but of the soul as an integrated entirety -- and even more, Wisdom.

It just so happens that these two virtues take on the lion's share of importance in the arguments and enquiries set down in the Meno.  To be sure, neither justice nor wisdom are provided adequate philosophical definitions -- any more than is virtue successfully defined -- but these two key, desirable, praiseworthy traits get brought into the discussion in a particularly important and recurring way.  In each case, it is Socrates who brings them in, by way of comment, question, suggestion.  A process of hinting at something, of suggesting outlines is occuring -- Meno fails to grasp it, and I think many readers do as well, so concerned with the issue of definition.

What is Justice's Function in the Meno?

 Early on in the dialogue -- before Meno goodnaturedly complains about Socrates' reputed resemblance to the stingray, which then leads into the geometric construction and the doctrine of recollection -- Meno makes several attempts to provide Socrates with a definition of virtue.  Each of these definitions ends up leading into the same line of reasoning.  Let's look at them each in turn.

First Meno scatters virtue all over -- there's a different virtue for each kind of person, every social or relational role which a person might occupy.  Is there anything that can bring these back together, to provide a kind unity across the many instances?  There is -- in each case, the person will fulfill or perform their role temperately and justly.  Meno could have actually said at this point:  there you go -- virtue is a matter of doing things in accordance with temperance and justice.

But he doesn't.  Instead, he rises to a challenge on Socrates' part, to take up another definition of virtue coming from one of the Sophists, Gorgias.  And, Meno does that, proposing "capacity to govern" or "rule" as a second definition of virtue -- actually a plausible one, at least if one has in mind the virtue of the typical Greek gentleman.  But, again Socrates points out:  ruling can be done well or poorly.  So, what causes it to be done well?  Now, it's no longer two virtues, but one which is invoked -- justice.

And, here, an important kind of shift in the conversation occurs -- Meno is ammenable to agreeing with Socrates:  Sure, justice. . .  after all justice is a virtue.  And now, Socrates has him, whether he realizes it or not, already loosely wrapped in his toils, light, not yet constrictive -- but there won't be any slackening in the argument until it leads inevitably to its conclusion.  Justice is a virtue -- so what is virtue itself, what all of the many virtues have in common?  He won't allow Meno to use a partion of virtue -- justice -- in the act of defining what virtue as a whole should be understood to be.

And, now we come to the third attempt, the try that introduces some new issues and implications.  Meno proposes that virtue is desiring good things and being able to get those things -- eventually paring it down to just the power of acquiring good things.  What's wrong with this?  That actually leads off in the direction of two different virtues, one explicitly named, the other just implied.  It is after all possible to go wrong in desiring things, to think that bad things are good things and to desire them as such, things that will actually make one unhappy when one successfully attains them -- it's wisdom that's needed in order to understand these sorts of things rightly.

Put that worry aside for the moment -- as Socrates and Meno in fact do -- what about the acquisition of good things?  Can that really, on its own, unqualified by any conditions, constitute virtue?  What about a thief, or a tyrant, who takes good things, but wrongly?  Meno is willing to grant that justice, temperance, piety, or some other part of virtue has to be present in the person engaged in acquisition -- or perhaps even holding himself back from acquiring! -- in order for it to constitute virtue.  Which of these does he then settle upon?  Justice.  And, this lands them back in the position of using that portion of virtue in the process of defining the whole of it.

The Platonic Priority of Wisdom over Other Virtues

So far, we've seen wisdom come up a few times, but it has been justice that Socrates and Meno kept circling about in the early part of the dialogue.  Later on, they come back to the question of defining virtue, and Socrates -- even though he thinks it methodologically a bad idea -- works out what would have to be the case if we assume virtue to be some kind of knowledge (Socrates would rather keep hammering at the more basic question What is Virtue?, and only after arriving at some reasonable answer, start tackling other questions).

Virtue is a good -- so that means it is something good, something we praise, desire, enjoy.  But, it is also good in a deeper, more productive or contagious sense.  Virtue makes the person who has it good.  Virtue is also something advantageous, useful for the person who possesses it -- and presumably to others who are affected by its possessor's actions.  What other things are good, or advantageous to us?

Here Plato runs his interlocutors through a process of discovery that actually parallels the discussion appearing two milennia later in Immanuel Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals -- the question being about what goods are absolutely good, and what are only qualifiedly so.  The categories of goods that Socrates and Meno discuss are readily recognizable as external goods -- wealth, for instance --  goods of the body -- health, strength, good looks -- and goods of the mind or the soul.  The virtues fit into this last class, though they don't exhaust it -- there's also goods like quickness of thinking, memory, etc.

Now, any of these goods -- and they are in fact good things -- can turn bad, can go wrong, can become harmful.  It just depends on the circumstances.  Wealth can ruin a person.  Good looks can land one into all sorts of trouble.  Even the virtues can become problematic.  Temperance, courage -- these can degenerate into something different, a facsimile of virtue, a potential for harm to self and others, when something is missing.  And, what is that something in that passage?  It isn't justice.  Now, it is wisdom

There is a kind of chain of goods and conditions for their right, beneficial use.  The external goods and goods of the body themselves require something else to be present in order for their use to be good -- and this can be any one of a number of different virtues, depending on the circumstances.  Temperance helps us not overindulge in certain goods, courage helps us work to attain them, justice assists us as well in not overstepping certain bounds.  But these virtues themselves, good of the soul, require in turn something to guide them -- and that is wisdom.

Definition, Knowledge, and the Dialogue

So, has Meno learned anything valuable about moral matters?  He has figured out that he doesn't know what he thought he did, what he, by his own admission, talked about in front of large crowds -- what virtue is.  He can't provide a definition of virtue that can withstand the scrutiny dialectic brings to any formula he can think of.  He also has to admit that he doesn't actually know anyone who can teach another person to be virtuous.  So, the dialogue seems to end in failure, doesn't it?

But what about these two virtues -- justice and wisdom -- these two parts of virtue that turn out to be more integral to virtue as whole and in its other parts.  Shouldn't Meno have walked away at least thinking that he now does know something useful -- or rather three things?  First, that justice and also wisdom are needed in order to make proper use of goods, to rightly acquire goods, to rule well, to fulfill one's roles?  Second, that the various virtues are what help us make good use, beneficial use, of good things?  And third, that in order for one to use these other virtues well in that capacity, another master-virtue is required, namely wisdom?

Socrates himself suggests at one point near the end of the dialogue that his own accounts of matters might not even be knowledge, but something between genuine knowledge and the shifting, shadowy realm of true opinion.  But I don't think that applies to what we might call a genuine Platonic doctrine: the priority of wisdom.  Of that, at least, Socrates does seem to be convinced.  And in favor of that, Socrates also provides arguments, reasoned accounts -- it is simply up to the reader to gather them together, as I've done here.


  1. Isn't the "Platonic doctrine: the priority of wisdom" a bit of a centerpiece of Book 6 in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics?

  2. Yes, but Aristotle and Plato don't seem to have precisely the same conception of "wisdom" (sophia). What Plato discusses by using that term straddles two Aristotelian notions -- wisdom, but also "practical wisdom" or "prudence" (phronesis)