Monday, May 11, 2009

Plato: Meno

The dialogue, one grouped around the trial of Socrates, starts with Meno asking Socrates, rather abruptly, "whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice".

Socrates replies that he doesn't know what virtue is; in fact, he's never known anyone who did know. Meno explains that there is the virtue of the mother, and the virtue of a man, and the virtue of a child, et cetera. But, Socrates notes that this list of all the virtues doesn't explain what's common between them. After quite a bit of light joking about how to define things, Meno comes up with the following: "virtue is to delight in things honorable and have the ability to get them."

This is better; but, if honorable things are the same as good things, then everyone wants what is good. The key must be in the power to get them. Yet, he must get them justly. So, now we're back to enumerating the parts of virtue!

Now, they're more confused than ever. In a famous section of the dialogue, Socrates explains that this is a part of knowledge. He has heard that we have immortal souls that pass through successive periods of existence, perpetually remembering and forgetting. All of nature is kindred and each has the seed of all knowledge within them. Learning, then, is a process of remembering. In a famous section, Socrates demonstrates this by eliciting certain geometrical relations- specifically, that the square of the diagonal is double the square of the side- from a totally uneducated slave.

Socrates knows that virtue is a good; but he does not think it is a sort of knowledge because he has never known any teachers of virtue. Therefore, virtue must not be teachable.

In a section that amounts to foreshadowing, they ask the well-to-do Athenian gentleman Anytus who to go to in order to be taught virtue. Socrates suggests the sophists, which angers the man. He then recalls several honorable men of old: Themistocles, Pericles, and so on; and points out that none of them had honorable sons, so they must not have taught virtue. Anytus is outraged to hear the old Athenian heroes slandered and leaves, warning Socrates to watch his tongue. He will participate in the trial of Socrates and there's an interesting critique implied about the sort of person who believes that virtue adheres unquestioningly to certain groups, so referring to "Athenian gentlemen", for example, settles the question.

If virtue is not a sort of knowledge that can be taught, and it's not innate- since we don't generally recognize it in children- couldn't it come to us some other way. Socrates suggests that virtue might really be "right opinion", which really cannot be taught, as it's more instinctual; but which is as good as knowledge for all practical purposes? Socrates proposes that great statesmen have a sort of instinct for right behavior that is divinely given- a sort of revealed instinct. Like prophets, they are divine and possessed by God.

Notes: I like the idea of virtue as "right opinion" because it gets at the fact that virtue isn't easily pinned down or transmitted. A virtuous person today can become unvirtuous tomorrow. I understand this as more akin to a state of mind or a disposition. Aristotle would similarly define virtues as states of being between two extremes- courage is the state between cowardice and foolhardiness, for instance.

It also gets at the fact that we often act virtuously without really knowing why, and then later try to explain it through ethics. There's something... pre-rational about ethical behavior that is akin to how we respond to art- usually there's a nonverbal emotive response which we later try to verbalize. Hemingway said that "evil" is what we feel bad about afterwards and I think there's something to that.

I like this answer, but it's lousy for Meno, who is basically a sophist. He wants an answer that can be easily pinned down and doesn't get it. Socrates is making fun of him throughout the dialogue, whether he realizes it or not. What he's trying to do, and he says as much, is put Meno in a state of aporia- puzzlement, which is intended to be salutary. As Socrates puts it, aporia shows the person that what he thought he knew, he doesn't really know; this makes him want to search for the answer. It is destabilizing. However, for a lousy student like Meno- who just wants to be fed the answers- it is frustrating to be "torpedoed" out of any certainly. Unfortunately for him, aporia is central to Socrates' style.

They don't exactly end in a state of aporia, but their definition is marked by this vagueness. Saying that virtue is divinely inspired right opinion serves mostly to disprove Meno's two options: virtue as innate and virtue as taught; it's neither, but it doesn't exactly clear things up for us. However, it does open the way for a link between the nonverbal "irrational" or subconscious and divine revelation. Freud, of all people, almost made way for this connection- a sub-subconscious, so to speak, that would correspond to divine revelation. But, as an atheist, he backed off. Socrates does not.


The Pagan Temple said...

Couldn't virtue be defined as a kind of common sense, and this learned through both example and experience? Take the example given of courage, for example, being a state between cowardice and foolhardiness. That would seem to be a great example of a state of mind that one could arrive at through experience, and/or through training.

Maybe it's a kind of adaptation technique. People latch onto what seems to work, and there are certain things that are just universal. After so long, while its not set in stone (the brave man can always under the right circumstances become a quivering jellyfish, or perhaps through unreasoned anger become and act vengefully or wrathfully to a foolhardy extent), and can gravitate from one end to the other, it might well be seen as acquired behavior shared in common as a means to insure survival and the flourishing of the species of man in a world where under many natural conditions he is at a distinct disadvantage otherwise.

It becomes both an individual characteristic, and social in nature, something to be aimed at and encouraged, but unfortunately possessed in abundance by few.

Rufus said...

Well, I'm not sure it's that common! But I do think you've hit on something here. Virtues might well be akin to just what works in our experience. Maybe it's something like a set of habits that aren't necessarily even conscious- something we learn by practice.

It's often struck me too that, aside from any sort of belief in a deity, most of the things that are forbidden in religious creeds are actually psychologically damaging. There are actually very practical reasons to avoid things like sloth, or lying, or wrath- they're just not good for one's mental health.

It could be that we learn what is good for our state of mind through experience and explain it to ourselves through moral codes. We know without having to be told, or being born knowing.

I think this is an interesting idea. Thanks.

The Pagan Temple said...

You're welcome. And also, while its not that common in everybody, there is a societal element that holds virtues up as something to aim for. So in that regard, society forms a kind of bonding, a cohesiveness that encourages all of us to aim for those higher states of what we call morals and ethics, and rewards us when we do so while enacting reprisals when we act against those established virtues.

That's what we have our "heroes" for. They are ideals to aspire to, but at the same time, note how in the ancient myths, all of the heroes were tragically flawed, and suffered greatly for their shortcomings. They actually provided warnings of the consequences of pursuing base behavior, and at the same time provided inspiration for their good deeds. They did them to atone for their past bad actions, and otherwise did not benefit from them. Yet, in some cases they were deified. That is a pretty strong message in its own right, that one should seek guidance from a deity that knew from sad experience what a person might be going through.

It's also worth pointing out that at the time these dialogues were going on, no one had any kind of clue, consciously at least, as to the idea of any kind of evolutionary struggles and advances of the species, how mankind and other life forms adapt and adjust over millennia. They just understood the natural world around them to a very limited extend, and explained them in those ways.

So to them the idea of morals, virtues, and ethics was something that was more intangible and unexplainable than lightning, earthquakes, the seasons, etc., all things of the natural world which they could at least see and understand to a point their power and their effects. So to their way of thinking, if some red-bearded guy in the sky was tossing lightning around because he was having a bad weekend or whatever, the explanation of more mysterious and unknowable matters would probably follow a similar route.

Rufus said...

Also, I think fate is more intangible. At least, it is to me. It seems like it's easier to bargain with God than it is with the gods. The Iliad makes it sound like the gods do with us as they please. As for the heroes, their virtues are almost canceled out by their flaws.