Plato’s Meno: What is Virtue, and Can it Be Taught?

Plato’s Meno is one of his most influential works on ethics. What is virtue, and how does Plato’s conception of it relate to his wider philosophy?

Feb 14, 2024By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
plato meno what is virtue

 

Plato’s Meno is an influential platonic dialogue that explores an evergreen question: what is virtue? As is common in Plato’s work, the dialogue consists of exchanges between Socrates and other interlocutors. There are many interesting connections between this discussion of ethics and Plato’s wider philosophy (especially its metaphysical elements). We also explore Plato’s views on learning and recollection, along with the famous passage in which a slave is taught mathematics.

 

What is Virtue According to Plato? 

virtue vice veronese painting
Allegory of Vice and Virtue, Veronese, 1581. Source: Web Gallery of Art

 

The core question which runs through the Meno is simply this: what is virtue? The initial answer is given by Meno, Socrates’ main interlocutor in the dialogue (they are briefly interrupted by Anytus).

 

Meno’s first answer suggests that it is quite obvious what counts as virtue because what counts as virtue depends on the (self-evident) natural ends for a certain kind of person. This appears to answer the question only partially, given that what Meno actually does is list different kinds of virtue. The implication is that a direct answer to Socrates’ question would simply be: what virtue is depends entirely on the kind of person.

 

veronese virtue vice
The Choice Between Virtue and Vice by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1565. Source: the Frick Collection.

 

The response Socrates first raises to this conception of virtue is this: if there are, in fact, various kinds of virtues, then there must nonetheless be something that unites them if they are worthy of the name “virtue.” In other words, it is insufficient to simply reply to the question “What is virtue?” with the answer that “there are many forms of virtue.”

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Indeed, more generally, the question “what is x?” tends not to simply mean “give me some examples of x,” but rather “tell me about the nature of x.” In other words, we might wish to ask what x is really.

 

The options that Meno might reasonably have taken at this point are, therefore, as follows. First, he might have explained what the various forms of virtue have in common. Otherwise, he might have denied the validity or the applicability of the term ‘virtue’ but, acknowledging that he knows what people mean when they ask a question about virtue, attempts to simply give some account of it all the same. This is a common strategy—one can legitimately reply to a certain question that seeks a definition by suggesting that, although the thing for which a definition is being sought does not exist, there is a way the term is applied, and enumerating examples is the best way to respond.

 

The (Unique) Nature of Virtue

allegory virtue vice
Allegory of Virtue and Nobility that Slay Ignorance, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, 1745. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Meno is persuaded that he should, as Socrates urges, “allow virtue to remain whole and sound” and attempt to give an account of what binds all the examples of virtue he listed together. Meno therefore attempts to give a second definition, characterizing virtue as desiring beautiful things and having the power to acquire them.

 

Socrates responds to this by posing the question of whether anyone desires what they believe to be bad. Meno is eventually persuaded that no one, indeed, desires that. The point, as Socrates then pursues it, is to reintroduce some objective basis into the idea of value that they are pursuing.

 

They move on to discussing power (since Meno mentioned the power to acquire beautiful things), and Socrates poses the idea that certain kinds of people—slaves, for instance—cannot reasonably have their conception of virtue determined by their power, given that this seems to be precluded by their very nature.

 

Though Socrates rejects a conception of virtue-based exclusively on the kinds of person which one deals with, with no general theory in mind, he also holds that any such theory must be generally applicable—i.e., it must apply to all kinds of people! This might seem an obvious implication of pursuing a general theory, but is worth fleshing out to discharge a faulty objection that could be made at this point: namely, that whereas Socrates initially wanted to describe virtue in general, now he appears to focus on what virtue is for a certain kind of person. Of course, a general theory of virtue need not claim that virtue manifests in the same way for every kind of person.

 

The Connection Between Virtue and Plato’s Metaphysics 

plato luca giordano
Plato, Giordano Luca, 1660. Source: WikiArt

 

There is an underlying connection here to Plato’s metaphysics. The principle here is that one cannot know a part of a thing without some awareness of the overriding concept of things. Platonic metaphysics is based on the very same kind of assumption: namely, that our understanding of things has to be derived from an understanding of concepts if we hope to understand at all.

 

At this point, Meno embarks on a rather fruitless attempt to show that one cannot investigate something about which one is uncertain: “how will you look for [virtue] when you do not know what it is.” Meno’s suggestion is paradoxical. Apparently, one cannot search for what one does not know (as he points out, one would have no way to know when one has found it), and of course, one cannot search for what one does already know. So, Meno would seem to suggest, any kind of investigation is pointless.

 

This doesn’t seem a wholly convincing argument on the face of it. After all, there are many things that we do not yet know, but knowledge of which—were we presented with the requisite information—we would recognize once we saw it.

 

Yet this unpromising line of argument happens to elicit one of the most famous passages of any Platonic dialogue and gives Socrates a chance to expose one of Plato’s most famous doctrines. That is the doctrine that holds that all knowledge is really recollection. Socrates explains that all human souls are immortal, and so must have experienced all that there is to be experienced, seen all that there is to see, and have come to understand all that they can already. Any newly found knowledge is simply an act of remembrance.

 

Socrates’ Defense of Knowledge as Recollection

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Socrates, Lysippos, 1st Century AD (copy). Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

What we come to know over the course of our lifetimes is not new to us. Rather, our mortal lives are an opportunity for remembering what our immortal soul knows, but we ourselves are not directly aware of. Socrates famously gives a demonstration of this idea using one of Meno’s slaves.

 

The slave has had no formal training in mathematics, and yet Socrates gets him to solve a geometrical problem. Crucially, Socrates gets him to solve this problem without telling him anything directly, but merely by asking him questions and giving him prompts to figure it out by himself.

 

The choice of mathematics, and especially geometry, seems quite significant, given that the basic elements of geometry—space, quantity, shape, the interplay of structure—are some of the most basic elements of philosophical discussion. What is often forgotten about Socrates’ experiment with the slave is the emphasis that is placed on his (the slave’s) being brought from certainty to uncertainty.

 

While the slave does solve part of the problem, the example concludes with his failure to figure something out. However, he now recognizes the problem before him as a problem, and this—both Socrates and Meno agree—is an improvement. Manifestly, this is an oblique justification of the Socratic method and a defense against a common criticism Socrates is faced with across the platonic dialogues; that he tends to obscure what we previously found clear. Ignorance often suggests the appearance of clarity, but our highest aspiration should be to understand how things really are, not how it is comforting for them to be.

 

Antylus’ Warning to Socrates in the Meno: Taking Philosophy Too Far

jack louis david death of socrates
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787. Source: The Met Museum

 

When reading philosophy, and particularly philosophy from so long ago, it isn’t always clear what the point is. Surely, one might think, we have better answers to many of the problems posed in these works. Yet in the Meno, we find an instance where a major element of European intellectual and philosophical culture is first given a clear, classical expression.

 

The point of an intellectual life is to figure out how things are, and this may be disconcerting, confusing, and difficult to establish with much certainty. Understanding this is an essential element of any productive scientific method and of many of the developments that have followed Plato. It is also an approach designed to fuel controversy and upset existing authorities.

 

Towards the end of the dialogue, Antylus appears and suggests that it is quite easy to define virtue, in light of the fact that there are many men who are deemed to be great by mutual agreement. To this, Socrates replies and asks Antylus whether such men are capable of teaching virtue, and if so, why those fathered by great men so often turn out not to be great themselves.

 

Having taken Socrates’ mockery poorly, Antylus departs with a warning for Socrates not to speak too harshly, should he find himself in trouble with the authorities—an ominous forewarning of Socrates’ fate and his eventual execution by the Athenian state.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.