Plato’s Meno (P2)

August 4, 2022

If you’re a parent, you’ll readily be able to think about what kind of behaviour you’d like to see in your child or children. If you’re not a parent, perhaps treat this as a thought-experiment.

First off, parents say that they want their child to be happy. But what if their child is happy sitting in bed playing video games all day and night? Most parents don’t want that. They want their child to have friends; to play with friends; to enjoy life; to work hard at school. If their child has a special talent (e.g. for music or a sport), most parents like to give the child whatever opportunities they can afford to improve their talent. This requires the child to control impulses and spend time practicing.

They want their child to tell the truth – but not to go around freely telling old people they are ugly, or fat people they are fat – so they want their child to develop some social tact. They want their child to be brave when they go to the doctor or dentist. And they want their child to treat people fairly, not to ‘play favourites.’

We are starting, here, to see a virtue framework emerge. Hard work and practice require the virtue of self-control. Social tact is a form of wisdom. Facing pain and illness bravely requires courage. And treating people fairly is nothing other than the virtue of justice.

Now it’s important to note that the Greek term which, traditionally, we translate as ‘virtue,’ arete, has a wider meaning, of excellence in practical matters as well as moral ones. Recall Meno’s little speech about the virtue, or excellence, of a man and a woman: he focuses on eminently practical matters (and in fact suggests that a man’s virtue, or excellence, involves ‘playing favourites’). But in general, as my sketch of the parent’s desire for their child indicates, we too think of virtue or excellence – when we think of it at all – in practical terms.

Unfortunately, though, ‘virtue’ is not a current term in our culture: it is known, perhaps, only to the subset of people who are either involved in the Stoic movement today, or have some knowledge of ancient philosophy.

An alternative way we can think of virtue is as ‘strength.’ This rendering has several things going for it:

  1. It preserves the sense of the Latin word, virtus, which meant (originally masculine) ‘strength’ or ‘force’;
  2. Our culture likes the idea of strength in the gym;
  3. It works well in the abstract or general sense, and also as an individual strength in a particular area: we can think of strength in general, as we think of virtue in general, but also strength in a particular talent or pursuit, which corresponds to an individual virtue;
  4. It has application to both physical and moral qualities;
  5. It has currency today in educational, coaching, or workplace theory: ‘What strengths will you bring to this role?’ is a meaningful question at a job interview.

There is one further advantage in thinking of arete or virtus as ‘strength’: that it drives home how very counter-intuitive (productive of Socratic confusion, aporia), is the question of whether strength can be taught. Well, we think, obviously a strength can be taught: we employ a guitar teacher for our child if he or she wants to play, so that he or she may learn to play the guitar as well as possible; and we seek out a tennis coach for our child if he or she seems to love the game and do well at it. Such actions give evidence of our belief, at least about particular strengths.

Consideration of strengths and virtues is not new. Some scholars have interpreted Kant’s conception of virtue as a form of strength, seeming to be equivalent to strength of will. The relationship of individual strengths to individual virtues has been the subject of research within the Positive Psychology school, associated with Martin E.P. Seligman. I am not aware, however, of a more general movement to translate classical arete and/or virtus as ‘strength,’ so this may be a fruitful avenue for further work.

We are left, as Meno is in the dialogue, unsure whether there is a common intelligible factor among individual strengths (74a). Meno makes another attempt to say what strength is, using a definition from one of the poets: ‘to enjoy beautiful/great things and have the power of achieving them’ (77b). But, as Socrates points out, achieving fine things isn’t a strength unless it is done in a fair and self-controlled way. Yet justice/fairness and self-control are kinds of strength in themselves – and therefore in their turn require examination as to what quality they share. We have come, once again, to a dead end.

Meno finds himself, for once, lost for words. ‘Your conversation, Socrates, is like an electric stingray attack. You leave me stunned and confused……Yet I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches as I thought, but now I cannot even say what [virtue] is. I think you are wise not to sail away from Athens to go and stay elsewhere, for if you were to behave like this as a stranger in another city, you would be driven away for practicing sorcery’ (80a-b).

Poor Meno – although it’s certainly a bit funny that our celebrity speaker finds himself at a loss. But are we any better placed than he, to understand what virtue or strength is, and whether it can be taught? It’s pretty important for the future of our communities, so let’s hope we can make some progress.

(To be continued)

Note: I have used ‘electric stingray attack’ for the original’s he narke, even though the text refers to the electric ray rather than the stingray. For one thing, the ancient Greeks did not call it ‘electric,’ and for another, readers will be more familiar with the idea of the stingray than of the electric ray.

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Judith Stove

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Judith Stove is an Australian writer, researcher and linguist with a strong understanding of the Western philosophical tradition along with the ancient languages of Latin and Classical Greek. A mother of two adult sons, Judith has published two books on the life and times of Jane Austen, and many articles on history and literature. She and her husband live within a beautiful garden created by her father, philosopher David Stove (1927-1994), outside Sydney, Australia, close to the Blue Mountains National Park. For Judith, every day is an opportunity to learn more about the intricacy of the cosmos, from both ‘the book of Nature,’ and the works surviving from the past.

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