Virtue is a complex subject even Socrates and Plato could not define

Plato, one of society’s most prominent philosophers, failed to define virtue. Pictured is Socrates’ execution, a focal point of The Apology, written by Plato.

Philosophy, to the majority of humanity, is a complex subject. The general definition of philosophy is the study of knowledge and reality, analyzing what is, and why it is. This concept is one of the oldest ideas in human history, dating back millennia. Among the oldest and most prominent philosophers, both in his time and in the present, is Plato.

Although despised during his time, Plato would go on to be a founder of Western Philosophy, with his name appearing at the top of eminent philosophers. During his prime, Plato would write Meno and The Apology (or simply Apology), two Socratic dialogues which are the foundation of this article. These dialogues brought to light many important themes and virtues of humanity, such as wisdom, morals and truth, that are as important even to this day as life itself.

Before the dialogues of Meno and Apology can be discussed, a brief background regarding Plato must be discussed as context. Due to the absence of proper records, it is estimated that Plato was born between 428 and 423 B.C.E., in the then-city-state of Athens, Greece. Coming from an influential aristocratic family, he was able to attend an upper-class school as a boy, and it is said that he excelled in his education.

He would further his education, becoming inundated with the subject of philosophy. This would lead him to meet Socrates, another founder of Western Philosophy and the most prominent philosopher of the time. Socrates, also born in Athens — approximately forty-five years before Plato, in 470 B.C.E. — originally trained to be a stonemason until serving in the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between 431 and 404 B.C.E.

However, before this time, he as well found himself inundated with philosophy, and became a teacher of this subject. Plato eventually became a student of Socrates, and, over the course of his education, became obsessed with Socrates’ teachings; so much so that he would go on to write the two famous Socratic dialogues (of course, the name Socratic coming from Socrates), Meno and Apology, which will be discussed.

The accuracy of these Socratic dialogues written by Plato have been disputed; however, they are some of the only written accounts (and, in general, surviving accounts) of Socrates’ life, and thus, the majority of historians and philosophers refer to these works for accuracy.

Socrates and Meno discuss virtue in Plato’s ‘Meno’.

The first of the two Socratic dialogues written by Plato is entitled Meno. Named after the Greek political figure of the same name, who is a main participant in the dialogue, Meno encompasses a variety of themes, but focuses on one in particular: virtue, specifically human virtue.

The dialogue takes place in Athens and features three primary participants, with Socrates taking on Meno and Anytus, two figures who believe they know what virtue is and can teach it to the public, for a fee. Socrates discusses a variety of aspects including learning and reasoning, which he circles around the main theme of virtue.

The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates if virtue is something that is inherited at birth or taught externally. Socrates turns the question on him, forcing him to describe what virtue is in his vision. Meno does not give a definition of virtue, but rather, acts and examples of it. When pressed to give Socrates a better answer, Meno fails. He states that virtue differs for men and women, stating,

“If you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man’s virtue consists in being able to manage public affairs and thereby help his friends and harm his enemies…If you want the virtue of a woman, it’s not difficult to describe: she must manage the home well, keep the household together, and be submissive to her husband.”

Socrates debunks this by theorizing that all virtues have a common element that makes them virtues, even if they appear to be different on the surface; regarding this, he specifically says,

“…of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they all have a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question, “What is virtue?” would do well to have his eye fixed…Even if they come in all sorts of different varieties, all of them have one and the same form which makes them virtues, and the thing to do is look to this form when someone asks you to make clear what virtue is.”

Comparing this to the men-vs-women argument formulated by Meno, Socrates formulates an example, stating that if the man is to manage the city, and the woman is to manage the household, they must both manage with justice and moderation. Here, justice and moderation are the two “different varieties” Socrates is referring to, but he makes it clear that different versions of virtues do not count as separate virtues, there is still only one form of virtue. Both justice and moderation appear different, but they have a common form which, in turn, makes them virtues.

However, Meno refuses to give up, insisting on the idea that there are multiple forms of virtues, telling Socrates that “there are other virtues as well as justice”. When Socrates asks Meno to tell him what they are, he lists a few characteristics such as courage, temperance, wisdom, and magnanimity, and claims they are virtues. However, Socrates tells Meno again that these are merely characteristics, not virtues themselves. Of this, he states,

“Again we are in the same case: in searching after one virtue we have found many, though not in the same way as before; but we have been unable to find the common virtue which runs through them all.”

In essence, the true form of virtue is not one specific characteristic as listed by Meno, but rather it is made up of many forms, of which Socrates himself has been unable to find up to this point.

Meno and Anytus are members of the Sophists, a group of educators who roamed the city, teaching the citizens “virtue” for money. However, Socrates argues that virtue is not given by money, and thus the so-called “virtue” that the Sophists are teaching the citizens is merely a fake version of virtue, not real at all. During the dialogue, Socrates states to Anytus that,

“Our guest-friend Meno here…has been telling me for some time…that he longs to acquire the understanding and virtue that enables men to manage well their households and their cities…Now consider to whom we should send him to learn this virtue. Or maybe it is obvious, in light of what has just been said, that we should send him to those who profess to teach virtue, and have made themselves available to any Greek who wishes to learn — for a fixed fee?”

At this point, Socrates is directly telling Anytus that Meno wishes to acquire virtue merely by teaching it to others for money, which is impossible. When Anytus rejects this claim, Socrates states that,

“…of all the people who set themselves up as professional practitioners of beneficial knowledge, are only this lot so different from the rest that they not only fail to improve the things they are given to work on, but they actually corrupt them — and they plainly think they’ll make money in the process? I can’t believe it is true.”

Here, Socrates suggests that those who attempt to teach virtue for money do not have a grasp as to what virtue actually is, and are actually damaging the integrity of virtue itself.

Socrates does not give up there, however. He asks Meno and Anytus a series of questions regarding virtue, that they at first asked him: What is it? Is it inherited or can it be taught? Are their beliefs regarding virtue correct? Socrates pushes Meno and Anytus to answer these questions, to which they ironically cannot. Throughout the dialogue, Socrates appears to push Meno and Anytus to give him answers, and they repeatedly fail at this task.

The Sophists typically wandered Ancient Greece, preaching fake virtue for money.

The two eventually merely agree with Socrates since they cannot formulate a logical argument that can rival Socrates’. Oftentimes throughout the dialogue, Meno simply replies with “True”, “Yes”, and “Certainly”, showing his failure to combat Socrates’ arguments. The trio discuss Meno’s definition of virtue that he has put forth, of which he states,

“Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.”

Socrates immediately rejects this, asking Meno if all men who desire the honorable also desire the good, which Meno agrees with. However, Socrates states that there are also some men who desire evil, and certainly virtue cannot be evil. Additionally, he states that those who desire evil will become miserable and ill-fated, and certainly no one desires to be miserable and ill-fated. Socrates asks Meno,

“But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?”

To this, Meno completely agrees. Essentially, Socrates proves Meno’s definition of virtue incorrect because if there are some who desire good, there will be some who desire evil, and since those who desire evil will become miserable and ill-fated, as he puts it, they cannot achieve virtue.

Regarding the question of whether or not virtue is inherited or taught, Socrates discusses a primary theme that is knowledge, claiming that virtue is a form of knowledge which implies that people are not born with virtue, since virtue is a form of knowledge and knowledge is taught. At the same time, however, he debunks this theory, stating that if virtue was a form of knowledge, people would be able to teach virtue, and since they cannot, then virtue is not knowledge:

“If [virtue] is not a sort of knowledge, is there any chance of anyone being taught it — that is, as we have been saying, recollecting it?…Our question is a simple one: will it be teachable? Isn’t it plain to everyone that no one is going to be taught anything but knowledge?…But if virtue is a kind of knowledge, it is clear that it could be taught.”

This conversation lasts throughout the end of the dialogue, at which point virtue still hasn’t been specifically defined by either of them. Socrates blames this on religion, stating that,

“Virtue turns out to be neither innate nor earned. It is something that comes to those who possess it as a free gift from the gods — with understanding not included.”

Thus, according to Socrates, virtue cannot be defined because it is a supernatural force that comes from the gods, and we as humans have no further understanding of it. At this point, Meno ends.

It is undeniable that the primary theme of Meno was virtue, a concept even Socrates failed to define and resorted to blaming it on “the gods”. Nonetheless, Plato’s other work, The Apology, also carries with it the theme of virtue to an extent, but focuses more upon the themes of morals, truth and wisdom, which will be discussed following the exegesis of The Apology.

Socrates is served during his trial, which is depicted in Plato’s ‘The Apology’.

The second of the two Socratic dialogues written by Plato is entitled Apology (in some accounts, the full title is The Apology or The Apology of Socrates). It is worth noting that the title of the work, Apology, does not refer to a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure as we currently define the word; nay, it refers to the ancient Greek word apologia, meaning defense. This is what Plato’s Apology, in fact, is: Socrates’ defense during his trial for corruption and impiety, which took place in 399 B.C.E.

The exact words of Socrates were not recorded by Plato at the trial, but it is known that Plato was at the trial, and thus we can assume it is accurate. Nevertheless, it may be possible that Apology contains a slight bias towards Socrates, since Plato admired him so much.

At this point, Socrates was being put on trial by the Athenian government for “committing” two so-called heinous acts: impiety against the gods, and corrupting the youth by spreading his philosophical beliefs and teachings. Of course, Socrates felt this was foolish. He begins his defense by referring to the jury as “Men of Athens”, reassuring them that they are, in fact, representing the city of Athens and its people, and must uphold the city’s belief of democracy, which Socrates believes they are not at this point. Despite the dialogue not being an actual apology as we know it, Socrates does begin by apologizing to the jury that his language may not, in fact, be in the form of a traditional style of defense, stating,

“…this is my first appearance in a lawcourt, at the age of seventy; I am therefore simply a stranger to the manner of speaking here. Just as if I were really a stranger, you would certainly excuse me if I spoke in that dialect and manner in which I had been brought up, so too my present request seems a just one, for you to pay no attention to my manner of speech — be it better or worse — but to concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not.”

Following this, Socrates addresses a case made against him claiming his rejection of the gods. Socrates uses his philosophical wisdom to combat this claim, stating that if he really denied the existence of the gods, then he would not be claiming he was wise and would actually be fearing death. He tells the court that,

“I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?”

Socrates, at this point, basically calls out the court for having a lack of knowledge for claiming he is rejecting the gods, which in turn is making them ignorant of the truth.

Socrates then advances to address a case made against him by another enemy, Anytus. He and the rest of the Men of Athens, as Socrates refers to them as, are accusing Socrates of corrupting the youth. Socrates himself lays out the charges being brought forth against him in great detail, such that he can break them down during his defense

Socrates makes it clear that he was not preaching against the gods as the Men of Athens claim, but rather, he was preaching about the true definition of virtue, stating,

“I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, my influence is ruinous indeed. But if anyone says that this is not my teaching, he is speaking an untruth.”

Socrates’ main claim is that Athens was far better off with him, as he was a gift from God, and that his death will only make Athens look worse. In his defense, he tells the Men of Athens,

“For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am sort of a gadfly given to the state by God…I am that gadfly which God has given the state…And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me.”

Essentially, he compares himself to a gadfly, a large fly which sucks the blood of livestock, claiming that he is a special figure sent by God himself, and that if he is put to death, there will not be another as great as him for a long time, possibly generations or millennia.

Socrates, despite his brilliant performance during his trial, is ultimately found guilty and executed.

Throughout The Apology, Socrates explains why he is not afraid to die. His primary argument is that his legacy has already spread, and he will live on even after his death. He believes that at this point, he shan’t worry about dying, but rather, if his actions in life were good or bad. Towards the end of The Apology, Socrates makes it explicitly clear that he does not fear death, stating,

“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know…I differ from the majority of men…I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad”.

Here, Socrates is referring to death itself, stating that he does not fear it. Socrates even goes so far as to admit that he could very easily flee Athens and simply be banished, but recognizes that he will not stop his teachings even if this were to occur, so death is the only viable option. After these closing remarks, Apology ends.

Apology carries with it three major themes: morals, truth, and wisdom, as previously mentioned. Socrates holds his morals so close to importance that he gives up his own welfare on behalf of the Athenian people. He is unfazed by the sentence of death; rather, he uses it to show others how important his morals really are. To him, the fear of death generates a false wisdom, a “pretence of wisdom” as he calls it, and it is impractical to fear it since it is unknown whether or not death is evil, as the majority view it as, or if it is in fact good.

Throughout Apology, Socrates delivers nothing but the truth (or so he claims), laying out each crime being brought against him in precise detail for the court, then analyzing and logically dismissing the crimes. When Socrates questions his accusers, they are unable to answer or combat his questions since they cannot formulate logical responses which accurately and properly debunk Socrates’ claims.

Finally, the theme of wisdom is arguably the largest in Apology. Socrates’ main goal during the trial is to spread the belief that by acknowledging the existence of ignorance, wisdom will become apparent. People are often ignorant of new beliefs and ideas, especially those that involve self-reflection and thinking, and Socrates believes that by conquering this ignorance and accepting new ideas and beliefs, true wisdom can be achieved. The Men of Athens were ignorant of Socrates’ teachings and went on to suffer as a result.

It is undeniable that Socrates and Plato are two of the most influential philosophers in human history. This is further instilled in the two dialogues Meno and Apology, both by Plato. When the underlying themes in these texts are recognized, the answers to many of life’s questions may be unlocked.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me for more articles!

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