Meno of Thessaly came to Socrates to ask him whether or not virtue can be taught, and if not, how it comes to man. In response, Socrates answers that he “knows not what virtue is, much less if it is or is not acquired by teaching.” Incredulous (or so it seems to me), Meno queries Socrates further about the impossibility of anyone not even knowing what virtue is, Socrates doubles down, telling Meno that he has never known anyone that knew such a thing.
…and the rest of the conversation (the real conversation according to Plato) goes something like this:
Socrates (with some sarcasm): Then speak up man! If you know so much, feel free educate me on matter!
Meno: Oh, that’s just too easy. Lets look at manly virtue first the dude should know get the job done so that it helps his buds and crushes his enemies with getting burned by either. Now womanly virtue is to listen to her man, bake a good pie, and keep the joint clean. Everyone has a different virtue to uphold–old, young, black, white, male, female, whatevs. The number of virtues are infinite and there are tons of ways to look at them because they are different…and the same with vice, my man!
Socrates: Dude, I just wanted to you explain to me ONE idea, virtue, and instead you give me a whole swarm of the darn things! So lets run with this metaphor–I say “What is the nature of the bee?” and you say “There are many kinds of bees” to which I can only wonder “Then what the heck is a bee? If there are so many of them, can’t you just describe them by what they all have in common? Shouldn’t there be something that makes them a bee?”
Now, Meno responds to Socrates saying “that bees do not differ from one another, as bees,” to which Socrates responds that that is the answer he is looking for–what “the quality in which they do not differ” is. Socrates basically says if you can tell me what makes a bee, a bee, can’t you tell me what makes a virtue, a virtue. Meno still doesn’t get it, so Socrates goes through a comparison of individual virtues as they apply to different types of people until he gets to the idea of–well here, you can see for yourself:
Meno: Well, if you want just one definition…I guess I’d have to say that virtue is the power of governing mankind.
Socrates (I imagine him cackling in glee at this point): Okay–so this definition of yours should apply to all virtue, right? What about the virtue of a child and a parent, Meno? What do you think would happen when a child governed his father? Or if a slave governed his master…could he still be a slave?
Meno: Of course not, dude…that’s just crazy.
Socrates: Oh, a agree…just putting a little devil’s advocate out here. And yet, your just said that virtue is “the power of governing”. Don’t you think that is would be better to be governed “justly and not unjustly”?
Meno: Duh, justice is virtue.
Socrates: Would you say “virtue,” Meno, or “a virtue”?
Meno: What are you talking about?
So here we go again, with Meno being a bit confused and/or disgruntled by the line of questioning from Socrates. Socrates then goes through a couple of analogies, and they exchange some philosophical pleasantries, until Socrates asks Meno again to define virtue. Meno declares that virtue is “Virtue is the desire of things honorable and the power of attaining them.” (And, I swear, as I read the next bit, I can imagine Socrates jumping up and down with glee at this response–a response, I might add, that many of us might give if we did not know what comes next.) And it is here that I really must recommend that you go and read the real thing, because its goes on for quite a bit more.
Which brings us to a closing thought…what the heck is virtue and how do we acquire it anyhow?
(just for fun)