Socrates, in the Meno, states this and follows up this argument with the assertion that only through individual inquiry and growth can a person truly know what virtue is as applied to their own unique and individual situation and life (Plato, 380 BCE).
The Political Ramifications of Virtue
The universality of virtue, or as Plato referred to it "arete" or human excellence, lends credence to the idea that while there are specific forms of virtue that certain people can live up to, there is an overarching or universal form of virtue that people are born with no matter where they live in the world. In the modern sense, this idea suggests that everyone has the potential to learn about virtue as it applies to them and they also have the ability or potential to live a virtuous life. The concept of excellence and virtue does not hold up the same way in the modern world as it did in the ancient world. Plato's concepts, according to Meno and Socrates, paint virtue as an undemocratic knowledge of good and evil. In today's world, where most people feel that a democracy is the highest form of government, it is rare to see an appeal to virtue instead of to the voters.
Socrates argued that virtue, and not the vote, should be the deciding factor for leaders of all nations. Both Socrates and Plato believed in a philosopher-king, or someone who had virtue and the power to act upon it. The knowledge of good and evil, as evidenced by a personal undertaking of the exploration of virtue, was to these philosophers, man's best hope for fair and excellent governance. If virtue is the basic knowledge of good and evil, then it would only make sense to be governed by those people who could see the difference between the two and act according to everyone's best interests. This is a very difficult concept for many Americans to understand after being brought up with the assumption that the democratic American political system is the best system in the world and is the high point of political history and philosophy. Meno states, "If you want to have one definition of them all, I know not what to say, but that virtue is the power of governing mankind." (Plato, 380 BCE). Socrates' response is somewhat predictable, given his nature, but it also highlights the idea that politically as well as socially, every human being must recognize their place or role and learn to become excellent in their role. Socrates says in response, "And does this definition of virtue include all virtue? Is virtue the same in a child and in a slave, Meno? Can the child govern his father, or the slave his master; and would he who governed be any longer a slave?" (Plato, 380 BCE)
The Unity of Virtue
The unity of virtue is another piece of the conceptual puzzle concerning Plato's Meno and the discussion of the nature of arete, or excellence. The Socratic insistence that practical knowledge is akin to scientific knowledge, in that it must be explored and learned through experimentation and experience is indicative of an attitude that everyday practical problems can be solved by appeal to knowledge (Weiss, 2001). The unification of virtue under the heading of knowledge can be undertaken after understanding that Socrates' and Plato's arguments about virtue all pertain to the same act or idea, that knowledge is the only truth and through it, virtue or excellence can be obtained. In this way, virtue is unified as a particular knowledge set, and a person can become virtuous through their own studies of knowledge.
Many philosophers pose that virtue is not unified, since it cannot be quantified in a singular concept or statement relative to each individual person. To these people, virtue is something that cannot be learned, but also cannot be understood through one perspective. While these ideas are both true, virtue, according to Plato's Meno (380 BCE), is quite simply, as stated before is the ability to understand one's place in the world and to make the correct decisions based on what is known to be good for that particular person.
The question, "What is virtue?" can be answered in many different ways. As a singularity, virtue is, according to Meno, "…as I take it, is when he, who desires the honorable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too- Virtue is the desire of things honorable and the power of attaining them." (Plato, 380 BCE). Virtue is the desire and the power of good and the knowledge that comes from experience and learning which is really just recollection as Socrates points out. Virtue has a place in politics and society, both ancient and modern, and philosophers have debated this concept for centuries, arguing whether or not it is a singular value or something that is multifaceted. Either way, virtue is something completely different for different people. As people understand their own roles in society, they can familiarize themselves with their own virtuous path.
The concept of good and evil is also an integral part of the question of virtue and how it is attained (Nehamas, 1999). According to Socrates, there are both good and evil people in the world, acting both knowingly and unknowingly against virtue. This is something that the virtuous person recognizes and knows, since the virtuous person is able to act on their own potential for good, and has the power to do good within their own realm or role in society or politics.
The Meno (380 BCE), written in Socratic form, is a conversation with a series of open-ended questions regarding virtue and the actions of humans. It is impossible to teach virtue, just as it is impossible to know anything beyond the foundation that has already been built in one's mind relative to the singular human perspective. Plato attempts to get at the root of one of mankind's biggest questions and while philosophers and scholars have studied and debated Plato's concept of arete, or excellence, it remains as a poignant reminder that good and evil, no matter how objectively defined, are subjectively experienced individually. The capacity and power to act and the knowledge to understand what is virtuous is the responsibility of the each human being, and no two humans have the same roles and capacity for understanding that which is "wisdom" (Santas, 1969, pp. 452). Wisdom is recollected and passed down, and through this lens, virtue can begin to be understood as it applies to each and every human individually. It is only in this way that virtue can truly be learned and "known."
Devereux, Daniel T. 1978. "Nature and Teaching in Plato's "Meno,"
Phronesis, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 118-126.
Nehamas, Alexander. 1999. Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Plato. 380 BCE Meno, Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Digireads Publishing, Stilwell,…