Plato’s Meno: Virtue

7 Sep

Meno, an aristocrat from Thessaly (Pharsalus to be exact), was in a discussion with Socrates about virtue and if it is taught or practiced or basically inherent, and it becomes a discussion about how one defines virtue. Each definition Meno gives about virtue are ones that Socrates rejects. The text below minus my opinionated conclusion is written for the professor not for the leisurely glance over, and my style of writing here may not be as informal as my other writings.

When Meno and Socrates’ discussion began, the topic of discussion was whether or not virtue was taught, practiced, or within someone inherently, but the identity of virtue itself was what came into question. Socrates, expecting Meno to be more knowledgeable after talking to Gorgias, asks Meno what the definition of virtue is. Meno responds by explaining the various virtues each type of person has.  For example, he states the man’s virtue to be participating in city affairs to benefit his friends and not to benefit his enemies, while the woman’s virtue is to take care of the house and to obey the man. While briefly exemplifying the virtue of other human roles Meno defines virtue to be something different depending on the person. Socrates rejects Meno’s definition because he wants the definition of virtue, and not ‘a virtue.’ Socrates does so by mentioning bees concerning how many there are and that we define them as each individual bee being similar to each other making each one a bee, and not by their differences, and by stating that virtue works the same way in searching for its definition.

In search of another definition for virtue during their discussion that moved towards justice and temperance, Meno comes up with the definition of virtue meaning the control of people to maintain justice and temperance because of the fact that some people are not virtuous and therefore not just and temperate enough. Socrates again rejects Meno’s definition because of the fact that not all people can abide by this overall virtuous definition, such as in the state of a slave, a slave cannot rule over their master, and therefore would not be able to be virtuous, so there must be more within virtue’s definition. Meno claims this second definition to be so because of the justice within it and how the ruler would rule justly, but Socrates states that justice is ‘a virtue’ and not virtue in its essential definition.

As Socrates addresses towards things that are ‘a virtue’ he discusses justice, and asks Meno to elaborate upon the other possible ‘virtues’ within the entire virtue’s definition. Upon doing so, Meno says that courage, temperance, high-mindedness along with others are virtues that are each ‘a virtue.’ Socrates immediately corrects Meno in saying that they are looking for what virtue is and not about what individual ‘a virtue’ identities are. Socrates makes known his argument by asking if roundness is shape or if it is ‘a shape.’ By asking this Socrates aims to make the point that their discussion is about finding virtue’s definition and not what each ‘a virtue’ is, and each virtue Meno listed are each ‘a virtue’ and contribute nothing to the ultimate definition

Meno’s fourth and final attempt at defining virtue is when he says that virtue is “enjoying beautiful things and having power.”  Socrates responds by asking a thought provoking question in asking if people enjoy bad things, and do they know when they seek and enjoy bad things, and therefore destroying Meno’s argument. This question destroys Meno’s argument because through their discussion it is known that with power, one could enjoy and get whatever bad things they want regardless if they know what they enjoy is bad or not. These possibilities lead to unjust and non-virtuous things, and this cannot be the definition of virtue. This leaves Meno with no rebuttal and only to call Socrates a numbing fish.

The main two arguments that Socrates has is that we are looking for the definition of virtue as virtue in its whole and not individual ‘a virtue’ identities. Like how courage is ‘a virtue’ and  does not define virtue in its whole part. The other argument is that virtue is having power and the power to achieve good enjoyable things. I find it awesome that in the end Meno calls Socrates a mind numbing fish that destroys anything he has to say in response to Socrates. Socrates does just that, and others call him names like what he was called in the beginning of the Republic, but I cannot put my finger on what he was called. However the thing he was called accused him of talking people in circles and responding only in questions and only causing people problems during discussion.

So what is virtue to us today? Virtue to me today seems ambiguously defined, because it contains the good, the just, the enjoyment, and loving yet sometimes hating the friends and enemies. Because I, like Meno, struggle to come up with a good definition for virtue, will agree with Socrates’ definitions of virtue: 1) Virtue is knowledge  2) Virtue is sufficient for happiness.

(Note: We all have a mindset of what virtue is and have some idea about it, but we struggle to come up with a dominating definition for what it is in all its forms, just read Plato’s dialogue of Meno to understand this problem).

Concerning the first one, that virtue is knowledge is something that I totally agree with.  If one is knowledgeable, he is knowledgeable about what virtue entails and what one must do to be virtuous. One cannot be virtuous and ignorant at the same time, it is not possible. This is not ‘a virtue’ like knowledge, courage, etc., but defined this way it is virtue, and no part of virtue, courage, love etc. can exist without knowledge. Knowledge is not defined by Socrates as ‘ a virtue’ but as virtue in its whole definition.

Concerning the second definition, that virtue is sufficient for happiness, I also agree with this. To me this is the primary definition for virtue, and the fact that knowledge is virtue is only a secondary definition. Virtue directly corresponds to one being sufficiently happy. Virtue including knowledge, concerning others, helping others, loving others, thinking clearly and other things is good when applied to a human’s life. If one applies virtue wholly to their life, there is only  one other thing to do to maintain happiness (that being letting God into your heart, but that is another topic for discussion).

Thanks for the support.  Tell me what you think virtue is and whether or not Socrates’ and Meno’s definitions of virtue are correct by @replying on Twitter, commenting below, or emailing at


One Response to “Plato’s Meno: Virtue”

  1. pell grants September 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

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