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Category Archives: Socrates-Plato

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Socrates the Prophet?

by June 17, 2015

By Van Bryan
I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of Strands bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf at random in the history/ philosophy section. It was an introduction to Socratic thought and the life of Socrates.
Sounds good to me.
I remember that in the Foreword the author had,
SocratesWas Socrates a Prophet?
somewhat capriciously I thought, referred to Socrates as “the Christ of Greece.” The author didn’t bother to add any real clarification to this statement and I was rather taken aback by the absence of any substantiating evidence. It was as if I was just supposed to accept that statement in the same way I might accept the statement “Dublin is the capital of Ireland.” In other words, I got the impression that the author believed such a statement to be demonstrable, unimpeachable; and here I was, some senseless boob who just hadn’t gotten the memo.
But you can’t just compare Socrates to Christ and then expect everybody to move on from there! At the very least give me a few paragraphs to go off of so I can write a decent article.
The author did not, unfortunately, bring up the topic again, so far as I could tell. And I never bought that book so I don’t have the luxury of a second look.
I know that this might turn out to be a rather controversial column. Still, this is a newsletter dedicated to all you classical lovers, and budding classical lovers, so I figure that question is as good as any to discuss in a weekend newsletter. Was Socrates, after all, a prophet?
The word “prophet” comes from the ancient Greek word “profétés” (προφήτης), which is a derivative of pró (before) and phēmí (I tell). In the context of ancient Greece, a prophet would have been someone who, among other things, interpreted the words of the oracles, the holy priestesses who were said to commune with the gods and speak on their behalf.
If this were our sole understanding of a prophet, then there certainly is evidence that Socrates was indeed one. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts how the Oracle of Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Greece. Hoping to make sense of such a claim, Socrates embarks on a quest to find others who are wiser than he.
Oracle at DelphiThe Oracle of Delphi, by
John Collier
What follows is Socrates retelling how he had met with various artists, poets and politicians who, while appearing to be wise, knew very little. Moreover, these people did not even know how much they did not know, instead associating their false beliefs with absolute knowledge.
From this, Socrates draws the conclusion that true knowledge is recognition of ignorance. Socrates, like the artists and poets, does not know anything truly and definitively. However, unlike the artists and poets, Socrates recognizes this and is better for it. We see now that Socrates is truly wise because he does not believe he is wise.
While slightly paradoxical, this idea has been championed through the centuries among philosophers. By coming to such a conclusion, Socrates interpreted the words of the oracle and is, at least according to the ancient Greek meaning, a prophet.
However, this is not what we truly mean when we ask if Socrates is a prophet. Instead, our understanding of a “prophet” is probably closer in line with the ancient Hebrew word “navi” (נָבִיא) which traditionally translates to mean a teacher or mentor who is divinely inspired and labors amongst his people to bring them a better understanding of morality, virtue, or to instill in them some divine truth that was otherwise unknown.

And even here, there is some evidence to suggest that Socrates might fit this description.
“Virtue is knowledge”, is Socrates’ great maxim. He who comes to understand the knowledge that underlies his actions will be better for it. By understanding truly the ideas of “Justice”, “Wisdom”, “Virtue”, and so on, we will be better suited to live according to these axioms and improve ourselves and our souls.

Socrates may very well have been a teacher of righteousness to the Athenians, and we can see that he went about his mission with a burning zeal that could not be quenched even by the prospect of death.
Moreover, Socrates may also have been divinely inspired. Within Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a heavenly voice speaks to him from time to time and guides him away from wickedness and towards righteousness and philosophical study. This voice, which is commonly known as a “daemon”, is the reason Socrates began his philosophical career in the first place. The voice prompted him away from politics and public life and towards a life of contemplation and dialectic.
“This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am planning to do, but never commands me to do anything.”-Socrates (Plato’s Apology)
At this point, it is probably important that we recognize that the story of Socrates is a type of fiction. That isn’t to say, however, that it is untrue. The tale of a simple craftsman with a keen mind and an aversion to nonsense who goes about challenging the prevailing paradigm of knowledge and truth, and who is ultimately
executed for his troublesome nature is all too familiar for us. It’s the same story that has been told time and time again in undergraduate philosophy classes and found in the pages of every meaningful piece of philosophical literature since about the fourth century BC.
However, because we become acquainted with Socrates through the works of his students, specifically Plato, there is no way of knowing how much of Socrates the man lines up with Socrates the icon. Within each of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, the superior argument invariably ends up in the mouth of Socrates, while the other philosophical combatants, who are thought to represent the prevailing ideas of 5th century Athens, appear shortsighted and flawed to a modern reader.
As a result of this, we tend to scoff at the Athenians who persecuted Socrates. How foolish those ancients must have been to execute such a fine and noble teacher like Socrates! His death takes on a feel of martyrdom and therefore the idea that he might have been a prophet gains credence.
However, what we often do not realize is that Socrates was, in many ways, attempting to undo the mortar of the classical Greek world and topple a cultural paradigm that had, up until this point, created one of the greatest societies the world had ever seen. It is possible then that he was not a prophet at all, but a bona fide threat to the Greek way of life.
What do I mean by this? Tune in next week to continue this discussion and find out for yourself.

Introducing Plato and the Theaetetus

by June 10, 2015

By Samuel Gren
Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly partner

A.N. Whitehead once characterized Western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and he did so with good reason. Plato established the framework for a host of philosophical
PlatoPlato, Author of Theaetetus
disciplines—from logic and mathematics to ethics and religion—and his thought continues to shape philosophical discussion today.
A philosopher of Classical Greece, Plato lived during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Key to understanding Plato’s thought is recognizing the place of his teacher, Socrates, in his dialogues. Plato was Socrates’ best student, and since Socrates never penned any of teachings, we only know of Socrates and his thought through his students such as Plato (or Xenophon, for example, also a student who wrote about Socrates).
Socrates often taught in the agora of Athens (the city square or marketplace), attracting youth like Plato through his use of the Socratic Method–a mode of instruction in which the teacher engages her student through series of questions and answers, or dialogical exchange.
Unlike traditional classroom teaching styles, the Socratic Method actively involves the student in the pedagogical process. The teacher draws the desired conclusion from her student by framing issues in a way that uncovers contradictions in the student’s thought, or leads her to new insights. Socrates plays this role in Plato’s dialogues, seeking to bring Greek youth to philosophical truth through the use of this method. Let’s see how this plays out in one of Plato’s most well-known dialogues: the Theaetetus.
The Theaetetus: Outline and Concepts
The Theaetetus opens by introducing two individuals, Euclid and Terpsion, who meet after searching for each other in the agora. We learn that Euclid recently encountered another individual, Theaetetus (the dialogue’s namesake), who had been recently wounded in battle and was thus on the verge of death. This triggers for Euclid his memory of having witnessed a conversation between Socrates and Theaetetus earlier in life—a conversation that Euclid later recorded. Excited to learn of this, Terpsion suggests that Euclid’s servant read the dialogue to them as he recovers from his travels. And so the dialogue begins.
We first learn that the framing question of the Theaetetus has to do with the theory of
SocratesSocrates is a central character in the dialouge and provides the framing question “what is knowledge?”
knowledge, or with what philosophers today call epistemology—the philosophical investigation of how we come to know anything at all. Socrates asks Theaetetus the central question of epistemology: “What is knowledge?” In contrast to most of his dialogues, Plato doesn’t present Socrates as having an answer to this question in the Theaetetus. Instead, as the dialogue unfolds, Socrates simply demonstrates how three common answers to this question are false. While this might seem strange for us as readers (don’t philosophers try to answer “big questions” rather than complicate them?), it’s best to consider this dialogue as a ground-clearing exercise for Plato. He will provide a positive account of knowledge in a related dialogue called the Sophist.
Before leading Theaetetus through an exploration of the three possible answers to the question, Socrates characterizes his mode of instruction (the Socratic Method) as a kind of midwifery. Theatetus tells Socrates that the question, “What is knowledge?” is difficult and makes him feel anxious. Socrates replies: “These are the pangs of labor, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing to birth.” Socrates serves here as midwife to Theaetetus as he gives birth to philosophical insight. Like the midwife, Socrates is skilled in the “art” of facilitating this kind of birth; however, his task is more “important” than the midwife, for he deals not with the birth of children but with the birth of truth. Socrates thus guides Theaetetus through the pain of thinking through the question regarding the nature of knowledge.
As the dialogue continues, Theaetetus proposes three answers to the question regarding knowledge. As before, Socrates complicates each answer by demonstrating their falsity. Theaetetus first equates knowledge with sense perception in saying that “to know” is simply “to perceive.” Through a lengthy exchange, Socrates brings Theaetetus to the realization that sense perception cannot yield instances of knowledge beyond what we perceive about the world at any given moment. For one individual, a blowing wind may feel cold, while to another the same wind feels warm; to a healthy Socrates, a particular wine will taste sweet, whereas to a Socrates in ill health, the same wine tastes sour. Sense perception clearly leads to contradicting claims regarding reality and thus cannot serve as the basis for knowledge.
Theaetetus thus proposes that knowledge is not just perception but true judgment, or true belief. To this Socrates considers the case of a jury who has been convinced by a lawyer of a true position. He maintains that even if the lawyer has successfully persuaded them to assent to a true position, they do not have knowledge, as they’ve simply relied on the lawyer’s testimony. Who’s to say that the lawyer isn’t simply gifted in the arts of persuasion and has convinced the jury of a falsehood? The jury would never be in a position to distinguish true from false beliefs in this case.
PericlesSocrates argues that persuasion through rhetoric is not the same as true knowledge
Theaetetus replies by proposing that knowledge is true judgment and an explanation as to why one holds to such judgment. Through an analysis of what it might mean to provide an explanation for one’s beliefs, Socrates holds that even here knowledge cannot be found. Explanations generally seek to understand an object in terms of its parts, such that an understanding of these parts is held to constitute an explanation of the object as a whole.
Socrates maintains that this notion of explanation fails to get at the essence of an object. Perhaps then explanations require that we understand how a thing is different from other things. This position, however, requires that we understand what the thing in question is in the first place, so neither will this account of explanation work.

Considered together, these examples show that an account of judgment as knowledge cannot simply appeal to the additional presence of an explanation—there’s more to say.
Socrates and Theaetetus thus conclude that each of these proposals are insufficient. Yet, they maintain that they are wiser for at least having considered each proposal in turn. Socrates bids Theaetetus farewell, but not before asking him to meet the following day to talk further. As we will see later, the conversation is far from over.

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The Pitiable Tyrant

by January 6, 2015

Do you remember a few weeks ago when we had a bit of a discussion on the Platonic dialogue, Gorgias? I sure do. Those were good times, simpler times.
Most of you are dedicated readers so I won’t have socratesto remind you that we discussed the nature of rhetoric, the morality of rhetoric, and Socrates’ assertion that, without philosophy, rhetoric is merely a form of flattery, a way to entice people to accept a position that is often unjust.
Then again, a lot of you are reading this newsletter for the first time. So for those of you who are just joining the party, I would like to invite you to come on in, man, shut the door, the bar is in the back.
Okay! Let’s get to it.
So we were talking about Gorgias, right? Well, as it turns out, we stopped right before we got to some serious philosophical musings. It is the sort of ancient philosophy that most people take for granted but can, in fact, shed some light on the way we perceive our world today.
Basically, it’s my bread and butter.

Anyway, when we last left Socrates he had just finished up a discussion with the dialogue’s namesake, Gorgias, and had made the assertion that rhetoric, without philosophy, was something of a vice.

The implication of this is that speechmakers like Gorgias, not to mention politicians and sophists, have the tendency to become good-for-nothing dogs who couldn’t care less for true understanding or justice.
Well, this struck a nerve with Polus, another participant in the dialogue, and he begins something of a crusade against the Father of Western Philosophy.

“And do even you, Socrates, seriously believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? What! because Gorgias was ashamed to deny that the rhetorician knew the just and the honourable and the good, and admitted that to any one who came to him ignorant of them he could teach them, and then out of this admission there arose a contradiction-the thing which you dearly love, and to which not he, but you, brought the argument by your captious questions. Do you seriously believe that there is any truth in all this?” -Polus (Gorgias)

Polus argues that rhetoricians possess great power within a city. A good rhetorician might persuade a court to confiscate the property of a man or to exile a criminal from a state. In this way it would seem they are like tyrants and possess great power.
Well, it’s funny you should mention tyrants, says Socrates, because those bums are just as bad as the rhetoricians. In fact, tyrants and rhetoricians possess no real power at all and are really the most pitiful people in all of society.

“And I tell you, Polus, that rhetoricians and tyrants have the least possible power in states, as I was just now saying; for they do literally nothing which they will, but only what they think best.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

What?! Socrates must have been to too many symposiums because he is talking absolute nonsense. Polus certainly thinks this is the case. At one point he even laughs a Socrates for proposing such a foolish idea.

Polus gives the example of a real-life king who unjustly murders his brother and seizes his throne. This man will, presumably, live the rest of his life in luxury, endowed with the ability to take anything he pleases.

Certainly, Polus argues, this king is truly happy and should be envied. However, Socrates is sticking to his guns on this one. This man should not be envied. He is actually miserable and deserves only our pity.
In order for Socrates’ argument to stand any sort of chance, he will have to prove that tyrants, the men who kill and exile and condemn, only do what they think is best and not what is truly best. To do this, Socrates makes the second claim that it is a far better thing to suffer injustice than to commit injustice.

“Then I said truly, Polus that neither you, nor I, nor any man, would rather, do than suffer injustice; for to do injustice is the greater evil of the two.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Socrates asks Polus to tell him if it is worse to suffer injustice or to commit injustice. Polus claims that it is worse to suffer injustice.
Socrates then asks which is more disgraceful. Polus concedes that committing injustice is more disgraceful.
The philosopher pushes on and claims that when comparing the goodness of a thing, we ought to consider it’s utility and pleasure.

“Let me ask a question of you: When you speak of beautiful things,such as bodies, colours, figures, sounds, institutions, do you not call them beautiful in reference to some standard: bodies, for example, are beautiful in proportion as they are useful, or as the sight of them gives pleasure to the spectators; can you give any other account of personal beauty?” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Conversely, we should consider if things are evil by examining the amount of pain and disgrace within an activity.
When considering committing injustice or suffering injustice, Polus concedes that committing injustice can be painful, but suffering is far more painful. However, when it comes to disgrace, committing injustice is truly disgraceful while suffering injustice is not disgraceful at all.
And so we must conclude that committing injustice is painful and disgraceful while suffering injustice is merely painful. Therefore, committing injustice is the greater evil. And would any reasonable man ever wish to pursue that which is most evil and bad?
Certainly not.
This is where we come back to the claim that tyrants do only what they think is best and not what is truly best. Therefore, they should be pitied.
Now, some of you might be scratching your head over this one. It would seem like Socrates won his point because of a technicality. When comparing an unjust king to and just prisoner who is, oh let’s just say, having his skin peeled from his bones, we might be hesitant to say that the latter is happier than the former.
Polus actually raises such an objection.

“If a man is detected in an unjust attempt to make himself a tyrant, and when detected is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled or tarred and burned alive, will he be happier than if he escape and become a tyrant, and continue all through life doing what he likes and holding the reins of government, the envy and admiration both of citizens and strangers?”-Polus (Gorgias)

Well, when you put it like that…
Socrates’ argument that tyrants are pitiable certainly might come under fire. It might seem absurd to suggest that we would truly be happier suffering injustice rather than reaping the spoils of committing injustice.
We must remember that at the heart of this argument there is the Platonic idea that there exists the form of Goodness (with a capitol G). We can only live a happy, fulfilled life by actively pursuing and understanding the Good.
By behaving unjustly as if we were tyrants, we are actually damaging our true self, our inner self. Tyrants are pitiable because they possess a tarnished soul, an incomplete existence.
The bottom line is that it is a far better thing to suffer whilst in pursuit of truth than to live ignobly in the shade of ignorance and injustice. And if there ever was a purely Socratic idea, it is this sentiment exactly.
Nowadays we don’t have tyrants, per say, but we still have politicians. Plato had a few things to say about them as well, namely that democratic government tends to create a bunch of corrupt, self-interested tyrants who care nothing for the people, but we will get to that another day.
If we do choose to accept Socrates’ argument for the pitiable tyrant, then we might view our modern-day tyrants in a new light. The next time you read about a massive corruption scandal in the newspaper or see an elected representative lying through their teeth on the television, you simply need to shake your head and say…
Those poor, miserable bastards.

It’s Not How You Say It…

by December 8, 2014

I once had a philosophy professor who told my class, with all the authority and reverence he could muster, that…

“As of right now, you are all philosophers. The days of winning arguments by simply screaming louder than your opponent are over.”

I usually don’t like to call myself a philosopher. I think there are a lot of negative assumptions that go along with that title. People tend to imagine “philosophers” as that one weird guy who goes to parties just to sit in a corner and chain smoke cigarettes. I’m not saying that’s fair, it is just the consensus I’ve gathered over the years.
GorgiasI also don’t refer to myself as a philosopher because, despite what some might think, I never really had any aspirations to pursue philosophy as a career. I considered it for a time. When I expressed this idea to a friend of mine he replied by telling me, “You really ought to do that. It will work out great because they just opened a big philosophy warehouse right down the road.”
Well, the jokes on both of us. There wasn’t any philosophy warehouse down the road, but I still managed to find a job where I deal with philosophy on a weekly basis.
All joking aside, I do understand what my professor was trying to get at that day. You and me, dear reader, are philosophers in our own way. Our aim is truth, making others see truth, not berating our colleagues until they admit defeat. When you get right down to it, arguing in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time, is really all philosophers do.
This brings us to the all important saying-it’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.
At least that ought to be the saying.
All of this leads me rather conveniently to our topic of the day. Today we will talk about the platonic dialogue Gorgias. This dialogue, once again, pits the Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates against an Athenian character who simply cannot see the error of his ways.
The dialogue explores, among other things, the nature of rhetoric, the morality of possessing rhetorical skills, and the difference between truth and belief.
Gorgias, the dialogues namesake, is an Athenian rhetorician. His job consists in shaping any who come before him into persuasive, eloquent speakers; the type who can bring round to their side anybody who listens. Anybody but Socrates it would seem.

Socrates, the curious kind of guy that he is, begins to question Gorgias on the definition of “rhetoric” and a “rhetorician” . Socrates proposes that if we were to ask for a definition of a physician, we could say that a physician is one who is knowledgeable of the art of medicine and possesses particular skills of healing.

Similarly, Socrates would like to know of what type of practice a rhetorician partakes in. Gorgias proposes that rhetoricians, obviously, are involved with rhetoric! This answer, at least according to Socrates, is ambiguous.
Certainly a mathematician or a business man or a teacher would partake in the practice of rhetoric as well. However, their true art is not rhetoric in itself. These types of men are concerned with understanding mathematical relations, money-making, and instilling knowledge respectively.
The dialogue continues in this manner until Gorgias, having been prompted slightly by Socrates, comes to admit that the final aim or art of a rhetorician is persuasion.
AHA! Now we are getting somewhere.
Socrates seems to like where the conversation is going, but he prods a bit more. On what matters do the rhetoricians attempt to persuade people on?
Gorgias proposes that the rhetorician persuades on the most grand and most important topics within society. That is to say that rhetoricians concern themselves with the matters of politics, legislation and, most importably, justice and injustice.

“I answer, Socrates, that rhetoric is the art of persuasion in courts of law and other assemblies, as I was just now saying, and about the just and unjust.” -Gorgias (Plato’s Gorgias)

Now we are really getting somewhere, don’t you think? Socrates certainly thinks so.
SocratesWe are now getting to the crux of the argument. Socrates asks if there is such a thing as belief and if there is such a thing as knowledge. Gorgias consents that yes, this is true.
Socrates then asks if there is such a thing as a true belief and such a thing as a false belief. Gorgias consents that there is. Then Socrates asks if there is such a thing as true knowledge and false knowledge. Gorgias concludes that this can not be. Knowledge, by its very definition, must be true knowledge.
Socrates then asks if the rhetorician, whose job is to persuade people on matters of justice or injustice, inspires in people knowledge or belief without knowledge. Gorgias admits that he can only inspire belief and cannot instill true knowledge.

“Then rhetoric, as would appear, is the artificer of a persuasion which creates belief about the just and unjust, but gives no instruction about them?” -Socrates (Plato’s Gorgias)

Socrates then asks Gorgias if an understanding of justice and injustice is a prerequisite to becoming a rhetorician. That is to say if a boy, who was ignorant of justice, came to Gorgias, would Gorgias teach the boy the art of rhetoric, the art of persuading the ignorant on matters of justice when he himself does not know justice?
Gorgias, who is perhaps a bit taken aback by this questions, concludes that, if that were the case, then he would simply have to teach the boy of justice and injustice.
You might have already figured out Socrates beef with Gorgias and the speech makers of Athens. Socrates criticizes Gorgias because it would seem that he would be willing to teach anybody rhetoric whether or not that person was knowledgeable of justice.
It would seem then that rhetoric alone is not a moral endeavor. Socrates believes that without knowledge, without philosophy, rhetoric alone is not an art at all. It is a form of flattery, a way to coax the uneducated into accepting a position that is not necessarily correct, moral, or even just.
Rhetoric without knowledge is like the blind leading the blind. More specifically, it is the ignorant leading the ignorant.
And that brings us right back round to our original point. Say it with me now…

It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.

I wouldn’t consider myself particularly cynical, but I do believe there is a rather unhealthy tendency to emphasize style over substance, presentation over content.
I would encourage you to remember that in a world where everybody has an opinion and in an age with technology that allows everybody’s belief to be heard, the plausibility of an assertion is not judged by how many people agree with it. The validity of an argument is not gauged by how loudly it is being hurled at you.
And that, dear fellow philosophers, is really all I have for you today. Speak again soon.

The Pursuit Of Virtue: Plato’s “The Meno”

by May 25, 2014

While Plato and Aristotle are often considered to be contrary thinkers, or at the very Plato Aristotleleast they were certainly distinct from one another, we might be surprised at just how much they had in common.
When faced with the question, “how should I be living?”, they both arrived at the conclusion that a good life and a virtuous life were one in the same.

To be sure, they both certainly expressed this sentiment in their own unique ways. Plato leads us through numerous dialogues in which the hero of Greek philosophy, Socrates,
discusses, refutes, and then constructs a new understanding of human virtue and philosophical enlightenment.

The dialogues wax and wane in the same manner that true conversation would. It all seems to culminate, at least in part, with the illumination of Plato’s theory of Forms
within The Republic. And with an understanding of the Forms comes the tacit suggestion that we ought to spend our lives pursuing the Form of The Good, the highest realization of all goodness.

This is not told to us, by any means, in a straightforward or concise manner. Plato certainly has an idea of how we ought to live our lives, but he refuses to come right out and say it. It is perhaps fortunate then that Aristotle has no patience for ambiguity.

Plato vs. Aristotle
Unlike his teacher, Aristotle seems to think very little of the Forms. He has no time for abstract, cerebral realms of existence. He is concerned with the here and now. The philosopher sets about uncovering philosophy that is verifiable, logical, and immediately applicable.

And so we see that an examination of the differing styles of the two philosophers is almost as interesting as the very ideas they put forth. While Plato spent his time pontificating about the existence of an unseen realm, Aristotle had his feet firmly planted on the ground.
However, it is important that we remember our original point. While the two men differed greatly in many regards, they still arrived at the conclusion that a virtuous life and a good life are one in the same.
This leads us rather naturally to a rather important question. How do we attain virtue? How do we arrive at the good life? And while Plato and Aristotle agreed that virtue would indeed lead us to happiness, they disagreed rather drastically on how we can achieve virtuousness.
PART 1: Plato’s “The Meno”
Plato PortraitIt is in Plato’s dialogue The Meno that the philosopher, through the voice of Socrates, begins to discuss the question of attaining virtue. The opening line of The Meno makes this clear to us…

“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” -Plato (Meno)

What follows is the predictable and inescapable follow up question that we would come to expect from a Platonic dialogue. What is virtue? For how can we know know how to attain virtue if we do not know adequately what virtue is.
Meno proposes a number of possible definitions. He says that virtue is doing good deeds for your friends and performing bad deeds against your enemy, all while seeing to it that you receive no harm to yourself. Meno continues by saying that there is a virtue for women and children as well, these virtues differing greatly from the virtues of men.

Socrates seems unimpressed. He tells Meno that there must be some singular ideal of virtue and not merely an inexhaustible list of examples. By dividing the idea of virtue into many splintering definitions, Meno is making many out of one as if he were breaking a plate into many shards.

Socrates proposes that virtue is good and that that which is good is profitable to us. Therefore the virtues such as justice, piety and bravery are profitable to a person who exercises them. However, the misuse of these virtues can sometimes bring us harm. Therefore, it is through wisdom that we have a proper understanding of the many virtues. And so the hypothesis becomes that true virtue is wisdom, or at the very least the two are intimately linked.

“If then virtue is a quality of the soul, and is admitted to be profitable, it must be wisdom or prudence, since none of the things of the soul are either profitable or hurtful in themselves, but they are all made profitable or hurtful by the addition of wisdom” -Plato (Meno)

So if virtue is a type of knowledge, then this would seem to suggest that virtue can be taught. However, every type of teachable subject must have instructors. And so the men run into a problem when they attempt to identify who the true teachers of virtue are.

Socrates proposes that perhaps the Sophists,
the wandering lecturers of Greece, are these mysterious teachers. However, this possibility is shot down by Anytus, a newcomer in the dialouge, who considers the Sophists to be conmen and charlatans. He declares…

“I only hope that no friend or kinsman or acquaintance of mine, whether citizen or stranger, will ever be so mad as to allow himself to be corrupted by them; for they are a manifest pest and corrupting influence to those who have to do with them.” -Plato (Meno)

Pericles bustAdditionally, if virtue can be taught, then why is it that the great and virtuous men of Greece such as Themistocles, Pericles, and Thucydides all bore sons who were largely considered to be morally corrupt? Certainly if virtue were teachable, then these great leaders would have insured that it be instilled within their children.
It had previously been agreed that that which can be taught must have teachers. Since the men can think of no suitable group who would qualify as the teachers of virtue, they must conclude that virtue cannot be taught. It would seem then that the attainment of virtue is impossible.
The obvious reaction to this idea is to declare it to be absurd. Which is exactly what Meno does…

“But I cannot believe, Socrates, that there are no good men: And if there are, how did they come into existence?”-Plato (Meno)

It is here Socrates changes the direction of the dialogue ever so slightly. He reminds Meno that previously they said that in order for a man to be profitable and good, he must have knowledge. Socrates believes this now to be a mistake. He continues by telling us that a man may not have knowledge of a true thing, but that he may have true opinion of a thing. And from a purely pragmatic perspective, true opinion is just as useful as true knowledge.
Socrates explains this idea by using the example of travelers asking for directions to the city of Larisa. The travelers first ask for directions from a man who has visited the city many times and is very aware of its location. This man will inevitably tell the travelers the correct way and the wanders will arrive safely.
Now, let us imagine that the travelers again ask for directions; this time from a man who has never been to Larisa, but who believes he knows its approximate location. If the man has a true opinion of the location of the city, he will point the travelers in the right direction and they will arrive safely.
And so we see that, purely from a practical perspective, having true knowledge of a thing and having true opinion are just as useful. Socrates believes that the great leaders of Greece have true opinion of things and will faithfully lead the Athenians to greatness. However, they do not possess a higher form of knowing to substantiate their beliefs. They do not know why they know.

“And therefore not by any wisdom, and not because they were wise, did Themistocles and those others of whom Anytus spoke govern states. This was the reason why they were unable to make others like themselves—because their virtue was not grounded on knowledge.” -Plato (Meno)

This distinction between true knowledge and true belief is the foundation for what is known as “justified true belief.” This idea tells us that S can know Y is true if and only if:
  • Y is true
  • S believes Y is true, and
  • S is justified in believing Y is true
And where do men acquire this higher form of understanding? How does one achieve true virtue in the form of absolute knowledge? Well, Plato tells us that it is a gift from God; true virtue comes to us in the form of divine inspiration.

“Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God.” -Plato (Meno)

The conclusion that true virtue is given through divine means is often considered to either be a droll sense of irony from Plato, or an allusion to Plato’s later Theory of Forms and the Form of the Good.
And if that all got you scratching your head in confusion, don’t worry. You certainly are not alone. Aristotle believed that such dependence on fanciful ideas was unwarranted and unnecessary. He would set about explaining the attainment of virtue in a way that was distinctively Aristotelian.

In Pursuit Of The Good

by April 21, 2014

If Plato’s ideas on ethics seems a bit hazy to you, then rest assured you’re not alone. There are several reasons why Plato’s conception of a good life are illusive. For starters, in all of his early dialogues the philosopher spends his time giving a thrashing to our conventional ideas of virtues such as justice, piety, and bravery. 
Plato PortraitIt is only in Plato’s later dialogues, specifically The Republic, that the philosopher articulates, to any discernible degree, his ideas on human virtues and their relation to a good life. However, even this is done through the voice of the grand old master, Socrates, leaving room for interpretation and further obscuring our view of Plato’s true philosophies.
Additionally, Plato’s ethics are based upon metaphysical presuppositions that often appear ambiguous, obscure, and out of the realm of normal thinking.
In order to examine Plato’s ethics, we will need to examine his metaphysical and epistemological views. Very simply, Plato’s philosophy of being and of knowledge are intimately linked with his philosophy of living well.

The best example where these three paths intersect can be found within the philosopher’s magnum opus, The Republic. It is near the end of Book VI that Plato, through the voice of Socrates, begins to make his case for the existence of an ultimate source of virtue that shines upon all existence and grants us the ability to live wisely and virtuously.
For Plato, this grand source of all morality is known simply as “The Good.”

And it all begins, rather simply, with a divided line…
“Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible.” -Plato (The Republic)
Plato asks us to imagine a line divided in half. The first half of the line will correspond to the realm of sensible perception, where objects can be perceived using empirical observations.  The second half corresponds to a realm of existence that transcends our physical world and can only be understood through an application of philosophical reasoning.

Divided Line
This latter half, which later philosophers (especially Immanuel Kant) would refer to as the phenomenal world, is of great importance to Plato.
Much of the philosopher’s ideas on ethics is dependent upon the existence of this conceptual world.

Plato asks us to again divide the line. Both segments will be halved, giving us four different sections lying on this line. Each segment will refer to a type of knowing, and, as you will soon see, the line progresses; starting with shadows and ending with perfect philosophical understanding.
The first segment on the line represents shadows and illusions that we perceive in our world, reflections that we see off of the surface of a still pond for instance. The second segment represents the objects themselves, the universe as we understand through the use of our senses.
Moving on into the phenomenal world, segment three refers to a type of understanding that we often associate with mathematical reasoning and theoretical understandings. We arrive at this type of understanding when considering ideas such as a perfect triangle or a perfectly straight line. It is important that we do not confuse our conception of a triangle with the physical drawing of a triangle.

Plato sketch
Finally we arrive at the last segment on the line, the portion that corresponds to the realm of the forms and, more importantly, the form of The Good.

Very briefly, Plato’s World of Forms is a realm of existence where the perfect conceptions such as beauty, justice, piety, truth, and goodness, exist indivisibly and eternally. It is only by virtue of these forms that our sensible world has any of the qualities that it does.
Plato’s forms are at the center of the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas. That is to say that through the use of the forms, Plato attempted to explain why the universe is the way it is, why things have the qualities that they do.
However, the forms also speak to Plato’s ideas on epistemology. The forms emphasize attaining true understanding through an application of reason and philosophical dialectic. This reflects Plato’s belief that the only way to attain true knowledge is through logic and that our empirical observations are merely shadows.
So we see that Plato’s divided line is actually a hierarchy of sorts. The four segments on the line correspond to four different types of knowing. In numerical order, these types of knowing are opinion, belief (conviction), theoretical knowledge, and absolute understanding.
We ought not to be satisfied with merely living in the observable world, but we should, to the best of our ability, transcend the physical world and endeavor to discover the phenomenal world where we may become aquatinted with the form of The Good and live our life in harmony with this ultimate goodness.
Here we begin to grasp at Plato’s ethics. But what exactly is The Good? Understanding this ultimate form might actually be easier than you think.
If I were to ask you, “Was Hitler good?” what would you say? While you are thinking about that, let’s consider a few other questions.


Was Hitler good at instigating a second world war? Yes. 

Was Hitler good at creating a propaganda machine? Yes.

Was Hitler a good painter? Maybe.

But back to our original question. Was Hitler good? The answer, rather obviously, is no.
While Hitler was good insofar as he was a dictator or a public speaker, we can say rather confidently that he was not Good.

Whether you consciously recognize it or not, there is a standard for goodness, an understanding of that which partakes of morality and that which does not. This seems self evident. To Plato, this goodness was the form of The Good, and it is the single most important thing we can ever recognize as philosophers.
Plato compares the form of The Good to the radiance of the sun. It is only by virtue of the sun’s light that we are able to gaze upon the world. It is only by virtue of the sun that we are not cast into darkness.
Similarly, The Good is the thing that by virtue of which we have an understanding of other forms such as beauty, justice, and piety. We can not have virtue without having The Good. It is towards this goodness that we must strive if we are to live fully, wisely, and virtuously.
“You would say, would you not, that the sun is not only the author of visibility in all visible things, but of generation and nourishment and growth, though he himself is not generation? In like manner the Good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet The Good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.” -Plato (The Republic)
So there we have a very brief examination of one of Plato’s most fundamental philosophical contributions. In just one theory, Plato gives us a look into his metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical beliefs. While some might find this feat remarkable, it perhaps should not surprise us that Plato’s philosophies overlapped so much.
Much like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that an educated life and a good life were one in the same. We can not live well without living wisely and we can not live wisely without also living well. Pursuing a true understanding of knowledge and being will inevitably lead us closer to the form of The Good and as a result, closer to a fulfilled and satisfying life.