Meno: are virtues definable?

Socrates asked Meno for the definition of virtue, Meno failed to answer that question since he was stating different forms of virtues for different people. However, Socrates managed to revoke Meno’s irrelevant answer, by using the analogy of bees—since the all bees are no different in the regard of being bees, but different in other respects; Then, Socrates moved on applying this analogy on virtues, for both male and females, if “they are to be good, they need to possess the same things……” Therefore, the answer of Meno was revoked by Socrates, since all human beings are to be possessed virtue in the same way by seeking for the virtue—which means virtue of all is the same, not different in way Meno described it.


Meno and Gorgias both agreed on the same virtue for all, is to be able to rule over people. However, Socrates expressed his disapproval by saying that if this “virtue” is to possessed both by a master and a slave, the slave will be abled to rule over his master, which makes him not even a slave anymore. Meno states his third definition of virtue to be capable of desiring beautiful things, along with the power to acquire them. Meno gives equity for beautiful and good things, then he assumed there’re people who desire bad things, in which some of them still desired bad things knowing they’re bad. However, Socrates points out that since all people want to be benefited from things, whether they’re good or bad, thus, the people did not actually desire bad things, but desire to be benefited from things without knowing they’re bad— “who have no knowledge of these things and believe them to be good clearly desire good things.” As the dialogue proceeds, Meno said “no one wants what is bad.” As for this point, the first part of Meno’s definition failed to coordinate itself with good things.


For the second part of the definition, Meno states that the power to securing these good things is a virtue. Ironically, or sadly, Socrates revoked this definition again. Socrates started from saying that the acquisition of good things, in order to be secured, should be accompanied by justice, piety or moderation, etc. Meno apparently agreed upon this, then Socrates states that since the justice is also a virtue, likewise piety, then “every action is virtue if it is performed with a part of virtue”—Meno fall into the trap again, for every action accompanied with justice doesn’t necessarily brings out virtue, for example, an old Chinese saying “watermelon is a fruit, fruit is not a watermelon” would seem fits Socrates’ statement.

So Meno basically stated that one cannot inquire a thing being ignorant of what it is, even if the one started to search for it, he would not what to search for since he didn’t know what that thing is! Socrates first made the hypothesis of whether virtue is teachable or not, then he made the second hypothesis that whether virtue is knowledge or not, and if there is anything else good than the knowledge, then virtue is not knowledge.


Then Socrates points out beneficial things, are to be accompanied by wisdom, then virtue is something in souls with the direction of wisdom, which “makes things beneficial”, since he agreed earlier on virtue is something beneficial. Socrates introduced that “true beliefs” can be beneficial as “knowledge”, but the true beliefs must be corrected by reasoning, and anamnesis. Because earlier, Socrates said they made the very first mistake at the beginning—knowledge is virtue (not a virtue), then Socrates corrected true beliefs with calculation of reasons. After they agreed on that neither true beliefs and knowledge can be inborn, then only one thing was left behind—no one knows, Socrates proves that Anytus and Meno didn’t possess the true definition of virtue, neither did Socrates. Therefore, Socrates sort of stepping back and saying uncertainty brought up divine inspiration, thus, Socrates reached the aporia, as he usually did.


Socrates returned to the original question puzzled the religions, that they cannot solve the nature of particular things, they turned to divine revelations. For this dialogue, though a classic Socratic Elenchus, Socrates did put effort into investigating the true definition of virtue, as he firstly proposed recollection by drawing geometry with the slave, then he made hypothesis of what is virtue, equity of knowledge? Teachable? Therefore, although Socrates failed to provide an actual definition, he indeed “broke” the circle of aporia.

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