How to Teach Virtue

Plato Meno has set the pattern for us of how to teach virtue: Every second you spend reading this short dialogue to see how he does it will make you a better teacher, parent, or statesman.

The Meno by Plato begins with the direct and forthright question, “Can virtue be taught?”

It ends with the conclusion, stated by Socrates, that it is a gift from the gods. Which, if he is right, is a wise thing to say. And if he just spent a whole dialogue guiding Meno to that conclusion, then he has just led him along the path to wisdom.

Not that Meno has arrived (or that Socrates thought he had), but that he has progressed. He has, if he has a willing soul, moved in the direction of becoming wiser.

That being the case, then Socrates has just taught virtue to Meno. Furthermore, he has shown us how to do it. Even better, he even showed Meno how to do it in the dialogue by teaching it to a slave boy.

Let me lay that out in a more orderly sequence to make it clearer.

At the beginning of the dialogue with Meno (from now on, The Meno), Meno says to Socrates:

Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, o rin what other way.

It amuses me to think that this is one of the first recorded multiple choice tests. Socrates, being too wise to pick an answer that isn’t first examined and understood, isn’t willing to answer until he understands the question. At this point, Meno rolls his eyes at Socrates, smacks him on the side of the head, tells him to get with the program, and sends him to the office.

As a result of Socrates’ sheepish submission and Meno’s aggressive impatience, western civilization loses one of its most important documents and every ensuing age suffers from a terribly inadequate understanding of virtue, drifting between puritanical fundamentalism and passionate self-indulgence, unable to find its balance and lasting only until about 350 BC, at which point, there being no Academy, the Macedonians sweep down on Athens and conquer Greece and have nothing interesting to say or learn so they are Nothing But Tyrants, not even paying virtue the complement of hypocricy.

Oh wait, sorry, bad dream. Socrates doesn’t disappoint after all. At least, he doesn’t disappoint the reader who wants to think really hard about just about the most important question one can ask. It was in regard to The Meno and this question that David Hicks wrote some of his most provocative words in his absolutely essential book, Norms and Nobility.

When a teacher of 14-year-olds was teaching The Meno, he sent his students to ask his parents whether virtue can be taught. Says Hicks:

It was revealing to learn later how few parents had ever asked themselves this question or articulated an answer, yet what question could be more pertinent to raising a child?” (emph. mine).

This still jolts me every time I read it.

But I had said I would simplify my point and now I am wandering all over the place. Please pardon me and I will try again.

Meno asks, “Can virtue be taught?”

Socrates answers, “I know literally nothing about virtue… Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.”

For some people, this ends the interestingness of the dialogue, so they close it. “Obviously virtue can be taught! The Bible says…” say some of them, stomping away. “Obviously virtue cannot be taught! The Bible says…” say the others and they stomp away arm in arm.

Other people are morally or intellectually slack and have too much time on their hands, so they are drawn into the dialogue at this point, wondering what could make Socrates so stupid as not to know what virtue is and curious as to how Plato managed to write a whole dialogue about such a moron.

Sorry, digression. Simplicity, Andrew, simplicity. Or at least order.

Meno challenges Socrates by listing virtues, but Socrates says, “How can I know these are virtues if I don’t even know what a virtue is? What do they all have in common?” He proceeds to give a lesson to Meno on how to define things based on the idea that the thing being defined actually is something that can be defined.

You might find that ridiculous too, which is fine, because most of what Socrates says is ridiculous. But one could argue that most dictionaries today are based on the idea that definitions aren’t of things but of words. Those words change with the weather, so definitions are slippery. The thing itself can’t be known. Socrates challenges that.

Here’s what Socrates says to Meno, and it’s particularly brilliant:

Now, in your turn, you are to fulfill your promise, and tell me waht virtue is in the universal; and do not makea singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.

“I have given you the pattern.”

This, I think, might be the most important single key to interpreting The Meno and very possibly all of Plato’s dialogues.

When you read anything by Plato, do note the content and see if you can follow it, but even more, note the pattern of thought that he is modeling. He is challenging us to imitate a master thinker. Perhaps this is why, when you read Plato, you see such frequent mentions of craftsmen and apprentices. He sees a pattern there that applies to learning how to think too. A curriculum can’t do it; you need a master teacher who gives you the pattern.

So the dialogue continues and Socrates raises the famous and ridiculous question of whether a person ever desires evil. Regardless of the content, the discussion leads Meno to say these magic words:

At this moment I cannot even say what virtue is.

Many, maybe even Meno, would feel defeated at this moment and stop reading or perhaps resent the dialogue. Slackers like me just keep going out of bored and idle curiosity.

Meno tries to play a trick on Socrates at this point, and Socrates catches him. Meno claims that if you don’t know what you are asking about, you can’t get an answer, and if you know what it is, you don’t need to ask because you already have it.

Socrates responds by engaging Meno in a discussion of the soul, arguing that it is immortal and has a memory of everything from former lives. This is where Socrates loses a lot more readers, especially wise Christians who are well aware that we are born and then “it is appointed unto men once to die,” so this ridiculous character, Socrates, clearly has nothing to say to us.

But being a slacker, I keep reading, more or less alone, I suspect. I’m glad I do because it is just at this point that Socrates pulls an amazing intellectual move. He is trying to convince Meno that we already know everything in our immortal soul, so we just need to recollect it, not to learn it. Meno, like the rest of us, is incredulous, or at least has the decency to be confused and stick around.

To show him, since he can’t “teach” him, Socrates teaches a geometry lesson to a slave boy. It’s the most condensed version a Socratic dialogue of which I am aware, and it is also complete. It is a pattern that he always uses, at least as far as he can. Judging by what he said above about giving Meno a pattern, I believe it is a pattern he intends the wise teacher to follow.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail here, but in brief, here’s what he does:

He ascertains what the slave boy already knows about the lesson (he can speak Greek, he knows what a square is, etc.), which concerns the nature of a square. Eventually, he asks what will happen to the square footage of the square if he doubles the length of the sides. The slave boy gets it wrong, following his first common sense thought. Then Socrates breaks down his error by asking questions that expose the inconsistency in the slave boy’s own position.

When the slave boy says, “I don’t know,” Socrates turns to Meno and says, “Do you see what advances he has made in his powers of recollection?… Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?”

Then he turns back to the boy and, using examples and questions, he leads the boy to see what he already knows. His conclusion, put in question form: “He who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?”

What Socrates achieves with Meno here, and the importance of this cannot be exaggerated and must not be dismissed, is that he convinces him to keep looking for the truth. He says:

Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpfless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know;–that is the theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.

This moves me profoundly, because I have long seen that conventional education is sophistic, rooted in the notion that we can’t know the truth and that to seek it is an idle fancy. But while I cannot claim to know the Truth about much, I am devoted to this search. Indeed, I am so devoted to it, that I consider it a great favor when somebody shows me my ignorance. Not so I can stay there, but so I can be redirected to what my soul loves.

The dialogue, however, is not yet over. Next Socrates discusses with Meno whether virtue is knowledge. He clearly wants to deliver Meno, not only from despair (concluding that truth cannot be known) but also from over-confidence (concluding that truth is easy to know).

He argues that if virtue can be taught, then there must be a teacher and disciples, but, he asks, where do we see them? Why do good teachers and parents produce prodigals and traitors? And yet, out of the blue, among the lower classes even, prophets arise and statesmen of astonishing wisdom.

The dialogue concludes rather suddenly, in my opinon. Socrates says, “The result seems to be, if we are at all right in our view, that virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but an instinct given by God to the virtuous.”

What follows is a literary, philosophical, pedagogical wonder. I have to quote it somewhat extensively and then perhaps I’ll comment on it in a later post because this one has grown so long that if you are still with me, I welcome you as a fellow slacker and thank you for indulging your appetite in ridiculous writings by someone who has only this in common with Socrates: I know nothing.

Socrates: Nor is the instinct [to virtue] accompanied by reason, unless there may be supposed to be amng statesmen some one who is capable of educating statesmen. And if there be such an one, he may be said to be among the living what Homer says that Tiresias was among the dead, “he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting shades”; and he and his virtue in like manner will be a reality among shadows.

Meno: That is excellent, Socrates.

Socrates: Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God. But we shall never know the certain truth until, before asking how virtue is given, we enquire into the actual nature of virtue. I fear that I must go away, but do you, now that you are persuaded yourself, persuade our friend Anytus. And do not let him be so exasperated; if you can conciliate him, you will have done good service to the Athenian people.

A couple notes, with my apologies:

Anytus was introduced on the previous page, though he had apparently been present for the whole dialogue. This add an unstated pathos to the story for Plato’s Greek readers. If you have read or ever read The Apology of Socrates, also by Plato, you will discover that Anytus was one of the chief accusers of Socrates at his trial. Meno, in other words, failed to conciliate Anytus and as a result Athens suffered the death of Socrates.

But what a brilliant move by Socrates to tell his student to engage his challenger. If Meno has perceived a truth through this discussion with Socrates, what better way to secure it in his own soul than to explore it further with Anytus, who doesn’t accept it. He might convince Anytus. He will most certainly learn to see more clearly himself. Might he lose it himself? Only if he hasn’t really seen it. People who perceive with their soul that A is A and that things change doesn’t ever lose sight of those things.

But how about that analogy between a wise statesman who can teach virtue and Tiresias: “he alone has understanding, but the rest are flitting shades.” I’ll pick that amazing statement up in another post.

But I do have to end with this: Plato has set the pattern for us of how to teach virtue: Socrates has taught Meno and the slave boy, and he has told Meno to teach Anytus. Every second you spend reading this short dialogue to see how he does it will make you a better teacher, parent, or statesman.

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