Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Meno": The Nature of Arete

Meno opens with Meno asking Socrates whether or not "virtue" can be taught. The word "virtue" is translated from the Greek word arete. My history teacher taught me that arete means "excellence". Now, having read Meno and seeing arete being used many times in context, I think both definitions are a little lacking. For example when Meno attempts to define arete as ruling over others, our word "virtue" doesn't seem to fit; "excellence" seems a better fit. However, Socrates then replies that Meno should add ruling "justly and not unjustly", making "excellence" alone a poor fit. It seems that arete covers both the English words "virtue" and "excellence".

After being given the question, Socrates responds with another question: what is arete? Most of the following dialogue is concerned with defining this elusive word. Socrates makes Meno realize that he doesn't know what virtue is, not to mess with him, but to make him wise. Socrates firmly believes that it is better to know that you know nothing than to think that you know anything when you really don't.

Meno attempts to define arete by saying that it differs from person to person, depending on their role or nature. He says that men run cities and women run homes, and therefore different people have different virtues. Socrates defends universal morality by comparing the virtues to bees. Bees have different features, but they are all bees. Similarly, although men and women have different jobs to do (in ancient Greece), they are compelled to do those jobs with the same qualities (e.g. justice and moderation). Justice and moderation are virtues for all of humanity.

Socrates also said that no man desires evil for its own sake. Rather men desire evil things thinking they are good things or with good things as the ends. 

One quote I particularly liked: "We will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find what we do not know and that we must not look for it".  This quote really speaks to the post-modern idea that there is no objective truth and also agnosticism.

Interestingly Socrates argued that human rationality comes from our pre-birth existence, either as a past life or elsewhere. He tells an uneducated servant boy to figure out a math problem. The servant boy answers the math problem by answering questions asked by Socrates, not be being taught by him. This proves that rationality is inborn and not taught. Socrates goes on to say that "learning" is merely recollecting from past existence. Cool stuff.

It was only towards the end that Socrates' argument lost me. Socrates asserted that arete is caused by neither nature nor nurture, but is a gift from the gods, after refuting that arete is a kind of knowledge. Socrates said that arete isn't knowledge, because there are no teachers. He used the example of good men having bad sons. If arete could be taught certainly the good men's sons would have turned out good as well. I don't know if I completely agree though. If not for my parent's correcting I don't know if I would have the same morals I do today. I don't even know if I would have the same morals if I hadn't grown up watching and reading stories about heroes. Of course lessons can fall on deaf ears, so there seems to be a combination of nature and nature. And isn't everything, to an extent, a gift from the gods (God)?

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed getting back to Plato, my favourite Great Books author. I find his philosophy of eternal forms so refreshing in my relativistic culture. I think we can learn a lot from him.

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