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PHIL 1F91 Lecture Notes - Sophist, Ancient Greece

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Brian Lightbody

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PHIL 1F91 October 19th 2012
Lecture Seven: The Meno
- The Meno is named after a prominent man from Thessaly (a city-state like Athens)
- The dialogue concerns the nature of virtue-what virtue and whether virtue can be taught
- A group of teachers called the Sophists believed that virtue could be taught. It is questionable,
however, whether the Sophists could teach something they know nothing about
- Most scholars believe that this is one of Plato‟s last early dialogues as we get a glimpse of Plato‟s
theory of the Forms
- In typical Socratic fashion, Socrates engages in a conversation with Meno over the nature or
essence of virtue qua virtue. (What is virtue?)
- To 21st century readers (like us) this may not seem very strange. But in ancient Greece, such
debates were very strange indeed. Noblemen had an instinctive understanding as to what virtue,
justice and wisdom were
The Meno Virtue
- Meno‟s first definition: “To be able to manage public business, and in doing it to help friends and
hurt enemies and to take care to keep clear of such mischief himself.” (p. 23)
- While a woman‟s virtue can be defined as follows: “She must manage the house well and keep the
stores all safe and obey her husband.” (p.23)
- Meno begins by outlining the traditional cultural roles for noble men, women and children in ancient
Greek society
The Meno –Socrates‟ refutation of the first definition
- The analogy of the swarm bees may have different functions in a swarm those that gather
pollen, those that protect the hive, the queen which reproduces etc. but they do not differ from one
another in “beehood”. Hence the same is the case for virtue: through there may be different virtues
for men, women, young and old nonetheless there is one virtue common to them all
- Thus, what Socrates is driving at is that virtue like health, like strength, etc. must be the same in all.
We would not say that a woman‟s physical strength is fundamentally different than a man‟s so the
same also holds true for virtue. If we can praise a man, woman or child for being virtuous it is
because they all share a common essence or „virtue hood‟.
Meno‟s Second Definition of Virtue
- Virtue: “What can it be but to be able to rule men? If you want something which is the same in all.”
(p. 26)
- Socrates first shows this definition to be inadequate: just because someone rules another or even
the state does not mean that he does so virtuously. We would need to add something else to this
definition such as the person rules with justice, with temperance etc.
Socrates‟ critique of the Second Definition
- So, Socrates is now employing the opposite method to refute this definition. He states that what we
call high-mindedness, temperance, courage etc. are all virtues. So an adequate definition of Virtue
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