Monday, December 17, 2012

Socrates and Virtue

Notes on Plato's Alcibiades and Meno

Near the end of Plato's dialogue, Alcibiades, the following exchange occurs:
"Socrates:  Again, in a ship, if a man were at liberty to do what he chose, but were devoid of mind and excellence in navigation, do you perceive what must happen to him and his fellow-sailors?
Alcibiades:  I do: they must all perish.
Socrates:  And in just the same way, if a state, or any office or authority, is lacking in excellence or virtue, it will be overtaken by failure?
Alcibiades:  It must.
Socrates:  Then it is not despotic power, my admirable Alcibiades, that you ought to secure either to yourself or to the state, if you would be happy, but virtue.
Alcibiades:  That is true." (Alcibiades I, 135a-b)

In this dialogue we see Socrates leading Alcibiades, for whom he is the last lover standing, through a discussion of the importance of self-control to the role of virtue in the pursuit of the happiness for the individual or the city.  Socrates sees the possibility of Alcibiades learning this even as Alcibiades is on the verge of entering the political arena completely unprepared.  
There is a theme that is shared by this dialogue and Plato's Meno.  It is the view of knowing as a process.  The process is elucidated through the Socratic dialectic method that demonstrates to Meno that :
"if the truth of all things that are is always in our soul, then the soul must be immortal; so that you should take heart and, whatever you do not happen to know at the present--that is, what you do not remember--you must endeavor to search out and recollect?" (Meno, 86b)
The focus is on the search, the process by which we come to knowledge.  This is connected as well with the key importance of self-control:
"Socrates: And can we find any part of the soul that we can call more divine than this, which is the seat of knowledge and thought?
Alcibiades: We cannot.
Socrates: Then this part of her resembles god, and whoever looks at this , and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.
Alcibiades: Apparently.
Socrates: And self-knowledge we admitted to be temperance.
Alcibiades: To be sure." (Alcibiades I, 133c)

In both the dialogues, Meno and Alcibiades,  Plato presents the Socrates that "does not know".  The dialogues are indeterminate and the reader is left without a resolution to the question under discussion.  In Meno this question is stated in the opening when Meno asks if virtue can be taught.  Of course, in the dialogue Socrates leads Meno to the underlying question which must be answered first: namely, what is virtue?  But neither question is answered by the end even though we can learn from the process.  Consider these dialogues as signs of the nature of Socrates and virtue.

Meno in Plato II, translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library, 1990 (1924).
Alcibiades in Plato XII, translated by W. R. M. Lamb. Loeb Classical Library, 1986 (1927)

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