Sunday, September 14, 2014

Meno, and too little too soon?

            Commentators on Plato like to have a one-word "This is what X is about," where "X" is Phaedrus, Gorgias, Theaetetus, etc.  Granted, Plato generally does a good job of maintaining his focus within a piece (far better than I do, anyway), but once you combine the oversimplification of "Plato's Republic is about justice," with the problems and complexities of translation, the statements start to feel more and more meaningless.
            So:  Plato's Meno.  Wikipedia-the-all-knowing says it's about virtue.
            Firstly — and I will try to be brief, because this is something of a side note — the Meno is not about anything anyone in the Anglophone world would ever call "virtue."  I touched on it here, but virtue is an unfortunate translation of the Greek arête.  To give an idea of what an ancient Greek might have thought of when they heard the word arête, we need only ask Meno himself, as Socrates did:
SOCRATES:  But Meno, by the gods, what do you yourself say that virtue is?...
MENO:  It is not hard to tell you, Socrates.  First, if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man's virtue consists of being able to manage public affairs and in so doing to benefit his friends and harm his enemies and to be careful that no harm comes to himself; if you want the virtue of a woman, it is not difficult to describe:  she must manage the home well, preserve its possessions, and be submissive to her husband.  (Meno, 71d-72a)
Meno goes on to talk about the virtue of a child, an elderly man, and a slave.
            While I will grant that we have another, less morally-tuned, use of the word "virtue" (we speak of "the virtues of diplomacy," "the virtues of sound urban planning," etc), for one thing, it's not a use you hear too often anymore.  And for another, it still wouldn't work in this context.  The "virtues of" use speaks as though virtues were benefits, or good things about the practices in question. Meno is clearly speaking not of practices, but of people, and the people are subjects acting out their arête; it is not something about them, the way their robes might have been blue.
            So from the first pages of the dialogue, the use of the word virtue to translate arête — when virtue, in my ears, sounds something like moral goodness or righteousness — seems dubious at best.
            Philip Vassallo in Philosophy Now* suggests that a better word might be "valor."  I would agree if arête only applied to men.  But as Meno himself demonstrates, it does not.  (While I may personally love the notion of a valorous housewife, it sounds too comic.  And a valorous slave, who would presumably demonstrate his or her valor by submitting to whatever work or punishments meted out to them with all appropriate resignation, sounds awful.)
            Another possible translation of arête is excellence, and I think this is decent.  It allows us the flexibility to use arête in a manner in line with what Meno — in this dialogue, the representative of the classic/Homeric understanding of social values — points towards:  the most perfect expression of carrying out one's life's work.  This also allows us to hear/read Meno's definitions of the arêtes/excellences/ways of excellence in a way that avoids reading him as a prefigure of Nietzsche, or as simply another Thrasymachus.
            Okay.  Side note over.
            Back to this question:  what is Plato's Meno about?
            And then this:  what responses present themselves?
            As for the first question, I do not think the dialogue centers on arête — no matter how we translate that word — at all.  The central questions (according to Terra Leigh), in the order in which they are discussed, are the following:
  • Can excellence be taught?
  • What is excellence?
  • Meno's paradox:  how can one search for what one does not know, as it will (presumably) be unrecognizable since you haven't yet found it or known it?
  • Is excellence a kind of knowledge?
  • Can excellence be taught? Part II
Each section dealing with these questions of course brings up many others (How do we learn?  Why do some kinds of knowledge seem to be "discovered," as though they had always been lying about somewhere in the recesses of our brains?), but these are the big umbrella topics.  In terms of sheer time spent on each, the question of "What is excellence/arête?" gets about eleven pages in my copy.  The question the dialogue opens with, however — "Can excellence/arête be taught?" — gets double that.
            Obviously it would behoove one to know what X is when discussing whether or not X is teach-able.  Socrates/Plato know this, and so spend a respectable amount of time discussing what the hell arête even is.  And Socrates' conclusion — that virtue may be more like a kind of divine inspiration that some lucky folk receive from the gods — whether ironic or not, is a way of circumventing the question of how to know what arête is.
            But my larger point is this:  Plato, here, seems primarily concerned with whether or not arête/human excellence can be taught.  He is trying to get at how to pass on individual qualities which will benefit both the individuals concerned and the larger society.
            When I first realized how much of his time he spends thinking about the teachability of excellence, initially I thought he was barking up the wrong tree.  Because Plato seems to think of teaching as what Socrates does:  one person, who has more wisdom, and another, who has less, conversing, while knowledge is either passed between them or "awoken" by the activity of dialogue.  While I think this can be a decent method for informational transfer, I do not think it works too well for moral transfer.  And when I say "moral," I don't mean something like "ethical behavior," or "knowledge of ethics."  I mean it in the old sense of character, temperament, or possibly even mood.  I mean something like the shape and texture of human persons or souls.  The shape and texture of a person — not some quantity of informational material — will determine what choices they make in life, and in a sense will determine how much or how little they achieve arête.  And the shape and texture of a person will be influenced and generated primarily by their entire environment, not some one individual.
            It may well be that Plato does believe, in writing the Meno, that if arête is teach-able, its teaching will happen in the kind of scenario he presents Socrates in.  I do not mean that Plato — or Socrates for that matter — believed that Socrates had a lot of really good information to pass on, kind of like knowledge of geometric theorems, and that teaching arête or hosion or dike or whatever would transpire the same way teaching Chvátal's Art Gallery Theorem would transpire.  Because of course, that isn't what Socrates is doing.  Still, Plato does seem to place a lot of faith in Socrates' methods, and I for one think they would do fuck-all for a society trying to teach its young arête or any number of moral sentiments.  In this particular dialogue, I get the distinct impression that Plato believes that if arête is teach-able, then Socrates' methods would be the ones to achieve that.
            One can ask "Can arête be taught?"  But while, in the Meno, Socrates does realize this begs the question, "What is arête/excellence?" he doesn't seem to realize it begs the question, "What is teaching?"  This is a central problem for Plato's entire project.
            Like so many of the dialogues, this one ends in aporia.  I.e., there isn't a satisfactory answer, unless you consider this satisfying:  "Can excellence be taught?"  "Umm...  I'm not sure.  I guess not...?"  But upon finishing Meno, and feeling frustrated because Plato's notion of what teaching excellence would look like, I suddenly realized something.  Plato himself accounted for the generation and shaping influence of environment in his later work, Republic.
            I'm not sure whether I will ever write a full blog post on Republic.  It's crazy long and I'm not exactly in love with it.  I think the most interesting aspect of it is its psychology, which is possibly the main point anyway, but it's hard to not read Republic as a political treatise since that is both how it is traditionally read and what is floating around on the surface and easy to catch.  Also, there are enough books and articles and probably now blog posts on it to make me feel less an intrepid explorer, and more an unpaid intern.
            But perhaps I can avoid the question of whether or not to write a blog post focusing exclusively on Republic by discussing it here.  In Republic — which most scholars agree to be a later dialogue than Meno — Plato argues that in order for an entire society to function well, and in order for all of the members to be as perfectly just and good as is possible, all of the various groups and parts of the system must accept their proper roles and perform them to the best of their ability.  While it could well be argued that such a proposal is a neat and tidy way of keeping the lower classes from getting too uppity and too big for their britches, so to speak, it is at the very least an acknowledgment that all humans live in an ecology of ethics and that if the ecosystem is sick, so will their individual systems (i.e., people) and sub-group systems.  And, in turn, if individual systems are sick, such persons cannot help but affect the entire system by pulling unduly in some areas, while going slack in others that need tension.
            I think it bears pointing out here that while Plato's central concern in Republic, which is justice or even righteousness, these can not be equated to what he is after in Meno.  Again, read any translation of Meno I've ever come across and arête will be translated virtue.  This may sound like "justice," but I do want to clarify that Plato is technically talking about the nurturance of two different qualities.  Just for accuracy's sake.
            Still, I would at least put excellence and justice in the category of moral character.  And in Republic, Plato seems to taken into account the ecology and complexity of influences on human development, and how systemic the influences upon the development of moral character are.  One may not be able to tell another person "How to be moral/good/just/pious/whatever" in the same way one could teach them to grow bacterial cultures or knit a blanket.  But if we can take into account the whole system in which humans grow, we may be at least able to have a meaningful conversation about whether or not arête can in fact be taught.

*  I have refrained from including the link above because I see that the article is now available to subscribers only (an honor which I cannot claim, as $32 comes dearly these days).  But if you would like to look at the delectable teaser, which I'm sure will lead you to locate an extra $32 in your budget this month**, you can see it here:  Aren't Philosophers Rich Enough Already Why Do They Need My $32?

**  I have recently discovered that, as a person who religiously keeps a budget and knows exactly how much I spend on everything every single month, I am part of a group constituting less than 10% of the American population.  Which is to say, if you are, as seems likely, part of the 90% of normal people, you could simply spend the $32 and it would probably come off just fine.***

***  I apologize (but not really, of course) for all the dependent clauses.  I have just finished yet another British murder mystery, and Albert Campion is loping through my head.

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