Meno is a well-known Socratic dialog, which was created by a Greek philosopher, Plato. At the beginning of the dialog, Meno asks Socrates to explain if anyone can teach virtues. The questions Socrates, he asserts that no one in the world knows anything about the nature and the notion of virtue. Meno, in turn, recalls Gorgias’ assumption that virtue every person possesses his/ her own idea of virtue. He argues that to a certain man the virtuous acts means being able to help his friends and close ones, as well as injuring his enemies. In addition, the man should remember to care about his personality, in order not to harm himself. Meno also posits that, for a woman, virtue is something different. The woman’s domain is to take care of the house and family, as well as obey and fear her husband. On the other hand, children, as well as old people (whether male or female, free or slaves) also have their distinct virtue. Socrates, in turn, objects this definition by pointing out that there must be some universal virtue, which is common to all humans. Socrates does not agree with the idea that virtue is defined by the person’s age or gender. He suggests Meno that all people have a common virtue. He exemplifies this by pointing out that temperance and justice are virtues that are beyond the age groups. Meno seems to agree partially with Socrates’ suggestion by positing that the ability to govern people might be a common virtue to all human beings. Socrates, however, moves ahead and points out that, to a slave, governing cannot be a virtue, as this contradicts the notion of being a slave.
Socrates points out a principal error in Meno’s reasoning; in such a way, he identifies many virtues, but fails to define a common trait that is inherent to all virtues. Socrates uses the analogy of a person breaking a plate, to demonstrate how Meno divides one to many. Meno, in turn, assumes that virtue is a desire for positive things, as well as the power and ability to have them. Socrates, however, rejects this idea by pointing out the second problem, which is that many people cannot recognize evil. Later on, the discussion focuses on the fact that a significant number of people cannot distinguish positive things and deeds from negative ones, and they often confuse the two. The philosopher asks Meno to reflect on whether individuals must be virtuous in something, in order to make such things acceptable. Socrates, in turn, asks if virtue is a single thing or there are many.
Socrates’ objections to Meno's definitions are legitimate; he soundly points out that a definition should encompass all aspects of a notion. In defining something like virtue, it is necessary for the individual to come up with a statement that is both clear and precise; in addition, it should not raise any further questions. For instance, the definition of biology is “the study of living things.” This definition states clearly that the subject of the science focuses only on living things, which means that all non-living things, like computers and rocks, are out of its scope. In defining virtue, Socrates demands a similar definition that leaves nothing to chance. Meno, however, cannot come out with a straight answer, which shows the complexity of the term ‘virtue’.
Meno further complicates his definition of virtue by introducing relative aspects. He argues that virtue is subjective to the person, which insinuates that every person can have a different definition of the notion. Such a definition might translate to the idea that virtue is an imaginary term, the meaning of which is rather elusive. For instance, it might mean that there is no difference between ‘a pacifier’ and ‘an aggressor,’ for what is right depends on an individual’s definition and perception. Taking into consideration Meno’s definition, it might mean that laws and regulations are worthless as they only express the virtues of a few individuals. In addition, adopting Meno’s subjective definition of virtue would make landmark conventions, like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, to lose their appeal. It would not make sense why a group of people would come together and invent some statements meant for everyone. Socrates’ idea on a universal definition of virtue, on the other hand, might lead to the acceptance of aspects, like the rule of law, governance, and the universal declaration of human rights.
In addition, Meno’s definition of virtue has gender stereotypes. He seems to grant the man with the traditional stereotype of being the head of the family while subjugating the woman to the role of being obedient to the husband and taking care of the home. This argument is weak as it lacks grounding. There has never been scientific proof showing that the virtues held by men are different from those held by women. This fact has led to the adoption of the progressive concept of gender equality and equity, an aspect that Socrates seems to defend. He points out that all individuals need justice regardless of gender or age; according to this logic, all what is negative will remain negative, be it connected with a man or woman. A quick proof of the legitimacy of this notion is the fact that both men and women experience pain, pleasure, and love in the same way. They both strive to avoid negative experiences and maximize the positive ones.
There is no satisfactory definition of virtue from the ideas of Meno. The comments by Socrates indicate that he considers a satisfactory definition as unitary issue, instead of varieties of virtue. The definition must contain all and limit itself to those terms that are genuine illustrations of virtue. Most crucial is that the term should not be circular.
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