Friday, July 04, 2014

De Virtute

De Virtute, or Peri Aretes, is the name generally given to a short dialogue sometimes placed with Plato's works in later collections; it has never been regarded as authentic, but it is undeniably Platonic, and could hardly help being since most of it overlaps with Meno, down to the phrasing. It has a much simpler, clearer, structure than Meno, and suggests (to me, at least) that this was either a school-exercise, or was written to make a key argument of Meno more accessible for introductory study. This dialogue, I think, is a good reminder that the order and structure of argument matters in Plato's dialogues, because while the sub-arguments are all from Meno, the overall argument is in some subtle ways different from that of Meno, in part because of what's left out, and in part because of how the arguments selected are organized. (An obvious example: in Meno Socrates is trying to get out of looking at whether virtue can be taught, because he wants to discuss what virtue is; here, he raises the question himself and devotes the entire discussion to it.)

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


There is also an unnamed interlocutor. The one fact we learn about the interlocutor is that both he and Socrates have spent time with Lysimachus (the son of the statesman Aristides). In Meno, Socrates notes that Meno has spent time with Lysimachus; so the author here seems to be taking account of the fact that Lysimachus is also a character in Laches, so Socrates knows him, too.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates opens the dialogue by asking his interlocutor whether virtue can be taught, and if not, whether people are virtuous by nature. His interlocutor says he doesn't know, so Socrates leads him to the consideration that if virtue can be learned it would have to be from good men, and he asks who the good men of the city are. The interlocutor names Thucydides (the opponent of Pericles, not the historian), Themistocles, Aristides, and Pericles. But for none of these can we name a definite teacher of virtue, so we have to consider their students. But there don't seem to be any of those, either.

Further, if good men are just, it seems they would want to help rather than harm, and would be happy to communicate their goodness. But if we look at Cleophantus, the son of Themistocles, or Lysimachus, the son of Aristides, or Paralus and Xanthippus, the sons of Pericles, or Melesias and Stephanus, the sons of Thucydides, they don't seem any more virtuous than anyone else. So it looks like virtue can't be taught.

This raises the opposing question: is virtue something had by nature. Socrates notes that there is a skill by which one knows the nature of good horses (horsemanship) and a skill by which one knows the nature of good hounds (huntsmanship) and a skill by which one knows good money from counterfeit (money-changing), and a skill by which one knows good traits of the human body (athletics), so if virtue were a matter of nature, one would think that there would be a corresponding skill for knowing good men. The interlocutor doesn't know what it could be, and Socrates remarks (as in Meno) that if we had it, you'd think that the city would find the boys with good natures and take special efforts to protect them. So that's a sign that virtue is not had by nature, either.

The interlocutor asks how men come to be virtuous, then, and Socrates responds that it is by divine allotment:

I don't think it's very easy to explain this. my guess, however, is that the possession of virtue is very much a divine gift and that men become good just as the divine prophets and oracle-mongers do. For they become what they are neither by nature no skill: it's through the inspiration of the gods that they become what they are. Likewise, good men announce to their cities the likely outcome of events and what is going to happen, by the inspiration of god, much better and much more clearly than the fortune-tellers. Even the women, I think, say that his sort of man is divine, and the Spartans, whenever they applaud someone in high style, say that he is divine. And often Homer uses this same compliment, as do other poets. Indeed, whenever a god wishes a city to become successful, he places good men in it, and whenever a city is slated to fail, the god takes the good men away from that city. So it seems that virtue is neither teachable nor natural, but comes by divine allotment to those who possess it. (379c-d)

This is mostly a summary of the end of Meno, but there are two ideas that go beyond that dialogue: that "good men announce to their cities...what is going to happen...much more clearly than the fortune-tellers" and that the rising and falling of cities is connected with the allotment of virtue.


Quotations are from Mark Reuter's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1694-1698.


  1. Enbrethiliel2:26 PM


    This is fascinating! While reading the Meno's "Nature vs. Nurture" arguments, I didn't catch the third possibility of virtue being a divine gift. That seems like the worst one, because it's totally out of our control . . . but it's really the best one, for the same reason! I think that the illusion that we can control everything (and the related illusion that we can reason everything out) is at the root of a lot of problems.

    It's also related to the point made in Theages, that teaching (and therefore, learning) is less dependent on a teacher's intelligence and technique than it is on the "chemistry" he has with students. And if you mix the wrong idea that education can be a one-size-fits-all system rather than a personal relationship with the wrong idea that virtue is controllable . . . oh, look; it's our modern school system! =P

    Of course, all this isn't very helpful. I'm reminded of the time I told a struggling friend that faith was a grace, thinking that it would console her for being unable to get it for herself, and it just put her in more of a funk because someone else had received a grace she wanted while she was doing without. =S Does God want her "city" to fail?

  2. branemrys3:58 PM

    You're right that the parallel with the Theages is quite close. It gets even worse for our modern school system when one realizes (as in the Gorgias) that Socrates is partly arguing that these features are, in the long run, corrosive to virtue!

    I suppose we're always brought back to the question Socrates really wants to ask: What is this thing called virtue, anyway? Without an answer to that question it really does seem unhelpful to suggest that we get it as a divine gift -- where does that leave us? Without knowing more about virtue itself, it seems to leave us nowhere.

    All of this transfers to Christians cases in interesting ways, like your example of faith. In reading these I thought of the idea of formation of conscience -- which is a kind of education, and a kind of getting-of-virtue. And everything seems to apply -- we form our consciences by hanging around prudent people (which is like Demodocus's idea of cultivation of nature), and by studying moral theology and the like (which is like the artificial system of the sophists). But I think people are reluctant to consider the possibility that some of it just may require divine gift. And, of course, if it does -- where does that leave us?

    On the other side, I wonder if the Meno (and the Phaedrus) is suggesting an answer (one that gets dropped here): everyone already has the divine gift, even if not in equal measure -- the important practical question is not how we get virtue; the question is how we bring it out, remember it, given that the gods have already given it to us.


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