Philosophy Weekend: Socrates’s Challenge

Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn’t everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?

Meno: No.

Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?

Meno: Both, I should say.

Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?

Meno: Of course.

Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?

Meno: No, that I can’t really believe.

Socrates: Isn’t it clear then that this class, who don’t recognize evils for what they are, don’t desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

Meno: For them I suppose that is true.

Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?

Meno: They must.

Socrates: And don’t they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

Meno: That too they must believe.

Socrates: And unfortunate?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

Meno: I suppose not.

Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?

Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.

Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.

Meno: So it appears.
— Plato, Meno

The challenge Socrates laid out to his Athenian friends, recorded in Plato’s dialogues, remains unanswered today. Is it true that virtue is knowledge? That is, can a greater understanding of who we are and how we relate to each other actually change the way we behave? Can philosophy ever help to end injustice, violence, irrational hatred, war?

Socrates thought it could — in fact he thought it must. I think so too, and I think the fact that Socratic or Platonic idealism is unfashionable today only indicates that we are still confused, that we need to think harder and better. You’ve got to take Plato’s books as a personal challenge: agree with Socrates and change your life, or disagree with him and tell us why. Is it true that virtue is knowledge, that evil and injustice can only exist among ignorant people? It remains the most important philosophical question of all time. Plato wasn’t writing greeting cards over here.

3 Responses

  1. Levi, you posted on one of my
    Levi, you posted on one of my favorite topics (aside from the Frenchie things). I partly agree with Plato/Socrates. I think that without knowledge of right and wrong you can’t be held accountable for evil deeds the same way as if you have that knowledge (or at least the ability to acquire it). That’s part of what makes the insanity plea effective: young children and psychotics are usually not held accountable for harmful actions because they are not in touch with reality and have little or no concept of right and wrong. But psychopaths, who know right from wrong and deliberately choose wrong, are held accountable legally for their evil deeds. But I think that while virtue–and moral accountability–depends in part on knowledge, it’s not reducible to knowledge. Rousseau and Hume are right too. Virtue is also something rooted in our emotions, especially in the ability to feel empathy and sympathy for others.

  2. Levi, thanks for posting
    Levi, thanks for posting this. I’m a new reader and this is also one of my favorite Plato passages.

    This passage, to me, seems to rely on the fact that doing evil will cause one’s soul harm. For Plato, as for his contemporaries, to commit an evil act was to stain or taint your soul. Therefore, Plato is able to write that no one commits an evil act willingly or knowingly, since evil acts are harmful to the perpetrator

    BUT, in our scientific way of looking at things, evil acts do not do harm to the actor. And when I brought this up to a classroom full of students, they were outraged. Horrified. It always struck me as a powerful passage, but my students had no use for it at all. They thought it was romantic, fruitless, and naive. Voluntarism has simply become a part of our daily life: we have knowledge of this and that and this and that, and we don’t seem to be able to predict at all what we’ll choose. A dreary truth, I think.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!