Socrates introduces a problem 

A selection from Plato's Meno (Translated by B. Jowett)

  • Meno: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice . . . or in what other way?
  • Socrates: My dear Meno. Here at Athens all wisdom seems to have emigrated from us. I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your face, and say: "Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.
  • Meno: Are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to Thessaly?
  • Soc: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.
  • Meno: Then you have never met Gorgias when he was at Athens?
  • Soc: I dare say that he did know, and that you know what he said: please, therefore, to remind me of what he said; or, if you would rather, tell me your own view; for I suspect that you and he think much alike. . . . By the gods, Meno, be generous, and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I shall be delighted to find that I have been mistaken, and that you and Gorgias do really have this knowledge; although I have been just saying that I have never found anybody who had.
  • Meno: There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man -- he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman's virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. . . .
  • Soc: How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them, which are in your keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? And you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?
  • Meno: I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.
  • Soc: And if I went on to say: That is what I desire to know, Meno; tell me what is the quality in which they do not differ, but are all alike -- would you be able to answer?
  • Meno: I should.
  • Soc: And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question, "What is virtue?" would do well to have his eye fixed: Do you understand? . . . When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?
  • Meno: I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.
  • Soc: And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same strength subsisting in her that there is in the man. I mean to say that strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any difference?