Platonic virtue is an ideal and concept that runs through the Meno and Symposium. The ancient Greek word, “arete” was the original term that now translates to virtue. In Plato’s works, it is an approach to living that represents moral excellence, wisdom, courage, temperance, and is presented as an ideal that is continually sought and practiced. In both dialogues, virtue has a philosophically didactic nature that results from the various arguments presented.
Beginning with Plato’s transitional dialogue, Meno, the nature of virtue is examined. Meno asks Socrates if virtue is a concept that can be learned, acquired through experience, or if it is something that is innate to humans. Socrates replies that he does not know what virtue is, but then asks, “if I do not know what it is, how could I know what sort of thing it is?” (71b). Further, he claims to have never met anyone that did know what virtue is. However, Socrates’ answer already implies that there is a single definition that is common enough for all people to be familiar with the word “virtue.” So at the outset, it is established that virtue is a concept that people seem to know and understand, yet a precise definition remains elusive. Thus, Socrates then prompts Meno to tell him what he thinks virtue is. In doing this, Socrates has initiated his dialectical method of pursuing an answer with persistent questioning. The point, philosophically, is to question established answers and, in so doing, generate new answers that could possibly supersede the original answer in validity. Meno responds that virtue is relative to the perspective of an individual, therefore there are abounding definitions as to what virtue entails and that it cannot be described as an absolute concept. Socrates rejects this multifarious definition by saying, “we have found many virtues when we were inquiring about one” (74a). Although he does acknowledge that their inquiry is useful is stating, “the one that extends through all of them we cannot find” (ibid). Here the Socratic dialogue helps Meno to recognize that there has to be a singular accepted idea of what virtue is, and that Socrates’ methodology has eliminated an answer and produced a technique to further pursue a correct answer. At this point, Plato’s dialogue has demonstrated that inquiry has yielded knowledge. Socrates and Meno have learned about virtue without any teaching. This process has directed them to recall and articulate knowledge that was already within themselves.
Socrates tells Meno that knowledge is obtainable through recollection because the human soul is immortal and “has learned all things” (81c). To be persistent in self examination and inquiry will lead an individual to recollected knowledge. Socrates claims, “the whole of inquiry or learning, in that case, is recollection” (81d). To demonstrate this to a skeptical Meno, Socrates questions a slave boy on the geometrical nature of the areas of squares. In doing this, Plato through Socrates, establishes two philosophical conclusions. The first is that in realizing a lack of knowledge where one previously thought they possessed knowledge, an individual is likely to self-correct and vigorously pursue the true knowledge. Through Socrates’ questioning, the slave comes to accept that he was wrong where he previously thought he was correct. While the slave is now confused, he nonetheless understands that, “he does not in fact know, he does not think he does either” (84b). The second conclusion is that continual self-inquiry is virtuous in that it is good to seek knowledge within one’s self that leads to truths. With this in mind, Socrates continues to question the slave boy until the correct answer is produced. This confirms that the true knowledge concerning the area of a square was within the boy’s mind and that inquiry led him to recall the solution without instruction. Socrates tells Meno of the importance of this awareness of inherent knowledge in the slave boy’s future, “he will have knowledge without being taught by anyone but only questioned, since he will have recovered the knowledge from inside himself” (85d). In this sense, the boy has acquired wisdom. Through inquiry, he has reasoned his way to the truth and now believes in the process. This combination of belief and knowledge is essential to virtue in Meno. Although Socrates and Meno do not arrive at a definition of virtue by the dialogue’s end, the essence of virtue is distilled in the methodology of continual self-inquiry.
Moving on to a middle Platonic dialogue, the Symposium explores various appreciations and conceptions of eros, or what has been translated as “love.” In the diverse interpretations of love by the participants of the symposium, virtue is revealed to be an important factor that is also a multifaceted concept. In Phaedrus’ speech, love is described as something that provides guidance throughout life. In this way, love has a virtuous quality because it is being applied as an ethical model to follow. Plato evinces this in a binary fashion that determines what is right and wrong as Phaedrus says, “What guidance do I mean? I mean a sense of shame at acting shamefully, and a sense of pride in acting well” (178d). In the same way that the avoidance of physical pain keeps humans alive and healthy, shame keeps an individual away from things that are morally shameful. Likewise, virtue is rewarded with pride. Thus, the shame/pride dynamic constantly functions to direct one toward virtuousness. Similarly, in the next speech given by Pausanias, there is a right and wrong aspect in the way one chooses to love. Pausanias states “that there is a Common as well as a Heavenly Love” (180e). He associates common with “vulgar” (181b) in that the person that feels this love is interested in bodily pleasure that is immediate and temporary. Pausanias claims that male to female and older male to young male (boys) relationships are of this vulgar variety because there are no possibilities to develop a meaningful connection. Heavenly love, on the other hand, is equated with the soul and is long lasting. This love is seen in the ancient Greek practice of pederasty wherein an older male and an adolescent male have a relationship that is both erotic and filial. Pausanias claims that it is this kind of relationship that supports the teaching of and pursuit of wisdom. Hence, heavenly love is virtuous because it allows for philosophy as a love of wisdom to continue and thrive.
Virtue as moral wholeness that is aided by love’s permanence is taken up in the speech by Aristophanes. The speech can be interpreted as a morality based tale that is meant to communicate the importance of love to human nature. Aristophanes tells of a time long ago when humans where very powerful because they were whole bodies with two sets of sexual organs. Zeus thought they were too powerful and so cut all humans in half. As a result, human nature was imbibed with a sense of love that drove and continues to motivate humans to be with one another. Similar to Phaedrus’ theme, Aristophanes’ love is a kind of moral guide that, if followed, yields virtuousness. He asserts that “Love is our guide and our commander” (193b) and that “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature” (191d). The “wound” here can be likened to an incompleteness that results from an absence of love and virtue, and that mending it with wholeness insures a more righteous state. Wholeness also brings about reproduction that assures the continuation of love. This reproduction is both sexual and philosophic because, through humanity wisdom is perpetuated. This notion of reproduction is continued by Plato in Socrates’ speech, where he is reiterating concepts of love as told to him by Diotima. Stated simply, she says, “what everyone loves is really nothing other than the good” (205e) and “love is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Reproduction enables “forever” to be possible. She goes on to tell Socrates that all humans are pregnant and later give birth to beauty. Along the same lines as Pausanias’ common and heavenly versions of love, Diotima states that people are either “pregnant in body” (208e) or “pregnant in soul” (ibid), and both types of pregnancy are beautiful. Bodily reproduction is divine in nature and thus harmonious with beauty, while the soul’s reproduction is the endurance of “Wisdom and the rest of virtue” (209a). Virtuous qualities like temperance and justice are reproduced in the soul, and as a result remain stable and absolute. Virtue as a pursuit of knowledge is constant, yet ever-changing because new knowledge replaces old knowledge so that “everything that is mortal is preserved, not, like the divine, by always being the same in every way, but because what is departing and aging leaves behind something new, something such as it had been” (208a).
In the Meno and Symposium, there exists a coherent discourse on virtue. There is an immortal quality that virtue maintains in both works that is accessible to mortals that have an attuned awareness of virtue. This is seen in Meno when Socrates is discussing the recollection of knowledge; “Since the soul is immortal, then, and has been born many times... there is nothing it has not learned. So it is in no way surprising that it can recollect about virtue and other things, since it knew them before” (81c). In the Symposium, Diotima speaks of a ladder of love that leads to an ultimate beauty. She then wonders what would happen if one witnessed this divine beauty that is absolute and pure in its form. She answers that one would transcend past mere images of virtue to true virtue that is divine in nature; “The love of gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he” (212a). In both instances, virtue is a connecting point between the immortal and mortal. Through persistent inquiry, one can recollect and know virtue, and in understanding beauty’s true form, one can produce virtue. Ultimately, Platonic virtue is something that is sought and practiced, as well as held as an ideal that is revered.