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Virtue in True Wisdom

Virtue is a fundamental moral concept describing the willingness and ability of an individual to consciously and firmly adhere to the good. It is a set of internal, emotional and intellectual qualities that embody the human ideal in his moral perfection (Hursthouse).

According to Paul Woodruff,

‘Virtue’ translates arete, which Socrates’ contemporaries used of any sort of excellence that leads to success. A number of writers before Socrates had used the word and its associated vocabulary primarily in ethical contexts. But Socrates was probably the first to identify ethical virtue with what is analogous in the soul to health.

The main theme of the dialogue “Meno” is a question of virtue: is it possible to learn virtue by constant exercise, or through training, or is it given to man by nature, or in some other way (70a)? “Meno” makes the first attempt to determine what virtue is and lists presumptive virtues of men, women and children. Men are to manage well with the public affairs and women are to be good housekeepers and to be obedient to their husbands. Boys and girls have their inherent virtues and the elderly have their virtues, too. Socrates says that this definition does not apply to the virtues of their main issue because “Meno” lists “a swarm of virtues” when Socrates asks to define the essence of the latter (72b). At the same time, he argues that there is no virtue peculiar to the above‑mentioned people, but the virtue is one for all because it pursues justice and good sense. According to Socrates, anyone who acts justly and reasonably is obviously virtuous, whether it is a man or woman and vice versa, but if an old man or a child does not possess self-control and are unfair, they are not virtuous.

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This dialogue creates a smooth transition to the idea that the virtue should be associated with the mind, as a reasonable activity of the soul. Virtue is a reasonable activity, and harmful are those things that are committed recklessly. So, courage without reason is a simple audacity. Therefore, the virtue that dwells in the soul and is healthy for it is called reason. Also, if it is true that the reason is a virtue, or at least a portion of it, then people are not virtuous by nature. Virtue is the knowledge that one cannot learn from people because there are no decent teachers (Meno, 89c-e).

A difficult question arises: is it possible to teach virtue or not? Many believe that virtue is available for training, but this teaching seldom bears good fruit. Socrates mentions Theognis, who said in one of his elegies that virtue can be learned, and in another place said quite the opposite (Meno, 95d – 96a). This uncertainty implies only one conclusion: if someone doubts about the possibility or impossibility of teaching virtue, then this person cannot teach virtue, i.e. there are no teachers, consequently, no students, which means that the virtue cannot be taught. If so, virtue is not knowledge.

In addition to the knowledge people have, true judgment should help one understand the nature of things. If virtue cannot be taught on the ground of the above‑mentioned reason, then it is possible to approach it with right judgment. These judgments are bestowed by God, and they have a true knowledge that the soul acquired before becoming a man, i.e. its recollections (Meno, 99d-e). Thus, virtue does not come from nature or a doctrine – it can be reached only by divine inheritance. In this dialogue, Plato shows that a virtue matures in man not from exercises and not from learning, and it is not given by nature, but arises from some divine plan. If virtue derives from the divine, then the divine is the goal of virtue (99e-100b).

In his dialogue “Phaedo”, Plato defines the purpose of a philosopher and says that the aim of a philosopher is to free his soul from the bondage of the body. In other words, the philosopher should cleanse his soul from all the passions with the help of virtues. Only in this case will courage, chastity and justice be valid. Meanwhile, the truth, which is the goal of philosophy, is cleansing from all the passions, and chastity, justice and courage are the means of such purification (Phaedo, 69b-e).

While a philosopher is alive, all his desires need to be directed towards comprehension of virtue and reason. Above all, a philosopher needs to decorate the soul not with perishable decorations, but with abstinence, justice, courage, freedom and truth. He should not chase elusive benefits, such as bodily pleasures, wealth and clothes (Phaedo, 82c).

Socrates mentions four cardinal virtues. Their purpose is not only of political significance, but, first of all, in their purifying functions. The main such virtue is understanding, which gives a reasonable and valid basis for courage, chastity and justice. Raison d’être of the matter is to be enriched spiritually in this life, and prepare the soul, adorned with genuine benefits, for the transition to the other world (Phaedo, 64e).

Socrates emphasizes that the purity of the soul is contaminated by injustice, intemperance, cowardice and ignorance, which all together make the soul a prisoner of its body. The purification of the soul is associated with physical and mental discipline that transforms man from inside and likens him\her to the deity. Prudence, justice, courage, and wisdom are the means of such purification. All these virtues are a target for the philosophical search. People can discover these virtues inside themselves after purification. Such inner purification can be compared to the restoration of the soul (Phaedo, 66a). Because of this inner vision, a person can distinguish between good and evil, virtue and vice.

However, Socrates speaks of a habitual virtue, which is not an internal property of the human inner world. If a person does good things just out of habit, his behavior will be only a reflection of the environment. In other words, a virtue acquired via education is unstable and easily slips out of the soul. Virtues must be bound to the soul through the dialectic. A philosopher who truly loves wisdom and hopes to reach it in the afterlife will die with pleasure. If a person meets death with a sense of grief, they do not love wisdom, but the body. Courage and self-control are priceless only when these virtues are not influenced by fear, but united with wisdom.

Thus, Plato believed that the essence of every virtue lies in the knowledge, i.e. the knowledge of what one should do and not do. At the same time, knowledge and understanding were not abstract notions. These were the principles of human life, which gave life and created the structure of the latter. Antique virtue is not just knowledge and understanding, but the mind’s ability to choose the true goodness.

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