lies and perpetual war
Danny Postel and
Shadia Drury discusses Plato and other political philosophers in the service
of contemporary theory and practice. This piece is particularly useful as an
instance of how ancient philosophy remains relevant. Whether Drury's critique
of Leo Strauss and current politics is accurate is open to discussion.
The Dialogue Form
From the opening section of Plato's Meno
But 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?
Socrates: 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.
Then you have never met Gorgias when he was at Athens?
Socrates: Yes, I have. [note:
another dialogue titled Gorgias details that meeting. Gorgias
was a famous teacher]
And did you not think that he knew?
Socrates: I have not a good
memory, Meno, and therefore I cannot now tell what I thought of
him at the time. And 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. [This
is an instance of Socratic Irony. Socrates possessed a remarkable
memory, but he affecting amnesia so as to get Meno to speak for
Socrates: Then as he is not
here, never mind him, and do you tell me:
Socrates: By the gods, Meno,
be generous, and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I shall
be truly 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.
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. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates.
Socrates: 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? [Plato - using Socrates as
his voice - frequently uses analogies to make his points. In this
case he compares the defining of "virtue" to the defining
I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.
Socrates: 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?
Socrates: 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?
I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the
question as I could wish.
Socrates: 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?
I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.
Socrates: 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
which 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?
I think not.
Socrates: And will not virtue,
as virtue, be the same, whether in a child or in a grown-up person,
in a woman or in a man?
I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from
Socrates: But why? Were you
not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the
virtue of a woman was to order a house?
I did say so.
Socrates: And can either house
or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without
Socrates: Then they who order
a state or a house temperately or justly order them with temperance
Socrates: Then both men and
women, if they are to be good men and women, must have the same
virtues of temperance and justice?
Socrates: And can either a
young man or an elder one be good, if they are intemperate and unjust?
Socrates: They must be temperate
Socrates: Then all men are
good in the same way, and by participation in the same virtues?
Such is the inference.
Socrates: And they surely would
not have been good in the same way, unless their virtue had been
They would not.
Socrates: Then now that the
sameness of all virtue has been proven, try and remember what you
and Gorgias say that virtue is.