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  • Foto van schrijverJean Paul


Bijgewerkt op: 12 jun. 2019

In conversation with Socrates as two friends

‘Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?’, begins Meno, a beautiful and wealthy general, accustomed to giving grand answers to every question. Yet, within a few exchanges, he is reduced to a state of numbness and perplexity. The polarity of this transformation suggests the gravity of the matter being discussed.

In this dialogue I will question Socrates about his answers to this question of Meno.

In the end it leaves the question open.

Why is this dialogue important to me? Because one of my last ‘jobs’ as a coach is to guide the principal and the teachers of a special school in Amsterdam. We started this school for adolescents – mostly with an Islamic background – in the aftermath of the 2001 incident in New York. We were inspired by Gandhi and wanted to find a way of implementing his advice to his friends about how a religious conflict between moslims and hindus could be prevented in India. His advice was that a good Hindu family would raise a muslim child, to make a ‘good muslim’ of him – and of course also vice versa.

So the question is not only ‘What is a good muslim?’, but also ‘Can someone be taught to be a good (=virtuous) muslim or human being?’. Those are still very relevant questions, I think. To jump to a conclusion here (as a management summary): It’s better to make a good human being, than a good moslim. Making him only a ‘good moslim’ could make a restricted good human being of him. The ‘universal’ is more important, than the specific. So a good moslim is better than a bad moslim. But a good human being is the best. Or even better would be: Just a human being, a pure human being. A pure human being is a virtuous human being, without any effort to act in a learned virtuous way.

To implement the view of Socrates an imagenary walk and talk with Socrates could be as follows: where would I meet Socrates to put my questions? Of course at the market, where I suddenly appeared as a bystander in an already ongoing discussion, but also at his home. We are walking through the crowd of Athens. It is already a multicultural city, dominated by the Acropolis. From my first dialogue with Pythagoras I’m still wondering who is Athena, the goddess of Athens. What does she represent in us human beings that is still alive? What is wisdom? Where does it reside in us?

Socrates is as busy as always, surrounded by some students that want his attention. He brushes them off with a simple wave of his big hand. ‘I have a special guest today,’he says to them. A time-traveler. You have no idea how important this is to me.’ He starts laughing, his big belly is shuddering. ‘It seems my message is still alive after 25 centuries. So you better listen to me.’

‘Gods never die,’ some audacious student replies to him.

‘But I am not a God, just a human being. I only take the one question of the gods very serious. Who am I? Platoon, you come with us. I want to talk to this man in my own house. And Meno, you come with us too.’

While walking the four of us get into the continuation of his dialogue with Meno.

S: ‘Where were we?’

M: ‘You asked me ‘What is virtue?’.

S: ‘Yes! Now give me your answer.’

M: ‘Well, I already told you some examples of virtuous conduct for men, women, children and so on, like to manage his public affairs for a man, as I try to do. I think there exists a virtue for every action, age and occasion.’

S: ‘Please continue.’

M: ‘Well I think that on a higher level the ability to rule over people is a virtue common to all.’

S: ‘That is seldom used wisely, A tyrant has te ability to rule over people. Is he virtuous?’

(I think about Trump and Putin)

S continues:’ Anything more you have to add?

M: Virtue is to desire beautiful things and to have the power to acquire them? Meno lookes helpless to me.

(I feel he loses his way, but still hopes to say something that S. could approve of. But S. doesn’t seem to approve at all any of his three attempts to define virtue)

S: Listen Meno, my friend. We have a special guest as I said already. We have to make a good impression for the people in the future. We can’t stay at the superficial level. I want to know what is the ultimate essence of virtue. What do the gods want of us? This man tells me there is still conflict in the future among different religions.

So, my question to myself and all of you is: What is the underlying form that makes all virtuous deeds, virtuous? So not something like Meno said. Those may only be different instances or aspects of virtue. But what is the common characteristic of every kind of virtue? Look, each bee is different in superficial aspects, like size and color. But they are all the same in being bees. And there are also flaws in your other two definitions.

M: Why don’t you tell us your definition of virtue?

S. turns to me and asks: Have you studied my philosophy at school?

I nod. ‘Platoon has published his notes of your dialogues. They will survive the ages.’

S: Please tell Meno and Platoon what you learned about my definition of virtue.

Me: Well, what I understood of it, is that you say that a real virtue, like for example patience, proves itself in a situation where someone has a strong reason to loose that patience, without expecting some reward for that virtue and without fear for possible consequences of not exerting that virtue.

S: Yes, that’s correct. I’m happy. No fame, no blame. Those have to be irrelevant and can never be the cause of real virtue. So we have to find out where does virtue come from, if not from those two. Meno, do you still think the essence of virtue could come from the desire for beautiful things?

M: Well, according to you not from the acquisition of something beautiful as a reward.

S: You got it! Don’t expect a beautiful afterlife by being virtuous in this life, like some people do. That will not work. There are no Elysian fields out there for the virtuous. I have always asked myself: what makes a hero into a hero, if it is not the promise of a great life after death on the battlefield or the fear of being blamed as a coward? Sirs, we have to find this out in order to educate our children well and guiding them well on the path of virtue. If that is at all possible.

M: It must be possible! It seems to me to be the highest purpose of education!

S: That might be so. But does it really happen? How would a god like Apollo or a centaur like Cheiron mentor their best students?

M: Can’t we take a human being as an example? We are no gods.

S. Then let’s take King Nestor as an example. He mentored Telemachos. Was he able to teach Telemachos the path of virtue?

M: I don’t know. Perhaps he was aided by Athena.

S. You asked yourself to go into this question without the aid of the gods. Perhaps Herakleitos may help us. Platoon, what has his genius to tell about this?

P: According to him the logos is not an individual and personal way of thinking. The logos is universal and common to all people.

M: But most people live as if they have their own private understanding.

S: Do you think so too, my dear Meno?

M: No, I try to follow what is common, a common sense of what is real. Without a common sense of what is logically real and true I can’t lead my men.

P: Herakleitos alludes to the presence of the logos as a universal law-like entity that regulates everything and is common to all. Lovers of wisdom must be inquiring into many things, to be inspired by this logos. Therefor all people need to get to know themselves and to think rightly. Through critical thinking they can recognize this common logos.

S: Please comment on that, Platoon.

P: Well this is parallel to your search for the essence of all virtue by critically evaluating & discarding unsatisfactory definitions. You are always calling us to examine our ways of life and beliefs, until we reach a point where we see that our our already existing personal opinions are not valid.

S: Discovering that we don’t really know something is a real insight. Perhaps it comes from the logos.

P: Like you always say: Much learning does not teach insight.

S: Exactly! Herakleitos also had a healthy disregard for the mere accumulation of facts without knowing their essence.

Then he turned to me again and said:

S: I don’t ask them to listen to me, but to the logos, that somehow is inside of them. I wish it to be born in them or to be drawn out of them. Then – through this universal logos – they can see for themselves that all things are one.

Me: Isn’t that a paradox? They don’t have to accept your or even their own views, but they have to accept that there is a universal knowledge, common to all.

S: That’s true and yes, that’s quite paradoxical. Only the individual can solve this paradox. Sometimes with some help.

Me: What do you mean?

S: Well, I have a big friend, that no one can see. I talk to him quite often if my inquiry brings me to this point where I see for myself, that I don’t really know. I call him my good daimoon. He is like a twin brother to me. Perhaps his mind is a brilliant version of my personal mind.

Me: Is he like your logos?

S: Very interesting! In that cas I would be one of the many temporary versions of him, of this universal logos.

Me: After a few hundred years a kind of philosopher will appear among the Jews. The Logos will descend in him too. He will call it the Holy Spirit. It can descend into anyone.

S: What happens when it descends?

Me: One thing is that people can understand and speak many languages.

S: Waw! That’s good. Humanity needs it. As a metaphor it means to me that human beings will be able to transcend their own particular and personal way of thinking and speaking. The universal Logos is beyond a particular belief or religion. Good that someone will come that opens the door for all of humanity.

Me: He will be greatly misunderstood. They’ll make a god of him, not someone like themselves. They’ll even kill him.

S: They’ll kill me too.

Me: I know.

S: Doesn’t matter! In the process of knowing yourself we’ll come to discover that we are this Logos, that is never born and will never die. It’s only the temporary personal form that dies, the actor, not the play.

Turns tot he others again.

S: Sorry fort he interruption, my friends. This time traveller is quite an event for me. Where were we? You explained it well, Platoon. So the essence of virtue might be the expression of the Logos through us. Looking from that perspective: Can virtue be teached? Not a specific virtue like courage, but the essence of all types of virtue? What do you think Platoon?

P: Your argument rests on an implicit assumption that such a universal definition for virtue exists and that it can be intellectually perceived. So the question if it can be teached depends on the intellectual perception of it.

S: So, do you have that perception, my dear Platoon? And who or what gave that to you?

P: The problem might be that it is only perceived and understood by pure insight, not by thinking or reasoning. It may come as a sudden gift from nowhere.

S: Yes! From nowhere! Not even a god can give it to us. Isn’t this the great mystery?

P: By thinking and reasoning we can only reach a point of disappointment, just like Meno. We went into this through discussing the first definition of you Meno, about ‘shape versus a shape’. While any aspect of shape, such as roundness, can be touched and seen, its fundamental form, the essence of shape, can only be intellectually perceived.

S: The mystery can’t even be seen intellectually, my dear friends. It’s beyond anything. We only come nearer to it by the negation of anything we see with our senses and with our minds. The moment we think we ‘know’ something, it never is the mystery.

P: Do you mean the Logos itself can’t be known?

S: Exactly. Our father Pythagoras would associate it with the Number Zero. Is Zero a number? No, it ain’t . So the Logos has two depths, two sides, so to speak. The Logos is the One, encompassing all the numbers. But it is also prior to the One, prior to any Number. That’s it’s deep mystery.

P: But to find a usefull and correct definition about virtue we have to find one, that is not too narrow or too broad. You went into that in your response to the second definition of Meno, in your statement that it allows for tyranny, so being too broad.

M: I see a paradox. How can one search for something that one doesn’t know at all? May I conclude that even if virtue is innately known, it cannot be realized through external teaching?

A long silence followed while we were walking through the streets of Athens. S. lived in a very common street, rather poor than wealthy. Philosophers don’t get rich obviously. Perhaps that was why Xanthippe detested her husband’s so called ‘profession’. Perhaps she would have preferred Meno as a husband.

Socrates introduced me to her as a special guest. She didn’t seem much impressed and disappeared into the kitchen. Bypassing him, she smiled at Meno and even made a little bow for him. She didn’t look at Platoon at all.

Socrates quotes

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

“Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.”

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

“By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”

“Be slow to fall into friendship, but when you are in, continue firm and constant.”

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

“If you don't get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.

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