How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues

By Roger Crisp | Go to book overview

3
The Virtues: Theory and Common Sense in Greek Philosophy

T. H. IRWIN


1. COMMON SENSE

'Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is taught? Or is it not taught, but acquired by practice? Or is it neither acquired by practice nor learnt, but does it arise in people by nature or in some other way?' ( Meno 70a1- 4). This is Meno's first question to Socrates in Plato's Meno. Meno's question suggests that he is familiar with virtue and is interested in acquiring it. The investigation of virtue is not a philosopher's question whose point has to be explained to non-philosophers. On the contrary, Greek common sense already recognizes the virtues as appropriate and important topics of moral reflection.

Meno implies that he not only is interested in virtue, but also has a firm view about what the virtues are. He describes the virtue of a man as 'being well-equipped for doing the city's business, and in doing so to treat his friends well and to treat his enemies badly, while taking care to suffer no bad treatment himself' (71e3-5; see 91a1-6). He describes the virtue of a woman with equal confidence, and claims that it is equally easy to describe the virtues of children, old men, males, females, free people, and slaves; each action and period of life has its own virtue in relation to its own proper function (72a1-5). Once again there is nothing eccentric in Meno's views about the division and articulation of the virtues. Since there are many different social roles, there are also many virtues, and Meno accepts quite a long list of them (740a4-6).

Meno's views about virtue are summed up in Aristotle's account of the common-sense view of virtue as 'a capacity to provide and protect goods' and 'a capacity for conferring many and great benefits, and all sorts of benefits on all occasions' ( Rhetoric1366a36-b1). The different

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