In Meno, one of the dialogues of Plato, the issue of the definition of virtue is discussed. Socrates and Meno are involved in a rational discourse, with Socrates seeking enlightenment from Meno regarding its definition. The basis for Menos claim to his knowledge of the meaning of virtue was Gorgias visit to Athens. Whereas Meno claims knowledge, Socrates says that he had no idea what the definition of virtue was. In this case, three definitions are offered.

After Meno proposed the question, Socrates sought clarification of the meaning of that question. Socrates does this in what is considered his unique style, that of question and answers. When Gorgias visited Athens, he had offered what he considered to be the correct definition of virtue. Apparently, both Socrates and Meno met him. However, Socrates has no recollection of what Gorgias had to say regarding this definition. Meno on the other hand felt that he still had a clear mind regarding the meaning of virtue according to Gorgias (Plato, 380 B.C.E.). In his argument, Meno equates virtue to actions that were considered virtuous. He comes up with examples of virtues considered for men, women, boys and girls, old, young, slaves, free men, as well as states. Socrates does not agree with this argument because, it does not provide for any universality. In other words, if health was to be considered, it ought to apply and be understood in the same way, regardless of whether it is the health of a free man or that of a slave.

After discovering that his definition falls short, Meno sought to redefine it. He argues that virtue would rightly be considered as a ruling ability. However, Socrates counters this argument with another one. He argues that if such a definition was to be admitted as being truthful, then it would be necessary to explain the virtue of children as well as that of slaves (Plato, 380 B.C.E.). This is because according to the first definition, particular virtues proper to children and slaves were proposed. It was hard to see how children and slaves would be considered virtuous with this new meaning. After realizing that Meno had no understanding regarding the rules of definition, Socrates sought to enlighten him. Meno had a problem understanding the relation between parts and wholes, which played a big part in making concrete definitions. By helping him define shapes and colors, Socrates succeeds in making Meno see the role of definitions in as far as explanations was concerned.

In his third attempt to define virtue, Meno asserts that virtue was a desire for good things. He gives examples of things like honor, money, and political influence (Plato, 380 B.C.E.). The ability to acquire these things was also considered part of that definition. Socrates remarks that based on this definition, it would be impossible for the existence of bad people. The wisdom behind this Socratic argument was that no person would desire in knowledge, anything that would reduce them into misery. This meant that all persons yearned for good things. However, it was common knowledge that not all persons were considered virtuous. Therefore, this definition was also dismantled. Socrates further argues that the ability to acquire good things can be both virtuous and vicious, depending on the means. To this argument Meno agrees that the acquisition would be virtuous if it was done with justice. What becomes apparent is that in this discourse, the main difficulty arises when an attempt is made, to explain virtue as a whole on account of its parts.

In conclusion, Socrates exposes the inherent challenge with regard to proper definition. Meno had considered this a very easy task but soon understood its immensity. It is always a difficult task to explain the meaning of something on the basis of its parts. This is because in order to properly understand each part, one has to understand the whole, and vice versa.  


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