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In Meno, Socrates poses the question ‘if a thing had neither teachers nor learners, we should be right in surmising that it could not be taught’ (Meno, 89e). Thus, we will begin to look into Socrates speaking on how virtue cannot be taught by using several wealthy and good men as examples to prove his theory. First, speaking of Themistocles and his son Cleophantus, Socrates lays out his theory that virtue cannot be taught. ‘Have you never heard how Themistocles had his son Cleophantus taught to be a good horseman? Why, he could keep his balance standing upright on horseback, and hurl the javelin while so standing and perform many other wonderful feats in which his father had had him trained, so as to make him skilled in all that could be learnt from good masters’ (Meno, 93d).
Socrates begins to allude to the fact that fathers who spend their wealth to have their sons trained to acquire skills to make them a better citizen will have no problem paying for a teacher who could possibly teach them to be virtuous.
‘And can we believe that his father chose to train his own son in those feats, and yet made him no better than his neighbors in his own particular accomplishment-if virtue, as alleged, was to be taught’ (Meno, 93e). Here, Socrates proves what he was alluding to in his previous quote which is such that a good father will ensure his son to grow up virtuous if it was something that could be taught.
Next; Socrates continues to speak of two more fathers; Pericles & Thucydides and their sons, who have spared no expense to ensure their sons are learned. ‘he taught them to be the foremost horsemen of Athens, and trained them to excel in music and gymnastics and all else that comes under the head of the arts let me remind you that Thucydides also brought up two sons and that besides giving them a good general education he made them the best wrestlers in Athens’ (Meno, 94c).
Socrates reaffirms his theory with two more examples that if ethics was a teachable subject, fathers would ensure that their sons were taught by the best masters. ‘Well, is it not obvious that this father would never have spent his money on having his children taught all those things, and then have omitted to teach them at no expense the others that would have made them good men, if virtue was to be taught’ (Meno, 94d).
By giving two other examples; Socrates confirms that it is not just one man; but in fact, many men who have not had their sons learn from masters of virtue because it is not something that can be taught. In Protagoras, Socrates uses politics to prove his theory to be correct. When politicians are in need of advisement from craftsmen, they will consult those men who have been learned in their trade, but if the politicians need advisement on virtue, they will not seek out someone who is not a craftsman in that trade and will only be ridiculed because ‘they hold that here the thing cannot be taught’ (Protagoras, 319c-d).
With great detail given in both Meno and Protagoras, Socrates’ explanations of why virtue cannot be taught has proven his theory to be correct. Next, we will look at Protagoras’ view of why virtue can be taught. We will now take a look at Protagoras’ analysis of why virtue can be taught. Protagoras disagrees with Socrates on politics by saying ‘they have good reason for admitting everybody as advisor on this virtue, owing to their belief that everybody has some of it; and next, that they do not regard it as natural or spontaneous, but as something taught and acquired’ (Protagoras, 323d). Protagoras’ uses an explanation of civic virtue as to why he believes virtue to be teachable, but then delves further into detail as to how it is being taught. Protagoras proceeds to use children as a means to prove his point, ‘that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is just, and that unjust, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that’ (Protagoras, 325d).
Using the technique of disciplining children by family and fellow citizens, Protagoras pleads his case that virtue is teachable. Then, he continues to explain who the teacher is and by doing so rebukes Socrates’ claim that there is no teacher of virtue, ‘because everyone is a teacher of virtue to the extent of his powers’ (Protagoras, 327e). In essence, Protagoras is claiming that it is the responsibility of all citizens to ensure everyone participates in the teaching of all to be virtuous men. Protagoras goes on to further explain ‘you might as well ask who is a teacher of Greek; you would find none anywhere’ (Protagoras 328a).
To prove his point that virtue can be taught without having a formal teacher he uses their language as an illustration to show that everyone can be taught the basic life skills without having to hire someone to provide instruction on the subject. Both Socrates and Protagoras gave compelling arguments as to whether or not ethics is something which can or cannot be taught.
Plato. Protagoras and Meno. Translated by Robert C. Bartlett, Cornell University Press, 2004.
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