Anyone who has read Plato’s Meno knows that the question of whether virtue can be taught is an ancient one. In the world of classical education, it is a question we attempt to answer. Even if we assume, at our most optimistic, that we know both what virtue is and that it can be taught, we are still forced to reckon with whether it can be taught in the classroom. It is one thing for a parent to model virtue and for the child to imitate it, but it is another thing altogether to think that virtue is something that can be taught by the mere use of words, even those of great books or those that pour forth from a great heart.
Herein lies the dilemma of the classical teacher: we aren’t walking the streets of Athens with Socrates. We aren’t standing in the Academy or the Lyceum with Plato or Aristotle, benefitting from both their words and their actions. We are in modern classrooms with modern students, reading and talking for just a few hours a week. It may be, however, that the ancients still have guidance for us, limited as we are to mere words.
It is my contention here that wisdom and virtue can both be cultivated in conversation, and that Plato and Socrates show us how. Examples from two of Plato’s dialogues—the Laches, on the nature of courage, and the Theaetetus, on the nature of knowledge—will lead the way. In the first of these dialogues, the Laches, two fathers are trying to learn how teach to their sons courage. They invite two generals to advise them, and they begin by asking whether any military training regimen in particular should be taught to their sons. The generals disagree, and they propose that the fathers should ask Socrates. For the rest of the dialogue, Socrates disputes with the generals on the definition of courage. By the end of the dialogue, Socrates and the two generals can only conclude that they have not discovered the nature of courage.
Yet, one of the generals, Laches himself, and both of the fathers conclude that they would like for Socrates to teach their sons courage.
Many readers of this dialogue (and other so-called aporetic dialogues) conclude that Socratic discourse is a waste of time, a dead-end practice that cultivates only skepticism and cynicism in students. Yet Laches and the two fathers do not draw this conclusion themselves. At the end of that dialogue, they each conclude that this man, Socrates, who could not tell them in words what courage is, is the very man they want teaching it to their sons. Why?
The answer must be that it was shown to them by the activity of the dialogue, rather than by its mere words. At one point, Socrates tells Laches that they might be close to an answer when Laches describes courage as endurance—and endure in the conversation they do! What better way to learn courage than to live it out? Surely a mere definition would pale in comparison to the virtue itself!
In the Theaetetus, Socrates and Theaetetus discuss the nature of knowledge for two-thirds of the dialogue. In the middle third, however, Socrates engages an older man named Theodorus. The dialogue again ends with no answer to the question of knowledge’s meaning. In lieu of a definition, however, the dialogue all but demands that the reader ask why Socrates forces Theodorus to participate in a conversation against his wishes.
Perhaps knowledge is participatory engagement. In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks claims that Plato views knowledge not as the result of learning, but as the activity of thinking itself. This is what Theaetetus and Theodorus and Socrates all demonstrate together in the dialogue: knowledge in active motion. While they fail to define knowledge in words, they succeed in demonstrating the definition by their activity.
The classroom conversation is capable of teaching virtue because dialectical engagement itself is a training ground for the virtues—not as static possessions, but as forms of activity. All the drama of courage and cowardice, knowledge and ignorance, moderation and intemperance—of all imaginable modes of virtue and vice—is playing out in this very classroom, if only we can learn to see it Socratically.
Dr. Matthew Bianco is the Chief Operations Officer for the CiRCE Institute, where he also serves as a head mentor in the CiRCE apprenticeship program. Dr. Matt Bianco has a Ph.D. in Humanities from Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. He is the author of Letters to My Sons: A Humane Vision for Human Relationships.