Wednesday, February 4, 2009

“Rules” Discussion and Socrates

Tuesday’s class discussion reminded me of Plato’s “The Meno,” in which Meno asks Socrates the question, “can virtue be taught?” In order to answer this, Socrates insists that he must know the definition of virtue, and the whole dialogue consists of Meno giving one definition and Socrates pointing out the flaws in his definition. In the first place, Meno’s definition of virtue consists of a few examples of virtues such as courage and honesty, and Socrates responds that those are just examples, not the definition. Socrates desired to know what were common and peculiar to those traits—basically, what traits virtue must have. Another definition Meno gives is that virtue is the power to acquire all things. However, Socrates opposes by saying the wish to have good things is common to all. Besides, is there such a thing as virtuous power? Well how can you know what a virtuous power is, without knowing virtue? Just like that, they are back at square one. It is then that Meno claims this philosophical inquiry was pointless, because if you didn’t already know what virtue was you wouldn’t be able to identify certain acts as being virtuous. However, Socrates asserts that people have innate knowledge and when asked the right questions, are able to bring out that knowledge.
What I’m trying to get at is that this example of not being able to give a concrete definition for virtue yet being able to identify virtuous acts really stuck with me. Perhaps it is like that with literature. No matter how much we discussed the “rules of literature, we were unable to come up with a solid definition. Even when we tried, we ended up with just more questions and things we needed to define. (Literature is determined by the “experts”…but who are these experts? Who is actually qualified to judge? Does having a Ph.D. make you an expert?) However, just because we can’t define the rules doesn’t mean we are unable to identify what literature is. It may not be innate knowledge that we are born with, but I think most people are able to read something and sense whether or not it is literature. Sure, there are disagreements but then again I think that those disagreements make people think strongly about why they consider something literature, and thinking is never a bad thing.

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