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Virtue in the CaveMoral Inquiry in Plato's Meno$

Roslyn Weiss

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140767

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195140761.001.0001

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(p.203) Appendix II

(p.203) Appendix II

The Abandonment of Moral Inquiry in the Republic

Virtue in the Cave

Roslyn Weiss

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Once men who merely love wisdom are superseded by men who actually have it, the value of the examined life, of the life of moral inquiry, becomes seriously compromised. In the moral realm, as in every discipline, the expert is to be obeyed. The expert is to guide, and the nonexpert is to follow. Moral inquiry is no more necessary when there are moral experts than do‐it‐yourselfers are necessary when there are master craftsmen. The Republic makes clear that those who lack the divine element in their soul are best ruled by others.

(p.203) Appendix II

The Abandonment of Moral Inquiry in the Republic

Appendix II Appendix II

It has been the contention of this book that the Meno, as other “Socratic” dialogues, portrays philosophy as it is in the Cave, that is, in the world of opinion, from which there is, at least for ordinary mortals, no egress. In the Cave, it has been argued, where there are no true moral experts but only pretenders to expertise, no wise men but only sophists, no one who knows the truths of morality but only those who think they know, the endless search for truth is the best stand‐in for the actual attainment of wisdom. The endlessness of the search derives, not from the inability of the search to discover truths, but from its inability to guarantee the truth of the truths it discovers: the search, in other words, fails to culminate in knowledge. And how could it? In the progress to a set of conclusions from a host of unsecured premisses, there is no source out of which knowledge could arise.1

If, when there are no moral experts, philosophy is ongoing inquiry whose end is truth, what is philosophy once there are moral experts? If, in all other areas of expertise, experts guide, advise, and teach nonexperts, so that laymen need not flounder as they would if left to their own devices, ought we not to expect the same in the (p.204) moral realm? I will argue here that in the Republic, where philosophers do not merely love wisdom but are actually wise, the notion of the philosophical life as the examined one is abandoned; philosophy is no longer merely love of wisdom—it is wisdom.

Let us begin by comparing the value of true opinion with that of knowledge in the Meno and the Republic. In the Meno, as we saw in Chapter 4, Section v, true opinion is a highly valued thing, particularly from the perspective of action. Indeed, from the perspective of action, it is, according to the Meno, difficult to see in what way knowledge is better than true opinion—at least for as long as one actually has hold of the true opinions. True opinion is inferior to knowledge in that it lacks stability; since one does not know that one's opinions are true, one's opinions are vulnerable to competing opinions, as well as to passions, and must be repeatedly examined and tested. But insofar as one's opinions are true, they fare, as a practical guide, no worse than knowledge.

We recall the example used in the Meno to illustrate the equal value of knowledge and true belief with respect to action, the case of someone guiding others to Larisa:

If someone who knows the road to Larisa or anywhere else you like went there and guided others, would he not guide them aright and well? . . . But what if someone had the right opinion as to which is the road, though he had never gone there and had no knowledge of it? Would not this man, too, guide people aright? . . . And, I suppose, as long as he has a right opinion about the matters about which the other man has knowledge, then, even though he thinks what is true but does not have understanding (phronōn de mē), he will be no worse a guide than this one who has understanding about this matter (tou toutou phronountos). . . . So, then, true opinion is no worse a guide to right action than phronēsis. (M. 97a9–b10)

A bit further on, in a context in which Socrates is explaining to Meno why true opinion, despite its equal practical worth to knowledge, is nevertheless inferior to knowledge, Socrates says:

For true opinions, too, are a fine thing as long as they stay in their place, and they produce all sorts of good things. (M. 97e6–7)

If true opinions in the Meno are not worth as much as knowledge, it is not because they are not themselves fine; it is only because it is difficult to hold on to them.

(p.205) If we turn to the Republic, we find a radical departure from the Meno's view of true opinions. At Rep. 6.506c6–9, we find the following:

What? . . . Have you not noticed that all opinions without knowledge are ugly (aischrai)? The best of them are blind. Or do men who opine something true without intelligence (aneu nou) seem to you any different from blind men who travel the right road? (trans. Bloom [1968], very slightly modified)

In this passage, the Republic frankly reverses the Meno's take on true opinion: true opinions were “a fine thing,” kalon to chrēma, in the Meno; but all opinions, including true ones, are ugly things, aischrai, in the Republic. Moreover, the guide who possesses true opinion and guides others along the road to Larisa is said in the Meno to be as good a guide as the guide who has knowledge; the Republic, however, regards one who has true opinion without intelligence, aneu nou, as a blind man who happens to travel the right road.

It is not difficult to explain the disdain for true opinion displayed by Socrates in the Republic as compared with the esteem in which he holds it in the Meno. In the Meno, as was argued, Socrates does not envision anyone's transcending the realm of opinion in moral matters: when the best that people can do is inquire, in the hope of replacing incorrect opinions with correct ones, true opinions become very valuable indeed. There is no denying that the tendency of true opinions toward flightiness is a problem: how does one hold on even to the truths one does have in the face of a host of other opinions that clamor for acceptance? When one lacks knowledge, one has to work all one's life to hold firm to one's right, though likely unpopular, opinions, by subjecting them repeatedly to the challenge of critical examination. Nevertheless, there is, in the Cave, no other life that can rival in worthiness the life of relentless self‐examination. In the Republic, by contrast, Socrates envisions godlike human beings who transcend the Cave and “see” the Forms. In comparison with the achievement of these men, the achievements of ordinary human beings who pit opinion against opinion, groping in semidarkness for the better of the two, seem suddenly paltry. From the perspective of one whose powers of vision are enhanced by the light of the sun, those who strain to make out shadows in the dim light of the Cave are little better than blind men. Opinions are “a fine thing” when they are the best one can do; they are, however, “ugly” when one can do far, far better.

(p.206) The allusion in the Republic passage to blind men who happen to travel the right road points rather unmistakably to the road to Larisa passage in the Meno, in which guides who lack knowledge can, as long as they have true opinion, nevertheless guide aright. In this respect, too, the Republic's divergence from the Meno is easily accounted for. In the Meno, one is grateful to be able both to find one's own way and to lead others successfully: one's hitting upon the truth even without knowing evokes commendation rather than scorn, because there is no shame in one's not knowing what no human being can know. In the Republic, however, where knowledge is imagined to be possible, where escape for some from the Cave is presented as an attainable goal, it is contemptible indeed merely to stumble upon the truth in the dark of the Cave.

In the Republic, then, true opinion, which is in the Socratic dialogues the coveted end result of moral inquiry, is for the hopelessly benighted. But what of moral inquiry itself? Should the prisoners in the Cave debate endlessly about the shadows on the wall they face or is there a better course open to them? What ramifications does the philosopher's intellectual grasp of the Forms of the virtues have for the many farmers, artisans, and auxiliaries whose souls will never be turned?

Throughout the Socratic dialogues, nonexperts regularly benefit from the presence of experts: whether there are shoes to be made, ships to be built, musical instruments to be mastered, illnesses to be cured, or mathematical problems to be solved, the appropriate expert is available to furnish the answer. In none of these fields is it best that one be a do‐it‐yourselfer: far better to consult the expert whose advice, guidance, or actual taking up of the task at hand will ensure a superior result. Is the situation any different with respect to virtue? To be sure, in the absence of experts, moral do‐it‐yourselfers are admirable; they are the most worthy of human beings. But once there are experts, is it not foolhardy, even dangerous, to rely on one's inexpert and inconclusive arguments about shadows of justice when one can turn to someone who has seen Justice Itself?

Shorey (1980), 45, contends, quite rightly in my judgment, that insofar as the function of the political art is to “make others good,” it is a twofold function: with reference to the multitude, the political art makes others good “through habit, discipline, and instinctive conformity to models set for them from above”; with respect to the elite, the political art means “the training up of a succession of philosophic statesmen to maintain and perpetuate the ideally best social (p.207) organism.”2 Is not the statesman who exercises this dual art reminiscent of the Apology's “overseer,” epistatēs, of human beings, who, on analogy with the trainer of colts and calves (Ap. 20a), makes human beings noble and good in their appropriate virtue, namely, in human and political virtue? Would such an epistatēs, if there were one, permit his charges to determine on their own what is best for them? For Plato, one goal of a good ruler is to domesticate men, to make them tame and gentle, as seen in the following passage from the Gorgias:

A man like that [like Pericles] who cared for donkeys or horses or cattle would at least look bad if he showed these animals kicking, butting, and biting because of their wildness, when they had been doing none of these things when he took them over. Or do you not think that any caretaker of any animal is a bad one who will show his animals to be wilder than when he took them over, when they were gentler? . . . Was Pericles not a caretaker of men? . . . Should he not . . . have turned them out more just instead of more unjust, if while he cared for them he really was good at politics . . . the just are gentle. . . . So on this reasoning Pericles was not good at politics. (Gorg. 516a–d, trans. Zeyl [1987], very slightly modified)

In the Gorgias, moreover, no less than in the Republic, a politician who knows what is best for the people will make them better “using persuasion or constraint” (Gorg. 517b6): “That alone is the task of the good citizen” (Gorg. 517c1–2). There is no implication that the successful ruler will strive to create a multitude of seekers after truth.

(p.208) As we turn to the Republic, we find the following statement, unambiguous in its intent:

Thus, when they [the philosophers] have come plainly to light, one will be able to defend oneself, showing that it is by nature fitting for them both to be engaged in philosophy and to lead a city, and for the rest not to engage in philosophy and to follow the leader. (Rep. 5.474b–c, trans. Bloom [1968]; emphasis mine)

And at Rep. 9.590c–d, we find the following with respect to a man in whom the best part of his soul is too weak to rule the beasts in it and, consequently, serves and flatters them instead:

In order that such a man also be ruled by something similar to what rules the best man, do we not say that he must be the slave of that best man who has the divine rule in himself? It is not that we suppose the slave must be ruled to his own detriment, as Thrasymachus supposed about the ruled, but that it is better for all to be ruled by what is divine and prudent, especially when one has it as his own within himself; but if not, [it must be] set over one from outside, so that insofar as possible all will be alike and friends, piloted by the same thing. (trans. Bloom [1968], very slightly modified)

It is clear from Rep. 6.500c–d that “it is the philosopher, keeping company with the divine and the orderly, who becomes orderly and divine, to the extent that is possible for a human being.” Moreover, such a philosopher will, by “putting what he sees there into the dispositions of men,” be a good craftsman of moderation, justice, and demotic virtue as a whole (Rep. 6.500d).

In the Republic, then, the philosopher alone is to practice philosophy and, in his role as ruler, to implant virtue, as it were, into the souls of those he rules. Nonphilosophers are not to engage in philosophy; they are to be the passive recipients of the virtue instilled into them from without.

This view in the Republic is completely consonant with that expressed consistently throughout the “Socratic” dialogues: when there is an expert, an epaïōn, a beltiōn, in a particular domain, he is to be obeyed, be he god or man. It is only for as long as there is no moral expert to be found that elenctic (or other) moral inquiry bestows value upon human life. But in the event that some do attain the godlike status of moral expert, the others are to abandon moral inquiry in favor of unquestioning submission. “The unexamined (p.209) life,” Socrates says, “is not worth living for a man,” that is, when all men are but men. Yet when some men are virtual gods, there is no place for the examined life: the men who are gods have knowledge and need not inquire; the rest lack knowledge and may not inquire:

And thus always educating other like men and leaving them behind in their place as guardians of the city, they go off to the Isles of the Blessed and dwell. The city makes public memorials and sacrifices to them as to divinities (daimosin), if the Pythia is in accord; if not, as to happy and divine men. (Rep. 7.540b7–c2, trans. Bloom [1968])

If some men are godlike, if they are such that the city is to make memorials and sacrifices to them when they depart, can it be right to think that the proper comportment of the citizen body with respect to these men before they depart is anything but reverential accession to their moral directives?

Far best is he who knows all things himself;

Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;

But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart

Another's wisdom, is a useless wight.

Hesiod, Works and Days, 293–97



(1.) We may compare to this problem in moral inquiry what Socrates says in the Republic about geometry and other sciences that proceed from hypotheses for which their practitioners can give no account: “When the beginning is what one does not know and the end and what comes in between are woven out of what is not known, what contrivance is there for ever turning such an agreement into knowledge?” (Rep. 7.533c, trans. Bloom [1968]). If this is the sorry state of mathematics when it lacks grounding in Forms, how could moral reasoning in the Cave possibly be thought to yield knowledge?

(2.) Kraut (1984), 242, who argues that there is no incompatibility between there being, on the one hand, authoritarian philosopher‐kings and, on the other, a populace that lives the examined life, suggests that for Socrates moral experts “should not simply give commands to the rest of the citizens; they must also try to get the others to understand, as far as possible, the ethical theory that lies behind the commands.” Socrates, Kraut thinks, thus “leaves a good deal of work for nonexperts to do”: it is their job to gain understanding of what the moral expert commands. I show in what follows that Socrates reserves no such work for nonexperts; nor does he conceive of philosopher‐kings as encouraging the ordinary man to understand moral matters. On the contrary, for Socrates in the Republic, the only thing nonexperts must understand is that they lack the moral expertise that the philosopher‐kings possess and that they ought, therefore, to obey their rulers. Grote (1875), I, 239, Popper (1966), 129–30, Gulley (1968), 177, and Vlastos (1971), 20, think Socrates limits the rulers' role to guidance, leaving it to each individual to think for himself about matters of virtue and to make up his own mind. This view, too, will be shown to be unsupported by the Republic, as it is as well by both the Apology and the Gorgias.