Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

5. The unity of virtue

The Greeks recognized a series of specially prized qualities of mind and character as aretai or virtues. Each was regarded as a distinct, separate quality: justice was one thing, concerned with treating other people fairly, courage quite another, showing itself in vigorous, correct behaviour in circumstances that normally cause people to be afraid; and self-control or moderation, piety and wisdom were yet others. Each of these ensured that its possessor would act in some specific ways, regularly and reliably over their lifetime, having the justified conviction that those are ways one ought to act – agathon (good) and kalon (fine, noble, admirable or beautiful) ways of acting. But each type of virtuous person acts rightly and well not only in regularly recurring, but also in unusual and unheralded, circumstances; the virtue involves always getting something right about how to live a good human life. Socrates thought these virtues were essential if one was to live happily (see §4). But what exactly were they? What was it about someone that made them just, or courageous, or wise? If you did not know that, you would not know what to do in order to acquire those qualities. Furthermore, supposing you did possess a virtue, you would have to be able to explain and defend by argument the consequent ways in which you lived – otherwise your conviction that those are ways one ought to act would be shallow and unjustified. And in order to do that you would have to know what state of mind the virtue was, since that is essential to them (see Plato, Charmides 158e–159a). Consequently, in his discussions Socrates constantly asked for ‘definitions’ of various virtues: what is courage (Laches); what is self-control or moderation (Charmides), what is friendship (Lysis) and what is piety (Euthyphro). As this context shows, he was asking not for a ‘dictionary definition’, an account of the accepted linguistic understanding of a term, but for an ethically defensible account of an actual condition of mind or character to which the word in common use would be correctly applied. In later terminology, he was seeking a ‘real’ rather than a ‘nominal’ definition (see Definition; Plato §§6–9).

Socrates objected to definitions that make a virtue some external aspect of a virtuous action (such as the manner in which it is done – for example its ‘quiet’ or measured quality in the case of moderation, Charmides 160b–d), or simply the doing of specific types of action, described in terms of their external circumstances (such as, for courage, standing one’s ground in battle; Laches 190e–191d). He also objected to more psychological definitions that located a virtue in some non-rational and non-cognitive aspect of the soul (for example, in the case of courage, the soul’s endurance or strength of resistance) (Laches 192d–193e). For his own part, he regularly shows himself ready to accept only definitions that identify a virtue with some sort of knowledge or wisdom about what is valuable for a human being. That ‘intellectualist’ expectation about the nature of virtue, although never worked out to his satisfaction in any Platonic dialogue, is central to Socrates’ philosophy.

Given that in his discussions he is always the questioner, probing the opinions of his respondent and not arguing for views of his own, we never find Socrates stating clearly what led him to this intellectualism. Probably, however, it was considerations drawn from the generally agreed premise that each virtue is a condition motivating certain voluntary actions, chosen because they are good and fine or noble. He took it that what lies behind and produces any voluntary action is the idea under which it is done, the conception of the action in the agent’s mind that makes it seem the thing to do just then. If so, each virtue must be some state of the mind, the possessor of which constantly has certain distinctive general ideas about how one ought to behave. Furthermore, since virtues get this right, these are true ideas. And since a virtuous person acts well and correctly in a perfectly reliable way, they must be seated so deeply in the mind as to be ineradicable and unwaveringly present. The only state of mind that meets these conditions is knowledge: to know a subject is not just to be thoroughly convinced, but to have a deep, fully articulated understanding, being ready with explanations to fend off objections and apparent difficulties and to extend old principles into new situations, and being prepared to show with the full weight of reason precisely why each thing falling under it is and must be so. Each virtue, then, must be knowledge about how one ought to behave in some area of life, and why – a knowledge so deep and rationally secure that those who have it can be counted upon never to change their minds, never to be argued out of or otherwise persuaded away from, or to waver in, their conviction about how to act.

In Plato’s Protagoras Socrates goes beyond this, and identifies himself with the position, rejected by Protagoras in their discussion, that the apparently separate virtues of justice, piety, self-control, courage and wisdom are somehow one and the same thing – some single knowledge (361a–b). Xenophon too confirms that Socrates held this view (Memorabilia III 9.5). Protagoras defends the position that each of the virtues is not only a distinct thing from each of the others, but so different in kind that a person could possess one of them without possessing the others (329d–e). In opposing him, Socrates sometimes speaks plainly of two allegedly distinct virtues being ‘one’ (333b). Given this unity of the virtues, it would follow that a person could not possess one without having them all. And in speaking of justice and piety in particular, Socrates seems to go further, to imply that every action produced by virtue is equally an instance of all the standardly recognized virtues: pious as well as just, wise and self-controlled and courageous also. Among his early dialogues, however, Plato’s own philosophical interests show themselves particularly heavily in the Protagoras, so it is doubtful how far the details of his arguments are to be attributed to the historical Socrates. The issues raised by Socrates in the Protagoras were, none the less, vigorously pursued by subsequent ‘Socratic’ philosophers (as Plutarch’s report in On Moral Virtue 2 demonstrates). And the positions apparently adopted by Plato’s Socrates were taken up and ingeniously defended by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus (see Stoicism §16). As usual, because of his questioner’s role, it is difficult to work out Socrates’ grounds for holding to the unity of virtue; and it is difficult to tell whether, and if so how, he allowed that despite this unity there were some real differences between, say, justice and self-control, or courage and piety. Apparently he thought the same body of knowledge – knowledge of the whole of what is and is not good for human beings, and why it is so or not – must at least underlie the allegedly separate virtues. If you did not have that vast, comprehensive knowledge you could not be in the state of mind which is justice or in that which is courage, and so on; and if you did have it you would necessarily be in those states of mind. It seems doubtful whether Socrates himself progressed beyond that point. Efforts to do that were made by Chrysippus and the other philosophers referred to above. And despite denying that all virtues consist in knowledge, Plato in the Republic and Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics VI follow Socrates to the extent of holding, in different ways, that you need to have all the virtues in order to have any one.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. The unity of virtue. Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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