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The Virtues


Introducing our section on the nature of virtue, Philip Vassallo describes how the ancient conception of arête arose and developed.

In discussing arête, Plato leads the examination of humankind’s quest for excellence. Henry Marrou describes arête as “the ideal value to which even life itself must be sacrificed.” Although Marrou considers ludicrous the translation of the word from ancient Greek to mean virtue (he prefers valor), virtue is the term used by translator W.K.C. Guthrie in two of Plato’s dialogues to describe this quality that is made and not born in us, the quality of excellence toward which we strive in our daily conduct in society.

In Protagoras, Plato asks what virtue is, and in Meno, he asks whether it can be taught. Protagoras tells a doubting Socrates that virtue is a single whole and qualities such as justice, selfcontrol and holiness are parts of it. (Guthrie p.61) In brilliantly conceived arguments, Socrates proves to his colleague that: (1) some of the most valiant Athenians have failed to bequeath their virtuous qualities to their offspring, suggesting that virtue is not inherited; (2) a person who posseses some of the parts of virtue listed so matter-of-factly by Protagoras may not fully acquire some of the other parts; thus Socrates asserts that if virtue is indeed a single whole, it cannot be realized without all its parts; (3) if virtue is to be learned, then those who lack it are not necessarily bad but rather ignorant of what virtue is, just as those who are virtuous have simply exploited what they have mastered.

When Meno asks Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught, the philosopher replies that he does not know what virtue is nor has he ever met a person who does. (Guthrie p.116) Later, Socrates paradoxically summarizes his position when maintaining that if virtue is knowledge, then it must be taught; however, while he has found many seekers of virtue, he has never found any teachers of it. Virtue, then, is not knowledge. (Guthrie p.144)

In his History of Education in Antiquity, Marrou considers arête a heroic “morality of honor,” (p.10) a term by which we can trace the essence of educational theory in antiquity through three distinct phases. It (1) originated in Homeric times (800 BC) to illuminate the glorious knightly culture of aristocratic warriors that thrived magnificently through to the era of the military state of Sparta; (2) assumed a new definition through Plato (circa 400 BC) during the period of the scribe culture of classical Athenian education, which was reserved for a privileged ruling class and based on a search for truth; and (3) finally it expanded its essential characteristics through the writings and oratory of Isocrates (circa 350 BC).

Homer: The Noble Warrior

The warrior of the Homeric era was no barbarian. He was skilled in the art of warfare and athletic activities such as boxing, jousting, running and throwing. But also, through the legends of Homer’s great poetic works, Iliad and Odyssey, Greek warriors learned the chivalrous rules of engagement in combat and ideals of social conduct. Those epics offered the model of the young nobleman achieving arête at the feet of an elder to whose training he committed himself. For instance, Achilles was raised to a state of grace by the wise centaur Chiron and counseled further by Phoenix.

The young hero’s responsibility – his moral imperative – was not to simply attain personal glory above all others in military exercises and speech, but to attain it at the service of the State. Homer’s legacy was so profound that Alexander the Great read him thoroughly and enthusiastically during his military campaigns and his works remained the ‘basic educational textbook’ for centuries. (Marrou p.9)

The Homeric ethic demanded that a man set himself apart spiritually and physically from his peers, and for inspiration he could turn to the poet, who through mythmaking would suggest the means to this end.

Plato: The Philosopher

The democratic ideal preceded classical education; thus, notions of the collective good and of performing heroically for the State were firmly grounded in Greek society by the fifth century B.C. At this time, however, Greece experienced a deep philosophical divide. Sparta remained a military culture while Athens evolved into a ‘scribe culture’, one in which intellectual character was valued as highly as physical prowess. Pedagogy as we know it today took root during this period. The Sophists became the first professional educators, and Plato’s philosophy would stand as an educational model for centuries to come.

Reading Plato’s dialogues is the best way to understand the moral ideal of arête. He does not set out to definitively answer universal questions about what is necessary to embody arête; rather, all his works suggest that to utterly dedicate oneself to the quest for arête is, in a sense, to be in possession of it. Plato believed that philosophy was best expressed and could best be cultivated in the public arena. By writing dialogues featuring his teacher Socrates, he documented his dialectic method in order to (1) examine questions about virtue, justice, and beauty, (2) present the views of the dominant thinkers of his time, and (3) demonstrate the manner in which debates might be properly conducted. In employing the Socratic dialogue, Plato offered no universal answers to the fundamental philosophical questions of his contemporaries. He chose instead to suggest ways of asking uncompromising questions that would subject all hypotheses to intense scrutiny. In effect, arête became more an intellectual struggle for truth and wisdom in one’s daily conduct than a mastery of physical skills and an accomplishment of heroic deeds.

Though Plato intended his philosophic training for the aristocracy to prepare them for their place in politics and law, his ideas represented a revolutionary departure from the traditional foundations of education.

“By his vigorous contrast between philosophy and poetry, and by breaking with the settled tradition that Homer was the basis of all education, Plato put the Greek soul in a dilemma: should education remain fundamentally artistic and poetical, or become scientific?” (Marrou p.72)

Thus, while Plato’s aims were political, his insistence that the truly wise king be well-versed in science, his assertion that mathematics “awakened the mind” and his imagined landscape on which each man seeking truth would cultivate his own garden in a heroic solitude demonstrate that arête was to him a moral ideal, an ideal for a man who was vastly different from the noble warrior whom Homer had conceived.

Isocrates: The Orator

Isocrates was a pupil of the Sophists and a teacher who was influenced by Socrates and Plato. He offered the Athenians of his time “an education that cultivated the whole man, preparing him for political, intellectual, and moral leadership.” (Proussis p.56) Unhappy with Plato’s ideal that arête was to be found “in the city (man) bears within himself,” Isocrates resolved to find Truth through the virtue of speech.

Like the Sophists, Isocrates sought to train orators to choose subject matter of great consequence and to compose and deliver practical, compelling arguments in the service of Greece. While he shared Plato’s skepticism about the teaching of arête, Isocrates hoped that through devotion to the art of rhetoric and lifelong application of its principles, his students would strive toward excellence. His educational model depended upon the art of oratory to solve everyday problems that Athenians experienced.

Isocrates is credited with inspiring the literary tone of Western education, which still lasts to this day. Unquestionably, we can see his deep influence on Cicero and Quintilian in Roman education nearly half a millennium later. His educational objective was more pragmatic than Plato’s, whose philosophy Isocrates saw as more a culture than pedagogy. Isocrates’ education was one that demanded a responsible social life devoted to community interests. (Chambliss p.19) In this way, he benefited from the Socratic criticism of those Sophists who boasted of an ability to speak and to train others to speak persuasively for its own sake and not necessarily to benefit their fellow citizens. He demanded of rhetoric high values and a moral eloquence that stood on an even ground with the poetic mastery of Homer and the philosophic command of Plato. Perhaps by embracing each of these masters – as Isocrates’ work suggests he does – the naturally talented student can learn and apply the practical principles of oratory in the service of his countrymen and, thus, move toward arête.


Marrou calls Plato and Isocrates the ‘two pillars’ of the sanctuary of classical education (p.91), noting that the paradigm of each complements the other and immeasurably enriches the tradition that has served Western culture through modern times. In many ways and forms – most notably, the subject of their inquiry, the references that they used to support their logic and challenge their detractors, and the literature that they employed in their pedagogical practices – these Platonic and Isocratic columns have stood as indestructible monuments over the passage of time because of the foundation which anchored them: the Homeric ethic, from which they learned to continuously strive for arête, whatever that meant to succeeding generations.


Philip Vassallo holds a doctorate in educational philosophy from Rutgers University and writes the column ‘The Learning Class’ at EducationNews.org. He accepts e-mail at Vassallo@aol.com.

Books cited

• H.I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, trans. George Lamb, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1982)
• Plato, Protagoras and Meno, trans. W.K.C.Guthrie (Penguin, 1956)
• Costas M. Proussis, ‘The Orator: Isocrates,’ in The Educated Man: Studies in the History of Educational Thought, edited by Paul Nash, Andreas M. Kazamias and Henry J. Perkinson (John Wiley, 1965)
• J.J.Chambliss, Educational Theory as a Theory of Conduct (SUNY 1987)

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