Is virtue — in the Greco-Roman sense of the term — the sort of thing that can be taught? Short answers: no, though it’s complicated (Socrates). Yes, though it’s tough (the Stoics). Since the idea that virtue can be learned is central to Stoic teachings, and since the Stoics very clearly thought themselves as the intellectual heirs of Socrates, the issue deserves some further discussion.
Luckily, I found a lively paper by Hugh Mercer Curtler at Southwest State University who presents a very accessible treatment of the issue of learning virtue, from which I will draw for the following notes. (The paper appeared in Humanitas in 1994, the full version is here.)
Curtler’s starting point is, of course, Plato’s Meno, in which the character by the same name asks: “Can you tell me, Socrates, is human excellence (areté) something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training? Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by teaching, does it accrue to me at birth or in some other way?”
Socrates, after the usual lengthy discussion, concludes that virtue might be teachable in principle, but the fact that we don’t find any teachers of it (clearly not the Sophists, regardless of their self-serving advertising!), then it must tentatively be concluded that the thing is likely not possible.
But Aristotle famously disagreed with Socrates (and Plato), distinguishing between moral and intellectual virtue. Moral virtue is a matter of habit and disposition, i.e., it develops via a combination of natural inclination and conditioning — and it lays the foundation for what we call character. Intellectual virtue, however, can be taught directly. Bear with me (and with Curtler) because this distinction will soon yield fruits.
Both Socrates and Plato had personal experience of the failure to teach moral virtue: the first one was clearly unable to influence his friend Alcibiades, one of the most fascinating figures of all Greek history; the second one almost lost his life in his attempt to educate the already vain and incorrigible Dionysius II of Syracuse.
(Let me open a parenthesis about Dionysius II. He is featured in a classic story referred to as Damocles’ sword, which is somewhat relevant to the issue at hand. According to the story, which has arrived to us via Cicero, Damocles was flattering Dionysius, telling him how fortunate he was to be king. In order to teach him a lesson, the king invited Damocles to exchange place for a bit, a prospect that the latter eagerly embraced. But Dionysius had positioned a sword hanging right over the throne, secured only by a single hair from a horse’s tail. Damocles was then in constant fear of being suddenly killed. Apparently, he didn’t like the feeling, so he declined to be king any further, and was taught a good lesson on what it is like to live like a powerful man.
Interestingly, Cicero uses this story — in Tusculanae Disputationes V.21 — to conclude that virtue is the only thing needed for happiness, rhetorically asking: “Does not Dionysius seem to have made it sufficiently clear that there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms?” Needless to say, Cicero’s conclusion is a very Stoic one, despite his sympathies for the Academics.)
Back to teaching (or not) virtue. Curtler correctly points out that modern psychology pretty much agrees with Aristotle: moral character is essentially formed by the time children begin formal schooling, or shortly thereafter, and it is likely a result of genetic, early developmental, and early environmental (including from family and siblings) influences. This would seem to lead to the conclusion that the notion of teaching virtue in school is a misguided one, in broad agreement with Socrates and against the Stoics. But wait, there is more.
In the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that the way to shape a young character is to make sure the person forms the right habits early on, essentially suggesting something like positive and negative reinforcement. As Plato puts it: moral education largely consists in making sure that the young person “find(s) pleasure or pain in the right things.” Curtler observes: “Aristotle is here recognizing the important psychological fact that unless a person wants to be a good person — that is, unless he or she takes pleasure in right actions — he or she will not be one.”
(Please note that “pleasure” here is not the concept advanced by the Epicureans, since it is not natural, but the result of education.)
We are now ready for the transition from moral to intellectual virtue. While the basic structure of one’s character is laid out early on, one still grows up and begins to use reason to navigate complex moral situations, situations for which genetics and early conditioning by themselves simply do not prepare us. There will then be a gradual transition from moral to intellectual virtue, resulting in practical wisdom, one of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.
Notice, of course, that we are now not far from the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the process of familiarization or appropriation by which one develops a concern for others, mentioned by the Neoplatonist Porphyry: “those who followed Zeno stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice.”
More generally, the Stoics subscribed to a developmental theory of virtue, which seems very much to combine Aristotle’s early moral virtue with his mature intellectual virtue to shape a wholesome adult human being.
Curtler then observes that while moral virtue is simply not the right focus for formal education (because it’s too late already), intellectual virtue is, and that is the sort of thing that the humanities (philosophy, of course, but also history, literature, etc.) — at their best — are supposed to teach: “there is little point whatever [in formal education] if our goal is to reform character, whereas these subjects can be extremely important ways to refine character … By reading literature the young person lives vicariously and grows in human sensibility; by studying history, the horizons of that person’s experience are extended and his or her sympathies are deepened; by studying philosophy the student discovers seminal ideas, analytical skills are sharpened and the student learns the difference between reasonable and unreasonable claims.”
Curtler gives the example of a course in business ethics: “[it] will not make an undergraduate business major an honest employee when she goes to work after graduation. But it will sharpen her analytical skills and make her aware of the subtleties of rationalization and wary of sophistry.”
Indeed, Curtler turns the table against the critics of education, suggesting that when they complain that education does not make people better persons they are confusing moral and intellectual virtue.
The same criticism could be raised against Socrates’ pessimism (or Plato’s initial optimism about Dionysius II): in answering Meno he was thinking about moral virtue, and he is right that one cannot find formal teachers of it. But that only exhausts one dimension of virtue, and the other one can very much be affected by teachers, or by laudable examples about whom we read in literature and philosophy classes. Like the life and death of Socrates.