Home | Bibliography | Outline of this page

Virtue is Knowledge

According to Socrates, virtue is knowledge, because: (1) all living things aim for their perceived good; and therefore (2) if anyone does not know what is good, he cannot do what is good -- because he will always aim for a mistaken target; but (3) if someone knows what is good, he will do what is good, because he will aim for what is good.

That is the argument presented by Xenophon in his Memories of Socrates (Memorabilia iii, 9, 5). What Aristotle calls "the correct definition of the good" is that argument's assumed premiss (1 above); cf. Plato, Republic 505d-e.

Yet Socrates' view of moral virtue is contrary to the consensus of mankind, according to Aristotle. And, indeed, if Socrates is correct, then why don't people who say they know what they should do (namely, what is good) not do what they say they know they should do? Is it not true that all vice is the result of ignorance, and all (moral) virtue is the result of knowledge?

Two kinds of virtue

Note that physical strength and courage are both virtues or goods, but of the two only courage is a moral virtue or good whereas physical strength is a natural or non-moral virtue. Note that Socrates does not say that strength is knowledge, but he does says that courage is knowledge.

Man has uniquely human natural virtues such as reason and creativity, as he also has, uniquely among animals, moral virtues such as piety (correct conduct towards God), justness (correct conduct towards man), modesty (self-knowledge), self-discipline (self-control, temperance), courage.

[It was Socrates who revised the Greek concept areté ("excellence") to include moral virtue, Socrates who made the study of ethics part of philosophy (Diog. L. i, 14, 18). Philosophy's three parts, according to the Stoics.]

Moral virtue in Plato's Meno

If virtue is knowledge, then virtue can be taught. But can virtue be taught?

Plato's view is perplexing, but what it points out is even more so. He says that because things can be done or used wisely or foolishly, and that only doing or using them wisely is virtuous, then it seems that virtue is knowledge (Meno 87c-89a).

But, on the other hand, Plato says that even without knowing what is good, having a "correct opinion" about what is good will result in a virtuous life (ibid. 97b). In which case, virtue is not knowledge but simply doing what is good, whether from knowledge or from a "correct opinion" of what the good is.

The trouble is that if you are only guessing (which is what an opinion is) at what the good is, then you don't know what the good is. But then who does know what the good is (and therefore that your opinion is correct)? The one who has knowledge of the good. But if someone knows what the good is (or in other words, has knowledge of what the good is), then he can explain to you what he knows (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1; Plato, Laches 190c; cf. Meno 98a), in which case you will know it as well.

And in that case virtue can be taught. But if that is the case, then why does someone who has been shown what the good is not do what is good, for we observe that virtuous fathers often have vicious sons (ibid. 93b-94e)? And then it seems that virtue cannot be taught, because what can be taught can also be learned, and the vicious sons of virtuous fathers have not learned virtue (ibid. 96c). (On the other hand, Plato's discussion does not ask whether to learn moral virtue it is enough to be taught, or whether to be morally virtuous (learn moral virtue) one must also practice keeping watch over oneself because otherwise base animal instincts and vicious habits acquired in the time of ignorance of the good will control one's life.)

If virtue can be taught, it must be more than mouth honor to virtue that is taught.

For these reasons, Plato says, it seems that virtue is not simply a kind of knowledge. But, even were Plato correct, it does not follow that therefore moral virtue would be "a kind" of opinion. Much less does it follow that "virtue will be acquired neither by nature nor by teaching. Whoever has it gets it by divine dispensation without taking thought" (Meno, 99e-100a, tr. Guthrie), the final remark of Plato's Meno which claims that the dialog's discussion has overturned the historical Socrates' great accomplishment, namely making ethics thoroughgoingly rational and thereby a part of philosophy. In the Meno, Plato has Socrates say what the Sophists were saying, namely that ethics is irrational, that moral virtue is not knowledge.

Note: True Opinion

Jowett renders Plato's Greek 'true opinion', which is straightforward, i.e. unlike Guthrie's rendering 'correct opinion', 'true opinion' is not like a dodge to make it appear that Plato is not talking nonsense. For as we normally use the word 'opinion', statements of opinion are neither true nor false (correct or incorrect); that is what distinguishes statements of opinion from statements of fact. And unless a criterion is set -- unless Plato sets a criterion -- for distinguishing between true and false opinion, the expression 'true opinion' is meaningless (as is 'correct opinion').

If moral virtue is knowledge, then is it proof that someone has knowledge if he lives a virtuous life? But might not someone be virtuous without knowledge -- if invalid reasoning has led him to the good? Is not the good the good regardless of the path that leads to it? (Or can flawed reasoning never even accidentally arrive at the truth?)

Bad reasons ≠ knowledge, but on the other hand, if bad reasons are held by a virtuous man, then does that man have a "correct" or "true opinion"?

The good for man

And the one who knows what the good is for man, what is it that he knows? For the Greeks I think the answer must be that the good for man is living in accord with the specific excellence that is both proper and unique to man (areté and ergon), namely, Socrates said, rational moral virtue, because reason and moral sense are the natural virtues both unique and proper to man.

But that is very general knowledge. The difficulty arises in the particular case where knowing what the morally virtuous thing to do may not be clear. For example, one must be brave rather than cowardly or foolhardy, but what is the brave deed in these particular circumstances? One must be pious rather than superstitious or sanctimonious, but what is the pious deed in these particular circumstances? And similarly for being just (neither lax nor merciless) and self-controlled (neither prudish nor licentious). (This is why Plato has Socrates seek a universal standard of measurement in ethics (Euthyphro 6d-7d) so that one will always know what the correct thing to do is in any particular case.)

So it seems that it is in the particular case that there will be correct or incorrect opinions about what the good is. That is to say, where there is uncertainty there are opinions, not knowledge.

When Plato's Socrates says that "human wisdom is worthless" (Apology 23b), he does not, of course, mean that it is worthless to know that you are not wise, but only that, on the other hand, that is not the wisdom that man desires either metaphysically (i.e. answers to his eternal questions) or needs if he is never to be in doubt about what he must do to live a morally virtuous life.

The irrational and ethics

Man is partly rational, partly irrational; partly reason, partly instinct.

There is more to wrong-doing than rational ignorance; there are also (1) bad habits formed in the time of ignorance of the good (and "what we do from habit is sweet to us"), and (2) there are base instincts and appetites for pleasure in man (Aristotle's rational animal) that push man to wrong-doing, to greed, lust, sloth, vanity, anger, impatience.

To "know thyself" is to see this.

If man were fully rational, man would be fully virtuous, as the gods are conceived to be by the philosophers. But man is not fully rational, which Plato, in effect, says, "[The god of the other world, namely Hades] will have nothing to do with men while they are in the body, but only when the soul is liberated from the desires and evils of the body" (Cratylus 403e-404a). Plato's "the body" is, in the context of ethics, a metaphor for man's viscousness (i.e. penchant for vice through evil habits and ignoble instincts), although it has further meaning for Plato in the context of knowledge (where it means the ignorance of a soul entombed in a body limited to, and therefore limited by, sense perception).

In Plato's view the body does not belong to the essence of man, although the concept 'rational animal' is Aristotle's rather than Plato's. It does not seem that Aristotle would have held that knowledge is of little or no help to virtue, because that view would imply that man were either fully irrational or that the irrational part (the animal) must nearly always overwhelm the rational part of man.

Is vice caused by the body alone or are there other causes?

And so, according to Plato, the rational soul -- but not the irrational soul (which Plato identifies with the body, which is "a source of endless trouble" (Phaedo 66c-d) to the rational soul) -- is the essence of man, that without which man would not be man. But, blinded by the body, the rational soul very often misperceives whether a thing is good or not.

But I do not think Plato's account of the source of vice is complete, because it is not only the body's base instincts that cause vice. Quite the contrary, for it is just as often the contradictory thoughts of the rational soul that cause vice. For example, man's reasoning about what is just, as e.g. on the one hand the rational soul says categorically that "Impatience is wrong", but on the other hand it says "No, in these circumstances it is just for me to be impatient!" (which amounts to: "I am right to do wrong!") And that dishonesty (i.e. giving mouth honor to one thing while believing another) cannot be blamed on the body.

Rational ignorance

Further, can the body be blamed when we "don't know what to think", i.e. believe? As when in our ignorance of the facts, e.g. trust fluctuates with suspicion ("Should I feel gratitude or wariness?"), often with the consequence that we act unjustly. We say "It isn't clear to me what I feel" (feelings lacking final conviction) -- but by 'feeling' in this context we don't mean sensations or emotions, but an inclination to judge and act one way rather than another (PI § 258). What has our state of ignorance to do with the body? [What is the result of this mixing of the irrational soul [disposition] with the rational soul [reason]?]

Virtue also requires watchfulness

Regardless of the source -- i.e. regardless of whether calling it the "beast" ["animal soul"] or "irrational soul" makes anything clearer -- of man's evil impulses, if I want to be virtuous -- (But how can I want otherwise; how can I not want what is good for me? Who is "the stubborn man within"? and can I weed out this irrational root [√-x]? The irrational me (the beast [animal]) does not want to be virtuous; quite the opposite: its vices are sweet to it, and it wants to revel in them) -- then I must ward off the irrational beast (the half-animal) that I am.

"Thus play I in one person many people" -- or at least two: man the rational and man the beast. It was because Socrates the beast was mastered by Socrates the rational that Socrates' companions loved him so (and why Antisthenes said (Diog. L. vi, 11) that virtue requires only the self-control -- i.e. the self-watchfulness -- of a Socrates).

If man does not keep watch over himself, forestalling the irrational inclinations to wrong-doing, he will impulsively do what is evil, even if he rationally knows what is good. Socrates was always aware of his state of mind, never allowing himself to drift off into unconsciousness of the present and the eternal, never acting before reflection, and never quitting reflection before he had thought things all the way through, arriving at conclusions that he could explain and defend in Socratic dialectic (questioning and cross-questioning to uncover unclarity or contradiction and therefore the truth).

Nonetheless, if ethics is rational, as Socratic ethics is thoroughgoingly rational, -- then although the irrational is a stumbling block to man's living the life that is the good for man (which is the rationally-guided life, reason being the specific excellence unique and proper to man) -- the description of the irrational aspect of man (the beast) is not part of ethics. Because what could be done with such a description -- would it help man to amend his life? (Ethics is practical, but not in Aristotle's arid way, his method of scientific description.) Is the irrational discussed in Xenophon's Apology and Memories of Socrates? Towards what end would it be?

Vice is presumptuous ignorance

For a false wisdom first,
Being indeed a madness of the mind,
Tempts with a thought accursed,
And then enures to wrong the wretch of human kind.  (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, tr. Cookson, c. lines 221-223)

The claim to wisdom may have an explicit source, namely beliefs (whether empirical, metaphysical or religious) about reality, such as whether a god would demand the sacrifice of a child's life (Iphigenia in Aulis). And in that case evidence and reason may -- if we are open to Socratically examining our beliefs -- be able to overthrow a "false wisdom", namely our thinking we are wise when we are not, namely our thinking we know what the good is when we do not.

But very often the source of our claim to wisdom is not known to us, and this shows us that we do not "know ourselves" in two ways, for (1) we say that we know one thing but live as if what we knew were something else, and (2) we are unwilling to examine this contradiction, showing that we disbelieve that reason is the excellence proper to man (despite our saying that we believe it is). There is an impulse in the rational animal to willfulness ("doing whatever I feel like doing"), which like all human arrogance tends to lead to a bad end, making anything that masters that impulse repugnant to man -- as if the good were something to be feared rather than sought out.

Is it wise or foolish to seek the good, and which is philosophy -- love of wisdom or love of foolishness, love of rational self-control or love of irrational impulse? "We say we know one thing to be true, while believing its contrary is true." That belief is a "false wisdom".

Thoroughgoing virtue is dependent both on the rational soul overcoming the irrational soul -- and the rational soul sorting itself out, changing its views from belief to knowledge, so that "I know" means "I know" rather than "I really know something else".

Noble instincts

As well as base instincts such as vanity and greed, there are also of course noble instincts such as modesty and compassion. But instincts as such are simply facts of nature -- whereas which of these instincts is evil, which good, is judged by rational reflection (ethics): What is the relation between natural values and human ethics?

Query: virtue is knowledge of the good and the beautiful.

Yes, but the Greek word 'kalos' doesn't exactly = the English word 'beautiful', because kalos is a much broader concept: 'handsome' is only one of its meanings.

"Is a dung basket beautiful then?" Aristippus asked.

"Of course, and a golden shield is ugly, if the one is well made [done well] for its special work [the work proper to its function] and the other badly," Socrates replied.

In Memorabilia iii, 8, 4-7 (tr. Marchant), a thing is 'beautiful' if it is 'ideal in the way that is proper' to that thing. A shield may be handsome ("beautiful") to look at, but if it does not protect its bearer from injury, then it is not beautiful (in the Greek sense of 'kalos' = 'beautiful'), because the shield has a function that is proper to it, and it does not accomplish that function: it is not excellent in the way that is proper to it: it under-reaches a shield.

If moral virtue is the excellence proper to man (and reason the means to that end), as the philosophers say, then a man or woman may be pleasing to look at, but if they are not morally virtuous, they are not beautiful. The saying "Beautiful is as beautiful does" thus uses the word 'beautiful' equivocally, in the Greek way.

"Virtue is happiness"

Trouble is that whenever in philosophy we talk about happiness, we have to distinguish what philosophy means by the word 'happiness' -- namely, according to the Greeks, 'life in accord with the excellence that is proper to man' (which is, according to Socrates: rational moral virtue, whence "wisdom is the only good, ignorance the only evil" (Euthydemus 281e, tr. Jowett)) -- and 'happiness' = 'experiencing a sense of well-being, anywhere from contentment to bliss'. Only the Stoics would say those two necessarily coincide, that moral virtue is knowledge of good and evil = moral virtue is happiness (in both senses of the word 'happiness').


Imaginative sketch of ancient Delphi, Greece, by C.E. Robinson

"In the foreground is the Sacred Close and the great Temple of Apollo."
Imaginative sketch by C.E. Robinson,
Days of Alkabiades (3rd ed. 1925), iv

Inscribed within Apollo's temple at Delphi were the words Know thyself (Plato, Protagoras 343b). Know what manner of being you are, what your nature and condition are (Phaedrus 230a).


Topics on this page ...

Context: on this page are various topics in general philosophy, and in "logic of language": how is language with meaning (sense) distinguished from language without meaning (nonsense) in philosophical problems?


Query: is virtue knowledge?

That is the philosophical question and form of expression, whereas the proposition 'Virtue is knowledge' is a thesis to be put to the test of Socratic cross-questioning, to decide its meaning, and if it is true or false.

I say I know, but I think I know something else

Note: these remarks continue the discussion of "know versus know-better" in my comments to Plato's Gorgias and "Moral virtue is knowledge".

If I know what is right, then I will not choose to do what is wrong (Socrates). But then why do I do what I say is wrong? I say I believe x to be the good while really believing that not-x is.

Query: what does it mean when Socrates says human excellence ("moral virtue") is knowledge? Man, know thyself.

Virtue is knowledge -- what does it mean? The English word 'virtue' is one translation of the Greek word areté, but it may be appropriate only to cases where the particular "excellence" or areté is excellence in ethics (or, knowledge of how we should live our life; note that to "Know thyself" is to know the excellence that is proper to man, and to live in accord with that knowledge is wisdom and the good for man, in Socrates' view). If we know what to do and we are free to do it, then we do what is good. But we very often lie to ourselves, saying the words 'I know' while believing that we know something else, something better, something wiser.

This is related to Nietzsche's demand for a unity of thought and deed -- that we stop saying that we believe one thing and then live as if we believed something very different. But this is difficult, because according to Dostoyevsky, the hardest thing in life is not to lie to yourself, not to believe your own lies.

... he did not identify Ignorance with Madness; but not to know yourself, and to assume and think that you know what you do not, he put next to Madness. (Xenophon, Memorabilia, tr. Marchant, iii, 9, 6)

He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know. (Augustine's summary of Socrates' method, Apology 21-22)

My thought is that for the purpose of ethics we must reject the notion "weakness of the will" (The word 'will' is a tool belonging to our language -- but is it a useful tool? in this context). It will only make us lazy, providing an excuse [pretext] for our laziness towards seeking to know, allowing our ignorance to result in "I say I know, but [the truth is that] I think I know something else", which is a case of thinking oneself wise when one is not (Plato, Apology 29a), of thinking oneself to know what one doesn't know" (Xenophon, Memorabilia, iii, 9, 6 and iv, 6, 1).

When the consequence of an action is immediate, such as putting our hand in a fire or walking off the roof of a building, nothing will induce us to do it -- i.e. "We know better than to do that". (Even someone with the thirst for money of Dostoyevsky's Rogozin will not put his hands in the fire to pull the burning stack of banknotes from it.) But when it comes to taking an extra glass of wine or crust of bread, although we say we know it to be harmful, we think we know that it won't really harm us, that the worst will never happen or that it will happen only at some distant time ... That is presumption (presuming you know what you don't know), and to act on that presumption is the damaging arrogance of ignorance, the consequences of which one often suffers both in mind and body. ("Conceited ignorance" versus "Socratic ignorance".)

... the good has rightly been defined as that at which all things aim. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094a 1-3)

But that sounds as if all things knew what the good is, and so Aristotle's "definition of the good" must be revised to "... the perceived good is that at which all things aim", and if the good is misperceived, then the one who misperceives it is misled himself and misleads others by thinking that he knows what he does not know (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1) (namely what the good is). And so again Virtue is knowledge, because if someone does not know what the good is, he cannot do what is good, because he will aim for what he perceives to be the good (ibid. iii, 9, 5). And even if he misses his target and hits the good by accident, he will not be aware that it is the good but will instead perceive it to be the bad.

Note: sometimes when we say "I should" (or "I know I should"), what we mean is that it is good and desirable that it be done, but that it doesn't need to be done or does not need to be done right now. But this is not type of case I am referring to -- nor am I speaking of the case of having too much wine to drink (where the quantity "too much" is uncertain) -- but if someone says that they are morally obligated to do something (and do it right now), but they do not do it, and they say "I know I should, but --" that is the case I am interested in, because if (moral) virtue is knowledge, then if someone does not do what they say they are morally obligated to do, then it must be that case that they do not know that they are morally obligated to do it (They say x, but they think they know, not x, but y to be true).

"I say I know x to be true, but I really think not-x is true." (This is a case where we can use the word 'really' in its normal -- not metaphysical -- way.) Why? Because we look at how we live rather than a what we say, and we see that our deeds belie our words. In most or many cases that is the standard we use to determine the truth. I say I know one thing, but what I believe I know is contrary to it. I daily hear the words of one I say is wiser -- but I prefer my own.

I am a mystery to myself. I do the very things I hate. (Paul, Romans 7.15)

But why is this? I think it is because I believe my own lies: I say I know A to be best, yet I believe I know B to be better. And therefore I do B rather than A. In other words, the reasons for wrong-doing are: (1) we are mistaken about what the good really is (as our deeds show), but (2) because we believe ourselves to already know what the good is (although we don't do it), we do not seek to know what it is (Meno 84c), and (3) because we are careless about keeping watch over ourselves, to stop bad impulses from ruling over our life.

Socrates' thesis "Virtue is knowledge" has the consequence that the one who knows what is good, does what is good, or, the good man is the wise man, in other words. But that may apply only to when a rational choice is made, for I may also do "the very things I hate" under the unchecked of a bad habit or instinct, not only from ignorance of the good.

A contrary view is that "the will is weak", a notion which I suspect has its origin in the misreading of an ancient text.

"The will" -- a questionable tool of thought

Query: what is the effect of good habits (virtue) and bad habits (vice) on the will?

The use of a word in the language. The expression "the will" appears to name an occult entity, but how to think of "it" otherwise?

About "the will". Is it like "intuition", which Wittgenstein called "an unnecessary shuffle" (PI § 213)? Although I don't know what he meant by "shuffle", the "unnecessary" part is important. Why "unnecessary"? Because the notion 'will' makes nothing clearer -- but is instead a refuge (hiding-place), a place of asylum, a sanctuary where ignorance needn't face questioning before the court of reason). Just try to define the word 'will', to describe its use in our language, and then decide whether it is a useful tool for thinking clearly about our life.

Like any other 'concept' = 'tool', the use of the concept (such as it is) 'the will' is discretionary: possible but not necessary. Or is 'the will' like the concepts 'object' and 'empty space', concepts that seem forced on us (cf. CV p. 86 [MS 174 1v: 1950 § 1b])?

Weakness and strength of will

The expression 'weakness of the will'. The "will" looks like a ghost conjured up by a false analogy: Someone may be unable to sit up because the muscles of his stomach are weak (which can be tested and exercised to strengthen), and therefore -- (the innocent-looking (PI § 308) grammatical analogy is made) -- giving way to temptation is due to weakness of -- of what? Let's call it "the will", for we might give it any name we please.

From muscles to a ghost -- what could our language make appear more natural. However as to exercising that ghost (Let's call it "the will") against temptation, some sage advice: (1) "... avoid near occasions of sin" (Catholic Act of Contrition) or, in other words, (2) "Don't stop to argue with temptation" (Aesop).

Contrast that with "Virtue is knowledge": No one knowingly does what is evil (i.e. the opposite of good), but does evil only if he mistakenly believes that the evil is really the good. Think the thing all the way through, trusting in the natural light of reason and experience to guide you to what is, not only perceived to be, but actually is the good.

Ghost objects (Ghost-words)

And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"  (Kipling, If)

On the one hand, this language suggests that the expression 'the will' is the name of something; but on the other hand, 'the will' is clearly not defined the way the name of an object is defined, e.g. by pointing to its bearer (not even as the word 'love' is defined by pointing to a mother caressing her child). And when we try to apply a common syntactic analogy, the analogy suggests a ghost object to us (PI § 36). In any case, we do not learn to use the expression 'the will' by having its meaning explained to us; it is not like the vocabulary words we learn at school, e.g. 'epitome', words which do not belong to our vocabulary of everyday.

"I am not good at resisting temptation." No, but why then go on to imagine the existence of an inscrutable "the will", the relative weakness of which is the cause of our failure? If there is imagination here, however, it is grammatical imagination, logic's primeval mistake, namely that if a word is a noun, and if "a noun is the name of a person, place or thing", then the noun 'will' must be the name of some thing, but it is only the name of a language-induced ghost.

To "heal the wounded understanding" here, logic must discard that language-induced ghost ("the will") -- but then should it also discard the noun 'the will'? Well but there are countless other ghost-words in our language, as e.g. 'the imagination', 'the mind', 'the conscience', 'temperament', 'the sub-conscience' ... It would seem that we would have to discard all of them -- or figure out how to describe their true use in our language.

Measurement of will-power

Is the meaning of the word 'will' given only when the method by which will-power is measured is given (cf. the grammar of the word 'force' in physics)? (Is that how you learned to use the word 'will-power'?) Just because a concept is common currency is not reason to use it; it may, despite Aristotle's consensus of mankind, be counterfeit.

Self-control (about the concept 'self-control') is measured by what you do or have done (precedent); measurement in the case of the concept 'will-power' works the same way -- it is post-facto or predictive -- not de-facto. In this respect it is like the concept 'courage'. [Definition by related concepts.]

That "Wisdom is knowledge", and "Virtue is wisdom", and therefore that "Virtue is knowledge"

SOCRATES: And what of Wisdom? How shall we describe it? Tell me, does it seem to you that the wise are wise about what they know, or are some wise about what they do not know?

EUTHYDEMUS: About what they know, obviously; for how can a man be wise about the things he doesn't know?

SOCRATES: The wise, then, are wise by knowledge?

EUTHYDEMUS: How else can a man be wise if not by knowledge?

SOCRATES: Do you think that wisdom is anything but that by which men are wise?

EUTHYDEMUS: No.

SOCRATES: It follows that Wisdom is Knowledge?

EUTHYDEMUS: I think so. (Xenophon, Memorabilia (tr. Marchant), iv, 6, 7; Euthydemus, a young man, iv, 2, 1; and Critias, i, 2, 29)

[Socrates] said that Justice and every other form of Virtue is Wisdom. For just actions and all forms of virtuous activity are beautiful [i.e. kalos] and good. He who knows the beautiful [kalon] and good will never choose anything else [cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1145b21-29] ... the wise do what is beautiful and good, the unwise [-- i.e. those who are ignorant of (who do not know) what is beautiful and good --] cannot and fail if they try. Therefore since just actions and all other forms of beautiful and good activity are virtuous actions, it is clear that Justice and every other form of Virtue is Wisdom. (Memorabilia iii, 9, 5; cf. iv, 6, 6)

A man cannot be wise except by knowing, even if it is only by knowing that he doesn't know anything "worth knowing" (Plato, Apology 21d, Euthydemus 293b), which is the wisdom that Socrates has. That conclusion is derived from "rules of grammar". When Euthydemus asks, "How else can a man be wise ...?" his question is rhetorical: it indicates "what anyone knows and must admit" (Z § 211; PI § 599); it follows from naught but tautologies -- but that doesn't make it idle (i.e. worthless to philosophy). Not at all -- because it makes our concepts clearer to us. (Conceptual clarification is logic-philosophy's task, according to Wittgenstein.)

Here seems to arise a perplexing question about Greek thought: How can wisdom, which is one of the five "cardinal virtues" recognized by the Greeks, be both one of the virtues -- and what virtue itself is? Wisdom is a virtue and Virtue is wisdom. -- [This identity is not grammatical: it is not 'wisdom' = 'virtue' and 'virtue' = 'wisdom', as if those words could be used interchangeably with no loss of meaning.] -- Is the question answered if by 'virtue' is meant only 'moral virtue': Wisdom is a moral virtue and Moral virtue is wisdom? Why is it not Moral virtue is a wisdom?

Query: meaning of all virtue is knowledge and all knowledge is virtue?

Note that the first, "Virtue is knowledge", refers to moral virtue, whereas the second, "Knowledge is virtue", does not. Translators use the English words 'virtue' and 'wisdom' equivocally. For instance, the artisans Socrates questioned (Apology 22d-e) had knowledge ("wisdom") of their respective crafts (e.g. the tinker in the English folk song knows how to mend kettles and pots), and their kind of knowledge ("wisdom") is an excellence ("virtue") proper to man -- but it is not a moral excellence ("virtue"). Man can live without the artisans kind of excellence ("virtue"); but not without knowledge (of the kind we normally call wisdom) of moral virtue -- i.e. knowledge of how man should live if he is to live the life that is the good for man.

According to Aristotle, if I recall aright (and I may not, for he may have said: the exercise of the intellect, or, intelligence, rather than knowledge), knowledge is the specific excellence proper to man. Well, but whoever gave the title "homo sapiens" to man either had never read Plato's Apology [23a-b], or thought he knew better than Socrates, or was being ironic, when he gave our wretched species the title "man, the sapient" = "man, the wise" = "man, the sophist". (And if 'sapiens' is rendered as 'rational' rather than 'wise', then "man, the rational" is only a half-truth.)

"Knowledge is virtue"

Query: critique of Socrates' knowledge is virtue.

In contrast I think to the proposition 'Knowledge is a virtue'. Is there a difference between "If you know what is good, then you do what is good" and "If you do what is good, it is because you know what is good" -- i.e. between the propositions 'Virtue is knowledge' and 'Knowledge is virtue'? But is knowledge a moral virtue or only a natural virtue -- i.e. is it not the pursuit of the proper kind (for there is the idle kind as well) of knowledge which is a moral virtue, not the having of knowledge?

Query: what is meant by virtue and political virtue by Socrates and the Sophist?

It's a nice question -- what does the Sophist mean by 'virtue'? Does he deny that there is such a thing as moral virtue [i.e. good and evil], that instead of morals there exist only customs, that for the wise man political virtue is the art of getting what you want in society, and that the Sophists are able to teach that virtue? That is one model of 'Sophism', of the views of the Sophists if indeed their way of thinking had an essence.

[Related pages: Can man become good through Socratic "care of the soul"? | If a donkey kicks me, I want to kick it back, although I say I know this is irrational. | Why self-control is needed to reform bad habits -- because, formed in the time of ignorance, they are akin to instincts (second nature). | Whether virtue can be taught or learned.]

Query: Socrates' view of virtue as knowledge.

Now, what is the distinction between is and as here? The query says "view", and that was what I wrote at one time (I don't know why), that Virtue is knowledge is only a way of looking at things, neither provable (verifiable) nor refutable (falsifiable), not a proposition that asserts a fact. Which is correct: Is 'Virtue is knowledge' a statement-of-fact or a point-of-view? Well, could the proposition 'The good [in the case of living things, their perceived-good] is what all things aim for' be false?

Query: knowledge is virtue, and wrong doing is the result of ignorance.

We would not say that "ignorance is wrong-doing" unless it were culpable ignorance (e.g. not seeking to know things that are easily known (found out) and that one has a moral obligation to know), but that wrong-doing is the result of misperceiving the good. And so I think 'result of ignorance' is correct, as would be 'knowledge is the result of virtue' rather than 'knowledge is virtue'. Socrates in Xenophon explains what he means by 'Virtue is knowledge, and vice is ignorance'; but that statement's converse, namely 'Knowledge is virtue; ignorance is vice', is puzzling -- i.e. it demands that the reader invent a meaning for a combination of words that won't have one otherwise.

Query: why Socrates said that virtue and knowledge are the same thing.

The form of expression: 'the same thing' -- does that mean that 'virtue' DEF.= 'knowledge'? No, we don't use those two words the same way (They are not synonymous).

In what sense are virtue and knowledge "the same thing" for Socrates? If you know what is virtuous, then you will do what is virtuous (because you will aim for the correct mark, not mistaking the bad for the good), and If you do what is virtuous, it is because you know what virtue is (If you did not know, then you would aim for the wrong mark, mistaking the bad for the good).

(That is a general statement, but according to Plato in the Euthyphro it is necessary to have knowledge of the particular case if we are to do what is virtuous in the particular case. And we is often without that knowledge.)

'Virtue is knowledge' is a statement of fact -- but about reality or about the grammar of our language? It's not a definition of words -- but it can be defined in such a way as to make it tautological, as Xenophon does: If all men aim for what they "know" to be good, then if a man thinks he knows what he does not know, he will not aim for the good but for the bad. And thus someone who is mistaken about what is good cannot do what is good (Even if he tries, he will fail).

Virtue is knowledge. It only appears contrary-wise because: "I say I know one thing, but I really believe I know something else [something different] to be true instead."

Compare this to Plato and logical form: rewriting propositions to show their true grammar. Thus the logical form of 'I affirm p' is 'I affirm q where qp', as is shown by this: that my acts are consistent with q but inconsistent with p.

[Related pages: Russell's Theory of Descriptions | Russell's "philosophical grammar" | Those concerned with form rather than with use (Wittgenstein's critical statement)]

Ambiguity of the English word 'is'. Saying that A is identical to B versus saying something about A. Saying that the word 'A' and 'B' are names of a single thing, as e.g. 'windscreen' and 'windshield' versus, for example, the proposition 'The sky is gray', where we are saying something about the sky: an attribute or quality of this afternoon's sky ('to predicate'). The distinction is between a definition of a word and a proposition about something (other than the rules of a language).

The proposition 'There are definitions of words in a dictionary' or 'A dictionary contains definitions of words' is not a statement of fact (except about the English language), despite the word 'contains' suggesting that the proposition is stating a quality or attribute of dictionaries. The propositions is a grammatical remark.

"A chance quality versus a defined quality." But a logically necessary proposition does not state a matter of chance. Then are all tautologies explanations of meaning (i.e. definitions)? Look at Plato's tautologies in ethics for examples. (The dual role of Plato's tautologies.)

"I don't believe it, although I say I know it"

The way I live, the things I do, shows that I don't believe x, although I say I know x. Aren't I being truthful (even with myself), then? Is that because I choose to speak of "weakness of the will", because that gives me an escape from thinking things through? Or is it instead because: being the creature of a community of ideas, that is the way I have been brought up to think, to use that set of concepts which are our community's common currency. Everyone in our community thinks that way -- except the one who thinks philosophically, and that means: the one who has stepped outside our community of ideas.

And so I have asked about belief, about what we mean when we say that someone 'believes' something if it makes no difference in the way he lives. If a man says he believes that x is right, e.g. that x is what he ought to do, but does not do x, then I am reminded of the words of the Letter of James: "Show me your faith without your works", your belief without your deeds. The question is: What does the man mean when he says he believes if he doesn't live in accord with what he says he believes? Is he deluding himself, lying to himself and believing his own lies?

I don't believe it (as my actions show), but I say I know it. I may give reasons for saying 'I know', but I myself don't find them -- as, again, my actions show -- compelling. But aren't those reasons compelling (if by 'compelling' we mean 'sufficient to prove the truth or falsity of the proposition'), then? Schweitzer speaks of "the stubborn man within". That man does not want to think things through; he does not want to examine the reasons [justification] for, reasons against x. Maybe he believes (a priori ("before the test of experience"), of course) that this would be fruitless (as Plato's misologist believes), or he may fear being convinced that he should not do what, in his condition of ignorance, he wants to do. That is, he has no faith in philosophy as the tool for discovering how we should live our life.

Query: I know what I think because of what I do.

There is a relation here to "I say ... but I think I know something else", but it is not always easy to deduce what I think (believe) from what I do -- i.e. to state as a positive proposition, not merely as a negation of what I say I know. Maybe it would be clearer to say: "By what I do, I know what I really think, in contrast to the thought I give mouth honor to" -- depending on the grammar we are applying to [i.e. how we are defining] 'what I really think'.

Ignorance and wrong-doing

Query: according to Socrates, how can one be responsible for one's actions?

If vice is ignorance and no one is willingly ignorant, then it seems no one can be held responsible for their actions. And indeed we have the stories about Socrates, "If a donkey kicks me, should I take it to court?" and "If I saw a man in worse health than myself, should I be offended?" which shows he was merciful to the ignorant.

A conundrum for me

Query: meaning of to know does little or even nothing for virtue. Aristotle.

The reply is here: Aristotle, the observer of life: an account of ethics indifferent to ethics. Contra Aristotle is Socrates: why knowledge is everything for virtue (when a rational act is made).

Query: why does one never willingly do wrong?

But if that is so, then why do I eat fish, as I do every day? For am I not willingly doing what is wrong -- 'willingly' meaning both (1) 'choosing to do wrong' and (2) 'knowing that I am choosing to do wrong'? Why do I eat fish when I would not myself kill a fish in order to eat it, because that is cruel and for now unnecessary? Or rather, how is it that I do it? Is it by refusing to think about it? Or is it by lying to myself, saying, "It's not so bad"? But if 'knowing that is a lie' = 'denying that is a lie', then! what is the word 'know' to mean?

Or am I one who refuses to amend his life but chooses to continue in wrong-doing (cf. Matthew 13.15)? "Neither did they repent of their murders," the chapter title was. Schweitzer's expression "the stubborn man within" is about the irrational soul, whereas my conundrum is about the rational soul.

And what of milk and butter and cheese -- I myself would never condemn a sheep or a cow to that way of life. Why, then? That is the puzzle if virtue is indeed knowledge.

Few men are good, and perhaps even fewer desire to be. Few men would choose to be morally virtuous, even if they could. Which seems a strange and disturbing paradox.

Is man a rational being capable of discovering the good for himself and living a life of moral excellence, or a pleasure-driven animal doomed to an ignorant egoism? Man, know thyself, it was said at the temple of Apollo's oracle at Delphi.

Platonic conundrum

For Plato, unlike for Socrates, the proposition 'Virtue is knowledge' suggests a metaphysical puzzle about the Forms. Plato asks whether virtue is a unity or a multiplicity of individual virtues (Protagoras 329c-d; here is one possibility). Is virtue a single Form (or is it a "blending of Forms")? If virtue is one rather than many, then virtue is knowledge of the good; but if virtue is a multiplicity, then is the good [the Good] itself one or many?


In the Garden of Gethsemane ("strength of will")

The disciples in Gethsemane, on one account, could not keep awake, because their bodies demanded sleep and would not let them stay awake, anymore than their bodies would let them fly. -- But that is very different -- i.e. that is not a "weakness of the will".

But, on Schweitzer's account (Quest (1910), xix, p. 392-393), the words "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" concern the expressed willingness ("the spirit is willing") of the three disciples to undergo with Jesus the trials of the last days spoken of in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6.13). Jesus is wiser, however, and himself prays not to face those trails because he believes the trials will be truly terrible and that many will fail to remain faithful (for "the flesh is weak"). The three disciples, however, do not understand just how near at hand the trials are for Jesus.

[The "nevertheless" form of expression. "Mercy is important, but ..." implying "but something else is more important". But in Christianity nothing is more important than mercy, because love is merciful. Tolstoy: "Whenever people believe there is something more important that loving one's neighbor as oneself [ibid. 22.39], that is when every cruelty becomes possible" (Resurrection).]


Albert Schweitzer's own Christianity

Note: this supplements the discussion Ethical versus Explanatory Religion.

There are no heroes of action -- only heroes of renunciation and suffering. (Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, tr. A.B. Lemke (1990), Chapter 9, p. 88-89)

I do think that "gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail" and that Schweitzer's youthful correspondence really should not be nosed about in ... if it were foolishness rather than the statement of a considered world- and life-view. But it is not. Elsewhere I wrote that both Wittgenstein and Schweitzer were Christians -- in some sense of the word 'Christian' -- But in which sense? In Schweitzer's case in the sense of: "A Christian is one who has the spirit of Christ. This is the only theology" (The Schweitzer Album (1965), p. 37). And to have the spirit of Jesus far more than I have the spirit of the one I would most want to be like (sc. Socrates), because Jesus was Schweitzer's master in both word and deed (Indeed, in Schweitzer there was a complete unity of word and deed). Before they were married Schweitzer wrote to the girl he was to marry:

If I should come to the conclusion tomorrow that there is no god, and no immortality, and that morality is only an invention of society -- that would not touch me at all. (Letter, 6 September 1903) To know only Jesus of Nazareth; to continue his work as the only religion, not to bear what Christianity has absorbed over the years in vulgarity. Not to be afraid of Hell, not to strive for the joys of Heaven, not to live in false fear, not the fake devotion that has become an essential part of our religion -- and yet that one understands the one Great One, and that one knows that one is his disciple.... Yes, I serve him, because of him, only because of him -- because he is the only truth, the only happiness. (1 May 1904) (The Albert Schweitzer - Hélène Bresslau Letters, 1902-1912, tr. Antje Lemke (2001), quoted in Brabazon's Albert Schweitzer: a biography, 2nd ed. (2000), Chapter 9, p. 150-151)

[Aside comparison. The author of a hymn attributed to Francis Xavier which is known by its Latin title O Deus, ego amo te (the original Spanish language version in Brodrick, Origin of the Jesuits [1940] v, [1971] p. 180-181) says that he is not moved by the Heaven Christ has promised him nor by fear of Hell, but rather by seeing the Lord nailed to the cross, His body so wounded, the affronts to Him and His death. "I am moved by Your love."

[Mueveme en fin tu amor, en tal manera
Que aunque no hubiera Cielo, yo te amara,
Y no hubiera Infierno, te temiera.
No me tienes que dar porque te quiera,
Porque aunque lo que espero no esperara
Lo mismo que te quiero, te quisiera.]

The Effect of Reading Nietzsche

Those who were torn from their false certainty when his impassioned writings descended on the lowlands of the thought of the outgoing nineteenth century, as the south wind sweeps down from the high mountains in spring, can never forget the gratitude they owe to this upheaver of thought, with his preaching of veracity and personality. (Civilization and Ethics, 2nd ed. (London, 1929), tr. C.T. Campion, Chapter 15, p. 175)

What was this veracity? According to Nietzsche, although mankind in words upheld the Christian standard of self-renunciation, of self-sacrifice for the sake of other human beings, in practice mankind upheld the selfish assertion of one's own personality. Man lived in a condition of insincerity (the opposite of truthfulness).

The church of Sybaris and the kingdom of God

The Catholic church next door is building -- no, not a shelter for the homeless, the "orphan men" (van Gogh) nobody wants -- but a "recreation center". When I remarked on this, I was told, "Do you want homeless people living near you? Homeless people have problems." And this was Nietzsche's criticism, I think, that one shouldn't deceive oneself, that one shouldn't call oneself [a] Christian if one rejects [doing] the very things Jesus called his followers to do. Jesus asks, "Why do you call me Master, but not do what I tell you?" As in the Russian saying, "man daily hears the words of Christ, but he prefers his own." There may or may not be harm in sport, but what has sport to do with the gospel of our Lord?

For our Lord things are clear: you cannot belong both to this world and to the kingdom of God; you cannot have a foot in both worlds; you must choose. The church of the poor is the church of the kingdom of God. The sybarite church is the church of this world. Catholic Christianity is only too willing to allow you to have a foot in both worlds, and indeed to have more weight on the foot in this world, giving but mouth honor to the kingdom of God. (There is rhetoric and there is practice, and there is self-deception and there is hypocrisy.)

We mustn't lie to ourselves about [who] what we really are. Most of us give little more than mouth honor to our religion, regardless of which religion it is. Am I one who is sent out fishing but falls asleep in the boat, returning in the evening with nothing to offer the Lord? Am I a "a hearer of the word only" (Jas. 1.22) or one who loves both God and his neighbor as himself "not in word only but in deed" (1 John 3.18)? I mustn't deceive myself about this.

Brabazon writes, I don't know whether or not correctly, as if Schweitzer were as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Jesus, and indeed he notes (Albert Schweitzer, Chapter 8, p. 129) that some critics accused Schweitzer of presenting a "Nietzschean" Jesus in his Quest of the Historical Jesus.

... the lectures of Georg Simmel [Schweitzer attended these in Berlin in the summer of 1899 (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 2, p. 21)] seem to have relevance. Simmel was the philosopher who tried to separate the notion of self-transcendence in Nietzsche from its concomitant arrogance toward others. This would be entirely to Schweitzer's taste as he strove to rise above himself, aiming for greatness, the one who stands alone, yet still a man among men. (Albert Schweitzer, Chapter 9, p. 150)

On the one hand, Jesus teaches self-renunciation, but on the other hand, being truthful with oneself reveals the assertion of one's own personality. How did Schweitzer reconcile these two forces within himself? With his idea of Reverence for Life.

The ethic of reverence for life ... allows to rank as good only the maintenance and promotion of life. All destruction of and injury to life, under whatever circumstances they take place, it condemns as evil.

[The ethic of reverence for life] bids me think of others, and makes me ponder whether I can allow myself the inward right to pluck all the fruit that my hand can reach. Thus it may happen that in obedience to consideration for the existence of others I do what seems to ordinary opinion to be folly. Yes, it may even show itself to be folly by the fact that my renunciation has not been of the slightest benefit to him for whom it was made. And yet I was right. Reverence for life is the highest court of appeal. What it commands has its own significance, even if it seems foolish or useless. (Civilization and Ethics, Chapter 21, p. 255, 259)

This alludes to when Schweitzer gave up an academic fellowship earlier than required so that another scholar might receive it. Schweitzer thus lost an opportunity to travel more and to study in England. But in the event the scholar for whom the sacrifice was made never claimed the fellowship. (Out of My Life and Thought, Chapter 3, p. 25) And so Schweitzer's renunciation of it had been "folly" [cf. 1 Cor. 1.23-24, I think].

Final remark. Would Schweitzer have said, as did Dostoyevsky: "If anyone could prove to me that the truth stood on one side and Christ on the other, I would chose to stand with Christ and against the truth"? If by 'truth' Dostoyevsky meant what Schweitzer writes of above, "If I should come to the conclusion tomorrow ...", then it seems he would, and that both men found in Jesus, not necessarily metaphysical truth, but religious truth. I would say that Schweitzer's attachment to Jesus was of the same intensity as the attachment of Dostoyevsky to Christ. Both would have said, "In him I have found my master; and I want no other."

Goethe's description of a Christian in Briefe des Pastors (1772) as "one who calls Jesus his master" ... (Werner Picht, Albert Schweitzer [1959], tr. Fitzgerald (1964), p. 178)

Bultmann and Bonhoeffer

In 1941 Rudolf Bultmann presented his treatise "The New Testament and Mythology". Bonhoeffer welcomed it, although Bonhoeffer's view of the "demythologizing question" seems to have remained (mostly) contrary to Bultmann's.

I am delighted with Bultmann's new booklet. I am continually impressed by the intellectual honesty of his work.

I am one of those who welcomed the treatise, not because I agree with it ... To put it crudely: [Bultmann] has let the [liberal] cat out of the bag not only for himself, but for a great many people ... and for that I am glad. He has ventured to say what many people inwardly repress (I include myself) without having overcome it. In that way he has rendered a service in intellectual integrity and honesty.... The questions now have to be answered plainly. I should like to talk to [Bultmann] about it, and I would willingly expose myself to the draught of fresh air that he brings. But then the window must be shut again ... (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (English tr. 1970), p. 616)

Bultmann's ideas were a call to honesty with oneself (to not professing one thing, while thinking/living another), as Schweitzer said Nietzsche's ideas had been.


Awaiting an insight, a philosophical Gestalt shift

I was asked at table "what I was reading these days" and answered "old philosophy books, the same things over and over again, but I do not understand them". "But you understand a little more each time you read them?" No, I don't, although my understanding may shift, there is no criterion for saying which understanding the correct understanding would be (cf. the correct aspect of a Gestalt to grasp).

I think this may be a sound analogy (which doesn't make it one). One may look again and again at a figure, seeking to see a new aspect -- as one does when we look at the figures that exemplify the many kinds of Gestalt shift. But there is no necessity about the figure shifting for you to another aspect: you may never be able to see the pig's head no matter how long or often you scan the image with your eyes. And so it is in philosophy. It may seem that an insight may be needed in order to understand (cf. OC, bracketed remark between §§ 470 and 471), but it does not follow that an insight will come to you. You ask yourself again and again: Am I looking at this the right way? if there is a right way.

The universal Gestalt shift: the new way of looking at language. I am not good at inventing metaphors; nonetheless here is another. Goethe has in Faust: "You must either be the hammer or the anvil." Now, the old way of looking at language is that language is the hammer and you are the helpless victim of language, whereas the new way of looking at language is that language is the anvil and you are the hammer -- i.e. in the new view, language changes from having control over you to your having control over it: it becomes a tool in your hands. One has definite answers to questions such as "What is the meaning of a word?" and "What is the meaning of 'meaning'?", methods for arriving at clarity.

The change is as decisive e.g. as that from the alchemical to the chemical way of thinking. -- The new way of thinking is what is so hard to establish [It can only come from thinking about problems in a new way].

[But once] it is established the old problems disappear; indeed it becomes hard to recapture them. For they go with [or, are embedded] in the way we express ourselves ... (CV p. 48 [MS 131 48: 15.8.1946 §§ 1-2])

Do the old problems disappear because we use a new form of expression? I wonder if Wittgenstein's account is true; because I still use the expression 'in the mind' and others like it, although I no longer construe the grammar of 'mind' as if that word were the name of an object. I certainly, after Wittgenstein, think about the logic of our language in a new way, but I still use the accustomed forms of expression of our language. Maybe an example of what Wittgenstein had in mind is the change from "theory of abstraction" to similarities in plain view ("family resemblances"), because we no longer try to explain language meaning with theories or use expressions such as 'abstract object'.


Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet or Form mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 10 November 2019 : 2019-11-10, 30 November 2018 and 29 July 2017 (Original revision 5 November 2007)

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/logwit61.html

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Map | Site Search