A philosopher is neither a teller nor a listener

The brash, young, wealthy aristocrat approaches Socrates and says to him, ‘Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?’ (Meno 70a). Meno wants to be told, perhaps he even demands to be, and doubtless he would like to know this in order to add virtue to his repertoire of wealth, status, and the mastery of rhetoric. It is not that Socrates refuses to tell Meno; it is rather that he believes Meno does not know what it is he is after.

The opening scene nicely dramatizes a few common misconceptions of counseling. Some will come to me and ask or demand to be told what to do, what to think, or how to live. I do not go along with this, since I do not believe that the philosopher is an adviser in the sense of someone who tells–or would do well to tell–others these sorts of things. Either someone is open to inquiring (in which case, one may be ready to put one’s life to the question), or one is not. If one is not, then that person is not a philosophical adult or not on the way to becoming a philosophical adult. Instead, he will spend most of his life demanding of others that he be told how to think, act, or live.

It would seem to follow that if one is not going to advise another, then one had better be a good listener. But this does not follow, and rarely does simply listening to another do him any good. A philosopher is not a listener, though he needs to be able to listen well. Return to Plato’s dialogue. In Meno, Socrates shows the young man not just that he is asking the wrong question (whether virtue can be taught) but also that there is a better question to ask (what virtue is). Furthermore, he shows Meno what sort of question this question is (how, that is, to get a handle on it) and why it matters to ask this question before all others. Whereas an expert gets paid to say the same things he already (thinks) he knows and whereas a listener gets paid to listen to another speak for weeks and years about the wrong sorts of things and with the wrong kind of attention and, as a result, without doing any good, a philosopher may show another from the very beginning that he needs to put aside subjects that can go nowhere now or ever. For a philosopher and his pupil, formulating a new question is like revealing a new terrain, one that calls for hearty, open, concerted exploration.

In short, a philosopher is neither one who tells another how to live nor one who listens to how others have lived inasmuch as they have lived deficiently. The first is hubris on the part of the counselor, the second reveals the endeavor to be utterly pointless. A philosopher turns away the arrogant, the immature, and those simply looking to be heard. Thereby, he readies himself to receive the right person, the kind of person who is willing to venture forth with him in order to find out.