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.

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