Achilles, Meno, and Bees

Achilles, Meno, and Bees

Several philosophers in the late twentieth century set the characters of The Iliad so far apart from modern man that Achilles, Diomedes, and Agammemnon seem almost to belong to another species. I have written about Julian Jaynes and his claims about how the minds of these characters differed from our own. Alasdair MacIntyre invoked these same figures to make the case that that our ancestors had a far more complete comprehension of the nature of the good and that this grasp of what is right was more widely shared than in the modern age.

Heroic man didn’t have an abstract notion of the good in general, a good that held for men and women, slave and king, Greek and barbarian. For Achilles and Diomedes, the good was always specific to a social role. A king had duties and the virtues of a king were those excellences that helped him fulfill those duties. There was one virtue for a wife and another for a son. A good king was just and magnanimous to his subjects, a good wife was faithful and obedient to her husband, and a good son was dutiful to his father.

Tribes who live in what is taken to be an earlier stage of development, or our own ancestors from the distant past, are sometimes represent as ignorant of, or perhaps free from, certain abstractions. We’re told that they live in the particular and the concrete. Benjamin Whorf claimed that the Hopi have no concept of time in general. And, according to MacIntyre, heroic man had no concept of a good that applied to very person, both men and women, Greek and barbarian.

The heroes of The Iliad were fighting in a war and in combat it is often best not to think, or at least to view the world through blinkers. The Hector who takes the field is a much narrower man than the wife of Andromache or the father of Astyanax. Men who serve in a fighting unit have their role to fill and they do what is asked of them without question when fighting in the field, but that doesn’t mean that they lack a notion of right and wrong that applies to all persons.

When Socrates asks Meno what virtue is, he answers:

There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man-he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may be easily described: her duty is to order the house and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless and no lack of definitions of them for virtues are relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do.

Meno’s definition is just like that which might be given by Agammemnon but he is a young man who’s grown up centuries later in a setting far more sophisticated that the virile but rude age of heroes. Perhaps this attitude isn’t the mark of an early stage in history but one natural to every unreflecting mind.

Socrates thanks Meno for offering him a swarm of virtues when he asks for only one. He keeps going with the insect analogy and points out that while there are many kinds of bees, they have one nature in common by which they are all bees, and asks for the one good which is common to all virtues. Socrates is after one universal good of which the several virtues are particulars. Just after this he gives another analogy where circles and squares and triangles are all figures, just like the various virtues are all virtue in general.


Socrates isn’t content with a list of virtues that are common to every citizen. He is seeking one universal virtue that is common to every individual. The good is one and the good is universal, to be a guide and a goal in all time and all places. This universality and abstraction puts him very far from the presentation of the heroic man as limited to his caste and situation.

There is one more difference. The hero of Nietzche’s imagining is proud above all and disdains humility. Yet Socrates, by professing that he isn’t wise and knows nothing, is quite humble.


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