This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.


The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.