in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: October 10, 2022

Podcast #838: Can Virtue Be Taught?

The ancient Greeks and Romans thought a lot about what it means to live a virtuous life. They believed that good character was essential for achieving both individual excellence and a healthy, well-functioning society. For this reason, they also thought a lot about whether virtue could be taught to citizens, and philosophers put this thinking into practice by attempting to educate the moral ideals of leaders.

My guest, professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci, explores what the Greco-Romans discovered about the nature and teachability of virtue in his new book: The Quest for Character. Today on the show, Massimo and I discuss how the ancient Greeks and Romans defined virtue, and what it meant to them to live with arete, or excellence. We then look at case studies of philosophers who tried to shape men into being better leaders, including Socrates teaching Alcibiades, Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great, and Seneca mentoring Nero. Massimo explains how these field experiments turned out, and the takeaways they offer on the question of whether virtue can be taught. We end our conversation with the ancient insights that have been confirmed by modern research that can help us become better people.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought a lot about what it means to live a virtuous life. They believed that good character was essential for achieving both individual excellence and a healthy, well functioning society. For this reason, they also thought a lot about whether virtue could be taught to citizens, and philosophers put this thinking into practice by attempting to educate the moral ideals of leaders. My guest, professor of philosophy, Massimo Pigliucci, explores what the Greco-Romans discovered about the nature and teachability of virtue in his new book, The Quest for Character. During the Show, Massimo and I discuss how the ancient Greeks and Romans defined virtue, and what it meant to them to live with arete, or excellence. We then look at case studies of philosophers who tried to shape men into being better leaders, including Socrates teaching Alcibiades, Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great and Seneca mentoring Nero. Massimo explains how these field experiments turned out, and the takeaways they offer on the question of whether virtue can be taught. We end our conversation with the ancient insights that have been confirmed by modern research that can help us become better people. After show’s over, check at our show notes at

Massimo Pigliucci, welcome to the show.

Massimo Pigliucci: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of philosophy and you got a new book out called The Quest for Character: What the story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders. And this is a great, very readable introduction to moral philosophy. For those who aren’t familiar with moral philosophy, how would you describe it? And you’re an academic, how does moral philosophy differ from a lot of the philosophy you see at academia today?

Massimo Pigliucci: Oh, it differs a lot. So, first of all, moral philosophy refers to… Depending on who you ask, I guess. So in modern terms, and that means for the last, let’s say, two and a half centuries. Moral philosophy deals with the question of right and wrong. So if you’re asking yourself, “I’m about to do a particular act, to carry out a particular action, is this right or wrong thing to do?” then you’re doing moral philosophy, whether you realize it or not. And there are a number of, you know, major theories in academic philosophy that deal with how to settle questions of right and wrong. So for instance, you could be a utilitarian, you could say, “Well, you know, whatever is right is whatever has the best consequences and increases people’s happiness. And whatever is wrong is whatever does the opposite.”

But in the sense in which I use it in the book, morality and ethics, which I use interchangeably, they mean the same thing to me, they’re really about how to live your life. So it’s a much broader question than just, is this action right or wrong? Of course, how to live your life includes questions of right and wrong. We all face issues of, you know, should I do this or should I not do this? But it’s much broader. For the ancient Greco-Romans ethics, or morality, which is really the Latin translation of the Greek word for ethics means, you know, what kind of priorities should I have in life? What is important, what is not important? How should I behave with respect to other people? And how should I be able to respect to myself in a sense, what are my priorities? Why am I doing, what am I doing?

Brett McKay: Why were the Greco-Romans, the Greeks, and the Romans so concerned with these questions? Particularly what we’re gonna talk about this day, particularly in regards to leadership.

Massimo Pigliucci: I think everybody’s concerned with these questions. But the Greco-Romans really put a lot of thought into it in a sense, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re still so relevant to us today. You know, often people ask me, “Why bother going back, you know, two millennia, two and a half millennia? Don’t we… Things have changed in the meantime. Don’t we do things differently?” And the answer to that is, well, yes and no. We do things differently as in, you know, we have a lot of science and technology that the Greco-Romans certainly did not have. Aristotle would be stunned by the way in which you and I are communicating right now, for instance. However, in terms of human nature, in terms of what we want and what we don’t want, what we aspire to and what we wanna stay away from, things haven’t really changed that much. We’re still are going after the same things, and we’re still afraid of the same things. And that is why the Greco-Romans are still relevant, because they thought a lot about this. They were not the only ones of course. In ancient India, for instance, Buddha and others, or in ancient China, Confucius and others, they pretty much similar thinking and arrived actually often at similar conclusions. But within the Western tradition, it is the Greco-Romans who really did most of the heavy lifting.

Brett McKay: So, Greco-Roman moral philosophy is all about becoming virtuous. For these Greco-Roman moral philosophers, what did virtue mean? ‘Cause I think their idea of virtue is different from our popular idea of virtue today.

Massimo Pigliucci: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, today, if we think about the word virtue at all, we tend to think about the Christian version, because of course we come out of 2000 years, history of Christianity. And so we tend to think about things like chastity and purity and things like that. That’s not what the Greco-Romans were referring to. For the Greco-Romans, a virtue is a type of excellence. In fact, the Greek word is arete, which literally means excellence. And the idea therefore is to be the best human being you can be. And that of course means different things. And one of the important contributions of the Greeks and the Romans was to sort of unpack what that means. But the word excellence applies to all sorts of things, not just to human beings, for instance. I mean, you can have an excellent knife, which is defined as a knife that cuts very well, right? Well, that’s a virtuous knife according to this way of thinking. So in terms of being humans, what does it mean to be virtuous? Well, it means that you’re very good at living with other human beings because that’s your job, that is what you do.

And living well with other human beings, according to the Greco Romans fundamentally meant following four virtues: Practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is and is not good, in general and for you in particular. Justice is the knowledge of how to treat other people fairly, with respect, the way in which you were wanting to be treated. Courage is the knowledge that you should be behaving in a certain way regardless of the fact that it might cost you at a personal level. And then finally, temperance is a question of acting in the right way, in the right measure, not too much, not too little. If you follow those four according to the Greco-Romans, you’re gonna have a good life.

Brett McKay: Well, as you said, virtue for these guys meant excellence, being an excellent human being. But how they figured that out, what does it mean to be an excellent human being? Everyone took different approaches and just give people an idea, what was the approach that Plato took? And can we maybe contrast that to how Aristotle tried to figure out what excellence meant or virtue meant?

Massimo Pigliucci: Well, Plato actually did follow the four virtues that I just mentioned. Aristotle actually expanded that number because he was really into classifying things, into taxonomy, and so he actually expanded the list to about 12 virtues. But essentially, for both of them, a good human life, what they referred to as a eudaimonic life, eudaimonia in Greek just means a good life, a life worth living, is a life that works well for a human being. Now, let’s try to figure out what that means. Let’s say that you invite me over for dinner and as a present, I bring you a plant, let’s say a cactus right?

Brett McKay: Okay.

Massimo Pigliucci: And now you have to take care of the cactus. Okay, now, in order to take care of the cactus, you have to know something about what makes cacti happy. If you just say, “Well, it’s a plant, it wants lots of water, you’re probably gonna kill it because it’s not a plant, it’s a desert plant. So it doesn’t… Yes, it does need water, but not too much. On the other hand, it does need a lot of light, if you put in the shade, it’s also gonna die, etcetera, etcetera. So there are certain things that are in the nature of cacti that make a particular type of life good for them and other kinds of lives not good. The Greco-Romans reasoned that the same goes for human beings. Human beings are a particular kind of animal, we are social animal, endowed… We are very intelligent social animals endowed with the ability to reason. We tend to solve our problems by reasoning about it. So a good human life, therefore, is a life that is social, where you interact in a positive fashion cooperatively with other human beings, and when you get to use your brain basically, which is your most powerful evolutionary weapon, so to speak, in order to solve problems. So human excellence means a high capacity to reason and a high ability to live socially.

Brett McKay: And yeah, as you said earlier, other cultures had similar ideas, and maybe… Confucianism is all about… That’s the same conclusion, we are social beings. And the way they try to express virtue was different from how the Greco-Romans did, they had these very set rituals and social protocols you’re supposed to follow, but it was the same idea.

Massimo Pigliucci: It is the same fundamental idea, and too many times, often, these people are interested in this differences between philosophies, “Oh the Confucians think this, the Buddhist think that, the Stoics think that.” Yeah, there are obviously differences, but what I think is more interesting in fact are the similarities, because if the same idea occurred to different people across the globe in different centuries, maybe there is something to that idea. And so this notion that we are to behave in a virtuous fashion, meaning cooperatively with other people, be nice to other people, be cognizant of the fact that we are a society that for… Where the individuals depend on others in order to not only survive but actually thrive, well, that idea has occurred to a lot of different people in different times and cultures. And so probably there’s something to it.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the Greco-Roman philosophers, they spent a lot of time thinking, debating about what is virtue, what does it mean to be an excellent human. But then after that, they started thinking about, Okay, can we teach other humans to be more virtuous? Can virtue be taught? This is an important question, this is how civil society can exist. And there’s two Socratic dialogues that wrestle with this question, can virtue be taught? And what’s interesting is they both come to different conclusions, which is disheartening. Can you walk us through the arguments as to whether virtue can be taught that are found in the Meno and the Protagoras?

Massimo Pigliucci: Yeah, so those are both as you say platonic dialogues that both feature Socrates, and Socrates comes up with two different conclusions, in fact, diametrically opposite conclusion. In the Meno, his conclusion is that, No, you cannot teach virtue very likely, and in the Protagoras, he arrives at the opposite conclusion. Now, what do we make of this? First of all, we need to figure out what is it exactly that Socrates is doing there. In the Meno, Socrates is debating the question of whether we can teach virtue, and in the end he says, “Look, if teacher were the kind of thing that you can teach, then I would expect to see teachers of it around,” just in the same way in which you can teach other skills, and therefore you have teachers accordingly.

You should see a lot of teachers of wisdom, and he says, “I don’t see anybody, I don’t see anybody that can do that, that sort of stuff.” So it tentatively concludes that virtue cannot be taught. However, that tentative conclusion is then reversed in the Protagoras. Now, Protagoras is an interesting dialogue because it’s named after a sophist, and the sophists were in a sense the arch-enemies of Socrates, there’s several platonic dialogues that feature debates between Socrates and the sophists. However, in this particular case, the sophist, Protagoras, not only argues successfully with Socrates, but Socrates at the end of the dialogue actually changes his mind. And he says, “Yeah, you’re right. I guess that’s correct. Virtue can be taught.” And how does Socrates arrive to that stunning conclusion? Because he’s convinced by a number of arguments that Protagoras puts forth, one of which is that virtue is a little bit like, let’s say, learning how to play an instrument, right? It’s the kind of thing that requires a little bit of theory. You want to… You wanna know a little bit about musical theory and musical notation if you want to be successful at playing an instrument, but mostly, it requires a lot of practice, and that practice is helped if you go and learn from somebody who’s already a good practitioner of it, right?

Massimo Pigliucci: In fact, Protagoras at some point says, “Look Socrates, imagine that the survival, the very survival of our society, dependent on everybody playing music, no matter how well, but everybody playing. What would… What do you think would happen? We would be teaching music to everybody.” And some people would, of course, be virtuosos and would be really good at what they’re doing, others will barely be able to produce at tune. But nevertheless, the skill can be taught to everybody and everybody would improve. And the idea is the same is true for virtue. Sure, some people are gonna be naturally so much better, they’re gonna be much more pro-social, much more altruistic, and whatever it is, than others, but we can all improve. And part of that improvement comes through knowing what virtue is. So that’s the theory, right? Knowing where you want to go with this. But mostly it comes out of hanging around people like Socrates who are actually already very virtuous and that you can learn from just observing them and following them and imitating them in a sense.

Brett McKay: So the thing about Greco-Roman moral philosophers was that it wasn’t just theory for them. They didn’t just talk about these things in the agora. They actually tried to put the theory into practice. And same thing happened with Socrates. And you use the relationship between Socrates and an Athenian playboy/politician named Alcibiades to explore this idea whether virtue can be taught. So in the Protagoras, Socrates is like, “Yeah, virtue can be taught.” We’re gonna see this in action with Alcibiades. Why is Alcibiades such a great case study in whether virtue can be taught or not?

Massimo Pigliucci: I think Alcibiades is a great case study because it is in the end a failure, a big failure. And we learn often more from failure than from success. Socrates did succeed in teaching virtue to other people. You can see not only in the platonic dialogues, but also in dialogues by another friend of Socrates, Xenophon, that he actually does succeed in a number of cases. But with Alcibiades, he failed spectacularly and he knows why he failed. And so there is this wonderful dialogue, the Alcibiades major which is attributed to Plato, although we don’t really know whether Plato wrote it or not. But nevertheless, it is one of our major sources on the relationship between these two. And the dialogue features a young Alcibiades who was dashing and brave and full of himself, of course, and handsome and rich, right?

He was, it was everything that you could possibly want to be as a young man. And he goes to Socrates and says, “Look, I wanna be a leader in Athens. I wanna really make an impact here, make a difference, but I understand that I need help and I need help from somebody like you, like my mentor, like Socrates.” So the two start talking about it, and Socrates tries to figure out what kind of ideas Alcibiades has in mind. And at the end of the dialogue, the conclusion is stunning because Socrates says, “I’m sorry, Alcibiades. You just don’t have the stuff that it takes. If you are going to do what you think… What you want to do, if you want to become a leader in Athens, this is gonna be a disaster. And the reason it’s gonna be a disaster, it’s because you don’t care enough about virtue. You don’t care enough about the common good. You really care only about yourself. You are self-aggrandizing narcissist,” essentially, in modern terminology.

And of course, it turns out that Socrates was right. Alcibiades ignores his advice and goes on anyway to lead Athens during Peloponnesian War. And it is in fact a disaster. Alcibiades… I’m surprised that Alcibiades’ life has not been the subject of a movie so far, because it was really incredibly interesting. And he lived in one of the most interesting times in the history of ancient Greece, but nevertheless, he did exactly what Socrates predicted. It was a complete disaster that cost a lot of Athenian lives and eventually the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

Brett McKay: What do you think the takeaway for… Maybe we don’t know, but maybe from Socrates or Plato about Alcibiades, like, what was the takeaway? Okay, if a guy just doesn’t want it enough, then you can’t teach virtue?

Massimo Pigliucci: Right. So the idea is not disimilar to what any modern teacher in any subject will tell you. If somebody doesn’t wanna be taught, there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s not much you can do about it. If the person is open, if the person is at least interested in genuinely learning something, then there is absolutely something you can do. Then you can definitely teach people. But if there is a mental closure, it’s just not gonna happen. Look, the best time to teach somebody, to start teaching somebody virtue, and in general, sort of how to live properly in a human society is when they’re very young, very, very young, which is one of the unfortunate tragedies of modern society, we don’t teach moral philosophy. We don’t teach how to behave to our kids by and large. We teach them a lot of other stuff, but not really anything about ethics in the sense of how to live in a human society. Once you get to the age of Alcibiades or you’re in your twenties, let’s say, or even later, there is not much there left to do, unless the person wants to improve, unless the person is in fact convinced that something needs to be done. It’s a question… Aristotle famously said that virtue is by and large a question of habit.

You get into it. And then because you do it over and over, and over, it kinda eventually becomes second nature. But guess what? The best time to learn a habit, either in a good sense or in a negative sense, is when you’re a kid. If you get used to things, then you’ll do it. Let me give you a completely different example that has to do not with virtue but let’s say with physical activity, right? For years, I just wouldn’t wanna listen to… When people would tell me, “You need to get to the gym and start doing some exercise,” it’s like, “No.” Because I wasn’t exposed to that when I was a kid. I was not introduced to that way of thinking. It took me years of experience and self-reflection and all that, and then finally said, “You know what, I don’t like this thing, but I guess I need to do it because it’s good for me,” and now I’ve been doing it regularly for a long time. But it came out of me, not out of somebody else telling me, “This is good for you.” I wouldn’t listen. It took me quite a bit of time to get around to that idea. But if somebody had taught me when I was a kid, that would have been a completely different thing. And that is why, unfortunately again, we do not spend enough time teaching our kids about these kind of things.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.

Okay, so Socrates failed with Alcibiades. You highlighted some other philosophers who try to put this idea that virtue can be taught into practice by coaching, mentoring, teaching other leaders. Another famous one was Aristotle. He famously tutored Alexander the Great. When did that relationship start, and do you think Aristotle was successful in teaching virtue to Alexander?

Massimo Pigliucci: Well, the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander started fairly early, although not as early as it would have been ideal. And I think Alexander was 16 or something like that, 16 or 17, when he was being taught by Aristotle. And yes, Aristotle did have certainly an impact on Alexander. In fact, in a sense, one could argue, and I do argue in the book that Alexander went above and beyond what Aristotle taught him. For instance, one of the ideas that Aristotle insisted on was the importance of Panhellenism, that is, of the notion that all of Greece should be unified in order to function as a broader society, and being more resistant to invasions from the outside, like the Persians for instance, which from time from time were making trouble. Well, Alexander took that idea and run with it. He actually conceived of unifying the entire planet under his banner. And that is in fact a major… That was a major motivation for building his empire. Now, of course, we today wouldn’t go about unifying humanity by building an empire, presumably. We wouldn’t think that that’s the right way to do it.

But Alexander really was into it, in part at least, because he thought it was a good idea to unify people of different cultures. So, in a sense, Aristotle did have a significant impact on Alexander. Alexander kept for the rest of his life, for instance, a copy of Homer’s Iliad annotated by Aristotle. And he used it frequently as a guide for his own thinking and his own preparing for what he was doing. So yeah, there was… That’s an example of fairly positive influence by a philosopher over a statesman. The problem there too, however, is that I think that was a little too late again. Because by the time Aristotle got to Alexander, Alexander had already been bred to be a conqueror and already been bred to be the heir of his father to the Macedonian throne, and so he already had a way of looking at things that would have been pretty difficult for Aristotle to dramatically alter.

Brett McKay: Okay, so on that case study, kinda successful with Alexander?

Massimo Pigliucci: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You highlight another one. It’s a Roman stoic philosopher, and this is in your wheelhouse, you write a lot and research a lot about stoicism. Seneca was an advisor to Nero. Tell us about that relationship. ‘Cause you point out Seneca, he was stoic philosopher but he was kind of a mixed bag when it came to living up to his ideals in terms of his politics and even his philosophy. Why is that? And then how did Seneca go about teaching Nero?

Massimo Pigliucci: That’s another interesting story in and of itself. Seneca, yes, as you just pointed out, was a stoic philosopher who certainly did not live up to the full expectations of a stoic, but he was also very aware of it. He was in fact, in a sense, humble about it. He wrote to his friend Lucilius at some point, “Look, don’t come to me for advice, I’m just as [0:24:36.7] ____ as anybody else. I’m trying to do my best, but it’s not like I can teach anybody. I’m just as sick as anybody else, and I’m just trying to do my best.” So he actually was very aware of his own limitations in a sense, which is more than you can say for a lot of people, I would argue.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Massimo Pigliucci: Now, in terms of Nero, the standard story is that that Seneca completely failed, and in fact that he was he was complicit in some of Nero’s crimes during his regime, etcetera. But that’s not quite… That’s a little simplistic. The reality is, as often is the case, it’s a little bit more complicated. Turns out that Seneca, together with a colleague who was the head of the Praetorian guard, which was the special guard of the Emperor, they were actually able to pretty much reign in Nero for the first five years. The first five years of Nero’s reigns are referred to by historians as the Quinquennium Neronis which literally means five years of Nero, and they were a good time for Rome. There was prosperity, there was… The empire’s borders were secure, people experienced a good life, etcetera, etcetera. Things actually went pretty well in the beginning. But Nero was unhinged, and he became more and more unhinged and difficult to control. And Seneca realized that. And in fact, if he tried to retire and Nero didn’t want Seneca to retire because he felt that he needed… The regime needed basically, the support or the endorsement of the famous philosopher and the esteemed statesman that Seneca was.

This thing, this back and forth went on for a while until Seneca eventually tried to bribe the emperor. And he says, “Nero, look, I’m gonna give you most of my fortune. I don’t care. I just wanna get out of the way. And in the end, of course, the end result was that Nero at one point suspected that Seneca was involved in a failed conspiracy against the emperor, which he probably wasn’t, but Seneca probably didn’t know about the conspiracy and didn’t tell the emperor, which, for all intent and purposes, is being involved in the conspiracy. So Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide, which he did in classic stoic fashion. He did it. Sort of imitating his role model, which was Socrates.

So that’s another story that has a mixed bag kind of situation, right? And in fact, in the book there are several along those lines. And the bottom line, the end message there is like, look, if you wanna try to teach somebody else doing it really late in his life, it’s not a good idea because it’s not likely to succeed. The success stories in the book tend to come from people who themselves want to improve, want to become better persons. They want to practice philosophy in their lives. And so, one classic example there is Marcus Aurelius, one of the famous Roman emperors, right? So the bottom line, the message there is that if we’re talking about teaching somebody else that has to be done under one of two conditions, either very early on in their lives, so that you set them in the right habits, or if they really are prone and ready to be taught, if they want that. Otherwise, it’s much better to actually bet on somebody who is already of his own accord going in a right direction. He’s striving already on his own accord, because those are the people that really want to do the right thing.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That second approach of you pick the leader instead of trying to train leaders to be good leaders, ’cause that’s probably, you’re probably gonna be too late, the idea is you pick people to be your leaders who are already philosophers. And this is like the idea… This goes back to Plato in the Republic. This idea, we want to pick the philosopher kings to be our leaders.

Massimo Pigliucci: Right. Now remember that of course, philosopher at the time in this particular context doesn’t mean somebody like me with a PhD philosophy who does academic scholarship. It meant somebody who lives philosophy as a way… As a practical life, right? So philosophy is the art of living. So a philosopher… It’s very easy to laugh condescendingly at Plato and say, “Oh yeah, sure. The last thing we want is to have philosophers in charge.” That’s because we tend to think of philosophers as these people with the head in the cloud who think about abstruse subject matters. But what Plato meant there was philosopher here is somebody who lives philosophically. And therefore anybody can be a philosopher. It doesn’t require PhD. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah. So yeah, you gave the example. Marcus Aurelius is an example of that. This is a young man, he’s been… He was philosophizing since he was a boy, and he carried that on through his adulthood.

Massimo Pigliucci: Right. And another example, which I also describe in the book is Cato the Younger who was a Roman senator and arch-enemy of Julius Caesar. And Cato was not a philosopher in the academic sense of the term. He never wrote a book about philosophy. He wasn’t spending his time thinking about abstruse matters. What he was doing is he was living the life of a Roman senator and statesman, and he was trying to do it with integrity. And in fact, he was so famous for that, that if in Rome somebody slipped up and was doing something not quite right, often the excuse would be, “Well, not everybody can be a Cato.” So Cato was such a well known role model that people would say, you know, “It’s only Cato can be that good. I’m not Cato.” So that’s another good example of somebody who tried to live by his principles and tried to live philosophically, and largely succeeded.

Brett McKay: So, but there’s also cases where it didn’t succeed, right? Like, Socrates wasn’t a politician per se. I don’t think he’d call himself that, he was a philosopher, but he did have an influence on the state, right? And it’s why he got executed. ‘Cause the state thought he was causing too much trouble. And that’s one of the problems when you try to live philosophically, sometimes it doesn’t end well for you.

Massimo Pigliucci: Yes, unless you are an Epicurean, because if you’re an Epicurean, then you close yourself into your garden with your friends and forget the rest of the world. So you’re fine. Yeah, you’re right. You have a good point there. But then again, we’re talking about intentions. We’re not talking about outcomes. We don’t control outcomes. Of course, there’s no guarantee of succeeding, right? You can have… You can be the best person in the world, you can have the best intentions and even very good skills, and nevertheless, you’re not gonna succeed because the external circumstances are such that success becomes impossible. I mean, Socrates, we have to remember, in historical terms, Socrates was living most of his life during the Peloponnesian War, which was a disaster for Athens, which went on for decades, which cost a lot of lives and resources and so on and so forth. And he lived not only during the period of democracy, but also during the period of The Thirty Tyrants, which, as the name implies, was not a particularly bright and happy period for Athens.

So the external circumstances are always going to be, certainly to a large extent, determining the outcomes. But what we can do is to try our best. And that is why the figure of Socrates is so important still two and a half millennia after his death. I mean, yes, he did die, but he died, in a sense, on purpose. He knew that he could escape. His friends had bribed the guards in prison, and it was pretty normal for people who were condemned to death to just disappear at the last minute and move to another city and be fine. He didn’t want to do that. His position was, one, a principle. He said, “I lived well and I thrived under the laws of Athens for most of my life. What am I gonna do now that those laws are turned against me? I’m just gonna quit because I don’t wanna play by the rules anymore”. So he set an example, essentially, right? And it’s a difficult example, of course, to follow. This is a high level example, but then again, that’s why we remember Socrates and not a lot of other people.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the lessons from the Greco-Roman moral philosophers that virtue can be taught. If you try to do it too late in life, it’s gonna be probably too late. But are there any insights from, say, modern cognitive science or modern psychology that we can combine with the insights from Greco-Roman philosophy to figure out how can we help people be better people?

Massimo Pigliucci: Yes, there are. Interestingly, again, another reason why the Greco-Roman is so important is because they got a lot of stuff, not everything, but they got a lot of stuff, right that modern cognitive science, modern psychology actually in fact confirms and of course expands on. Obviously, the Greco-Romans didn’t carry out systematic experiments on randomized samples of people and all that sort of stuff. But a lot of what modern psychologists are learning about virtue and about wisdom and about character, it actually does reflect the intuitions of the Greco-Romans. For instance, one thing that does work according to modern psychologists in order to improve your character, is to pick role models. If you imagine… When you have to make a decision, if you imagine in your mind somebody who you regard highly looking over your shoulders, you’re more likely to make the right decision. And that person that you imagine could be somebody you actually know, like your grandmother, let’s say, it could be a fictional even role model, or it could be somebody you don’t know, but you know of and that you admire. The point is, you do that exercise mentally. Whenever you’re making a big decision, you think, you ask yourself, “Well, what would Socrates do?” And the empirical data show that you’re more likely to do the right thing.

Well, that technique of picking a role model is certainly a stoic technique. It’s certainly something that Aristotle would’ve would’ve approved. Another thing that we know that works is active self-reflection. So things like keeping a philosophical journal. We mentioned Marcus Aurelius, his very famous because of the meditations, his book that he wrote, but he did not write it as a book for publication. This was his personal philosophical diary. He put down his own thoughts that were meant to help him carry out some continuous self-analysis and self-criticism in the process of improving as an individual. Turns out, modern cognitive behavioral therapy will tell you that that actually is a very effective technique, to keep that kind of journal. And in fact, even to keep it in the way in which Marcus was keeping it, that is, for instance one of the odd things from the point of view of a modern reader about the meditations is that it is written in the second person. So Marcus writes to himself, but he writes as, if he were writing to a friend, “You did this, or you did not do this.”

Now, why the hell is he doing that? A modern cognitive therapist would tell you, well, the reason for that is because he’s trying to keep some distance, some cognitive distance between his own actions and the fact that he wants to learn from his actions. So if he were to write in the first person and using very emotional language, he would simply get caught up into the emotional component of what he was doing, and not learn much from his experiences. Instead, he’s using very neutral, very analytical language and his using the second person. And those tricks actually work. They’re very good. Modern cognitive science also tells us that some of the things that the ancient Greco-Romans thought did not work, do not in fact work. One of the big ones is do nothing. Now, you would say, “Yeah, of course, doing nothing doesn’t work.” But a lot of people today think that or seem to think that the way you get wiser is just by getting older; older people become wiser.

But in fact, that’s simply not the case. Becoming old is necessary, but not sufficient condition, as philosophers would put it, for becoming wise. Just because time passes, that doesn’t mean you’re learning anything from your experiences. You have to learn actively. You have to pay attention to your experiences, and then you’re learning. So it turns out that in order to be wise, you do need age because you need experience. It’s hard to imagine a 15 year old who is wise. A 15 year old may be ahead of his own age or her age, or more mature, et cetera, but wise is kind of hard because they haven’t had enough life experiences to reflect on to actually be wise. But then again, I’m sure you, like myself, know, a lot of people in their fifties, sixties, or seventies who are definitely not wise, because they have experience but they didn’t pay attention to it. So not doing anything, not reflecting critically on your own experiences, not learning actively from what you’re doing, it’s certainly problematic. It gets in the way of developing wisdom.

Brett McKay: And I think something else that the Greco-Romans got right that’s being confirmed by cognitive psychology… You highly research by a guy named Miller. We had him on the podcast, he wrote the book called The Character Gap and he just talked about different studies that show that when people are in positions of power, they tend to think that they’re good because they’re in charge, like, “Well, if I’m in charge then I must be good,” the Greco-Romans be like… You know, Socrates would be like, “Well, no. You might be in charge, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.” So that’s where that self-reflection comes along, having role models to put you in check, I guess the renaissance or medieval philosophers would call it a mirror. You want a mirror that you can look into to see what you really are.

Massimo Pigliucci: That’s right. And another kind of mirror which again was very much at the forefront of the minds of the Greco-Romans and it is confirmed by research like the one that Christian Miller wrote about, is friendships, good friends. So what helps you improve is in fact hanging around the right people. This is probably not very surprising, right? It’s what your mom probably told you when you were a kid, just be careful who you hang around with. But it does work. If you hang around people who are not good, who are not virtuous, who are not trying to improve themselves, then you’re probably gonna slide down into a dangerous territory. While on the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are at least as good or even better than yourself and they’re trying to strive to go in the right direction then you will as well. So who you frequent is very important. And I took this to heart. At some point, a few years ago, I started looking at the kind of people I was hanging around and I said, “Oh, okay, some people are really in that category, others not so much. And I need to make decisions, I need to figure out, do I really want to do certain things or hang around certain people?” Because if it’s not good for either me or them as it turns out, then why are you doing it?

Brett McKay: Well Massimo, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go learn more about the book and your work?

Massimo Pigliucci: Well, it’s easy. There is a site called and everything about my work, my podcasting, my essays and my books is there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Massimo, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Massimo Pigliucci: It has been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest there was Massimo Pigliucci. He’s the author of the book, The Quest for Character. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

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