The issue whether Ethics and virtue can be taught constitutes an open question in classic philosophy. Plato and Plutarch are among those who discussed the topic.
We certainly can teach words, ideas and a system of thought. It is possible to exert influence over the behaviour of people. Mistakes must be punished in balanced and proportional ways. The good example and sincere words – spoken with the right intention – transmit correct habits to people and stimulate good will in their hearts. Such factors make it easier for them to build by their own merit an individual syntony with the Universal Law, which teaches altruism.
However, the higher ethics and true wisdom do not occur on the basis of superficial learning. They do not come to us by hearsay, or through mere imitation, reading or memorizing. They must be conquered by an independent decision and long-term efforts.
Falsehood is short-lived. In due time all lies are unmasked and truth prevails. From the point of view of the immortal soul, one billion dollars is worth the same as one cent. The value of both sums is zero. Sincerity is the most valuable asset anyone can have.
Sacred knowledge is an attribute of the higher self, and so is the ethical attitude. It results from a direct contact with that which is eternal and essential or “celestial”. It is the fruit of experience accumulated through different reincarnations – along the cycles of the soul, or Gilgul in Hebrew, in Kabbalah and Judaism.
According to Plato, to learn is to “remember” something which we already have in our immortal soul. This is not like a product one can buy in the supermarket. It is not an external behaviour which we can adopt like a child who imitates her parents. It comes from the silent center of one’s heart. It emerges in due time like the sun in the morning, enlightening everything and showing the right path to follow.
These facts do not mean the educational attempts to produce goodness and ethics are useless. They indicate instead that people of every age should try and learn the art of right action by self-devised methods, patiently learning from their mistakes and sowing that which they wish to harvest in the future.
It is not possible, perhaps, to teach someone to be internally honest. Such a blessed learning can only be lived from within, not from the outside, and takes place according to each one’s merit.
However, we can create the adequate conditions for the process of honesty to be easier, and for the trap of selfish illusions to be identified, so that the way to sorrow is avoided, and the path to true wisdom will be found.
See the dialogue “Meno”, by Plato, and the essay “Can Virtue Be Taught?”, by Plutarch.