Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in LysisLaches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.

So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.

After Socrates dismantles Meno’s definition, Meno tells Socrates that he’s “exactly like the flat sting ray one meets in the sea. Whenever anyone comes into contact with it, it numbs him, and that is the sort of thing that you seem to be doing to me now.” Socrates defends himself by telling Meno that “It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.” In other words, Socrates isn’t just some smart-aleck, nor is he a deconstructionist who tears ideas down and builds nothing to replace them; rather, he’s a genuine philosopher who wants to get at the truth of things.

Socrates then offers an interesting positive argument. He claims that all knowledge is, essentially, not learning so much as recalling something we already knew before we were born. To demonstrate this, he asks Meno to call one of his slaves, and Socrates then draws a few diagrams in the sand and asks the boy questions about things like the area of squares. Of course, the boy had never had any lessons in geometry, and Socrates doesn’t tell him anything, yet he’s able to figure out a few principles of geometry on his own. Obviously, he can’t have learned them, because no one had taught them to him; therefore, he must, in some sense, have already known these principles. With that established, Meno and Socrates agree that if virtue is something that can be taught, there must be men who both know what virtue is and who do teach it.

Who teaches virtue? Well, the Sophists claim to. At this point Meno’s friend Anytus enters the conversation, and he’s not exactly a fan of the Sophists. “I hope no relative of mine or any of my friends,” Anytus says, “would be so mad as to go and let himself be ruined by those people.” When Socrates asks who a student should go to in order to learn virtue, Anytus adds, “Any decent Athenian gentleman whom he happens to meet, if he follows his advice, will make him a better man than the Sophists would.” It’s easy to see why “sophist” has acquired such a negative connotation in English!

In any case, Socrates then mentions several famously virtuous Athenians, like Themistocles and Pericles, who failed to pass their virtue down to their sons. If even these worthy men could not teach virtue to their own sons, then who can? Virtue, then, doesn’t appear to be something that can be taught. The dialogue concludes after a little further discussion:

SOCRATES: […] If all we have said in this discussion, and the questions we have asked, have been right, virtue will be acquired neither by nature nor by teaching. Whoever has it gets it by divine dispensation without taking thought, unless he be the kind of statesman who can create another like himself. Should there be such a man, he would be among the living practically what Homer said Tiresias was among the dead, when he described him as the only one in the underworld who kept his wits—’the others are mere flitting shades.’ Where virtue is concerned such a man would be just like that, a solid reality among shadows.

MENO: That is finely put, Socrates.

SOCRATES: On our present reasoning, then, whoever has virtue gets it by divine dispensation. But we shall not understand the truth of the matter until, before asking how men get virtue, we try to discover what virtue is in and by itself.

I think Socrates is, in a sense, on the right track in that virtue is something granted by Divine grace, though it’s up to us to coöperate with it. As for defining virtue, my instinct with such questions is to break out the Summa Theologica, but I think that would be cheating in this case. Meno isn’t as open-ended as the last three dialogues, but Plato’s main goal here still seems to be to encourage the audience to think about this question more deeply. Even working just from reason and experience, it doesn’t seem like this should be such a problem, but then again, Meno was very confident in his ability to define virtue at the beginning of the dialogue, and one of Plato’s underlying themes so far has been a call for intellectual humility.

I’m unsure what to make of the idea that learning is really just recalling. I see what Socrates is getting at, but building on present knowledge, as Meno’s slave did, isn’t the same type of learning as being told something. That is, to use an analogy, being told something is like a man giving me, say, a finished piece of furniture. What the boy did was more like being given the tools and raw materials, and building that piece of furniture himself.

In any case, we’re now four dialogues into this project, and up next is Euthyphro.

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