Plato was Socrates' pupil, and most of his best-known work is devoted to
recounting the philosophy of his master. Walking the streets of Athens,
Socrates dedicated his life to convincing people who thought they were
wise that they were in fact ignorant. At the same time, he sought to use
this very tactic as a means to encourage people to discover the truth for
themselves rather than trusting received wisdom. Socrates pursued these
aims through dialogues, in which he asked questions meant to deconstruct
apparent truths. Especially in earlier dialogues like the Meno,
this process of interrogation (the elenchus
) leads only to a
state of uncertainty about what originally seemed to be most clear. This
is what happens in the Meno,
in which the concept of virtue
(which people like Meno and Anytus assume to be clear to everyone)
is revealed to be a nearly total mystery.
Meno is Socrates' primary companion in the dialogue that bears his
name. Meno was a prominent Thessalian visiting Athens at the time of
the dialogue (about 402 BCE). He also makes an appearance in Xenophon's
where he is described as treacherous and greedy.
The definition of virtue is the central project in the Meno,
is never completed. The Greek word for virtue is arete,
refer both to individual virtues like courage or generosity or to the
general virtue of a given person. In the Meno,
the word is
sometimes used interchangeably with "the good"--this is where it gains its
most general sense.
Meno's home city-state. At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates
notes Thessaly's recent reputation for wisdom, based largely on the
successful careers of Sophists like the famous Gorgias. In light
of the dialogue's illustration of the difficulty of knowing what
virtue is, this compliment comes to look more like a veiled accusation
Gorgias was one of the most well-known of the Sophists, and Plato devotes
a later dialogue to him. Here he serves primarily as the foremost example
of someone who claims to know what virtue is, and will give expansive,
grand answers to questions that Socrates wants to claim are actually
extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Gorgias gets off somewhat lighter than
the other Sophists, due mainly to his refusal to claim that he can
teach virtue (though he would apparently claim to know what it is). Meno
is a casual follower of Gorgias.
The Sophists were a class of rhetoricians and philosophers who were widely
hired as teachers in ancient Greece. The claims of the Sophists cover a
wide range, but they come under fire in the Meno
their claims to understand virtue (and to be able to teach it for a
fee). Socrates brings up the Sophists twice in the dialogue, both
times to suggest that they are the most likely candidates if one is
looking for a teacher of virtue. This suggestion is always somewhat
facetious, since Socrates presumably knows what he eventually
demonstrates--that no one can teach virtue because no one yet knows the
nature of it. Socrates dislikes the Sophists because they give grand,
expansive answers embellished with literary references rather than the
clear and concise definitions preferred by Socrates. In short, they
practice rhetoric rather than true philosophy. The Sophists also came
under fire from many prominent members of society (including Anytus,
who scorns them in the Meno
), who accused them of corrupting the
youth by destroying traditional ideals with specious wordplay. Gorgias
is the only Sophist named in the Meno
(apart from a passing
reference to Protagoras), and Socrates accords him less derision than the
others due to his relative modesty (Meno says that Gorgias never
claims to be able to teach virtue, only rhetoric).
is the primary method of Socratic philosophy.
Essentially a cross-examination, it proceeds by an intensive series of
questions and aims to lead the interviewee to conclude for himself that he
or she does not know what he or she thought (a state of uncertainty, or
, with regard to the topic at hand). The Meno
contains a compact model of the Socratic elenchus
examination of Meno's slave on questions of geometry.
In common speech, eidos
means "stature" or "appearance." Plato
uses it in a much broader sense in his dialogues, where it eventually
comes to denote the set of ideal forms of which all worldly things are
imperfect examples. These forms can be thought of as abstract models on
which things in the world are built. Forms are what all things of a given
kind (all chairs, all virtue, all health, etc.) have in common, and
the term is used in the Meno
primarily in this context.
Eventually, Plato will link the idea of forms with the idea of the eternal
soul, suggesting that the human soul comes to know the forms in its time
out of the human body (see his Phaedrus
). Here, however, he seems to be
using the term only to denote that which defines all instances of a given
thing (namely virtue).
A famous ancient philosopher of the physical world. He is cited in the
in the context of Socrates' definition of color, which
Socrates bases on Empedocles' concept of effluvia (the elements that enter
through our sense organs). The definition is an example for Meno to
follow in defining virtue, and Empedocles' name is dropped so that
Plato can draw a contrast between the Sophist style of definition (which
includes such eminent references) and the simple style of definition
encouraged by Socrates.
The state of uncertainty reached when one realizes one is ignorant of what
one thought one knew. This is the goal of most early Platonic dialogues,
and it is the state in which the Meno
closes. Socrates makes a
strong argument in the Meno
that one is better off knowing one's
own ignorance than falsely believing one knows the answer.
Anytus is a prominent Athenian statesman who enters the dialogue toward
the end. He has relatively few lines and contributes to the discussion
mainly by lending authority to Socrates' point that even the most
well-known and upstanding of men are clueless about virtue and the
possibility of teaching it. Anytus also makes a short, nasty speech
against the Sophists.
Theognis was a poet in the sixth century BCE, and Socrates quotes him
to show that even the most gifted and wisest of men are confused about
whether virtue can be taught (the lines Socrates quotes contradict
each other on this issue).
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