Plato (c. 427– c. 347 B.C.)

Meno

Summary Meno

Meno wants to return to the original question—whether virtue can be taught—and Socrates proposes two hypotheses to lead them on their way. First, if virtue is a kind of knowledge, then it can be taught, and second, if there is anything good that is not knowledge, then it is possible that virtue is not a kind of knowledge. Adding that nothing is good unless it is accompanied by wisdom, Socrates concludes that virtue is wisdom, in whole or in part, so it can’t be something we’re born with.

Meno is ready to conclude that virtue can be taught, but Socrates is hesitant. If virtue can be taught, where are the teachers? When questioning Anytus, a prominent Athenian, Socrates proposes that the sophists teach virtue. Anytus is outraged because he considers the sophists to be a source of corruption. He suggests instead that any Athenian gentleman is a teacher of virtue, but Socrates points out that many Athenian gentlemen have had dissolute sons to whom they clearly failed to teach virtue. Not even the great poet Theognis seems to have known whether virtue could be taught, leading Socrates to conclude that maybe it isn’t a kind of knowledge even though it is a kind of wisdom.

Socrates suggests that virtue is perhaps not a result of knowledge but of true belief. Knowledge is a matter of being able to give an account of what we know, as the slave boy with the mathematical proof, while we can hold true beliefs without being able to justify them.

The final conclusion, then, is that virtue neither is something innate nor can be taught. Socrates muses that perhaps it is simply a “gift from the gods” that we receive without understanding.

Analysis

Many scholars view the Meno as a transitional work between Plato’s early and middle periods because it combines features typical of the early Socratic dialogues with the beginnings of more refined theories. We have one of the more worked-out examples of the Socratic elenchus, where Socrates uses questioning to draw out an admission of ignorance from his the person he is arguing with, and the dialogue ends in aporia, the state of inconclusive perplexity. These features are typical of other early works. On the other hand, we find what may be a prototypical Theory of Forms in Socrates’ insistence that we find what all instances of virtue share. The theory that knowledge is recollection draws on a desire to see knowledge as grounded not in the vagaries of everyday life but in some form that would cement true knowledge as unchanging and eternal. Such positive steps are absent in Plato’s other early works and are typical of so-called middle period dialogues such as the Phaedo and the Republic.

Plato takes a few significant steps beyond the typical reach of a Socratic dialogue when he describes Socrates questioning the slave boy, since this type of dialogue usually includes only a pattern of arguments and refutations. The questioning begins in a manner typical of Socrates’ elenchus. He asks the slave boy if he knows the length of the side of a square with twice the area of the square he has drawn and then uses questions and counterarguments to bring the boy to a position of acknowledging that he doesn’t know. In compressed form, this is how a typical early dialogue unfolds. By means of questioning, Socrates takes someone who is confident in his knowledge and brings him to a place of recognizing his own ignorance. However, once Socrates has brought the slave boy to this state of perplexity, he leads him back out. The slave boy emerges from their exchange with a positive knowledge of mathematics, which he did not have coming in. Furthermore, Socrates claims that the slave boy’s knowledge is a consequence of recollecting something he always knew. In other words, their dialogue-within-a-dialogue does not end only with a positive conclusion. It also ends with a positive theory from Socrates to explain this positive conclusion.