(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Plato’s Meno does not have the high dramatic quality characteristic of some of the other middle period (388-368 b.c.e.) dialogues, including Symposion (Symposium, 1701) and Phaedn (Phaedo, 1675). In addition, the philosophical problem discussed in the dialogue (whether virtue can be taught) receives better handling in other dialogues; Plato’s best account of this question is found in Prtagoras (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Protagoras, 1804). Nevertheless, Meno is a well-known and important dialogue, for it is the locus classicus of one of Plato’s most important philosophical doctrines—the doctrine of recollection.

Defining Virtue

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The dialogue opens with Meno asking Socrates how one acquires virtue. Socrates replies that this question cannot be settled without first reaching agreement on a prior one, namely, what the nature of virtue is. As usual, Socrates professes not to know what virtue is, and, furthermore, he says that he has never met anyone else who knows. Meno naïvely remarks that Gorgias knew, to which Socrates replies that he has “forgotten” what Gorgias said. Meno then agrees to act on Gorgias’s behalf and to inform Socrates of what Gorgias held virtue to be. This, of course, sets up a view that Socrates can examine and refute by his usual method of question and answer.

Meno’s first attempt at defining virtue turns out to be inadequate. Instead of offering a definition of virtue, he identifies what a man’s virtue is and what a woman’s virtue is, then says that each person has his or her own peculiar virtue. Virtue is relative to the person and the condition in which the person is situated. The idea that a thing’s “virtue” is its function, mentioned here, is made explicit in Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701). Meno’s proposed definition fails because it does not define the term “virtue.” He offers several other definitions, which can be summarized as the “virtue of X is Y.” He does not recognize that all of these presuppose some common meaning for the word “virtue” itself. Socrates, by citing a number of analogous cases, finally gets Meno to see what is involved and to offer a...

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The Theory of Recollection

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In reply to this puzzle, Socrates puts forth the theory of recollection. He says that he heard from “certain wise men and women who spoke of things divine” that people’s souls are immortal and undergo an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths. In the course of these endless rebirths, people’s souls come to know all things, both in this world and in the other world. Knowing, therefore, is not a matter of acquiring something new but rather a matter of recollecting something known but forgotten. Meno is fascinated by this idea and asks if Socrates can prove it. Socrates does not offer a direct proof of the theory, but he does offer what is supposedly an illustration of it by getting Meno’s slave boy, who has been given no training in mathematics, to construct a proof in geometry merely by answering certain questions Socrates puts to him.

The proof itself is fairly simple but not at all obvious. The problem is to determine how long the side of a square must be if its area is to be twice the area of a given square. Socrates diagrams a square and arbitrarily sets the side equal to two units. The area of the original square is, of course, four square units. Using the diagram, Socrates next shows the boy what the diagonal is. Then he asks the boy how many units long the sides of a square twice the area of the original square will be; that is, a figure that has an area of eight square units. At first the boy says that the side of the required figure will...

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Teaching Virtue

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The discussion is shortly brought back to the original topic, whether virtue can be taught. Meno wants Socrates’ own view of the matter. However, Socrates replies that he cannot deal directly with this question. He must, he says, first lay down a hypothesis because he and Meno have not yet defined “virtue.” Considerable discussion has centered around what Socrates says here about hypotheses. He gives, as an example of a hypothesis, another illustration taken from geometry. He says that a geometrician, if asked whether a certain triangle can be inscribed within a given circle, may answer that he must first lay down a hypothesis. One scholar suggests that Socrates means that some geometrical problems are not susceptible to a general solution—only when some restriction is laid down is a solution possible. However, it is not necessary to pause here in an effort to determine all the niceties of the proper interpretation of the passage. The development of the dialogue can be seen without having to establish Plato’s meaning in all its technical detail. The point is this: Socrates is willing to discuss the question whether virtue can be taught if Meno will grant the restriction that virtue is knowledge. This must be granted as an initial assumption (hypothesis) before the discussion can proceed. Meno agrees to the restriction.

Once it is granted that virtue is knowledge, the conclusion that it can be taught follows easily; indeed, the conclusion seems trivial. However, it raises another question that is not trivial; namely, who are the teachers of virtue? Meno suspects that there must be some such teachers, but Socrates again professes ignorance; he has found none. However, perhaps, Socrates suggests, Anytus, who is listening to the conversation, can tell Socrates and Meno who the teachers of virtue are.

Anytus has no uncertainties; of course there are teachers of virtue, but they are not to be found among the Sophists (such as, for example, Gorgias). Any Athenian gentleman is...

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The Soul

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There is no doubt that Plato held a doctrine of recollection. References to it are to be found throughout Plato’s writings, and it lies at the center of his theory of knowledge. The debate concerns just what the theory of recollection amounted to for Plato. Specifically, did Plato’s belief in the doctrine of recollection include a belief in the preexistence of the soul? Scholars have given both affirmative and negative answers to this question. Regardless of how one settles this question, however, the crucial point for Plato’s theory of knowledge is that he held that knowledge is in some sense innate.

The evidence cited by those who say that Plato really did believe in the preexistence of the soul includes the following points: First, Socrates calls the doctrine a “glorious truth” in Meno; second, the Platonic view that the ideas are separate from the things of sense and that the soul knows the ideas implies that the separation of the ideas and the preexistence of the soul stand or fall together; and third, the first argument for the immortality of the soul that is given in Phaedo assumes the truth of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. Each of these claims must be countered if one is to conclude that Plato did not hold to the preexistence of the soul.

With reference to the first claim, that Socrates calls the doctrine a “glorious truth,” one may make the following observations. Plato here adopts his standard technique for introducing a myth in presenting the doctrine in Meno; that is to say, he does not put the doctrine into the mouth of Socrates directly. Instead, he has Socrates say that he heard this from certain poets and wise people. This is the device Plato repeatedly uses when he wishes to state a myth that expresses an important truth but that is not to be taken literally. Indeed, the emphasis in reading the words “glorious truth” seems to fall on “glorious” rather than on “truth,” suggesting that the doctrine cannot readily be expressed in literal terms.

The second assertion that the separation of the ideas and the preexistence of the soul go together is too strong. Certainly no one can deny that Plato asserted the separation of the...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.


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