Context

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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.

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Defining Virtue

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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 second definition.

Meno’s second proposal is that virtue is the “power of governing mankind.” This second definition does not have the same inadequacy as the first, but it still will not do, for the obvious reason that not all people govern others. Virtue must be possible for everyone, but if virtue is the power of governing, then it can be achieved only by the governors and must remain beyond the reach of the governed.

At this point, Meno slips into enumerating specific virtues, a mistake made by many of the people Socrates interrogates in the Platonic dialogues. Socrates then illustrates the kind of definition he is after by giving Meno an example of a proper definition for “figure” (in the geometrical sense).

For a third time, Meno makes an attempt to define “virtue,” this time by saying that “virtue is the desire for honorable things and the power of attaining them.” By cross-examining Meno, Socrates draws out the implications of his statement, showing it to be a circular definition. It amounts to saying that virtue is the power of achieving good with justice. That this is circular, in a sense, follows from Meno’s admission that justice is one of the virtues. What it comes to, then, is this: Meno is saying that virtue generally is the power of achieving good in a specifically virtuous manner. This will not do, for “a specifically virtuous manner” is meaningless as long as “virtue generally” remains undefined.

At this point, Meno confesses his confusion, but he tries to lay the blame on Socrates; it is characteristic of Socrates, he says, to confuse those who talk with him—Socrates is like the torpedo fish who paralyzes all with whom he comes into contact. Socrates accepts the comparison provided he can add a qualification concerning a respect in which he differs from the torpedo fish. The torpedo fish itself is not paralyzed when it comes into contact with another fish; Socrates, by contrast, is just as ignorant as those with whom he argues. However, if this is so, Meno observes, there seems to be no point in trying to learn anything at all. He raises the stock puzzle of the Sophists: “How can one inquire about what one does not know; and if one already knows it, why should he inquire about it?”

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 be four units long, but under questioning, and by referring to the diagram, he sees that this answer would yield a square whose area is sixteen square units rather than eight. He then guesses that the side of the required square should be three units long, but again he recognizes that this is not the answer because it yields a figure with an area of nine square units. Finally, he sees that by constructing a square on the diagonal of the original figure he will have the required solution, a square whose area is twice the area of the original one. Socrates, without telling the boy the answer, has elicited it merely by asking questions.

Socrates points out to Meno that the boy could not have learned the solution subsequent to his birth because he has never been given any instruction in geometry, nor did Socrates himself tell the boy the solution. Therefore, the boy must have known the solution all along, and Socrates’ questions served merely as an occasion for the boy’s recalling what he knew but had forgotten. The point of the example is to refute the claim of the Sophists that nothing can be learned. In spite of the apparent self-evidence of their paradox, the fact is that ignorant people can come to know something as a result of intellectual inquiry. It is better to engage in inquiry, even if it merely reveals that a proposed solution is inadequate, than it is to imagine that there is no value at all in intellectual inquiry.

Teaching Virtue

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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 a fine teacher of virtue. (It adds to the irony of this part of the dialogue to know that Anytus was the leader of the group of Athenian “gentlemen” who prevailed on Meletus to bring the charges that led to the conviction and execution of Socrates.) However, Socrates wants to know who taught these Athenian gentlemen who teach virtue. Obviously, Anytus responds, a previous generation of Athenian gentlemen taught them. Plato does not pursue this matter; it is clear enough to any reader that this answer leads to a troublesome regress. However, on other grounds, Socrates is not satisfied with this general answer. He grants that there have always been good people to be found in Athens. However, if one takes time to look at the particular histories of some of these good Athenians and their sons, he finds many cases where the father has taken care to have his sons instructed in such things as horsemanship or wrestling, and the instruction has been successful. Yet in the matter of virtue, either the sons have received no instruction or else the instruction has not achieved its purpose, for the sons have turned out to be considerably less virtuous than the fathers. Themistocles and Pericles are good examples.

Anytus’s argument has been shown to be inadequate, and he recognizes the fact, but instead of pursuing the question in the proper spirit, he loses his temper and issues a pointed warning to Socrates to watch his step in criticizing the Athenian aristocracy in this way. Socrates, in good-humored fashion, returns to Meno.

It seems, Socrates points out, that the outcome of the investigation into whether virtue can be taught is finally negative, in spite of the previous restriction. For if there are no teachers of virtue and no scholars of virtue, then the apparent conclusion is that virtue must not be capable of being taught. Perhaps, however, another possibility should be examined. Perhaps true opinion is just as good a guide for action as is knowledge. Perhaps people can become virtuous by holding true opinions. The only drawback to this theory is that true opinions are like the statues of Daedalus—they are very valuable, but unless they are tied down they walk away. True opinions must be tied down by recollection of the truth; that is, true opinion must become knowledge. People can get along by holding true opinions that they get from great statesmen and poets, but true opinion must be converted into knowledge in order to become completely adequate. Virtue, then, is not something that is taught nor something that people have “by nature” (as the Sophists held). It is, finally, a gift from the gods. This is the explicit conclusion of the dialogue. However, Plato obviously expects the reader to amend this conclusion on his own. Plato expects the reader to recognize that knowledge and virtue are identical, and that it is really knowledge that is the gift of the gods.

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 ideas and that he believed the soul was the element in a person who knows the ideas. However, Plato might very well hold these views without also holding that the soul existed before its incarnation in the body.

The third claim, that the first argument for immortality in Phaedo assumes the preexistence of the soul, neglects the fact that the first two arguments of Phaedo are questioned in that dialogue, and that the conclusion of Phaedo is finally made to rest on the claim that the soul is essentially alive; at the approach of its essential opposite, death, the soul either retires or is annihilated. Furthermore, the conclusion of Phaedo is that the belief in immortality is reasonable, not certain. Plato argues that the belief in immortality is consistent with other commonsense beliefs. The conclusion of Phaedo rests on agreed premises; Plato never claims that they are incontrovertibly true, as anyone who takes seriously the account of Socratic method given in Phaedo should immediately recognize.

If the foregoing arguments are sound, the most plausible conclusion is that it is impossible to determine whether Plato held that the theory of the preexistence of the soul was a necessary part of the doctrine of recollection. However, if this is the case, the question arises: Why, then, does he mention the preexistence of the soul? Given that preexistence is part of the myth and that this means that an important truth is being expressed—though not necessarily in literal language—the proper interpretation comes readily to mind. Plato means to say by his doctrine of recollection that knowledge is not learned but is in some sense innate. Undoubtedly Plato, who wrote his philosophy before Aristotle had made logic into an independent discipline, was not so sophisticated in logical matters as were philosophers who followed him. It would be highly unreasonable, therefore, to expect him to have recognized the significance of the relation of logical implication. A modern philosopher might say of the slave boy’s demonstration that he recognized, under appropriate questioning, the logical implications of the geometrical situation Socrates diagramed, and that the ability to recognize such implications is innate. Such a view represents the spirit of the rationalist tradition in philosophy as it was given expression by such important thinkers as René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. Plato’s myth, it seems, is his expression of the rationalist’s insight, an insight that had to wait for greater logical sophistication before it could be expressed properly. Plato had the insight, but he lacked the appropriate apparatus for expressing it in terms that present-day philosophers easily recognize.

Regardless of how one interprets the theory of recollection as it is presented in Meno, there can be no disagreement that Meno is an important element in the Platonic corpus. The subject of the dialogue, the relation between virtue and knowledge, is central to Plato’s ethical views; the use of illustrations from geometry to clarify knowing reflects Plato’s underlying mathematical bias; and the theory of recollection itself is closely tied to the central Platonic doctrine, the theory of ideas. Meno is a first-rate introduction to the thought of one of the truly great thinkers in the history of Western civilization.

Bibliography

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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.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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