PLATO: Meno

PLATO: Meno

  • In this dialogue, Socrates and Meno attempt to define virtue, and determine whether it can be acquired by teaching or by practice or some other way.
  • Socrates asserts that he knows nothing about virtue, and that he has never met a man who did.
  • Meno says that the virtue of a man is to know how to administer a state to benefit his friends, harm his enemies, and avoid suffering harm himself. A woman’s duty is to order the house and obey her husband. Every age and condition of life has a different virtue. Virtues are numberless as are their definitions. Virtue is relative to the condition of each individual. The same is true about vice.
  • Socrates asks Meno what the quality that all these particular virtues share because then they would arrive at a true definition of virtue. Meno has simply supplied Socrates with a number of examples of virtue. Mankind differs from one another in size, shape, beauty, intelligence, etc., but there is one quality that all mankind possesses which makes them human. Both men and women, in order to administer the state and order the house must exercise temperance and justice. In this way the virtues of men and women are the same, but we cannot use temperance and justice in the definition of virtue because they are virtues. It would be as if we provided a definition of an apple as an apple.
  • Meno says that virtue is the power of governing mankind. But Socrates refutes this definition by demonstrating that the virtue of a slave is not to govern his master.
  •  Socrates proves that justice is not virtue itself, but rather a virtue. Other virtues include magnanimity, courage, temperance, and wisdom amongst others. Socrates proves his argument by using an analogy of figures and colors. A circle is a figure, not figure itself. White is a color, not color itself. White is not more of a color than blue, and blue not more than white. Socrates is seeking the “simile in multis” – the similar notion that many particulars share.
  • Socrates defines ‘figure’ as the limit of a solid. This definition encompasses all figures – straight, round, etc. “Colour is an effluence of form, commensurate with sight, and palpable to sense.”
  • Meno asserts that virtue is the “desire of things honorable and the power of attaining them.”
  • Socrates clarifies Meno’s definition. He says that men desire honorable things because they are “good.” All men desire good things. No man desires evil things because the acquisition of evil things renders a man miserable and ill-fated. Thus, virtue is the desire of good and the power of attaining it. But every man desires good; one man is not “better” at desiring good than another. Men only different in virtue by their power of attaining the good. But men must acquire the good justly, piously, etc., and not by unjust and dishonest actions. The mere acquisition of good is not virtuous unless it is done by just means. Thus, the definition is useless because it asserts that virtue is the acquiring of good by means of virtues.
  • Socrates offers to continue the inquiry into the nature of virtue, but Meno asks Socrates how they can they possibly inquire into a thing they do not know, and how will they know that the thing they might find is the thing they were searching for.
  • Socrates retorts that Meno is arguing that men cannot inquire into that which he knows or that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to inquire, and if he does not know, then he cannot inquire into it because he does not know the subject about which he is to inquire.
  • Socrates tells Meno of the notion that the soul is immortal. Because the soul is immortal and eternal, it knows all things in this world and the underworld. Thus, learning is recollecting. To prove this, Socrates demonstrates that a slave who possesses no knowledge of Geometry can solve a complicated geometry problem by merely remembering fundamental principles and answering Socrates’ questions. The geometry problem is doubling the area of a square by using a diagonal of the square.
  • During the questioning of the slave boy, Socrates demonstrates that the slave boy moves from a state of certainty as to the answer to a state of bewilderment and certainty that he does not know the answer. Socrates asserts that the slave boy’s knowledge that he is ignorant of the correct answer is better than his original misguided confidence because he can continue to pursue the correct answer rather than cease his pursuit because he mistakenly believes to know the correct answer.
  • That which we do not know is simply that which we do not remember. We need only ask the right questions to elicit the recollection of our knowledge.
  • In response to the question of whether virtue can be taught, Socrates says that if virtue is knowledge then it can be taught, if it is not knowledge then it cannot be taught. Socrates concludes that virtue is knowledge/wisdom/prudence because none of the other virtues are profitable unless guided by wisdom, not folly. Wealth, strength, courage, etc. are harmful when not guided by wisdom and prudence. But Socrates is hesitant to conclude that virtue is knowledge and thus can be taught because there are no teachers or disciples of virtue. This leads to the conclusion that virtue is impossible to teach.
  • Socrates asks Anytus whether the Sophists are teachers of virtue because they proclaim to practice the art of virtue and teach it. Anytus ridicules the Sophists as pests and corrupters. Anytus says that any Athenian gentlemen will teach virtue far better than the Sophists. Socrates argues that virtue cannot be taught because Themistocles, a man renowned for wisdom and virtue, did not teach his son to be wise and virtuous like himself. There was no reason for Themistocles to abstain from teaching his son about virtue; nevertheless, he did not. Other wise men besides Themistocles only taught their children horse-riding, music, gymnastics, and other arts too. But why did these men not teach their children to be virtuous? Perhaps because virtue cannot be taught.
  • A man can be a good guide if he does not have knowledge of something. If he has a right opinion, then this suffices. For example, there is no difference between a man who knows the way to Larisa because he has been there and a man who has a right opinion about the way to Larisa though he has never been there. A man who thinks the truth is just as good a guide as a man who knows the truth. But true opinions are less valuable than knowledge because they are liable to fly from the soul. They are not fastened as knowledge is to the soul. In order to move from true opinion to knowledge, one must understand the cause of something.
  • Since virtue is not taught, virtue is not knowledge. Thus, virtuous statesman did not teach their children virtue because their virtue was not grounded in knowledge. They possess a right opinion of virtue, which is the same as the divine inspiration of prophets. Diviners and prophets say many true things though they know not what they say. Those successful statesmen were men who were divinely inspired.
  • To summarize, virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but given by god to the virtuous. Yet we will not know for certain whether this is the truth until we inquire into the nature of virtue.

“I suspect that you and he think much alike.”

“But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape?”

“And if he similarly asked what colour is, and you answered whiteness, and the questioner rejoined, Would you say that whiteness is colour or a colour? you would reply, A colour, because there are other colours as well.”

“Ever and anon we are landed in particulars, but this is not what I want.”

“Colour is an effluence of form, commensurate with sight, and palpable to sense.”

“How will you inquire into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?”

“You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”

“They spoke of a glorious truth.”

“All learning is but recollection.”

“Do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know? Thus, he is better off I knowing his ignorance.”

“Without any one teaching him he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions.”

“But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know;—that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.”

“There is no city in which it is not easier to do men harm than to do them good.”

“A man who thinks the truth is just as good a guide as a man who knows the truth. True opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honourable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.”

“Diviners and also prophets say many things truly, but they know not what they say.”

“He alone has understanding, but the rest are flitting shades.”

One must continue to ask questions in order to attain knowledge. Even when one believes he has attained knowledge, he must continue to ask questions and apply his knowledge to determine whether he is accurate in his opinion or mistaken. A man is in a better position when he knows he is ignorant because he will not cease to pursue knowledge of the subject into which he is inquiring.

The ‘simuli in multis’ is the similarity which many things share. For example, human beings very in size, color, intelligence, etc., but there is a quality which every individual instance of a human being possess that he shares with every other individual instance of a human being. It is difficult to determine what that quality is, but if one does discover this quality, an accurate definition of what a human being is can be given. Aristotle argues that the characteristic which distinguishes mankind from other beings is its ability to reason. However, I do not think that this is a sufficient definition for a human being because a man in a coma cannot reason, but we still believe that he is a human being. Perhaps Aristotle would retort that the man in a coma has the potential to reason. Thus, he would qualify his definition of human beings as anything that has the potential to reason. But with the advent and progress of artificial intelligence, one might erroneously conclude that machines are human beings according to Aristotle’s definition. This type of questioning into the fundamental characteristics that make something human is explored by many science fiction novelists. The novel that immediately comes to my mind is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was adapted into a movie titled Blade Runner.

Plato briefly presents an argument that learning is recollecting. He asserts that the soul is immortal and has experienced everything in this world and the underworld. When we learn something during our lifetime on earth, we are merely recollecting the knowledge which we acquired in the past. To demonstrate this argument, he asks a slave boy who has no knowledge of geometry to discover how to draw a square that is twice the area of another square. Through this series of questions, Socrates demonstrates that the slave boy already possessed the knowledge to solve the problem; the knowledge only needed to be elicited by the right questions.

Socrates does not discover the true nature of virtue, which is the task he sets for himself and Meno at the beginning of the dialogue, but he does refute some popular possibilities. He also demonstrates that describing virtue as justice, or courage, or temperance, is like describing color as whiteness, or blueness, or greenness. One cannot comprehensively define a subject by a particular instance of it.

Complete Works of Plato

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