People - Ancient Greece: Meno
A Socratic dialogue written by Plato.
Meno in Wikipedia
Meno (Ancient Greek: Μένων) is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. Written in the Socratic dialectic style, it attempts to determine the definition of virtue, or arete, meaning in this case virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The goal is a common definition that applies equally to all particular virtues. Socrates moves the discussion past the philosophical confusion, or aporia, created by Meno's paradox (aka the learner's paradox) with the introduction of new Platonic ideas: the theory of knowledge as recollection, anamnesis, and in the final lines a movement towards Platonic idealism.
Plato's Meno is a Socratic dialogue in which the two main speakers, Socrates and Meno, discuss human virtue: whether or not it can be taught, whether it is shared by all human beings, and whether it is one quality or many. As is typical of a Socratic dialogue, there is more than one theme discussed within Meno. One feature of the dialogue is Socrates' use of one of Meno's slaves to demonstrate his idea of anamnesis, that certain knowledge is innate and "recollected" by the soul through proper inquiry. Another often noted feature of the dialogue is the brief appearance of Anytus, a member of a prominent Athenian family who later participated in the prosecution of Socrates.
Meno is visiting Athens with a large entourage of slaves attending him. Young, good-looking and well-born, Meno is perhaps a sophist from Thessaly, but Plato is not absolutely clear about this. Meno says early on in the dialogue that he has held forth many times on the subject of virtue, and in front of large audiences.
The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates to tell him if virtue can be taught. Socrates says that he is clueless about what virtue is, and so is everyone else he knows (71b). Meno responds that virtue is different for different people, that what is virtuous for a man is to conduct himself in the city so that he helps his friends, injures his enemies, and takes care all the while that he personally comes to no harm. Virtue is different for a woman, he says. Her domain is the management of the household, and she is supposed to obey her husband. He says that children (male and female) have their own proper virtue, and so do old men -free- or slave, as you like (71e). Socrates says he finds this odd. He suspects that there must be some virtue common to all human beings.
Socrates rejects the idea that human virtue depends on a person's gender or age. He leads Meno towards the idea that virtues are common to all people, that temperance ("sophrosunę"- exercising self control) and justice ("dikę, dikaiosunę"- refraining from harming other people) are virtues even in children and old men (73b). Meno proposes to Socrates that the "capacity to govern men" may be a virtue common to all people. Socrates points out to the slaveholder that "governing well" cannot be a virtue of a slave, because then he would not be a slave (73c,d).
One of the errors that Socrates points out is that Meno lists many particular virtues without defining a common feature inherent to virtues which makes them thus. Socrates remarks that Meno makes many out of one, like somebody who breaks a plate (77a).
Meno proposes that virtue is the desire for good things and the power to get them. Socrates points out that this raises a second problem- many people do not recognize evil (77d,e). The discussion then turns to how to account for the fact that so many people are mistaken about good and evil, and take one for the other. Socrates asks Meno to consider whether good things must be acquired virtuously in order to be really good (78b). Socrates leads onto the question of whether virtue is one thing or many.
No satisfactory definition of virtue emerges in the Meno. Socrates' comments however show that he considers a successful definition to be unitary, rather than a list of varieties of virtue, that it must contain all and only those terms which are genuine instances of virtue, and must not be circular.
Meno eventually throws up his hands at the problem, confessing that he is no longer so sure of what virtue is. He seems agitated and compares Socrates to a stingray that can numb, and admits that he is "quite perplexed". He says that Socrates has made him numb in his mind and tongue (80a,b). Socrates argues that the reason for this comparison is that Meno, a "handsome" man, is inviting counter-comparisons because of his own vanity. Socrates tells Meno that he only resembles a stingray if it numbs itself in making others numb (80c).
Socrates brings Meno to aporia (puzzlement) on the question of what virtue is. Meno responds by accusing Socrates of being like a 'torpedo fish' (meaning some species of electric ray), which stuns its victims. Meno then proffers a paradox, "And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn't know?" (80d1-4). This paradox has troubled philosophers for generations.
Meno asks Socrates how a person can look for something when he has no idea what it is. How can he know when he has arrived at the truth when he does not already know what the truth is?(80d) Socrates avoids this sophistical paradox by pointing out that, by using this logic, man could neither search for what he does know, because he would already know it, nor for what he does not know, because he would not know for what he was looking. (This is not to say that Socrates or Plato deny the strength of this paradox. Socrates does not take the position that knowledge can be sought; as is explained, his theory of knowledge is that it is never acquired, only ever recollected.)
Plato subsequently discusses his own theory of knowledge through Socrates, that it is "recollection" from the past lives of the immortal soul.(81d)
Dialogue with Meno's slave
Socrates does not answer the paradox. Instead he counters with a mythos (poetic story): the theory of recollection. It tells of our immortal souls mixing with the objects of knowledge in a great world-spirit. Since we have contact with real things in this stage of existence prior to birth, we have only to 'recollect' them when alive. Such recollection requires Socratic questioning, which according to Plato is not 'teaching.' Socrates thus demonstrates his method of questioning and recollection by interrogating a slave who is ignorant of geometry. The subsequent discussion shows the slave capable of learning a complex geometry problem, because "he already has the questions in his soul." In this way, Socrates shows Meno that learning is possible through recollection, and that the paradox is false. Meno's aporia shows that he is not capable of learning, but the examination of the slave shows that he can learn. In this way, Socrates answers Meno's paradox with one of his own. Not understanding, Meno attempts to avoid Socrates' ironic criticism by returning to his original question: "what is virtue?"
Socrates begins one of the most influential dialogues of Western philosophy regarding the argument for innate knowledge. By drawing geometric figures in the ground Socrates demonstrates that the slave is initially unaware of how to find twice the area of a square.
Socrates then said that before he got hold of him the slave (who has been picked at random from Meno's entourage) has spoken "well and fluently" on the subject of a square double the size of a given square (84c). Socrates comments that this "numbing" he caused in the slave did him no harm (84b).
Socrates then draws a second square figure on the diagonal so that the slave can see that by adding vertical and horizontal lines touching the corners of the square, the double of its area is created. He gets the slave to agree that this is twice the size of the original square and says that he has "spontaneously recovered" knowledge he knew from a past life (85d) without having been taught. Socrates is satisfied that new beliefs were "newly aroused" in the slave.
After witnessing the example with the slave boy, Meno tells Socrates that he thinks that Socrates is correct in his theory of recollection, to which Socrates replies, “I think I am. I shouldn’t like to take my oath on the whole story, but one thing I am ready to fight for as long as I can, in word and act—that is, that we shall be better, braver, and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don’t know...” (86b). It has been argued variously that this implies Socrates is skeptical regarding knowledge or that he is a pragmatist. It also prepares us for the subsequent discussion of knowledge by hypothesis.
When Anytus appears, Socrates praises him as the son of Anthemion, who earned his fortune with intelligence and hard work. He says that Anthemion had his son well-educated, and Anytus, the beneficiary of a well-meaning father, must both be virtuous and know what it is. Anytus comments on Sophists, and saying that he neither knows any, nor cares to know any. Socrates then questions why it is that men do not always produce sons of the same virtue as themselves. He alludes to other notable male figures, such as Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles and Thucydides, and casts doubt on whether these men produced sons as capable of virtue as themselves. Anytus becomes offended and accuses Socrates of slander, warning him to be careful expressing such opinions. (The historical Anytus was one of Socrates' accusers in his trial.)
After speaking to Anytus, Socrates suggests that Anytus does not realize what slander is, and continues his dialogue with Meno as to the definition of Virtue.
Concluding dialogue with Meno
After the discussion with Anytus, Socrates and Meno return to the subject of whether Virtue can be taught. He points out the similarities and differences between "true beliefs" and "knowledge". He claims that while "true beliefs" may be as useful to us as knowledge, they often fail to "stay in their place" and must be "tethered" by anamnesis. This distinction between "true beliefs" and "knowledge" forms the basis of the philosophical definition of knowledge as "justified true belief". "To sum up our enquiry," Socrates concludes, "the result seems to be, if we are at all right in our view, that virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but an instinct given by God to the virtuous." Whereas in the Protagoras knowledge is uncompromisingly this-worldly, in the Meno the theory of recollection points to a link between knowledge and eternal truths. It is likely that Socrates, frustrated with Meno's ignorance, proposed this answer to dismiss him.
Meno and Protagoras
Meno's theme is also being dealt in the dialogue of Protagoras, where, Plato finally puts Socrates to conclude with the opposite conclusion 'That virtue can be taught.'
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