Meno

Meno

Overview
Meno is a Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC, preserved today in the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of Xenophon - either dramatic or narrative - in which characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating a...

 written by Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

. It attempts to determine the definition of virtue
Virtue
Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being....

, or arete
Arete (excellence)
Arete , in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one's full potential...

, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style
Socratic method
The Socratic method , named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas...

 and Meno is reduced to confusion or aporia
Aporia
Aporia denotes, in philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement, and, in rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.-Definitions:...

. In response to Meno's paradox (a.k.a. the learner's paradox), however, Socrates introduces positive ideas: the immortality of the soul, the theory of knowledge as recollection (anamnesis)
Anamnesis (philosophy)
In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to it in his Phaedrus.-Meno:...

, which Socrates demonstrates by posing a mathematical puzzle to one of Meno's slaves, the method of hypothesis, and, in the final lines, the distinction between knowledge and true belief.

Plato's Meno is a Socratic dialogue in which the two main speakers, Socrates and Meno
Menon III of Pharsalus
Menon , son of Alexidemus, was a Thessalian, probably from Pharsalus and is famous for appearing in Plato's dialogue the Meno and for being among the generals killed by Artaxerxes after the Battle of Cunaxa as detailed in Xenophon's Anabasis.-Biography:Menon is reported, by both Xenophon and...

, discuss human virtue: whether or not it can be taught, and, what it is.

Meno is visiting Athens from Thessaly
Thessaly
Thessaly is a traditional geographical region and an administrative region of Greece, comprising most of the ancient region of the same name. Before the Greek Dark Ages, Thessaly was known as Aeolia, and appears thus in Homer's Odyssey....

 with a large entourage of slaves attending him.
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Encyclopedia
Meno is a Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC, preserved today in the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of Xenophon - either dramatic or narrative - in which characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating a...

 written by Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

. It attempts to determine the definition of virtue
Virtue
Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being....

, or arete
Arete (excellence)
Arete , in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one's full potential...

, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style
Socratic method
The Socratic method , named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas...

 and Meno is reduced to confusion or aporia
Aporia
Aporia denotes, in philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement, and, in rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.-Definitions:...

. In response to Meno's paradox (a.k.a. the learner's paradox), however, Socrates introduces positive ideas: the immortality of the soul, the theory of knowledge as recollection (anamnesis)
Anamnesis (philosophy)
In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to it in his Phaedrus.-Meno:...

, which Socrates demonstrates by posing a mathematical puzzle to one of Meno's slaves, the method of hypothesis, and, in the final lines, the distinction between knowledge and true belief.

Characters


Plato's Meno is a Socratic dialogue in which the two main speakers, Socrates and Meno
Menon III of Pharsalus
Menon , son of Alexidemus, was a Thessalian, probably from Pharsalus and is famous for appearing in Plato's dialogue the Meno and for being among the generals killed by Artaxerxes after the Battle of Cunaxa as detailed in Xenophon's Anabasis.-Biography:Menon is reported, by both Xenophon and...

, discuss human virtue: whether or not it can be taught, and, what it is.

Meno is visiting Athens from Thessaly
Thessaly
Thessaly is a traditional geographical region and an administrative region of Greece, comprising most of the ancient region of the same name. Before the Greek Dark Ages, Thessaly was known as Aeolia, and appears thus in Homer's Odyssey....

 with a large entourage of slaves attending him. Young, good-looking and well-born, Meno is a student of Gorgias
Gorgias
Gorgias ,Greek sophist, pre-socratic philosopher and rhetorician, was a native of Leontini in Sicily. Along with Protagoras, he forms the first generation of Sophists. Several doxographers report that he was a pupil of Empedocles, although he would only have been a few years younger...

, a prominent sophist whose views on virtue clearly influence Meno's. He claims early on in the dialogue that he has held forth many times on the subject of virtue, and in front of large audiences.

One feature of the dialogue is Socrates' use of one of Meno's slaves
Slavery in antiquity
Slavery in the ancient world, specifically, in Mediterranean cultures, comprised a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, and the enslavement of prisoners of war....

 to demonstrate his idea of anamnesis
Anamnesis (philosophy)
In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to it in his Phaedrus.-Meno:...

, that certain knowledge is innate and "recollected" by the soul through proper inquiry.

Meno is a visitor to the house of Anytus
Anytus
Anytus , son of Anthemion, was one of the prosecutors of Socrates. An unsubstantiated legend has it that he was banished from Athens after the public felt guilty about having Socrates executed. We know that he was one of the leading supporters of the democratic forces in Athens...

, a member of a prominent Athenian family, and who later participated in the prosecution of Socrates
Trial of Socrates
The Trial of Socrates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety...

.

Virtue


The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 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, according to Gorgias, 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 ("sophrosunê"- exercising self-control) and justice ("dikê, dikaiosunê"- 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's paradox


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
Electric ray
The electric rays are a group of rays, flattened cartilaginous fish with enlarged pectoral fins, comprising the order Torpediniformes. They are known for being capable of producing an electric discharge, ranging from as little as 8 volts up to 220 volts depending on species, used to stun prey and...

), which stuns its victims. Socrates responds that the reason for this comparison is that Meno, a "handsome" man, is inviting counter-comparisons because of his own vanity, and Socrates tells Meno that he only resembles a stingray if it numbs itself in making others numb (80c), and Socrates is himself ignorant of what virtue is.

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). Socrates rephrases the paradox in this way, which has come to be the canonical statement of the paradox, "[A] man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know[.] He cannot search for what he knows--since he knows it, there is no need to search--nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for." (80e, Grube translation)


Dialogue with Meno's slave



Socrates responds to this sophistical
Sophism
Sophism in the modern definition is a specious argument used for deceiving someone. In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching aretê — excellence, or virtue — predominantly to young statesmen and...

 paradox with a mythos (poetic story) according to which souls are immortal and have learned everything prior to inhabiting human body. Since the soul has had contact with real things prior to birth, we have only to 'recollect' them when alive. Such recollection requires Socratic questioning, which according to Socrates is not teaching. Socrates demonstrates his method of questioning and recollection by interrogating a slave who is ignorant of geometry.

Socrates begins one of the most influential dialogues of Western philosophy regarding the argument for inborn knowledge
Innatism
Innatism is a philosophical doctrine that holds that the mind is born with ideas/knowledge, and that therefore the mind is not a 'blank slate' at birth, as early empiricists such as John Locke claimed...

. By drawing geometric figures in the ground Socrates demonstrates that the slave is initially unaware of the length of side that must be used in order to double the area of a square with two-foot sides. The slave guesses first that the original side must be doubled in length (four feet), and when this proves too much, that it must be three feet. This is still too much, and the slave is at a loss.

Socrates claims that before he got hold of him the slave (who has been picked at random from Meno's entourage) might have thought he could speak "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 has done him no harm and has even benefited him (84b).

Socrates then draws a second square figure using the diagonal of the original square. Each diagonal cuts each two foot square in half, yielding an area of two feet. The square composed of four of the four interior triangular areas is eight feet, double that of the original area. 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.

This demonstration shows the slave capable of learning a geometrical truth, because "he already has the knowledge in his soul." In this way, Socrates shows Meno that learning is possible through recollection, and that the learner's paradox is false. Meno's paradox claims that learning is impossible, but the examination of the slave shows that it is.

Anytus


Meno now beseeches Socrates to return to the original question, how virtue is acquired, and in particular, whether or not it is acquired by teaching. Socrates proceeds on the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge, and it is quickly agreed that, if this is true, virtue is teachable. They turn to the question of whether virtue is indeed knowledge. Socrates is hesitant, because, if virtue were knowledge, there should be teachers and learners of it, but there are none.

Coincidentally Anytus
Anytus
Anytus , son of Anthemion, was one of the prosecutors of Socrates. An unsubstantiated legend has it that he was banished from Athens after the public felt guilty about having Socrates executed. We know that he was one of the leading supporters of the democratic forces in Athens...

 appears, whom Socrates praises as the son of Anthemion, who earned his fortune with intelligence and hard work. He says that Anthemion had his son well-educated and so Anytus is well-suited to join the investigation. Socrates suggests that the sophists are teachers of virtue. Anytus is horrified, 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
Themistocles
Themistocles ; c. 524–459 BC, was an Athenian politician and a general. He was one of a new breed of politicians who rose to prominence in the early years of the Athenian democracy, along with his great rival Aristides...

, Aristides
Aristides
Aristides , 530 BC – 468 BC was an Athenian statesman, nicknamed "the Just".- Biography :Aristides was the son of Lysimachus, and a member of a family of moderate fortune. Of his early life, it is only told that he became a follower of the statesman Cleisthenes and sided with the aristocratic party...

, Pericles
Pericles
Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars...

 and Thucydides
Thucydides (politician)
Thucydides was a prominent politician of ancient Athens and the leader for a number of years of the powerful conservative faction. While it is likely he is related to the later historian Thucydides son of Olorus, the details are uncertain; maternal grandfather and grandson fits the available...

, 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
Trial of Socrates
The Trial of Socrates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety...

.) Socrates suggests that Anytus does not realize what slander is, and continues his dialogue with Meno as to the definition of Virtue.

True belief and knowledge


After the discussion with Anytus, Socrates returns to quizzing Meno for his own thoughts on whether the sophists are teachers of virtue and whether virtue can be taught. Meno is again at a loss, and Socrates suggests that they have made a mistake in agreeing that knowledge is required for virtue. He points out the similarities and differences between "true belief" and "knowledge". True beliefs are as useful to us as knowledge, but they often fail to "stay in their place" and must be "tethered" by what he calls aitias logismos (the calculation of reason, or reasoned explanation), immediately adding that this is anamnesis
Anamnesis (philosophy)
In philosophy, anamnesis is a concept in Plato's epistemological and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogues Meno and Phaedo, and alludes to it in his Phaedrus.-Meno:...

, or recollection.

Whether or not Plato intends that the tethering of true beliefs with reasoned explanations must always involve anamnesis is explored in later interpretations of the text. Socrates' distinction between "true belief" and "knowledge" forms the basis of the philosophical definition of knowledge as "justified true belief
Justified true belief
Justified true belief is one definition of knowledge that states in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have justification for doing so. In more formal terms, a subject S knows that a proposition P is true if,...

". Myles Burnyeat
Myles Burnyeat
Myles Fredric Burnyeat CBE FBA is an English classicist and philosopher.-Life:Educated at Bryanston School and King’s College, Cambridge, Burnyeat was a student of Bernard Williams at University College London....

 and others, however, have argued that the phrase aitias logismos refers to a practical working out of a solution, rather than a justification.

Socrates concludes that, in the virtuous people of the present and the past, at least, virtue has been the result of divine inspiration, akin to the inspiration of the poets, whereas a knowledge of it will require answering the basic question, 'What is virtue?'. In most modern readings these closing remarks are "evidently ironic", but Socrates' invocation of the gods may be sincere, albeit "highly tentative".

Meno and Protagoras


Menos theme is also dealt with in the dialogue Protagoras
Protagoras (dialogue)
Protagoras is a dialogue of Plato. The traditional subtitle is "or the Sophists, probative". The main argument is between the elderly Protagoras, a celebrated sophist, and Socrates...

, where Plato ultimately has Socrates arrive at the opposite conclusion, that virtue can be taught. And, whereas in Protagoras knowledge is uncompromisingly this-worldly, in Meno the theory of recollection points to a link between knowledge and eternal truths.

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