Meno Summary

Plato

Meno

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Meno Summary

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Meno is one of Plato’s shortest but most influential dialogues. It attempts to define virtue and uses Socratic dialogue made famous by Plato’s mentor, Socrates, to determine what virtue is and what it is not. Socrates reduces Meno to a state of confusion in their dialogue, but then introduces positive ideals after.

The dialogue begins with Meno and Socrates talking. Meno asks if virtue can be taught, and Socrates claims not to know what virtue is. Meno responds by saying that Gorgias states that virtue is different for different people, and the virtue of men is different than that of women, slaves different from free men, and adults different from children.

Socrates protests, saying there must be some element of virtue that is common to everyone.  Socrates says that things like temperance and justice are universal virtues no matter the person, and Meno adds that the ability to govern people must be among those. Socrates disagrees, saying that a slave cannot possess such a trait because then he or she would not be a slave.

Socrates points out Meno’s error of listing particular virtues without defining the common cause of all. Meno then proposes that virtue is the desire for good things and the ability to acquire them, but Socrates again disagrees. He says that many people cannot recognize evil, and asks if things must be acquired virtuously to be good.

Meno introduces a paradox. He asks how Socrates can define virtue while claiming to be wholly ignorant of what it is. He says that many people pass by things they are unaware of and cannot define. If he does not know, then he cannot search for it. If he can search for it, then he does know and does not need to search.

Socrates then demonstrates an answer using mythical wisdom. He claims that souls have encountered all knowledge before birth and can be led to remembering. He chooses one of Meno’s slaves and draws a square. He then draws a larger square and asks the slave to tell him the area.

The slave is unable to. Socrates then draws a series of squares demonstrating that the larger square is double the size of the smaller square and the slave agrees. Socrates claims that he has recovered knowledge lost at the time of birth. He demonstrates that the search for knowledge is possible because at soul level, we are merely remembering; Meno agrees.

Meno asks him to return to the conversation, and at this point, they are joined by Anytus. Socrates praises him for being learned and accomplished and then speaks for a while on the possibility of virtuous men being capable of raising sons as virtuous as they. Anytus is offended and warns Socrates of the possibility of slander. Socrates shoos him off and continues his discussion.

Socrates continues, quizzing Meno on whether he believes that virtue can be taught, and Meno is at a loss. Socrates suggests that they have conflated two different ideas, that of knowledge and that of belief. Both are useful, but true beliefs must be tethered to us by the use of soul level recollection, otherwise known as reasonable calculation (aitias logismos).

Socrates concludes that virtue has been the result of divine inspiration akin to the inspiration of the poets. It is widely accepted that his remarks are ironic, though later interpretations suggest that his invocation of the gods is somewhat sincere, though tentative.

The major theme, of course, is that of defining virtue and questioning whether it can be taught. Although in later dialogues, Socrates concludes that it can be taught, in Meno, it is clear that he believes that it is something innate in certain people and must be brought forth through recollection and objective logic. He uses the example of the slave and mathematics to suggest that although we may have experienced virtue before we were born, it will require some active reasoning to remember what defines it so that we can experience it for ourselves.

Another theme that is slightly odd for most of Socrates’s dialogues is the emphasis on something otherworldly. Socrates is famous for questioning the mystical relationship the gods had in this world, but here part of his discussion hinges on the idea that we are born with experience to all knowledge and our pursuit of virtue in this life depends on our ability to remember these things. In this dialogue, there is a link between eternal truths and knowledge in this life. The link is recollection.

Scholars believe that the themes of reincarnation and divine knowledge follow more closely what Plato believed about reality than what Socrates believed. In most of Socrates’s dialogues, there is a decided emphasis on what is in the present, physical world; Socrates was executed based on blasphemy against the gods. Meno is a classic example of what many believe is Socratic irony and the Socratic search for universal truths.