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Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
ApologyCharmidesCrito
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
IonLachesLysis
Transitional & middle dialogues:
CratylusEuthydemusGorgias
MenexenusMenoPhaedo
ProtagorasSymposium
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
ParmenidesTheaetetus
Late dialogues:
TimaeusCritias
The SophistThe Statesman
PhilebusLaws
Of doubtful authenticity:
ClitophonEpinomis
EpistlesHipparchus
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

Meno 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 (e.g., justice, temperance, etc.). The goal is a common definition that applies equally to all particular virtues. Socrates moves the discussion past the philosphical confusion, or aporia, created by Meno'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.

Characters

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 from before birth. 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.

Virtue

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 ("sophrosynê"- exercising self control) and justice ("dikê, dikaiosynê"- 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 won't list 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.

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 "broad torpedo fish" 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 the torpedo fish if he is numb himself(80c).


Meno's paradox

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 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 what he was looking for.

Plato subsequently discusses his own theory of knowledge through Socrates, that it is "recollection" from the past lives of the immortal soul. He says he can demonstrate the truth of this idea if Meno will lend him one of his slaves for a moment.


Dialogue with Meno's slave

Meno obliges and Socrates asks Meno if the boy speaks Greek, and when Meno assures him that he was born and bred in his household, 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 ahold 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).


Anytus

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 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.

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

The 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 whilst "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."

Preceded by: Crito

Five Dialogues Meno

Succeeded by: Phaedo

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