Meno: Novel Summary
After a rather abrupt start into the conversation, we learn that Meno would like Socrates to speak about if virtue can be taught, and if not, how it is that men come to possess it. Socrates implies that the influence of Gorgias (an ancient rhetorician) has had an effect on Meno, and that is in part why he would ask such a question. He then says that Meno is not starting at the right place-it is important to first define virtue since neither of the two men know, and from there they can inquire about its qualities (e.g. is it teachable, etc.).
Meno's first definition for Socrates is that virtue is different for men and women, children, elders and so forth. For men it is found in managing public affairs so that they benefit his friends and harm his enemies; for women it is found in managing the home and serving her husband. He also gives another definition for children at which point Socrates directs Meno so that he understands there must only be one definition of virtue (the sameness that all virtuous people share, its essence) and explains this concept by asking Meno about health. In doing this Socrates is trying to show Meno that the nature of virtue will be the same in all things. The only change is the way in which we perceive it from individual to individual. Once Meno catches on to this he offers a reformed definition that virtue is the ability to rule over people since that is what all of his examples had in common. Socrates quickly reforms this definition saying, "Shall we not add to this justly and not justly?" Meno affirms this suggestion and says that justice is virtue. He also thinks that courage, moderation, wisdom, and munificence among other things are virtues. This is obviously the same problem that they had before by implicating too many virtues instead of the single nature of virtue that all of these things have. Socrates continues in his patience with Meno and they bicker about who and how the right definition will be supplied until Meno attempts again to define virtue as desiring the beautiful and having the power to acquire them.
At this point, Socrates briefly argues that it is psychologically impossible to desire bad things. This is an important bit of text because his argument will later come into play at his trial, and years later philosophers still debate about this belief as asserted by Plato. At the end of his argument, Socrates again tells Meno that he has failed to define virtue in the appropriate manner. "I begged you just now not to break up or fragment virtue, and I gave examples of how you should answer. You paid no attention, but you tell me that virtue is to be able to secure good things with justice, and this, you say, is a part of virtue," says Socrates. He still requires the nature of virtue in his definition and Meno has failed to identify this. Meno is frustrated by this and accuses Socrates of being a bewitching and beguiling character, and Socrates explains to Meno that he is nothing of the sort. He makes no attempt at looking smarter than he really is, and even admits that more often than not he is the one most perplexed, not the other person with whom he is talking. Nonetheless, he is excited by the chance to pursue such an excellent question and wants to continue with Meno on this subject.
Meno now presents the famous "Meno's Paradox" when he asks how they will look for it when they don't know at all what it is. Socrates calls this a debater's argument, namely the paradox of inquiry. Suppose you want to come to know some knowledge X. You must seek either 1) knowing, or 2) not knowing. If 1) then inquiry is unnecessary since you don't need to inquire about X if you already know it. If 2) then inquiry is impossible since you can't inquire about that which you don't know. Thus, you cannot go from not knowing to knowing, according to Meno's claim.
In this view learning is impossible. Socrates must now show how learning is possible and he does this by introducing the theory of recollection. He begins by citing a passage from a poem that claims that the soul is immortal and that there is nothing it has not learned in the underworld. If this is true, as Socrates believes, it is never impossible for man to learn because he merely needs to recall that which his soul already knows, but is not aware of knowing. Meno would like further explanation so Socrates asks him to call in a servant to demonstrate the process of recollection. His goal is to show that the slave, who knows nothing of geometry, actually can recall some knowledge of the subject and therefore is able to answer the questions that Socrates asks of him. And indeed, Meno witnesses the slave answer correctly about the geometric figures, and length of lines, and so forth. Meno is convinced of this theory and agrees that the slave, who does not appear to know, has within himself true opinions about the things which he does not know. Socrates then gives two different accounts of recollection when he says that there is genuine learning where the soul exists prior to birth, and there isn't genuine learning because the truth about reality is always in the soul. The residual question that remains is how one can distinguish between cases of successful recollection and only apparent successful cases of recollection. This question is never resolved, but since Socrates has convinced Meno that they can inquire about virtue, they decide again to pursue the definition and where virtue comes from.
Now Socrates says that if virtue is a kind of knowledge, then it can be learned. If it is something other than a kind of knowledge, it obviously cannot be taught. They both believe that virtue is at least something good, and beneficial to those who encounter it. Socrates later makes an argument that all things in the soul found to be beneficial must be a kind of wisdom. But he does not yet say that it is teachable for if it was then it would make sense that there were teachers for it, and as far as Socrates can tell, there are not teachers of virtue. He calls Anytus into the conversation to explore the question of whether virtue can be found among the politicians. Anytus expresses contempt for teachers like the Sophists and he debates with Socrates about the failure of fathers to teach their sons to be virtuous, and the failure of public officials to exhibit virtue for their citizens. Socrates concludes that virtue cannot be taught as evidenced by his previous examples and Anytus accuses Socrates of being too harsh on people, speaking ill of them too easily at which time he excuses himself from the conversation.
Meno and Socrates are again alone and still unable to come to any certainty about virtue. Socrates says that they must now seek out another individual who can better pursue the subject of virtue. He also says that they have wrongly concluded that mere opinion is not (in some cases) as valuable as knowledge. Meno is confused and Socrates clarifies his idea that there are times when a man possessing true opinion (as Socrates and Meno have of virtue) can be as helpful as a man possessing knowledge of the same thing. His example is of two men who know the way to Larissa, both when asked would be able to provide accurate and correct directions even though one has mere true opinion and the other has actual knowledge. The difference between true opinion and knowledge is that knowledge has a stability that opinion lacks. A requisite account of reason gives knowledge its stability, whereas opinion is susceptible to change and influence. From this argument Socrates concludes that virtue is useful and good, similar to true opinion. And men who are virtuous must be that because they have true opinion-not knowledge-of virtue. Perhaps it is a gift of understanding that the gods bestow upon some men, Socrates concludes, and the knowledge of virtue that Socrates and Meno sought to acquire will come when they can, at another time, correctly capture the essence of the word-virtue.