Socrates and Meno

In the Meno, the initial question posed by Meno is never truly answered. To set the scene, Meno is visiting Athens from Thessaly, as the guest of Anytus. According to Plato and Xenophon, Meno was an attractive young man, and a fierce political leader, as well as a follower of Gorgias. Thus, the Meno shares a certain kinship with Plato’s Gorgias. Socrates refers to Gorgias as a “tyrant” several times in the Meno. Why is Meno in Athens? Perhaps he is en route to his generalship in the Persian intervention, as recounted in Xenophon’s Anabasis (Meno is mentioned as one of the generals by Xenophon). If this is the case, then Meno dies shortly after this dialogue. Anytus, who appears briefly in the middle of the dialogue, is notable for being one of the chief accusers of Socrates in the Apology. He is from the older generation. He was a general in the Peloponnesian War, and he becomes a defender of Athenian democracy against the Thirty Tyrants.

The dialogue proceeds as follows. Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught or whether it is the result of practice/habit, or whether or not men possess it by nature in some other way. Socrates, per his usual modus operandi, claims he cannot speak about virtue and its qualities until a definition of virtue is achieved. Meno gives his first definition: that there are many different virtues for a man, a woman, a child, an elderly man, a free man, or a slave among others. Socrates then invokes the image of a swarm of bees to demonstrate to Meno what kind of an encompassing answer he is seeking. Next Meno gives a definition of virtue as the ability to rule over people, for justice is virtue (arete). Socrates sidesteps this definition by identifying justice as a particular virtue, the same problem they ran into previously. Socrates then invokes the images of shape and color to look for their definition, rather than a particular shape or color. Meno beckons Socrates to give a definition of shape and of color. Based on this example, Meno gives his third and final definition of virtue: to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them. However, through dialectic Socrates leads Meno to accept that acquisition and good things must be accompanied by justice and moderation, leading to the same quandary. Meno is then stunned into aporeia after reintroducing Socrates’s original question. Meno accuses Socrates of being a “torpedo-fish”, one who stuns others into a state of numbness. He says it is good for Socrates to stay in Athens, otherwise he would be driven away from other cities for practicing sorcery.

Next, Meno asks Socrates how he will know when he finds the nature of virtue if he does not know what he is looking for. Socrates is not impressed with this old debater’s trick. In response, he cites priests and priestesses, as well as Pindar, who claim that the soul is immortal and knows all things. It is up to human beings to recollect these things. It is a similar, but far shorter account than is found in the Phaedrus. A skeptical Meno asks Socrates to demonstrate this process of recollection that men call learning. Socrates responds by demonstrating a series of geometrical questions physically demonstrated in the sand with one of Meno’s slave boys. Next Socrates asks Meno again if they can return to the question of what virtue is. Instead, Meno requests that Socrates move forward on the assumption that virtue is something teachable, habituated, or by nature. They inquire as to whether or not virtue is a kind of knowledge that can be taught, or an art, but it must be required that there be teachers of virtue -suddenly Anytus appears and Socrates asks him to help find a teacher of virtue, like a teacher of flute-playing or a good show maker. Socrates questions the relationship between fathers and sons. For example, why were Themistocles, Thucydides, and Pericles’s sons not known for their virtue, despite the fact that they were taught by their fathers? Anytus gets angry and advises Socrates to be careful as this kind of slander would be easier in another city, and Socrates concludes by suggesting that virtue cannot be taught. Anytus departs in anger. Perhaps the Meno plays a central role in Socrates trial and subsequent execution.

The dialogue closes with a curious discussion of right opinion versus knowledge. Socrates invokes the image of a man who knows the way to Larissa, even if he may not have traveled to Larissa. A man can have a right opinion (doxa) without necessarily possessing knowledge (episteme). Socrates claims that right opinions must be tied down like statues of Daedalus and bound with reasons and causes (an account or logos). The dialogue concludes with Socrates giving an account of how virtue is seemingly a gift from the gods.

For this reading I used the Focus Philosophical Library translated by George Anastaplo.

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