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The Meno

The Meno asks the question ?what is virtue and can it be taught??. Meno’s conversation with Socrates is an
attempt to know exactly what virtue means and how it can be defined to come to the decision of whether or not it
can in fact be taught to others. But as Meno finds, contrary to his original perceptions as an ethical relativist, he
does not know what virtue is, and in his new state of ethical absolutism, cannot therefore teach Socrates what
virtue is, for how can one teach what one does not know? It becomes the conclusion amongst the two, that virtue is
a divine gift to those who are virtuous, and cannot be taught as it is not knowledge and it cannot be said that there
are teachers of it. However, Socrates, through his refutations of Meno’s questions and arguments, does not justify
his conclusion that it cannot be taught.

Several logical fallacies are present within the argument put forth by Socrates. And as Meno states, he
has a numbing effect on those around him, such that they might not even notice his failings until a later
After exhausting all definitions he has for what virtue is, all of them being countered by Socrates and
determined to be inadequate definitions, one of the problem’s Meno then has with understanding what virtue is
comes from this paradox: How can you try to find out something, when you have no notion at all about what it is?
However, the problem Meno has here is not clearly stated. Does he suggest that you either know what you’re
looking for, and therefore do not need to inquire into it, or you don’t know what you’re looking for, and therefore
cannot inquire into it, because you don’t know it? This leads to the question of whether what you know is either
the question you want to ask, or the answer to that question. One obviously cannot both know and not know the
same thing. However, one can know the question but not the answer. Therefore, you can inquire into something
you do not know of, if you know the question you wish to ask. And from this question, you would follow whatever
steps are necessary to get the answer, and end up knowing which you did not previously know. However, Socrates
puts forth a different perspective here, by attempting to demonstrate his Recollection Theory. This theory purports
that inquiry can be impossible in some instances, but what is seen to be learning is in fact the recollection of
something previously known.

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Though Socrates puts forth an admirable effort to support his recollection theory, there is a flaw in his
argument. He uses a slave boy to exemplify how the theory works. He sets forth the geometrical problem to the
slave boy simply enough; however, with each wrong answer from the boy, he proceeds to lead him closer to the
correct conclusion. The boy makes guesses, that Socrates dismisses in small conversation bits with Meno to one
side. Right away, this would suggest that he is, in fact, teaching the boy something, whether he will admit to it or
not. When the boy suggests the length of the lines be doubled to four to make a square of eight, Socrates
immediately speaks with Meno and asks if he is correct , to which Meno replies that the boy is wrong in his
assumption. Socrates draws this new square and specifically asks ?Is four times the old one double?? to which the
boy replies no, it is four times. This information was given to him by Socrates. After the boy unsuccessfully tries
to determine the answer to Socrates’ puzzle again by saying that the line should now be three, Socrates gives the
boy the answer by drawing lines bm, mi, ig, gb (top of page forty-nine) and asking him if that is not the answer, to
which the boy replies in the affirmative. It is almost puzzling as to why Meno agrees with Socrates that the boy
simply answered the question on his own, when he so obviously did not. It could be speculated that given the
stature of Socrates at the time, Meno simply couldn’t bring himself to disagree, or was so sure of Socrates’ wisdom,
that he accepted his example as truth. Had it not been for the help of Socrates, the boy might never have known
the answer. As well, there is the possibility that, in this situation, the act of reasoning could take place. Whereby
the slave boy could have simply deduced the correct answer, having seen the consequences of his previous answers.
This counters the recollection theory as it provides the individual with new knowledge that is based around old, but
not recalled from some distant past memory.

Given that the answer was provided by Socrates, it does not lend any credence to his theory of
recollection. As such, it could not be said that virtue is an unteachable thing, at least not by this example, for he
has not proven that all knowledge is merely recollection. As well, there are a good number of alternate instances
when such an argument cannot be made. Aside from instances where one might reason a new answer, such can be
said for empirical knowledge, with a question like ?how many quarters are in my pocket??. Determining the
answer to that will give you knowledge you did not previously have, and could not previously have. In effect, after
you count the quarters, you will have learned something new. As such, all knowledge is clearly not recollection.

Proceeding with the conversation between Meno and Socrates, the answer as to what virtue is has yet to be
found. And Meno at this point wishes to know if it is something that can be taught or attained by other means.
Socrates allows that they do not yet even know what virtue is, but ventures to determine whether it be learned or
not. Through a conversation with Antyos, whereby Socrates points out that the fine men of the region are known to
pay others in the teachings of their sons in things which are good, it is established that neither the Sophists nor
well bred, fine gentleman are teachers of virtue. For if they were, surely they would pass this virtue onto their sons
and have no need of paying others in their educations. And if it is clear there are no other teachers of virtue, and
therefore no learners, then virtue cannot be taught at all, and is not knowledge. However, Socrates has trapped
himself here, in a way. For Meno, at the beginning of the discussion, was sure in his knowledge of virtue. His
false opinion was then exposed by Socrates, and throughout the conversation he has become enlightened. Socrates
has taught Meno what virtue is not. Knowing what virtue is not will bring Meno closer to knowing what it is, in a
kind of backward way. Certainly, it cannot be said that Meno has discovered virtue, but he is one step closer. And
one cannot know X, if one does not know that X is not Y. By the same token, Meno cannot know what virtue is, if
he does not know what virtue is not. So Meno has learned something of virtue that he did not previously know.

The Meno progresses as it does, due in no small part because Meno himself is poor at what he does. He
asks Socrates on several occasions for answers, ?what do you say colour is?? and ?no, Socrates, but you tell me?
rather than attempting to formulate ideas of his own. There are occasions when Socrates gives him openings to
add his own insight and opinions, but he does not take them. After ?proving? his theory of recollection, he asks
Meno many times if the boys opinions were his own and not influenced by Socrates, but Meno simply agrees with
the opinions presented by Socrates instead of adding anything of his own. He constantly defers to Socrates and
accepts the answers he receives from him. He does not use inquiry to determine the answers he seeks and as such
shows that over the course of the dialogue, he has in fact determined nothing, while Socrates has come upon
everything, making Meno a poor Socratic thinker. Because of this, the strength of the dialogue and the points that
are made with in seems weakened, as it is less of a dialogue and more of a lesson imparted by Socrates. When it
becomes clear that Meno is bringing little to the ideas formulated, then the conclusions lose power, from something
mutually discovered by two thinkers, to ideas formulated by one man and shared with another.

It is Socrates’ final conclusion that neither he nor Meno has found the true meaning of virtue. It is
something that the two still must seek to understand. And though he believes he has isolated virtue as something
which cannot be taught based on his examples, and which is imparted by the divine unto those who are virtuous,
his reasons for achieving these conclusions can be greatly debated, as they do have many apparent flaws. These
flaws make it so that the conclusions made by Socrates do not follow logically and as such, his conclusions cannot
be said to be logical. What Socrates does achieve is in determining that he himself has not come upon a teacher of
virtue in personal experience, which is certainly not a philosophical discovery and cannot be said to prove his
point. By the end of his dialogue with Meno, Socrates has enlightened Meno insofar as teaching him that he does
not, in fact, know the nature of virtue, thus changing his double ignorance to single, from ethical relativism to
absolutism However, now neither of them can say they know virtue, nor can they conclusively say that virtue can
be taught, or cannot be taught.
Plato. ?Meno.? Great Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Rouse, Rouse, Warmington. New York: Mentor, 1956. 28-69


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