Lecture on Plato’s Meno
[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), for Liberal Studies 111 students in November 2000. References in the text are to the edition of Plato’s dialogues in Plato: Five Dialogues, trans. by G. M. A Grube, published by Hackett, 1981. This document is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose, provided the sources is acknowledged, released November 2000]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
This lecture has a three-fold purpose. To begin with I wish to summarize quickly what we have learned about Socrates in the short dialogues we have read so far (Gorgias, Apology, and Crito), so as to set up a few modest claims I wish to make about how the Meno is, for all its obvious similarities, in some ways also interestingly different or, rather, is taking us in something of a new direction. Then I will be exploring some fairly obvious features of the Meno, striving in particular to bring out what is new here in comparison to those previously mentioned works. And finally I will be stepping back from all these dialogues in order to speculate rather generally about the importance of Socrates, seeking to answer a question one student put to me, “Why do we spend three weeks on this figure and only one week on each of the other writers?”
One major point I will be making in this lecture is the common observation that here in the Meno we begin to see something new about Socrates, a sense that taking care of the soul by the pursuit of philosophy may require us to pursue certain ways of thinking (rather than others) in order to acquire the knowledge essential to our moral well being. This shift, which is only suggested in this dialogue, may mark (as many have suggested) an interesting difference between the methods of the historical Socrates (the person who lived and died in Athens) and the Platonic Socrates, the participant in the conversations written by Plato (more about this later).
First, for the quick summary. From the Gorgias, Apology, and Crito we derive a clear sense of Socrates as someone who likes to challenge people about what they believe by engaging them in a conversation. Typically the conversation has Socrates requesting clarification from someone about a particular claim, almost invariably a moral claim (e.g., that orators are good or that to be an orator or to study oratory is a good thing, or that the highest and best life is one of pleasure or power, and so on). Socrates requests clarification about the meaning of the words in which the response is framed and then, by repeated questions and answers and the introduction of various analogies, Socrates proceeds to lead his conversational partners to the realization that the original formulation of the moral claim is inadequate, meaningless, or contradictory.
One purpose of this form of enquiry is clear: Socrates wishes to help his listeners discover for themselves the inadequacy of what they hold as true, those moral beliefs about themselves and the world which they have never thought of challenging for themselves because everyone around them shares the same beliefs or because that’s what the social and political culture of Athens has always held.
Socrates, in other words, is taking issue with the most common and most traditional ways in which people persuade themselves that what they believe about life’s priorities is true, generally by endorsing without serious question the value system of their parents or the majority around them (which often amounts to much the same thing). Rather than simply telling them they are wrong and giving them a long speech on the subject, Socrates invites them to discover the inadequacy of these beliefs by subjecting their statements to two criteria: precise definition and common sense rational analysis. And Socrates makes it clear repeatedly that these are the criteria that matter, rather than any majority opinion or any traditional authority.
The revolutionary stance of Socrates stems, first and foremost, from the nature of this challenge. For him the traditions and common popular beliefs, even of the elite class in society, those with power, status, and wealth, have no validity unless they can meet the criteria he puts into the conversation. But it’s important to note that he is often successful in driving his listeners into confusion (like a torpedo fish, as Meno says) because those listeners agree readily enough with the criteria he uses (they think their beliefs are well defined and reasonable, and thus get angry or confused or flustered when Socrates can lead them gently and politely into a paradoxical corner).
The second revolutionary feature of Socrates’ method so far is its conversational style. Discussions about the truth or falsity of an opinion or the justness or injustice of an action are, for Socrates, best conducted through question and answer in conversation. And his reason for this is clear enough from the Gorgias—such a method works far better than set speeches, because it does not rest, as oratory does, on appealing directly and repeatedly to the emotions of the audience (a tactic he repudiates in the Apology as well). Some students protest energetically that Socrates, in challenging the orators, is being an orator himself. Well, if we confine ourselves to the definition of oratory that both Gorgias and Socrates share, it’s clear that he is not an orator and is, in fact, trying to replace oratory with a new form of verbal persuasion, something he calls philosophy, characterized above all by conversations marked by questions and answers in a search for what is reasonable, so that the listeners lead themselves to a conclusion they had not anticipated at the outset. This style is so commonly associated with Plato’s Socrates that it has come to be known as the Socratic method.
Looking at this technique, we might well ask (and some students have already asked) the following question: All right, I see that Socrates is successfully challenging many traditional beliefs and I see the point he is making about oratory, but what exactly is he putting in their place? What, if any, are the specific details Socrates is recommending we should follow apart from a certain style of the enquiry and a concentration on definitions and logical consistency in statements about what is true? Where’s the beef? Or are we to conclude that his major purpose is to knock down traditional opinions complacently held?
In these early dialogues we get a partial answer to that question. One key idea which crops up in the dialogues is the concept of the soul. What we should be doing, Socrates insists, is taking care of our soul, worrying about its health or its harmony or its justice (which means its proper alignment). And we should be doing this, he points out, because we may live on after death and that afterlife may well involve some judgment on the health of our souls during this life. Socrates does not here provide any detailed analysis of the soul (which remains a rather imprecise concept); he relies a good deal on analogies to medicine and music. However, it’s a feature of these dialogues that his listeners generally do not dispute the existence of the soul, something which underlines the point that the doctrine of the soul is by no means original with Socrates (or with the Classical Greeks, for that matter). Nor do they deny the importance of caring for one’s soul.
But we are entitled to ask: Just what does looking out for our soul amount to? If we are concerned about it, what ought we to do? Here again, these early dialogues give us some general advice: We need to turn our attention away from physical and material things, especially physical and material pleasures, since whatever the soul is exactly, it is quite different from these. And, in a much more potentially disturbing vein, Socrates in the Apology urges us unequivocally to turn away from politics, from making full participation in the public affairs of the city a matter of the highest priority of our lives. For politics not only puts the body in danger; it also corrupts the soul. Care of the soul can only come about by a form of enquiry, by attention to what Socrates calls philosophy, which emerges as an intensely private concern, even if it is carried out in a public conversation.
[Parenthetically, if one wants to understand why a majority of the Athenian jurors wanted Socrates punished in some way, it strikes me that this last point is a particularly compelling reason, since it amounts to attempting to persuade the sons of rich and powerful families to drop out of the process which will make them civic leaders. And few things can be better calculated to irritate socially successful parents with high ambitions for their gifted children than a persuasive campaign to reject the public world their parents have worked so hard to make available to them and to urge them to substitute street-corner conversations as the essential requirement for the morally good life.]
Now, this Socratic program of these early dialogues, as quickly and inadequately outlined above, is still somewhat thin on content, for while it is clear that it requires me to challenge my traditions and prevailing public opinion and gives me some tools to do that, it offers little in the way of a constructive theory of knowledge, that is, a program or a direction for the enquiry I am supposed to undertake in my quest for the truth so necessary for the health of the soul.
That’s one reason, I suppose, why many students who read these early dialogues come to the conclusions that Socrates is essentially a Romantic spirit, inviting us all to follow the unique personal god within us and remain true to that spirit in the face of all obstacles, and that the proper goal of Socratic philosophy is to have everyone following a different and self-generated belief system. That belief about Socrates is, as I say, understandable in the absence of any clear guiding principles as to what we understand by knowledge and what we exclude. We should remain alert to the fact, however, that, whatever the precise direction we should follow in our philosophical enquiries, it seems to involve the pursuit of something called knowledge through self-examination. So we should be rather cautious before concluding that Socrates is saying we should all follow our personal inner voices in whatever direction they happen to prompt us.
Let me illustrate this with one more point before moving onto the Meno. Socrates is by no means the first person to insist that human beings have a soul, something which stands in contrast to the body, and that the important point in life is to tend for the health of one’s soul. Such an emphasis is common before Socrates and, as we see in his conversations, arouses no particular objection from those discussing such matters with him. What’s remarkable about Socrates’s position about the soul in these early dialogues is that tending to its health seems to require the practice of what he calls philosophy, and this activity seems to depend upon sorting out various knowledge claims and constantly examining the basis of one’s own beliefs.
Such an emphasis stands in significant contrast to the traditional ways in which people tended to the health of the soul, namely through well-established religious rituals of various kinds. Most of us are familiar enough with the old idea that through some special religious exercise one restores one’s spiritual qualities. Such exercises may be ecstatic group activities, under the influence of narcotics or not, dancing, whirling, group prayer, special pilgrimages, meditative exercises, self-flagellation or mutilation, solitary trips into the wilderness, group chanting, and so on. Nowadays, our culture offers a huge menu of such activities designed primarily to bring us psychic equilibrium.
But what Socrates seems to be proposing is something rather different, some form of continuing rational enquiry into things like Truth and Justice. We see the intention clearly enough, but in these early dialogues we get little assistance with the method, other than the insistence on conversation, introspection, and critical examination of traditional values. Nevertheless, the emphasis is clear enough here to indicate that, a sense, Socrates is trying to put an old idea, the need to purify one’s soul, on a new footing, by proposing that we follow the pursuit of knowledge rather than religious ritual (or, if you like, that we make the pursuit of knowledge through philosophy the privileged religious ritual for the cleansing of our souls).
Given that quick summary, what I wish to argue about the Meno, as I have mentioned earlier, is that it seems to take a step beyond the position I have sketched out above and to indicate certain possibilities upon which we should concentrate in caring for the health of our soul. As such, it is moving beyond the Socrates we have met, who is primarily a strong critic of received opinions, towards a Socrates who is going to provide a constructive theory of knowledge (the Socrates we meet in the Republic, for example). In making this case, I may well end up reading into the Meno more than is really there, giving too much attention to how the dialogues which come next (especially the Phaedo and the Republic) are anticipated in the Meno. But this will serve, I hope, to address the issues I have mentioned above about the specific content of Socrates’s notion of how we should care for our souls.
Many writers about Socrates have seen this shift in the conversations Socrates engages in (towards a more constructive theory of knowledge) as the shift away from the historical Socrates towards a more Platonic Socrates, that is, a Socrates who is advancing more comprehensive theories of knowledge which Plato wishes to explore (theories which are not part of what the historical Socrates talked about in the street). Whether that is so or not, I am not competent to discuss, and the point is not particularly relevant for our purposes. It is, however, interesting for anyone who wishes to think about whether or not Plato’s picture of Socrates is an accurate portrayal of the historical figure. The short and simple answer (perhaps reductively simple) often given is that the Socrates we see in the early dialogues we have read (and especially in the Apology) is probably quite close to the historical Socrates, and that the Socrates we see in the later dialogues is a more fictional creation designed to fit into Plato’s conversational arguments about things Socrates may not have discussed.
This point is, as I say, irrelevant for our purposes, because we are dealing here with the Socrates in the dialogues, who is always a character created by Plato (which does not, it hardly needs to be pointed out, amount to saying he is Plato’s mouthpiece or that we are always supposed to see his views as obviously correct). How close this fictional Socrates is to the real man in any particular dialogue is something for historians to worry about. What this means here is that, when I use the name Socrates, I am referring only to the character in Plato’s dialogue, not to the historical character.
THE MENO: GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
At first glance, the Meno is in some respects a curious and at times frustrating dialogue. It begins with a very clear, specific, and important question:
MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way? (59)
And it ends with what seems like an unacceptably skeptical conclusion, that virtue exists in some people as an arbitrary gift of the gods (not something they really know), for it cannot be taught, and it does not come to us by our human nature. So, it would seem, there’s nothing much we human beings individually or collectively can do about it. Such a conclusion violates (deliberately so) what many of us believe or would like to believe, namely, that there are some things we can do effectively to encourage people, especially the young, to behave better than they otherwise might, to make good choices leading to a better life than they might without the education, training in good habits, and attention to moral questions which society provides.
In between the opening question and the skeptical conclusion, the dialogue seems to lurch from one subject to another—every time Socrates and Meno seem to be getting somewhere the conversation on that topic stops inconclusively and switches to something apparently different, so that at times it’s difficult to figure out just what any one section of the conversation has to do with the original question or with what follows (e.g., the geometry demonstration with Meno’s slave).
In order to provide a sense of this, let me initially offer a brief outline of the content of this short dialogue:
Section 1: Meno’s opening question and the discussion about the meaning of virtue, a section which ends with Meno’s complaint about Socrates merely leading him and others into confusion without providing a clear answer (up to 80b, p. 69).
Section 2: The discussion of knowledge as recollection and the experiment with Meno’s slave, a section which ends with Socrates urging us to seek for the truth within our own souls (which carry all knowledge) (from 80b to 86c, p. 69 to p. 76).
Section 3: The enquiry into whether virtue is knowledge or comes by nature, whether there is any difference between true opinion and knowledge, a section which ends with the apparently skeptical conclusion that virtue comes neither by education nor by nature, so it must be a gift from the gods (from 86c to the conclusion of the dialogue).
Above I mentioned that this general framework to the conversation seems to be somewhat discontinuous, but I would like to argue that there is an overall rhetorical purpose to this apparent discontinuity. The first section, as we shall see, takes Meno’s opening question and refines it in a very particular way, so as to define more precisely what any answer to that question will have to do. Then, in the second section, Socrates, apparently abandoning the pursuit of a definition of virtue, moves into consider a particular view of knowledge. And finally, in the third section, Socrates drives us to an uncomfortable conclusion about the nature of virtue. The strategy here, I would maintain, is to leave us wondering about how Socrates’s way of understanding knowledge might be applied to get us out of the difficulties of accepting the conclusion. The entire dialogue, then, is seeking to plant an intellectual itch in our minds and to indicate how we might chart a path to easing the irritation we feel at the sensation.
THE OPENING SECTION: THE DEFINITION OF VIRTUE
The opening exchanges in the Meno place us on familiar territory: Meno is proposing a question, and Socrates is seeking to clarify the meaning of the question with his typical question-and-answer technique, assuming his characteristic stance of complete ignorance about what virtue might be.
The conversation quickly moves into the important notion that whatever virtue means, it must be something single and common to all particular manifestations of virtue. This is a key point. When Meno proposes as his definition a multitude of virtuous actions, Socrates complains that such a list is no use at arriving at a single, clear meaning for the key term. For example, differentiations between male and female virtue, Socrates points out, make as little sense as differentiations between male and female health or strength. In each case, the key term must refer to something which applies equally to both (although the degree to which that key term manifests itself in a particular case can obviously differ). Men and women, for example, may differ in their strength, but the concept of strength which we apply to both must be the same. And that term must include all possible applications of the concept of strength. Otherwise the question becomes absurd, because the various manifestations of strength are measuring different things and comparisons between, say, men and women, are impossible.
Here the analogy with bees is particularly important. Socrates points out that we use the term bee in the singular to describe a host of different animals. Real living bees are all different from each other, but we recognize that they are all bees. Hence there must be some concept, some idea, or (to use a term Socrates introduces in the discussion) some form in common, which they all share and by virtue of which they are all bees and through which we can classify a particular flying insect as a bee or not.
The biological analogy is useful because it is one we recognize easily enough in the word species. We acknowledge that that term is an idea which enables us to recognize and name all the various members who fall under it, even though none of them is exactly the same as any other one. There is no single living bee which defines the species. The species bee is an idea or, to introduce a term I shall be using now and then, it is a universal. We cannot see it out there in the garden buzzing around the flowers, but we can apprehend it in our minds.
What Socrates is demanding from Meno in connection with virtue is some equivalent understanding of that term: we need to know the universal definition of virtue, “the same form which makes [all virtues] virtues, and it is right to look to this when one is asked to make clear what virtue is” (72c, p. 61). Socrates is insisting that a definition of virtue must have the same universal quality as the term bee, a term which unifies our understanding of all the various physical manifestations of bee or virtue in the world around us.
Socrates’s demand here makes a very important claim which will shape the form our enquiries have to take if we are to seek an answer for the problem he outlines. For by asking this question, Socrates would seem to making two key assumptions: first, that such a universal exists (if not in the real world around us, then in the intelligible world—if we cannot see it with our eyes, we can perceive it with our minds) and, second, that a proper answer to the question about virtue must focus on some way of reaching this intelligible universal. Socrates doesn’t explicitly make either of those two claims, but they are clearly implied by the question and by Socrates’s example of the definition of shape.
Furthermore, the insistence that our understanding of virtue requires an understanding based upon a universal idea is clearly directing our attention to the pre-eminent importance of such an idea over any and all particular actions we see in the world around us. Socrates here is not helping us reach an understanding of that idea, but he is inviting us to realize that any real understanding of virtue must be based upon knowledge of the ideal. Such a doctrine has come to be called realism—the notion that what is true, what is necessary for knowledge (as opposed to opinion or sense experience) is ideal rather than given to us immediately by sense perception (a terminology which should remind us that using the terms real or realistic to mean perceived through the sense invites immediate confusion in such discussions).
[This form of Socrates’s argument about universals, we might note in passing, has provided the justification for the real existence of species. A species, according to this reasoning, is a single real entity, but it is ideal. We cannot perceive a species, we can only observe individual living members whom we define as members of that species because of our knowledge of the idea. Furthermore, since the idea of the species is permanent and all-inclusive, it defines reality. Individual living members of the species do not define the reality of the species because they are all slightly different from each other and because every individual member is always changing and impermanent. This form of reasoning became the major philosophical defense for the permanence of species and thus an important way to justify the story of the creation in Genesis. Next semester we will be reading about the theory which, more than anything else, set out to demolish this idea, one of the oldest of our biological theories, which has its roots in the Platonic doctrine of universals].
Socrates and Meno then proceed to seek to define virtue on the basis of what they have discussed. However, they run into another snag, Meno’s tendency to define virtue in terms of one or two virtuous characteristics (like defining the species bee with reference to one or two examples of living bees). One cannot say, Socrates points out, that justice is a part of virtue and at the same time claim that virtue is justice. Such a definition removes from the term virtue any universal quality. And so that part of the conversation gets stymied, and Meno has to take refuge in his metaphor of Socrates as a torpedo fish, a creature which reduces its victims to numbness (a point with which many readers might initially agree).
The lack of firm conclusion to this part of the conversation, however, must not lead us into thinking that some important points have not been made. That initial question has been, as I mentioned, refined considerably to a more sharply focused question: If we are to define virtue, we must do so, not in terms of this or that aspect of virtuous conduct, but in terms of some universal which stands over all particular manifestations of virtue and whose form they all in some way or another display. For the moment that challenge has defeated both Meno and Socrates, but the criterion remains.
Thus, this conversation in the opening section of the Meno should remind any of those who think from their reading of the Apology that Socrates is advocating some do-your-own-thing and do it courageously that such a reading of his mission is far too simple. He is demanding that we respond to our questions about what we ought to do with references to some universal, not to an infinite multitude of self-generated possibilities.
THE MIDDLE SECTION: KNOWLEDGE AS RECOLLECTION
In the central section of the Meno, Socrates abruptly shifts the conversation to a bold new idea, something considerably more substantial philosophically than anything we have met in the earlier dialogues—the notion that knowledge is recollection. His route into this idea may be rather fanciful, through the established idea that the soul is immortal, but his demonstration with the slave adds considerable meat to the idea and raises some issues about knowledge much more profound and challenging than anything we have met so far.
It’s easy to get lost or frustrated by the details of Socrates’s demonstration with the slave and to challenge his claim that he’s merely asking questions and that the slave is providing all the answers which matter. But we should not let that overshadow the importance of what is going on here.
Briefly put, Socrates is making the suggestion that we have within us the means to knowledge; our souls, as it were, possess already everything we need to know. We are at present unaware of the content of that knowledge, but we can come to recognize it. It can be drawn out of us, so that we realize the truth of something we possessed all along. If we focus on this task, we can discover the truth and falsity of what we think we know. Learning is thus not a matter of accepting as true the various opinions our culture hands over to us. It is much more a matter of self-examination so that we unlock (or re-discover) the knowledge within us.
Now, this doctrine of learning as recollection has sparked much debate concerning how we are supposed to understand it. I have no desire to enter that debate at this stage (even if I could do so usefully), but it’s important to understand, I think, that we are meant to take this as an analogy, not as a literal description of our minds. The analogy is suggesting that we contain within our minds certain concepts, certain innate ideas, if you will, which enable us to recognize the truth of certain things, in a manner similar to the way we recognize something of which we have a stored memory. According to this general interpretation, we might say that Socrates
. . . holds that the mind contains not only innate abilities such as the ability to reason deductively, but also concepts such as those of geometry and valuation. The term “innate” does not cause difficulties as long as it is used to characterize abilities. We can contrast innate with acquired abilities by stating that the latter are the result of training or conditioning. It may seem, however, that the notion of an innate idea or concept is less clear. It helps to point out that Plato’s claim is not about the slave boy or Meno in particular, but about the humans species of which Meno and the slave boy are only instances. To say that a concept is given innately to humans is to say that, given proper stimulation and a required stage of maturation, any human will utilize this concept in the interpretation of experience, and that the concept can be shown not to be acquired from experience by abstraction or by any other known process. (Moravesik 61)
It is possible to debate many aspects of Socrates’s demonstration with the slave, but we must not overlook the general features of what is going on here. The mathematical demonstration, Socrates argues, teaches the slave something true and exposes his earlier belief as something false. With no specialized knowledge of mathematics and no need to learn anything from outside, the slave can be led to recognize the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem. This truth comes to him, not by listening to the priests or the poets or by inspecting the world around him or listening to what others believe or indeed by any experience acquired through practice with mathematical problems, but by thinking his way through a mathematical problem using abilities innate within him. The clear implication is that anyone can go through the same process.
The fact that the demonstration is a mathematical one is particularly important. For by implication Socrates is suggesting that forms of enquiry into mathematical truths have a special importance. We bring with us into this life a capability (a conceptual knowledge) of mathematical truths, and these have nothing to do with our upbringing or our education—they belong to us as part of our soul. If we base our enquiry into problems on mathematical principles (especially geometry), then we can discover the truth. Even if we’re not sure about the nature of Socrates’s treatment of the slave and even if Socrates does not make that explicit claim about mathematics, that hope is clearly brought out by the experiment.
This moment in the Meno introduces a powerful new idea—that mathematical enquiries or enquiries based on similar methods are a specially privileged route to knowledge. We can move beyond the welter of competing cultural and social definitions of various things through mathematics, because mathematics is not culturally determined. As the language of the soul, it transcends the limitations of majority opinions or received traditions—all of which are merely opinions. The Pythagorean Theorem is true whether one is a slave or a wandering philosopher or from Athens or Thessaly or anywhere else.
Such a method is, of course, no proof of the immortality of the soul, but it offers us this powerful idea that we bring into life the capability to think our way through to the Truth (with a capital T) without having to remain satisfied with a menu of cultural truths (small t). Mathematics is the most obvious example of this capacity. We must, Socrates insists, possess such a mathematical knowledge, or we would never be persuaded by mathematical demonstrations (to put the matter into the simplest terms: we could not ever discuss whether or not two things were equal if we did not have some prior sense of what we mean by equality).
For Socrates, this fact about mathematics (which he has just established in the demonstration with the slave) has one important function: it offers us hope that we can indeed reach an understanding of the universals he talked about earlier. Knowledge is possible, and we do not have to remain frozen in the skepticism defined by the opening of this section. With this hope, Socrates can reiterate his central faith in philosophy:
. . . but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it. (86b-c, p. 76)
We should note here that, although this faith sounds very similar to things Socrates says in the Apology, here the doctrine is beginning to acquire a theoretical foundation (however rudimentary at this stage) lacking in that dialogue we read earlier and that that theoretical foundation is not legitimizing any and all ways of addressing the demands of our soul. Socrates has here clarified the goal of our examination and is pointing towards a method.
It’s important, too, as my colleague Dr. Anne Leavitt points out, to attend to the fact that Meno has been watching this demonstration and has learned (even if the slave has not, at least not to the same extent) the point of what Socrates has been trying to show—Meno has discovered (or rediscovered) the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem and, beyond that, the knowledge of universals. In a sense, Socrates has taken an important first step in the process of educating Meno in virtue. He has set him on the correct path. Meno, of course, does not follow up on what he has just been shown. He may agree readily enough with Socrates’s contention quoted above, but he lacks the conviction and the courage to understand that in the light of what Socrates has just demonstrated with the slave. But the implication of what that demonstration means in the light of Socrates’s faith in the moral value of enquiry is clear enough.
THE FINAL SECTION: VIRTUE AS A GIFT FROM THE GODS
The last part of the Meno is, in many respects, the least interesting. Having considered in the mathematical demonstration the notion of knowledge as recollection (or of knowledge as resting on innate abilities and concepts), Socrates and Meno move on to consider whether virtue is knowledge in this sense or something else. The discussion leads them to dismiss the notion that virtue comes to us from nature and yet, at the same time, to deny that it can be taught. Both concede that there have been many virtuous Athenians, people who have done correct actions. But it does not seem entirely clear that these people have acted from knowledge—they just happened to have right opinions at the time (just as a person with no true knowledge of the route may lead a group of people to their destination based upon his opinions about what is the correct road).
If it is the case that right opinion and knowledge can both lead to virtuous actions, it is by no means correct to assert they are the same thing. And for me the most interesting aspect of this final discussion comes when Socrates tries to explain his sense of the difference by referring to the statues of Daedalus, the famous craftsman.
These statues are very fine, but, Socrates points out, if one doesn’t tie them down, they fly away and thus are not worth very much:
To acquire an untied work of Daedalus is not worth much, like acquiring a runaway slave, for it does not remain, but it is worth much if tied down, for his works are very beautiful. What am I think of when I say this? True opinions. For true opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why. And that, Meno my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. That is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge is different from correct opinion in being tied down. (97e, p. 86)
Here, as so often, Plato’s Socrates sums up a key point in a memorable image, and I would suggest that if you remember nothing else of the Meno, you should make a point of placing this picture where you can readily recollect it.
For Socrates wants to insist that opinions are often like Daedalus’s statues: beautiful and apparently very substantial, solid, and permanent. But unless they are tied down, firmly attached to the earth (or, as we might now say, grounded), they have no claim to the status of knowledge. And the implication is clear that for an opinion to be grounded means providing reasons so clear, that the truth of the opinion may be recalled in the same manner that Meno’s slave “recalled” the knowledge that the square on the diagonal of a square is equivalent to the squares on the other two sides. Without that form of certainty, the opinion, like the untied statue will simply fly away.
The test of a grounded opinion, a true opinion which qualifies as knowledge, is that it can be taught (in the same way as Socrates taught Meno’s slave), since that process of teaching rests on the permanent, innate powers of the human mind. If that cannot be done, if the teaching, that is, rests on oratory or appeals to external things, like our traditions, then the opinion, no matter how useful, has no claim to be knowledge, and hence no claim to the truth.
In the remainder of the discussion Socrates and Meno discuss whether virtue meets this criterion of knowledge, and they come to the conclusion that virtue is not being taught, since there are no teachers and no pupils. Even those men most eminent for their virtue in Athens were unable to educate their children. Hence, they arrive at the unacceptably paradoxical conclusion that virtue is a gift from the gods and that those who possess it in this way have no knowledge of virtue. And that, Socrates concludes, is all we can say about the issue at the moment. But he sets down an agenda which may be able to change this condition:
It follows from this reasoning, Meno, that virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods. We shall have clear knowledge of this when, before we investigate how it comes to be present in men, we first try to find out what virtue in itself is. (100b, p. 88)
This ending may be, as I say, inconclusive and paradoxical, but the implications of where we ought to go from here to address our residual doubts are clear enough. Socrates has made a case for his faith in the search for universals as the basis for knowledge and for the appropriate method for seeking them out. He has not proved anything conclusively, but he has issued a challenge for those who want to base their lives on more than simply received opinion and who do not wish to accept the disagreeable consequence of cultural and moral relativism, and he has indicated a direction we should follow. In so doing, he has considerably refined what he has to say in earlier dialogues about the central purposes of the activity he calls philosophy.
As I have mentioned a couple of times already, it should be clear that, in setting out these matters, Socrates is not proposing that we determine our own truths and live by them. The opposite is here the case. If we are ever to understand virtue, we must see is as something universal, something ideal which includes and helps to define all the specific acts of virtue in the lives around us, something as convincing to each and every one of us as a geometrical demonstration. Our understanding of virtue must be grounded in that same certainty of knowledge. That is the challenge he leaves us with at the conclusion of the dialogue.
The notion that we can arrive at such knowledge is a powerful new idea. Some form of universal trans-cultural ideas can be found. Such ideas will be grounded and therefore true and teachable. Exploring for these ideas through philosophy—in other words seeing philosophy as a continuing quest for what is true, what can be demonstrated as true through reasoning—that emerges here in rudimentary form. We witness here the birth of what has come to be called Plato’s Project, the quest for certainty in our moral concerns (whether that is really Plato’s intention here one might dispute, but it’s clear that this dialogue and the ones which immediately follow have often been interpreted as the launch of such a project).
SOME GENERAL REFLECTIONS ON SOCRATES AND THE MENO
I hope that by this point some answers to that student’s question I posed at the start of this lecture (“Why should we spend so much time on Socrates when we spend only one week on other books?”) will begin to suggest themselves, why, that is, we consider a thorough introduction to Socrates an essential component of a course which calls itself Introduction to Ways of Knowing. Let me list some of the possible reasons for this stance, mentioning along the way some of the other books we have read so far.
First, Plato’s Socrates is revolutionary in his critical stance towards his community’s traditions. Whether we know anything about the content of what he is proposing, he stands as the most famous of all those who demand that long-standing traditions answer to a new standard, something which exists above and beyond the values and habits of the community, unless those values and habits can be justified by an appeal to the Truth, a concept which they do not define but to which they must answer if we are to accept them as a guide for the good life. Unlike Moses, whose chief concern is to discipline his people into following a shared tradition because it comes from God (and that’s all there is to it), and unlike Oedipus, who defines his excellence in terms the community recognizes, or Gilgamesh, who comes through to appreciate through experience the traditional values of his community, Socrates is insisting on a new, rational standard. He thus stands as the natural inspirer of all those who wish to challenge inherited moralities in the name of reason.
At the heart of the new challenge is the rational search for universal truths modeled on geometry. These universal truths exist as a standard against which we measure truth claims and differentiate them from opinions (no matter how useful such opinions might be), because such universals are grounded. We do not create them for ourselves. Through a process of conversational enquiry we discover them, and because they are based on truths knowable by all human beings, they can be taught in a way that transcends the variety of cultural traditions and beliefs. A major task of our moral life becomes thinking our way through beliefs posing as knowledge claims.
At this point one might legitimately object that Socrates in these dialogues has not demonstrated the existence of such universals and has not, in fact, come close to proving the truth of what he is claiming. And one might point to any number of places in the various conversations where we feel some logical skullduggery is going on or some urgently necessary questions are not being asked. That may be true, but if that is all one has to say, then one is rather missing the point.
For the importance of Plato’s Socrates, like the importance of all great thinkers, is not that he gives us a neatly worked out answer. His importance stems from the nature of his questions, from the direction he points toward and the vocabulary he introduces into our conversations. This point is crucial (that’s why I keep repeating it). Anyone who is always ready to toss out a thinker’s efforts (including his assumptions and his method) because of some perceived inadequacy in the answer (or, in Socrates’s case, in the absence of a firm answer) is not going to get very far in understanding any complex thinker. Plato’s Socrates is inviting us to participate in a quest, not to repose in the cozy certitude of a received answer. The last thing he would want is for us to applaud him and believe that he has said all that needs to be said.
But Plato’s Socrates dramatically changes the nature of our enquiries. After Socrates, one cannot discuss questions of virtue without raising the issue of knowledge, and one cannot put that into the discussion without addressing the question of universals, innate ideas, the appropriate method for discovering these ideas, and the language appropriate to that enquiry. One doesn’t have to be a follower of Plato to have to deal with these questions. For these issues and others which appear in these pages have decisively reshaped how we frame the issues of importance to us and the means we employ to arrive at a better understanding of those issues.
Nor is this simply a matter of ancient history. Some of you have already stumbled against some of the issues Socrates is talking about in the Meno in your first-year research projects when you try to sort out how you can assert universal claims in order to question the value of cruel practices sanctioned by long traditions (e.g., female genital mutilation). And anyone who has even a cursory sense of the methods and practices of modern science will recognize that there is an obvious connection between it and the ideas Socrates is putting on the table.
A universal, unambiguously employed, signifies something or it does not. If it signifies anything, that something is not an arbitrary fiction of my mind; if it signifies nothing, there is an end of all science. Science stands or falls with “objective reference.” In ethics the doctrine means that there really is one moral standard for all of us, male or female, Greek or barbarian, bond or free. There really is one “eternal and immutable” morality, not a variety of independent moral standards, one perhaps for the “private man” and another for the “nation” or its politicians, or one for “the herd” and another for the “superman.” (Taylor 133)
Socrates is not answering here or elsewhere our concerns about these complex issues. He is inviting us to a life in which we join in an ongoing conversation to explore where such considerations take us. The virtue lies in the process, not in the destination—at least that is his hope. The search for truth is to be valued above the search for material success.
And, what is most important of all, I suspect, Socrates himself in these dialogues models the behaviour he is inviting us to consider. He is concerned above all here to persuade us that a life dedicated to philosophy is a good life, the best life, far better than the traditional illusions of fame and power. As such, he is rightly seen as the most persuasive figure from our past inviting us to a life of continued enquiry, a life that will make us better with the acquisition of knowledge.
In a sense the most persuasive evidence for this view in these dialogues is the figure of Socrates himself. Far more impressive than any logical demonstration, Socrates shows us through the nature of his relationship with other people, through his wit, stubbornness, courage, and faith and through the friendship he inspires that what he is encouraging us to consider works in action. A life of mind brings him enormous rewards. We are invited to look at him and see the results.
That this was Plato’s major intention here I have no doubt. Briefly put, he is trying to create a new sense of heroism—the philosopher as hero. Of course, he had personal reasons for paying tribute to his teacher and friend, but beyond that he had a larger purpose. Plato knew that to catch people’s attention about the issues that mattered to him, it was not enough to write lectures or sermons: he had to provide a hero, someone to take the place of the traditional warrior heroes of Greek culture. That becomes most evident in the explicit references to Achilles in the Crito and the Apology and to Socrates’s vision of the afterlife, where he sees himself mingling easily with all the great people of the past. A conversation between Oedipus and Socrates is perhaps hard to imagine, but Plato wants us to see that in terms of heroic qualities, Socrates is every bit Oedipus’s equal, although his courage, self-assertion, and excellence are very different. In effect, in the figure of Socrates Plato is endorsing the traditional virtues but redefining them.
[The explicit reference to Achilles in the Crito is particularly interesting. Early in the dialogue, Socrates mentions a dream in which a woman addressed him with the words, “Socrates, may you arrive at fertile Phthia on the third day,” a direct reference to Achilles’s speech in Book IX of the Iliad. In the speech Achilles is indicating his desire to turn away from the heroic warrior code, reject the traditional values of his community, and go home. The reminder certainly carries the suggestion that Socrates sees himself (or is inviting us to see him) as linked directly to the greatest traditional hero of his audience’s culture.]
If we wished, we might explore some contextual reasons for Plato’s desire to celebrate Socrates as a new form of hero. If we did so, we might well see as significant the failure of the traditional values in the prolonged and bitter civil wars throughout Greece and Athens in the period before the trial and death of Socrates. Such a failure of traditions is an obvious prelude to some revolutionary new doctrine which asserts that we must find a new and better basis for the good life.
Whatever Plato’s immediate reason for this portrayal of his old friend, however, we cannot doubt the long-lasting effect of this portrait. Socrates has always stood as a very special example of pagan (i.e., non-Christian) virtue, a reminder that heroic qualities do not need to be associated with memorably heroic actions against nature or on the battlefield or in witnessing the Christian faith (sometimes an embarrassing example, of course, for those who wished to claim that without Christianity no one could be fully virtuous).
In addition to these historical examples, many students have testified (and continue to testify) to the way in which their encounter with Plato’s Socrates in these dialogues first awakened them to the value of a life dedicated to philosophy, not because of any particular issue we might call philosophical (although there are enough here to arouse a mind attuned to the issues) but because of the heroic qualities of Socrates—his enormously rich life and his calm, brave, good-humoured, and consistent commitment to his own integrity in the face of life’s ultimate challenges. So no matter how we stand with respect to the issues raised in Socrates’s conversations, we carry away the memory of a wonderful human being, a person who gives us (in the words of my colleague Maureen Okun) the warmth of a close encounter with profundity.
LIST OF WORKS CITED
Moravesik, Julius. “Learning as Recollection.” Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays. Volume I: Metaphysics and Epistemology. Ed. Gregory Vlastos. NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Taylor, A. E. Plato: The Man and His Work. London: Methuen, 1960.