Notes on Plato's Meno

Sandra LaFave

Good versions of the Meno are available free online: check out here (with a nice introduction), or here, or here.

The dialog takes place around 402 BC, about 3 years before Socrates’ trial and execution. The character Anytus was later one of Socrates’ main accusers at the trial.

Other early Platonic dialogs describe Socrates’ trial (the Apology); Socrates’ prison time awaiting execution (the Crito); and Socrates’ death (the Phaedo). Beginning philosophy students often read these dialogs in addition to the Meno.

Meno asks, “Can virtue (arete) be taught?”

Phase I of the Meno (70-80) has Socrates asking Meno for a general definition of arete, since as Socrates points out, we can’t figure out if arete can be taught if we don’t have a clear idea what it is.  Note Socrates is looking for a general, or formal definition of arete, not just examples or instances of it. Socrates wants to know what all the examples of arete have in common: the “essence” or “form” of arete.

The statement of the so-called Socratic paradox appears at 77c-78b. The Socratic paradox is Socrates’ apparent claim that arete is a kind of knowledge, and vice a kind of ignorance. It is a paradox (an odd or unusual claim) because people usually think a person can know the good and still fail to do it. That is, people usually think that arete is more than a matter of knowing; it is, people think, also a matter of willing. Christians, for example, think of sin as a matter of knowing what one should do and not doing it. But if virtue is knowledge, as Socrates says, anybody who really knew the good would automatically be good. If Socrates is right that arete is a kind of knowledge, it would be impossible to know the good and not be good.

Phase II of the dialog begins with Meno’s challenge to Socrates at 80d-e: if you don’t know what arete is already, you can’t even look for it, because if you don’t know what it is already, then even if you look, you won’t know when you’ve found it. Phase II continues through 86c and includes Socrates’ famous apparent claim that knowing is a kind of remembering (i.e., you do know what arete is already), and Socrates’ famous demonstration of the ignorant slave boy “remembering” geometry as a result of Socrates’ questioning. In spite of the progress of the argument so far — we appear to have reached a new understanding of the nature of knowledge, if not of arete — Meno insists on returning to his original question.

Phase III (86c-end) begins as Socrates reluctantly agrees to explore whether virtue can be taught. He proposes a strategy: first determine if virtue is a kind of knowledge. Then if it is, we’ll conclude it can be taught. And if virtue isn’t knowledge, we’ll conclude it can’t be taught.

In 87-89c, Socrates argues that virtue is knowledge, but then he changes course abruptly at 89c and begins to argue the other side. Socrates points out there are teachers for medicine, horsemanship, etc. and everybody agrees that these are genuine teachers, whereas people disagree about whether the Sophists really do teach virtue. Maybe this is because virtue cannot be taught. Anytus now appears. Anytus mistakenly thinks that because Socrates has mentioned the Sophists as possible teachers of virtue, that Socrates must approve of the Sophists. (Anytus does not understand that Socrates was being ironic.) Anytus is vehemently opposed to the Sophists. Socrates agrees with Anytus about the Sophists; but Socrates insists that Anytus give reasons for his opposition to them. Anytus can’t give any reasons. Socrates keeps asking until Anytus walks away furious, thinking he has been “dissed.”

In the last pages of the Meno, none of the early questions — whether virtue is knowledge, whether virtue can be taught, the nature of virtue itself — are answered. But we arrive at some clarity about an unexpected issue: the nature and importance of knowledge. Knowledge is justified true belief. You need the justification — you need to be able to explain and support your true belief — because otherwise knowledge “flies away” like the statues of Daedalus. Plato doesn’t point this out explicitly, but it’s clear we’ve just seen a perfect example, in Anytus, of the shortcomings of unjustified true belief.


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