“Meno” by Plato
- Meno was a young, rich nobleman from Thessaly
- Anytos was an Athenian politician, later accuser at Socrates’s trial
Meno – Can virtue be taught? Does it come by practice? If neither, do you get it through nature or another way?
Socrates – I’ve always thought people from your neck of the woods were smart & that they’d always answer freely without fear if asked such a question. But, unfortunately, we’re not as smart as you in Athens. Ask that question around here & you’re likely to get blank looks, shrugs or questions in return. I don’t even know what virtue is, let alone where it comes from.
Meno – Are you serious?
Socrates – I don’t even know anyone who does know.
Meno – You knew Gorgias. Don’t you think that he knew?
Socrates – Maybe. What did he say? I can’t remember.
Meno – A man’s virtue is to manage public business, help friends, hurt enemies & stay out of trouble. A woman’s virtue is to manage the house, keep the stores safe & obey her husband. There are other virtues for boys, girls & old people. There are many kinds of virtue depending on your activities, age, etc.
Socrates – OK. If I asked you what a bee was, you’d tell me there were different kinds of bees. They may be different but what do they all have in common that make them all bees? Likewise, virtues may be different but what do they all have in common in that men, women, the old & children all can have them? Is managing public affairs justly & is managing the household justly virtuous?
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – So, it’s not possible to manage affairs justly without being just. Being just is a virtue. All the virtues you’ve listed are only activities performed justly… What did Gorgias say?
Meno – To be able to rule men.
Socrates – Can a slave rule his master? If he rules, would he still be a slave? Shouldn’t we add “justly” to “to be able to rule men”?
Meno – Yes, justice is a virtue.
Socrates – Is it “a virtue”, or “virtue” itself?
Meno – What do you mean?
Socrates – Take “roundness”. A figure can be round but “figure” is not necessarily “roundness” because we know there are other types of figures.
Meno – I see… Yes, there are other virtues, like courage, temperance, wisdom, high-mindedness, etc.
Socrates – So, we’ve found a few examples but what do they all have in common? “Roundness” is a type of figure but you must allow for others. “White” is a type of color, but not all colors. I’d like a definition that ties all virtues together.
Meno – What would you say what color was to someone who didn’t know?
Socrates – The truth. If he’s being a dick about it, I’d explain & then tell him to take it or leave it. If he’s friendly, I’d walk him through it. For a figure, I’d say, “something bounded & ended”.
Meno – What about color?
Socrates – We were talking about Gorgias’s definition of virtue…
Meno – You first.
Socrates – Very well, but you’re just ordering me about. OK… [Does an imitation of Gorgias] “Color is an emanation from figures symmetrical with sight & perceptibility to the senses.”
Meno – Very nice. I like that answer!
Socrates – I figured you would. But that answer can also apply to a question about smell, sound, etc. So, what about virtue then?
Meno – “To rejoice in what’s handsome & to be able…” as a poet once said. It’s the desire for handsome things & to be able to provide them.
Socrates – Don’t we all want good things but just differ in what we see as “good”? Do people want “bad” things if they know they’re bad?
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – Why?
Meno – To have them.
Socrates – Because they benefit from them or because they injure?
Meno – Some because they benefit. Some because they injure.
Socrates – Those who want bad things don’t know what they are but desire them because they thought they were good but in reality, they’re bad. Those who don’t know will think they’re good & desire good. Those who want them because they injure know that they will injure but don’t know that to injure will make them wretched.
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – Who wants to be wretched?
Meno – No one.
Socrates – Nobody unless he wants to be wretched… Isn’t misery or wretchedness just the desire for bad things & actually getting them?
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – If virtue is the desire for good things & to be able to provide them, desiring makes no difference between one man & another – only in their ability – the power to get good things.
Meno – Yes. Gold, silver, public appointments & honor are the highest things.
Socrates – Could you add “justly” to that?
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – It seems like no matter what you do, for it to be virtuous, you have to do it justly.
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – So not getting silver, gold, public appointments, etc. when it’s unjust is also virtuous. Getting those thing is no more just or unjust than not getting them. Just using justice makes everything good. Whatever you do with virtue is virtuous. But I still need a definition for virtue. What is it?
Meno – You’re lucky you live here & not somewhere else. They’d lynch you. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.
Socrates – I’ve heard people of all kinds talk about virtue at great length with eloquence. They say the soul is immortal & it’s reborn after death & can never be destroyed. Since the soul is immortal, there can be nothing we don’t know. There is no learning, just remembering.
Meno – Explain that.
Socrates – I’ll demonstrate it using your servant. [Starts with things the servant understands, asks questions & the servant begins to understand geometry & arithmetic.] I’m not teaching him a thing. He’s only remembering my questions. He starts off not remembering anything & answers my carefully worded questions. Now he remembers. It might have been difficult but he got there in the end. By numbing the pain & not launching right away into difficult questions, he’s learned. We didn’t put thoughts into his head that weren’t originally his.
Meno – No, they must have been there all the while.
Socrates – It’s like they came from a dream. No one taught him, only asked him. It must be a form of remembering. He’d either got it before, or he always knew it. It wouldn’t have been in this lifetime because he didn’t know it.
Meno – No one had ever taught it to him.
Socrates – If knowledge & truth are always in us, the soul must be immortal. Anything you know must be re-learned or remembered. In order to know what is really unknown, we must be braver & less idle than if we believed that it’s impossible to know & not worth trying.
Meno – OK. Let’s find out if virtue can be taught or if you’re born with it.
Socrates – I think we’d better find out what it is before. Let’s approach this matter as if it were geometry. Is virtue a form of knowledge?
Meno – I think so.
Socrates – If something is good, but separate from knowledge, then there’s something that exists outside of knowledge. I think there’s no good that knowledge doesn’t have. So maybe virtue is a form of knowledge.
Meno – Yes
Socrates – Health, strength, good looks, wealth – there are all good but are the helpful?
Meno – Yes
Socrates – But sometimes they do harm?
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – When used correctly, they help & when used incorrectly, they harm. You said temperance, justice, courage & cleverness are good things for the soul.
Meno – Yes
Socrates – But you don’t think they’re a form of knowledge & somehow separate. Are they sometimes harmful & sometimes helpful? Courage isn’t intelligence. It’s more like boldness. If a man is senselessly bold, he’s harmed. If he’s sensefully bold, he’s helped.
Meno – Yes
Socrates – The same is true with temperance & cleverness. With sense, they’re good & without it, they’re bad. So, it seems with the soul, wisdom leads to happiness & senseless leads to unhappiness. Virtue must be a sort of wisdom. It all revolves around your soul
Meno – Yes
Socrates – So, wealth, heal, strength, etc. – we said they can harm or help. Using wisdom makes them help & not using wisdom makes them harm. A senseless soul will use them badly & a wise soul will use them well. It doesn’t depend on the soul, just on whether or not the soul uses wisdom. Using wisdom is good & not using it is bad. Virtue is a form of wisdom & nature doesn’t make us good or bad.
Meno – Right.
Socrates – If that were true, you could just isolate the good away from the bad to protect them. If men aren’t good or bad by nature, it must be learned or taught.
Meno – Yes.
Socrates – What if we’re wrong… If it can be taught, there must be teachers & students. If there aren’t any, it probably can’t be taught.
Meno – You don’t think there are any teachers?
Socrates – I’ve tried to find them without any luck. I know others have tried, too [ANYTOS ENTERS]. Say, Anytos, your father became a wealthy guy without any luck or inheritance but by his own wisdom. If we wanted Meno to become a doctor, would we send him to learn with the doctors?
Anytos – And if we wanted him to be a shoemaker, we’d send him to learn with a shoemaker?
Socrates – In general, if you want to learn something, you’ll have to learn it from someone who practices it. It would be stupid to do otherwise. Meno says he wants wisdom & virtue. Should he got to those who claim to be virtuous & teach it?
Anytos – Who might that be?
Socrates – Sophists.
Anytos – Hell no! You don’t want to go see them. They’re turn you into an absolute maniac.
Socrates – They say they know how to do good. But you say they’ll corrupt us through their teachings. & they want money on top of all that! I knew a guy, Protagoras, who made way more money than any artist or shoemaker. If a shoemaker did his job as poorly as you say Sophists do, you’d know it with in a month by the shoe falling apart. But Protagoras got away with it for over 40 years without anyone noticing it. His name is still praised by the Sophists. Do you think the Sophists know what they’re doing to their students? Or do you think they’re crazy & have no idea.
Anytos – They know what they’re doing. It’s crazy to pay them for what they do. It’s crazier to send your kids off to them. & what’s craziest of all is that cities allow these charlatans to hand around corrupting their young with their bullshit!
Socrates – Have you ever been trained by one?
Anytos – No way would I ever go near one of them!!
Socrates – How do you know anything about them if you’ve never been near them?
Anytos – I know how they operate.
Socrates – Well, we don’t want to send Meno to a charlatan, just to someone who can teach him virtue. I was about to send him to a sophist but as you say, they probably aren’t the ones to see. Perhaps you can suggest one?
Anytos – Any gentleman in Athens would be a better teacher than a Sophist.
Socrates – Did they learn or become virtuous by luck. If they got lucky, how could they teach it?
Anytos – I guess they probably learned from their fathers. Don’t you think we’ve got virtuous men here in Athens?
Socrates – I know politicians. They’ve always been around. But have they taught virtue? Meno & I have been discussing whether or not virtue can be taught or if comes naturally or another way… Was naval hero Themistocles a good man?
Anytos – None better.
Socrates – Wouldn’t he have provided virtue lessons to his son by himself or hired a teacher if he could? He taught his son to be an expert at horses. Why not do the same with virtue? Did he wish to teach his son but not make him any more virtuous than the neighbors’ kids? If virtue could be taught, could we believe he wouldn’t provide lessons for him?
Anytos – Probably not.
Socrates – One of the best men of the past? Not a grand teacher of virtue? It’s hard to believe. What about Aristeides? Was he good?
Anytos – Yes.
Socrates – He taught his sons & gave them the best teachers you get in Athens. But he never gave them lessons in virtue. & Pericles’s sons? He taught them to be the best horsemen Athens has ever seen. He gave them the best education money could buy. No virtue teacher, though. Thucydides’s sons were educated & he got them the best wrestling coach & they became the best wrestlers in Greece. No courses in virtue…
Anytos – No…
Socrates – Isn’t it clear that all these great men with money could provide their kids with an education but never taught them virtue. I think it’s because it can’t be taught.
Anytos – Be careful. It’s easy to do more harm than good in most cities. It’s even easier in Athens… [ANYTOS LEAVES]
Socrates – I guess Anytos left because he thought I was defaming those men & him as well… Do you have good men in Thessaly?
Meno – Absolutely.
Socrates – Do they teach virtue?
Meno – No… Sometimes you hear it can be taught. Sometimes you hear that it can’t be taught.
Socrates – Only Sophists claim that it can be taught. Do you think that they teach it?
Meno – Gorgias always laughed at those who claimed it because he just thought they were teaching them how to speak cleverly.
Socrates – Do you think they taught virtue?
Meno – I’m not sure… Sometimes I think so & other times I don’t.
Socrates – You aren’t alone. Theogonis said the same as you. That it can’t be & then said it can be. Can you think of any other subject whose teachers are thought not only not to teach but not even to know the subject itself? If students are confused, they must be bad teachers.
Meno – Correct.
Socrates – If neither Sophists nor gentlemen can teach virtue, there are probably no teachers or students. Then it probably can’t be taught.
Meno – Looks like it. Are there any good men at all?
Socrates – Maybe we should try to find out how good men become good. Good men must be useful & guide their business correctly. If a man knows the way from here to Larissa (region where Thessaly, north of Athens), he goes there himself & can guide others there as well.
Meno – Right.
Socrates – If a man who’s never been there before guess & is correct, then a good guess isn’t any worse than knowledge. They both guide to the right action.
Meno – But the one with knowledge will always be right. The one who makes good guesses will be wrong sometimes.
Socrates – Not if he always guesses correctly.
Meno – I suppose so. Why is knowledge any better than good guesses? How are they different?
Socrates – Well, like it is with statues. You’ve got to nail them down to something otherwise they’ll disappear. They’ll be stolen, get knocked over or the wind will take them away. If you don’t do that, there’s little point in owning one. As long as they stay, they’re wonderful. But we all know sooner or later, they’ll be gone or broken. They’re not worth much unless they’re fastened down. Having a good guess isn’t worth much in the long run unless you start to understand why you’re right, and cause & effect. When you do that, it turns into knowledge. That’s why it’s better.
Meno – Nicely put. I think I get it.
Socrates – Good guesses guide us no better or worse than knowledge. Good guesses aren’t inferior to knowledge in their results. A man is as useful to his city if he’s a good guesser than if he is knowledgeable, no matter how knowledge or good guessing skills are acquired.
Meno – So, not by nature.
Socrates – The good doesn’t not come by nature. But if not from nature, can it be taught? Since we don’t have teachers & students, probably not.
Meno – Correct.
Socrates – Good guesses & knowledge do just as well as each other in guiding us. If a man has either, he’s useful. If he’s not useful by knowledge, at least he guesses well. That’s how politicians keep a state afloat. It has no more to do with knowledge & understanding than an oracle or a diviner, or poets or artists. When they are right, they are divinely inspired but have no understanding of why they’re right.
Meno – Seems right.
Socrates – Women call a good man divine.
Meno – Don’t let Anytos catch you saying that. He won’t like it.
Socrates – Whatever… He’ll hear about it sooner or later. Virtue comes not from nature or learning but from divine allotment or dispensation.