“Meno” by Plato

“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.

“Of Pedantry” by Michel de Montaigne (1580-1595)

Even Montaigne's (the inventor of the essay) Essays came back with with scribbled notes from his fucking professor. "Nice set up but your evidence needs improvement."

“Your stitch up of us pedants is duly noted. Not enough quotations from Ancient Greece. 12/20.”

“Of Pedantry”

I was always annoyed, when watching Italian farces, to see the pedant (teacher, tutor) to be the complete idiot of the play. Perhaps it was because they just weren’t able to explain themselves to the rest of the characters but it seems that a lot of people are annoyed with pedantry. Even the Romans learned to wretch at the words “Greek” and “scholar”. But it must be that those from a clerk mindset aren’t the right ones to be masters of learning.

It finally occurred to me why this is so. It seems that if you jam your head full of knowledge but don’t do the same with understanding and reason, then your head is really just full of facts and nothing more. You don’t become any wiser. Just like you can drown a plant with too much water, too many facts can really cause damage to your mind. Also, you become more fixated on the acquisition of knowledge rather than on understanding it. But you usually see men who have done very well for themselves knowing a lot.

Philosophers are also seen as pretty out there by other people. Do you think they’d ever been sitting on a court bench? I’m sure that they’d want to. They don’t really see high officials, princes and kings with any sort of reverence because they were descended from King So-and-So 20 generations back. That’s just a coincidence and doesn’t seem matter a bit to justice. But that image of philosophers given to us by Plato isn’t really what we’re seeing today of these pedants. Those men were able to make themselves higher through learning. What we see today is the sort of person who learns in order to rub our faces in the fact that they’re so high and we’re so small.

The philosophers were not men just of talk but of action. Archimedes was able to use his skills in Geometry to help his countrymen of Syracuse in devising all sorts of military equipment based on his knowledge. Some others saw how corrupt and inept government officials are and avoided politics altogether. They stuck to Philosophy until the government got its head out of its own ass. They’d rather stay away from idiots and corrupt politicians and theorize on whatever than to stoop so low as to fraternize with those who either aren’t worthy of the company or might corrupt them. Some would rather make a mint in business than to do politics. Some would call those men wise but not prudent but it might also be that they don’t want to deal with all the shit involved in politics.

So it seems that all that money spent on education gives us just pure knowledge and nothing with respect to judgment and reason. We should focus more on who has learned better rather than who has learned more.

It’s like the pedants are just feeding us like birds feed their young. They are just stuffing our mouths with whatever they picked up from somewhere else. We collect this stuff just to collect it. We don’t actually do anything with it. Even I do the same thing dropping quotes from this guy or that guy. It’s as if to say, “oh, look at how much I’ve learned.” Never mind if what I’m quoting has anything to do with what I’m saying or if it’s even true. It’s really just to try to impress everyone with pretty words or how many books you’ve read.

We use other people’s words to say things but what is it that we have to say? We are really just parroting others’ words. That reminds me of some fella in Rome who would always have some scientist around him to have on hand when he was with friends. When he wanted a quote from Seneca or Homer, he’d have the guy give him the quote. The guy thought this was his own knowledge because he employed people who knew him. I know a guy I was talking to who, whenever we were talking about something,  would whip out a book to find out what I was talking about.

We take other people’s knowledge and opinions of our own without bothering to learn how to make our own. What’s the point of all this learning if we don’t actually use it for anything other than show? If I want to make someone feel better, I can use someone else’s words. It’s unoriginal and stupid. You can learn through other men’s words but you can’t become wise through other men’s wisdom. That’s got to be done by yourself.

Some of these guys go away to school and spend their time being so precise in what they learn not in how they learn. They are away for 14, 15 years and come back no wiser than they were before. The only difference is that the fact that they learned Latin and Greek has made them look smarter to everyone around them.

These pedants try to play themselves as the heroes of humanity but really what do they do for us? Not only do they not make us better, they actually make us worse. At least with a carpenter or a mason, they give us something practical. But these guys make us worse off and we have to pay them! A lot of these guys have got absolutely no common sense. You’ll see more humble but skilled men talk about things with common sense and humility. They stick to what they know but our pedants will never stop letting us know how much they know about everything. They’ll wow us with fancy words but behind them there is nothing.

I’ve known a bunch of people who will spout of a ton of gobbledygook  about this and that all day but never really answer anything asked of them. On the other hand, I’ve got a friend who falls under the same category with such a great into any topic you present him and can give you amazing answers in spite of pedantic education. So, not all of these characters are shysters.  But the point of that is that education must better us, not just load us with facts, etc. Some parliaments only accept members with a good educational background but make no inquiry into their judgments. Education is very important but judgment’s more important.

In some cases, it’s best that someone who would become a pendant never actually go through his education. Learning shouldn’t be tied someone’s soul but to his work. Then his work will be applied to his soul. If he learns to use it properly in his work, then he will be a master of it. If he doesn’t, he will be its victim.

The business of knowledge is not to give sight to men but to direct the eyes. Knowledge is not enough to make a man’s mind reasonable and pure. It’s similar to a poorly shoed cobbler and a run-down physician. Some of the people who profess a knowledge don’t actually follow the advice they’re handing out. In some cases, trying to push philosophy on people does them more harm than good because their minds aren’t conditioned for it. Persians would take their children and hand them over straight away to be raised in how to live properly and not to their mothers or nurses. Once they were taught right from wrong, they were taught to ride and to hunt. At 14, they were given religious and moral instruction to make sure they lived good lives. In Sparta, the youngsters were required to make judgments based on sound reasoning before they were turned out to be fully-fledged  citizens.

At the time, people were sent out all over Greece to learn about rhetoric, painting and music. But they were sent to Sparta to learn how to govern and run an army. Socrates never had any use for the Spartans because they never focused on grammar, art, etc.

It seems at this point that Turkey is the biggest empire. They put military above learning. Rome was very big until it focused so much on learning and pedantry. The learning only persists when the learning knows its smaller place and doesn’t usurp the vigor of military and warlike state.