Meno

by

Plato

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Socrates Character Analysis

A philosopher living in Athens, Greece in the fourth century BC and the primary speaker in Meno. A clever thinker and shrewd conversationalist, Socrates is known for encouraging people to carefully scrutinize their beliefs. By asking a series of simple questions, he often tricks his interlocutors into unwittingly contradicting themselves, thereby revealing the flaws in their thinking. In Meno, he attempts to answer Meno’s question about whether or not virtue can be taught, though he insists that this question isn’t worth exploring without first defining virtue itself. As such, he asks Meno questions about the nature of virtue, eventually helping him realize that he doesn’t know as much as he originally thought. In fact, Meno discovers that he has no idea how to define virtue, since Socrates has shown him that pointing to examples of virtue doesn’t do anything to actually define the concept as a whole. Socrates, for his part, welcomes Meno’s confusion, ultimately urging him to become motivated by his own ignorance. Interestingly enough, Socrates himself doesn’t think people can learn new information. Rather, he believes that humans “recollect” old knowledge, which their immortal souls have accumulated throughout their many lives. At the same time, though, Socrates knows that it takes quite a lot of effort to “recollect” knowledge, which is why teachers are valuable—not because they teach students new information, but because they help coax old knowledge out of their souls. Socrates even illustrates this by guiding Meno’s slave through a geometry lesson, thereby proving that people can access areas of intellectual expertise that might otherwise lie dormant. Despite the significant impression Socrates makes on Meno and the way he thinks, though, he doesn’t manage to provide a definition of virtue, instead leaving Meno with the idea that virtue is given to humans by the gods without any kind of “understanding.”

Socrates Quotes in Meno

The Meno quotes below are all either spoken by Socrates or refer to Socrates. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Teaching, Learning, and Intellectual Inquiry Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Hackett edition of Meno published in 2002.
Meno Quotes

In particular, he accustomed you to give a bold and grand answer to any question you may be asked, as experts are likely to do. Indeed, he himself was ready to answer any Greek who wished to question him, and every question was answered. But here in Athens, my dear Meno, the opposite is the case, as if there were a dearth of wisdom, and wisdom seems to have departed hence to go to you. If then you want to ask one of us that sort of question, everyone will laugh and say: “Good stranger, you must think me happy indeed if you think I know whether virtue can be taught or how it comes to be; I am so far from knowing whether virtue can be taught or not that I do not even have any knowledge of what virtue itself is.”

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno, Gorgias
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: […] if I were asking you what is the nature of bees, and you said that they are many and of all kinds, what would you answer if I asked you: “Do you mean that they are many and varied and different from one another insofar as they are bees? Or are they no different in that regard, but in some other respect, in their beauty, for example, or their size or in some other such way?” Tell me, what would you answer if thus questioned?

MENO: I would say that they do not differ from one another in being bees.

SOCRATES: If I went on to say: “Tell me, what is this very thing, Meno, in which they are all the same and do not differ from one another?” Would you be able to tell me?

MENO: I would.

SOCRATES: The same is true in the case of the virtues.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: […] Consider this further point: you say that virtue is to be able to rule. Shall we not add to this justly and not unjustly?

MENO: I think so, Socrates, for justice is virtue.

SOCRATES: Is it virtue, Meno, or a virtue? — What do you mean?

SOCRATES: As with anything else. For example, if you wish, take roundness, about which I would say that it is a shape, but not simply that it is shape. I would not so speak of it because there are other shapes.

MENO: You are quite right. So I too say that not only justice is a virtue but there are many other virtues.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Related Symbols: Shape
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

What then is this to which the name shape applies? Try to tell me. If then you answered the man who was questioning about shape or color: “I do not understand what you want, my man, nor what you mean,” he would probably wonder and say: “You do not understand that I am seeking that which is the same in all these cases?” Would you still have nothing to say, Meno, if one asked you: “What is this which applies to the round and the straight and the other things which you call shapes and which is the same in them all?” Try to say, that you may practice for your answer about virtue.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno
Related Symbols: Shape
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: It seems then that the acquisition must be accompanied by justice or moderation or piety or some other part of virtue; if it is not, it will not be virtue, even though it provides good things.

MENO: How could there be virtue without these?

SOCRATES: Then failing to secure gold and silver, whenever it would not be just to do so, either for oneself or another, is not this failure to secure them also virtue?

MENO: So it seems.

SOCRATES: Then to provide these goods would not be virtue any more than not to provide them, but apparently whatever is done with justice will be virtue, and what is done without anything of the kind is wickedness.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: […] So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew before you contacted me, but now you are certainly like one who does not know. Nevertheless, I want to examine and seek together with you what it may be.

MENO: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?

SOCRATES: I know what you want to say, Meno. Do you realize what a debater’s argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things. As the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing only—a process men call learning—discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search, for searching and learning are, as a whole, recollection. We must, therefore, not believe that debater’s argument, for it would make us idle, and fainthearted men like to hear it, whereas my argument makes them energetic and keen on the search. I trust that this is true, and I want to inquire along with you into the nature of virtue.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: You realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his recollection. At first he did not know what the basic line of the eight-foot square was; even now he does not yet know, but then he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows.

MENO: That is true.

SOCRATES: So he is now in a better position with regard to the matter he does not know?

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker), Meno’s Slave
Related Symbols: The Squares
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: What do you think, Meno? Has he, in his answers, expressed any opinion that was not his own?

MENO: No, they were all his own.

SOCRATES: And yet, as we said a short time ago, he did not know? — That is true.

SOCRATES: So these opinions were in him, were they not? — Yes.

SOCRATES: So the man who does not know has within himself true opinions about the things that he does not know? — So it appears.

SOCRATES: These opinions have now just been stirred up like a dream, but if he were repeatedly asked about these same things in various ways, you know that in the end his knowledge about these things would be as accurate as anyone’s.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker), Meno’s Slave
Related Symbols: The Squares
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: […] We were right to agree that good men must be beneficent, and that this could not be otherwise. […] And that they will be beneficent if they give us correct direction in our affairs. […] But that one cannot give correct direction if one does not have knowledge; to this our agreement is likely to be incorrect. — How do you mean?

SOCRATES: I will tell you. A man who knew the way to Larissa[…], and went there and directed others would surely lead them well and correctly? — Certainly.

SOCRATES: What if someone had had a correct opinion as to which was the way but had not gone there nor indeed had knowledge of it, would he not also lead correctly? — Certainly.

SOCRATES: And as long as he has the right opinion about that of which the other has knowledge, he will not be a worse guide than the one who knows, as he has a true opinion, though not knowledge.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

SOCRATES: […] if it is not through knowledge, the only alternative is that it is through right opinion that statemen follow the right course for their cities. As regards knowledge, they are no different from soothsayers and prophets. They too say many true things when inspired, but they have no knowledge of what they are saying. […] And so, Meno, is it right to call divine these men who without any understanding, are right in much that is of importance in what they say and do? —Certainly.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker), Meno (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] if we were right in the way in which we spoke and investigated in this whole discussion, virtue would be neither an inborn quality nor taught, but comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods which is not accompanied by understanding, unless there is someone among our statesmen who can make another into a statesman.

Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:
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Socrates Character Timeline in Meno

The timeline below shows where the character Socrates appears in Meno. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Meno
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“Can you tell me, Socrates,” asks Meno without preamble, “can virtue be taught?” He then asks if virtue is “the... (full context)
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Clarifying why, exactly, he doesn’t know whether or not virtue can be taught, Socrates says, “If I do not know what something is, how could I know what qualities... (full context)
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Moving on, Socrates asks Meno to define virtue. “It is not hard to tell you, Socrates,” Meno replies.... (full context)
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Interested in Meno’s notion that there are many different kinds of virtue, Socrates says, “If I were asking you what is the nature of bees, and you said... (full context)
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“The same is true in the case of the virtues,” Socrates says, pointing out that even though there are many different kinds of virtue, “all of... (full context)
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...is “no difference” between the ways in which men and women are healthy or strong, Socrates states that there is also “no difference” between the ways in which men and women... (full context)
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“Since then the virtue of all is the same,” Socrates says, “try to tell me and to remember what Gorgias, and you with him, said... (full context)
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...only justice is a virtue but there are many other virtues,” Meno replies, responding to Socrates’s example of “roundness.” Then, when Socrates urges him to name these “other virtues,” Meno identifies... (full context)
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Socrates points out that, like the fact that “roundness” is a shape but doesn’t define the... (full context)
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To define shape, Socrates says, “Let us say that shape is that which alone of existing things always follows... (full context)
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Satisfied with Socrates’s definition of shape, Meno asks him to define color, which he does in an equally... (full context)
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Moving on, Socrates again asks Meno to define virtue, so Meno suggests that it is the ability to... (full context)
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“What do you mean by desiring?” Socrates asks Meno. “Is it to secure for oneself?” Meno says this is indeed what he... (full context)
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Since Socrates has demonstrated that acquiring gold or silver isn’t virtuous in and of itself, Meno concludes... (full context)
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Meno’s argument, Socrates says, is that “every action is virtue if it is performed with a part of... (full context)
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Exasperated, Meno brings up the fact that people talk about how Socrates is “always in a state of perplexity,” suggesting that he forces confusion upon anyone he... (full context)
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Reacting to Meno’s accusation that he is like a “torpedo fish,” Socrates says that he only “resemble[s]” this creature because he, too, is “numb.” “For I myself... (full context)
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Meno expresses his doubt that he and Socrates will ever learn what virtue truly is. “How will you look for it, Socrates, when... (full context)
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Having outlined the dilemma Meno has set forth, Socrates says that he disagrees with the idea that it’s futile to “search for” the meaning... (full context)
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Since people can “recollect” the knowledge their soul has already acquired, Socrates rejects Meno’s pessimistic viewpoint that frames the pursuit of knowledge as futile. “We must […]... (full context)
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To prove that “learning is recollection,” Socrates turns to Meno’s slave, a young man who has never been taught geometry. Drawing squares... (full context)
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During the geometry lesson, Socrates asks Meno’s slave a question the young man thinks he can answer, but as their... (full context)
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Having established that Meno’s slave has “benefited from being numbed,” Socrates tells Meno to observe how he brings the young man “out of his perplexity” by... (full context)
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Socrates tells Meno that he believes this conception of learning as “recollection” is a much better... (full context)
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Having settled this matter, Meno asks Socrates once again to answer his original question about whether or not virtue can be taught.... (full context)
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“The next point to consider seems to be whether virtue is knowledge or something else,” Socrates says. To do this, he asks Meno if virtue is “itself something good.” “Of course,”... (full context)
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Restating his previous point, Socrates says that certain traits—like courage—are “beneficial” if they are “directed by wisdom,” but if they... (full context)
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Going on, Socrates suggests that virtuous people are “not so by nature,” since he upholds that if there... (full context)
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Despite Meno’s newfound optimism, Socrates suggests that they have made a mistake by hypothesizing that virtue is knowledge. After all,... (full context)
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Addressing Anytus’s harsh view of the Sophists, Socrates asks if one of these teachers has “wronged” him. In turn, Anytus admits he’s never... (full context)
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Socrates agrees with Anytus that there are many men in Athens who are good at “public... (full context)
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Turning away from Anytus, Socrates resumes his conversation with Meno, who agrees that there is perhaps no one who teaches... (full context)
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When Meno asks Socrates what he means by the fact that a person doesn’t need “knowledge” to give “correct... (full context)
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...equally useful, Meno wonders why knowledge is “prized far more highly than right opinion.” This, Socrates explains, is because “true opinion” is like a statue that is capable of running away—it... (full context)
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At this point, Socrates asserts that people are “good” “not only through knowledge but also through right opinion.” He... (full context)
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Concluding his conversation with Meno, Socrates says, “If we were right in the way in which we spoke and investigated in... (full context)