At the beginning of his conversation with Socrates, Meno—a rising political figure visiting Athens from Thessaly—asks whether or not Socrates thinks virtue can be taught. In response, Socrates references the fact that Meno has become accustomed to finding answers to seemingly any question, since he has studied with a Sophist named Gorgias, who trains his pupils to be clever debaters regardless of the topic they’re addressing. However, Socrates tells Meno, he himself doesn’t even know what virtue is, let alone whether or not it can be taught. In fact, Socrates suggests that he’s never met anyone who fully understands the true nature of virtue, an assertion that astounds Meno, who upholds that he—along with many others—certainly know how to define virtue.
Responding to Meno’s confidence, Socrates asks him to articulate what, exactly, virtue is, and Meno tells him that it means one thing for a man, something else for a woman, and something else for a child. This, Socrates says, is not an adequate way to define virtue, since a definition must be all-encompassing, something that applies to every manifestation of a given concept. To illustrate this idea, he points out that bees often differ in small ways from one another, but this doesn’t change the fact that they’re all bees. Meno agrees with this, so Socrates asks him to provide a definition of virtue that is more universally applicable, but Meno insists that virtue is more complex than Socrates’s example about bees and thus requires a definition that can accommodate subtle variations and nuances. In response, Socrates points out that Meno thinks men are virtuous if they “manage the city,” whereas women are virtuous if they “manage the household.” However, both of these qualities require “justice and moderation” in order to qualify as virtuous. As such, men and women are virtuous in the same way, despite the different ways in which their goodness seems to manifest itself.
Once Meno agrees that there must be one singular definition of virtue that applies to all kinds of virtue, he suggests that “justice is virtue.” However, Socrates points out that justice is a virtue, not virtue itself. To make this point clear, he says that “roundness” is a shape but not something that defines the entire concept of shape itself. Rather, there are many different kinds of shape, and “roundness” is simply one of them. Having said this, Socrates asks Meno to offer up a definition of shape that can be applied to all shapes, but Meno balks, asking Socrates to provide the answer himself. Socrates calls Meno’s attention to the fact that there is such a thing as a “limit” or “end” to all objects. Next, Socrates refers to the geometrical idea of a “plane” or “solid.” Having established these terms, Socrates defines shape, saying, “A shape is that which limits a solid; in a word, a shape is the limit of a solid.”
Having given him an example of the kind of definition he’s looking for, Socrates again asks Meno to define virtue, and Meno suggests that virtue is to “desire” and have the “power to acquire” “beautiful things.” After a series of questions, he adds that “gold and silver” are examples of “beautiful” (or good) things, and he and Socrates determine that these things are only virtuous if they are “acquired” “justly.” Because of this, Meno once again decides that justice is what determines whether or not something is virtuous, but Socrates reminds him that they’ve already proved that justice is only “a part of virtue.” Because of this, Socrates says, “You must not think, while the nature of virtue as a whole is still under inquiry, that by answering in terms of the parts of virtue you can make its nature clear to anyone.”
Meno becomes frustrated, saying that Socrates is like a “torpedo fish” that numbs anyone with whom he comes into contact. Although Meno was confident he understood the nature of virtue before this conversation—and has even delivered public talks about the concept—he now finds himself baffled and unable to define the idea. Socrates, for his part, assures Meno that he is in the same position, for he doesn’t know what virtue is, either. This is why he wants “to examine and seek” the answer with Meno. “How will you look for [the answer], Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is?” Meno protests. “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?” In response, Socrates rephrases Meno’s concern, an idea now commonly referred to as Meno’s Paradox. “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?” Socrates asks. “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.”
Socrates isn’t quite as pessimistic about the process of intellectual inquiry as Meno, since he thinks that a person can indeed make thoughtful discoveries. However, he doesn’t think that this involves learning brand new information. Rather, he believes that the act of learning is actually an act of “recollection,” since the human soul is immortal and has already “acquired” all available knowledge. As a result, one need only tap into the memories of their soul to access a limitless wellspring of information. By way of example, Socrates calls Meno’s slave forth and asks if he has ever studied geometry. Having confirmed that he hasn’t, Socrates proceeds by drawing squares in the sand and posing a number of questions to the slave—questions the young man answers correctly. In this way, Socrates demonstrates to Meno that people are capable of finding knowledge within themselves, especially when guided by someone who can help coax this information out of them. This, he suggests, is a better way to look at the process of intellectual discovery, since Meno’s viewpoint frames the entire ordeal as futile and therefore runs the risk of making people intellectually lazy.
Once again, Meno asks Socrates to answer his original question regarding whether or not virtue can be taught, and though Socrates thinks it’s foolish to consider this matter without first determining what virtue is, he agrees to investigate the subject. To do so, he sets forth a hypothesis that virtue is “a kind of knowledge.” If this is the case, he says, virtue can be taught, since all knowledge is teachable. If something can be taught, though, then there must be students and teachers—these, Socrates upholds, are good indicators of whether or not an idea is teachable. Turning to Anytus, who is Meno’s host in Athens and who is apparently listening to this discussion, Socrates asks if the politician can think of anyone who teaches virtue, but Anytus asks him to answer the question first. In turn, Socrates says that the only teachers of virtue must be the Sophists, who examine these ideas quite carefully. This response enrages Anytus, who thinks the Sophists are bad men who corrupt the Athenian youth. Anytus posits that the best teachers of virtue are Athenians themselves, who instruct their sons how to be good. Despite this confident reply, though, Socrates lists a number of well-respected and virtuous Athenians whose sons are evil, thereby falsifying Anytus’s claim and ultimately proving that there are no teachers of virtue. In turn, Socrates and Meno draw the conclusion that virtue must not be teachable, since there is no one who teaches it. What’s more, this means that virtue must not be knowledge, either, since all knowledge is teachable.
During their consideration of virtue as “a kind of knowledge,” Socrates and Meno determined that doing something that “benefits” the soul is virtuous. What’s more, they decided that in order to do something that “benefits” the soul, one must have an understanding—or knowledge of—what they are doing. However, Socrates now suggests that this second point is perhaps a mistake. He says that he and Meno were right to say that doing something that “benefits” the soul is virtuous, but wrong to say that this kind of behavior requires knowledge. To make this point, he uses the term “correct opinion,” which more or less resembles good intuition. If a person doesn’t know the way to a certain place but directs another person there based on a “correct opinion”—which is uninformed by knowledge—they have still successfully navigated to the place in question. As such, knowledge and correct opinion are functionally the same. Of course, knowledge enables a person to know why their “opinions” are “correct,” but this doesn’t negate the fact that such opinions can be “beneficial” to a person even when they doesn’t understand their own logic. “Indeed,” Socrates says, “I too speak as one who does not have knowledge but is guessing. However, I certainly do not think I am guessing that right opinion is a different thing from knowledge.”
Having said this, Socrates states that people are “good” “not only through knowledge but also through right opinion,” going on to say that neither knowledge nor “right opinion” are “inborn” traits that “come to men by nature.” Rather, they are bestowed unto humans as “gift[s] from the gods.” What’s more, these gifts are “not accompanied by understanding,” meaning that humans don’t have to comprehend virtue in order to possess it. Concluding this discussion with Meno, Socrates suggests that they would have been more productive if they had defined virtue before considering whether or not it can be taught, but now he must go. Before parting, he asks Meno to convince Anytus of what he’s learned about virtue, saying that he will “confer a benefit upon the Athenians” if he successfully changes the powerful politician’s mind.