“Can you tell me, Socrates,” asks Meno without preamble, “can virtue be taught?” He then asks if virtue is “the result of practice”—and therefore “not teachable”—or if it is perhaps an innate quality. In response, Socrates acknowledges that Meno is used to the idea that he can find an answer for any question, no matter how complex. This, Socrates says, is because Meno has studied with Gorgias, who has taught him to “give a bold and grand answer to any question.” Socrates, on the other hand, doesn’t think this way. In fact, he suggests that the best way to respond to Meno’s question is to say: “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.”
When Meno—a political figure visiting Athens from Thessaly—asks Socrates to tell him whether or not virtue can be taught, Socrates characteristically scrutinizes the very process of answering such a question. Rather than jumping directly into a consideration of virtue, he takes a moment to evaluate the process of inquiry that Meno is most likely looking for. Socrates knows that Meno is used to rhetorically clever answers because he has studied with Gorgias, a Sophist known for teaching his students how to speak persuasively on any matter at all. However, Socrates knows that true wisdom means recognizing one’s own ignorance, and so he begins by destabilizing the very idea that he—or, for that matter, anyone—knows what virtue is in the first place. In this way, he begins the dialogue by urging Meno to let go of his unexamined confidence in his own knowledge.
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 it possesses?” Meno understands his point, but finds it hard to believe that Socrates truly doesn’t know what virtue is. To his surprise, Socrates reiterates his own ignorance and even goes one step further by suggesting that he has never met anyone who knows the true nature of virtue. “Did you not meet Gorgias when he was here?” Meno asks, but Socrates assures him that he did and that, while Gorgias may indeed know what virtue is, Socrates can’t remember if this is the case, and so they should leave the man out of their discussion.
Before answering whether or not virtue can be taught, Socrates wants to investigate what virtue actually is. This, he points out, will be an important part of any discussion regarding virtue’s teachability, since it’s impossible to “know what qualities” something possesses without fully understanding what it is. To further illustrate his point, he tries to destabilize Meno’s belief that everyone knows the meaning of virtue. Indeed, whereas Meno takes it for granted that he and Gorgias understand the meaning of virtue, Socrates wants to scrutinize the matter. He knows that it’s important to straightforwardly define a concept before venturing into philosophical discussions about its related ideas.
Moving on, Socrates asks Meno to define virtue. “It is not hard to tell you, Socrates,” Meno replies. “First, if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man’s virtue consists of being able to manage public affairs and in so doing to benefit his friends and harm his enemies and to be careful that no harm comes to himself.” He then goes on to say that the “virtue of a woman” is different, as is the “virtue of a child.” Indeed, he believes that “there is virtue for every action and every age, for every task of ours and every one of us.”
In keeping with his belief that one must solidly define an idea before investigating its philosophical implications, Socrates urges Meno to articulate what, exactly, he thinks virtue is. In turn, Meno sets forth an interpretation of virtue that is highly variable. Indeed, Meno believes that virtue changes depending on context. Although this satisfies Meno himself, it seems obvious that Socrates will take issue with this definition because it leaves so much room for interpretation and thus lacks true clarity.
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 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?’” Considering this, Meno decides that he would assert—if questioned in this manner—that the bees “do not differ from one another in being bees.” In response, Socrates asks him if he would be able to articulate what makes the bees “all the same,” and Meno says that he would indeed be able to make this point clear.
In this moment, Socrates is trying to get Meno to see that a definition must be all-encompassing, something that applies to all parts of a given category regardless of minor nuances or fluctuations. For example, bees differ from one another, but not “insofar as they are bees.” In other words, two bees might be different sizes, but they are still both bees. As such, any definition of what it means to be a bee must apply to all bees. This, of course, is not the kind of definition Meno has offered of virtue, since he has defined virtuousness in multiple different ways.
“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 them have one and the same form.” Because of this, one must identify what this all-encompassing “form” is when trying to define virtue as a whole. Turning back to Meno’s assertion that there are different kinds of virtue for men, women, and children, Socrates says, “Do you think that there is one health for man and another for woman? Or, if it is health, does it have the same form everywhere, whether in man or in anything else whatever?” Meno, for his part, answers by saying that “the health of a man” is “the same as that of a woman,” and then Socrates encourages him to affirm that this is also the case with “size and strength.”
Simply put, Socrates wants to show Meno that the only useful kind of definition is one that is universally applicable. Indeed, “health” isn’t contingent upon a person’s gender—a human is simply healthy or unhealthy. As such, it would be logically unsound to provide a definition of healthiness that changes according to whether a person is a man or a woman (of course, there might be different indicators of healthiness in men and women, but the concept of overall wellness remains the same). Once again, then, Socrates stresses the importance of employing accurate and all-encompassing definitions. In doing so, he encourages Meno to examine his understanding of virtue more carefully, thereby laying the groundwork for a more thoughtful and precise conversation.
Having established that there 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 are virtuous. However, Meno upholds that virtue isn’t “like those other cases.” As such, Socrates points out that, although Meno says virtuous men “manage the city” whereas virtuous women “manage the household,” both of these traits require “justice and moderation.” In turn, he says that “all human beings are good in the same way, for they become good by acquiring the same qualities.” Finally, then, Meno agrees with the idea that there is only one kind of virtue.
Socrates makes an important rhetorical move when he points out that, although Meno suggests that there’s a difference between the ways in which men and women are virtuous, this difference simply consists of two manifestations of the same qualities: “justice and moderation.” As such, men and women actually are virtuous in the same ways, thereby proving that Meno’s fluctuating definition of virtue is inadequate and poorly considered.
“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 that that same thing is.” In response, Meno says that virtue must be the ability to “rule over people.” However, Socrates adds that the truly virtuous way to “rule” would be “justly and not unjustly.” Meno agrees with this, stating that “justice is virtue,” but Socrates questions this, saying, “Is it virtue, Meno, or a virtue?” When Meno expresses confusion, he directs his friend’s attention to the concept of “roundness,” saying that “roundness” is “a shape,” but not something that defines the concept of shape itself. “I would not speak so of it because there are other shapes,” Socrates says.
Having finally accepted that “the virtue of all is the same,” Meno struggles to pinpoint an all-encompassing definition of virtue. However, he does so by pointing not to a definition of virtue as a concept, but to an example of the concept. In the same way that “roundness” is a shape but doesn’t define the idea of shape itself, “justice” is only one manifestation of virtue, not the meaning of virtue as a whole. By pointing this out, Socrates challenges Meno to speak more precisely.
“So I too say that not 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 “courage,” “moderation,” “wisdom,” and “munificence.” “We are having the same trouble again, Meno,” Socrates replies, “though in another way; we have found many virtues while looking for one, but we cannot find the one which covers all the others.” Speaking honestly, Meno admits that he simply cannot “yet find” the answer Socrates is looking for, and Socrates admits that he’s unsurprised. Nevertheless, though, he says that he is “eager” to “make progress” by continuing this conversation.
Having emphasized the importance of finding a definition of virtue that “covers all” manifestations of goodness, Socrates brings Meno into a state of confusion. Indeed, Meno expresses his perplexity—an important point to note, considering that Meno was originally so surprised when Socrates suggested he didn’t know the meaning of virtue. Though this state of confusion might seem counterproductive to Meno and Socrates’s desire to have an insightful conversation about the nature of virtue and its teachability, Socrates clearly believes that this perplexity is a good thing, since he’s “eager” to “make progress” by forging onward in the dialogue. In turn, readers see that Socrates isn’t discouraged by his own ignorance. He’s actually motivated by the gaps in his knowledge, ultimately framing the process of intellectual inquiry as something that is inherently worthwhile even in the face of possibly unanswerable questions.
Socrates points out that, like the fact that “roundness” is a shape but doesn’t define the entire concept of shape, white is a color but doesn’t explain what color is as a general idea. Acting out a hypothetical conversation between Meno and someone seeking the definition of color, Socrates says that this pretend person might say, “You do not understand that I am seeking that which is the same in all […] cases?” Moving on, Socrates urges Meno to articulate a definition that applies to all shapes, but Meno asks him to answer the question himself, and Socrates agrees on the condition that Meno will then tell him about virtue.
Again, Socrates expresses his desire to find a logically sound and linguistically precise definition of virtue, this time urging Meno to speak accurately about shape as a way of illustrating the fact that they must “seek” all-encompassing descriptions rather than ones that are variable and context-dependent.
To define shape, Socrates says, “Let us say that shape is that which alone of existing things always follows color.” Meno, for his part, finds this answer unsatisfactory and asks Socrates to assume that the person asking him this question also doesn’t know what color is. As such, Socrates asks Meno if he understands or agrees with the notion that there can be an “end” to a thing. “I mean such a thing as a limit or boundary,” he says, and Meno says that he is familiar with this idea. “Further,” Socrates continues, “you call something a plane, and something else a solid, as in geometry?” Again, Meno confirms that he understands, and so Socrates says, “From this you may understand what I mean by shape, for I say […] that a shape is that which limits a solid; in a word, a shape is the limit of a solid.”
When Socrates says that there is “such a thing as a limit or a boundary,” he encourages Meno to consider the fact that all objects have edges and boundaries. To be even more specific, he references the geometrical concept of “solid[s]” and “plane[s],” further reducing his description to the simplest, most straightforward elements. By doing this, he removes any ambiguity that might get in the way of complete comprehension and clarity. In the end, he manages to provide a definition of shape that is highly specific but also quite general, one that applies to circles, squares, triangles, and any other conceivable form. This, he intimates, is the kind of definition that he and Meno are seeking for virtue.
Satisfied with Socrates’s definition of shape, Meno asks him to define color, which he does in an equally simplistic way, reducing color to the idea that things emit “effluvia” that can be perceived by human senses, including “sight.” As such, color is “an effluvium from shapes which fits the sight and is perceived.” When Meno says that he likes this definition, Socrates says, “It is a theatrical answer so it pleases you, Meno.”
Socrates uses the word “effluvia” to refer to the idea that color emits a flow that is visible to the eye. Although this concept is somewhat abstract to contemporary readers, Meno would have been familiar with the idea, which was set forth by the ancient philosopher Empedocles. As such, Socrates’s definition of color is—like his definition of shape—effective because it breaks the concept down into precise and simple ideas (according to Meno, that is). At the same time, though, Socrates pokes fun of Meno for liking this answer so much, since he knows that he has pandered to Meno’s affinity for “theatrical answers,” which he no doubt inherited from the rhetorically clever Sophists.
Moving on, Socrates again asks Meno to define virtue, so Meno suggests that it is the ability to “desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them.” Hearing this, Socrates asks if Meno thinks that “the man who desires beautiful things desires good things,” and Meno says that he does indeed think this. Furthermore, Socrates asks if “all men desire good things,” and Meno posits that some people “desire bad things.” To clarify, then, Socrates asks if people who “desire bad things” know these things are bad or simply mistake them to be good. “I think there are both kinds,” Meno says. Next, Socrates asks if Meno thinks people ever desire something even when they know it is bad, and Meno says that he does think this sometimes happens.
At this point in the dialogue, Socrates proceeds with an extended cross-examination of Meno’s theory that virtue is the ability to “desire” and “acquire” beautiful things. Although he doesn’t yet draw any conclusions about this idea, his questions follow his characteristic style of interrogating his conversational partners—a rhetorical technique that is present throughout Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates frequently confuses his interlocutors simply by encouraging them to carefully investigate their own claims.
“What do you mean by desiring?” Socrates asks Meno. “Is it to secure for oneself?” Meno says this is indeed what he means, and Socrates goes on to prove that no one purposefully “secure[s]” bad things, since doing so would mean knowingly “harm[ing]” oneself (because bad things “harm” people). Having said this, Socrates reminds Meno that he has said virtue is “to desire good things and have the power to secure them,” ultimately urging Meno to give several examples of “good things.” In turn, Meno suggests that “gold and silver” are “good things,” and Socrates adds that one must “acquire” “gold and silver” “justly and piously” in order to remain virtuous. As such, according to this line of thinking, “failing to secure gold and silver” when it wouldn’t be “just to do so” would actually be virtuous.
Socrates’s cross-examination is somewhat difficult to follow in this moment, since he asks Meno to answer many questions without revealing yet what, exactly, he’s getting at. To boil down his argument, though, Socrates is simply pointing out that acquiring money isn’t always virtuous. In fact, he says, sometimes it’s more virtuous to refrain from acquiring “gold and silver.” This is because a person must behave “justly and piously,” and it’s not always just or pious to “secure” money. In this way, Socrates shows Meno that his definition of virtue is faulty, for it doesn’t apply to all situations. It’s also worth paying attention to the fact that Socrates asks Meno to articulate what it means to “desire” something, once again underlining the importance of providing clear definitions—definitions that will ultimately enable the two men to engage in a more thoughtful and philosophically complex dialogue.
Since Socrates has demonstrated that acquiring gold or silver isn’t virtuous in and of itself, Meno concludes that virtue must depend on whether or not a person acts “with justice.” However, Socrates reminds Meno that they’ve already stated that “justice” is a “part of virtue.” In turn, he shows Meno that this new definition is also flawed, since they’ve established that something cannot be defined by its smaller parts. “I begged you just now not to break up or fragment virtue,” he says, “and I gave examples of how you should answer. You paid no attention, but you tell me that virtue is to be able to secure good things with justice, and justice, you say, is a part of virtue.”
Once again, Socrates shows Meno the flaws in this thinking. This time, he treats Meno’s assertion that “justice” is virtue with the same kind of intellectual scrutiny he applied to his investigation of the definition of shape. In the same way that a circle is a shape but doesn’t define the concept of shape itself, justice is a virtue but doesn’t articulate what virtue is as a broader idea.
Meno’s argument, Socrates says, is that “every action is virtue if it is performed with a part of virtue.” Unfortunately, though, he hasn’t defined what virtue is in the first place, so they are no closer to understanding the concept than they were before. “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,” Socrates says. In keeping with this, he once again asks Meno to define virtue, this time making it even more clear that his friend must find an all-encompassing way to articulate the concept as a whole.
Again, Socrates stresses the importance of language. If he and Meno were able to linguistically ground themselves by providing a simple and incontrovertible definition of virtue, they would certainly be able to speak more easily and productively about the entire matter. Unfortunately, though, Meno has failed multiple times to hit upon a working definition of the concept, instead investing himself in examples that don’t actually reveal the overall nature of virtue.
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 speaks to, “numb[ing]” them as if he is “the broad torpedo fish.” This, Meno says, is what has happened in this conversation, for although he (Meno) used to know what virtue is, he is now at a total loss to define it. “Yet I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches as I thought, but now I cannot even say what it is,” he laments.
Socrates is well-known for confusing people by encouraging them to question their unexamined beliefs. Unsurprisingly, this has earned him an unfavorable reputation throughout Athens. In fact, this is the exact reason that he stands accused of impiety and slander in Apology. Simply put, people resent him for throwing them into utter “perplexity.” However, Socrates doesn’t confuse his interlocutors out of a sense of maliciousness, but because he knows that the only way to embark on valuable intellectual inquiries is to first admit one’s own ignorance. This, it seems, is why he has destabilized Meno’s superficial understanding of virtue.
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 do not have the answer when I perplex others,” he says. “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.”
In Apology, Socrates upholds that the only valuable kind of human wisdom comes from embracing one’s own ignorance. In keeping with this, he happily accepts the fact that he himself is just as “numb” as the people he speaks to, since he has no problem admitting his own intellectual shortcomings. However, this doesn’t discourage him from engaging in thoughtful debate. In fact, he believes in the process of intellectual discovery so much that he wants to “examine and seek” the nature of virtue with Meno. This is a testament to how much he invests himself in the pursuit of philosophical discovery.
Meno expresses his doubt that he and Socrates will ever learn what virtue truly is. “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?” In turn, Socrates points out how pessimistic this viewpoint is, rephrasing it to sound even more cynical. “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 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.”
The dilemma Meno outlines in this moment is now commonly known as Meno’s Paradox. According to this idea, it is impossible for anyone to learn anything, since—under this interpretation—a person won’t be able to find the knowledge they are “search[ing] for” because they don’t know what, exactly, they’re looking for in the first place. Needless to say, this is a very pessimistic way to view the process of critical inquiry and education, since it ultimately discourages people from trying to make any intellectual discoveries at all.
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 of virtue. Referencing what he’s heard from “priests and priestesses,” he says that the “human soul is immortal.” Indeed, he believes that the soul is reborn each time someone dies, meaning that it is “never destroyed.” As such, the soul has “seen all things here and in the underworld,” meaning that there is “nothing which it has not learned.” Because of this, Socrates thinks the soul can “recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things.” What’s more, he thinks that since a person can “recall” one piece of knowledge, there is nothing stopping him from “discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search.”
In contrast to Meno’s pessimistic ideas regarding education, Socrates remains optimistic about the process of intellectual inquiry. Rather than accepting the fact that it’s futile to search for knowledge, he uses his spiritual and religious beliefs to help him remain motivated to continue making intellectual discoveries. However, it’s worth noting that he does agree with Meno that it is impossible to learn, at least in the conventional sense of the word. Indeed, Socrates thinks the soul has already gathered all the knowledge there is to gather, meaning that a person merely needs to “recollect” what they want to know. Though this aligns with Meno’s notion that it’s impossible to acquire new information, at least this viewpoint gives people an incentive to engage in intellectual pursuits. Socrates even believes that the only thing limiting a person’s ability to “recollect” knowledge is laziness, which is why he thinks people should be “brave” and resist the temptation to “tire of the search” for information.
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 […] not believe that debater’s argument,” he says, “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.” However, Meno stops him from venturing any further, asking Socrates to illustrate how, exactly, “learning is recollection.”
When Socrates talks about “that debater’s argument,” he is referring to Meno’s Paradox that Meno has set forth. Whereas this viewpoint makes people “idle” and disincentivizes them from engaging in thoughtful inquiry, Socrates’s concept of learning as “recollection” makes people “energetic and keen” to pursue knowledge. In keeping with this, Socrates expresses his desire to “inquire” into “the nature of virtue” alongside Meno, ultimately believing that they might be able to help each other “recollect” knowledge that their souls have already acquired.
To prove that “learning is recollection,” Socrates turns to Meno’s slave, a young man who has never been taught geometry. Drawing squares on the ground, Socrates asks the slave a number of guided geometrical questions about the size of the shapes, each one increasing in complexity but logically following from the previous answer. Despite the fact that he has never been educated or trained to understand this information, the slave finds himself capable of answering Socrates’s mathematical questions. At one point, Socrates turns to Meno and says, “You see, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but all I do is question him.”
To illustrate the fact that people have the ability to “recollect” information stored in their souls, Socrates demonstrates that an effective teacher doesn’t tell a person information, but instead guides them through it in a way that makes sense, ultimately allowing the student to draw their own conclusions. Although Meno’s slave has never been taught geometry, he is perfectly capable of using common sense to answer Socrates’s questions, especially since Socrates has drawn squares on the ground, making it easier for the slave to conceptualize the geometrical concepts in a tangible way. In turn, Socrates showcases the fact that teaching often means little more than encouraging a student to find knowledge within themselves.
During the geometry lesson, Socrates asks Meno’s slave a question the young man thinks he can answer, but as their conversation continues, he realizes he doesn’t, in truth, know how to go about solving the problem. “You realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his recollection,” Socrates says. “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.” This, Socrates suggests, is a better intellectual position to be in, since now Meno’s slave has pinpointed what he doesn’t know and is eager to remedy this gap in his understanding by pushing onward.
It's worth remembering that before this dialogue, Meno was confident that he knew the meaning of virtue. After trying to answer Socrates’s questions, though, he realized that he doesn’t actually have a solid understanding of the concept. Similarly, Meno’s slave confidently answers Socrates’s questions at the beginning of the geometry lesson, but he soon reaches a point of confusion. However, he never would have been able to even reach this point of confusion before he engaged in this process of intellectual inquiry. And although this confusion might seem counterproductive, Socrates argues that it is actually a necessary part of the educational process. After all, Socrates knows that one must acknowledge one’s own ignorance before engaging in genuine critical inquiry. By showing Meno’s slave the gaps in his own knowledge, then, Socrates gives him a chance to identify his intellectual shortcomings, so that he can go forth and address them.
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 doing nothing other than asking questions. After another short exchange in which Socrates quizzes the slave, the young man finally solves the problem he previously had trouble answering. Turning to Meno, Socrates says, “These opinions have now just been stirred up like a dream.” Proving that the slave has simply found “knowledge within” himself, Socrates reminds Meno that this is nothing but “recollection.” After all, the slave did not “acquire” these “opinions” during his present life, meaning that he must have gotten them from some other—previous—life.
When Socrates says, “These opinions have now just been stirred up like a dream,” he does more than simply demonstrate the power of “recollection”—he also shows the importance of guided instruction. Although he believes that it’s impossible to acquire completely new information, he believes that teachers play a significant role in the process of “recollection.” While they can’t simply impart knowledge to students, teachers can help guide them through the process of intellectual inquiry, ultimately helping “stir up” knowledge from the students’ past lives.
Socrates tells Meno that he believes this conception of learning as “recollection” is a much better way to approach the educational process than the pessimistic viewpoint Meno outlined when he said that no one can learn anything. “I would contend at all costs in both word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it,” Socrates adds, and Meno agrees.
Once again, Socrates outlines the reason he’s so uncomfortable with Meno’s Paradox, which he believes will keep people from even trying to “look for” knowledge. Rather than succumbing to the pessimistic viewpoint that it’s futile to try to learn, Socrates simply reframes the educational process by casting it as an act of “recollection” instead of brand-new discovery.
Having settled this matter, Meno asks Socrates once again to answer his original question about whether or not virtue can be taught. Although Socrates obliges Meno’s request, he first reminds his friend that he thinks their discussion will be inconclusive because they haven’t yet hit upon a definition of virtue itself. Nevertheless, he begins his examination, telling Meno that he will investigate the question by setting forth hypotheses and then testing whether or not they are accurate. In keeping with this, he decides that they should start by hypothesizing that virtue is “a kind of knowledge.” If this is the case, he says, it must be teachable, since it is “plain to anyone” that knowledge can be taught.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates cross-examines his interlocutors by asking them question after question in order to reveal the weak spots in their logic. In this moment, though, Socrates changes his rhetorical technique by deciding to interrogate his own hypotheses. Rather than going back and forth with Meno, he investigates his own statements. This is most likely because Meno has already been convinced that he doesn’t understand the nature of virtue. Since Socrates is equally ignorant when it comes to knowing what virtue is, he wants to explore the matter alongside Meno, thus engaging in a joint philosophical inquiry instead of a cross-examination.
“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,” Meno answers. If virtue is knowledge, then, all good things are also knowledge. This means, Socrates explains, that there cannot be anything that is good that is not also knowledge. What’s more, he says that virtue must be “beneficial,” because all good things are “beneficial.” As such, Socrates decides to “examine what kinds of things” are “beneficial,” agreeing with Meno that there are a number of things that fall into this category. However, Socrates points out that sometimes certain things that are normally “beneficial” can actually be “harmful.” For instance, “courage” can be a form of “recklessness” if it isn’t accompanied by “understanding” or “wisdom.”
To grasp what Socrates is saying, it will be helpful to understand the first rhetorical move he makes regarding virtue, goodness, and knowledge. To begin, Socrates says that virtue is “itself something good.” Therefore, virtue is goodness. Next, he turns his attention to the original hypothesis, which asserts that virtue is knowledge. As such, if virtue is goodness and virtue is knowledge, then goodness must also be knowledge, and vice versa. Having established this, Socrates simply restates the previous idea that a definition must apply in all scenarios, meaning that if goodness is knowledge, then everything that is good must be a form of knowledge, and all forms of knowledge must be good. At this point, Socrates points out that certain things that are normally good (or “beneficial”) can also be “harmful” if they’re done without “understanding” or “wisdom.” Knowledge, then, is what determines whether something is good or not in the first place.
Restating his previous point, Socrates says that certain traits—like courage—are “beneficial” if they are “directed by wisdom,” but if they are “directed by ignorance,” they are “harmful.” Furthermore, he upholds that “all the qualities of the soul are in themselves neither beneficial nor harmful.” Indeed, it is “wisdom or folly” that determines whether or not a “quality” is “beneficial” to the soul. Because this is the case, it becomes clear that virtue must be wisdom, since wisdom is what determines whether or not something is “beneficial.”
The line of thinking that Socrates sets forth in this portion of the dialogue is often multi-layered, making it hard to remember his original point, which is actually rather simple: virtue is that which benefits the soul, and knowledge benefits the soul, so virtue must be “a kind of knowledge.” This, at least, aligns with Socrates’s original hypothesis, though it seems likely that he’ll soon identify a weakness in this argument.
Going on, Socrates suggests that virtuous people are “not so by nature,” since he upholds that if there were people who were “good” by nature, society would identify them when they’re young and “guard them in the Acropolis” so they can’t be corrupted. Of course, this doesn’t happen, which Socrates thinks is proof that people aren’t innately good. “Since the good are not good by nature,” he says, “does learning make them so?” Meno says this makes sense, since, according to their original hypothesis, virtue can be taught if it is knowledge.
Socrates makes an important point when he says that people aren’t good “by nature.” If this were the case, it would most likely be difficult to teach virtue, since it’s quite a challenge to show people how to acquire an inborn trait. Meno agrees with this interpretation, suddenly throwing his faith into the teachability of virtue, though it seems increasingly likely that Socrates will soon reveal a flaw in the argument that virtue is knowledge.
Despite Meno’s newfound optimism, Socrates suggests that they have made a mistake by hypothesizing that virtue is knowledge. After all, if virtue were knowledge, then it could be taught, but there are no teachers Socrates can think of who teach virtue. This, Socrates believes, is an indication that virtue isn’t knowledge after all. However, he turns to Anytus (who is Meno’s host in Athens and later becomes one of the people who accuses Socrates of slander and impiety) and investigates whether or not there are indeed teachers of virtue. The only people Socrates can think of, he tells Anytus, are the Sophists. “By Heracles, hush, Socrates,” Anytus responds. “May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers.”
Although Socrates has already poked fun of Meno’s sophistic tendency to boisterously answer any question he encounters, in this moment he suggests that the Sophists are perhaps the only teachers of virtue. However, he seemingly does this to simply agitate Anytus, one of the men who ends up sentencing him to death in Apology. By playing devil’s advocate and arguing that the Sophists are the only teachers of virtue, Socrates cleverly invites Anytus to refute this point, thereby helping him prove that there are, in fact, no teachers of virtue anywhere in Athens. In turn, he successfully challenges the idea that virtue is a “kind of knowledge,” for if this were the case, surely there would be teachers of virtue, since knowledge is teachable.
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 met a Sophist. “How then, my good sir, can you know whether there is any good in their instruction or not, if you are altogether without experience of it?” Socrates asks. “Easily,” he answers, “for I know who they are, whether I have experience of them or not.” In response, Socrates jokingly suggests that Anytus must be a “wizard,” but moves on to ask him to tell Meno—his guest—who in Athens teaches virtue. “Why give him the name of one individual?” Anytus says. “Any Athenian gentleman he may meet, if he is willing to be persuaded, will make him a better man that the sophists would.” Socrates then asks how these men acquired such knowledge, and Anytus says that they were instructed by elder Athenians.
Socrates’s primary goal in this part of the dialogue is to prove that there are no teachers of virtue, thereby disproving the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge. However, he also takes this opportunity to demonstrate the importance of experience when it comes to knowledge. Indeed, he believes that people are capable of gaining knowledge from their souls because their souls have already experienced everything a person might ever wish to know. As such, experience becomes an important part of the overall quest for knowledge, which is why Socrates underhandedly ridicules Anytus for condemning the Sophists without ever having met one. This is the opposite of embracing one’s own ignorance, since Anytus invests himself wholeheartedly in a completely uninformed opinion and treats that opinion like an incontrovertible fact.
Socrates agrees with Anytus that there are many men in Athens who are good at “public affairs,” but he doesn’t believe any of them have been “good teachers of virtue.” To make this point, he references a number of men who were quite admirable in their lives but ended up raising sons who were, in truth, quite “wicked.” In turn, Anytus says, “I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people. I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful. Perhaps also in another city, and certainly here, it is easier to injure people than to benefit them.” Taking this in stride, Socrates dismisses Anytus and suggests that the man doesn’t know the true meaning of slander.
Since Anytus doesn’t think the Sophists teach virtue, he posits that Athenians have learned how to be virtuous from their fathers and elders. However, Socrates easily refutes this point by reminding Anytus of a number of morally lacking young men whose fathers are quite virtuous. As such, it seems that no one in Athens teaches virtue. In turn, it becomes evident that virtue must not be a “kind of knowledge.” On another note, it’s worth paying attention to Anytus’s anger in this moment, considering that he is one of the men who eventually accuse Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens, acting impiously, and slandering respected figures.
Turning away from Anytus, Socrates resumes his conversation with Meno, who agrees that there is perhaps no one who teaches virtue. This, Socrates, says, means that virtue must not be teachable, which in turn means that it must not be knowledge after all. Meno agrees with this, saying that this conclusion makes him wonder if there are any “good men” at all and, if so, how they have become “good.” Socrates, for his part, considers what it would take to make someone capable of teaching another person how to be “beneficent,” for he believes that he and Meno were right to assume that “good men must be beneficent.” Where they went wrong, he proposes, is when they suggested that a person “cannot give correct direction if [he or she] does not have knowledge.”
Having disproved their original hypothesis, Socrates and Meno begin a renewed investigation into the nature of virtue. This time, Socrates decides they shouldn’t assume that a person needs to possess “knowledge” to “give correct direction” to a student or peer, ultimately hinting at the notion that acting “beneficently” (and, thus, virtuously) has little to do with whether or not a person understands what they are doing. What’s more, it’s worth noting that this outlook allows for an interpretation in which Socrates and Meno can be seen as virtuous even if they haven’t figured out what virtue is.
When Meno asks Socrates what he means by the fact that a person doesn’t need “knowledge” to give “correct direction” to another person, Socrates says, “A man who knew the way to Larissa, or anywhere else you like, and went there and directed others would surely lead them well and correctly.” Meno agrees with this, and so Socrates continues, saying, “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,” Meno replies. As such, Socrates posits that a “correct opinion” is as useful as “knowledge.” This, he upholds, is what they failed to see in their original hypothesis—namely, that a person can still “guide correct action” even without knowledge, as long as he or she has “correct opinion.”
The idea of “correct opinion” is rather strange, since Socrates suggests that it functions like knowledge even though it isn’t supported by the same kind of wisdom or understanding. Indeed, “correct opinion” is—as a concept—similar to good intuition. If a person directs someone else to a certain location based on a hunch, and that hunch ends up being right, then there is no functional difference between that “correct opinion” and an informed piece of advice.
If “correct opinion” and “knowledge” are 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 is valuable when a person possesses it, but it might “escape.” As such, adding “knowledge” to “true opinion” is like “tying down” a statue, making it more valuable because it will always remain in place. And this process of augmenting “right opinion” with knowledge is the process of “recollection.” “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. If I claim to know anything else—and I would make that claim about few things—I would put this down as one of the things I know.”
When Socrates speaks about tying down statues, he references the Greek sculptor Daedalus and his statues, which were apparently so realistic that they were rumored to be capable of running away. By speaking in these terms, Socrates demonstrates the value of “correct opinion” without discounting the value of knowledge. He also embraces his own ignorance once more, this time suggesting that he has “correct opinion” about the very idea of “correct opinion”—a fact that demonstrates his faith in the idea while simultaneously admitting his lack of concrete knowledge.
At this point, Socrates asserts that people are “good” “not only through knowledge but also through right opinion.” He then asks Meno if he thinks either knowledge or “right opinion” “come to men by nature,” and Meno says he doesn’t think this. In turn, Socrates reminds Meno that they’ve already determined that virtue cannot be taught because it isn’t knowledge. “Therefore,” he says, “if it is not through knowledge, the only alternative is that it is through right opinion that [men are virtuous].” He uses virtuous “statesmen” as an example, saying that they are like “soothsayers and prophets” who “say many true things when inspired” but have “no knowledge of what they’re saying.” Nevertheless, he says, they are still admirably virtuous and even quite “divine,” for they are “under the gods’ influence and possession.”
This is an important moment in the dialogue, since Socrates states that virtuous people are still virtuous even if they can’t define virtue itself. At this point, he takes a rather large rhetorical step by suggesting that this is because all virtuous people are “under the gods’ influence.” This divine influence, he argues, is how people manage to embody virtue. In turn, it becomes rather obvious why it’s seemingly impossible to teach virtue, since only the gods would be capable of doing so.
Concluding his conversation with Meno, Socrates says, “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.” After Meno agrees with this, Socrates says, “It follows from this reasoning, Meno, that virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods.” Going on, he says that it would be easier to understand this if he and Meno first determined “what virtue in itself is.” However, Socrates now takes his leave, telling Meno to convince Anytus of what they’ve determined, “in order that he may be more amenable.” “If you succeed,” he adds, “you will also confer a benefit upon the Athenians.”
It's often easy to forget that, despite his intense devotion to philosophy and logic, Socrates is quite pious. Of course, some readers interpret his words in this moment as facetious, but there is reason to believe that Socrates truly believes virtue is granted by the gods without “understanding.” After all, this acceptance of ignorance perfectly aligns with his belief that true wisdom means recognizing one’s own intellectual shortcomings. What’s more, he doesn’t let this lack of “understanding” deter him from going through the process of intellectual inquiry. In turn, he demonstrates his belief that engaging in the life of the mind is worthwhile even when it’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions.