The squares that Socrates draws in the dirt during his discussion of geometry with Meno’s slave slowly come to represent his conception of the educational process. To show Meno that it’s possible to make intellectual discoveries simply by “recollecting” knowledge that the soul has already “acquired,” Socrates calls forth his slave and starts asking him questions about geometry—questions based on a collection of squares he draws on the ground. Although the slave has never studied geometry, he finds himself capable of answering Socrates’s questions, partly because of the way Socrates guides him through the impromptu quiz. And though Socrates never gives the slave any kind of information, he does ask well-paced questions that subtly lead the young man to the correct answers. This, Socrates upholds, is evidence of the fact that a person simply needs to “recollect” the knowledge his soul has already gained, since all souls are immortal and have thus already experienced and learned everything a person might ever want to know. By guiding the slave through this demonstration, then, Socrates allows the squares to represent the very process of intellectual inquiry, which can be productive regardless of whether or not a person has any kind of formal education or training. In this way, the squares represent Socrates’s belief that humans don’t learn brand new information, but simply need help accessing the knowledge their souls have already collected—a viewpoint that showcases the important role teachers play as guides capable of “stir[ring] up” knowledge that might otherwise lie dormant within their students.
The Squares Quotes in Meno
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?
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.