In Meno, Socrates is interested in simply exploring ideas alongside his interlocutor (the person he is in dialogue with). Whereas in Apology he tries to persuade the Athenian jury not to condemn him, in this dialogue he focuses on investigating the claims that both Meno and he himself make. Interestingly enough, though, he makes use of the same process of conversational cross-examination that he employs in Plato’s other dialogues, ultimately using this method to challenge what Meno takes for granted in his arguments. Because of his desire to conduct a productive dialogue in which both he and Meno make their way toward valuable realizations, Socrates pays close attention to the language they use, making sure to reduce each statement to its simplest, most straightforward formulation. In doing so, he demonstrates how important it is to interrogate one’s own beliefs and the ways in which one presents those beliefs. What’s more, when Socrates abandons his normal format of cross-examination in order to apply critical pressure to his own hypotheses, readers see that he is willing to scrutinize himself as thoroughly as he scrutinizes anyone else. In this way, he proves that he is interested first and foremost in participating in a worthwhile, logically sound discussion, which is why he has no problem holding himself to the same argumentative standards to which he holds everyone else.
Early in their conversation, Socrates urges Meno to articulate how, exactly, he would define virtue. Already, then, it becomes apparent that Socrates thinks their discussion will be most productive if they first linguistically ground themselves. He understands the importance of using the clearest language available, for this will later enable him and Meno to articulate more nuanced ideas. In other words, Socrates believes that using straightforward language makes it easier to grasp complicated ideas.
But Meno struggles to hit upon a solid definition of virtue, eventually suggesting that it is “to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them.” In response, Socrates asks if Meno means that “the man who desires beautiful things desires good things,” and Meno says that this is indeed what he means. Going on, Socrates asks if people ever desire “bad things” even when they know these things are bad. “Certainly I do,” Meno says. At this point, Socrates poses an important question, one that showcases his fondness for linguistic precision. “What do you mean by desiring? Is it to secure for oneself?” he asks. When Meno says yes, Socrates proceeds to outline the following: since “bad things” harm people, and no one actively wants to be harmed, then it can’t be true that anyone would ever “desire”—or want to “secure”—a “bad thing,” for by doing so they would knowingly harm themselves. In this way, Socrates reveals a flaw in Meno’s argument, one that hinges upon his failure to fully consider the implications of the language he employs. After all, if he had more carefully thought about the word “desire,” he likely wouldn’t have set forth this faulty definition of virtue in the first place.
Socrates’s sensitivity to linguistic accuracy is also evident in the examples he uses to support his points. For instance, when Meno tries to define what virtue is by pointing to various traits that he considers virtuous, Socrates tries to impress upon him that this is an inadequate way to define something. In order to make this point, he considers the concept of “shape,” saying that although a circle is a shape, it doesn’t define the entire concept of shape itself. He then offers a straightforward and geometrically sound definition of shape, one that applies to all kinds of shapes, thereby laying the groundwork for more complex investigations into geometry. In the same way that this attention to linguistic detail might provide the basis for a more in-depth discussion of shape, it becomes clear that any valid investigation into the nature of virtue must include a careful definition of virtue itself.
For the first half of his conversation with Meno, Socrates cross-examines him as a way of showing him the faults in his arguments. This follows the traditional model of all Socratic dialogues, in which Socrates peppers people with questions until they realize that their original statements are logically unsound. However, in this dialogue, Socrates transitions to a different kind of philosophical investigation, one in which he poses a number of hypotheses and then methodically walks through them until they are disproven. Of course, he only does this because Meno insists upon considering whether or not virtue can be taught even though they haven’t yet established what virtue is. Going along with this, Socrates formulates a hypothesis that if virtue is a kind of knowledge, then it can be taught, since all knowledge is teachable (or “recollectable”). He then goes step by step through this hypothesis, and though his specific points are too numerous to outline here, what matters most is that he determines that the hypothesis is wrong, for if virtue were knowledge, there would certainly be people who taught it to others, and since there are none, then virtue must not be knowledge after all.
Meno, though, has trouble accepting that the original hypothesis is wrong, since it seemed so logically sound to him when he and Socrates first formulated it. “We should not only think it right at the time [of its formulation],” Socrates advises, “but also now and in the future if it is to be at all sound.” As such, Socrates underlines the importance of fully and mercilessly examining one’s own suppositions, ultimately demonstrating that a person can and should interrogate their own ideas even when they appear to be solid. Indeed, this is the same kind of careful scrutiny that Socrates applies to language. Furthermore, Socrates has now made use of a new rhetorical move, one that doesn’t depend upon cross-examining his interlocutor, but posing difficult questions to himself, thereby demonstrating that people are capable of holding themselves to high standards when it comes to formulating logically sound ideas.
Language, Rhetoric, and Reasoning ThemeTracker
Language, Rhetoric, and Reasoning Quotes in Meno
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[…] 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.