Virtue is the central concern of Socrates’s dialogue with Meno, as each man struggles to find productive ways to talk about this elusive concept. Despite the fact that they often come close to clarifying the nature of virtue, though, their understanding of it always erodes before they’re able to determine what it actually is. In an attempt to better understand this difficult idea, Socrates briefly conceives of virtue as “knowledge,” which then leads him to a consideration of “right opinion,” an idea that can be more or less understood as good intuition, for lack of a better term. In the end, though, Socrates determines that virtue is “neither an inborn quality” nor something that can be “taught,” upholding that the only way a person can acquire virtue is if it is bestowed upon them by the gods. What’s more, this “gift” is “not accompanied by understanding,” meaning that even those who do possess virtue have no way of conceptualizing what it is, how they got it, or how they might impart it to others. In this way, then, Socrates sets forth a paradoxical viewpoint, suggesting that the only way he can understand virtue is by pointing to the human inability to understand virtue.
Meno is more interested in answering whether or not virtue can be taught than in defining virtue itself, and though Socrates thinks this is a foolish way to go about their discussion, he placates his friend by examining the teachability of virtue. To begin, he tests the hypothesis that “virtue is a kind of knowledge.” Explaining this idea, he lays out a short syllogism upholding that good things only “benefit” the soul when a person possesses an “understanding” of those things; for example, “courage” can be beneficial in some cases and foolhardy in others. As such, that which benefits the soul is indeed a kind of knowledge, since this knowledge is what makes something like “courage” beneficial in the first place. Complicated logic aside, Socrates is simply exploring the idea that “virtue is a kind of knowledge,” a notion that therefore suggests that virtuous people are not virtuous “by nature,” since knowledge is something that is learned. However, Socrates finally exposes the flaw in this line of thinking by saying that if virtue were indeed “a kind of knowledge,” then there would surely be people who taught virtue. Since there are seemingly no teachers who do this, though, he believes that “the subject cannot be taught,” meaning that virtue must not be knowledge after all.
Continuing his inquiry into the nature of virtue, Socrates says that he and Meno were wrong to hypothesize that a person needs to have knowledge in order to benefit their soul. Indeed, he now suggests that “men succeed in their affairs” for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with their wisdom. However, Socrates and Meno don’t know what, exactly, makes them succeed, which—according to them in this moment—means they don’t know what makes men virtuous. This, in turn, leads Socrates to set forth the concept of “right opinion,” outlining the idea that if someone happens to have an opinion that is not based in knowledge but is nevertheless true, then this opinion is just as valuable as knowledge. This complex idea is explained in greater detail in the Summary and Analysis section of this guide, but for the purpose of this discussion, it’s simply important to understand that Socrates is acknowledging that a person can be virtuous (or act “beneficially”) without knowing how or why this is the case. To that end, Socrates says, “Indeed, 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.” In this moment, then, Socrates embraces his own ignorance and encourages Meno to do the same, effectively failing to pinpoint virtue’s defining qualities but expressing his overall satisfaction with the idea that such things are perhaps unknowable. At least, he points out, he’s cognizant of his own ignorance—an idea that echoes his theory in Apology that true wisdom means recognizing one’s own inability to possess any sort of meaningful knowledge.
There is one final aspect of Socrates’s conception of virtue and its origins that is worth considering. He sees it as a chiefly religious problem that he and Meno can’t determine what virtue is, and this is why he’s relatively unbothered by their philosophical shortcomings. Addressing Meno at the end of the dialogue, he 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 and is not accompanied by understanding.” If virtue is neither an “inborn quality” nor something that is “taught,” there is seemingly no way to explain its existence in humans—that is, unless one believes, as Socrates does, that it is a “gift from the gods.”
At first glance, this argument seems rather rhetorically flimsy compared to Socrates’s previous points, which are philosophically complex and nuanced. However, this statement is more intellectually intricate than it first appears, since Socrates upholds that virtue “is not accompanied by understanding.” Strangely enough, then, Socrates’s way of making sense of virtue hinges upon the very fact that he can’t make sense of it. His misunderstanding forms the basis of his understanding, and he accepts his inability as a human to conceive of such matters. By accepting this ignorance, Socrates yet again avoids feeling discouraged about the process of intellectual inquiry. Combining his characteristic faith in the pursuit of knowledge with his recognition of his own intellectual shortcomings, then, he intimates that questioning the nature of virtue is an inherently worthwhile endeavor, even if it won’t yield definitive answers.
Virtue, Ignorance, and Knowledge ThemeTracker
Virtue, Ignorance, and Knowledge 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: […] 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[…] 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.