Why the Meno?
As a quick scan of Plato’s complete works will indicate, there are many dialogues to choose from, and everyone has their personal favourites. Meno wasn’t one of mine in the past, but more recently I have come to love it. In my June 2022 Roots of the Garden post, I wrote about how great works of art can work to transform us even when we’re not conscious of it, rendering us more receptive when we return to them, and so I have found in returning to the Meno.
It’s relatively short, so that’s a plus when one is reading Plato for the first time. Often students are directed to Republic, but that’s like telling a first-time reader of Russian literature to get straight into War and Peace: it’s a huge commitment. Right now, I’d like you to get a taste for Plato rather than be slugged with a ten-course banquet.
There’s also an engaging main character. Meno is quite something: a key figure in Thessaly, a northern state in Greece, young, good-looking, has great connections, he’s even a celebrity speaker. He’s studied with the great sophist Gorgias (someone who will come up frequently in Plato), and he starts off by patronizing Socrates just a bit. Through the dialogue, however, it will become clear that Meno, for all his wealth, smarts, and status, doesn’t have much of a clue about anything. That fact, in itself, will underscore one of the key themes of the dialogue: whether virtue can be taught. Can Socrates teach Meno, or anyone, anything worthwhile? What is virtue, anyway? And how are we taught, or how do we learn, anything at all?
The dialogue opens with Meno asking Socrates the question, ‘Can virtue be taught?’ (70a) and Socrates pleads ignorance of the answer, while showing that he knows all about Meno, his background, his lover Aristippus, his study with Gorgias. As always in Plato, these details are significant. Aristippus was a leading politician in Thessaly, involved in dealings with the Persian prince, Cyrus the Younger, to obtain Persian troops and resources for local political ends – and, we learn from the historian Xenophon, put Meno in charge of these foreign mercenaries. Meanwhile, Meno is going around lecturing people about virtue. Socrates, evidently, is aware of all this background.
In Athens, Socrates claims, there seems a general lack of wisdom, and he himself does not know what virtue is. Meno seems to suspect that Socrates is having a laugh, because he uncertainly (and it’s uncharacteristic of confident Meno to be uncertain) asks: ‘Socrates, do you really not know what virtue is? Are we to report this to the folk back home about you?’ (71c) After more evasion from Socrates, Meno launches into the kind of lecture he must have given on a regular basis:
‘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; if you want the virtue of a woman, it is not difficult to describe: she must manage the home well, preserve its possessions, and be submissive to her husband…’ (71e)
We may note in passing that in giving this simplistic account in the mouth of Meno, Plato is undermining it, including the directive about women being submissive. And if you do know the Republic at all, you may see a likeness between Meno’s faulty definition and that put forward as a definition of justice by Polemarchus, in Book I of the longer work (332 a-b, d).
But what do we think virtue is?
At this point, it’s worth pausing to ask the question, so that we are in a better position to assess Plato’s work here. Our culture today isn’t very clear about virtue. If you ask someone in the street, you’re likely to get a blank look. (If you’re a member of The Walled Garden, you would know that we draw on some concepts from the Stoic system, and many people today know about virtue because they have dipped into Stoicism.) The dictionary definition which is thrown up from a search says: ‘Virtue, n. Behaviour showing high moral standards.’ Unfortunately, that leaves us with the same problem as faced Meno and Socrates: what are these ‘high moral standards,’ and how are they to be measured? Again, our culture does not seem to offer helpful leads here. Social media and reality television offer ways of living which do not seem to show ‘high moral standards.’ Elite sport sometimes shows these, but quite often does not. Politics, too, presents dishonest and self-serving behaviour on a daily basis.
We may get an insight by thinking about the traits which parents would want to see in their children. And we are not veering too far, here, from the concerns of the Meno – because it’s all about teaching and learning.
(To be continued)