Socrates claims to be even more confused than Meno is. ‘I myself do not have the answer when I perplex others, but I am more perplexed than anyone when I cause perplexity in others’ (80c).
But Meno protests – and this problem is sometimes called ‘the Meno paradox’ – that without a knowledge of what virtue is, Socrates cannot go looking for it, or if he finds it, he will not recognize what it is. But Socrates maintains that this is not a sound argument. As often in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates starts from the point of confusion – aporia in Greek – in order to start to establish some agreed positions.
Socrates straight away claims the authority of ‘wise men and women,’ ‘priests and priestesses’ (81a-b, noting his careful inclusion of both), in asserting that the soul is immortal. It sometimes is reborn, but is never destroyed. This means it is incumbent on us to live in as holy a manner as possible. Socrates then quotes the poet Pindar, explaining that the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, will return to earth the souls ‘of those from whom she will exact punishment for old miseries, and from these come noble kings, mighty in strength and greatest in wisdom, and for the rest of time men will call them sacred heroes’ (81c, Pindar Frg. 133).
What does this evocative verse mean? Socrates glosses that the soul has been through many lives, learning many things, and is able to recollect what it has learned ‘about virtue and other things’ (81d). He adds:
‘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.’
This is an encouraging view about learning, in complete contrast to the earlier confusion.
Perhaps the most famous section of the dialogue is the central portion, in which Socrates tries to make a practical, real-time proof that learning is recollection. Socrates asks Meno to call up one of his slaves, a boy who speaks Greek. He draws a square and asks the boy questions: ‘You know that a square figure is like this? A figure in which all the four sides are equal?’ (82b-c) Answering the questions, the slave tells Socrates what the total size of the shape will be.
They proceed until they come to a problem: the slave thinks he knows what the side length of an eight-foot square will be, but makes a mistake. Socrates points out that this represents progress: the slave had been confident but in error previously (the analogy with Meno himself is clear), so the fact that he is unsure now is better than his former error (84b). In case we hadn’t made the connection, Socrates spells it out:
‘Indeed, we have probably achieved something relevant to finding out how matters stand, for now, as he does not know, he would be glad to find out, whereas before he thought he could easily make many fine speeches to large audiences about the square of double size and said that it must have a base twice as long’ (84b-c).
Resuming the lesson, Socrates steps through another experiment to show that the slave understands how the total size of the square shape is built up; a square of sixteen square units, made up of four smaller squares (each with a side length of two units), will have twice the area of the square made by its inside diagonals. This knowledge, Socrates concludes, was already ‘in’ the slave, in the form of true opinion, ‘stirred up like a dream’ (85c). He must, Socrates says, have learned the information in a previous life.
The larger lesson, then, is that we all have the capacity to learn. Socrates tells Meno:
‘I would contend at all costs both in 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’ (86b-c).
This is the first of the hopeful lessons from this dialogue: that we can and should keep learning! And to be honestly confused or unsure about something is more productive than to be confidently wrong.
(To be concluded)