Plato’s Meno (P4)

Encouraging Meno, Socrates proposes a thorough investigation of virtue. Once again, the question arises: can virtue be taught? If it is a kind of knowledge, then the answer will be yes (87c).

More questions and answers emerge: “So virtue is something beneficial? (Meno) That necessarily follows from what has been agreed’ (87e). But things can be put to wrong uses or good uses: even courage, without being directed by wisdom (phronēsis), can be harmful. It is the addition or subtraction of wisdom which is critical.

But wisdom is not something which is present in people from their birth. Otherwise those children who were recognized as possessing it would be locked away in the Acropolis, Socrates says, so that no harm would come to them, only to be released back to serve their cities in adulthood (89b).

Yet if virtue is a knowledge which can be taught, surely there must be people who actually teach it? Socrates, though, has had no success in his search:

I have often tried to find out whether there were any teachers of [virtue], but in spite of all my efforts I cannot find any (89e).

We seem to have returned to a dead end, aporia, but at this very pregnant juncture, an important visitor, Anytus, arrives to join the discussion. As we saw early in the dialogue, when Socrates demonstrated how much he knows about Meno’s background, he now seems perfectly acquainted with Anytus’s personal history and that of his family:

Anytus…the son of Anthemion, a man of wealth and wisdom, who did not become rich automatically or as the result of a gift like Ismenias the Theban, who recently acquired the possessions of Polycrates, but through his own wisdom and efforts (sophiai…kai epimeleiai). Further, [Anthemion] did not seem to be an arrogant of puffed-up or offensive citizen in other ways, but he was a well-mannered and well-behaved man. Also he gave our friend here [Anytus] a good upbringing and education… (90a-b).

No relevant factor, it would seem, concerning people’s character is hidden from Socrates, who now appears to be not a sting-ray, but to have x-ray vision. Socrates begins to question Anytus about teaching Meno:

If we wanted him to be a good shoemaker, [surely we would send him] to shoemakers? (90c).

Such a vulgar example of a life’s profession was no doubt chosen deliberately by Socrates, who made a habit of embarrassing Athens’s prominent people by focusing on the trades. Socrates goes on to mention other crafts (technai) such as flute-playing. But who should teach Meno about wisdom and virtue (sophias kai aretēs)? Anytus, perhaps in spite of himself, becomes interested enough to enquire, himself, who the teachers of these skills are. Socrates ripostes: 

You surely know yourself that they are those whom men call sophists (91b).

Anytus is shocked:

By Heracles, hush, Socrates. May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers (91c).

Unperturbed, Socrates counters that the famous sophist Protagoras had made more money from his knowledge (sophias) than the great sculptor Phidias had done from his. Deploying another of these lower-class images calculated to offend, Socrates says that old-clothes-repairers and sandal-resolers would be out of business in a month if they returned goods in a worse state than they received them, and so surely the Greeks would have noticed if Protagoras returned students in a worse moral condition than he found them? Why is Anytus so hard on the sophists?

It turns out that Anytus is not experienced (he is apeiros) about the sophists, having avoided any contact with them. Socrates provocatively suggests that Anytus might be some kind of magician to have knowledge of the sophists in the absence of personal experience (92c). In any event, the question remains as to who and how is best placed to teach virtue.

Great men of Athens’s past, Socrates argues, have failed to transmit their courage or wisdom to their own sons. Themistocles, the great strategist of the Greek victory over the Persians, had a son Cleophantus, who was skilled in such pursuits as hurling the javelin on horseback, yet not noted for virtue. Aristides, another famous Athenian politician famous for virtue himself (his nickname was dikaios, the Just), did not succeed in making his son Lysimachus better than anyone else (94a). Even the great Pericles, however keen he was to bring up his sons, Paralus and Xanthippus, to be virtuous, did not have a way of ensuring this. Again, Socrates arrives at aporia, with his conclusion: ‘But, friend Anytus, virtue can certainly not be taught’ (94e).

Anytus’s response is ominous, indeed threatening:

I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people. I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful. Perhaps also in another city, and certainly here, it is easier to injure people than to benefit them. I think you know that yourself (94e).

Again unfazed, Socrates turns to Meno, suggesting that Anytus’s resentment arises from his identifying with these powerful Athenians who have proven unable to transmit their virtue to the next generation. Meno, student of the sophist Gorgias, innocently tries to defend his teacher by saying that for his part, Gorgias never claimed to teach virtue (95c)! As usual, Meno’s contribution is of little value.

Where else to turn? Socrates recalls sayings of the sixth-century poet Theognis, seemingly saying on the one hand that people will learn ‘goodness from the good,’ but on the other that (contrary to the evidence Socrates has recently assembled) ‘never would a bad son be born of a good father.’ The sophists didn’t fit the bill. So once again we find ourselves in aporia: Socrates sums up, ‘Now there seem to be no teachers of virtue anywhere?’ and Meno agrees. ‘We are probably poor specimens, you and I, Meno,’ Socrates shrugs. ‘Gorgias has not adequately educated you, nor Prodicus me’ (96c-d).

Back to square one! Let’s think of other kinds of guidance. How do people guide other people to a location? A guide who has a correct opinion about the way to the city of Larissa (in Thessaly, Meno’s home) will be just as useful as a guide who actually knows the way (through experience, 97a-b). But knowledge is more highly prized than opinion, no matter how correct it may be.

Socrates tries to explain why:

True opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why. And that, Meno, my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place (97e-98a).

Socrates uses an image of the legendary craftsman Daedalus’s statues, which were said to move around if they were not tied down. But perhaps we can get a better idea of his meaning if we think of a topic on which we have ‘changed our mind’ over time. Our previous opinion was ‘untied,’ ‘unsecured,’ and maybe the reasons we had for it were not particularly informed. Over time, with more information, our opinion has changed, and – depending on the reasons we now have – may equate to knowledge. Not that Socrates claims knowledge even about this, but he is prepared to say definitely that right opinion is a different thing from knowledge: ‘I would put this down as one of the things I know’ (98b).

As previously determined, neither knowledge nor true opinion came to people by nature, that is from their birth, so then they must be acquired (epiktēta). But from whom, as we have been unable to locate reliable teachers? As a matter of fact, though, there are from time to time virtuous men who benefit their cities – and Socrates’s implication here is that this group included those such as Themistocles and Aristides. They must, then, have right opinions, which can successfully guide their cities, rather than knowledge. Perhaps they can be called divine, just as prophets and soothsayers, whose utterances are inspired mysteriously, such that the people themselves cannot give an account of them. After all, people sometimes do call a person ‘divine.’ Meno daringly comments:

And they appear to be right, Socrates, though perhaps Anytus here will be annoyed with you for saying so (99e).

Socrates concludes:

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 by understanding…It follows from this reasoning, Meno, that virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods (100b).

We do, as it happens, still call someone with a mysterious talent, ‘gifted.’ Can there be such a talent when it comes to virtue? What is the conjunction of conditions, events, and a particular person, which brings out his or her capacity for virtue?

Socrates urges Meno to talk with Anytus, with a view to softening his attitude (making him praoteros, more gentle). ‘If you succeed, you will also confer a benefit upon the Athenians.’ In this way, Socrates holds out even to the B-grade student, Meno, a path of public service.

Yet Plato here writes with consummate irony, as the next time we shall meet Anytus, it will be as one of the accusers of Socrates for ‘corrupting the youth.’ His attitude must only have hardened in the meantime – perhaps indicating that Meno either failed to take Socrates’s hint, or failed in the attempt to change Anytus’s mind. Perhaps, after all, the only teaching when it comes to virtue is by example – and it is not infallible even then.

Thanks for exploring the wonderful Meno with me!

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Judith Stove


Judith Stove is an Australian writer, researcher and linguist with a strong understanding of the Western philosophical tradition along with the ancient languages of Latin and Classical Greek. A mother of two adult sons, Judith has published two books on the life and times of Jane Austen, and many articles on history and literature. She and her husband live within a beautiful garden created by her father, philosopher David Stove (1927-1994), outside Sydney, Australia, close to the Blue Mountains National Park. For Judith, every day is an opportunity to learn more about the intricacy of the cosmos, from both ‘the book of Nature,’ and the works surviving from the past.

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