Plato: Meno & Learning Virtue
First off: Welcome to Austin Bramwell and Lisa Kramer! The more the merrier around here.
Okay, the Meno dialogue deals with some of the same themes as the later Phaedo dialogue, particularly the idea that all learning is recollection. Here Plato also hints at the idea of virtue as a sort of divine inspiration. And there’s some foreshadowing of the trial. So, let’s see if there’s any other meat to pick off this bone.
The dialogue begins with the Thessalian Meno asking Socrates “Can virtue be taught?”, and finding to his surprise that, not only does Socrates not know what virtue is, but he’s never known anyone who did know. Maybe not even the noted sophist Gorgias, which Meno finds hard to believe. It’s important that Socrates has chewed the fat with Gorgias, as we’ll find out later.
Meno starts by defining virtues instead of virtue: a man’s virtue is to do good to his friends and harm to his enemies; a woman’s virtue is to manage her home and submit to her husband; and there are other virtues for children, slaves, old people, and so forth. This is not enough for Socrates, who tends, as we’ve seen, to want more general principles. There is some underlying thing called “virtue” that applies to all things we might call virtues. It’s also noteworthy that Socrates avoids these sorts of distinctions between groups; he’s not exactly a feminist but, by and large, he undermines the idea that there are different criteria for women and men.
It might be obvious too that Meno is a bit of a prick, and this is something Plato clearly wants to get across. Xenophon remembers him, in the Anabasis, as one of those people whom ambition has made ugly: grasping, greedy, treacherous and manipulative, it’s almost a relief that he doesn’t come back from the expedition of Cyrus in 401. Meno’s reputation is not so important here, but it is a subtext, for instance when Socrates notes that Meno’s beauty has made him tyrannical; the arrogance bestowed by beauty is, of course, a common theme in quite a bit of literature including the Symposium.
Nevertheless, Meno’s first stab at virtue- the power to do good to one’s friends and ill to one’s enemies- is not really a dig at Meno, but was likely common opinion in Athens at the time. It’s mentioned elsewhere in Plato and seems in line with Greek religion, which reminds me of patron-client relationships. Socrates, for his part, is elaborating a more sophisticated and elegant morality than what has come before.
Meno now lists more abstract virtues- justice, wisdom, moderation, etc.- without actually coming to virtue as such. Socrates compares this to breaking a plate and making many things of one. He also notes that, while virtue is common to all people, many do not know what evil is. Finally, Meno is brought to the state of confusion (aporia) that Socrates seems to aim at producing in everyone he talks to. It seems, though, that he’s not aiming at puzzlement in itself, but a state of unsettled knowledge. Socrates wants his fellows to be unsure of what they know and humble in the face of this uncertainty. I’m reminded of Andrew Sullivan’s “conservatism of doubt”.
The discussion turns to whether virtue can be taught. Socrates brings forth the idea of learning as recollection (anamnesis). If poets like Pindar and the priests and priestesses are right, the soul is immortal, being reborn in different bodies endlessly. Things are learned before birth and recalled, partly by passing through this confusion.
Socrates demonstrates this by quizzing Meno’s slave about geometric proofs. Sometimes translators will call him Meno’s “assistant”, which is perhaps less distracting, but it’s worth remembering that slaves were quite common, even in “democratic Athens”. The slave claims no knowledge about geometry, but finally comes to the right answers, on his own, with the aid of Socrates’s questions. Elsewhere, Socrates calls himself a handmaiden to thought: he helps others to give birth to knowledge already within them. If directed by wisdom, the soul brings forth wisdom and happiness; if the soul is directed by ignorance, well, you blow your paycheck on lottery tickets, I suppose.
They are joined by Anytus, who they quiz on whether anyone is teaching virtue. The subtext is important here: in 399, Anytus will be one of the accusers bringing charges against Socrates. Here, he is a bit of a self-righteous prig who is appalled that Socrates entertains the notion that the sophists might teach virtue. Like self-righteous prigs everywhere, the fact that Anytus has never met any sophists does not hinder him from opining against the character of the ordinary sophist. Socrates will eventually be taken for one.
Socrates digs himself in deeper by undermining Anytus’s proposal that the average Athenian could teach virtue better than a sophist. Socrates reminds us that Themistocles was a great man with a worthless son; Aristides was a great man whose son was a shitbird too; clearly, virtue cannot be taught or they would have taught their deadbeat sons. Missing the point, Anytus warns him sternly against slandering great men; self-righteous prigs are also renowned for becoming outraged while missing the point. Certainly, societies need their myths to survive, but why are the protectors of those myths so often the angry dim bulbs?
Clearly, there are good people in the world. But how do they get to be that way, if virtue cannot be taught? Socrates finally decides virtue is not a matter of knowledge, but of right opinion, and it comes to certain men as a divine gift: they are inspired and hardly know what they’re saying or doing. In the same way that artists still talk about creating as if in a trance, Socrates thinks that prophets, poets, priests and public speakers are mediums for a divine gift. While we can certainly call to mind inspired speakers and poets, we might be understandably reluctant to vote for a politician who claimed that divinities act through them.
The idea of divinely inspired knowledge seems archaic to us now. We live after the Romantics and their emphasis on individual “genius”. And yet, there’s something reassuring in the idea that wisdom comes to us, regardless of our choices, by divine means. Instead of worrying constantly about our works and whether or not we’ll ever be “talented”, “wise”, and “brilliant”, we can simply be and let the daimon come to us as it will. It’s humbling to think of wisdom as a matter of luck, of course. But it also relieves us of the terrible burden of having to make our own genius in a world that is, otherwise, largely indifferent to us.