The Meno or On virtue, peirastic is a transitional dialogue, considered to lead from the early works, the so-called Socratic dialogues, to Plato’s middle period writings. The philosopher initially brings up the issue of virtue’s teachability, but the main goal in this dialogue turns out to be the definition of virtue.

Dialogue setting

The dialogue is set in 403 or 402 BCE and takes place in Athens; more specifically, in a place frequented by Socrates, evidently a gymnasium. Young Meno from Larissa, an aristocrat of sophistic education, is in Athens in order to ask for military assistance against Lycophron, the tyrant of Pherae. In the first scene of the dialogue he is discussing with Socrates and asks him whether virtue can be taught. The dialogue’s form is directly dramatic and the two interlocutors discuss the topic until Anytus, one of Socrates’ accusers, comes along and also joins the discussion.

Structure and content of the dialogue

Quite a number of issues that Plato was concerned with are found in the Meno.

Formulating and refuting a definition; the soul’s ability to recall previous knowledge that has been forgotten; the εἶδος as a constitutive element of beings; the hypothetical method and the rational account [αἰτίας λογισμός]: these are samples of the variety of topics discussed in the dialogue. The dialectical investigation commences with Meno’s question, whether virtue can be taught or if it is acquired through a different method; it is a question regarding the essence of virtue itself and this is exactly what Socrates makes use of in order to move on to extracting definitions of virtue out of his young interlocutor.

The first definition is judged to be inadequate, because it turns out to be nothing but a simple enumeration of virtuous activities. It lacks the element that is common to all such cases, the element that could apply in each one. The second definition, however, does not cover all possible instances in which it may apply, because “the power to rule over people” cannot apply in the case of the child or the slave, since they can by no means rule over anyone. Socrates intervenes and offers two definition models: shape and size, concepts whose origin lies in the positive sciences. Their key point is a common, unifying element and this is in some way reflected in young Meno’s third definition: “[virtue is] desiring fine things and being able to acquire them”. The common element is the desire to acquire, yet the possibility of it applying in a way that is just or unjust or temperate indicates the deficient breadth of the concept.

And regarding the virtues let’s do likewise. However many and various they may be, they all have one Form (εἶδος) whereby they are virtues. And it is on this, of course, that one would be wise to keep an eye, when one is giving an answer to the question of what virtue really is. Meno 72c-d

Against Meno’s aporia regarding the acquisition of knowledge, Plato offers the doctrine of anamnesis, of the soul’s recollection. This theory is adequate and is empirically proven by an uneducated slave who turns out to be able to identify the line by which a square can be doubled in size. Socrates remains in the field of mathematics and demonstrates, by using a ὑπόθεσις, that virtue is knowledge, since it is beneficial. It is at this juncture that the difference between knowledge (επιστήμη) and opinion (δόξα) is stressed. The lack regarding teachers of virtue indicates that the people considered to be virtue’s traditional champions, i.e. sophists and politicians, do not possess knowledge but mere opinion on virtue. Opinion is not, of course, negligible, especially in the case of true opinion. However, it needs to be converted into knowledge, which can happen through dialectical reasoning. The dialogue is brought to a close on the note that true conclusions regarding the teachability of virtue can only be reached when its essence is defined; the latter was not achieved in the dialogue.

Date of composition

The Meno belongs to Plato’s “middle” dialogues, i.e. the dialogues he composed after his early writings and before the so-called mature dialogues, in which he expounds his philosophy in a more systematic way. Insofar as the Meno comes to an aporetic ending, it seems to be similar to the early dialogues, yet it also exhibits striking points of difference that mark it out. The role of Socrates and his έλεγχος (refutation) is more important.

In the Meno, on the one hand Socrates’ activity of refutation does not confine itself to simply rejecting knowledge and, on the other, the admission of personal ignorance is of a different kind. Whereas in previous dialogues the aporia of the interlocutor remained the same, now assistance or rather guidance is supplied for it to be resolved. The contribution of the hypothetical method renders the refutation into a tool for testing and assessing knowledge, not for rejecting it. Besides, the use of the ὑπόθεσις exhibits a different way of handling aporia. Meno fails to provide an adequate definition of virtue, but is then called upon to be part of a joint investigation on the topic.

Interpretation of the dialogue

The question in search of an answer in the Meno (or On virtue) is “what is virtue?”, an ontic question belonging to the well-known type of the early dialogue questions “what is X?”. Nonetheless, the way Socrates deals with it indicates a transition, a step toward Plato’s metaphysical and epistemological viewpoint. Socrates in the Meno intervenes more often and offers corrections, as well as definition models, each time he is faced with a deficient definition of virtue from his interlocutor. The central and immediate goal of his investigation is to find the one εἶδος, the essence of objects but also of the ethical concept of virtue. The concept of εἶδος bestows unity on the concept in question, i.e. virtue. Unity emerged as the desideratum, as the stable point, based on which something exists and is. The Socratic εἶδος, of course, comes very close to the Platonic Ἰδέα, but in the Meno the latter concept does not seem to be projected onto the former.

But how is one to understand εἶδος? The offered answer to this question is recollection (ανάμνησις), which is clearly regarded as Plato’s philosophical suggestion. Is recollection meant as a doctrine on knowledge? The suggestion that virtue is a kind of knowledge points in this direction. This suggestion is certainly rejected when it is proven that virtue cannot be taught in society, but this does not mean that its essence will remain indeterminate. Perhaps the Meno does not provide us with something relevant, but the philosopher of the Republic is already present in the figure of Socrates. The essence of virtue is accessible to him, but also to anyone engaged in dialectical investigations.

Opinion is stirred through recollection and can be converted into knowledge through the hypothetical method. Yet this struggle does not seem to be taken up by the ruling class of Athens. However, true opinion is presented (mutatis mutandis) as being parallel to knowledge (yet not as equivalent). Indeed, knowledge was shown to be recollectable (ἀναμνηστὸν), but true opinion originates in nature; this point is not elucidated further. The Meno draws to a close on a note indicating the Socratic methodology of the early dialogues: one cannot know how to acquire virtue, if one does not already know what virtue is in itself.

Author: Ioannis Petrakis
  • Scott, D. Plato’s Meno. Cambridge, 2006.
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