Plato’s “Meno” is a Socratic dialogue between the two main speakers, Socrates and Meno, and explores the definition of virtue and whether it is something that can be taught. Meno is an attractive and well-to-do young man visiting Athens and is a student of the sophist Gorgias, who has greatly influenced Meno’s ideas on virtue and knowledge. The dialogue begins abruptly with a question posed by Meno, who asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught. Socrates replies that he does not as yet know what virtue is, and has never known anyone who did. A fascinating and thought-provoking dialogue ensues between Meno and Socrates exploring what exactly virtue is and whether the definition is the same for all people. Meno contends that virtue is dependent on one’s station in life and there is one kind of virtue for men and one for women, one for children, and one for adults. Through detailed and exhaustive questions and answers, Socrates reveals his belief that virtue is the same for all people, whether old or young, man or woman. Socrates then begins to question one of Meno’s slaves to prove his proposition that much knowledge is innate and merely needs to be revealed with the proper questioning, or the Socratic method, rather than taught. This timeless and engaging classic is a must read for all students of philosophy. This edition is printed on acid-free paper and is translated with an introduction by Benjamin Jowett.
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About the Author
Plato ranks among the most familiar ancient philosophers, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle. In addition to writing philosophical dialogues — used to teach logic, ethics, rhetoric, religion, and mathematics as well as philosophy — he founded Athens' Academy, the Western world's first institution of higher learning.
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PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE:
Meno Socrates A Slave of Meno (Boy)
MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature or in what other way?
SOCRATES: O Meno, there was a time when the Thessalians were famous among the other Hellenes only for their riches and their riding; but now, if I am not mistaken, they are equally famous for their wisdom, especially at Larisa, which is the native city of your friend Aristippus. And this is Gorgias's doing; for when he came there, the flower of the Aleuadae, among them your admirer Aristippus, and the other chiefs of the Thessalians, fell in love with his wisdom. And he has taught you the habit of answering questions in a grand and bold style, which becomes those who know, and is the style in which he himself answers all comers; and any Hellene who likes may ask him anything. How different is our lot! my dear Meno. Here at Athens there is a dearth of the commodity, and all wisdom seems to have emigrated from us to you. I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your face and say: 'Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.' And I myself, Meno, living as I do in this region of poverty, am as poor as the rest of the world; and I confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue; and when I do not know the 'quid' of anything how can I know the 'quale'? How, if I knew nothing at all of Meno, could I tell if he was fair or the opposite of fair; rich and noble or the reverse of rich and noble? Do you think that I could?
MENO: No, indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to Thessaly?
SOCRATES: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of anyone else who did, in my judgment.
MENO: Then you have never met Gorgias when he was at Athens?
SOCRATES: Yes, I have.
MENO: And did you not think that he knew?
SOCRATES: I have not a good memory, Meno, and therefore I cannot now tell what I thought of him at the time. And I dare say that he did know and that you know what he said: please, therefore, to remind me of what he said; or, if you would rather, tell me your own view; for I suspect that you and he think much alike.
MENO: Very true.
SOCRATES: Then as he is not here, never mind him and do you tell me: By the gods, Meno, be generous and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I shall be truly delighted to find that I have been mistaken and that you and Gorgias do really have this knowledge; although I have been just saying that I have never found anybody who had.
MENO: There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man — he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman's virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband. Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates. (Compare Aristotle's Politics.)
SOCRATES: How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you present me with a swarm of them (compare Theaetetus), which are in your keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the swarm and ask of you, What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as bees because there are many and different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer me?
MENO: I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.
SOCRATES: And if I went on to say: That is what I desire to know, Meno; tell me what is the quality in which they do not differ but are all alike; would you be able to answer?
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be, they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who would answer the question 'What is virtue?' would do well to have his eye fixed: Do you understand?
MENO: I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the question as I could wish.
SOCRATES: When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue, or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?
MENO: I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.
SOCRATES: And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same strength subsisting in her which there is in the man. I mean to say that strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any difference?
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: And will not virtue, as virtue, be the same, whether in a child or in a grown-up person, in a woman or in a man?
MENO: I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from the others.
SOCRATES: But why? Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house?
MENO: I did say so.
SOCRATES: And can either house or state or anything be well ordered without temperance and without justice?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Then they who order a state or a house temperately or justly order them with temperance and justice?
SOCRATES: Then both men and women, if they are to be good men and women, must have the same virtues of temperance and justice?
SOCRATES: And can either a young man or an elder one be good, if they are intemperate and unjust?
MENO: They cannot.
SOCRATES: They must be temperate and just?
SOCRATES: Then all men are good in the same way and by participation in the same virtues?
MENO: Such is the inference.
SOCRATES: And they surely would not have been good in the same way, unless their virtue had been the same?
MENO: They would not.
SOCRATES: Then now that the sameness of all virtue has been proven, try and remember what you and Gorgias say that virtue is.
MENO: Will you have one definition of them all?
SOCRATES: That is what I am seeking.
MENO: If you want to have one definition of them all, I know not what to say, but that virtue is the power of governing mankind.
SOCRATES: And does this definition of virtue include all virtue? Is virtue the same in a child and in a slave, Meno? Can the child govern his father, or the slave his master; and would he who governed be any longer a slave?
MENO: I think not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: No, indeed; there would be small reason in that. Yet once more, fair friend; according to you, virtue is 'the power of governing'; but do you not add 'justly and not unjustly'?
MENO: Yes, Socrates; I agree there; for justice is virtue.
SOCRATES: Would you say 'virtue,' Meno, or 'a virtue'?
MENO: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: I mean as I might say about anything; that a round, for example, is 'a figure' and not simply 'figure,' and I should adopt this mode of speaking, because there are other figures.
MENO: Quite right; and that is just what I am saying about virtue — that there are other virtues as well as justice.
SOCRATES: What are they? tell me the names of them, as I would tell you the names of the other figures if you asked me.
MENO: Courage and temperance and wisdom and magnanimity are virtues; and there are many others.
SOCRATES: Yes, Meno; and again we are in the same case: in searching after one virtue we have found many, though not in the same way as before; but we have been unable to find the common virtue which runs through them all.
MENO: Why, Socrates, even now I am not able to follow you in the attempt to get at one common notion of virtue as of other things.
SOCRATES: No wonder; but I will try to get nearer if I can, for you know that all things have a common notion. Suppose now that someone asked you the question which I asked before: Meno, he would say, what is figure? And if you answered 'roundness,' he would reply to you, in my way of speaking, by asking whether you would say that roundness is 'figure' or 'a figure'; and you would answer 'a figure.'
SOCRATES: And for this reason — that there are other figures?
SOCRATES: And if he proceeded to ask, What other figures are there? you would have told him.
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And if he similarly asked what colour is, and you answered whiteness, and the questioner rejoined, Would you say that whiteness is colour or a colour? you would reply, A colour, because there are other colours as well.
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And if he had said, Tell me what they are? — you would have told him of other colours which are colours just as much as whiteness.
SOCRATES: And suppose that he were to pursue the matter in my way, he would say: Ever and anon we are landed in particulars, but this is not what I want; tell me then, since you call them by a common name, and say that they are all figures, even when opposed to one another, what is that common nature which you designate as figure — which contains straight as well as round, and is no more one than the other — that would be your mode of speaking?
SOCRATES: And in speaking thus, you do not mean to say that the round is round any more than straight, or the straight any more straight than round?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: You only assert that the round figure is not more a figure than the straight, or the straight than the round?
MENO: Very true.
SOCRATES: To what then do we give the name of figure? Try and answer. Suppose that when a person asked you this question either about figure or colour, you were to reply, Man, I do not understand what you want or know what you are saying; he would look rather astonished and say: Do you not understand that I am looking for the 'simile in multis'? And then he might put the question in another form: Meno, he might say, what is that 'simile in multis' which you call figure and which includes not only round and straight figures but all? Could you not answer that question, Meno? I wish that you would try; the attempt will be good practice with a view to the answer about virtue.
MENO: I would rather that you should answer, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Shall I indulge you?
MENO: By all means.
SOCRATES: And then you will tell me about virtue?
MENO: I will.
SOCRATES: Then I must do my best, for there is a prize to be won.
SOCRATES: Well, I will try and explain to you what figure is. What do you say to this answer? Figure is the only thing which always follows colour. Will you be satisfied with it, as I am sure that I should be, if you would let me have a similar definition of virtue?
MENO: But, Socrates, it is such a simple answer.
SOCRATES: Why simple?
MENO: Because, according to you, figure is that which always follows colour.
MENO: But if a person were to say that he does not know what colour is, any more than what figure is — what sort of answer would you have given him?
SOCRATES: I should have told him the truth. And if he were a philosopher of the eristic and antagonistic sort, I should say to him: You have my answer, and if I am wrong, your business is to take up the argument and refute me. But if we were friends and were talking as you and I are now, I should reply in a milder strain and more in the dialectician's vein; that is to say, I should not only speak the truth, but I should make use of premisses which the person interrogated would be willing to admit. And this is the way in which I shall endeavour to approach you. You will acknowledge, will you not, that there is such a thing as an end, or termination, or extremity? — all which words I use in the same sense, although I am aware that Prodicus might draw distinctions about them: but still you, I am sure, would speak of a thing as ended or terminated — that is all which I am saying — not anything very difficult.
MENO: Yes, I should; and I believe that I understand your meaning.
SOCRATES: And you would speak of a surface and also of a solid, as for example in geometry.
SOCRATES: Well then, you are now in a condition to understand my definition of figure. I define figure to be that in which the solid ends; or, more concisely, the limit of solid.
MENO: And now, Socrates, what is colour?
SOCRATES: You are outrageous, Meno, in thus plaguing a poor old man to give you an answer, when you will not take the trouble of remembering what is Gorgias's definition of virtue.
MENO: When you have told me what I ask, I will tell you, Socrates.
SOCRATES: A man who was blindfolded has only to hear you talking and he would know that you are a fair creature and have still many lovers.
MENO: Why do you think so?
SOCRATES: Why, because you always speak in imperatives: like all beauties when they are in their prime, you are tyrannical; and also, as I suspect, you have found out that I have weakness for the fair, and therefore to humour you I must answer.
MENO: Please do.
SOCRATES: Would you like me to answer you after the manner of Gorgias, which is familiar to you?
MENO: I should like nothing better.
SOCRATES: Do not he and you and Empedocles say that there are certain effluences of existence?
SOCRATES: And passages into which and through which the effluences pass?
SOCRATES: And some of the effluences fit into the passages, and some of them are too small or too large?
SOCRATES: And there is such a thing as sight?
SOCRATES: And now, as Pindar says, 'read my meaning' — colour is an effluence of form, commensurate with sight and palpable to sense.
MENO: That, Socrates, appears to me to be an admirable answer.
SOCRATES: Why, yes, because it happens to be one which you have been in the habit of hearing: and your wit will have discovered, I suspect, that you may explain in the same way the nature of sound and smell and of many other similar phenomena.
MENO: Quite true.
SOCRATES: The answer, Meno, was in the orthodox solemn vein and therefore was more acceptable to you than the other answer about figure.
SOCRATES: And yet, O son of Alexidemus, I cannot help thinking that the other was the better; and I am sure that you would be of the same opinion, if you would only stay and be initiated and were not compelled, as you said yesterday, to go away before the mysteries.
MENO: But I will stay, Socrates, if you will give me many such answers.
SOCRATES: Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise and tell me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue to me whole and sound and not broken into a number of pieces: I have given you the pattern.
MENO: Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I say too — 'Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them.'
SOCRATES: And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?
SOCRATES: Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: There are some who desire evil?
SOCRATES: Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?
MENO: Both, I think.
SOCRATES: And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?
MENO: Certainly I do.
SOCRATES: And desire is of possession?
MENO: Yes, of possession.
SOCRATES: And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?(Continues…)
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