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Would you like to read Plato’s Meno?

When you read Meno, you’ll want to identify the core issues about which they are arguing and also make some comparisons that help you see what Plato is doing.

Begin by realizing or remembering that Plato does everything through types. There is the surface argument and you should try to follow it. But when you do follow it, you’ll notice that it’s full of analogies. Then you’ll notice that he makes a lot of comparisons.

The first time you read it, I recommend reading it quickly but having an eye for these comparisons.

For example, at 72b he brings in a doubly useful analogy of bees in order to teach Meno how to define things.

Shortly thereafter, he compares virtue to health, then to shapes, and then to color. The reason he does so is because he is still trying to teach Meno how to define things. This is important at many levels, some of which we might be able to discuss tomorrow.

Between them, Socrates and Meno come up with three (or maybe two) definitions of virtue. The trouble is, none of them work. When they reach this impasse, Meno throws up his hands and wants to give up.

To evade the difficulty, he throws out a paradox: how can you find something if you don’t know what you are looking for? Socrates surprises him by not being impressed by the paradox and by giving him quite a thorough answer, one that involves teaching a completely illiterate slave boy some basic geometry.

Or does it?

Well anyway, afterward he says, “I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects [this is important!], but I would contend at all costs in both 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.”

It may be that this is the moral of the story.

Meno agrees to continue the quest to define virtue and Socrates does something I consider pretty impressive. Earlier he taught the slave boy to do geometry by comparing things with each other. He had also been trying to teach Meno how to define a term (virtue) by drawing analogies between the physical and the moral.

Now he steps in between the moral and the physical and he uses geometrical analogies to do moral work. Specifically, he proposes that there is a method used by geometers that they can use to think about moral issues.

Not meaning to be redundant, but this is important. It has direct applications to the way we think about morality in the American public square.

They proceed to try to figure out whether virtue is the kind of thing that can be taught. First Socrates argues that the kind of thing that can be taught is knowledge (of which he has a very rich, nuanced understanding). Then they ask whether anybody is capable of teaching it.

This is where Anytus joins them and this discussion is also quite revealing. Socrates had suggested, before Anytus came, that the Sophists could teach virtue, but then that argument didn’t hold up.

Now Anytus suggests that for the person who wants to learn virtue, “Any Athenian gentleman he may meet, if he is willing to be persuaded, will make him a better man than the sophists would.”

So they investigate whether this is so by examining some of the great men of Athens and when it is shown that even the great men can’t successfully teach their children virtue, Anytus withdraws with a veiled threat to Socrates.

Now they realize that when it comes to virtue and how to teach it, everybody is confused. Says Socrates: “Then virtue cannot be taught?”

Meno turns the conversation now to something even bigger. He seems justly concerned as to “whether there are no good men either, or in what way good men come to be.”

Once again Socrates takes the conversation in an unexpected direction, challenging an earlier assumption they had made and making a direct comparison of true opinion with knowledge. Here he shows where a pragmatic approach to thought falls short. It’s quite insightful.

He also introduces a fascinating analogy between opinions and some statues of Daedulus, which seem to be some sort of hot air balloon so far as I can tell.

Having shown the difference between true opinion and knowledge, Socrates next shows how to move from opinion to knowledge, and I think this is the practical point of the story.

In the end, beginning at 98d or so, he recapitulates the story, makes an application or draws a sort of conclusion, and ends with a lovely and apt amplification:

“But now the time has come for me to go. You convince your guest friend Anytus here of these very things of which you have yourself been convinced, in order that he may be more amenable. If you succeed, you will also confer a benefit upon the Athenians.”

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