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Don’t be Mean to Meno

Hey, guys!  I’ve been working on this philosophy paper for a while now, and the best way I found to write it was to pretend it was a blog post.  The assignment was to explain a section of the Meno to an imaginary third party and then discuss if Meno knows the eidos of virtue, and if so, does he know that he knows it?  So now that it’s all typed up nicely in wordpress, I figure I may as well publish it, right?

In Plato’s Meno, the self-titled character comes to Socrates with a question, leading to a long dialogue between the two about the essence, or eidos of virtue; but who is Meno and why does he want to know about virtue?  When Meno asks how virtue is obtained, Socrates replies that no one in all of Athens would be able to answer that question because not one of them, including himself, even knows what virtue is.

Although the dialogue is set in Athens, Meno is from Thessaly, a place known for wealth and horsemanship–not philosophy.  So when he approaches Socrates and asks how to obtain virtue, the older Athenian seems to be taken aback.  He praises Gorgias, a well-known Sophist and his intellectual enemy, for having transformed the city.  Just from the structure of Meno’s question, Socrates can tell that he studies under Gorgias.  Meno, unfortunately, does not understand Socrates’ biting irony and he misses the hidden insult to his beloved teacher.  Perhaps if he had been able to see through the empty praise, the dialogue would have gone differently, but as is, it was above his comprehension.  When Socrates professes not to know what virtue even is, he also loops everyone he has ever met into the category of the unknowing.  This leads Meno to ask if Socrates had met Gorgias while Gorgias was in Athens.  Of course Socrates had met Gorgias, but being a “forgetful sort of person” (Plato, 116), he does not remember what Gorgias claims to be virtue.  Does Meno agree with Gorgias, and can he explain to Socrates the eidos of virtue?

Meno is not prepared to explain virtue, but he assuredly claims that there is no difficulty about it, and launches into a list of characteristics associated with virtue.  He makes distinctions between virtue for a man and for a woman, also for a child and for an elderly person.  Indeed, there are many more kinds of virtue so that no one be at a loss at any time for it.  Socrates lets him speak, but when Meno is done, the Athenian spurs him by comparing his answer to a swarm of bees when he had only wanted to know what the bees all had in common with each other.

Throughout the course of the dialogue, Socrates is constantly redirecting Meno toward the eidos of virtue.  Meno struggles to follow Socrates’ thought pattern often, and he ends up agreeing with Socrates or pretending to understand frequently, presumably to help Socrates arrive at his definition of virtue faster.  After all, this is not the conversation Meno wants to be having; he is still looking for the easiest way to get virtue.  His quest to get virtue by itself shows Meno’s flawed understanding of virtue, and Socrates takes it upon himself to correct Meno’s mind.

Along the way to discovering the true eidos of virtue, Socrates and Meno arrive at several different possible definitions.  They even arrive at a solution that Socrates admits could be the answer for which they are searching.  At first, while paring down the virtues Meno originally listed, Meno combines his ideas of feminine and masculine virtues and proposes that virtue is the ability to govern men.  That would be good, Socrates says, if not for children and slaves.  He asks Meno if “a slave be capable of governing his master” (119).  Socrates also suggests adding justice to the equation.  That would be good, Meno agrees, because justice is a virtue.

Socrates jumps on this chance to confuse Meno a bit more, and asks if justice is virtue, or just a part of virtue.  If it is a part, can it be used to define the whole?  Socrates prompts Meno to list other virtues like justice; Meno provides courage, wisdom, temperance, and dignity.  However, this act reverses their synthesis of before, as they yet again have a slew of virtues with no defining characteristic between them in common.  Socrates is looking for “a single virtue which permeates each of them” (119).

Meno cedes that this might be too hard for him still, so the pair take a quick foray into the definition of shape and color.  After agreeing that a circle is a shape and not shape itself, and white is a color and not color itself, Socrates asks Meno to create a plausible definition for both shape and color–each one’s respective eidos.  Meno, perhaps afraid of looking more like a fool, asks Socrates to do it instead.  Socrates does, on the condition that Meno then follow his example and do the same for virtue.

Eventually Meno defines virtue as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them” (124).  Socrates attacks the word ‘fine,’ which could also be translated as ‘beautiful.’  Does Meno mean beautiful things, or good things?  Which would be better?  Meno admits that good would be better, and the two have a small discussion about good and evil.  Both seem to uphold the idea that man inherently desires good, even if his personal views of good are skewed and end up being evil.  Therefore, because all people desire good, the difference between them is the power.  They have arrived at the eidos of virtue: “the power of acquiring good things” (125).

This victory is somewhat deflated when Socrates asks Meno what he means by ‘good.’  Meno admits that the good things he wishes to acquire are money and political office.  If these materialistic goods set the standard for virtue, the definition needs to be reworked to require some form of justice in acquisition.  The clause of justice, however, brings them back to the beginning of their argument.  Since justice is a virtue, it cannot be used to define virtue.  Meno nearly gives up in defeat, calling Socrates a paralyzing sting-ray.  Socrates counters that he is just as perplexed by the question of virtue as Meno is.  The difference seems to be that Socrates is willing to look for the answer.

Meno suddenly challenges Socrates by asking the older man how he can search for something he does not know.  Socrates recognizes this question as a trap, and he calls it such.  Then he defends his right to search for answers because “the soul is immortal and has been reborn many times, and has seen all things” (129).  Socrates believes that somewhere inside of himself and every other person is infinite knowledge that has merely been forgotten.  This form of spiritual immortality allows him to ask questions and seek for answers.

At this point in the discussion, the question that remains is if Meno knows the eidos of virtue or not.  If so, does he realize that he knows it?  For most of the dialogue, Meno responds to Socrates the way a house with a shallow foundation would react to a heavy storm.  He is intelligent enough to follow Socrates’ outpouring of knowledge, but if Socrates increased his pressure on Meno to think for himself, Meno would collapse.  That said, Meno still manages to propose a definition of virtue that only needs minimal tweaking by Socrates to make it completely correct.  The eidos of virtue comes out of Meno’s mind first, but does this mean that he knows what he is saying?

Socrates asks Meno to define what is good once they have reached the eidos of virtue because he suspects that Meno’s heart and intentions are not in line with true virtue.  Meno is focused on physical, worldly gain instead of spiritual and mental growth.  At this point, Meno’s original question of obtaining virtue could be reworded as ‘how does one use virtue to obtain monetary advancement?’ in order to accurately reflect the condition of his heart.  Does Meno know the eidos of true virtue?  Quite possibly, but he is like the evil man who thinks what he desires is good.  Even if that man’s perception of something is good, it is still evil to everything outside of himself.  In the same way, Meno’s understanding of what is good is so essentially flawed that what he views as virtuous could be the farthest thing from true virtue.  If his opinions on good are not taken into account, then yes, Meno knows the eidos of virtue.  However, to ignore that detail would negate everything else in Meno’s worldview, nullifying his definition of virtue.  There is no true way to discern if Meno knows the eidos of virtue or not, but if he does know it, he does not realize he possesses this knowledge.  If he did, he would never have entered into a dialogue with Socrates.

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