The dialogue closes with the surprising suggestion that virtue as practiced in our world both depends on true belief rather than knowledge and is received as some kind of divine gift.
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The Meno is a philosophical fiction, based on real people who took part in important historical events. Plato wrote it probably about B. Socrates was then about sixty-seven years old, and had long been famous for his difficult questions about virtue and knowledge. In just a few years, he would be convicted and executed for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens.
Socrates often conducted his distinctive philosophical conversations in places like that, and ambitious young men like Meno, who studied public speaking and the hot intellectual topics of the times, wanted to hear what Socrates had to say. Some wanted to try refuting him in public. The larger setting is the political and social crisis at the end of the long Peloponnesian War. After finally being defeated by Sparta, Athens has narrowly escaped total destruction, and is now ruled by a Spartan-backed oligarchy.
The questions in the Meno about teaching virtue are directly related to longstanding tensions between oligarchic and democratic factions. For generations, Athens had been an intellectual, economic, and military leader, especially after her crucial role—together with Sparta—in repelling the Persian invasions of Greece in B. After those Persian invasions, many independent cities had asked Athens to replace Sparta in leading a united defense and reprisal against the Persian empire.
Through many reversals of fortune, Athens both suffered greatly and flourished culturally, using some of that tribute for her own development and adornment. Much of the best Greek art still familiar to us today—the sculpture and architecture, the tragedy and comedy—comes from the Athens of that time. These teachers were independent entrepreneurs, competing with each other and providing an early form of higher education. Much of their influence came through their expensive courses in public speaking, which in Athens prepared young men of old aristocratic families for success in democratic politics.
But various sophists also taught various other subjects, from mathematics to anthropology to literary criticism.
Shortly before this dialogue takes place, some leading Spartans and allies considered killing all the Athenian men and enslaving the women and children. But they decided instead to support a takeover by a brutal, narrow oligarchy, led by thirty members of aristocratic Athenian families who were unhappy with the democracy. Thousands of Athenians were killed or fled the city, and many who stayed acquiesced in fear for their lives.
The conversation in the Meno takes place in late January or early February B.
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Democratic and oligarchic factions might then still have been negotiating terms of reconciliation in order to prevent further civil war. The resulting agreement included a general amnesty for crimes committed up to that time, excluding only the Thirty and a few other officials. But the last of the extreme oligarchs would soon massacre the nearby town of Eleusis and take power there, and then attempt another takeover at Athens in B.
As Meno and Socrates discuss the nature of virtue and how it might be acquired, the Athenian success story is not over. The democracy would continue for most of the next century, and even a semblance of the empire would be revived. But for now, the recently restored democracy is anxious about continuing class conflict, and fearful of renewed civil war.
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Some democrats were suspicious of Socrates, and may have believed that he had sided with the extreme oligarchs, because of his prior relationships with some of them. The general amnesty did not allow prosecuting such allegations. But after the war, Socrates continued his uniquely nondemocratic yet anti-elitist, unconventional yet anti-sophistic interrogations.
Many Athenians thought that he was undermining traditional morality and piety, and thereby corrupting the young minds of a vulnerable community. About the historical Socrates, much of what we think we know is drawn from what Plato wrote about him. Socrates published nothing himself, but, probably soon after his death, the Socratic dialogue was born as a new genre of literature.
He was portrayed with different emphases by different authors, including Xenophon, Aeschines, Antisthenes, Phaedo, Euclides, and others. Even these Platonic portraits vary somewhat across his many dialogues, but all are similar in one way or another to what we see in the Meno. He claims not to know the answers to his questions, and he interrogates others who do claim to know those answers. He seeks definitions of virtues like courage, moderation, justice, and piety, and often he suggests that each virtue, or virtue as a whole, is really some kind of knowledge.
As Plato depicts Socrates, it was not easy to understand his position in either the politics or the controversial new teachings of the time. To make matters more confusing, a few of the Thirty Tyrants or their extremist supporters, like Critias and Charmides, had earlier been associates of Socrates. Plato emphasizes that Socrates respected common citizens more than the famous and powerful Apology 21be , and that he disobeyed direct orders from the Thirty, at risk to his own life 32cd. Meno is apparently visiting the newly restored Athenian government to request aid for his family, one of the ruling aristocracies in Thessaly, in northern Greece, that was currently facing new power struggles there.
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Meno was young for such a position, about twenty years old, but he was a favorite of the powerful Aristippus, a fellow aristocrat who had borrowed thousands of troops from Cyrus for those power struggles in Thessaly, and was now returning many of them. But Xenophon paints Meno as a thoroughly selfish and unscrupulous schemer, while Plato sketches him as a potentially dangerous, overly confident young man who has begun to tread the path of arrogance.
He prefers the more traditional assumption that good gentlemen learn goodness not from professional teachers but by association with the previous generation of good gentlemen. That was a traditional aristocratic notion, but it has a democratic shape at Meno 92e, Apology 24d ff. And though Socrates is no professional teacher, Anytus considers him just as bad, or worse.
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Anytus is one of three men who will bring Socrates to trial in B. Anytus had himself been prosecuted in B. Later, he supported the moderate faction among the Thirty Tyrants, and was banished by the extremists. Then he was a general for the democratic forces in the fight to overthrow the Thirty in B. But Anytus may well have sincerely believed that Socrates corrupted young men like Critias and Charmides by teaching them to question good traditions.
Compare Meno 94e f. There are three main parts to this dialogue, which are three main stages in the argumentation that leads to the tentative conclusion about how virtue is acquired. Is it something that is taught, or acquired through training, or possessed by nature? Socrates quickly turns the discussion into an investigation of something more basic, namely, what such virtue is. Since Socrates denies knowing the nature of virtue, while Meno confidently claims to know all about it, Socrates gets Meno to try defining it.
In each case, since Meno accepts these claims that contradict his proposed definitions, he is shown not to know what he thought he knew about virtue. Eventually, Meno blames Socrates for his trouble, and insults Socrates by comparing him with the ugly, numbing stingray.
Then he makes a momentous objection to conducting such an inquiry at all. The second stage of the dialogue begins with that momentous, twofold objection: if someone does not already know what virtue is, how could he even look for it, and how could he even recognize it if he were to happen upon it? Socrates replies by reformulating that objection as a paradoxical dilemma, then arguing that the dilemma is based on a false dichotomy.
The dilemma is that we cannot learn either what we know or what we do not know, because there is no need to learn what we already know, and we cannot recognize what we do not yet know. Socrates tries to expose the false dichotomy by identifying states of cognition between complete knowledge and pure ignorance. First, he introduces a notion that the human soul has learned in previous lives, and suggests that learning is therefore possible by remembering what has been known but forgotten. Forgotten-but-capable-of-being-remembered is a state of cognition between complete knowledge and pure ignorance.
Implicit true belief is another state of cognition between complete knowledge and pure ignorance. Socrates says he will not vouch for the details, but recommends it as encouraging us to work hard at learning what we do not now know. He asks Meno to join him again in a search for the definition of virtue.
But in the third stage of the dialogue, Meno nonetheless resists, and asks Socrates instead to answer his initial question: is virtue something that is taught, or is it acquired in some other way? Socrates criticizes Meno for still wanting to know how virtue is acquired without first understanding what it is.
Here Socrates leads Meno to two opposed conclusions. First, he argues, on the hypothesis that virtue is necessarily good, that it must be some kind of knowledge, and therefore must be something that is taught. But then he argues, from the fact that no one does seem to teach virtue, that virtue is not after all something that is taught, and therefore must not be knowledge.
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