Socrates’ Lesson in Plato’s Meno
In Plato’s Meno, Socrates discusses ways in which virtue can be acquired with Meno. Meno’s original question of whether virtue can be taught along with the more fundamental question of what virtue is occupies the entire text as Sophocles tries to bring about ways to answer. Three possibilities are confronted; first, that virtue is natural within the human soul; second, that virtue can be taught; and third, that virtue is a gift from the gods. These ways are debated by Socrates and Meno to a very broad conclusion.
On page 139 Meno says, “All in the same, I would rather consider the question as I put it at the beginning, and hear your views on it; that is, are we to pursue virtue as something that can be taught, or do men have it as a gift of nature or how?”
Not only does this show Meno’s interest in learning, but it also and most importantly expresses that he is open to the thought that virtue may just come to a person. He does not seem to think that there is only way it may come, but rather, he is open to many ways. Although he says this towards the end, it summarizes the possible ways discussed within the dialogue.
Socrates poses the question that virtue may be natural within the human soul. This is to say that all people would have virtue within them, but it is only those who find it that can truly become virtuous. To prove this concept to Meno, Socrates, acquires the help of one of Meno’s slave boys to demonstrate. Socrates establishes that the boy has never been taught mathematical geometry and starts bombarding him with a series of questions on the physical properties of a square. First he asks the boy to multiply the square by two, and he succeeds. However, the boy fails when asked to divide the same square into two parts half the original size. By asking the boy a series of questions yet, never actually telling him the answers, Socrates helps the slave to “recollect” the knowledge that is within him. Meno is of course astonished with this feat that Socrates maintains is simply a matter of recollection. This example given by Socrates, though obviously persuasive to Meno, is somewhat unstable. It can be shown that Socrates manipulated the boy into recollecting the information by offering suggestive material within his questions. A question was asked yet the information on how to perform the operation was directly given in the statement. Thus it can be reasoned that Socrates in a sense did teach the boy how to divide the square.
Following this demonstration Socrates poses a second idea that virtue may be taught. It is thought by Meno that men cannot be taught anything but knowledge; therefore, virtue must be a kind of knowledge in order to be taught. He begins by looking for teachers of virtue and comes up with four examples. The first is Themistocles who is agreed to be virtuous by the debaters and obviously a good teacher of his virtue. However, Socrates does ask of Anytus, “But have you ever heard anyone, young or old, say that Cleophantus the son of Themistocles was a good and wise man in the way that his father was?(149)” The other three examples also included fathers that are unable to pass on the virtue that they have acquired to their sons. It is therefore concluded by Socrates that virtue cannot be taught on the basis that any virtuous man would want to teach his ideals to his son. The example was given that Themistocles was able to teach his son such things as how to ride horses and throw javelin, so his ability to teach was not in question, however, the fact remained that he was unable to teach his son to be virtuous.
Socrates makes an apparent contradiction here. He looks for teachers of virtue after he has already tried to establish that there is no teaching only recollection.
For something such as virtue that Socrates has so much difficulty defining he surprisingly finds it easy to label someone a virtuous man. Also, Socrates assumes that the sons of the virtuous men in fact want to learn to be virtuous. There is the possibility that they don’t want to learn the path to virtue at all. This is an uncertain element of Socrates’ debate which seems to give his argument a lack of credibility.
After concluding that virtue cannot be taught Socrates states that virtue is neither natural within the human soul or a teachable form of knowledge, but rather, “Whoever has it gets it by divine dispensation without taking thought... (Meno p.32)”
So would Socrates have maintained that ignorance is bliss based on his views of the possible ways of acquiring virtue? It is possible to conclude that he would not see ignorance as bliss because Socrates believes that the truth is far greater than the unknowing. Throughout the dialogue Socrates and Meno journey to put aside their ignorance to come to the truth on how virtue is acquired and possibly more importantly what virtue is. Even though the path to truth has proved painful in that the two are more perplexed on the topic at the end of the dialogue then at the beginning, Socrates would have seen this as the first step to achieving the truth. This of course is better than not achieving that step at all. Socrates is ultimately concerned in finding the whole truth and would have definitely preferred knowing some of the truth rather than being ignorant to it. Even though Socrates knew that the journey to reach the truth may be painful, ignorance would be far worse than a painful truth. It is somewhat concluded that since men are not virtuous by nature, people are virtuous only if they have received virtue as a gift from the gods. If this is what Socrates is trying to say, then he has somewhat answered Meno's original question, some of the other questions that had arisen during the course of his conversation with Meno, except for what virtue is.
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19 October 2014. Author: Criticism