Plato, “Meno,” 70A-72A

I am using the Anastaplo & Berns translation. Plato’s Meno, tr. Anastaplo & Berns. Newburyport: Focus, 2004.

In this lecture I want to address three different issues which I do believe fit together. First, some of you are concerned with how to draw out the so-called “deeper meaning” from a text or question. I have a practical answer to that concern—always try, in your writing, to address why something is said or asked—but, as you’ll see from Meno’s behavior, the “deeper meaning” itself can be a problem.

Second, I want to adequately introduce you to the figures of Socrates and Meno. Too often we start reading Platonic dialogues as if the characters don’t exist. Perfectly intelligent people believe Socrates is always right, Socrates stands in for his one-time student Plato, and who cares about the other people around and what they say?

Third, I want to try to make the philosophic drama come to life. People don’t just say things. They react. They get angry, sad, embarrassed, hurt. Sometimes they doubt other people, things they thought true, themselves. They may even change. We’re being introduced to a world where words matter, and this is probably the most radical claim the classics make. In daily life, one has to take the sheer feeling being expressed towards one seriously, where words pretty much only express rage or sadness without trying to further reflection. If words aren’t used, it’s possible one is being intentionally left alone, abandoned, made to feel as if they are of no consequence. What Plato tries to do in bringing his world to life is offer the possibility of presence and accountability.

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Typically, one is introduced to Socrates through Plato’s Apology. This gives a useful picture of Socrates, an impression of the man which can be examined in light of other dialogues. Socrates, the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, tells off the jury of his peers and gets sentenced to death. He leaves us with “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but it is an open question if he adequately responds to the charges of corrupting the youth and bringing in new gods. It does seem likely a lover of wisdom would encourage the impression which brought forth the charges, that he investigated the things in the heavens and under the earth in defiance of religious sentiment and common sense.

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Meno is a complicated matter. Historically, he was a general known for betraying his own men. But look at how Plato lets him introduce himself at the opening of the dialogue:

Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is something teachable? Or is it not teachable, but something that comes from practice? Or is it something neither from practice nor from learning, but something that comes to human beings by nature, or some other way? (70A)

Meno here shows no trace of becoming a treacherous general. His first question—can virtue be taught?—seems exactly like the topic a philosophy class should engage and a question an ethics class should be able to answer. One might say he’s showing off with the distinctions he makes, trying to sound like he has thought about and can talk about the most important matters, e.g. whether virtue comes from practice, learning, or through nature. But there isn’t any significant hint, not yet at least, that he thinks morality a sham and he can do whatever he wants.

To be sure, there is a suggestive subtext. The Greek we render as “virtue” is arete, meaning “excellence.” This is not necessarily a moral term, though it speaks to what one ought to do, who should rule, how society should be organized. Meno asserting himself so boldly should give us pause. Does he mean to trap Socrates in asking whether virtue can be taught? Does he want an answer he can easily refute, so he can show himself the superior speaker? Socrates seems to think so—he takes none of Meno’s questions seriously. Instead, he praises the place Meno is from, saying those from there ought “to be admired for wisdom also.” He says the sophist Gorgias is responsible for this, creating a “habit… of answering fearlessly and magnificently whenever anyone asks… anything, as is fitting for those who know.” And then, of course, Socrates denies knowing anything about virtue: “I am so far from knowing about virtue, whether it is something teachable or not teachable, that I happen not to know at all what that thing virtue itself is.” (70B-71A)

Socrates emphasizes not only that he doesn’t know what virtue is, but neither does anyone in Athens. The snark speaks loudly with Socrates, as you can hear the overtones of “If you know so much, teach me—heck, teach all of us.” This, by itself, is not enough to get Meno to stop insisting on his questioning: “But do you, Socrates, truly not know what virtue is, and is this really what we should report about you back home?” (71C) What brings Meno into dialogue with Socrates is the possibility that he may have been taught wrongly by Gorgias. Perhaps he did not get the instruction he paid for, perhaps he feels he got ripped off. Note Meno’s shock that Gorgias did not impress Socrates with his talk about virtue (71C).

*

We’re getting a better sense of who Meno is. A bit arrogant, ambitious, scared of being ripped off (a nod, perhaps, to the greed he was famous for). One could plausibly tell a story like the following about him. Perhaps he paid Gorgias a lot of money for instruction—maybe, I dunno, the equivalent of $60,000 a year. He practiced making speeches and debating others and felt he got good at making people look bad and giving convincing answers. So he tries to get in an argument with Socrates to show he mastered his craft.

If that story sounds right to you, it places us in an awkward position. We’re all Meno. We’re all using this education thing to get ahead; we want to know we can compete. I mentioned earlier that Meno’s behavior creates a problem around the idea of a “deeper meaning,” and this is what I meant. “Is virtue teachable?” is a perfectly serious question that challenges us to think hard about what we mean by morality and what we can achieve through teaching. Is the question doomed because Meno’s motives are too short-sighted? How do we, when we write, “earn” deep questions and complicated thoughts?

I don’t have an easy answer, but I suspect that whatever the answer is, it involves some degree of self-awareness. Meno, pressed by Socrates, gives a definition of virtue that in part can suffice but comically lacks self-awareness:

...if it’s the virtue of a man you want, it’s easy to say that this is the virtue of a man: to be sufficient to carry on the affairs of the city and while carrying them on to do well by his friends and harm to his enemies and to take care that he not suffer any such thing himself. And if it’s the virtue of a woman you want, that’s not hard to go through, in that she needs to manage the household well, conserving what is inside and being obedient to her man. And the virtue of a child is different, both female and male, and of an elderly man, and if you want, of a freeman or, if you want, of a slave. And there are a great many other virtues, so that there is no difficulty in speaking about what virtue is. For according to each activity and each time of life relative to each task for each of us there is a virtue, and in the same way, I suppose, Socrates, there is also a vice. (71E-72A)

Meno provides a definition of manly virtue which caters to his own interests. His virtue of a man consists in not suffering harm himself; this notion of virtue does not seem to reconcile with self-sacrifice. It instead emphasizes that he should rule and be able to hurt his enemies. His definition of womanly virtue does not speak to a figure like Antigone, but instead ends in obedience to him. However, despite the set of self-serving definitions he offers—there is virtue for a “slave,” opposed to a freeman?—he does give a definition of the whole of virtue. Virtue is relative to “activity” and our “time of life.”

Relativism in Plato can be a problem. When I think about Cleitophon, whose anger entails complete contempt for everyone around him, I tend to think him an extremist. Cleitophon, in Plato’s dialogue of the same name, openly says that people who do not know how to use their bodies, people who are wrong in their souls, ought not to live. The usual argument about Cleitophon is that he’s a relativist–historically, he signed on to an oligarchic faction committed to revolution but eventually sided with a part of that faction which was less extreme when things got violent. My own solution to the difficulty is that Cleitophon is an extremist who got caught up in matters which were over his head. He may not have a lust for violence like a terrorist or serial killer, but he played with the idea that if people didn’t accept his rule, they didn’t know how to live in the least. When his faction broke apart, that was a sign that other people thought the same thing about him accepting their rule.

In this case, Meno’s relativism is almost thoughtful, except for the small problem of the use to which he puts it. It does seem true, as a practical matter, that what is good or bad, what is most noble or shameful, is dependent on the activity and where we are in life. Perhaps if Meno thought a bit more, he might realize the best use of Gorgias’ instruction entails asking what virtues, what excellences, he’s missing. Maybe there’s a virtue of a husband, a virtue of a student, a virtue of a guest, a virtue of a young man, and maybe those virtues are defined less by entitlement and more by obligation. The “deeper questions,” the “deeper meaning,” would be accessible through his noting the tension between what he wants and what he owes, what his capacities are and what he cannot do.

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