Summary and Analysis of Plato's 'Meno'

What Is Virtue and Can It Be Taught?

Plato contemplating in front of Socrates' gravesite
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Although fairly short, Plato's dialog Meno is generally regarded as one of his most important and influential works. In a few pages, it ranges over several fundamental philosophical questions, such as what is virtue? Can it be taught or is it innate? Do we know some things a priori–i.e. independent of experience? What is the difference between really knowing something and merely holding a correct belief about it?

The dialog also has some dramatic significance. We see Socrates reduce Meno, who begins by confidently assuming that he knows what virtue is, to a state of confusion–an unpleasant experience presumably common among those who engaged Socrates in debate. We also see Anytus, who will one day be one of the prosecutors responsible for Socrates' trial and execution, warn Socrates that he should be careful what he says, especially about his fellow Athenians.

The Meno can be divided into four main parts:

     Part One:  The unsuccessful search for a definition of virtue

     Part Two:  Socrates' proof that some of our knowledge is innate

     Part Three: A discussion of whether virtue can be taught

     Part Four: A discussion of why there are no teachers of virtue

 Part One: The Search for a Definition of Virtue

The dialog open with Meno asking Socrates a seemingly straightforward question: Can virtue be taught? Socrates, typically for him, says he doesn't know since he doesn't know what virtue is and he hasn't met anyone who does. Meno is astonished at this reply and accepts Socrates' invitation to define the term.

The Greek word usually translated as "virtue" is "arete." It might also be translated as "excellence."  The concept is closely linked to the idea of something fulfilling its purpose or function. Thus the 'arete' of a sword would be those qualities that make it a good weapon: e.g. sharpness, strength, balance. The 'arete' of a horse would be qualities such as speed, stamina, and obedience.

Meno's 1st definition of virtue: Virtue is relative to the sort of person in question, e.g. the virtue of a woman is to be good at managing a household and to be submissive to her husband. The virtue of a soldier is to be skilled at fighting and brave in battle.

Socrates' response: Given the meaning of 'arete' Meno's answer is quite understandable. But Socrates rejects it. He argues that when Meno points to several things as instances of virtue, there must be something they all have in common, which is why they are all called virtues. A good definition of a concept should identify this common core or essence.

Meno's 2nd definition of virtue: Virtue is the ability to rule men. This may strike a modern reader as rather odd, but the thinking behind it is probably something like this: Virtue is what makes possible the fulfillment of one's purpose. For men, the ultimate purpose is happiness; happiness consists of lots of pleasure; pleasure is the satisfaction of desire; and the key to satisfying one's desires is to wield power--in other words, to rule over men. This sort of reasoning would have been associated with the Sophists.

Socrates' response: The ability to rule men is only good if the rule is just.  But justice is only one of the virtues.  So Meno has defined the general concept of virtue by identifying it with one specific kind of virtue. Socrates then clarifies what he wants with an analogy.  The concept of 'shape' can't be defined by describing squares, circles or triangles.  'Shape' is what all these figures share.  A general definition would be something like this: shape is that which is bounded by color.

Meno's 3rd definition: Virtue is the desire to have and the ability to acquire fine and beautiful things.

Socrates' response: Everyone desires what they think is good (an idea one encounters in many of Plato's dialogs). So if people differ in virtue, as they do, this must be because they differ in their ability to acquire the fine things they consider good.  But acquiring these things–satisfying one's desires– can be done in a good way or a bad way.  Meno concedes that this ability is only a virtue if is exercised in a good way–in other words, virtuously.  So once again Meno has built into his definition the very notion he's trying to define.

Part Two: Socrates' Proof That Some of our Knowledge Is Innate

Meno declares himself utterly confused: 

"Socrates," he says, "I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you." (Jowett translation)

Meno's description of how he feels gives us some idea of the effect Socrates must have had on many people. The Greek term for the situation he finds himself in is "aporia," which is often translated as "impasse" but also denotes perplexity.  He then presents Socrates with a famous paradox.

Meno's paradox: Either we know something or we don't.  If we know it, we don't need to enquire any further.  But if we don't know it we can't enquire since we don't know what we're looking for and won't recognize it if we found it.

Socrates dismisses Meno's paradox as a "debater's trick,"  but he nevertheless responds to the challenge, and his response is both surprising and sophisticated.  He appeals to the testimony of priests and priestesses who say that the soul is immortal, entering and leaving one body after another, that in the process it acquires a comprehensive knowledge of all there is to know, and that what we call "learning" is actually just a process of recollecting what we already know. This is a doctrine that Plato may have learned from the Pythagoreans.

The slave boy demonstration: Meno asks Socrates if he can prove that "all learning is recollection." Socrates responds by calling over a slave boy, who he establishes has had no mathematical training, and setting him a geometry problem.  Drawing a square in the dirt, Socrates asks the boy how to double the area of the square.  The boy's first guess is that one should double the length of the square's sides.  Socrates shows that this is incorrect.  The slave boy tries again, this time suggesting that one increase the length of the sides by 50%.  He is shown that this is also wrong.  The boy then declares himself to be at a loss.  Socrates points out that the boy's situation now is similar to that of Meno.  They both believed they knew something; they now realize they their belief was mistaken; but this new awareness of their own ignorance, this feeling of perplexity, is, in fact, an improvement.

Socrates then proceeds to guide the boy to the right answer: you double the area of a square by using its diagonal as the basis for the larger square. He claims at the end to have demonstrated that the boy in some sense already had this knowledge within himself: all that was needed was someone to stir it up and make recollection easier.  

Many readers will be skeptical of this claim. Socrates certainly seems to ask the boy leading questions. But many philosophers have found something impressive about the passage.  Most don't consider it a proof of the theory of reincarnation, and even Socrates concedes that this theory is highly speculative. But many have seen it as a convincing proof that human beings have some a priori knowledge–i.e. knowledge that is independent of experience.  The boy may not be able to reach the correct conclusion unaided, but he is able to recognize the truth of the conclusion and the validity of the steps that lead him to it.  He isn't simply repeating something he has been taught.

Socrates doesn't insist that his claims about reincarnation are certain.  But he does argue that the demonstration supports his fervent belief that we will live better lives if we believe that knowledge is worth pursuing as opposed to lazily assuming that there is no point in trying.

Part Three: Can Virtue Be Taught?

Meno asks Socrates to return to their original question: can virtue be taught.  Socrates reluctantly agrees and constructs the following argument:

     Virtue is something beneficial–i.e. it's a  good thing to have.

     All good things are only good if they are accompanied by knowledge or wisdom. (E.g. Courage is good      in a wise person, but in a fool it is mere recklessness.)

     Therefore virtue is a kind of knowledge.

     Therefore virtue can be taught.

The argument is not especially convincing.  The fact that all good things, in order to be beneficial, must be accompanied by wisdom doesn't really show that this wisdom is the same thing as virtue.  The idea that virtue is a kind of knowledge, however, does seem to have been a central tenet of Plato's moral philosophy.  Ultimately, the knowledge in question is the knowledge of what truly is in one's best long-term interests. Anyone who knows this will be virtuous since they know that living a good life is the surest path to happiness.  And anyone who fails to be virtuous reveals that they don't understand this.  Hence the flip side of "virtue is knowledge" is "all wrongdoing is ignorance," a claim that Plato spells out and seeks to justify in dialogues such as the Gorgias. 

Part Four: Why Are There No Teachers of Virtue?

Meno is content to conclude that virtue can be taught, but Socrates, to Meno's surprise, turns on his own argument and starts criticizing it.  His objection is simple.  If virtue could be taught there would be teachers of virtue.  But there aren't any.  Therefore it can't be teachable after all.

There follows an exchange with Anytus, who has joined the conversation, that is charged with dramatic irony.  In response to Socrates' wondering, rather tongue in cheek, if the sophists might not be teachers of virtue, Anytus contemptuously dismisses the sophists as people who, far from teaching virtue, corrupt those who listen to them. Asked who could teach virtue, Anytus suggests that "any Athenian gentleman" should be able to do this by passing on what they have learned from preceding generations.  Socrates is unconvinced.  He points out that great Athenians like Pericles, Themistocles, and Aristides were all good men, and they managed to teach their sons specific skills like horse riding, or music.  But they didn't teach their sons to be as virtuous as themselves, which they surely would have done if they had been able to.

Anytus leaves, ominously warning Socrates that he is too ready to speak ill of people and that he should take care in expressing such views.  After he leaves Socrates confronts the paradox that he now finds himself with: on the one hand, virtue is teachable since it is a kind of knowledge; on the other hand, there are no teachers of virtue. He resolves it by distinguishing between real knowledge and correct opinion.  

Most of the time in practical life, we get by perfectly well if we simply have correct beliefs about something, e.g. if you want to grow tomatoes and you correctly believe that planting them on the South side of the garden will produce a good crop, then if you do this you'll get the outcome you're aiming at. But to really be able to teach someone how to grow tomatoes, you need more than a bit of practical experience and a few rules of thumb; you need a genuine knowledge of horticulture, which includes an understanding of soils, climate, hydration, germination, and so on. The good men who fail to teach their sons virtue are like practical gardeners without theoretical knowledge. They do well enough themselves most of the time, but their opinions are not always reliable, and they aren't equipped to teach others.

How do these good men acquire virtue?  Socrates suggests it is a gift from the gods, similar to the gift of poetic inspiration enjoyed by those who are able to write poetry but are unable to explain how they do it.

The Significance of the Meno

The Meno offers a fine illustration of Socrates' argumentative methods and his search for definitions of moral concepts.   Like many of Plato's early dialogues, it ends rather inconclusively.  Virtue hasn't been defined.  It has been identified with a kind of knowledge or wisdom, but exactly what this knowledge consists in hasn't been specified.  It seems it can be taught, at least in principle, but there are no teachers of virtue since no-one has an adequate theoretical understanding of its essential nature.  Socrates implicitly includes himself among those who cannot teach virtue since he candidly admits at the outset that he doesn't know how to define it. 

Framed by all this uncertainty, however, is the episode with the slave boy where Socrates asserts the doctrine of reincarnation and demonstrates the existence of innate knowledge.  Here he seems more confident about the truth of his claims.  It is likely that these ideas about reincarnation and inborn knowledge represent the views of Plato rather than Socrates.  They figure again in other dialogs, notably the Phaedo.  This passage is one of the most celebrated in the history of philosophy and is the starting point for many subsequent debates about the nature and the possibility of a priori knowledge.