Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, December 19, 2016

PLATO: Meno (Knowledge and Virtue)

Meno begins this dialog by asking Socrates if virtue is something which can be taught or, if not, if there’s some other method of acquiring it.  Socrates gives the somewhat surprising answer that he doesn’t even know what virtue is, much less if it can be taught.  This is the classic path of the Socratic dialog; begin by doubting that we know very much about a subject and then proceed from there to explore our options.  In the case of virtue Socrates says “it is not from any sureness in myself that I cause others to doubt: it is from being in more doubt than anyone else that I cause doubt in others. So now, for my part, I have no idea what virtue is, whilst you, though perhaps you may have known before you came in touch with me, are now as good as ignorant of it also. But none the less I am willing to join you in examining it and inquiring into its nature.”  This is an invitation to enter into the spirit of philosophic inquiry.  Meno thought he knew what virtue was until he began talking with Socrates.  Socrates shows Meno that he doesn’t know much about virtue at all.  But Meno is an intelligent man and quickly picks up the thread of the argument.  He asks “on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?”  His point is this.  If we don’t know what virtue is, then how do we go about searching for it?  And even if we found it, if we don’t know what it is to begin with, then how can we be sure we’ve found the thing we’ve been looking for?

In a very short time the focus has shifted from (1) can virtue be taught, to (2) what is virtue, to (3) what is the relationship between virtue and knowledge?  Before we can answer the first question we have to be able to answer the second one.  But before we can answer the second one we have to determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge.  And before we can determine the relationship between virtue and knowledge we have to take up a fourth question: what is knowledge?  So many questions.  Meno was right to wonder where we could even start looking for answers.  How can we get a handle on this multi-faceted philosophical problem of teaching virtue and gaining knowledge?  Socrates has a suggestion.  He proposes we start with a rather strange interpretation of knowledge: “They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. Consequently one ought to live all one's life in the utmost holiness… Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things.”  Somehow the soul has already acquired knowledge of “virtue and other things.”  Knowledge, including the knowledge of virtue, is already within the student.  The teacher’s job is not so much to “teach” the student what virtue is; the teacher’s job is to draw out what the student already knows within the soul.  Socrates demonstrates this to Meno by asking a series of questions to one of Meno’s uneducated servant boys.  Even though the boy “knows” nothing of geometry and mathematics, Socrates leads him through a series of questions to resolve a difficult geometrical problem.  See, Socrates says, I didn’t teach him anything he didn’t already know.  “Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions put to him, he will understand, recovering the knowledge out of himself.”  In other words, we can’t “teach” people about virtue.  But we can help them recover the knowledge of virtue that already slumbers within them.  Awakening this knowledge (of virtue or anything else) is the ultimate goal of philosophy.  Socrates wants to lead us to wisdom and knowing that we don’t know something is just the first step on that path. 


Post a Comment

<< Home