Understanding Virtue in Plato’s Meno
Plato wrote Meno as a set of reminiscences about the dialogues Socrates led with his student. The main reason in those discussions is understanding the notion of virtue through the categories of the innate knowledge and the true opinion. The dialogues feature the explanation of the major notions like the inborn knowledge which is evident on the example of the servant, the general explanation of such phenomenon, and the difference between knowledge and true opinion.
Meno starts from the discussion of the nature of virtue, which is actually the main theme of this philosophical work. Socrates claims that no one knows what it is, and wonders how a person can understand that he/she has finally found it. According to the philosopher, every person has the inborn knowledge about everything, and the process of learning is, in fact, the process of recollection. It is shown on the example of the slave, who does not know geometry, but with the help of the questions Socrates asks him, the boy manages to solve a mathematical problem. The philosopher asks the servant to say how long the side of the two feet square will be if its area is multiplied by two. After a series of questions, the slave boy understands that the square of the sides is equal to the diagonal of the square.
As it was already mentioned, Socrates asks the boy questions and tells him about his mistakes. First the boy answers that the length of the side is four feet and this answer is wrong, so the boy understands that the right answer is somewhere between two and four feet. He says that three is the length and this answer is logical, but Socrates tells him that it is the wrong variant again. The slave feels uncertainty, or aporia, as the philosopher calls it. Then Socrates draws another square that is four feet long, and asks the slave whether he agrees that this square is two times bigger than the first one. The slave agrees with it and it is considered to be the inborn knowledge that suddenly aroused.
The philosopher helps the slave boy to learn the right answer with the help of questions that direct him. Though, it is possible to say that Socrates gives the answers himself, that are expressed in the questions in the indirect form. It becomes a source of numerous discussions, because in fact Socrates asserts that the process of solving the geometric problem is about passive recollection, not active development of thinking ability.
Generally, Socrates bases his argument on the idea that all people behave in the same way, the souls are immortal and the knowledge of those souls waits until something from the outer world makes the innate ability appear. Only the virtue can not be taught, otherwise there should be teachers of wisdom. There are no such people, that is why Socrates assumes that the virtue can only be felt as the blessing from the divine.
Recollecting the inborn knowledge can be called the way in which Socrates understands the general process of know the things. Such idea is not applied to all kinds of information. For example, the news that a person can read in the daily newspaper, does not correspond to the category of the forgotten knowledge. The notion of inborn knowledge refers to the abstract categories and the unchanging entities that are not used in the everyday life.
Socrates claims that the knowledge is understanding of what the person managed to recollect. Virtue is based on the true belief more than on the knowledge, that is why the example of the slave boy who solves geometric problem can not be applied to it. It is called a gift from the gods and it is not innate.
The difference between the categories of true opinion and knowledge is another issue that is raised in Meno. Socrates tries to understand whether it is possible to call the sophists the teachers of virtue and whether it is possible to teach it at all. According to the philosopher, there is no connection between knowledge and virtue, which corresponds to his previous thoughts on this subject. He claims that it is not necessary to a man of enormous knowledge in order to be virtuous. He recollects the most prominent men of his society and states that they have knowledge, but they are not virtuous, because they can not teach it to no one. If there are no teachers and no students, then there are no really virtuous people, according to the logic of the philosopher. The main idea of this passage is that Socrates and Meno try to find the examples of virtue that can be called a sort of teachable knowledge, but it might be wiser to view it as the result of the true opinion.
The nature of the true opinion is not absolutely clear. It can be called an inspiration in other words. The philosopher claims that the true opinions do not remain in the human mind for a long time, they disappear quickly, and a person can “tie them down”, as the philosopher says, only by means of giving them to someone else. Socrates uses a metaphor of the sculpture by Daedalus, that has a prolonged value only when it is tied down. A person who has this true opinion has to justify it and transmit to the others. With the time, such true idea will become the common inborn knowledge that will be recollected as the inborn knowledge.
Socrates and Meno do not come to a conclusion about the nature of virtue. They both agree that it is not inborn and can not be taught, so the true opinion can not be. Socrates thinks that being virtuous is the question of inspiration, that can appear only as the gift from the gods. He claims that no one knows what the virtue is. Meno does not have a solution in its text, it ends with aporia, or the state of uncertainty, which is one of the dominant themes in the philosophy of Socrates. Though, in this state it becomes easier to look at the problem from another perspective and to use all possible arguments objectively.
To sum up, Plato’s Meno is a collection of dialogues of Socrates and Meno on the theme of virtue. The philosopher and his student try to understand its nature, that remains vague, and during the discussion refer to the notions of the true opinion and innate knowledge. Socrates proves the claim that the innate knowledge really exists on the example of the slave, who solves a geometric problem. Though, the virtue can not be understood in this way. He proposes to feel it through the divine inspiration, which is more close to the notion of the true opinion.