. . .
OUTLINE OF THE DISCUSSION [summary]
[NOTE. -- These are numbers 70 - 100 of the divisions of Plato's works in the Greek].
Meno puts the question : Is virtue to be got by teaching, or by experience, or does it come naturally ? Protesting against this question, Socrates says that not only does he have no knowledge of what virtue is, but that he has never come across anyone who had.
In Meno's opinion Gorgias had that
knowledge, and Meno himself says he will
give the answer to the question. By his
account, the virtue of a man is to be able
to take control of the business of the
government, and in its control, to. give
help to his friends and to do damage to
those against him, while keeping himself
from being damaged. The virtue of a
woman is to be a good manager in her
house, taking care of the things in it, and
doing what the man of the house says.
Again there is the virtue of a boy or girl,
and of an older person, of the free man,
and of the unfree. All have different
virtues, in agreement with their years,
sex, or condition.
But that, says Socrates, is only a list of
virtues, and does not make clear what
virtue is. For this reason, it is is desire
to have a general name for all these
different virtues, and he takes the word
' bee ' as an example.
Meno's mind is not able to take in
general idea, and Socrates makes it
clearer by other examples -- being healthy,
strong, and so on.
In these ideas Meno is able to see the
general quality, but his opinion the
example of virtue is in some way different
from the others. But Socrates gets his
agreement that men and women, old and
young, will all have need of the same
things -- temperance and justice -- if they
are to have virtue.
After giving his agreement that virtue
is the same thing wherever one comes
across it, Meno is again requested to say
what its true quality is. He does this
straight away, saying that virtue is the
power of ruling men.
But that, says Socrates, will not be the
virtue of a small boy, or of a servant ,
and it is necessary, when giving the true
quality of a thing, for what one says of it
to be true of it everywhere. And virtue
is not the power simply of ruling men,
but of ruling with justice. With these
two points Meno is in agreement ; because
justice, he says, is virtue.
Is it virtue, says Socrates, or is it 'a
virtue '? Take the example of ' form '.
He would not say that a circle was ' form,'
but ' a form,' because there were other
" Yes," says Meno, " and so I say there
are other virtues in addition to justice, --
such as temperance, wisdom, and being
And again he is requested to give the
general idea common to all these different
virtues. Meno says he is not able to,
and Socrates gives him help, using the
examples of ' form ' and ' colour.' To say
that the round and the straight are forms
is not to say that the round is straight or
that the straight is round, but to say that
there is a thing named 'form' which is
common to the two of them. Let Meno
say what that thing is.
Meno makes the request for Socrates to
do this, after which he will do his best to
say what virtue is. Socrates says that
form is the only thing which at all times
goes with colour.
Mano makes sport of
saying that it would have no sense to
anyone who had no knowledge of what
colour was. To this Socrates gives his
agreement and then makes a new statement
that 'form is the limit of solid.'
At Meno's request for a statement about
colour, Socrates makes one in the way that
Gorgias makes his.
This statement gives Meno great
pleasure, because, says Socrates, it was so
It is now Meno's turn to make his
statement about virtue ; and he says that
Virtue is the desire for good things and the
power of getting them.
But Socrates says that desiring good
things is desiring good, and all men have
the desire for good. So that the only way
in which one man is different from another
is in the power of getting the good, and
Meno's statement would more rightly be
in this form : Virtue is the power of
getting good things. But Meno's new
statement about virtue is as far from
being true as the other, and it is necessary
to make another new start.
This is not quite pleasing to Meno, and
he makes a comparison between Socrates
and a torpedo fish, which has the effect of
taking all power of acting from everything
which comes near it. Socrates says it is
true that if he puts doubt into the minds
others, it is only because he is in doubt
himself. But though he has no knowledge
what virtue is, he is ready to go into the
question with Meno.
But, says Meno, if one has knowledge of
a thing, there is no need to go looking for
it ; and if one has not knowledge of it,
there is no use in looking for it : one has
knowledge of a thing or one has not ; so
questioning into it is unnecessary, or of
Socrates says that we do in fact have
knowledge of all things, because the soul,
though it goes through the experiences
of birth and death, is ever living, and
having been in existence from all time
it has got the knowledge of all things.
And because everything has a connection
with every other thing, there is no reason
why the soul, if something has gone from
its memory, may not get it back again, if
it is strong and does not give up the
attempt. Because learning is only memory.
Meno makes the request to Socrates to
give him teaching in the idea that learning
is only an act off memory. At this,
Socrates says that Meno is attempting to
put him in the position of making two
statements one against the other ; but he
will do his best to make his idea clear.
At Socrates' suggestion Meno has one of
his servants come to him, a boy with no
education of any sort. Making a square in
the sand with his finger, Socrates gets the
boy's agreement that if the size of the
square is two feet long, the size
square will be four square feet, and that
a square twice as great would be eight
square feet. When Socrates puts
question : How long would be the side of
that square which is twice as great as
this? the boy says, twice as long as the
side of this, that is -- four feet.
At this point the boy is still quite certain
that he has knowledge. Then Socrates
gives him the electric shock of doubt.
This is done by a number of questions in
which the boy is made to see that the line
will not be four feet, and, though it will
be somewhere between two feet and
four feet, it will not be three feet. And
now the boy has become wise enough to
see that he has not the knowledge. Here
Socrates gets Meno's agreement that the
boy is in a better position to get knowledge
he was when it seemed to him that
he had it.
After further questioning the boy comes
to the true answer, the knowledge of
which was sleeping in his mind and had
need only of the right questions to
come awake. And this getting of knowledge
from out of one's mind is clearly an
act of memory.
Now how did the boy get these true
opinions which had only to be said over
a number of times to become certain
knowledge ? Clearly, if he did not get
them in his existence on this earth -- and
Meno is certain that no one has been
teaching him -- then he had them from
before his existence on earth, that is,
from all time. And from this it is clear
that the Soul is ever-living , and we do
well to be questioning into knowledge and
not to give belief to those who say that
we are to do nothing about it. So
Socrates again makes the suggestion that
they go into the question, What is virtue ?
But Meno's desire is for the discussion to be
about the other question : Is virtue got
by teaching ?
This discussion takes the form of the
statement : If virtue is knowledge it will
be given by teaching. Then come the question :
Is vitue knowledge ? The answer is " Yes," and so
they are in agreement that virtue is given by teaching.
Virtue is a good thing. If all good things
are knowledge, then virtue is knowledge.
But all good tings are of use. But
good things, such as being healthy, strong,
beautiful, and well-off are of profit only if
we make the right use of them. The same
is true of higher qualities, of temperance,
justice, courage, memory, great qualities of
mind and so on. If these are not joined to
wisdom they are not necessarily good.
Courage, for example,without wisdom
frequently does us more damage than
good. So that everything which the soul
does will have to be done with wisdom if
the outcome is to be a happy one. Virtue,
being one of the things of the soul, and
being of use, is wisdom, because that is the
only thing of the soul which is of use in
itself. And the lower goods are of use only
to a wise soul. In man everything is
dependent on the soul, and everything in
the soul, if it is to be a good, is dependent
Virtue is seen then to be wisdom, or at
least, not separate from it. And good men
are not good naturally. Because if they
were, we would have experts able to say
of the young which of them were naturally
good, and these would be taken care of
by the government for the use they might
be in the future. And if virtue is not a
natural thing we will have to say that it
comes by teaching, and this is in agreement
with our statement that virtue is
But if a thing is given by teaching, there
will be teachers of it, and learners. And if
a thing has no teachers and no learners
we will be right in talking it that such a
thing is not to be given by teaching.
" But," say Meno, " are there no teachers
of virtue?" And Socrates says that he has
never come across any.
At this point Socrates and Meno are
joined by Anytus, a highly respected
Athenian and a friend of Meno's family.
Socrates puts the question to him : To
whom would he send Meno to be given
teaching in virtue ? Would it not be to
those who publicly say that they are
teachers of virtue and who take money for
teaching it, that is, the Sophists ? At this,
Anytus becomes angry, says that in
place of making young men good, the
Sophists only make them bad. Socrates is
surprised and says that if they did that
far from being the wise men which everyone
took them to be, they would be off
their heads. Then Anytus is requested to
say to whom, if not to the Sophists, he
would send Meno to get the teaching in
Anytus says that any good man of
Athens would be a better teacher of virtue
than the Sophists. " And did
teachers have teachers?" says Socrates.
Anytus then puts the question to Socrates
" Does it not seem to you that we have had
numbers of good men in Athens?" To this
Socrates readily gives his agreement, but
says that the question under discussion is
not if there have been good men in Athens,
but if virtue is given by teaching. Pointing
to examples of great men and their sons,
he comes to the decision that virtue is not
to be given by teaching. Anytus becomes
angry, and after making the suggestion to
Socrates that he would do well not to say
bad things about the men of Athens, he
Socrates gives Meno a probable reason
why Anytus became angry ; and then
they go on with the discussion.
It seems that in Meno's country there
is no more agreement about virtue and
teaching than there is in Athens. Those
who say they are teachers are said by
others to have no knowledge of the thing
they are teaching, and those who are
men of virtue say at one time that virtue
may be given by teaching and at another
time that it may not. So they come to the
decision that where there are no teachers
there are no learners, and where there are
no teachers and no learners of a thing,
one may say that it is not given by
teaching. So, virtue is not to be given by
Then Socrates suddenly makes the
discovery that an important point has
been overlooked in the early part of the
discussion -- that knowledge is not the only
right guide of our acts. There is in addition,
true opinion. And how is knowledge
different from true opinion ? Probably in
the fact that knowledge is with us for all
time, but true opinion has to be chained by
Going back to the question as to how a
man gets virtue, Socrates says that good
men are of use through having knowledge
or true opinion ; but knowledge and true
opinion do not good naturally, so men are
not good naturally. Then it will have to
be that virtue is got by teaching and that
it is wisdom (knowledge). But here we
get into trouble. Because, a short time
back, we were in agreement that there
were no teachers of virtue, and so, it is
not to be given by teaching, and so, it is
not wisdom. But virtue is good and is a
right guide. Of right guides there are only
two -- knowledge and true opinion ; and
of these we have seen that knowledge is
not the guide in political things, because
no man of the government is able to make
others like himself. We see that the
business of government is guided by true
opinion not based on knowledge and that
the great men of the government are in
the same condition as seers who say things
which are true but have no knowledge of
what they are saying. They may truly be
named divine persons, and we may say
that virtue comes, if it comes at all, as
something given to us by divine power
without our being conscious of it. And this
is the answer to the question we put at
the start: How does virtue come to a man?
But we will not be certain of this till,
before taking up the discussion as to how
virtue comes to a man, we must first go into the discussion -- What is virtue?
- 13 -
A BOY, servant of Meno
MENO. Is it possible to say, Socrates, if virtue is go by teaching, or by experience ; or if not by teaching and not by experience, then does it come to men naturally, or in some other way?
SOCRATES. Meno, there was a time when the Thessalians were noted among the Greeks only for their money and for being expert horsemen ; but now, if I am not in error, they are equally noted for wisdom, specially at Larisa, the birthplace of your friend Aristippus. And this is the doing of
because when he came there the greatest of the
of whom you your friend Aristippus is one, and the other Thessalians were moved with love for his great wisdom ; and it is from him you got your way of answering -14- questions with an air and without fear, as is right for those who have knowledge, because this is the way he give all his answers. And he lets himself be questioned on any point, by any Greek who has a mind to put questions to him, and he has an answer for everyone. But here at
Athens, my dear Meno, things are very
much the opposite : our land is drained
of wisdom, which seems to have gone
from us to you. I am certain that if
you put the question to any Athenian,
" Is virtue natural, or got by teaching ?"
laughing in your face he would say, " My
friend, you seem to take me for a man
with greater powers than most, to be
able to say if Virtue may be got by teaching
or how it comes to one. So far am I from
being able to say if it is or is not got by
teaching that I have no knowledge even
of what virtue is." And I myself, Meno,
living as I do in this land of the poor, am
as poor as the rest ; and with shame I am
forced to say that I truly have no knowledge
whatever of virtue. And when I
have no knowledge of what a thing is,
how may I have knowledge of its qualities ?
If a man had no knowledge at all of Meno,
is it possible that he would be able to say
if Meno was good-looking or well-off or of
good birth, or the opposite of all these?
1 . A young man from Thessaly who is in Athens for a short time. Xenophon give an account of him far less pleasing than that of Plato.
2 . An Athenian, one of those who, by their statements against Socrates before the judges, were the cause of his being put to death.
3 . A noted teacher, chiefly of the right use of language.
4 . The ruling family of Larisa, in Thessaly.
- 15 -
MENO. No, certainly. But are you serious, Socrates, in saying that you have no knowledge of virtue ? Am I to go back to Thessaly with this account of you?
SOCRATES. Not only that, my friend, but you may say further that I have never come across any other man who did have, in my opinion.
. . .
. . .
. . .
MENO. This is very well put, Socrates.
SOCRATES. Then, Meno, the outcome of our reasoning is that virtue comes to us, when it does come, by divine power. But we will only be certain of what is true when, before questioning how virtue comes to men, we make an attempt to see what virtue is. It is time now for me to go on my way ; but you, now that you are of my opinion, get your friend Anytus to see it as you do, so that he will not be so angry. Because if you are able to do that, you will be doing a good thing for the men of Athens.
~ finis ~
- 85 -
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