I could say that this is the saddest process in the history of philosophy. Here it begins the hard way where Socrates is brought to his deathbed: The path of hemlock. Meno is a young aristocrat with a lot of curiosity about what Socrates can know about virtue. In this dialogue we will not only understand what is virtue, but also we will be witnesses the first mention of the trial of Socrates by Anytus, an Athenian politician who was against the thirty tyrants of Greece, also he was one of the accusers Socrates; this will be discussed more closely in the Apology of Socrates.
How can virtue be acquired?
Without any introduction or context of where they are, Meno asks Socrates how virtue can be acquired, if it is teachable, if it comes by nature, etc. Socrates confesses he does not know what virtue is or if it can be acquired, and he asks Meno if he can try to define it, as he was with Gorgias when he talked about virtue.
Meno's first definition
Meno tells us that virtue is:
''Being able to manage the affairs of the city, and in doing so benefit his friends and harm their enemies, taking care not to suffer yourself''.
And virtue in women:
''She must manage his own home, she must preserve what's inside of it in good condition , and she must obey to her husband. ''
Meno tells us that there is a kind of virtue for each occupation in general.
Socrates did not expect to hear many definitions of virtue. This comment has to do with what things are in essence (ousía). Indeed, a bee does not differ from another bee for being bees, in other words, all the bees have the same essence, but we can recognize their particularities, as there are many different bees. Another example is health, man's health does not differ from women's health.
The aristocrat insists with the same statement saying that virtue differs in trade or gender (male and female). Socrates, taking his first definition, tells him if he can manage an entire city without temperance and justice; naturally the answer is no. Therefore, to say that virtue without temperance and justice can not be achieved. Moreover, moderation and justice form part of virtue.
Thus, it is established that everyone may reach virtue, not individually, but it is something that all humans reach the same concept of virtue.
Meno's second definition
Now that Meno understands that one being can not have a kind of virtue to, he gives us a little more accurate definition:
''Being able to command men''.
Socrates own claims if a child or a slave ''command'' and Menon says no. Socrates adds that this definition would lack something like: ''justly and not unjustly''. Meno agrees, but Socrates doubts it saying that perhaps justice is a kind of virtue.
Understanding this, Meno mentions many other things that could be related to virtue such as courage, knowledge, moderation and magnificence. However, Socrates warns that they have fallen into the same problem as the first definition, give many definitions of virtue.
Meno's third definition
Due to the insistence of Socrates, Meno gives another definition:
''To procure and enjoy the beautiful things''
After giving this definition, Socrates asks Meno who want good things is who want goods. Menon says yes, but what about a person who thinks that something is a good being bad, wanted that thing? This man who wanted to see a bad thing as a good thing would be an unhappy man.
Moreover, Socrates suggests Meno that this definition should include justice and moderation. However, this would bring a new problem, since justice and moderation are parts of virtue and not virtue itself. What we want to know is what virtue is, not its parts.
Unfortunately, the definition of virtue is not clear. Meno does not feel able to give a definition and he compares Socrates with an electric eel because he ''stunned'' to their dialoguing with his questions. However the comparison, Socrates wants to continue investigating the subject of virtue with Meno.
Menon, who seems to be a little impatient, asks Socrates how could they find something not even knowing it. Moreover, even if it is known Why we are looking for it if we already know what it is?
For this, Socrates is based on a theory that is formulated on the basis of some poets about the immortality of the soul. The soul, according to Socrates, has already traveled by Hades and returned to the body again. Nothing in the soul has not been learned. As the soul has learned everything, all you have to do is to remember them. How can the soul remember? It remember through learning; Finally, we can call this reminiscence.
The slave and geometry
Meno seems a little bit skeptical about reminiscence and asks Socrates to explain it a little more. To do this, Socrates asks Meno to call a slave.
Socrates asks the Slave if a square must have four equal parts. This says yes.
Imagine a box divided into 4:
As the dialogue progresses, the slave is responding yes to all the questions of Socrates. Now, between Socrates and the slave, they are making the square twice what it was, and finally four times.
Then it goes into a large square and even more so. What we want to demonstrate this, is that each question of Socrates as:
- Four times four is sixteen right?
It says that the slave is merely remembering what he knows, and his soul already knew at the beginning. The slave who did not know geometry, he correctly answer the questions of Socrates, which proves that the slave is remembering what his soul knew.
Thus the knowledge paradox is refuted, as we look for to know what is done by means of reminiscence and we are not in total ignorance because our soul already knows what it wants to know, it just have to remember.
Is virtue teachable?
Returning to the definition of virtue, Socrates wants to establish some previous things before going to answer the question.
- Virtue as a good thing
- Virtue as something beneficial
The dialogue partners intend to analyze other things such as courage, moderation and justice. All these things can be both beneficial and harmful, but if they are wisely used they cannot be bad for the soul. Analyzing this, virtue should be a kind of prudence in the soul.
If virtue is prudence, then virtue does not come naturally, but is teachable.
Well, maybe it is not teachable.
Surprisingly, Socrates begins to doubt his previous statement and told that maybe virtue is not teachable. In fact, leading Socrates to doubt his assertion, is simply the fact that there are no masters (teachers) to teach virtue.
The arrival of Anytus
To the conversation comes Anytus (who was the accuser of Socrates at his trial) to bring something more about the possibility of teaching virtue.
If we want to have good health we go to the doctor, if we have good shoes let the cobbler; besides we give money in exchange for their services. Where do we go if we want to have virtue or be virtuous? Indeed, the Greeks go to the Sophists.
Anytus disagree with Socrates, saying that these sophists do nothing to spoil the young. When asked why he has so much hatred against the Sophists, Socrates did not understand because Anytus recognizes not having had any contact with a sophist.
How could Anytus help Meno in virtue? Whom he should attend? Anytus answers he should go to any educated and distinguished citizen, but How these people got educated? Indeed, through their ancestors.
While this argument is possible, Socrates asks what happened to the great figures of past times as Themistocles, Pericles or Thucydides who could not make their children virtuous as they were?
Anytus takes offense at this question and leave the place, but not before uttering a threat to Socrates.
''Socrates, I think you speak bad about people with much ease. If you are willing to listen to me, I would advise you to take care of yourself, as perhaps in any other city it is easy to harm or benefit people, but it is not. ''
After this, removed ...
Virtue can not be taught
Meno is not sure that the sophists can be teachers of virtue, adding that the same Gorgias laughs at the other sophists who claim to teach virtue. Overall, sophists say that virtue can be taught and other sophists do not; therefore, as there are confusion and no consensus, it was decided that teachers of virtue does not exist. Then, virtue can not be taught.
Before closing the dialogue, Socrates forget a characteristic of virtue which is the true belief. What does this concept? A truth that is achieved despite not having prior knowledge of it.
True belief is different from knowing because of their ways they achieve something. Knowledge does not necessarily need to experiment and true belief does it. If I have the knowledge to reach a part, I'll certainly do it; Instead, with true belief it is not known at the beginning or how to get to that place, but it can be reached.
And as virtue can not be taught, How the great figures of Greece became virtuous? Socrates justifies this by divine inspiration. Since it can not be taught, it remains to bestow to divinity.
Pretty sad is the omen that Anytus gives to Socrates in conversation. It is curious that in the dialogue Protagoras (or sophists), virtue can be taught in the opinion of Protagoras. We can also observe the deductive method (from the general to investigate the particular) is proposed to try to reach the definition of virtue; an important element in the further scientific method. Call it a relatively easy book, with many interpretations, but with the usual dialectic method of their dialogue.