Plato’s Meno

Plato’s Meno. Scott, Dominic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

 

As part of the Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato, Scott’s Plato’s Meno is an excellent contribution.  His approach to the dialogue is a balance between those commentators who discount the dramatic elements of the dialogue as mere dressage for analytical arguments and those who excessively focus on the drama at the expense of philosophical scrutiny.  The book closely follows the dialogue’s content in sixteen short chapters, with an introduction, conclusion, and three appendices.  Scott concludes his book about the nature and purpose of the dialogue form, with particular attention to the relationship between “Socrates on trial” and Meno’s moral education.

The first theme, “Socrates on trial,” is Plato’s challenge to the historical Socrates’ philosophy through the character Meno.  The first challenge is Meno’s inability to understand Socrates’ “unitarian assumption” – different types of virtue must have a common property – when he attempts to define virtue for Socrates (72d2-73a5).  Socrates must defend his assumption in argumentation in the next two efforts to define virtue rather than just stating it as in the Euthyphro.  The second challenge is whether elenchus is beneficial to the interlocutor (79e7-80b7).  Although the elenchus in principle is highly beneficial by leading others to further inquire, it may be counterproductive to those refuted and guide them into skepticism, sophistry, and corruption.  Socrates’ defense of elenchus can be found in the slave boy demonstration, where the boy’s process of recollection forces Meno to reflect upon his own conversation with Socrates and thereby revealing the benefits of elenchus.

The third challenge to the historical Socrates is prompted by Meno’s paradox (80d5-e5) that leads to “the problem of discovery”: Socrates believes that we have a duty to discover.  However, Socrates’ epistemological principles of “foreknowledge” – knowledge must be derived from pre-existent knowledge – and “priority of definitions” – knowledge requires definitional form first – conflicts with the Socratic dictum to discover, for if there were no pre-existent knowledge to start with except for definitional knowledge, then we could not discover anything, since we already know the object of inquiry.  Socrates’ theory of recollection provides a path out of this paradox in that we discover something we already know but had forgotten about it.  At a conscious level we begin with mere belief in our search for definitions, but subconsciously we have knowledge that we have forgotten and only need to recollect.

The final challenge is Socrates’ use of the “method of hypothesis” instead of definitional inquiry to understand virtue.  Scott’s answer to why Socrates would employ the second best method over the first is that Plato sought a compromise between Socratic methodological purity in pursuing definitional inquiry and the practical necessity of how to acquire virtue.  A pursuit in definitional inquiry risks an indefinite postponement of practical questions, while practical necessity may slip into erroneous assumptions without close examination.  Thus, in response to Meno’s question about whether virtue is acquirable, Socrates provides a tentative answer by his “method of hypothesis” that virtue is acquirable by recollection and divine dispensation, but these conclusions can be revised at a later point.

The second theme is the progress of Meno’s moral education.  Unlike Anytus, who becomes annoyed and therefore disengages with Socrates, Meno continues to converse with Socrates in understanding whether virtue is teachable.  In this joint pursuit, Meno has learned the values of mildness, replaced eristic with dialectics, and is led by Socrates to the position that virtue can be obtained by recollection.  Clearly at the end of the dialogue Meno has not attained virtue, but he has been set on the right path for the discovery of it.  The character Meno therefore unifies Scott’s two themes: he guides the reader in the right direction by challenging the historical Socrates and Meno himself becomes better for it.

At the end of the dialogue, Socrates proclaims that virtue can be taught in two ways: it can be recollected as knowledge with the right kind of questioning, and it comes as true belief by way of divine dispensation.  Virtue consequentially can be known either as knowledge or belief.  Scott points out that these conclusions, especially about divine dispensation, should not be treated ironically, because they fit into the structure of the dialogue: the ten pages about the Athenian leaders who had acquired virtue but were unsuccessful in passing it down to their sons directly answers Meno’s initial question about whether virtue is acquirable and indirectly favors knowledge over belief.

Scott’s interpretation of the Meno has raised challenging questions and offers fresh answers that are supported by a close reading of the dialogue.  By focusing on the internal content of the dialogue, Scott demonstrates the unity of the Meno, as opposed to those who have charged that the dialogue is seriously flawed and incomplete.  It makes a serious contribution to the study of Plato and should not be neglected.

 

This review was originally published in Review of Metaphysics 60: 4 (2007): 883-84.

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).