Plato\'s Meno

Plato Meno

In Plato’s dialogue Socrates discusses ways in which virtue can be acquired with
Meno. Three possibilities are confronted, first that virtue is innate within the human
soul. The second suggests that virtue can be taught, and the third possibility is that virtue
is a gift from the gods. These ways are debated by Socrates and Meno to a very broad
Socrates poses the question that virtue may be innate within the human soul. This
is to say that all people would have virtue within them, but it is only those who find it
that can truly become virtuous. To prove the concept of innate understanding to Meno,
Socrates, acquires the help of one of Meno’s slave boys to demonstrate. Socrates
establishes that the boy has never been taught mathematical geometry and starts
bombarding him with a series of questions on the physical properties of a square. First he
asks the boy to multiply the square by two, and he succeeds. However, the boy fails when
asked to divide the same square into two parts half the original size. By asking the boy a
series of questions yet, never actually telling him the answers Socrates helps the slave to
“recollect” the knowledge that is within him. Meno is of course astonished with this feat
that Socrates maintains is simply a matter of recollection.
This example given by Socrates, though obviously persuasive to Meno is
somewhat unstable. It can be shown that Socrates manipulated the boy into recollecting
the information by offering suggestive material within his questions. For example, if a
person did not know the sum of the equation two plus two one could ask: if a person had
two apples and someone else gave them two more would the person then not have four
apples in total? A question was asked yet the information on how to perform the
operation was directly given in the statement. Thus it can be reasoned that Socrates in a
sense did teach the boy how to divide the square.

Following this demonstration Socrates poses a second idea that virtue may be
taught. He begins by looking for teachers of virtue and comes up with four examples.
The first is Themistocles who is agreed to be virtuous by the debaters and obviously a
good teacher of his virtue. However the debaters also agree that Themistocles’ own son
Cleophastus is not a virtuous man “at the same pursuits as his father.” (Meno p.26) The
other three examples also included fathers that are unable to pass on the virtue that they
have acquired to their sons. It is therefore concluded by Socrates that virtue cannot be
taught on the basis that any virtuous man would want to teach his ideals to his son. The
example was given that Themistocles was able to teach his son how to ride horses and
throw javelin, so his ability to teach was not in question, however, the fact remained that
he was unable to teach his son to be virtuous.
Socrates makes an apparent contradiction here. He looks for teachers of virtue
after he has already tried to establish that there is no teaching only recollection.
Moreover Socrates is basing this argument on the example of four people who he knows
to be virtuous.
First, making a generalization based on the evidence of only four people is a
stretch because Socrates has not proven that there are no teachers of virtue, he has merely
stated some examples of men who failed to teach their sons to be virtuous. Who also
has constituted that these four men are in fact virtuous? For something such as virtue that
Socrates has so much difficulty defining he surprisingly finds it easy to label someone a
virtuous man.
A second observation is that Socrates assumes that the sons of the virtuous men in
fact want to learn to be virtuous. There is the possibility that they don’t want to learn the
path to virtue at all. This is another uncertain element of Socrates debate which seems to
give his argument a lack of credibility.

After concluding that virtue cannot be taught Socrates states that virtue is neither
innate within the human soul or a teachable form of knowledge, but rather, “virtue
appears to be present in those of us who may poses it as a gift from the gods.” (Meno
With this statement Socrates closes the discussion, but he has still not answered
the question of how virtue is acquired. Moreover he has admitted that no more can be
discussed on the matter until