Course Notes — Plato, Meno

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Well, school is back and session and that means that it’s time to resume publishing Course Notes!  My courses have undergone a significant transformation this year, and I am looking forward to sharing some of the more interesting developments with the Electric Agora audience.

Most importantly, I have completely revamped my Introduction to Philosophy course, after having taught it roughly the same way for almost a decade.  Originally designed topically, around a cluster of core subject areas – personhood and identity; knowledge and skepticism; ethics and politics – with an exam following each unit, the course has ceased to work with students, a development that I would identify as having emerged over the last five years or so.  Student reading and writing are the worst I have seen in over twenty years of teaching, student knowledge of the basic course taken by Western history, from antiquity to the modern era is abysmal, student engagement – in the sense of the sort of personal interest in the material that contributes to class discussion and extracurricular, informal conversation and socializing – is virtually non-existent, and test scores reflect the sort of inverted curve – students either get A’s or F’s – that just screams “Not working!”

It would be foolish to think that there is any purely academic remedy for these problems, as their sources lie much deeper, but one does what one can.  So, I’ve (1) dropped the topical focus, in favor of a straightforwardly historical progression; (2) given greater space to the more “literary” philosophical classics; and (3) shifted to an all-writing mode of assessment.  The reading list looks like this —

Plato, Meno

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

St. Anselm, Monologian

Michel de Montaigne, “Of Pedantry” and “Of the Education of Children”

Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

— and students’ grades will be determined by how well they do on essays they have to write on five of the listed readings.

Yeah, I know … We’ll see how it goes.


The Meno [1] is one of the additions that I have not taught before, and it’s probably been twenty something years since I last read it.  Coming at it relatively fresh, then, I was struck by (a) how many topics it covers (as well as how scattered and meandering it is); (b) how irritatingly Socrates is portrayed; (c) how unpersuasive some of the positions are (not to mention the arguments for them); and (d) how abruptly and unsatisfyingly it is concluded.  And yet … and yet … like so many of Plato’s works, it has an ineffable quality – a combination of elements, not the least of which is the literary dimension – that not only earns it serious consideration, but repeated visits.  I mostly disliked it … and will definitely teach it again next time.  As philosophy, Plato’s work strikes me as clearly inferior to that of his greatest student, Aristotle, but when thought of not only as a part of the history of ideas, but of Letters, it looms much larger.  It is interesting to wonder whether this perception would hold, had we the actual written works of Aristotle, as catalogued by biographers like Diogenes Laertius, rather than the collections of lecture notes that make up what is called the “Aristotelian corpus” today. [2]

The Meno’s ostensible subject is whether virtue can be taught or whether it arises from nature or is acquired in some other way, and yet, this is not what the bulk of the dialogue is about.  Rather, Socrates and his interlocutors discuss the nature of virtue, whether anyone really ever desires what’s bad, whether the pursuit of knowledge is even possible, the bizarre – and rather dumb – “theory of recollection” (which is introduced by way of a seemingly endless and ultimately fallacious argument, based on a discussion with a slave boy about the properties of a geometric figure), and only then finally get back to the question of whether or not virtue can be taught, whereupon it is quickly determined that it cannot and thus, must be a “gift from the gods,” about which I can only say, oy vey.

And yet … the reading and working through of all of this is quite satisfying.  Socrates’ constant, transparently disingenuous protestations of ignorance, combined with his repeated comments on the charms of “pretty young gentlemen” conveys a wonderful sense of eccentricity in a modern context that makes the challenging parts of the dialogue easier to digest.  And the order in which the topics flow is of a sort that does, to a certain extent, successfully mimic the not entirely directionless, but somewhat haphazard course that real conversations take.

After beginning with the question of whether virtue can be taught or whether it arises from nature or by some other means, the topic almost immediately shifts to what virtue is, as Socrates protests that he does not know.  Meno says that there are many different kinds of virtue, depending on the kind of person one is talking about – men, women, children, etc., but  Socrates complains that he has not asked for individual examples of virtue, but rather, what all virtues have in common, by virtue (!) of which they count as virtue.  After going round and round a bit, Meno offers something along the lines of: “the virtuous person is the one who loves and acquires that which is honorable.”

Socrates asks whether to love that which is honorable is to love that which is good, and Meno says it is, whereupon Socrates spins off onto his first tangent.  Doesn’t everyone love that which is good, and if so, how can the love of what’s good differentiate the virtuous person from the non-virtuous one?  Meno sees no reason to think that everyone loves the good – people do bad things all of the time – but Socrates wonders whether there isn’t something strange about suggesting that people choose the bad, because they think it is bad.  After all, if something is bad, it’s going to hurt you, undermine your plans … cause you harm in some way or another.  Do (rational) people deliberately do such things?  No, Socrates, suggests, it seems much more likely that when people choose the bad, they do so, because they mistake the bad for the good. Evil and vice, then, are products of ignorance regarding the good and the bad, rather than of a will that is oriented towards the bad.

This leaves the virtuous as he or she who actually acquires that which is honorable/good, but Socrates also sees a problem with this.  Surely it matters how one acquires what is good – we wouldn’t call someone who steals or cons someone out of something virtuous, even he has “acquired that which is good” as a result.  Meno admits that attaining the good is only virtuous if done justly, but Socrates observes that in that case, the account of virtue is circular, as justice is itself a virtue.

At this point, Meno has a bit of a meltdown, and frustratedly wonders aloud whether it is possible to engage in inquiry at all.  If we know something, then there is no need to inquire about it, but if we don’t know something, then even if we do inquire, how do we know that what we’ve found is what we were looking for?  And here, rather than give the sort of pragmatic answer that would immediately occur to most of us – such thoughts lead to nothing but paralysis; we just muddle through; obviously some of our inquiries result in knowledge, as evinced by the fact that we become more proficient and competent at myriad tasks, as time progresses – Socrates instead goes off on a second tangent that is supposed to demonstrate the “knowledge is recollection” theory.

It’s a bizarre move to make.  For one thing, it’s not clear how it serves as any sort of answer to the question: even if knowledge is something we remember, after having forgotten, rather than discover, Meno’s problem would still seem to apply.  Given that I don’t remember what I used to know, how would I know, upon supposedly remembering it again, that the thing I am remembering is the same thing that I’d forgotten?  For another, the argument that Socrates provides in order to show that knowledge is recollection actually does nothing of the sort.  That argument involves tedious rounds of Q&A with a slave boy, over the properties of a geometric figure, in which Socrates coaxes a number of true geometrical propositions out him, despite the fact that he has never been taught geometry.  Aha!  You see!  Since he was never taught it, and now he knows it, he must have already known it and forgotten!   A less silly, more modern version of this line of thought might be that the experiment shows that knowledge is innate, but needs to be brought out in conversation or by way of prompts.

It’s all nonsense, of course, but the most glaring thing about it is that the conclusion Socrates draws from his interactions with the slave boy is a wild non sequitur.  That a physically and intellectually sound person can, in response to prompts and questions, deduce various things that he did not previously known simply demonstrates that he possesses a (perhaps innate) capacity to reason.  It demonstrates nothing about what he allegedly once knew.

Once past the question of whether knowledge is possible, we find ourselves back with the original question and this time, even though Socrates still protests that he doesn’t know what virtue is, he is willing to entertain it.  As an opening move, he suggests that we approach the question as a hypothetical: Suppose virtue is something that is teachable – are there people who teach it?  If it seems impossible to identify anyone who might be a moral instructor, then it would seem unlikely that virtue is something that can be taught.  A bit logically suspect  – from the fact that there are no teachers of virtue, it doesn’t follow that virtue can’t be taught – but let’s go with it. If we keep a count of all the non sequiturs in the Meno, we’ll be here longer than I suspect anyone really wants to.

After disposing with the idea that the Sophists might be moral teachers – a suggestion that causes an outburst on the part of another of Socrates’ interlocutors, Anytus – it is agreed that if anyone should be a teacher of virtue, it’s those who are virtuous themselves.  Socrates then inquires about various widely-accepted exemplars of virtue and whether they have virtuous offspring, the answer to which is invariably, “No.”  But, if virtue is teachable, Socrates asks, wouldn’t we expect the virtuous to teach it to their offspring?  And since they clearly do not – as their offspring are not virtuous – does this not that show that virtue is not teachable, by Modus Tollens?  (He doesn’t actually say “Modus Tollens.”)

Again, the reasoning is atrocious.  It never occurs to Socrates that something could be teachable and yet, one might nonetheless fail to teach it, no matter how proficient one might be.  Or that the assumption that the virtuous will always teach virtue to their offspring might be wrong.  Or even that the cases the men are talking about might not be representative.  But this is nothing compared to the conclusion he draws:  Given that morality isn’t natural in the sense of being innate (nothing but an assumption, it is worth noting) and also isn’t taught, it must be – can only be – a gift from the Gods.  At this, the dialogue ends, and while I was teaching it, I found myself thinking, Jeez, this is much worse than I remember it being.

The students, however, really enjoyed it.  And as I’ve thought more about it, I realize that the logical clunkers not only contribute to the dialogue’s charm, they also provide some really key teachable moments.  For the sorts of mistakes that Socrates and his interlocutors make are common mistakes – very easy to make (well except for the “knowledge is recollection part”) – and encountering them in a somewhat casual, dialogue-centered format, makes them easier to see, discuss, and ultimately overcome.  Beyond great literature and sometimes very good philosophy, then, the Platonic dialogues are outstanding teaching-pieces, and I look forward to diving back into the world of Socrates, when I teach the Meno to my next group of students, this coming Spring.


  1. Plato, Meno.
  2. Diogenes Laertius, “Life of Aristotle,” from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. (3rd Century AD)






19 responses to “Course Notes — Plato, Meno”

  1. labnut

    Marvellous. Perhaps your students enjoyed it because you were teaching them philosophical reasoning by example more than you were teaching them philosophy.

  2. I think that’s exactly right. It’s why Plato works so well in the classroom.

  3. I’m not surprised they like Plato. A old friend of mine (artist/painter) who was informed after a high school intelligence test that she had roughly the intelligence of a horse (she half-believed this, I think, but she had excellent critical powers) read and was hugely impressed by the Symposium.

    Looks like a very worthwhile course. Hope it continues to go well.

  4. Mark English wrote:

    A old friend of mine (artist/painter) who was informed after a high school intelligence test that she had roughly the intelligence of a horse


    This made laugh so hard I coughed up Scotch through my nose.

  5. labnut

    she had roughly the intelligence of a horse

    Praise indeed. Horses are such noble creatures.

    I have Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. I like his approach. He divides the subject into four major historical divisions: Ancient, Mediaeval, Pre-modern and Modern philosophy. Within each division he deals with common themes to all divisions. So for example there would be a section for metaphysics in each division. I found this approach fascinating. It is a combination of a historical and thematic approach.

    I am sure that people like EJ would protest at your exclusion of the remainder of the world’s philosophies. For example, where are the Hindus, Japanese and Chinese? Did they make no worthwhile contributions?

  6. Daniel Kaufman:
    Plenty of meaty reading there, no baby rusks to cut their philosophical teeth on. I used to read Montaigne occasionally but never really got into him until I found a copy of M.A. Screech’s translation. Now the chattiness comes through. I think I may not have been alone in having him to grace my shelves but not to crack much because my second-hand copies were all pristine.

    Meno:Just a thought that occurred to me this minute. Is there a touch of Parmenides in it. I mean in the idea that non-being cannot come into existence, what is must already be there. So if there is such a thing as true knowledge (the forms) and mathematics would be the nearest to that then in some sense it must be already in existence. Instead of arriving at knowledge through the use of reason, the cloud that obscures it is dissipated much as we come to remember the thing that we know but can’t quite call to mind.

  7. labnut: I am not qualified to teach the material you mention — i.e. Hindu, Chinese, or Japanese philosophy.

  8. Hi Dan, it’s interesting that a subject based curriculum was failing to work for students. That is a format I would prefer (for an introduction), but maybe a product of my time or temperament.

    This is not to criticize your new schedule. If anything it has the benefit of acting as both an intro and history course all in one… so I guess that makes it a “survey of philosophy”.

    The absence of three names really jumped out at me. Aristotle is one, but then you kind of explain his absence if your idea is to go with a literary theme. Kant is another, though I guess he is also one that even in the best translations (I’ve read) did not come off as literary. Hume was the third… which I’m not as clear about in that his writing was personable enough that it sort of reads as literature to me. So I’m curious for why they were not on the list… especially Hume?

    On Meno, I have to admit that it never grabbed me. Then again, I was never that excited by Plato, precisely for all the wrong arguments he makes (or gives to Socrates). About the only thing that held my attention was Republic, perhaps because it went so wrong it read like a dystopic fantasy/scifi story. It is nice to hear… and I guess it makes sense… that students like to have some arguments that they can identify something is probably going wrong (especially when they are just starting out), and wrestle with it.

    How much do you get into the logic side of arguments (as in trying to also teach logic)?

    Finally, Anselm and Montaigne were two surprises on your list. I don’t think of them as being major historical figures in Philosophy, so I am really curious for why you chose them over others. If not the three I already mentioned then Aquinas, Augustine, Russell… given his relevance to history of philosophy… or perhaps especially Voltaire given his literary bent?

    Anyway, I hope the experiment works!

    Oh yeah, IIRC all of my Philosophy courses were graded based on written essays. They had to be written in class (in “blue books”) or outside of class. I can’t recall any other way of testing in Philosophy and am curious if it was common to use multiple choice or… what? Logic was sort of an exception in that (especially with formal logic) it seemed more like a math test, where you could answer questions with one or two words or “equations” (symbolic outline). One of my favorite exams was done orally, where you had a discussion (held in a cafe lounge) with the prof about the content of the works over that part of the semester. That way questions were not static, and could follow your particular line of interest through the material.

  9. Oops, that’s an omission. Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” is in there, as well as Kant’s “What is Enlightenment.” I will update.

  10. dbholmes: My tests used to consist of short answers and keyword definitions.

    As for the reason for the inclusion of Anselm rather than Augustine or Aquinas, it’s because it’s shorter and more digestible, plus it introduces arguments for God’s existence.

    As for Hume, I just couldn’t include everything, and he too is difficult to find relatively small, digestible portions.

  11. Hi Labnut, I think your question about non-Western philosophy is interesting, but to be honest I think all Western universities concentrate on Western philosophy. I don’t think it is anything to do with bias, but the rather extensive, progressive(?) history which is pretty influential on Western thought/societies… and to be honest even modern Eastern thought/societies. How much of dominant Chinese policy is about Confucianism or Taoism versus variants on Marxism?

    This does make me curious about what Philosophy departments outside Western nations focus on. Is it Eastern philosophy?

  12. Hi Dan, Aristotle’s Ethics… yessss 🙂

    On Hume, my history of philosophy course placed Descartes almost back to back against Hume with selected excerpts related to his still more devastating arguments about the limits of knowledge, particularly the problems of induction and causation. I think the overall subject at the time was to showcase rationalist and empiricist trends in philosophy, but these two really revealed skepticism.

    As a student coming at this from a full pro-science background, basically assuming philosophy backed it all up as an underlying logical support (not knowing of the failure of the logical positivists), Descartes and Hume were a one-two punch that sent me reeling. Hume more so since Descartes started strong and ended weak. I couldn’t shake Hume’s arguments and had to keep reading. It was not a surprise to me that Einstein credited Hume’s arguments as influencing his thoughts.

    Now I can’t even remember if I was taught Hume’s account of Ethics or if it was something I simply read on my own.

    I’m still curious about your choice of Montaigne, who I have to admit I am pretty ignorant about.

  13. Montaigne is actually really important, as he was hugely influential on Descartes, by way of his skepticism. He is also considered to have invented the Essay, which is another important reason to have him.

  14. Hi Dan, interesting. Looks like I will definitely need your course notes on Montaigne.

  15. For a future psychology major this is an excellent list. For Freud choice of Nietzsche is crucial. Plato , also helps. Descartes is still necessary. For behaviorist Ayer and contrast Sartre nice.

  16. labnut,
    A first course in *world* philosophy would need to teach texts from India and China, and would need also to have a more structured historical ordering. But a first course in philosophy should primarily help students learn to philosophize, and does not require textual breadth or historical narrative. Indeed, I can easily imagine such a course use only texts from India or china, but also a course having texts only from Greece or England or Germany.

    For similar reasons I suggest you miss the point about Anselm and Montaigne. (And I think the notion that Montaign is not a major historical philosopher, while widely held, is mistaken. It is true that he did not systematize his writing, but I actually think that’s a good thing. At any rate he raises many of the right questions for his time, a generation before anyone seriously tries to answer them.)

    I have a sense that the “remembered knowledge” discussion is an early atempt to account for the efficacy of deductive reasoning. After all, if we put pressure on a lot of deductive major premises, we end up with a problem, such as: “All humans are mortal” – how do we actually know that to be the case? In argumentation we get around this problem by linking inductive reasoning to the major premises – every human seems to prove mortal given time, and we have a whole host of humans who we know died, etc. But while this process works well enough to make cases, there is no absolute guarantee that there isn’t some human somewhere that we don’t know about who hasn’t died. There are inherent problems like this with induction, and solutions all appear to be pragmatic in a general sense. Similarly, deductive general premises seem to be accepted as a matter of trust. But that trust is frequently betrayed. “All blacks are lazy” was certainly trusted by a great many whites of my mother’s generation, but I early recognized that there were too many living counter-examples to give my assent to it.

    However, trust is really not good enough for Platonic rationalism. If I do know that “all humans are mortal” it would seem to be because there was some necessary idea of the ‘human’ that includes ‘mortality’ which I have in my head before I find out that anyone has ever died. So when finally some adult tells me that Uncle Mo has died, assumedly a light bulb switches on and I know what this means – if Uncle Mo dies, surely Uncle Bob will too, because, both being human, they are necessarily mortal.

    We can see this more clearly by placing our problem within a field where where general premises become axiomatic – like mathematics. Surely we don’t have to measure every rectangular shape to learn what a square is. So how do we know this? How do we know, when someone teaches us the construction of a square, that we can then trust every square and the methodology of its construction? So it’s not surprising that Socrates makes this move in his dialogue with the slave boy. Indeed, I am reminded here of the complaint frequently made by mathematical Platonists, that it is simply absurd to call mathematical forms ‘inventions’ and then say of them that they are true everywhere at all times, which would mean that they were true before invention. (This fails to take into account how humans use invention to adapt to the world. ) But in any event, we can see this mathematical Platonist complaint mirrored in the problem with which Socrates wrestles; for Socrates actually explains away Mathematical Platonisms invention/discovery dilemma – mathematic is neither disco0vered nor invented, it’s remembered.

    So I’m not saying here that Socrates has a successful argument here, I’m saying rather that he recognizes an interesting problem that, for some, remains problematic to this day.

  17. (Quoting myself, to follow up:) ” But while this process works well enough to make cases, there is no absolute guarantee that there isn’t some human somewhere that we don’t know about who hasn’t died.”

    Actually this may have important historical consequence.

    Hegel’s first text (which he didn’t publish) was an attempt to write a secularized biography of Jesus from only Biblical sources. Yet he maintained to the end that he was a devout Lutheran.

    This is pure speculation; but I have always thought that Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and the dialectical method it describes, really begins with the following problem:

    All humans are mortal
    Jesus is human
    Therefore, Jesus is mortal
    BUT: no god is mortal
    Jesus is (also) god
    Therefore Jesus is not mortal;
    Jesus as mortal dies on the Cross;
    Jesus as immortal rises from the dead and ascends into heaven.

    That’s Hegel’s dialectic in a nutshell; and why it frustrates purist logicians.

    (It is notable here that Hegel’s Greater Science of Logic is a prolonged and carefully argued narrative of the process by which we at last arrive at the Socratic syllogism; i.e., the logical relationship between generalities and individuals.)

    I mention this also, because I want to emphasize that the so-called Continental tradition begins here. If one wants to understand that tradition, don’t start with clarifications by Husserl or Heidegger, don’t start with rebels like Marx and Kierkegaard, or Foucault and Derrida. Hegel is the virus in the program of Modern philosophy, but he is so because Christian theology left behind a trail of paradoxes and dilemmas that were never properly accounted for.

  18. labnut

    a first course in philosophy should primarily help students learn to philosophize

    Should it? I agree that the end goal of an education in philosophy should be to prepare students to philosophise. A first course lays the groundwork for this. What I really like about Dan-K’s essay is that the introductory part of his course introduces a questioning, critical spirit that shows how one can lay bare assumptions, errors and reasoning, analysing them. It is a great way to kick off the course. But to continue in that spirit requires foundational knowledge and an introductory course should aim at providing that, all the while inculcating the spirit that Dan-K used to start the course. I happen to think that a survey of Hindu, Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist thought should be part of the foundation. Dan-K might reply that the reading load would simply become too great. Given the predilections of modern students that may be true. He does say despairingly:

    Student reading and writing are the worst I have seen in over twenty years of teaching, student knowledge … is abysmal, student engagement … is virtually non-existent,

    This is a frightening development. Will a university education ultimately be reduced to watching entertaining youtube videos, while planning the next score and the next hook-up? We are becoming a two speed nation. There will be a small elite cadre of highly intelligent, highly motivated and highly rewarded people. They will be the products of the best, intensely competitive universities. The remainder will be churned out by dumbed down universities intent on squeezing out the maximum profit for the minimum cost, regardless of quality. Their students will in any case be catering to the needs of the elite. Now if only we could get gun control right then we need not fear their discontent. The instruments of force and control should rightfully be confined to our intelligent, motivated elite who can be trusted to use them responsibly.

    I think a terrific book to accompany Dan-K’s course would be Just the Arguments, 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy. It gives a concise, rigorous statement of all the main philosophical arguments. John Danaher, in his blog, Philosophical Disquisitions, gives it a nice review, see

  19. labnut

    Christian theology left behind a trail of paradoxes and dilemmas that were never properly accounted for.

    That may be the product of wilful misunderstanding. I have noticed again and again that atheists frame the religious narrative in a way that allows a cheap rebuttal.