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 —
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  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. 
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.
- Plato, Meno. http://livros01.livrosgratis.com.br/gu001643.pdf
- Diogenes Laertius, “Life of Aristotle,” from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. (3rd Century AD)
Categories: Course Notes