About St. John’s College
Santa Fe Office of the Dean
Opening Lecture, Fall 2010
Excellent Character and the Pursuit of Knowledge:
Getting a Read on Plato’s Meno
Victoria Mora, Dean
St. John's College, Santa Fe
August 27, 2010
Each of the last four years I have dedicated my opening lecture to the freshmen. In so doing, I have looked to various works on the Program to see what they might have to say—whether directly or indirectly—about liberal education in general and about our approach to liberal education at St. John’s in particular. My point in doing so has been simple enough, if not stated outright: if liberal education holds out the possibility for becoming free human beings, that possibility is realized only if we grasp how. Or, to state the same point negatively, not all liberal education is liberating. For the freshmen—and indeed for all of us dedicated to bringing to life the ideal of a community concerned with the cultivation of human freedom through study and conversation—the question of how liberal education might be realized or how it might fail must be of pressing importance. After all, our freshmen choose us as much as we choose them. And they choose us from within a marketplace that increasingly sacrifices the fulfilling possibility of liberal education for the immediate gratification of specialization. If the sacrifice that our freshmen make to come to St. John’s—the sacrifice of immediate gratification—is to fulfill a more fundamental purpose, then the liberal education they seek here must in fact be liberating.
What would it mean for a liberal education to in fact be liberating? If the contrast I have drawn between the immediate gratification of specialization and the more fundamental fulfillment of liberal education has any significance, then a liberal education that is in fact liberating must go beyond whatever one might get through specialization. Specialization offers first and foremost a kind of control, control over a body of knowledge that one has at one’s disposal and control over whatever performance might depend upon that body of knowledge. This sort of control is neither unimportant nor unworthy, and most of us over our adult lives will find the need or the desire to specialize at one time or another. But it seems to me that liberal education done right must go beyond specialization. It must go beyond what we can do with knowledge; it must go to what knowledge can do to us.
If the freshmen were paying attention yesterday during convocation, they got an intimation of how a St. John’s education might be concerned with more than what they can do with knowledge; they got an intimation of how it might be concerned with what knowledge can do to them. In being presented to the president for matriculation, our freshmen heard as follows: “Mr. Peters, these young men and women desire to be made members of St. John’s College. They have given evidence of their good character and their ability to undertake the tasks which we have set for them.” These words were also used in presenting our newest graduate students to the president for matriculation. Apparently, the liberal education pursued at St. John’s, undergraduate and graduate alike, is concerned with more than the ability to undertake the tasks which we set for our students. These tasks are those of which our students become capable as they acquire knowledge across a broad and rich spectrum of traditionally disparate disciplines. So the education we pursue here must be concerned with more than the acquisition of knowledge, impressive though that acquisition may be. If the language attached to the matriculation of our students means anything, it is. The education at St. John’s is also concerned with good character. Why might it be important to remind our students, on the occasion of matriculation, that liberal education is concerned with good character?
The answer to this question may have to do with a danger inherent in the pursuit of a liberal education—the very pursuit upon which the freshmen are embarking as they sign the college register. The danger is that we can get too caught up in thinking that the freedom offered by liberal education has its highest expression in the acquisition of knowledge and the power it enables us to wield over books, conversation, and even others. To be sure, the acquisition of knowledge and the empowerment of the intellect can and should take place in the course of an education, specialized or general. But here I want to address myself directly to the freshmen, to whom I dedicate this lecture. Neither the acquisition of knowledge, nor intellectual empowerment, is a guarantee of freedom. Both can, in fact, turn us into tyrants; and while tyrants may appear to be free in the relentlessness with which they lord it over others, they are the least free among us. But the pursuit of a liberal education that begins with excellent character, and even more importantly that ends in it, holds out a different possibility. It holds out the possibility of genuine freedom, the kind that comes through the pursuit not merely to possess knowledge, but to be moved by it and thereby changed by it. Unless we confront this most important question about the relation between character and the pursuit of knowledge, education may very well leave us in a condition of slavery—or worse, it may lead us there.
Among the many works that the freshmen will encounter this year, one stands out for the power with which it treats the relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and character. Perhaps, then, it is no accident that we ask our newest students to spend so much time with Plato’s Meno, not only in their seminar studies, but in their study of language as well. This dialogue has as its primary focus aretê most typically translated alternatively as virtue or excellence. Aretê may refer to any qualities which make someone or something stand out, or outstanding, in some characteristic or pursuit. It may refer to one’s nobility or rank. It may also refer to the status of one’s character, an expression of the moral excellence by which we identify a fine person. Plato’s dialogue Meno is concerned with all of these senses of arête, which is interesting given that Plato and his contemporaries are very likely aware that the man for whom the dialogue is named was anything but virtuous. He was, in fact, a mercenary soldier who had the unenviable reputation of being someone who was willing to commit injustices for the sake of advancement; of being dishonest; of having affection for no one; of maintaining discipline among his soldiers by participating in their wrong-doing; and of considering it a kindness not to destroy anyone who broke off with him. In short, he came to a very bad end.
To those of us who don’t already know Meno, however, it looks like all of the conditions are right for Meno to merit the title role in a dialogue about virtue understood under its many meanings. We learn right away from Socrates, Meno’s interlocutor in the dialogue, that Meno is free-born in a society in which he might just as easily have been born a slave. He is a Thessalian from a wealthy household who has had the best that money can buy, including the finest education within reach of someone with his ability and his means. He is confident, in his person and in his positions, as befits one from his station in life. And we learn from Meno himself that he has his own questions, perhaps the most important indicator of excellence insofar as they suggest openness to knowledge and to the transformation it might bring. Even more promising, these questions are about virtue, a topic whose significance is not only intellectually important but practically pressing as well. Meno wants to know about how human virtue might be acquired, and he puts the question to Socrates, an Athenian who has a reputation for being willing to address just such questions.
As I hope our freshmen began to discover last night in seminar, a single question can open up a world of knowledge. On the face of it, Meno’s questions to Socrates are promising in this regard. In translation, Meno starts the dialogue by asking “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is something teachable? Or is it not teachable, but something that comes from practice? Or is it something neither from practice nor from learning, but something that comes to human beings by nature, or in some other way?” These are all worthy questions, rich in possibility for opening up an all-important conversation about virtue. But the manner of a question can also reveal a great deal, not least about the character of the questioner and the character of his relationship to questions. In Greek, the first word out of Meno’s mouth is ekheis. It is a form of the word ekho, which essentially means to have or to hold—to “have” in the sense of a possession or in the sense of having achieved understanding; to “hold” in the sense of having, or in the sense of standing firm, having the wherewithal. More specifically, then, Meno isn’t just asking if Socrates can tell him about whether virtue might be acquired. He’s asking whether Socrates “has it in him” to tell Meno about this important matter—“has it in him” in the form of possessing knowledge and understanding, but also, quite possibly, “has it in him” in the form of the fortitude it might take to hold up against Meno’s questions.
Now as we come to find out over the course of the dialogue, Meno is a man who cares about words. This makes his word choice worth thinking about. His word choice betrays two things, borne out in the dialogue, about what questions mean for him. First, questions for Meno are concerned with collecting knowledge as so many possessions, as it turns out, without regard to what that knowledge might mean or how it might require further inquiry; and second, questions are concerned with challenging others in the manner of intellectual warfare. Unfortunately, Meno’s approach to questions precludes genuine inquiry and therefore any understanding to which the questions might lead—something actually worth having and holding. My purpose tonight is limited to fleshing out these two claims about Meno, and to show by doing so how an education might go wrong. Specifically, I hope to show the limits on Meno’s freedom that follow from his approach to questions, and the ways in which it renders Meno impotent to learn how to acquire virtue, let alone actually acquire it. Until they read the Meno for themselves to determine whether I have been fair in my assessment, the freshmen will have to consult their own experience and their own reason in hearing me out and in determining whether there is any truth to what I am saying. If it turns out that they can agree with me that Meno’s approach to questions is anything but excellent, they may find themselves inspired toward their own excellence, as students at St. John’s College and as human beings.
To begin to appreciate how Meno’s approach to questions manifests his understanding of knowledge as a matter of possession, it helps to notice something about how Socrates’ questions are framed. Throughout his interchange with Meno, Socrates does something puzzling. He both encourages Meno to recall what Meno’s teacher, Gorgias, has said about virtue and he calls on Meno to speak for himself on the matter. The first time that Socrates does this occurs at the very beginning of the dialogue. Meno has put his questions to Socrates and Socrates finds that he must tell Meno not only that he doesn’t have it in him to answer Meno’s questions about virtue; but also that he doesn’t even know what virtue is. Socrates explains this by way of comparing Meno’s native Thessaly with Socrates’ Athens, noting that Thessaly is now well-reputed for wisdom thanks to the famous teacher, Gorgias. But the reputation is based on how Gorgias has taught the Thessalians to speak, “fearlessly and magnificently…as is fitting for those who know;”—our first hint as to why words matter so much to Meno. In Athens, however, Meno won’t find anyone to speak about virtue, let alone speak fearlessly and magnificently. There is poverty in Athens in this regard, and Socrates shares it. Part of the explanation for Socrates’ poverty (or so Socrates implies) is that he does not have a good memory, and so he doesn’t have knowledge readily in his possession and ready for display. For example, he can’t remember if Gorgias seemed to know what virtue was when last he was in Athens. It is in this context, in the context of Socrates’ admission to a poor memory, that he puts his question to Meno in the puzzling way I have mentioned.
SOCRATES: I’m not a very good rememberer, Meno, so I’m not able to say at present how he seemed to me then. But perhaps he did know, and you know what he used to say. Then, remind me how he said it. Or, if you wish, speak yourself, for you surely share his opinion.
MENO: I do.
SOCRATES: Then let’s let him go, since, in fact, he is not here. But you yourself, by the gods, Meno, what do you declare virtue to be? Speak and don’t be begrudging, so that I will have fabricated a most fortunate falsehood if it becomes evident that you and Gorgias do know, while I’ve stated that I never happened to come across anyone who knew.
Now thanks to Socrates’ way of posing his questions to Meno, of which this is but one example in the dialogue, we are not quite sure on whose behalf Meno answers, though we do know that it is important enough to Socrates to invoke the gods in the service of Meno answering for himself. This invocation suggests that there is something deeply important at stake in Meno answering for himself. We learn throughout the dialogue that what is at stake is the possibility of finding something true, as compared, for example, with finding something merely gratifying, beautiful, or well-said—all of which Meno is perfectly willing to settle for at different points in the dialogue. On Socrates’ side, however, and so for the sake of the inquiry, it doesn’t matter whose idea of virtue Meno is providing when he answers: it only matters that the idea is true, that it holds up under the scrutiny of human experience and reason. This is one way to understand why Socrates might pose his questions in the way he does. It is an expression of Socrates’ rejection of the idea that knowledge is a matter of possession.
But it is also an expression of the fact that Socrates knows his interlocutor; he knows as we do, from the very first word out of Meno’s mouth, that on Meno’s side, knowledge is all about possession. This may offer insight into why Socrates immediately moves away from Meno’s question about the acquisition of virtue to the more fundamental question about what virtue is. It is easy enough to concede that the latter question is logically prior. Socrates makes the point that we can’t know about how virtue is acquired if we don’t know what virtue is, and this is reasonable enough. But Socrates shows in the third part of the dialogue that at least with the benefit of hypothetical reasoning borrowed from mathematics—if x is the case then y follows—it is logically possible to proceed to some sort of understanding of how virtue might be acquired without having answered the fundamental question about what virtue is. Socrates, then, must have some other reason for going to the fundamental question about virtue, and I think it is because he knows something about fundamental questions. He knows that they are difficult to answer simply from what is already in our possession, simply from what we have memorized without thought. As such, a fundamental question is just what Meno needs if he is to be shaken out of his habit of approaching knowledge as so many discrete possessions to be acquired. It is just what he needs if, in pursuing inquiry, he is to transcend his slavish commitment to the opinions that have been inculcated into him by the powers that be, the sophists whose influence in Meno’s day seems to extend as far and wide as the internet and the opinions which constitute it extends in our own day. Without at least challenging that inculcation, Meno may miss the opportunity to be liberated from the tyranny of convention and of experts. Yet this liberation is surely the beginning of any education, intellectual or moral. What is at stake for Meno, then, is the opportunity to be liberated toward thinking for himself at the level of knowledge and at the level of human interaction, for these come together in the question of virtue. The man who would be excellent needs a way out of the conventional wisdom with which he has been inculcated.
Meno’s first answer to the fundamental question “What is virtue?”, however, is a veritable compendium of the conventional wisdom of his day, which may be why Meno begins by saying that it is “not hard to tell” what virtue is. The virtue of a man is “to be sufficient to carry on the affairs of the city,” doing “well by his friends and harm to his enemies” while making sure to come to no harm himself; the virtue of a woman is to “manage the household well” and to be “obedient to her man”; and the virtues of a child, both male and female, and of an elderly man, or of a freeman or a slave, are also different according to their circumstances in life. Meno’s second answer to the same question, a result of Socrates asking him to say what all of those manifestations of virtue might have in common according to the fact that they are manifestations of the same thing, is that virtue is the ability to rule over human beings. This answer is in direct response to Socrates’ prodding for Meno to “say and to recollect what that very thing is which Gorgias, and you with him, affirm it to be.” And in his third answer, which he doesn’t even pretend to offer on his own behalf, Meno says that “virtue is just what the poet says, ‘both to rejoice and to be capable in beautiful things.’—though Meno tellingly transforms this into “to desire beautiful things and to be capable of providing them for oneself.”!
What Meno remembers, then, and what he thinks “for himself”, is one and the same. This is true even if what he remembers and thinks in one instance contradicts what he remembers and thinks in a different instance. For example, Meno constructed his first answer about virtue in terms of distinctions, including the distinction in virtue that would characterize a freeman as compared with a slave. But then in his second answer, he proposes the rule of others to be the essential nature of virtue, without seeing that this can’t hold true if the virtue of a slave, who can’t rule others, is to be distinguished from the virtue of a freeman, who can rule others. Socrates does not fail to point this out, not only in terms of the contrast between the slave and the freeman but in terms of the contrast between the child and the adult. Further, Meno is impressed enough with what the poet has said about the nature of virtue to remember and recite it, but in claiming to agree with him, he changes the whole meaning of what the poet has said by replacing rejoicing and capability in beautiful things with desire for and capacity to acquire beautiful things. I will say more about Meno’s three answers later. For now, the important point is that Meno’s habit of presenting his memories as his thoughts, of treating questions as mere occasions for sharing the bits and pieces of knowledge he already possesses, makes him an easy target for falling into contradictions and confusions, especially when Socrates is the one questioning him.
Socrates, for his part, seems perfectly willing to expose Meno’s limited approach to questions—I think because he recognizes that the acquisition of virtue will require that Meno experience this limitation for himself. He does so by showing Meno, again and again, the way in which the various opinions about virtue that he presents both contradict themselves and fail to get to the heart of the question that Socrates is asking and that Meno’s answers are only ostensibly addressing. This exposure has its effect, but not necessarily the one that Socrates and we might hope—namely, a moment in which Meno might really see what is at stake in the question and truly make an attempt to answer for himself. Rather, it has the effect of bringing out Meno’s second approach to questions, the one that treats them as opportunities for intellectual warfare.
At the end of the first part of the dialogue, concerned as it is with the question of what virtue is that Socrates tirelessly tries to replace for Meno’s question about how one might come about the possession of virtue, Meno goes on the attack. The passage I wish to get to is by far Meno’s longest speech in the dialogue; it is the one in which he likens Socrates to the torpedo-fish. But lest it appear that this moment of savaging Socrates is an anomaly rather than the clearest expression of Meno’s character and of the character of his relation to questions, I want to go back once more to the beginning of the dialogue.
In the course of telling Meno at the outset that he, Socrates, has no knowledge of what virtue is, Socrates is making the point to Meno that the real question isn’t whether Socrates “has it in him” to say how virtue is acquired; the real question is what virtue is. That is the relevant question if Meno truly wishes to find out how virtue might be acquired, for he needs to be able to recognize it whether he finds it in Socrates’ possession or somewhere else. Furthermore, on this very important matter of virtue, the question must be Meno’s—which means that it is Meno who must “have it in him” to pursue virtue if he is to have hope of acquiring it, maybe even exercising it. This latter point emerges subtly, through Socrates’ reference to Meno’s identity as an example of what he has in mind when he says that one cannot know about virtue—e.g., how it is acquired—if he doesn’t know what virtue is. This reference is importantly expressed as a question, book ended by two other questions. These three questions, taken together, present Meno with the opportunity to see that the question about the nature of virtue is more important to Meno than Meno himself has recognized in asking about how to acquire it. Its importance to Meno goes to the heart of who Meno is, which is intimately connected to the importance of his learning to think for himself if he is ever to have knowledge at all, let alone knowledge of something as important as virtue. Socrates asks, “And how could I know what sort of thing something is, if I do not know what it is? Or does it seem possible to you that someone who has no cognizance of Meno at all, who he is, could know whether he is handsome or rich or well-born, or the opposite of these? Does it seem possible to you?” Meno concedes that this does not seem possible, but what he doesn’t do is seize the opportunity to consider why Socrates might have drawn his attention to the essential question of who Meno is precisely with respect to the fundamental question about virtue and with respect to the question of what he himself thinks. But we readers of Meno have been alerted. Meno’s search is going to have to acquire greater depth if it is to be successful.
Meno, however, does not pause to consider what the question about virtue might mean to him, to his own self-knowledge with respect to the very acquisition he hopes to make. Instead, he immediately goes to what the question might mean for Socrates—but for Socrates in his capacity as Meno’s opponent, one who should be concerned not about the essential question of his own virtue, but about how he might fail to appear excellent to others. Meno asks, “But do you, Socrates, truly not know what virtue is, and is this really what we should report about you back home?” Instead of recognizing the opening that Socrates has offered to Meno to consider the question of virtue and its importance for who Meno is, Meno puts Socrates on notice: he is sizing up what Socrates has to offer as an opponent, and as part of the competition he is going to make sure that Socrates is self-conscious about how Meno will report back on their confrontation.
Meno’s spirit of contentiousness continues to show itself all the way up to the speech about the torpedo-fish, not least interestingly in his willful contempt for following an argument to its conclusion. On the analogy of health, and then of size and strength, Socrates tries to get Meno to see that just because different people may manifest virtue in different ways, the virtue itself being manifested must in any case be one thing. That is, there must be some definition of virtue that underlies its ability to be recognized under different manifestations. But, in spite of seeing perfectly well how it is true for health and size and strength that each is the same in whomever it is found, Meno refuses to concede this when it comes to virtue—this despite the fact that Socrates has been proceeding analogically. Socrates, before continuing to pursue the argument, blurts out “But why?”.
We find out soon enough. For upon continuing with the argument, Socrates does get Meno to follow it through to its logical conclusion. This amounts to a refutation of Meno’s first answer, which broke virtue up into many different things according to who its possessor happened to be. This refutation is what precipitated Meno’s need to offer his second answer, the one about rule. But this answer operates at more than one level. To be sure it operates at the level of the argument, attempting as it does to offer a single definition of virtue as ability to rule in lieu of the many definitions that Socrates has shown to miss the requirement of the question. But it also operates at the level of the drama, betraying why Meno has resisted the logic of the argument. Meno can’t or won’t distinguish the argument from his opponent, whose “rule” over him he intends to avoid at all costs—even at the cost of withholding a possession, knowledge of a logical conclusion, which he might otherwise display to his advantage. For in the course of the inquiry, Meno himself is attempting to exercise the very virtue he has identified as the ability to rule over human beings—a “virtue” he doesn’t even seem to imagine might be inappropriate to a discussion between friends about the most important questions.
And Socrates is on to him. In attempting to get Meno to examine his second answer, Socrates introduces the language of rule outright, albeit indirectly with respect to the way in which Meno is approaching the inquiry. Regarding the various human virtues that Meno has quite willingly acknowledged to exist in the course of their discussion of Meno’s second answer, Socrates asks “What are these? Tell me. Just as I too could tell you that there are also other shapes, if you were to order me to do so, you too then tell me other virtues. Socrates introduces this language of rule at a curious moment, for it is a moment in which Meno appears to be particularly amenable to the argument. But Socrates is implicitly pointing out to Meno that he knows the terms on which Meno has engaged him. He is exposing Meno’s approach to the conversation from the standpoint of rule, from the standpoint of who is giving orders and who is taking them, from the standpoint of who is in control and who is being controlled.
It does not take long for Meno to confirm through his speech and his actions what Socrates has pointed out indirectly about the character of his engagement with the inquiry. To begin with, Meno makes explicit his inability to separate his opponent from the logic of the argument. He substitutes Socrates’ approach to the argument for the form of the argument itself in offering his excuse for not following what Socrates is asking in his question about the definition of virtue. “No,” Meno concedes to Socrates’ statement that they still haven’t found out what virtue is, “for I am somehow not able to grasp, Socrates, as you seek it, one virtue from all, as I can in the other cases.” Yet Socrates’ approach to virtue, the way he goes about seeking it, differs not at all from the other cases that Meno has been able to grasp, for Socrates has been “seeking” virtue by analogy to those other cases. Further, when Socrates continues with the language of “orders,” pressing Meno to offer an answer to a question about the definition of shape which covers any shape, from straight to round, Meno refuses outright and follows up immediately with an order. “No, but you say it, Socrates.” This is not only a refusal, then; it is a reversal as well. Now Meno, who has clearly resisted the rule of Socrates and his argument, asserts himself as ruler in the exchange.
The refusal comes exactly at the wrong time and is at Meno’s own expense, at least if he is serious about finding a way to answer his questions about the acquisition of virtue. In asking for a definition of shape, Socrates is clear that it can serve as a pattern for the definition of virtue that they seek; answering the question will give Meno “some serious practice for the answer about virtue.” And of course, once they have a definition for virtue, they can go on to the question of how virtue is acquired—the question supposedly of interest to Meno himself, and one which we, as readers of the dialogue, now know to be of utmost importance not only for the sake of Meno’s knowledge but for the sake of his character as well. Meno’s refusal to answer shows that Meno doesn’t have it in him to pursue inquiry, even if it means having something about virtue in his possession at the end. But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have it in him to rule Socrates and the terms of the inquiry, and the effect of his reversal—from being “ruled” by the argument toward a logical conclusion that contradicts the opinion he holds to “ruling” Socrates—is to redefine the inquiry on his own terms. It is to redefine the inquiry as a confrontation between contenders for rule rather than a cooperative search for what virtue might be.
Meno’s move to contention for “rule” quickly manifests itself as outright attack. Socrates, in the name of the worthiness of the endeavor to find out what virtue is by following the argument through to its end, does offer a definition of shape as Meno commands—which answer, we should remember, may serve as a pattern for the answer to the question about what virtue is. He says that shape “is that which alone, of all things that are, which always happens to accompany color.” But the potential importance of the answer to the deeper inquiry eludes Meno altogether, or else he just doesn’t care. His comeback is swift, and it suggests that he is no longer interested even in possessing knowledge about virtue; now it is all about putting Socrates in his place, thereby strengthening his own rule. He says, “But this is really simple-minded, Socrates.”
Without taking this direct attack personally, Socrates asks Meno why the answer is simple-minded. Meno’s response makes clear that he is interested in something other than virtue in pursuing the discussion with Socrates; for his objection to the definition is on the grounds that some questioner might not know what color is, so that the definition of shape as always accompanying color would simply lead to a question about what color is. But we know, along with Socrates, that Meno knows full well from his own experience what color is, for only one page earlier in the dialogue he followed Socrates’ account of color with full awareness of what he was talking about. Meno isn’t after virtue in pursuing the argument; nor is he willing to use his experience and reason to advance in that pursuit. Meno wants to win the argument, against Socrates, and at whatever cost—at the cost of relying on his own experience and reason, even at the cost of giving up some of his “possessions” by refusing to acknowledge what he does know in the service of finding an answer to the question posed by Socrates.
There is no longer any question as to the terms of the engagement: inquiry into virtue has been replaced by a battle for rule. Socrates calls Meno on his contentiousness, but once again indirectly. He begins by letting Meno know simply that with respect to color, he himself would have answered with the truth; he would have done what Meno refused to do. He then continues,
And if the questioner were one of those wise men with a bent for strife and contention, I would tell him, “That’s what I said. And if I don’t speak correctly, it’s your task to take up the argument and refute it.” But if, being friends as both I and you are now, they should want to have a discussion with one another, then surely a somehow more gentle and more dialectical way of answering is required. And it is perhaps more dialectical to answer not only with the truth, but also through those things which he who is being questioned could agree that he knows.
Socrates’ words—the indirect criticism of Meno’s contentious way of proceeding and the invitation to a more dialectical approach to the questions they are pursuing—fall on deaf ears. Meno continues to exercise his rule, and the battle escalates to the point that Socrates offers direct criticism. He calls Meno outrageous and accuses him outright of imposing commands in his arguments, “the very thing that spoiled people do, so as to tyrannize as long as they are in their prime.”
We can now hear Meno’s torpedo-fish speech for the culmination of Meno’s warlike approach to inquiry that it is. For upon having his third account of virtue refuted, and upon having Socrates ask him to “answer again, from the beginning: what do you affirm virtue to be, both you and your comrade?”, Meno simply lets loose with attacks that settle any question as to where he stands on contentious vs. more dialectical discussions. Given his understanding of intellectual inquiry as rule, and even as combat, it is not surprising that what pushes him to attack Socrates is his lack of control over Socrates and over the situation. His attack starts as an insult and ends in a threat. I will quote the entire passage, which shows Meno’s warlike approach to questions better than I can.
Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never do anything else than exist in a state of perplexity yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to me to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is even appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and in other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches and touches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb. For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you. And yet thousands of times I have made a great many speeches about virtue, and before many people, and done very well, in my own opinion anyway; yet now I’m altogether unable to say what it is. And it seems to me that you are well-advised not to sail away or emigrate from here: for, if you, a foreigner in a different city, were to do this sort of thing, you would probably be arrested as a sorcerer.
We have already seen, in the first word of the dialogue, the sense in which Meno’s word choice tells us something about him. So too does his choice of images. The image here is one of paralysis—the paralysis manifested alternatively as perplexity, bewitchment, intoxication, and numbness. Meno blames Socrates for his paralysis, but our inquiry into Meno’s character and into the character of his relationship to questions suggests a different source for Meno’s inability to move with the question of what virtue is. Meno has been paralyzed not by Socrates but by the education he has received. Once again, in order to hear this speech fully, we must return to the very beginning of the dialogue. From the beginning, we know three things that help us to see what Meno reveals about himself in this attack he makes on Socrates: We know that in asking Socrates questions, Meno has tried to put Socrates in the position of being his teacher. We know from Socrates that Meno has been a student of Gorgias, whose particular contribution to his pupils has been to habituate them to speak fearlessly and magnificently about anything anyone might ask them. And we know that Meno cares about reputations, both Gorgias’ reputation for knowing and Socrates’ reputation for ignorance, but most certainly also his own.
We also know from hearing Meno’s attempts at an answer to the question “What is virtue?” that Meno’s supposed thinking for himself is wholly caught up in what he remembers others to have said. Teachers for Meno, then, are extremely important. For what they say becomes what he thinks. He becomes possessed by his teachers, and treats jealously what they have to offer him as possessions. It is not surprising, then, that Socrates’ ignorance has become Meno’s. Socrates has given Meno nothing to possess, except the pressing nature of a question that he cannot answer. But Meno simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to experience, or even reason his way to, the invitation to inquiry that Socrates has provided against Meno’s attacks. The press of Socrates’ questions can only be felt by Meno as an insult and as a threat—an insult to what he thought he knew, thanks to the tutelage of Gorgias; and a threat to his reputation, which before had been established by the thousands of times he’d spoken well about virtue before many people but which now is suffering, even in front of the slaves of his own house and perhaps in front of the Athenians to whom he is representing Thessaly. Meno has been exposed in the worst way—at least given the focus of his education on knowledge as possession and as a means to ruling others. In saying that “both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you,” Meno uses the verb ehko, the same verb with which he began the dialogue, though in a different form. He is admitting outright that he doesn’t “have it in him” to answer Socrates’ question. Meno has lost the source of his control. He behaves as one dispossessed.
That Meno insults and then threatens Socrates, all because he feels paralyzed, is then no surprise. In becoming paralyzed, Meno has failed to rule Socrates through the power of his possessions, through the power of the knowledge he has acquired from others. Yet ruling others is the only framework from which Meno knows how to approach questions. Unfortunately for him, Gorgias has taught him well. As long as he can hold forth on the question of virtue, in speeches presumably uninterrupted by pesky questions, and in crowds in which the speaker has the upper hand precisely because the crowd is too big to respond, Meno is able to hold his own. He has it in him to say what virtue is and to say it well. But he doesn’t have the wherewithal to pursue a question that is actually approached dialectically. He can’t enter into the give and take of conversation that might lead one not to a new bit of knowledge to tuck away for future use, but back to the beginning, back to a fundamental question, where a deepening of perplexity might be exactly the way toward knowledge.
Meno’s paralysis is not the fault of Socrates. The reason that Meno can’t move is because everything about his education to date has failed to prepare him for confronting fundamental questions for himself. But this failure is not an intellectual one. Meno’s education has prepared him well enough intellectually. We have seen, for example, that he can follow an argument well enough to know when he must withhold assent from a logical conclusion lest he lose the argument. And in other parts of the dialogue, we see that Meno can follow mathematical reasoning, geometrical and hypothetical. But fundamental questions don’t just require intellectual engagement. They don’t just require remembering what we have learned so that we can bring it out for display at the appropriate time. They don’t just require that we speak well, maybe even well enough to exercise our rule over those with whom we are conversing. They require something more, the very thing which Meno has failed to acquire through Socrates’ attempts to expose the limitations of his relationship to questions by pressing him until he admits that he is paralyzed, that he can’t move in the usual ways he is used to proceeding. That something is a matter of character, perhaps specifically the excellence or virtue that always accompanies knowledge even as shape is that which always accompanies color. If this is right, then the pressing question now is why Meno, in spite of his apparent concern with knowledge, can’t seem to acquire its proper accompaniment—virtue.
I will end my lecture tonight by saying just a little bit about why virtue eludes Meno. In so doing, however, I will not have time to address myself to the second and third part of the dialogue, except by way of reference. I will not be able to explore the content of the recollection myth that Socrates shares with Meno in an attempt to get him past the paralysis that Meno himself introduces into the inquiry by torpedoing the argument with a debater’s trick whose destructiveness is not only rhetorical, but moral; nor will I be able to discuss the way in which Socrates uses one of Meno’s slave boys not only to demonstrate the way in which his myth of recollection might be true, but also the way in which it might be beautiful for its ability to reveal the importance of character in the pursuit of knowledge and what we stand to gain from it; and I must leave aside a discussion of Socrates’ account of how virtue might be acquired, which account gets us thinking about the difference between knowledge and opinion, the latter of which may be all that we have finally seen exhibited by Meno given that he does not possess the virtue that might necessarily accompany knowledge. Happily, our freshmen have a whole year during which to consider these things, and during which to return to the beginning of the dialogue that I have focused on tonight to see if my reading holds up under the scrutiny of their experience and reason with respect to the entire dialogue. And of course we might be able to talk about these things in the question period following the lecture if my colleagues and our continuing students will join us.
But for now, I want to draw the attention of our freshmen to Meno’s incapacity for virtue. And I will start by saying that it is ironic, maybe even tragic, because it has directly to do with the focus on possession and on ruling others that Meno’s education has instilled when it comes to seeking after knowledge. In being bent on possession, Meno is dependent on what is outside of himself in order to be satisfied. He needs teachers who have something to give him, something which he doesn’t already possess and which he needs if he is going to continue along the path of collecting “knowledge” for the sake of using it to his advantage in controlling others. Socrates, at that crucial point in the dialogue when Meno effected his refusal and reversal of Socrates’ “rule” over him with the argument about shape, exposes Meno’s need for gratification directly, and Meno doesn’t even attempt to deny it; nor does he seem bothered by the slavishness in his character that the need for gratification reveals about him. Presumably, it is Socrates’ failure to gratify him that leaves him so infuriated with Socrates at the end of the first part of the dialogue, for Socrates—at least apparently and at the level of the argument—hasn’t given him anything to hold on to in pursuing the inquiry into virtue. This in spite of the fact that Meno has worked very hard to establish his rule so that Socrates will provide gratification.
But Meno calms down considerably following his comparison of Socrates to the torpedo-fish, when he thinks that he has established his rule definitively by offering an apparently irrefutable argument. The argument, not surprisingly, means to undercut what Socrates has been pressing Meno to do throughout the first part of the dialogue: to search for something he doesn’t know, rather than keep going back to what he already has in his possession. Socrates recapitulates the argument in a way that makes explicit Meno’s intended destructiveness in bringing it forward.
SOCRATES: I understand the sort of thing you want to say, Meno. Do you not see how inclined to strife this argument your are drawing out is, that it is not possible for a human being to seek either what he knows or what he does not know? For he could not seek for what he knows, because he knows it and there’s no need of any seeking for this sort of person; nor could he seek for what de does not know, because then he does not know what he is seeking.
Meno isn’t bothered either by the contentiousness of his argument or by its destructiveness. He may even be oblivious to the true paralysis it introduces into his and Socrates’ ability to continue with the inquiry, for it eliminates the very “space”, if you will, within which inquiry must take place: the “space” between the gratification of knowing that renders inquiry irrelevant on the one side, and on the other side the complete impossibility of fulfillment through inquiry that is the result of determining that there is no way to seek for something which we do not know. Oblivious or not, Meno betrays the limited sense in which words matter to him and in so doing offers more insight into his character. He says in reply to Socrates: “Doesn’t this argument seem to you to have been said beautifully?” But Socrates reveals to Meno the liability in being overly gratified by beautiful words, pitting against Meno’s argument the myth of recollection, an account he describes as “A true one, it seems to me, and a beautiful one.”
The potential to find truth, or even what seems like truth, is what Meno will miss if he satisfies himself with things that are merely beautifully said—or for that matter, powerfully said or cleverly said. But Meno’s desire for rule is precisely what has led him to sabotage the argument at various junctures—with beautifully said words meant to end the inquiry he cannot seem to follow; with powerful words meant to insult and threaten Socrates, whom he cannot seem to control; with clever words which deny simple experiences from which he might learn in order to hold out from even considering a definition which he himself has ordered his interlocutor to produce.
But if we have seen anything in the first part of Plato’s dialogue, we have seen that Meno’s desire for rule means he can’t be bothered with the truth if he doesn’t already have it in his possession or if it doesn’t present itself in a form already familiar to him. No wonder, then, that Meno undergoes a significant shift in disposition during the second and third part of the dialogue. He thinks that he has established his rule over Socrates, as evidenced—at least from Meno’s perspective—by Socrates finally offering something he can hold on to: a beautiful story, told by wise men and women, in the form of the myth of recollection; and a simple (perhaps simple-minded) answer to the question of how virtue may be acquired, apparently as a gift from the gods. But we, Plato’s readers, cannot have failed to miss Meno’s profound frustration and lack of control prior to being placated by Socrates. And this testifies to the power that Socrates has over him, not because Socrates cares anything for such power, but because Meno has given it to him by needing to possess what Socrates may have and by needing to rule him.
The irony, then, is that for a man so concerned with possession, Meno is not in possession of himself. He is driven by the desire for what he lacks and wishes mindlessly to acquire for the sake of his own gratification. And the tragedy is that in not being self-possessed, this man, who is so concerned with ruling others, fails to be in a condition to rule himself. It is this failure that precludes him from any true encounter with virtue, and this explains why Socrates, who knows Meno better than we do, rebukes him outright on the very matter of self-rule. It is through this rebuke that we are initiated into the knowledge that Meno’s impulse to possession and to rule has actually limited his freedom as well as his access to virtue. The freshmen will have to listen carefully, as their preparation for tonight’s lecture did not include either the rebuke or the immediate pages leading up to it.
The rebuke comes after Socrates has offered to Meno the myth of recollection, an account that will allow them to search for what they do not know, and after he has provided the demonstration that Meno requires of the insight offered by the myth through the efforts of Meno’s slave boy, who through his openness to Socrates’ questions, and despite his utter perplexity at more than one juncture, comes to knowledge of a mathematical problem about which he knew nothing before largely through efforts grounded in his good character. Meno has just agreed with Socrates that it does indeed look like it is possible after all to seek after what one doesn’t already know, and he even pays Socrates the highest compliment imaginable—at least coming from Meno. He says that Socrates has spoken well. And so Socrates attempts to return to the fundamental question of what virtue is, perhaps seeing a moment in which Meno might actually be open to the inquiry. The exchange goes as follows:
SOCRATES: Do you want us, then, since we are of one mind that one ought to seek for what one does not know, to try to seek in common for what virtue is?
MENO: By all means. Not, Socrates, but that I would with most pleasure both look for and hear about that which I asked about at first, whether one ought to undertake it as being teachable, or as by nature, or as in whatever way virtue comes to human beings.
SOCRATES: Yet, Meno, if I were ruling not only myself, but you too, we would not first look at whether virtue is something teachable or not teachable before we first sought what it itself is: but, since you don’t even try to rule yourself, in order indeed that you might be free, you both try to rule me and do rule me, I will yield to you—for what can I do?
First and foremost, it is worth noting that Socrates calls Meno on his lack of effort at ruling himself in the precise moment at which Socrates gives up on the point he has ceaselessly tried to make to Meno, as I hope I have suggested if not shown, for the sake of the argument as well as for the sake of Meno’s character. He calls Meno on his lack of effort at self-rule when he finally capitulates to Meno and agrees to inquire into how virtue might be acquired even though the inquiry into what virtue is has failed miserably. We can’t ignore the connection that is being made here. Meno’s lack of effort in ruling himself precludes his ability to know what virtue is. Socrates is conceding this. But this, of course, means that Meno has no hope of acquiring what he isn’t even willing to search for. And so when Socrates concedes to answer Meno’s opening questions, it is with the knowledge that Meno doesn’t have it in him to know virtue, let alone the wherewithal to acquire it. The chance for Meno has passed, for he won’t find the answer to his questions in the argument that he finally secures from Socrates by his rule over him.
The answer to his questions was to be found in the activity of inquiry itself, to which Socrates invited Meno expecting no more than his best and bravest effort at approaching a fundamental question. That is, the answer was to be found in the “space” between the gratification that comes from already knowing, and the paralysis that comes from being convinced that what is not already known can’t be found. The answer to the question was, after all, in the first part of the dialogue—but most notably in the drama, which reached an important peak at the moment that Meno refused to pursue a definition of shape that Socrates promised might be a pattern for the definition of virtue.
The drama of the dialogue has shown that it is precisely self-rule that is required for confronting the fundamental question of what virtue is, and I suppose that in stubbornly trying to show this to Meno throughout the first part of the dialogue, Socrates showed us from the very beginning that the attempt was in Meno’s case both crucial and futile. For Meno is overly committed to the knowledge he already has in his possession. He confronts fundamental questions by piecing together what he has learned from others, and in so doing he inevitably wanders into confusions and contradictions. And Meno is overly concerned with being in control—of knowledge, of inquiry, and of others in their capacity as interlocutors. As a result, he misses the opportunity to find the truth that might be uncovered through genuinely mutual inquiry.
The fundamental question raised by Socrates requires self-rule because it requires us to think for ourselves, to dig beneath the surface of conventional wisdom and even of what experts might have to tell us. It requires self-rule because it necessarily arrests us; it challenges our control by perplexing us, maybe even by paralyzing us, so that our response will determine whether we slavishly stick with what we think we know as Meno did or freely come to know something we didn’t know we had it in us to know as Meno’s slave did. Either way, Socrates is telling Meno quite clearly in his rebuke that he has missed the essence of freedom through education by thinking that its exercise over others is what is important. It is the exercise of our freedom in the simple act of self-rule that makes the acquisition of virtue possible, both as something we might know and as something that might define our character. Meno has failed on both counts, and so we should be skeptical about any attempt by Socrates after the first part of the dialogue to gratify Meno’s misguided desire to know about virtue.
In exposing Meno’s character, I have had no intention to preempt our freshmen’s reading of Meno. On the contrary, my hope has been to awaken their curiosity as to why we might ask them to spend so much time with him in their freshman year, both in seminar and in language class. Nor have I meant to expose Meno merely for the sake of running him down; taking note of his bad character isn’t worth much if we can’t learn from it. Rather, in addressing myself to Meno tonight, I really hoped to let the freshmen in on a secret, one which suggests why they might spend their time, at the outset of their liberal education, thinking about a character whose education has failed him and who has failed at his education. Here’s the secret: There may be a little Meno in all of us who are seekers after knowledge, and so to see his shortcomings may be to see our own potential pitfalls. To do so is a step in the direction of freedom, one which is possible only if we can get past the fascination with knowledge as a possession; only if we can get past the allure of inquiry as an opportunity for intellectual warfare. This isn’t to say that there aren’t ideas worth keeping for a lifetime and even fighting for, and Socrates says as much when he says that “in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek—on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed.”
But whether we find ourselves freed by education or enslaved by it doesn’t finally have to do with the knowledge we end up possessing or even the power it gives us over books, conversations, and others. It has to do with our character, and with the genuine freedom it takes to rule ourselves in the search for what might be true and truly excellent. It is only through this freedom that we might hope to move beyond Meno’s three answers to the question “What is virtue?” and the paralysis in his character that they express: the paralysis to move beyond conventional wisdom; the paralysis that results from the need to control others; and the paralysis that comes from desiring what is beautiful more than rejoicing in it, from focusing on the capacity to acquire what is beautiful rather than on the capacity for beauty. An education which goes beyond what we can do with knowledge toward what knowledge can do to us may not be conducive to immediate gratification; but it holds out the greatest possibility for fulfillment through genuine freedom. That freedom is a matter of thought, to be sure. But it is perhaps even more a matter of character, that part of ourselves which is the bridge between what we know and what we do. It is within that “space” that genuine inquiry into fundamental questions is possible, and it is within that “space” that we might find our own virtue, our own excellence, through liberal education.