Plato's Meno

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Given its brevity, Plato's Meno covers an astonishingly wide array of topics: politics, education, virtue, definition, philosophical method, mathematics, the nature and acquisition of knowledge, and immortality. Its treatment of these, through profound, is tantalisingly short, leaving the reader with many unresolved questions. This book confronts the dialogue's many enigmas and attempts to solve them in a way that is both lucid and sympathetic to Plato's philosophy. Reading the dialogue as a whole, it explains how different arguments are related to one another, and how the interplay between characters is connected to the philosophical content of the work. In a new departure, this book's exploration focused primarily on the content and coherence of the dialogue in its own right, and not merely in the context of other dialogues, making it required reading for all students of Plato, be they from the world of classics or philosophy.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Dominic Scott's contribution to the McCabe series of commentaries on Platonic dialogues is a most welcome addition to that still short but fine list. Scott's clear analysis and considered judgments illuminate previously dark corners of the dialogue. The great value of Scott's book lies in the stimulating questions it raises and in the often novel and always carefully supported ideas it advances. it should not be missed by anyone interested in Plato's Meno."
Roslyn Weiss, Lehigh University, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Scott's interpretation of the Meno has raised challenging questions and offers fresh answers that are supported by a close reading of the dialogue...It makes a serious contribution to the study of Plato and should not be neglected." —Lee Trepanier, Saginaw Valley State University: The Review of Metaphysics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521104685
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 3/19/2009
  • Series: Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 252
  • Sales rank: 1,401,130
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominic Scott is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Clare College. His previous publications include Recollection and Experience: Plato's Theory of Learning and its Successors (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521640334 - Plato'S Meno - by Dominic Scott



Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly, asks how virtue is acquired. In reply, Socrates professes himself unable to answer: since he does not even know what virtue is, how can he know how it is acquired? Meno agrees to tackle the nature of virtue first and offers Socrates a definition, or rather a list of different kinds of virtue. After some argument, he accepts that this is inadequate, and offers another definition - virtue as the power to rule - which is also rejected. In order to help the inquiry along, Socrates gives a short lesson in definition, after which Meno offers his third and final definition of virtue: the desire for fine things and ability to acquire them. When this is refuted, he despairs of ever making any progress in their inquiry: how, he demands, can you look for something of whose nature you are entirely ignorant? Even if you stumble upon the answer, how will you know that this is the thing you did not know before?

In the face of this challenge, Socrates changes tack (81a). Adopting a religious tone, he asserts that the soul is immortal and has had many previous lives; what we call learning is in fact the recollection of knowledge that the soul had before. At Meno's request, he offers to provide some support for these claims, and summons one of Meno's slave boys to join them. Drawing some figures in the sand, he sets the boy a geometrical puzzle: take a square with sides of two feet and an area of four square feet. What would be the length of the sides of the square whose area is double the original? In response to Socrates' questioning, the boy first gives two wrong answers. But eventually, after continued questioning, he gives the correct one. Socrates argues that, as he has only questioned the boy and never taught him, the answers must have been in him all along. In fact, they must have been in him before birth. Finally, Socrates mounts an argument to show that the truth was in him for all time and that his soul is immortal.

They now return to the topic of virtue. Socrates still wants it defined, but Meno persists in asking how it is acquired (86c). Socrates yields to his demand and, to move the inquiry ahead, introduces a new method adapted from geometry, the method of hypothesis. If virtue is a form of knowledge, he argues, it can be taught. The task now is to show that virtue is a form of knowledge, which Socrates immediately proceeds to do: virtue is the knowledge that enables us to make correct use of our available resources, be they money, power, or qualities of character, such as endurance or self-discipline. So, at this point (89c), Meno's original question seems to have been answered: since virtue is knowledge it must be teachable. But then Socrates raises a doubt: if virtue were teachable, surely they would be able to point to actual teachers and learners of it. Introducing a new character, Anytus (later to be a key figure in Socrates' trial and execution), he tries to find instances of people who have successfully taught virtue to someone else. The sophists are brusquely dismissed as charlatans, and instead they turn to consider four of the most eminent politicians in recent Athenian history. None of them, it turns out, succeeded in transmitting their virtue even to those dearest to them, their own sons, which they would surely have done if they had been able to teach it. Since even these men were unable to teach their virtue, Socrates now suspects that it may not after all be teachable (94e).

Anytus, clearly annoyed, accuses Socrates of maligning the great men of Athens and withdraws from the dialogue, leaving Meno to resume the role of interlocutor. After confirming the conclusion just reached with Anytus, they find themselves in a quandary. At one point earlier on, they thought they had established that virtue must be teachable because it is a form of knowledge. Now they have reached the conclusion that it is not teachable. At 96e, Socrates proposes a way out. They were wrong to think that virtue is only knowledge. It is not just by knowledge that one can act rightly and make correct use of one's resources, but also by having something less - true belief. After explicating the difference between knowledge and true belief, Socrates goes on to draw a parallel with poets and soothsayers who are divinely inspired to say much that is both useful and true, but without any understanding. Similarly, he suggests, the great politicians guided their city not by knowledge, but by true belief. He concludes that virtue comes by divine dispensation, although he adds that they still need to investigate the nature of virtue before establishing with any clarity how it is acquired.


The Meno is a remarkable work - a philosophical gem, as J. S. Mill called it.1 Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is the theory of recollection and its purported means of demonstration, the interview with the slave boy. But the dialogue is also remarkable for the sheer breadth of topics covered in so short a space: virtue, definition, philosophical method, mathematical method, education, the origins of knowledge, the immortality of the soul, Athenian politics, and the distinction between knowledge and true belief. In this way, the Meno epitomises the synoptic character of so much of Plato's work: here was a philosopher who could rarely broach one topic without stumbling upon a multitude of others.

But this feature of the dialogue also raises acute challenges for the interpreter. For one thing, what is the work about? Over the years, this question has met with quite different responses. Some see it as a dialogue about virtue; others have claimed that the ethical themes of the work are chosen just by way of example: the real topic is inquiry, discovery or knowledge.2 A different response altogether would be to say that there is no one topic that the Meno is 'about'; its interests are irreducibly plural. Even so, we might want to find a complex unity - some rationale for why all these different themes are included within one work. There is such a unity, I shall claim, but that is something which we can only establish after working through all the different arguments one by one.

As we do so, we shall confront what is surely the main interpretative challenge of the work. Because it covers so much in so short a space, its arguments often appear very sketchy. For example, the amount of space that Socrates devotes to proving recollection from the evidence of the slave boy's performance (85b-d) is remarkably brief relative to the enormity of the conclusion; the argument for immortality flashes past just as quickly; and it takes little more than a page (87d-89a) to establish the thesis that virtue is knowledge. (Contrast the much lengthier treatment of the Protagoras, 349e-360e.) So with relatively little information at our disposal, it is often very difficult to determine on any one occasion exactly what the argument is. Worse, a sketchy argument can easily be represented as a bad one. Critics of a particular passage will claim that there are gaps not so much in Socrates' presentation, but in the argument itself: he just does not have the premises he needs to draw his conclusion. In places, Socrates seems to admit as much. At the end of the recollection passage, he sounds extremely tentative about the conclusions he has drawn (86b6-7), and later on has to correct a mistake in his own argument that virtue is knowledge (96d5-e5). At the end, he stresses the need to resume the inquiry into the nature of virtue before they have any confidence in the conclusions they have drawn about its acquisition.

Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what Socrates is trying to conclude in a particular argument, never mind what the argument actually is. There has been disagreement about what Socrates means by saying that everyone desires good things (77b-78b), or that virtue is knowledge (87d-89a). Similar problems apply also to his methodological pronouncements: for instance, determining the exact nature of the hypothetical method has been a thorn in the flesh of many commentators over the years.

The main task of this book is to resolve the indeterminacies surrounding both the arguments and the conclusions that they are meant to support. Where the quality of the arguments is at issue, I shall discuss possible objections and then consider different ways of addressing them. Usually, this involves searching for premises that might be implicit and that would improve the quality of the argument; or, failing that, at least bringing out its interest and importance, whatever the flaws that remain.

There is another strategy. Faced with the prospect of having to redeem what looks like a bad argument, some commentators pronounce it as bad, but add that Socrates was perfectly aware of the fact. Interpreters who take this route claim that he ingeniously tricks Meno into accepting a bad argument, or deliberately confuses him with muddled exposition. In this spirit, individual commentators have targeted the slave boy demonstration, the references to geometry and mathematical method, as well as the entire final section of the dialogue from the appearance of Anytus to the end. If one were to adopt the views of all these interpreters at once, one would end up writing off much of the dialogue as self-consciously bad argument.3

Although such an approach might be appropriate for the occasional passage, it risks making the dialogue more of a fake than a gem, at least in philosophical terms. Furthermore, we should note from the outset that Socrates expects participants in a dialogue to speak the truth (75c-d). It is difficult to see how this is compatible with the use of deliberately misleading arguments on his part. At any rate, I have done my best to avoid this type of interpretation.4 Almost all the cases I have encountered where commentators adopt it can be better dealt with by a more patient approach to the argument or passage in question. I hope the result is that the dialogue justifies its description as a philosophical gem - even if a little rough cut for some tastes.


The Meno is very much a dialogue - a drama that unfolds between its various interlocutors. Though the same could be said of most of Plato's works, here characterisation and individual psychology are particularly striking. Throughout, Meno's own personality and his reaction to philosophical cross-examination are vividly portrayed. At a number of points Socrates makes explicit reference to his character, even calling him bullying, spoilt and arrogant. How seriously these comments are meant can be discussed in due course, but they ensure that the assessment of Meno as a person, and not just the quality of his answers, is kept well to the fore. The same can be said of Anytus, perhaps even more so.

But if characterisation is such a feature of this work, how are we to relate it to the philosophical content? With this question one needs to steer between two extremes. Some readers may be tempted to treat the dramatic element as mere packaging, or literary joie de vivre intended to draw us into the dialogue, which they then go on to ransack for philosophical arguments. But it is possible to go to the opposite extreme, and to be so caught up by Plato's powers of characterisation that one ends up reading a passage merely as an episode in an unfolding psychological drama, without asking what philosophical pay-off is involved.5

As far as the Meno is concerned, one thing that brings content and characterisation together is moral education. The dialogue, I shall argue, does not just have this topic as one of its central themes; it is also an exercise in moral education. Meno's character is carefully exhibited in the first half of the dialogue, not to leave us with a static portrait of a somewhat unsavoury character, but to introduce us to the educational challenge that Socrates has to face. After reviewing the faults that Meno is shown to possess in the first part of dialogue (pp. 60-65), I shall argue that he starts to improve, thus demonstrating the results of Socratic education at work (pp. 209-13).


Over and above the importance of its philosophical content or the brilliance of its characterisation, the Meno has another claim to fame: it has long had a fascination for those concerned with Plato's intellectual biography. 'Developmentalists', as they are sometimes called, usually divide his works into three groups. In the early dialogues, he aimed to capture the nature and character of Socrates' thought. While he did not reproduce verbatim transcripts of actual Socratic encounters, he at least caught the spirit of his mentor. But eventually Plato grew dissatisfied, especially with the negative character of Socratic philosophy with its emphasis on refutation, and started to develop positive views of his own. Also, he widened his philosophical horizons beyond Socrates' exclusively ethical interests to embrace metaphysics, epistemology and psychology. In the final phase of his thought, Plato adopts a critical approach to some of the views expounded in the middle period, and sometimes even reverts to the apparently negative style of the early Socratic dialogues.

Developmentalists often see the Meno as 'the' transitional dialogue.6 Although it starts in the manner of an early Socratic dialogue, it soon changes and, especially with the theory of recollection, shows Plato in his more positive mode, although without the confidence of some of the middle period works. This episode also shows the broadening of interest associated with Plato's departure from Socratic philosophy. The recollection passage is not the only point of interest to developmentalists. They also point to the distinction between knowledge and true belief (something of which Socrates says he has knowledge), and the interest in mathematics as a helpful parallel for philosophical method.

Developmentalism has been a distinctly mixed blessing for the Meno. In the first part of the dialogue, Socrates criticises Meno for breaking virtue into small pieces. The same can be said, alas, of so much recent work on the dialogue itself. Its claim to fame as 'the' transitional dialogue has often made commentators less interested in it in its own right than in how sections of it relate to other works. For instance, Socrates' examination of Meno in the first part is often used by scholars looking back to the earlier dialogues, while the positive epistemological developments that follow are often viewed as anticipations of later works. So although references to the work are plentiful, they often come as part of broader discussions of Plato's thought and its development.7

Nevertheless, 'developmentalism' should not be treated as a dirty word, despite the damage it has done to scholarship on the Meno. So long as we are prepared to do justice to the integrity of the dialogue, it can be very illuminating to see the methodological and epistemological achievements of the Meno in the context of Plato's broader development. Indeed developmentalists need not confine their interest to these fields alone. In the course of this book, I shall argue that the dialogue's moral psychology and political theory can also be seen as pointing towards other dialogues.

One specific claim that I shall make in this context is that, at various points in the dialogue, Plato puts Socrates on what I shall call 'philosophical trial'. The most dramatic example comes when Socrates introduces the theory of recollection in response to Meno's challenge to the possibility of inquiry and discovery (80d). This passage testifies to Plato's concern about whether it is possible to attain knowledge, and hence whether we have any duty to inquire. The historical Socrates certainly believed that we have a duty to inquire, however arduous that may be. Through Meno, however, Plato deliberately challenges this position, and does so by questioning whether discovery is actually possible: if not, why do we have any duty to inquire? Plato shows the importance of the challenge by putting into Socrates' mouth an unsocratic solution of extraordinary philosophical boldness. Other scholars have suggested such an approach to this passage, but I shall also argue that this is just one example of Plato putting Socrates on trial in the Meno. There are three others, which concern the historical Socrates' views on definition, the value of the elenchus and philosophical method. To this extent, at least, I am highly sympathetic to those who see the Meno as a work in which Plato wrestles his Socratic inheritance.8


© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 The opening : 70a-71d 11
2 The first definition : 71e-73c 23
3 A lesson in definition : 73c-77d 31
4 The third definition : 77b-79e 46
5 Meno as an interlocutor 60
6 The stingray : 79e-80d 69
7 'Meno's paradox' : 80d-81a 75
8 The emergence of recollection : 81a-e 92
9 The argument for recollection : 82b-85d 98
10 The conclusion : 86b6-c2 121
11 The method of hypothesis : 86c-87c 129
12 Virtue is teachable : 87c-89c 145
13 Virtue is not teachable : 89e-96d 161
14 Virtue as true belief : 96d-100b 176
15 Irony in the Meno : the evidence of the Gorgias 194
16 Meno's progress 209
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