There is a saying that everything in Western philosophy stems from Plato, since his writings set a foundation for all the philosophers to follow. In fact, there are those who believe that he is the greatest philosopher of all times -- even surpassing Socrates. One of the finest works of Plato is called the Dialogues. This set of writings was completed after Plato experienced the courtroom trial and death of his mentor and teacher Socrates. In the Dialogues, the protagonist is always Socrates who quizzes others about the basic concepts of morals and politics. Plato's goal appears, many times, to try and confuse and trip people up with the questions in order to demonstrate the complexity and power of his mentor's work. A prime example of these Dialogues is called Meno, which includes the Riddle or Paradox of Meno.
Plato's Dialogues usually are separated into three chronological groups. The first group details the philosophy of Socrates' and the second and third groups offer Plato's more sophisticated and increasingly personal thoughts that break away from those of his teacher. It is very difficult, however, to know when Plato is actually talking about the real Socrates and that of a made-up character by this name.
Despite the fact that Meno is so brief, it covers a wide range of topics. These include politics, education, virtue, definition, philosophical method, mathematics, the nature and gaining of knowledge and immortality. The riddle or paradox of Meno is part of the dialogue on how to define virtue.
The discussion between Meno and Socrates starts with Meno asking whether or not virtue can be taught. Meno suggests that virtue could be the result of practice or an inherent trait. Socrates responds by saying that even Meno's own countrymen, the Thessalians, have recently received a reputation for knowledge and wisdom because of the stardom and importance of Gorgias, a Sophist teacher from Leontini, Sicily, who has instructed individuals "to give a bold and grand answer to any question you may be asked, as experts are likely to do." On the other hand, says Socrates, the Anthenians do not promise that they can actually answer these questions. Even he, Socrates, is one of the ignorant -- or so he says at this time.
However, adds Socrates, first it may be best to define virtue rather than determine how it should come to be. Who exactly knows what virtue is? Perhaps even Gorgias, himself, does not know. Socrates and Meno then look at the different parameters of virtue among people: Virtue differs for males and females, children and elders, for example.
For men, virtue is found in the way they handle public affairs in order to benefit friends and harm enemies. Women, instead, are virtuous by managing their homes and serving their husbands. Children have their own virtues, the elderly theirs. However, such information is only a list of characteristics of virtue, not the definition itself. They are traits like a swarm of bees; not an actual definition. To answer, Meno should see what all these lists have in common among them.
Meno thus offers a definition that virtue is the ability to rule over people, since this is what he sees as the commonality. Socrates quickly responds by clarifying this definition by adding the words "just." Is it not true there is no virtuous quality without justice? And what about other factors such as courage, wisdom, and moderation? Are these not virtues as well? This brings Meno and Socrates back to square one again, making lists.
Meno then tries again to offer a definition to Socrates and is turned down again. The fourth time, he tries to use a quote. He says it is "to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them." Socrates once again sees this as too broad. He explains that some people want bad things, but actually do not realize these things are bad. "What else is being miserable," he asks, "but to desire bad things and secure them for oneself" Again, Meno is defining virtue by using a comparison.
By now, Meno is becoming quite frustrated and wants to figure out how to respond the right way to Socrates. This is when the Riddle of Meno or sometimes called the Paradox of Meno comes into play.
Meno asks Socrates the following paradox: "How can one who does not know something proceed to know it? If he does not know what he is looking for, can he ever find it? If he does know what he is looking for, then he already knows it and does not have any need to learn it."
Socrates called this the debater's argument, or the paradox of questioning. Suppose someone desires to know information "A." One must then look for either
1) knowing or 2) not knowing. If 1), then questioning is unnecessary since the person does not need to inquire about A if he already knows it. If 2), then questioning is impossible since a person cannot question something that he does not know. Thus, according to Meno's claim, one cannot go from not knowing to knowing. Of course, then no one can learn.
Socrates breaks this paradox argument by stating that learning is a recollection of past knowledge, or what he calls forms, that are attained by a person's embodied soul. Confused, Meno requests a demonstration. A slave boy is called to be questioned by Socrates. Since the slave speaks Greek, Socrates draws a square in the dirt in front of him and divides it into four equal sections. Asking questions of the slave, but never giving him any direct instructions, Socrates establishes that one side of a square four feet in area is two feet long. He then asks the slave to figure out the length of the side of a square that is double the area, or eight feet in area. Wrongly, the slave responds that such a side would be four feet, double the length of the original square. However, a four-foot side would yield a sixteen-foot square.
Then after a series of additional questions, the slave responds correctly. The fact that Socrates told him nothing but rather only questioned him demonstrates to Socrates that the boy knew the answer "deep" in his mind. It just had to be pulled out by a skillful form of questioning. Socrates thus concludes that learning is recollecting the knowledge prior to birth as disembodied souls. The information was within the slave just waiting to come out and reveal itself like a dream that comes out at night.
Recollection is the answer to the dilemma. In other words, Socrates can now advise Meno that "you should always confidently try to seek out and recollect what you do not know at present -- that is, what you do not recollect." Even if he has the concept of the soul's immortality and remembrance somewhat incorrect, this demonstration has indicated that "people will be better if they believe that they must search for the things they do not know."
Socrates elaborates on the theory of recollection, by quoting a passage from a poem that states that the soul is immortal and there is nothing it has not learned in the underworld. If this is indeed true, it is always possible for a person to learn. All he has to do is recall something the soul already knows, but is not aware of knowing.
Socrates once again calls in a slave to demonstrate he can actually recall some knowledge of geometry and therefore is able to answer Socrates' questions. Meno sees the slave respond correctly about the geometric figures. Meno is thus convinced of this theory and agrees that the slave, who does not appear to know, has within himself true opinions about the things that he does not know.
Meno recommends they go back to the first concern of whether virtue is taught, learned through practice, or inherent in some individual's nature. Socrates suggests the following hypothesis: If virtue is a kind of knowledge, then it can be taught, and if it is not, it cannot. Next, it is necessary to consider whether or not virtue is a sort of knowledge. Socrates thus makes a second hypothesis: If there is anything good that is not knowledge, then it is possible that virtue is not a kind of knowledge; conversely, if there is nothing good that knowledge does not encompass, then virtue is a kind of knowledge.
Based on these hypotheses, Socrates offers another version of his earlier point about the possibility of good things being used badly. He states that good things are only this way when accompanied by wisdom, and without understanding they are harmful. That is, virtue is only virtue when it has its context in wisdom. As Socrates says, "all that the soul undertakes and endures, if directed by wisdom, ends in happiness."
Thus, Socrates and Meno have reached an essential conclusion about virtue. Since virtue is "something beneficial in the soul" and since that…
Sources Used in Document:
Magill, Frank. (Ed). Philosophy, Vol. 1. New York, Salem Press, 1961.