Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Thoughts on Plato's "Meno"

Plato’s “Meno” is a fun read. Meno (μένω), whose name means, “abide” or “stay” describes a student who wants to learn, and Socrates seems to enjoy interacting with an open mind. Contrast this against “Euthyphro,” were Socrates plays with an arrogant man like a killer whale plays with his food. Meno is not a terribly long read and should be done with pencil in-hand for it helps to make marginal notes (true for all interactive reading). Two major subjects are treated in this work, with perhaps a third as it relates to “forms,” but we will treat only one here presently, that being the subject of virtue.


Meno wants to know if virtue (Ἀρετή, “arete”-- also translates as “excellence”) can be taught. What is virtue (excellence)? The beauty of Socrates is that when asked a question, he always assumes ignorance and through dialogue intends to search out an answer (in short, the second subject discussed in “Meno” is the subject of learning, where Socrates holds that since the soul is immortal and we already know everything, what we call “learning” is merely “remembering”). So Meno the student becomes Meno the teacher, providing Socrates with a definition that gets put to the test. Meno defines virtue as . .. well, he doesn’t. But they come close and Socrates has fun with the boy (one assumes he’s a boy).  “Even someone who was blindfolded would know from your conversation that you are handsome and still have lovers.” That's rich!

No matter how hard they try (and they do try), they just can’t seem to define virtue (“excellence”). They are able to explore things that are considered virtuous, but the rock-bottom answer they seek is elusive. One fact they can agree on is the answer to their question formed a different way: is virtue acquired (as in by learning) or is it a gift (something given)? You'll have to read to find the answer.

Regardless, this dialogue returns us back to the age-old dilemma regarding trying to discover "what is right" and "what is good." We may disagree on the particulars of what is "right" and what is "good," but we all agree there is this thing called "right" and this thing called "good." We know that leadership or housekeeping can be done with excellence, but what is it exactly? We know . . . but we don't. And that's Socrates' point. We don't fully understand until we sit down and talk it out. The answer is there. Find it. 

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