#14 in our series by Plato
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Translated by Benjamin Jowett
February, 1999 [Etext #1643]
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This etext was prepared by Sue Asscher
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
This Dialogue begins abruptly with a question of Meno, who asks, 'whether
virtue can be taught.' Socrates replies that he does not as yet know what
virtue is, and has never known anyone who did. 'Then he cannot have met
Gorgias when he was at Athens.' Yes, Socrates had met him, but he has a
bad memory, and has forgotten what Gorgias said. Will Meno tell him his
own notion, which is probably not very different from that of Gorgias? 'O
yes--nothing easier: there is the virtue of a man, of a woman, of an old
man, and of a child; there is a virtue of every age and state of life, all
of which may be easily described.'
Socrates reminds Meno that this is only an enumeration of the virtues and
not a definition of the notion which is common to them all. In a second
attempt Meno defines virtue to be 'the power of command.' But to this,
again, exceptions are taken. For there must be a virtue of those who obey,
as well as of those who command; and the power of command must be justly or
not unjustly exercised. Meno is very ready to admit that justice is
virtue: 'Would you say virtue or a virtue, for there are other virtues,
such as courage, temperance, and the like; just as round is a figure, and
black and white are colours, and yet there are other figures and other
colours. Let Meno take the examples of figure and colour, and try to
define them.' Meno confesses his inability, and after a process of
interrogation, in which Socrates explains to him the nature of a 'simile in
multis,' Socrates himself defines figure as 'the accompaniment of colour.'
But some one may object that he does not know the meaning of the word
'colour;' and if he is a candid friend, and not a mere disputant, Socrates
is willing to furnish him with a simpler and more philosophical definition,
into which no disputed word is allowed to intrude: 'Figure is the limit of
form.' Meno imperiously insists that he must still have a definition of
colour. Some raillery follows; and at length Socrates is induced to reply,
'that colour is the effluence of form, sensible, and in due proportion to
the sight.' This definition is exactly suited to the taste of Meno, who
welcomes the familiar language of Gorgias and Empedocles. Socrates is of
opinion that the more abstract or dialectical definition of figure is far
Now that Meno has been made to understand the nature of a general
definition, he answers in the spirit of a Greek gentleman, and in the words
of a poet, 'that virtue is to delight in things honourable, and to have the
power of getting them.' This is a nearer approximation than he has yet
made to a complete definition, and, regarded as a piece of proverbial or
popular morality, is not far from the truth. But the objection is urged,
'that the honourable is the good,' and as every one equally desires the
good, the point of the definition is contained in the words, 'the power of
getting them.' 'And they must be got justly or with justice.' The
definition will then stand thus: 'Virtue is the power of getting good with
justice.' But justice is a part of virtue, and therefore virtue is the
getting of good with a part of virtue. The definition repeats the word
Meno complains that the conversation of Socrates has the effect of a
torpedo's shock upon him. When he talks with other persons he has plenty
to say about virtue; in the presence of Socrates, his thoughts desert him.
Socrates replies that he is only the cause of perplexity in others, because
he is himself perplexed. He proposes to continue the enquiry. But how,
asks Meno, can he enquire either into what he knows or into what he does
not know? This is a sophistical puzzle, which, as Socrates remarks, saves
a great deal of trouble to him who accepts it. But the puzzle has a real
difficulty latent under it, to which Socrates will endeavour to find a
reply. The difficulty is the origin of knowledge:--
He has heard from priests and priestesses, and from the poet Pindar, of an
immortal soul which is born again and again in successive periods of
existence, returning into this world when she has paid the penalty of
ancient crime, and, having wandered over all places of the upper and under
world, and seen and known all things at one time or other, is by
association out of one thing capable of recovering all. For nature is of
one kindred; and every soul has a seed or germ which may be developed into
all knowledge. The existence of this latent knowledge is further proved by
the interrogation of one of Meno's slaves, who, in the skilful hands of
Socrates, is made to acknowledge some elementary relations of geometrical
figures. The theorem that the square of the diagonal is double the square
of the side--that famous discovery of primitive mathematics, in honour of
which the legendary Pythagoras is said to have sacrificed a hecatomb--is
elicited from him. The first step in the process of teaching has made him
conscious of his own ignorance. He has had the 'torpedo's shock' given
him, and is the better for the operation. But whence had the uneducated
man this knowledge? He had never learnt geometry in this world; nor was it
born with him; he must therefore have had it when he was not a man. And as
he always either was or was not a man, he must have always had it.
After Socrates has given this specimen of the true nature of teaching, the
original question of the teachableness of virtue is renewed. Again he
professes a desire to know 'what virtue is' first. But he is willing to
argue the question, as mathematicians say, under an hypothesis. He will
assume that if virtue is knowledge, then virtue can be taught. (This was
the stage of the argument at which the Protagoras concluded.)
Socrates has no difficulty in showing that virtue is a good, and that
goods, whether of body or mind, must be under the direction of knowledge.
Upon the assumption just made, then, virtue is teachable. But where are
the teachers? There are none to be found. This is extremely discouraging.
Virtue is no sooner discovered to be teachable, than the discovery follows
that it is not taught. Virtue, therefore, is and is not teachable.
In this dilemma an appeal is made to Anytus, a respectable and well-to-do
citizen of the old school, and a family friend of Meno, who happens to be
present. He is asked 'whether Meno shall go to the Sophists and be
taught.' The suggestion throws him into a rage. 'To whom, then, shall
Meno go?' asks Socrates. To any Athenian gentleman--to the great Athenian
statesmen of past times. Socrates replies here, as elsewhere (Laches,
Prot.), that Themistocles, Pericles, and other great men, had sons to whom
they would surely, if they could have done so, have imparted their own
political wisdom; but no one ever heard that these sons of theirs were
remarkable for anything except riding and wrestling and similar
accomplishments. Anytus is angry at the imputation which is cast on his
favourite statesmen, and on a class to which he supposes himself to belong;
he breaks off with a significant hint. The mention of another opportunity
of talking with him, and the suggestion that Meno may do the Athenian
people a service by pacifying him, are evident allusions to the trial of
Socrates returns to the consideration of the question 'whether virtue is
teachable,' which was denied on the ground that there are no teachers of
it: (for the Sophists are bad teachers, and the rest of the world do not
profess to teach). But there is another point which we failed to observe,
and in which Gorgias has never instructed Meno, nor Prodicus Socrates.
This is the nature of right opinion. For virtue may be under the guidance
of right opinion as well as of knowledge; and right opinion is for
practical purposes as good as knowledge, but is incapable of being taught,
and is also liable, like the images of Daedalus, to 'walk off,' because not
bound by the tie of the cause. This is the sort of instinct which is
possessed by statesmen, who are not wise or knowing persons, but only
inspired or divine. The higher virtue, which is identical with knowledge,
is an ideal only. If the statesman had this knowledge, and could teach
what he knew, he would be like Tiresias in the world below,--'he alone has
wisdom, but the rest flit like shadows.'
This Dialogue is an attempt to answer the question, Can virtue be taught?
No one would either ask or answer such a question in modern times. But in
the age of Socrates it was only by an effort that the mind could rise to a
general notion of virtue as distinct from the particular virtues of
courage, liberality, and the like. And when a hazy conception of this
ideal was attained, it was only by a further effort that the question of
the teachableness of virtue could be resolved.
The answer which is given by Plato is paradoxical enough, and seems rather
intended to stimulate than to satisfy enquiry. Virtue is knowledge, and
therefore virtue can be taught. But virtue is not taught, and therefore in
this higher and ideal sense there is no virtue and no knowledge. The
teaching of the Sophists is confessedly inadequate, and Meno, who is their
pupil, is ignorant of the very nature of general terms. He can only
produce out of their armoury the sophism, 'that you can neither enquire
into what you know nor into what you do not know;' to which Socrates
replies by his theory of reminiscence.
To the doctrine that virtue is knowledge, Plato has been constantly tending
in the previous Dialogues. But the new truth is no sooner found than it
vanishes away. 'If there is knowledge, there must be teachers; and where
are the teachers?' There is no knowledge in the higher sense of
systematic, connected, reasoned knowledge, such as may one day be attained,
and such as Plato himself seems to see in some far off vision of a single
science. And there are no teachers in the higher sense of the word; that
is to say, no real teachers who will arouse the spirit of enquiry in their
pupils, and not merely instruct them in rhetoric or impart to them ready-
made information for a fee of 'one' or of 'fifty drachms.' Plato is
desirous of deepening the notion of education, and therefore he asserts the
paradox that there are no educators. This paradox, though different in
form, is not really different from the remark which is often made in modern
times by those who would depreciate either the methods of education
commonly employed, or the standard attained--that 'there is no true
education among us.'
There remains still a possibility which must not be overlooked. Even if
there be no true knowledge, as is proved by 'the wretched state of
education,' there may be right opinion, which is a sort of guessing or
divination resting on no knowledge of causes, and incommunicable to others.
This is the gift which our statesmen have, as is proved by the circumstance
that they are unable to impart their knowledge to their sons. Those who
are possessed of it cannot be said to be men of science or philosophers,
but they are inspired and divine.
There may be some trace of irony in this curious passage, which forms the
concluding portion of the Dialogue. But Plato certainly does not mean to
intimate that the supernatural or divine is the true basis of human life.
To him knowledge, if only attainable in this world, is of all things the
most divine. Yet, like other philosophers, he is willing to admit that
'probability is the guide of life (Butler's Analogy.);' and he is at the
same time desirous of contrasting the wisdom which governs the world with a
higher wisdom. There are many instincts, judgments, and anticipations of
the human mind which cannot be reduced to rule, and of which the grounds
cannot always be given in words. A person may have some skill or latent
experience which he is able to use himself and is yet unable to teach
others, because he has no principles, and is incapable of collecting or
arranging his ideas. He has practice, but not theory; art, but not
science. This is a true fact of psychology, which is recognized by Plato
in this passage. But he is far from saying, as some have imagined, that
inspiration or divine grace is to be regarded as higher than knowledge. He
would not have preferred the poet or man of action to the philosopher, or
the virtue of custom to the virtue based upon ideas.
Also here, as in the Ion and Phaedrus, Plato appears to acknowledge an
unreasoning element in the higher nature of man. The philosopher only has
knowledge, and yet the statesman and the poet are inspired. There may be a
sort of irony in regarding in this way the gifts of genius. But there is
no reason to suppose that he is deriding them, any more than he is deriding
the phenomena of love or of enthusiasm in the Symposium, or of oracles in
the Apology, or of divine intimations when he is speaking of the daemonium
of Socrates. He recognizes the lower form of right opinion, as well as the
higher one of science, in the spirit of one who desires to include in his
philosophy every aspect of human life; just as he recognizes the existence
of popular opinion as a fact, and the Sophists as the expression of it.
This Dialogue contains the first intimation of the doctrine of reminiscence
and of the immortality of the soul. The proof is very slight, even
slighter than in the Phaedo and Republic. Because men had abstract ideas
in a previous state, they must have always had them, and their souls
therefore must have always existed. For they must always have been either
men or not men. The fallacy of the latter words is transparent. And
Socrates himself appears to be conscious of their weakness; for he adds
immediately afterwards, 'I have said some things of which I am not
altogether confident.' (Compare Phaedo.) It may be observed, however,
that the fanciful notion of pre-existence is combined with a true but
partial view of the origin and unity of knowledge, and of the association
of ideas. Knowledge is prior to any particular knowledge, and exists not
in the previous state of the individual, but of the race. It is potential,
not actual, and can only be appropriated by strenuous exertion.
The idealism of Plato is here presented in a less developed form than in
the Phaedo and Phaedrus. Nothing is said of the pre-existence of ideas of
justice, temperance, and the like. Nor is Socrates positive of anything
but the duty of enquiry. The doctrine of reminiscence too is explained
more in accordance with fact and experience as arising out of the
affinities of nature (ate tes thuseos oles suggenous ouses). Modern
philosophy says that all things in nature are dependent on one another; the
ancient philosopher had the same truth latent in his mind when he affirmed
that out of one thing all the rest may be recovered. The subjective was
converted by him into an objective; the mental phenomenon of the
association of ideas (compare Phaedo) became a real chain of existences.
The germs of two valuable principles of education may also be gathered from
the 'words of priests and priestesses:' (1) that true knowledge is a
knowledge of causes (compare Aristotle's theory of episteme); and (2) that
the process of learning consists not in what is brought to the learner, but
in what is drawn out of him.
Some lesser points of the dialogue may be noted, such as (1) the acute
observation that Meno prefers the familiar definition, which is embellished
with poetical language, to the better and truer one; or (2) the shrewd
reflection, which may admit of an application to modern as well as to
ancient teachers, that the Sophists having made large fortunes; this must
surely be a criterion of their powers of teaching, for that no man could
get a living by shoemaking who was not a good shoemaker; or (3) the remark
conveyed, almost in a word, that the verbal sceptic is saved the labour of
thought and enquiry (ouden dei to toiouto zeteseos). Characteristic also
of the temper of the Socratic enquiry is, (4) the proposal to discuss the
teachableness of virtue under an hypothesis, after the manner of the
mathematicians; and (5) the repetition of the favourite doctrine which
occurs so frequently in the earlier and more Socratic Dialogues, and gives
a colour to all of them--that mankind only desire evil through ignorance;
(6) the experiment of eliciting from the slave-boy the mathematical truth
which is latent in him, and (7) the remark that he is all the better for
knowing his ignorance.
The character of Meno, like that of Critias, has no relation to the actual
circumstances of his life. Plato is silent about his treachery to the ten
thousand Greeks, which Xenophon has recorded, as he is also silent about
the crimes of Critias. He is a Thessalian Alcibiades, rich and luxurious--
a spoilt child of fortune, and is described as the hereditary friend of the
great king. Like Alcibiades he is inspired with an ardent desire of
knowledge, and is equally willing to learn of Socrates and of the Sophists.
He may be regarded as standing in the same relation to Gorgias as
Hippocrates in the Protagoras to the other great Sophist. He is the
sophisticated youth on whom Socrates tries his cross-examining powers, just
as in the Charmides, the Lysis, and the Euthydemus, ingenuous boyhood is
made the subject of a similar experiment. He is treated by Socrates in a
half-playful manner suited to his character; at the same time he appears
not quite to understand the process to which he is being subjected. For he
is exhibited as ignorant of the very elements of dialectics, in which the
Sophists have failed to instruct their disciple. His definition of virtue
as 'the power and desire of attaining things honourable,' like the first
definition of justice in the Republic, is taken from a poet. His answers
have a sophistical ring, and at the same time show the sophistical
incapacity to grasp a general notion.
Anytus is the type of the narrow-minded man of the world, who is indignant
at innovation, and equally detests the popular teacher and the true
philosopher. He seems, like Aristophanes, to regard the new opinions,
whether of Socrates or the Sophists, as fatal to Athenian greatness. He is
of the same class as Callicles in the Gorgias, but of a different variety;
the immoral and sophistical doctrines of Callicles are not attributed to
him. The moderation with which he is described is remarkable, if he be the
accuser of Socrates, as is apparently indicated by his parting words.
Perhaps Plato may have been desirous of showing that the accusation of
Socrates was not to be attributed to badness or malevolence, but rather to
a tendency in men's minds. Or he may have been regardless of the
historical truth of the characters of his dialogue, as in the case of Meno
and Critias. Like Chaerephon (Apol.) the real Anytus was a democrat, and
had joined Thrasybulus in the conflict with the thirty.
The Protagoras arrived at a sort of hypothetical conclusion, that if
'virtue is knowledge, it can be taught.' In the Euthydemus, Socrates
himself offered an example of the manner in which the true teacher may draw
out the mind of youth; this was in contrast to the quibbling follies of the
Sophists. In the Meno the subject is more developed; the foundations of
the enquiry are laid deeper, and the nature of knowledge is more distinctly
explained. There is a progression by antagonism of two opposite aspects of
philosophy. But at the moment when we approach nearest, the truth doubles
upon us and passes out of our reach. We seem to find that the ideal of
knowledge is irreconcilable with experience. In human life there is indeed
the profession of knowledge, but right opinion is our actual guide. There
is another sort of progress from the general notions of Socrates, who asked
simply, 'what is friendship?' 'what is temperance?' 'what is courage?' as
in the Lysis, Charmides, Laches, to the transcendentalism of Plato, who, in
the second stage of his philosophy, sought to find the nature of knowledge
in a prior and future state of existence.
The difficulty in framing general notions which has appeared in this and in
all the previous Dialogues recurs in the Gorgias and Theaetetus as well as
in the Republic. In the Gorgias too the statesmen reappear, but in
stronger opposition to the philosopher. They are no longer allowed to have
a divine insight, but, though acknowledged to have been clever men and good
speakers, are denounced as 'blind leaders of the blind.' The doctrine of
the immortality of the soul is also carried further, being made the
foundation not only of a theory of knowledge, but of a doctrine of rewards
and punishments. In the Republic the relation of knowledge to virtue is
described in a manner more consistent with modern distinctions. The
existence of the virtues without the possession of knowledge in the higher
or philosophical sense is admitted to be possible. Right opinion is again
introduced in the Theaetetus as an account of knowledge, but is rejected on
the ground that it is irrational (as here, because it is not bound by the
tie of the cause), and also because the conception of false opinion is
given up as hopeless. The doctrines of Plato are necessarily different at
different times of his life, as new distinctions are realized, or new
stages of thought attained by him. We are not therefore justified, in
order to take away the appearance of inconsistency, in attributing to him
hidden meanings or remote allusions.
There are no external criteria by which we can determine the date of the
Meno. There is no reason to suppose that any of the Dialogues of Plato
were written before the death of Socrates; the Meno, which appears to be
one of the earliest of them, is proved to have been of a later date by the
allusion of Anytus.
We cannot argue that Plato was more likely to have written, as he has done,
of Meno before than after his miserable death; for we have already seen, in
the examples of Charmides and Critias, that the characters in Plato are
very far from resembling the same characters in history. The repulsive
picture which is given of him in the Anabasis of Xenophon, where he also
appears as the friend of Aristippus 'and a fair youth having lovers,' has
no other trait of likeness to the Meno of Plato.
The place of the Meno in the series is doubtfully indicated by internal
evidence. The main character of the Dialogue is Socrates; but to the
'general definitions' of Socrates is added the Platonic doctrine of
reminiscence. The problems of virtue and knowledge have been discussed in
the Lysis, Laches, Charmides, and Protagoras; the puzzle about knowing and
learning has already appeared in the Euthydemus. The doctrines of
immortality and pre-existence are carried further in the Phaedrus and
Phaedo; the distinction between opinion and knowledge is more fully
developed in the Theaetetus. The lessons of Prodicus, whom he facetiously
calls his master, are still running in the mind of Socrates. Unlike the
later Platonic Dialogues, the Meno arrives at no conclusion. Hence we are
led to place the Dialogue at some point of time later than the Protagoras,
and earlier than the Phaedrus and Gorgias. The place which is assigned to
it in this work is due mainly to the desire to bring together in a single
volume all the Dialogues which contain allusions to the trial and death of
ON THE IDEAS OF PLATO.
Plato's doctrine of ideas has attained an imaginary clearness and
definiteness which is not to be found in his own writings. The popular
account of them is partly derived from one or two passages in his Dialogues
interpreted without regard to their poetical environment. It is due also
to the misunderstanding of him by the Aristotelian school; and the
erroneous notion has been further narrowed and has become fixed by the
realism of the schoolmen. This popular view of the Platonic ideas may be
summed up in some such formula as the following: 'Truth consists not in
particulars, but in universals, which have a place in the mind of God, or
in some far-off heaven. These were revealed to men in a former state of
existence, and are recovered by reminiscence (anamnesis) or association
from sensible things. The sensible things are not realities, but shadows
only, in relation to the truth.' These unmeaning propositions are hardly
suspected to be a caricature of a great theory of knowledge, which Plato in
various ways and under many figures of speech is seeking to unfold. Poetry
has been converted into dogma; and it is not remarked that the Platonic
ideas are to be found only in about a third of Plato's writings and are not
confined to him. The forms which they assume are numerous, and if taken
literally, inconsistent with one another. At one time we are in the clouds
of mythology, at another among the abstractions of mathematics or
metaphysics; we pass imperceptibly from one to the other. Reason and fancy
are mingled in the same passage. The ideas are sometimes described as
many, coextensive with the universals of sense and also with the first
principles of ethics; or again they are absorbed into the single idea of
good, and subordinated to it. They are not more certain than facts, but
they are equally certain (Phaedo). They are both personal and impersonal.
They are abstract terms: they are also the causes of things; and they are
even transformed into the demons or spirits by whose help God made the
world. And the idea of good (Republic) may without violence be converted
into the Supreme Being, who 'because He was good' created all things
It would be a mistake to try and reconcile these differing modes of
thought. They are not to be regarded seriously as having a distinct
meaning. They are parables, prophecies, myths, symbols, revelations,
aspirations after an unknown world. They derive their origin from a deep
religious and contemplative feeling, and also from an observation of
curious mental phenomena. They gather up the elements of the previous
philosophies, which they put together in a new form. Their great diversity
shows the tentative character of early endeavours to think. They have not
yet settled down into a single system. Plato uses them, though he also
criticises them; he acknowledges that both he and others are always talking
about them, especially about the Idea of Good; and that they are not
peculiar to himself (Phaedo; Republic; Soph.). But in his later writings
he seems to have laid aside the old forms of them. As he proceeds he makes
for himself new modes of expression more akin to the Aristotelian logic.
Yet amid all these varieties and incongruities, there is a common meaning
or spirit which pervades his writings, both those in which he treats of the
ideas and those in which he is silent about them. This is the spirit of
idealism, which in the history of philosophy has had many names and taken
many forms, and has in a measure influenced those who seemed to be most
averse to it. It has often been charged with inconsistency and
fancifulness, and yet has had an elevating effect on human nature, and has
exercised a wonderful charm and interest over a few spirits who have been
lost in the thought of it. It has been banished again and again, but has
always returned. It has attempted to leave the earth and soar heavenwards,
but soon has found that only in experience could any solid foundation of
knowledge be laid. It has degenerated into pantheism, but has again
emerged. No other knowledge has given an equal stimulus to the mind. It
is the science of sciences, which are also ideas, and under either aspect
require to be defined. They can only be thought of in due proportion when
conceived in relation to one another. They are the glasses through which
the kingdoms of science are seen, but at a distance. All the greatest
minds, except when living in an age of reaction against them, have
unconsciously fallen under their power.
The account of the Platonic ideas in the Meno is the simplest and clearest,
and we shall best illustrate their nature by giving this first and then
comparing the manner in which they are described elsewhere, e.g. in the
Phaedrus, Phaedo, Republic; to which may be added the criticism of them in
the Parmenides, the personal form which is attributed to them in the
Timaeus, the logical character which they assume in the Sophist and
Philebus, and the allusion to them in the Laws. In the Cratylus they dawn
upon him with the freshness of a newly-discovered thought.
The Meno goes back to a former state of existence, in which men did and
suffered good and evil, and received the reward or punishment of them until
their sin was purged away and they were allowed to return to earth. This
is a tradition of the olden time, to which priests and poets bear witness.
The souls of men returning to earth bring back a latent memory of ideas,
which were known to them in a former state. The recollection is awakened
into life and consciousness by the sight of the things which resemble them
on earth. The soul evidently possesses such innate ideas before she has
had time to acquire them. This is proved by an experiment tried on one of
Meno's slaves, from whom Socrates elicits truths of arithmetic and
geometry, which he had never learned in this world. He must therefore have
brought them with him from another.
The notion of a previous state of existence is found in the verses of
Empedocles and in the fragments of Heracleitus. It was the natural answer
to two questions, 'Whence came the soul? What is the origin of evil?' and
prevailed far and wide in the east. It found its way into Hellas probably
through the medium of Orphic and Pythagorean rites and mysteries. It was
easier to think of a former than of a future life, because such a life has
really existed for the race though not for the individual, and all men come
into the world, if not 'trailing clouds of glory,' at any rate able to
enter into the inheritance of the past. In the Phaedrus, as well as in the
Meno, it is this former rather than a future life on which Plato is
disposed to dwell. There the Gods, and men following in their train, go
forth to contemplate the heavens, and are borne round in the revolutions of
them. There they see the divine forms of justice, temperance, and the
like, in their unchangeable beauty, but not without an effort more than
human. The soul of man is likened to a charioteer and two steeds, one
mortal, the other immortal. The charioteer and the mortal steed are in
fierce conflict; at length the animal principle is finally overpowered,
though not extinguished, by the combined energies of the passionate and
rational elements. This is one of those passages in Plato which, partaking
both of a philosophical and poetical character, is necessarily indistinct
and inconsistent. The magnificent figure under which the nature of the
soul is described has not much to do with the popular doctrine of the
ideas. Yet there is one little trait in the description which shows that
they are present to Plato's mind, namely, the remark that the soul, which
had seen truths in the form of the universal, cannot again return to the
nature of an animal.
In the Phaedo, as in the Meno, the origin of ideas is sought for in a
previous state of existence. There was no time when they could have been
acquired in this life, and therefore they must have been recovered from
another. The process of recovery is no other than the ordinary law of
association, by which in daily life the sight of one thing or person
recalls another to our minds, and by which in scientific enquiry from any
part of knowledge we may be led on to infer the whole. It is also argued
that ideas, or rather ideals, must be derived from a previous state of
existence because they are more perfect than the sensible forms of them
which are given by experience. But in the Phaedo the doctrine of ideas is
subordinate to the proof of the immortality of the soul. 'If the soul
existed in a previous state, then it will exist in a future state, for a
law of alternation pervades all things.' And, 'If the ideas exist, then
the soul exists; if not, not.' It is to be observed, both in the Meno and
the Phaedo, that Socrates expresses himself with diffidence. He speaks in
the Phaedo of the words with which he has comforted himself and his
friends, and will not be too confident that the description which he has
given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true, but he 'ventures to
think that something of the kind is true.' And in the Meno, after dwelling
upon the immortality of the soul, he adds, 'Of some things which I have
said I am not altogether confident' (compare Apology; Gorgias). From this
class of uncertainties he exempts the difference between truth and
appearance, of which he is absolutely convinced.
In the Republic the ideas are spoken of in two ways, which though not
contradictory are different. In the tenth book they are represented as the
genera or general ideas under which individuals having a common name are
contained. For example, there is the bed which the carpenter makes, the
picture of the bed which is drawn by the painter, the bed existing in
nature of which God is the author. Of the latter all visible beds are only
the shadows or reflections. This and similar illustrations or explanations
are put forth, not for their own sake, or as an exposition of Plato's
theory of ideas, but with a view of showing that poetry and the mimetic
arts are concerned with an inferior part of the soul and a lower kind of
knowledge. On the other hand, in the 6th and 7th books of the Republic we
reach the highest and most perfect conception, which Plato is able to
attain, of the nature of knowledge. The ideas are now finally seen to be
one as well as many, causes as well as ideas, and to have a unity which is
the idea of good and the cause of all the rest. They seem, however, to
have lost their first aspect of universals under which individuals are
contained, and to have been converted into forms of another kind, which are
inconsistently regarded from the one side as images or ideals of justice,
temperance, holiness and the like; from the other as hypotheses, or
mathematical truths or principles.
In the Timaeus, which in the series of Plato's works immediately follows
the Republic, though probably written some time afterwards, no mention
occurs of the doctrine of ideas. Geometrical forms and arithmetical ratios
furnish the laws according to which the world is created. But though the
conception of the ideas as genera or species is forgotten or laid aside,
the distinction of the visible and intellectual is as firmly maintained as
ever. The IDEA of good likewise disappears and is superseded by the
conception of a personal God, who works according to a final cause or
principle of goodness which he himself is. No doubt is expressed by Plato,
either in the Timaeus or in any other dialogue, of the truths which he
conceives to be the first and highest. It is not the existence of God or
the idea of good which he approaches in a tentative or hesitating manner,
but the investigations of physiology. These he regards, not seriously, as
a part of philosophy, but as an innocent recreation (Tim.).
Passing on to the Parmenides, we find in that dialogue not an exposition or
defence of the doctrine of ideas, but an assault upon them, which is put
into the mouth of the veteran Parmenides, and might be ascribed to
Aristotle himself, or to one of his disciples. The doctrine which is
assailed takes two or three forms, but fails in any of them to escape the
dialectical difficulties which are urged against it. It is admitted that
there are ideas of all things, but the manner in which individuals partake
of them, whether of the whole or of the part, and in which they become like
them, or how ideas can be either within or without the sphere of human
knowledge, or how the human and divine can have any relation to each other,
is held to be incapable of explanation. And yet, if there are no universal
ideas, what becomes of philosophy? (Parmenides.) In the Sophist the
theory of ideas is spoken of as a doctrine held not by Plato, but by
another sect of philosophers, called 'the Friends of Ideas,' probably the
Megarians, who were very distinct from him, if not opposed to him
(Sophist). Nor in what may be termed Plato's abridgement of the history of
philosophy (Soph.), is any mention made such as we find in the first book
of Aristotle's Metaphysics, of the derivation of such a theory or of any
part of it from the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, the Heracleiteans, or even
from Socrates. In the Philebus, probably one of the latest of the Platonic
Dialogues, the conception of a personal or semi-personal deity expressed
under the figure of mind, the king of all, who is also the cause, is
retained. The one and many of the Phaedrus and Theaetetus is still working
in the mind of Plato, and the correlation of ideas, not of 'all with all,'
but of 'some with some,' is asserted and explained. But they are spoken of
in a different manner, and are not supposed to be recovered from a former
state of existence. The metaphysical conception of truth passes into a
psychological one, which is continued in the Laws, and is the final form of
the Platonic philosophy, so far as can be gathered from his own writings
(see especially Laws). In the Laws he harps once more on the old string,
and returns to general notions:--these he acknowledges to be many, and yet
he insists that they are also one. The guardian must be made to recognize
the truth, for which he has contended long ago in the Protagoras, that the
virtues are four, but they are also in some sense one (Laws; compare
So various, and if regarded on the surface only, inconsistent, are the
statements of Plato respecting the doctrine of ideas. If we attempted to
harmonize or to combine them, we should make out of them, not a system, but
the caricature of a system. They are the ever-varying expression of
Plato's Idealism. The terms used in them are in their substance and
general meaning the same, although they seem to be different. They pass
from the subject to the object, from earth (diesseits) to heaven (jenseits)
without regard to the gulf which later theology and philosophy have made
between them. They are also intended to supplement or explain each other.
They relate to a subject of which Plato himself would have said that 'he
was not confident of the precise form of his own statements, but was strong
in the belief that something of the kind was true.' It is the spirit, not
the letter, in which they agree--the spirit which places the divine above
the human, the spiritual above the material, the one above the many, the
mind before the body.
The stream of ancient philosophy in the Alexandrian and Roman times widens
into a lake or sea, and then disappears underground to reappear after many
ages in a distant land. It begins to flow again under new conditions, at
first confined between high and narrow banks, but finally spreading over
the continent of Europe. It is and is not the same with ancient
philosophy. There is a great deal in modern philosophy which is inspired
by ancient. There is much in ancient philosophy which was 'born out of due
time; and before men were capable of understanding it. To the fathers of
modern philosophy, their own thoughts appeared to be new and original, but
they carried with them an echo or shadow of the past, coming back by
recollection from an elder world. Of this the enquirers of the seventeenth
century, who to themselves appeared to be working out independently the
enquiry into all truth, were unconscious. They stood in a new relation to
theology and natural philosophy, and for a time maintained towards both an
attitude of reserve and separation. Yet the similarities between modern
and ancient thought are greater far than the differences. All philosophy,
even that part of it which is said to be based upon experience, is really
ideal; and ideas are not only derived from facts, but they are also prior
to them and extend far beyond them, just as the mind is prior to the
Early Greek speculation culminates in the ideas of Plato, or rather in the
single idea of good. His followers, and perhaps he himself, having arrived
at this elevation, instead of going forwards went backwards from philosophy
to psychology, from ideas to numbers. But what we perceive to be the real
meaning of them, an explanation of the nature and origin of knowledge, will
always continue to be one of the first problems of philosophy.
Plato also left behind him a most potent instrument, the forms of logic--
arms ready for use, but not yet taken out of their armoury. They were the
late birth of the early Greek philosophy, and were the only part of it
which has had an uninterrupted hold on the mind of Europe. Philosophies
come and go; but the detection of fallacies, the framing of definitions,
the invention of methods still continue to be the main elements of the
Modern philosophy, like ancient, begins with very simple conceptions. It
is almost wholly a reflection on self. It might be described as a
quickening into life of old words and notions latent in the semi-barbarous
Latin, and putting a new meaning into them. Unlike ancient philosophy, it
has been unaffected by impressions derived from outward nature: it arose
within the limits of the mind itself. From the time of Descartes to Hume
and Kant it has had little or nothing to do with facts of science. On the
other hand, the ancient and mediaeval logic retained a continuous influence
over it, and a form like that of mathematics was easily impressed upon it;
the principle of ancient philosophy which is most apparent in it is
scepticism; we must doubt nearly every traditional or received notion, that
we may hold fast one or two. The being of God in a personal or impersonal
form was a mental necessity to the first thinkers of modern times: from
this alone all other ideas could be deduced. There had been an obscure
presentiment of 'cognito, ergo sum' more than 2000 years previously. The
Eleatic notion that being and thought were the same was revived in a new
form by Descartes. But now it gave birth to consciousness and self-
reflection: it awakened the 'ego' in human nature. The mind naked and
abstract has no other certainty but the conviction of its own existence.
'I think, therefore I am;' and this thought is God thinking in me, who has
also communicated to the reason of man his own attributes of thought and
extension--these are truly imparted to him because God is true (compare
Republic). It has been often remarked that Descartes, having begun by
dismissing all presuppositions, introduces several: he passes almost at
once from scepticism to dogmatism. It is more important for the
illustration of Plato to observe that he, like Plato, insists that God is
true and incapable of deception (Republic)--that he proceeds from general
ideas, that many elements of mathematics may be found in him. A certain
influence of mathematics both on the form and substance of their philosophy
is discernible in both of them. After making the greatest opposition
between thought and extension, Descartes, like Plato, supposes them to be
reunited for a time, not in their own nature but by a special divine act
(compare Phaedrus), and he also supposes all the parts of the human body to
meet in the pineal gland, that alone affording a principle of unity in the
material frame of man. It is characteristic of the first period of modern
philosophy, that having begun (like the Presocratics) with a few general
notions, Descartes first falls absolutely under their influence, and then
quickly discards them. At the same time he is less able to observe facts,
because they are too much magnified by the glasses through which they are
seen. The common logic says 'the greater the extension, the less the
comprehension,' and we may put the same thought in another way and say of
abstract or general ideas, that the greater the abstraction of them, the
less are they capable of being applied to particular and concrete natures.
Not very different from Descartes in his relation to ancient philosophy is
his successor Spinoza, who lived in the following generation. The system
of Spinoza is less personal and also less dualistic than that of Descartes.
In this respect the difference between them is like that between Xenophanes
and Parmenides. The teaching of Spinoza might be described generally as
the Jewish religion reduced to an abstraction and taking the form of the
Eleatic philosophy. Like Parmenides, he is overpowered and intoxicated
with the idea of Being or God. The greatness of both philosophies consists
in the immensity of a thought which excludes all other thoughts; their
weakness is the necessary separation of this thought from actual existence
and from practical life. In neither of them is there any clear opposition
between the inward and outward world. The substance of Spinoza has two
attributes, which alone are cognizable by man, thought and extension; these
are in extreme opposition to one another, and also in inseparable identity.
They may be regarded as the two aspects or expressions under which God or
substance is unfolded to man. Here a step is made beyond the limits of the
Eleatic philosophy. The famous theorem of Spinoza, 'Omnis determinatio est
negatio,' is already contained in the 'negation is relation' of Plato's
Sophist. The grand description of the philosopher in Republic VI, as the
spectator of all time and all existence, may be paralleled with another
famous expression of Spinoza, 'Contemplatio rerum sub specie eternitatis.'
According to Spinoza finite objects are unreal, for they are conditioned by
what is alien to them, and by one another. Human beings are included in
the number of them. Hence there is no reality in human action and no place
for right and wrong. Individuality is accident. The boasted freedom of
the will is only a consciousness of necessity. Truth, he says, is the
direction of the reason towards the infinite, in which all things repose;
and herein lies the secret of man's well-being. In the exaltation of the
reason or intellect, in the denial of the voluntariness of evil (Timaeus;
Laws) Spinoza approaches nearer to Plato than in his conception of an
infinite substance. As Socrates said that virtue is knowledge, so Spinoza
would have maintained that knowledge alone is good, and what contributes to
knowledge useful. Both are equally far from any real experience or
observation of nature. And the same difficulty is found in both when we
seek to apply their ideas to life and practice. There is a gulf fixed
between the infinite substance and finite objects or individuals of
Spinoza, just as there is between the ideas of Plato and the world of
Removed from Spinoza by less than a generation is the philosopher Leibnitz,
who after deepening and intensifying the opposition between mind and
matter, reunites them by his preconcerted harmony (compare again Phaedrus).
To him all the particles of matter are living beings which reflect on one
another, and in the least of them the whole is contained. Here we catch a
reminiscence both of the omoiomere, or similar particles of Anaxagoras, and
of the world-animal of the Timaeus.
In Bacon and Locke we have another development in which the mind of man is
supposed to receive knowledge by a new method and to work by observation
and experience. But we may remark that it is the idea of experience,
rather than experience itself, with which the mind is filled. It is a
symbol of knowledge rather than the reality which is vouchsafed to us. The
Organon of Bacon is not much nearer to actual facts than the Organon of
Aristotle or the Platonic idea of good. Many of the old rags and ribbons
which defaced the garment of philosophy have been stripped off, but some of
them still adhere. A crude conception of the ideas of Plato survives in
the 'forms' of Bacon. And on the other hand, there are many passages of
Plato in which the importance of the investigation of facts is as much
insisted upon as by Bacon. Both are almost equally superior to the
illusions of language, and are constantly crying out against them, as
against other idols.
Locke cannot be truly regarded as the author of sensationalism any more
than of idealism. His system is based upon experience, but with him
experience includes reflection as well as sense. His analysis and
construction of ideas has no foundation in fact; it is only the dialectic
of the mind 'talking to herself.' The philosophy of Berkeley is but the
transposition of two words. For objects of sense he would substitute
sensations. He imagines himself to have changed the relation of the human
mind towards God and nature; they remain the same as before, though he has
drawn the imaginary line by which they are divided at a different point.
He has annihilated the outward world, but it instantly reappears governed
by the same laws and described under the same names.
A like remark applies to David Hume, of whose philosophy the central
principle is the denial of the relation of cause and effect. He would
deprive men of a familiar term which they can ill afford to lose; but he
seems not to have observed that this alteration is merely verbal and does
not in any degree affect the nature of things. Still less did he remark
that he was arguing from the necessary imperfection of language against the
most certain facts. And here, again, we may find a parallel with the
ancients. He goes beyond facts in his scepticism, as they did in their
idealism. Like the ancient Sophists, he relegates the more important
principles of ethics to custom and probability. But crude and unmeaning as
this philosophy is, it exercised a great influence on his successors, not
unlike that which Locke exercised upon Berkeley and Berkeley upon Hume
himself. All three were both sceptical and ideal in almost equal degrees.
Neither they nor their predecessors had any true conception of language or
of the history of philosophy. Hume's paradox has been forgotten by the
world, and did not any more than the scepticism of the ancients require to
be seriously refuted. Like some other philosophical paradoxes, it would
have been better left to die out. It certainly could not be refuted by a
philosophy such as Kant's, in which, no less than in the previously
mentioned systems, the history of the human mind and the nature of language
are almost wholly ignored, and the certainty of objective knowledge is
transferred to the subject; while absolute truth is reduced to a figment,
more abstract and narrow than Plato's ideas, of 'thing in itself,' to
which, if we reason strictly, no predicate can be applied.
The question which Plato has raised respecting the origin and nature of
ideas belongs to the infancy of philosophy; in modern times it would no
longer be asked. Their origin is only their history, so far as we know it;
there can be no other. We may trace them in language, in philosophy, in
mythology, in poetry, but we cannot argue a priori about them. We may
attempt to shake them off, but they are always returning, and in every
sphere of science and human action are tending to go beyond facts. They
are thought to be innate, because they have been familiar to us all our
lives, and we can no longer dismiss them from our mind. Many of them
express relations of terms to which nothing exactly or nothing at all in
rerum natura corresponds. We are not such free agents in the use of them
as we sometimes imagine. Fixed ideas have taken the most complete
possession of some thinkers who have been most determined to renounce them,
and have been vehemently affirmed when they could be least explained and
were incapable of proof. The world has often been led away by a word to
which no distinct meaning could be attached. Abstractions such as
'authority,' 'equality,' 'utility,' 'liberty,' 'pleasure,' 'experience,'
'consciousness,' 'chance,' 'substance,' 'matter,' 'atom,' and a heap of
other metaphysical and theological terms, are the source of quite as much
error and illusion and have as little relation to actual facts as the ideas
of Plato. Few students of theology or philosophy have sufficiently
reflected how quickly the bloom of a philosophy passes away; or how hard it
is for one age to understand the writings of another; or how nice a
judgment is required of those who are seeking to express the philosophy of
one age in the terms of another. The 'eternal truths' of which
metaphysicians speak have hardly ever lasted more than a generation. In
our own day schools or systems of philosophy which have once been famous
have died before the founders of them. We are still, as in Plato's age,
groping about for a new method more comprehensive than any of those which
now prevail; and also more permanent. And we seem to see at a distance the
promise of such a method, which can hardly be any other than the method of
idealized experience, having roots which strike far down into the history
of philosophy. It is a method which does not divorce the present from the
past, or the part from the whole, or the abstract from the concrete, or
theory from fact, or the divine from the human, or one science from
another, but labours to connect them. Along such a road we have proceeded
a few steps, sufficient, perhaps, to make us reflect on the want of method
which prevails in our own day. In another age, all the branches of
knowledge, whether relating to God or man or nature, will become the
knowledge of 'the revelation of a single science' (Symp.), and all things,
like the stars in heaven, will shed their light upon one another.
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Meno, Socrates, A Slave of Meno (Boy), Anytus.
MENO: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or
by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it
comes to man by nature, or in what other way?
SOCRATES: O Meno, there was a time when the Thessalians were famous among
the other Hellenes only for their riches and their riding; but now, if I am
not mistaken, they are equally famous for their wisdom, especially at
Larisa, which is the native city of your friend Aristippus. And this is
Gorgias' doing; for when he came there, the flower of the Aleuadae, among
them your admirer Aristippus, and the other chiefs of the Thessalians, fell
in love with his wisdom. And he has taught you the habit of answering
questions in a grand and bold style, which becomes those who know, and is
the style in which he himself answers all comers; and any Hellene who likes
may ask him anything. How different is our lot! my dear Meno. Here at
Athens there is a dearth of the commodity, and all wisdom seems to have
emigrated from us to you. I am certain that if you were to ask any
Athenian whether virtue was natural or acquired, he would laugh in your
face, and say: 'Stranger, you have far too good an opinion of me, if you
think that I can answer your question. For I literally do not know what
virtue is, and much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not.' And I
myself, Meno, living as I do in this region of poverty, am as poor as the
rest of the world; and I confess with shame that I know literally nothing
about virtue; and when I do not know the 'quid' of anything how can I know
the 'quale'? How, if I knew nothing at all of Meno, could I tell if he was
fair, or the opposite of fair; rich and noble, or the reverse of rich and
noble? Do you think that I could?
MENO: No, indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do
not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to
SOCRATES: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have
never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.
MENO: Then you have never met Gorgias when he was at Athens?
SOCRATES: Yes, I have.
MENO: And did you not think that he knew?
SOCRATES: I have not a good memory, Meno, and therefore I cannot now tell
what I thought of him at the time. And I dare say that he did know, and
that you know what he said: please, therefore, to remind me of what he
said; or, if you would rather, tell me your own view; for I suspect that
you and he think much alike.
MENO: Very true.
SOCRATES: Then as he is not here, never mind him, and do you tell me: By
the gods, Meno, be generous, and tell me what you say that virtue is; for I
shall be truly delighted to find that I have been mistaken, and that you
and Gorgias do really have this knowledge; although I have been just saying
that I have never found anybody who had.
MENO: There will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question.
Let us take first the virtue of a man--he should know how to administer the
state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his
enemies; and he must also be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman's
virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her
duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.
Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or
free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of
definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each
of us in all that we do. And the same may be said of vice, Socrates
(Compare Arist. Pol.).
SOCRATES: How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue, you
present me with a swarm of them (Compare Theaet.), which are in your
keeping. Suppose that I carry on the figure of the swarm, and ask of you,
What is the nature of the bee? and you answer that there are many kinds of
bees, and I reply: But do bees differ as bees, because there are many and
different kinds of them; or are they not rather to be distinguished by some
other quality, as for example beauty, size, or shape? How would you answer
MENO: I should answer that bees do not differ from one another, as bees.
SOCRATES: And if I went on to say: That is what I desire to know, Meno;
tell me what is the quality in which they do not differ, but are all
alike;--would you be able to answer?
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And so of the virtues, however many and different they may be,
they have all a common nature which makes them virtues; and on this he who
would answer the question, 'What is virtue?' would do well to have his eye
fixed: Do you understand?
MENO: I am beginning to understand; but I do not as yet take hold of the
question as I could wish.
SOCRATES: When you say, Meno, that there is one virtue of a man, another
of a woman, another of a child, and so on, does this apply only to virtue,
or would you say the same of health, and size, and strength? Or is the
nature of health always the same, whether in man or woman?
MENO: I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman.
SOCRATES: And is not this true of size and strength? If a woman is
strong, she will be strong by reason of the same form and of the same
strength subsisting in her which there is in the man. I mean to say that
strength, as strength, whether of man or woman, is the same. Is there any
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: And will not virtue, as virtue, be the same, whether in a child
or in a grown-up person, in a woman or in a man?
MENO: I cannot help feeling, Socrates, that this case is different from
SOCRATES: But why? Were you not saying that the virtue of a man was to
order a state, and the virtue of a woman was to order a house?
MENO: I did say so.
SOCRATES: And can either house or state or anything be well ordered
without temperance and without justice?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Then they who order a state or a house temperately or justly
order them with temperance and justice?
SOCRATES: Then both men and women, if they are to be good men and women,
must have the same virtues of temperance and justice?
SOCRATES: And can either a young man or an elder one be good, if they are
intemperate and unjust?
MENO: They cannot.
SOCRATES: They must be temperate and just?
SOCRATES: Then all men are good in the same way, and by participation in
the same virtues?
MENO: Such is the inference.
SOCRATES: And they surely would not have been good in the same way, unless
their virtue had been the same?
MENO: They would not.
SOCRATES: Then now that the sameness of all virtue has been proven, try
and remember what you and Gorgias say that virtue is.
MENO: Will you have one definition of them all?
SOCRATES: That is what I am seeking.
MENO: If you want to have one definition of them all, I know not what to
say, but that virtue is the power of governing mankind.
SOCRATES: And does this definition of virtue include all virtue? Is
virtue the same in a child and in a slave, Meno? Can the child govern his
father, or the slave his master; and would he who governed be any longer a
MENO: I think not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: No, indeed; there would be small reason in that. Yet once more,
fair friend; according to you, virtue is 'the power of governing;' but do
you not add 'justly and not unjustly'?
MENO: Yes, Socrates; I agree there; for justice is virtue.
SOCRATES: Would you say 'virtue,' Meno, or 'a virtue'?
MENO: What do you mean?
SOCRATES: I mean as I might say about anything; that a round, for example,
is 'a figure' and not simply 'figure,' and I should adopt this mode of
speaking, because there are other figures.
MENO: Quite right; and that is just what I am saying about virtue--that
there are other virtues as well as justice.
SOCRATES: What are they? tell me the names of them, as I would tell you
the names of the other figures if you asked me.
MENO: Courage and temperance and wisdom and magnanimity are virtues; and
there are many others.
SOCRATES: Yes, Meno; and again we are in the same case: in searching
after one virtue we have found many, though not in the same way as before;
but we have been unable to find the common virtue which runs through them
MENO: Why, Socrates, even now I am not able to follow you in the attempt
to get at one common notion of virtue as of other things.
SOCRATES: No wonder; but I will try to get nearer if I can, for you know
that all things have a common notion. Suppose now that some one asked you
the question which I asked before: Meno, he would say, what is figure?
And if you answered 'roundness,' he would reply to you, in my way of
speaking, by asking whether you would say that roundness is 'figure' or 'a
figure;' and you would answer 'a figure.'
SOCRATES: And for this reason--that there are other figures?
SOCRATES: And if he proceeded to ask, What other figures are there? you
would have told him.
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And if he similarly asked what colour is, and you answered
whiteness, and the questioner rejoined, Would you say that whiteness is
colour or a colour? you would reply, A colour, because there are other
colours as well.
MENO: I should.
SOCRATES: And if he had said, Tell me what they are?--you would have told
him of other colours which are colours just as much as whiteness.
SOCRATES: And suppose that he were to pursue the matter in my way, he
would say: Ever and anon we are landed in particulars, but this is not
what I want; tell me then, since you call them by a common name, and say
that they are all figures, even when opposed to one another, what is that
common nature which you designate as figure--which contains straight as
well as round, and is no more one than the other--that would be your mode
SOCRATES: And in speaking thus, you do not mean to say that the round is
round any more than straight, or the straight any more straight than round?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: You only assert that the round figure is not more a figure than
the straight, or the straight than the round?
MENO: Very true.
SOCRATES: To what then do we give the name of figure? Try and answer.
Suppose that when a person asked you this question either about figure or
colour, you were to reply, Man, I do not understand what you want, or know
what you are saying; he would look rather astonished and say: Do you not
understand that I am looking for the 'simile in multis'? And then he might
put the question in another form: Meno, he might say, what is that 'simile
in multis' which you call figure, and which includes not only round and
straight figures, but all? Could you not answer that question, Meno? I
wish that you would try; the attempt will be good practice with a view to
the answer about virtue.
MENO: I would rather that you should answer, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Shall I indulge you?
MENO: By all means.
SOCRATES: And then you will tell me about virtue?
MENO: I will.
SOCRATES: Then I must do my best, for there is a prize to be won.
SOCRATES: Well, I will try and explain to you what figure is. What do you
say to this answer?--Figure is the only thing which always follows colour.
Will you be satisfied with it, as I am sure that I should be, if you would
let me have a similar definition of virtue?
MENO: But, Socrates, it is such a simple answer.
SOCRATES: Why simple?
MENO: Because, according to you, figure is that which always follows
MENO: But if a person were to say that he does not know what colour is,
any more than what figure is--what sort of answer would you have given him?
SOCRATES: I should have told him the truth. And if he were a philosopher
of the eristic and antagonistic sort, I should say to him: You have my
answer, and if I am wrong, your business is to take up the argument and
refute me. But if we were friends, and were talking as you and I are now,
I should reply in a milder strain and more in the dialectician's vein; that
is to say, I should not only speak the truth, but I should make use of
premisses which the person interrogated would be willing to admit. And
this is the way in which I shall endeavour to approach you. You will
acknowledge, will you not, that there is such a thing as an end, or
termination, or extremity?--all which words I use in the same sense,
although I am aware that Prodicus might draw distinctions about them: but
still you, I am sure, would speak of a thing as ended or terminated--that
is all which I am saying--not anything very difficult.
MENO: Yes, I should; and I believe that I understand your meaning.
SOCRATES: And you would speak of a surface and also of a solid, as for
example in geometry.
SOCRATES: Well then, you are now in a condition to understand my
definition of figure. I define figure to be that in which the solid ends;
or, more concisely, the limit of solid.
MENO: And now, Socrates, what is colour?
SOCRATES: You are outrageous, Meno, in thus plaguing a poor old man to
give you an answer, when you will not take the trouble of remembering what
is Gorgias' definition of virtue.
MENO: When you have told me what I ask, I will tell you, Socrates.
SOCRATES: A man who was blindfolded has only to hear you talking, and he
would know that you are a fair creature and have still many lovers.
MENO: Why do you think so?
SOCRATES: Why, because you always speak in imperatives: like all beauties
when they are in their prime, you are tyrannical; and also, as I suspect,
you have found out that I have weakness for the fair, and therefore to
humour you I must answer.
MENO: Please do.
SOCRATES: Would you like me to answer you after the manner of Gorgias,
which is familiar to you?
MENO: I should like nothing better.
SOCRATES: Do not he and you and Empedocles say that there are certain
effluences of existence?
SOCRATES: And passages into which and through which the effluences pass?
SOCRATES: And some of the effluences fit into the passages, and some of
them are too small or too large?
SOCRATES: And there is such a thing as sight?
SOCRATES: And now, as Pindar says, 'read my meaning:'--colour is an
effluence of form, commensurate with sight, and palpable to sense.
MENO: That, Socrates, appears to me to be an admirable answer.
SOCRATES: Why, yes, because it happens to be one which you have been in
the habit of hearing: and your wit will have discovered, I suspect, that
you may explain in the same way the nature of sound and smell, and of many
other similar phenomena.
MENO: Quite true.
SOCRATES: The answer, Meno, was in the orthodox solemn vein, and therefore
was more acceptable to you than the other answer about figure.
SOCRATES: And yet, O son of Alexidemus, I cannot help thinking that the
other was the better; and I am sure that you would be of the same opinion,
if you would only stay and be initiated, and were not compelled, as you
said yesterday, to go away before the mysteries.
MENO: But I will stay, Socrates, if you will give me many such answers.
SOCRATES: Well then, for my own sake as well as for yours, I will do my
very best; but I am afraid that I shall not be able to give you very many
as good: and now, in your turn, you are to fulfil your promise, and tell
me what virtue is in the universal; and do not make a singular into a
plural, as the facetious say of those who break a thing, but deliver virtue
to me whole and sound, and not broken into a number of pieces: I have
given you the pattern.
MENO: Well then, Socrates, virtue, as I take it, is when he, who desires
the honourable, is able to provide it for himself; so the poet says, and I
'Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining
SOCRATES: And does he who desires the honourable also desire the good?
SOCRATES: Then are there some who desire the evil and others who desire
the good? Do not all men, my dear sir, desire good?
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: There are some who desire evil?
SOCRATES: Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be
good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?
MENO: Both, I think.
SOCRATES: And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be
evils and desires them notwithstanding?
MENO: Certainly I do.
SOCRATES: And desire is of possession?
MENO: Yes, of possession.
SOCRATES: And does he think that the evils will do good to him who
possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?
MENO: There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and
others who know that they will do them harm.
SOCRATES: And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them
good know that they are evils?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do
not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although
they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be
goods they really desire goods?
MENO: Yes, in that case.
SOCRATES: Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that
evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by
MENO: They must know it.
SOCRATES: And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable
in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?
MENO: How can it be otherwise?
SOCRATES: But are not the miserable ill-fated?
MENO: Yes, indeed.
SOCRATES: And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?
MENO: I should say not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no
one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and
possession of evil?
MENO: That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody
SOCRATES: And yet, were you not saying just now that virtue is the desire
and power of attaining good?
MENO: Yes, I did say so.
SOCRATES: But if this be affirmed, then the desire of good is common to
all, and one man is no better than another in that respect?
SOCRATES: And if one man is not better than another in desiring good, he
must be better in the power of attaining it?
SOCRATES: Then, according to your definition, virtue would appear to be
the power of attaining good?
MENO: I entirely approve, Socrates, of the manner in which you now view
SOCRATES: Then let us see whether what you say is true from another point
of view; for very likely you may be right:--You affirm virtue to be the
power of attaining goods?
SOCRATES: And the goods which you mean are such as health and wealth and
the possession of gold and silver, and having office and honour in the
state--those are what you would call goods?
MENO: Yes, I should include all those.
SOCRATES: Then, according to Meno, who is the hereditary friend of the
great king, virtue is the power of getting silver and gold; and would you
add that they must be gained piously, justly, or do you deem this to be of
no consequence? And is any mode of acquisition, even if unjust and
dishonest, equally to be deemed virtue?
MENO: Not virtue, Socrates, but vice.
SOCRATES: Then justice or temperance or holiness, or some other part of
virtue, as would appear, must accompany the acquisition, and without them
the mere acquisition of good will not be virtue.
MENO: Why, how can there be virtue without these?
SOCRATES: And the non-acquisition of gold and silver in a dishonest manner
for oneself or another, or in other words the want of them, may be equally
SOCRATES: Then the acquisition of such goods is no more virtue than the
non-acquisition and want of them, but whatever is accompanied by justice or
honesty is virtue, and whatever is devoid of justice is vice.
MENO: It cannot be otherwise, in my judgment.
SOCRATES: And were we not saying just now that justice, temperance, and
the like, were each of them a part of virtue?
SOCRATES: And so, Meno, this is the way in which you mock me.
MENO: Why do you say that, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Why, because I asked you to deliver virtue into my hands whole
and unbroken, and I gave you a pattern according to which you were to frame
your answer; and you have forgotten already, and tell me that virtue is the
power of attaining good justly, or with justice; and justice you
acknowledge to be a part of virtue.
SOCRATES: Then it follows from your own admissions, that virtue is doing
what you do with a part of virtue; for justice and the like are said by you
to be parts of virtue.
MENO: What of that?
SOCRATES: What of that! Why, did not I ask you to tell me the nature of
virtue as a whole? And you are very far from telling me this; but declare
every action to be virtue which is done with a part of virtue; as though
you had told me and I must already know the whole of virtue, and this too
when frittered away into little pieces. And, therefore, my dear Meno, I
fear that I must begin again and repeat the same question: What is virtue?
for otherwise, I can only say, that every action done with a part of virtue
is virtue; what else is the meaning of saying that every action done with
justice is virtue? Ought I not to ask the question over again; for can any
one who does not know virtue know a part of virtue?
MENO: No; I do not say that he can.
SOCRATES: Do you remember how, in the example of figure, we rejected any
answer given in terms which were as yet unexplained or unadmitted?
MENO: Yes, Socrates; and we were quite right in doing so.
SOCRATES: But then, my friend, do not suppose that we can explain to any
one the nature of virtue as a whole through some unexplained portion of
virtue, or anything at all in that fashion; we should only have to ask over
again the old question, What is virtue? Am I not right?
MENO: I believe that you are.
SOCRATES: Then begin again, and answer me, What, according to you and your
friend Gorgias, is the definition of virtue?
MENO: O Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were
always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting
your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and
am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem
to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like
the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him,
as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are
really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been
delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and
to many persons--and very good ones they were, as I thought--at this moment
I cannot even say what virtue is. And I think that you are very wise in
not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as
you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.
SOCRATES: You are a rogue, Meno, and had all but caught me.
MENO: What do you mean, Socrates?
SOCRATES: I can tell why you made a simile about me.
SOCRATES: In order that I might make another simile about you. For I know
that all pretty young gentlemen like to have pretty similes made about
them--as well they may--but I shall not return the compliment. As to my
being a torpedo, if the torpedo is torpid as well as the cause of torpidity
in others, then indeed I am a torpedo, but not otherwise; for I perplex
others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself.
And now I know not what virtue is, and you seem to be in the same case,
although you did once perhaps know before you touched me. However, I have
no objection to join with you in the enquiry.
MENO: And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know?
What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what
you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not
SOCRATES: I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome
dispute you are introducing. You argue that a man cannot enquire either
about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he
knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not
know the very subject about which he is to enquire (Compare Aristot. Post.
MENO: Well, Socrates, and is not the argument sound?
SOCRATES: I think not.
MENO: Why not?
SOCRATES: I will tell you why: I have heard from certain wise men and
women who spoke of things divine that--
MENO: What did they say?
SOCRATES: They spoke of a glorious truth, as I conceive.
MENO: What was it? and who were they?
SOCRATES: Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how
they might be able to give a reason of their profession: there have been
poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many
others who were inspired. And they say--mark, now, and see whether their
words are true--they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time
has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but
is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in
perfect holiness. 'For in the ninth year Persephone sends the souls of
those from whom she has received the penalty of ancient crime back again
from beneath into the light of the sun above, and these are they who become
noble kings and mighty men and great in wisdom and are called saintly
heroes in after ages.' The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been
born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in
this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no
wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever
knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the
soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as
men say learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is
strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but
recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical
argument about the impossibility of enquiry: for it will make us idle; and
is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and
inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you into the
nature of virtue.
MENO: Yes, Socrates; but what do you mean by saying that we do not learn,
and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection? Can you
teach me how this is?
SOCRATES: I told you, Meno, just now that you were a rogue, and now you
ask whether I can teach you, when I am saying that there is no teaching,
but only recollection; and thus you imagine that you will involve me in a
MENO: Indeed, Socrates, I protest that I had no such intention. I only
asked the question from habit; but if you can prove to me that what you say
is true, I wish that you would.
SOCRATES: It will be no easy matter, but I will try to please you to the
utmost of my power. Suppose that you call one of your numerous attendants,
that I may demonstrate on him.
MENO: Certainly. Come hither, boy.
SOCRATES: He is Greek, and speaks Greek, does he not?
MENO: Yes, indeed; he was born in the house.
SOCRATES: Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether
he learns of me or only remembers.
MENO: I will.
SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?
BOY: I do.
SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?
SOCRATES: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the
square are also equal?
SOCRATES: A square may be of any size?
SOCRATES: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side
be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one
direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one
foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?
SOCRATES: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two
BOY: There are.
SOCRATES: Then the square is of twice two feet?
SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.
BOY: Four, Socrates.
SOCRATES: And might there not be another square twice as large as this,
and having like this the lines equal?
SOCRATES: And of how many feet will that be?
BOY: Of eight feet.
SOCRATES: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the
side of that double square: this is two feet--what will that be?
BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.
SOCRATES: Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything,
but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a
line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does
SOCRATES: And does he really know?
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: He only guesses that because the square is double, the line is
SOCRATES: Observe him while he recalls the steps in regular order. (To
the Boy:) Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a
double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure
equal every way, and twice the size of this--that is to say of eight feet;
and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from
SOCRATES: But does not this line become doubled if we add another such
SOCRATES: And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?
SOCRATES: Let us describe such a figure: Would you not say that this is
the figure of eight feet?
SOCRATES: And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of
which is equal to the figure of four feet?
SOCRATES: And is not that four times four?
SOCRATES: And four times is not double?
BOY: No, indeed.
SOCRATES: But how much?
BOY: Four times as much.
SOCRATES: Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice,
but four times as much.
SOCRATES: Four times four are sixteen--are they not?
SOCRATES: What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives
one of sixteen feet;--do you see?
SOCRATES: And the space of four feet is made from this half line?
SOCRATES: Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this,
and half the size of the other?
SOCRATES: Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this
one, and less than that one?
BOY: Yes; I think so.
SOCRATES: Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell
me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?
SOCRATES: Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be
more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?
BOY: It ought.
SOCRATES: Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.
BOY: Three feet.
SOCRATES: Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line
of three. Here are two and there is one; and on the other side, here are
two also and there is one: and that makes the figure of which you speak?
SOCRATES: But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way,
the whole space will be three times three feet?
BOY: That is evident.
SOCRATES: And how much are three times three feet?
SOCRATES: And how much is the double of four?
SOCRATES: Then the figure of eight is not made out of a line of three?
SOCRATES: But from what line?--tell me exactly; and if you would rather
not reckon, try and show me the line.
BOY: Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.
SOCRATES: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of
recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is
the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and
answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a
difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.
SOCRATES: Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?
MENO: I think that he is.
SOCRATES: If we have made him doubt, and given him the 'torpedo's shock,'
have we done him any harm?
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: We have certainly, as would seem, assisted him in some degree to
the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance,
but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again
that the double space should have a double side.
SOCRATES: But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or
learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it,
until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know,
and had desired to know?
MENO: I think not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Then he was the better for the torpedo's touch?
MENO: I think so.
SOCRATES: Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not
teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and
see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of
eliciting his opinion. Tell me, boy, is not this a square of four feet
which I have drawn?
SOCRATES: And now I add another square equal to the former one?
SOCRATES: And a third, which is equal to either of them?
SOCRATES: Suppose that we fill up the vacant corner?
BOY: Very good.
SOCRATES: Here, then, there are four equal spaces?
SOCRATES: And how many times larger is this space than this other?
BOY: Four times.
SOCRATES: But it ought to have been twice only, as you will remember.
SOCRATES: And does not this line, reaching from corner to corner, bisect
each of these spaces?
SOCRATES: And are there not here four equal lines which contain this
BOY: There are.
SOCRATES: Look and see how much this space is.
BOY: I do not understand.
SOCRATES: Has not each interior line cut off half of the four spaces?
SOCRATES: And how many spaces are there in this section?
SOCRATES: And how many in this?
SOCRATES: And four is how many times two?
SOCRATES: And this space is of how many feet?
BOY: Of eight feet.
SOCRATES: And from what line do you get this figure?
BOY: From this.
SOCRATES: That is, from the line which extends from corner to corner of
the figure of four feet?
SOCRATES: And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And
if this is the proper name, then you, Meno's slave, are prepared to affirm
that the double space is the square of the diagonal?
BOY: Certainly, Socrates.
SOCRATES: What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given
out of his own head?
MENO: Yes, they were all his own.
SOCRATES: And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?
SOCRATES: But still he had in him those notions of his--had he not?
SOCRATES: Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that
which he does not know?
MENO: He has.
SOCRATES: And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him,
as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in
different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?
MENO: I dare say.
SOCRATES: Without any one teaching him he will recover his knowledge for
himself, if he is only asked questions?
SOCRATES: And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is
SOCRATES: And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have
acquired or always possessed?
SOCRATES: But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have
known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in
this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the
same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has any
one ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he
was born and bred in your house.
MENO: And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.
SOCRATES: And yet he has the knowledge?
MENO: The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.
SOCRATES: But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he
must have had and learned it at some other time?
MENO: Clearly he must.
SOCRATES: Which must have been the time when he was not a man?
SOCRATES: And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the
time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into
knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed
this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?
SOCRATES: And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then
the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect
what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember.
MENO: I feel, somehow, that I like what you are saying.
SOCRATES: And I, Meno, like what I am saying. Some things I have said of
which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and
braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we
should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing
and no use in seeking to know what we do not know;--that is a theme upon
which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.
MENO: There again, Socrates, your words seem to me excellent.
SOCRATES: Then, as we are agreed that a man should enquire about that
which he does not know, shall you and I make an effort to enquire together
into the nature of virtue?
MENO: By all means, Socrates. And yet I would much rather return to my
original question, Whether in seeking to acquire virtue we should regard it
as a thing to be taught, or as a gift of nature, or as coming to men in
some other way?
SOCRATES: Had I the command of you as well as of myself, Meno, I would not
have enquired whether virtue is given by instruction or not, until we had
first ascertained 'what it is.' But as you think only of controlling me
who am your slave, and never of controlling yourself,--such being your
notion of freedom, I must yield to you, for you are irresistible. And
therefore I have now to enquire into the qualities of a thing of which I do
not as yet know the nature. At any rate, will you condescend a little, and
allow the question 'Whether virtue is given by instruction, or in any other
way,' to be argued upon hypothesis? As the geometrician, when he is asked
whether a certain triangle is capable being inscribed in a certain circle
(Or, whether a certain area is capable of being inscribed as a triangle in
a certain circle.), will reply: 'I cannot tell you as yet; but I will
offer a hypothesis which may assist us in forming a conclusion: If the
figure be such that when you have produced a given side of it (Or, when you
apply it to the given line, i.e. the diameter of the circle (autou).), the
given area of the triangle falls short by an area corresponding to the part
produced (Or, similar to the area so applied.), then one consequence
follows, and if this is impossible then some other; and therefore I wish to
assume a hypothesis before I tell you whether this triangle is capable of
being inscribed in the circle':--that is a geometrical hypothesis. And we
too, as we know not the nature and qualities of virtue, must ask, whether
virtue is or is not taught, under a hypothesis: as thus, if virtue is of
such a class of mental goods, will it be taught or not? Let the first
hypothesis be that virtue is or is not knowledge,--in that case will it be
taught or not? or, as we were just now saying, 'remembered'? For there is
no use in disputing about the name. But is virtue taught or not? or
rather, does not every one see that knowledge alone is taught?
MENO: I agree.
SOCRATES: Then if virtue is knowledge, virtue will be taught?
SOCRATES: Then now we have made a quick end of this question: if virtue
is of such a nature, it will be taught; and if not, not?
SOCRATES: The next question is, whether virtue is knowledge or of another
MENO: Yes, that appears to be the question which comes next in order.
SOCRATES: Do we not say that virtue is a good?--This is a hypothesis which
is not set aside.
SOCRATES: Now, if there be any sort of good which is distinct from
knowledge, virtue may be that good; but if knowledge embraces all good,
then we shall be right in thinking that virtue is knowledge?
SOCRATES: And virtue makes us good?
SOCRATES: And if we are good, then we are profitable; for all good things
SOCRATES: Then virtue is profitable?
MENO: That is the only inference.
SOCRATES: Then now let us see what are the things which severally profit
us. Health and strength, and beauty and wealth--these, and the like of
these, we call profitable?
SOCRATES: And yet these things may also sometimes do us harm: would you
not think so?
SOCRATES: And what is the guiding principle which makes them profitable or
the reverse? Are they not profitable when they are rightly used, and
hurtful when they are not rightly used?
SOCRATES: Next, let us consider the goods of the soul: they are
temperance, justice, courage, quickness of apprehension, memory,
magnanimity, and the like?
SOCRATES: And such of these as are not knowledge, but of another sort, are
sometimes profitable and sometimes hurtful; as, for example, courage
wanting prudence, which is only a sort of confidence? When a man has no
sense he is harmed by courage, but when he has sense he is profited?
SOCRATES: And the same may be said of temperance and quickness of
apprehension; whatever things are learned or done with sense are
profitable, but when done without sense they are hurtful?
MENO: Very true.
SOCRATES: And in general, all that the soul attempts or endures, when
under the guidance of wisdom, ends in happiness; but when she is under the
guidance of folly, in the opposite?
MENO: That appears to be true.
SOCRATES: If then virtue is a quality of the soul, and is admitted to be
profitable, it must be wisdom or prudence, since none of the things of the
soul are either profitable or hurtful in themselves, but they are all made
profitable or hurtful by the addition of wisdom or of folly; and therefore
if virtue is profitable, virtue must be a sort of wisdom or prudence?
MENO: I quite agree.
SOCRATES: And the other goods, such as wealth and the like, of which we
were just now saying that they are sometimes good and sometimes evil, do
not they also become profitable or hurtful, accordingly as the soul guides
and uses them rightly or wrongly; just as the things of the soul herself
are benefited when under the guidance of wisdom and harmed by folly?
SOCRATES: And the wise soul guides them rightly, and the foolish soul
SOCRATES: And is not this universally true of human nature? All other
things hang upon the soul, and the things of the soul herself hang upon
wisdom, if they are to be good; and so wisdom is inferred to be that which
profits--and virtue, as we say, is profitable?
SOCRATES: And thus we arrive at the conclusion that virtue is either
wholly or partly wisdom?
MENO: I think that what you are saying, Socrates, is very true.
SOCRATES: But if this is true, then the good are not by nature good?
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: If they had been, there would assuredly have been discerners of
characters among us who would have known our future great men; and on their
showing we should have adopted them, and when we had got them, we should
have kept them in the citadel out of the way of harm, and set a stamp upon
them far rather than upon a piece of gold, in order that no one might
tamper with them; and when they grew up they would have been useful to the
MENO: Yes, Socrates, that would have been the right way.
SOCRATES: But if the good are not by nature good, are they made good by
MENO: There appears to be no other alternative, Socrates. On the
supposition that virtue is knowledge, there can be no doubt that virtue is
SOCRATES: Yes, indeed; but what if the supposition is erroneous?
MENO: I certainly thought just now that we were right.
SOCRATES: Yes, Meno; but a principle which has any soundness should stand
firm not only just now, but always.
MENO: Well; and why are you so slow of heart to believe that knowledge is
SOCRATES: I will try and tell you why, Meno. I do not retract the
assertion that if virtue is knowledge it may be taught; but I fear that I
have some reason in doubting whether virtue is knowledge: for consider now
and say whether virtue, and not only virtue but anything that is taught,
must not have teachers and disciples?
SOCRATES: And conversely, may not the art of which neither teachers nor
disciples exist be assumed to be incapable of being taught?
MENO: True; but do you think that there are no teachers of virtue?
SOCRATES: I have certainly often enquired whether there were any, and
taken great pains to find them, and have never succeeded; and many have
assisted me in the search, and they were the persons whom I thought the
most likely to know. Here at the moment when he is wanted we fortunately
have sitting by us Anytus, the very person of whom we should make enquiry;
to him then let us repair. In the first place, he is the son of a wealthy
and wise father, Anthemion, who acquired his wealth, not by accident or
gift, like Ismenias the Theban (who has recently made himself as rich as
Polycrates), but by his own skill and industry, and who is a well-
conditioned, modest man, not insolent, or overbearing, or annoying;
moreover, this son of his has received a good education, as the Athenian
people certainly appear to think, for they choose him to fill the highest
offices. And these are the sort of men from whom you are likely to learn
whether there are any teachers of virtue, and who they are. Please,
Anytus, to help me and your friend Meno in answering our question, Who are
the teachers? Consider the matter thus: If we wanted Meno to be a good
physician, to whom should we send him? Should we not send him to the
SOCRATES: Or if we wanted him to be a good cobbler, should we not send him
to the cobblers?
SOCRATES: And so forth?
SOCRATES: Let me trouble you with one more question. When we say that we
should be right in sending him to the physicians if we wanted him to be a
physician, do we mean that we should be right in sending him to those who
profess the art, rather than to those who do not, and to those who demand
payment for teaching the art, and profess to teach it to any one who will
come and learn? And if these were our reasons, should we not be right in
SOCRATES: And might not the same be said of flute-playing, and of the
other arts? Would a man who wanted to make another a flute-player refuse
to send him to those who profess to teach the art for money, and be
plaguing other persons to give him instruction, who are not professed
teachers and who never had a single disciple in that branch of knowledge
which he wishes him to acquire--would not such conduct be the height of
ANYTUS: Yes, by Zeus, and of ignorance too.
SOCRATES: Very good. And now you are in a position to advise with me
about my friend Meno. He has been telling me, Anytus, that he desires to
attain that kind of wisdom and virtue by which men order the state or the
house, and honour their parents, and know when to receive and when to send
away citizens and strangers, as a good man should. Now, to whom should he
go in order that he may learn this virtue? Does not the previous argument
imply clearly that we should send him to those who profess and avouch that
they are the common teachers of all Hellas, and are ready to impart
instruction to any one who likes, at a fixed price?
ANYTUS: Whom do you mean, Socrates?
SOCRATES: You surely know, do you not, Anytus, that these are the people
whom mankind call Sophists?
ANYTUS: By Heracles, Socrates, forbear! I only hope that no friend or
kinsman or acquaintance of mine, whether citizen or stranger, will ever be
so mad as to allow himself to be corrupted by them; for they are a manifest
pest and corrupting influence to those who have to do with them.
SOCRATES: What, Anytus? Of all the people who profess that they know how
to do men good, do you mean to say that these are the only ones who not
only do them no good, but positively corrupt those who are entrusted to
them, and in return for this disservice have the face to demand money?
Indeed, I cannot believe you; for I know of a single man, Protagoras, who
made more out of his craft than the illustrious Pheidias, who created such
noble works, or any ten other statuaries. How could that be? A mender of
old shoes, or patcher up of clothes, who made the shoes or clothes worse
than he received them, could not have remained thirty days undetected, and
would very soon have starved; whereas during more than forty years,
Protagoras was corrupting all Hellas, and sending his disciples from him
worse than he received them, and he was never found out. For, if I am not
mistaken, he was about seventy years old at his death, forty of which were
spent in the practice of his profession; and during all that time he had a
good reputation, which to this day he retains: and not only Protagoras,
but many others are well spoken of; some who lived before him, and others
who are still living. Now, when you say that they deceived and corrupted
the youth, are they to be supposed to have corrupted them consciously or
unconsciously? Can those who were deemed by many to be the wisest men of
Hellas have been out of their minds?
ANYTUS: Out of their minds! No, Socrates; the young men who gave their
money to them were out of their minds, and their relations and guardians
who entrusted their youth to the care of these men were still more out of
their minds, and most of all, the cities who allowed them to come in, and
did not drive them out, citizen and stranger alike.
SOCRATES: Has any of the Sophists wronged you, Anytus? What makes you so
angry with them?
ANYTUS: No, indeed, neither I nor any of my belongings has ever had, nor
would I suffer them to have, anything to do with them.
SOCRATES: Then you are entirely unacquainted with them?
ANYTUS: And I have no wish to be acquainted.
SOCRATES: Then, my dear friend, how can you know whether a thing is good
or bad of which you are wholly ignorant?
ANYTUS: Quite well; I am sure that I know what manner of men these are,
whether I am acquainted with them or not.
SOCRATES: You must be a diviner, Anytus, for I really cannot make out,
judging from your own words, how, if you are not acquainted with them, you
know about them. But I am not enquiring of you who are the teachers who
will corrupt Meno (let them be, if you please, the Sophists); I only ask
you to tell him who there is in this great city who will teach him how to
become eminent in the virtues which I was just now describing. He is the
friend of your family, and you will oblige him.
ANYTUS: Why do you not tell him yourself?
SOCRATES: I have told him whom I supposed to be the teachers of these
things; but I learn from you that I am utterly at fault, and I dare say
that you are right. And now I wish that you, on your part, would tell me
to whom among the Athenians he should go. Whom would you name?
ANYTUS: Why single out individuals? Any Athenian gentleman, taken at
random, if he will mind him, will do far more good to him than the
SOCRATES: And did those gentlemen grow of themselves; and without having
been taught by any one, were they nevertheless able to teach others that
which they had never learned themselves?
ANYTUS: I imagine that they learned of the previous generation of
gentlemen. Have there not been many good men in this city?
SOCRATES: Yes, certainly, Anytus; and many good statesmen also there
always have been and there are still, in the city of Athens. But the
question is whether they were also good teachers of their own virtue;--not
whether there are, or have been, good men in this part of the world, but
whether virtue can be taught, is the question which we have been
discussing. Now, do we mean to say that the good men of our own and of
other times knew how to impart to others that virtue which they had
themselves; or is virtue a thing incapable of being communicated or
imparted by one man to another? That is the question which I and Meno have
been arguing. Look at the matter in your own way: Would you not admit
that Themistocles was a good man?
ANYTUS: Certainly; no man better.
SOCRATES: And must not he then have been a good teacher, if any man ever
was a good teacher, of his own virtue?
ANYTUS: Yes certainly,--if he wanted to be so.
SOCRATES: But would he not have wanted? He would, at any rate, have
desired to make his own son a good man and a gentleman; he could not have
been jealous of him, or have intentionally abstained from imparting to him
his own virtue. Did you never hear that he made his son Cleophantus a
famous horseman; and had him taught to stand upright on horseback and hurl
a javelin, and to do many other marvellous things; and in anything which
could be learned from a master he was well trained? Have you not heard
from our elders of him?
ANYTUS: I have.
SOCRATES: Then no one could say that his son showed any want of capacity?
ANYTUS: Very likely not.
SOCRATES: But did any one, old or young, ever say in your hearing that
Cleophantus, son of Themistocles, was a wise or good man, as his father
ANYTUS: I have certainly never heard any one say so.
SOCRATES: And if virtue could have been taught, would his father
Themistocles have sought to train him in these minor accomplishments, and
allowed him who, as you must remember, was his own son, to be no better
than his neighbours in those qualities in which he himself excelled?
ANYTUS: Indeed, indeed, I think not.
SOCRATES: Here was a teacher of virtue whom you admit to be among the best
men of the past. Let us take another,--Aristides, the son of Lysimachus:
would you not acknowledge that he was a good man?
ANYTUS: To be sure I should.
SOCRATES: And did not he train his son Lysimachus better than any other
Athenian in all that could be done for him by the help of masters? But
what has been the result? Is he a bit better than any other mortal? He is
an acquaintance of yours, and you see what he is like. There is Pericles,
again, magnificent in his wisdom; and he, as you are aware, had two sons,
Paralus and Xanthippus.
ANYTUS: I know.
SOCRATES: And you know, also, that he taught them to be unrivalled
horsemen, and had them trained in music and gymnastics and all sorts of
arts--in these respects they were on a level with the best--and had he no
wish to make good men of them? Nay, he must have wished it. But virtue,
as I suspect, could not be taught. And that you may not suppose the
incompetent teachers to be only the meaner sort of Athenians and few in
number, remember again that Thucydides had two sons, Melesias and
Stephanus, whom, besides giving them a good education in other things, he
trained in wrestling, and they were the best wrestlers in Athens: one of
them he committed to the care of Xanthias, and the other of Eudorus, who
had the reputation of being the most celebrated wrestlers of that day. Do
you remember them?
ANYTUS: I have heard of them.
SOCRATES: Now, can there be a doubt that Thucydides, whose children were
taught things for which he had to spend money, would have taught them to be
good men, which would have cost him nothing, if virtue could have been
taught? Will you reply that he was a mean man, and had not many friends
among the Athenians and allies? Nay, but he was of a great family, and a
man of influence at Athens and in all Hellas, and, if virtue could have
been taught, he would have found out some Athenian or foreigner who would
have made good men of his sons, if he could not himself spare the time from
cares of state. Once more, I suspect, friend Anytus, that virtue is not a
thing which can be taught?
ANYTUS: Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men:
and, if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful.
Perhaps there is no city in which it is not easier to do men harm than to
do them good, and this is certainly the case at Athens, as I believe that
SOCRATES: O Meno, think that Anytus is in a rage. And he may well be in a
rage, for he thinks, in the first place, that I am defaming these
gentlemen; and in the second place, he is of opinion that he is one of them
himself. But some day he will know what is the meaning of defamation, and
if he ever does, he will forgive me. Meanwhile I will return to you, Meno;
for I suppose that there are gentlemen in your region too?
MENO: Certainly there are.
SOCRATES: And are they willing to teach the young? and do they profess to
be teachers? and do they agree that virtue is taught?
MENO: No indeed, Socrates, they are anything but agreed; you may hear them
saying at one time that virtue can be taught, and then again the reverse.
SOCRATES: Can we call those teachers who do not acknowledge the
possibility of their own vocation?
MENO: I think not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: And what do you think of these Sophists, who are the only
professors? Do they seem to you to be teachers of virtue?
MENO: I often wonder, Socrates, that Gorgias is never heard promising to
teach virtue: and when he hears others promising he only laughs at them;
but he thinks that men should be taught to speak.
SOCRATES: Then do you not think that the Sophists are teachers?
MENO: I cannot tell you, Socrates; like the rest of the world, I am in
doubt, and sometimes I think that they are teachers and sometimes not.
SOCRATES: And are you aware that not you only and other politicians have
doubts whether virtue can be taught or not, but that Theognis the poet says
the very same thing?
MENO: Where does he say so?
SOCRATES: In these elegiac verses (Theog.):
'Eat and drink and sit with the mighty, and make yourself agreeable to
them; for from the good you will learn what is good, but if you mix with
the bad you will lose the intelligence which you already have.'
Do you observe that here he seems to imply that virtue can be taught?
SOCRATES: But in some other verses he shifts about and says (Theog.):
'If understanding could be created and put into a man, then they' (who were
able to perform this feat) 'would have obtained great rewards.'
'Never would a bad son have sprung from a good sire, for he would have
heard the voice of instruction; but not by teaching will you ever make a
bad man into a good one.'
And this, as you may remark, is a contradiction of the other.
SOCRATES: And is there anything else of which the professors are affirmed
not only not to be teachers of others, but to be ignorant themselves, and
bad at the knowledge of that which they are professing to teach? or is
there anything about which even the acknowledged 'gentlemen' are sometimes
saying that 'this thing can be taught,' and sometimes the opposite? Can
you say that they are teachers in any true sense whose ideas are in such
MENO: I should say, certainly not.
SOCRATES: But if neither the Sophists nor the gentlemen are teachers,
clearly there can be no other teachers?
SOCRATES: And if there are no teachers, neither are there disciples?
SOCRATES: And we have admitted that a thing cannot be taught of which
there are neither teachers nor disciples?
MENO: We have.
SOCRATES: And there are no teachers of virtue to be found anywhere?
MENO: There are not.
SOCRATES: And if there are no teachers, neither are there scholars?
MENO: That, I think, is true.
SOCRATES: Then virtue cannot be taught?
MENO: Not if we are right in our view. But I cannot believe, Socrates,
that there are no good men: And if there are, how did they come into
SOCRATES: I am afraid, Meno, that you and I are not good for much, and
that Gorgias has been as poor an educator of you as Prodicus has been of
me. Certainly we shall have to look to ourselves, and try to find some one
who will help in some way or other to improve us. This I say, because I
observe that in the previous discussion none of us remarked that right and
good action is possible to man under other guidance than that of knowledge
(episteme);--and indeed if this be denied, there is no seeing how there can
be any good men at all.
MENO: How do you mean, Socrates?
SOCRATES: I mean that good men are necessarily useful or profitable. Were
we not right in admitting this? It must be so.
SOCRATES: And in supposing that they will be useful only if they are true
guides to us of action--there we were also right?
SOCRATES: But when we said that a man cannot be a good guide unless he
have knowledge (phrhonesis), this we were wrong.
MENO: What do you mean by the word 'right'?
SOCRATES: I will explain. If a man knew the way to Larisa, or anywhere
else, and went to the place and led others thither, would he not be a right
and good guide?
SOCRATES: And a person who had a right opinion about the way, but had
never been and did not know, might be a good guide also, might he not?
SOCRATES: And while he has true opinion about that which the other knows,
he will be just as good a guide if he thinks the truth, as he who knows the
SOCRATES: Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as
knowledge; and that was the point which we omitted in our speculation about
the nature of virtue, when we said that knowledge only is the guide of
right action; whereas there is also right opinion.
SOCRATES: Then right opinion is not less useful than knowledge?
MENO: The difference, Socrates, is only that he who has knowledge will
always be right; but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right, and
SOCRATES: What do you mean? Can he be wrong who has right opinion, so
long as he has right opinion?
MENO: I admit the cogency of your argument, and therefore, Socrates, I
wonder that knowledge should be preferred to right opinion--or why they
should ever differ.
SOCRATES: And shall I explain this wonder to you?
MENO: Do tell me.
SOCRATES: You would not wonder if you had ever observed the images of
Daedalus (Compare Euthyphro); but perhaps you have not got them in your
MENO: What have they to do with the question?
SOCRATES: Because they require to be fastened in order to keep them, and
if they are not fastened they will play truant and run away.
MENO: Well, what of that?
SOCRATES: I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if
they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when
fastened, they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of
art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while
they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out
of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of
much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this
fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed
to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the
nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this
is why knowledge is more honourable and excellent than true opinion,
because fastened by a chain.
MENO: What you are saying, Socrates, seems to be very like the truth.
SOCRATES: I too speak rather in ignorance; I only conjecture. And yet
that knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of conjecture with
me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most
certainly one of them.
MENO: Yes, Socrates; and you are quite right in saying so.
SOCRATES: And am I not also right in saying that true opinion leading the
way perfects action quite as well as knowledge?
MENO: There again, Socrates, I think you are right.
SOCRATES: Then right opinion is not a whit inferior to knowledge, or less
useful in action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to him who
SOCRATES: And surely the good man has been acknowledged by us to be
SOCRATES: Seeing then that men become good and useful to states, not only
because they have knowledge, but because they have right opinion, and that
neither knowledge nor right opinion is given to man by nature or acquired
by him--(do you imagine either of them to be given by nature?
MENO: Not I.)
SOCRATES: Then if they are not given by nature, neither are the good by
MENO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: And nature being excluded, then came the question whether virtue
is acquired by teaching?
SOCRATES: If virtue was wisdom (or knowledge), then, as we thought, it was
SOCRATES: And if it was taught it was wisdom?
SOCRATES: And if there were teachers, it might be taught; and if there
were no teachers, not?
SOCRATES: But surely we acknowledged that there were no teachers of
SOCRATES: Then we acknowledged that it was not taught, and was not wisdom?
SOCRATES: And yet we admitted that it was a good?
SOCRATES: And the right guide is useful and good?
SOCRATES: And the only right guides are knowledge and true opinion--these
are the guides of man; for things which happen by chance are not under the
guidance of man: but the guides of man are true opinion and knowledge.
MENO: I think so too.
SOCRATES: But if virtue is not taught, neither is virtue knowledge.
MENO: Clearly not.
SOCRATES: Then of two good and useful things, one, which is knowledge, has
been set aside, and cannot be supposed to be our guide in political life.
MENO: I think not.
SOCRATES: And therefore not by any wisdom, and not because they were wise,
did Themistocles and those others of whom Anytus spoke govern states. This
was the reason why they were unable to make others like themselves--because
their virtue was not grounded on knowledge.
MENO: That is probably true, Socrates.
SOCRATES: But if not by knowledge, the only alternative which remains is
that statesmen must have guided states by right opinion, which is in
politics what divination is in religion; for diviners and also prophets say
many things truly, but they know not what they say.
MENO: So I believe.
SOCRATES: And may we not, Meno, truly call those men 'divine' who, having
no understanding, yet succeed in many a grand deed and word?
SOCRATES: Then we shall also be right in calling divine those whom we were
just now speaking of as diviners and prophets, including the whole tribe of
poets. Yes, and statesmen above all may be said to be divine and
illumined, being inspired and possessed of God, in which condition they say
many grand things, not knowing what they say.
SOCRATES: And the women too, Meno, call good men divine--do they not? and
the Spartans, when they praise a good man, say 'that he is a divine man.'
MENO: And I think, Socrates, that they are right; although very likely our
friend Anytus may take offence at the word.
SOCRATES: I do not care; as for Anytus, there will be another opportunity
of talking with him. To sum up our enquiry--the result seems to be, if we
are at all right in our view, that virtue is neither natural nor acquired,
but an instinct given by God to the virtuous. Nor is the instinct
accompanied by reason, unless there may be supposed to be among statesmen
some one who is capable of educating statesmen. And if there be such an
one, he may be said to be among the living what Homer says that Tiresias
was among the dead, 'he alone has understanding; but the rest are flitting
shades'; and he and his virtue in like manner will be a reality among
MENO: That is excellent, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous
by the gift of God. But we shall never know the certain truth until,
before asking how virtue is given, we enquire into the actual nature of
virtue. I fear that I must go away, but do you, now that you are persuaded
yourself, persuade our friend Anytus. And do not let him be so
exasperated; if you can conciliate him, you will have done good service to
the Athenian people.
End of this Project Gutenberg Etext of Meno, by Plato