Reading Meno Four

Jackson, Jr.

of Meaning



Winter 1999


Another Scene


Meno Reading Four

Researching and Recontextualizing.

Up to now my reading of the Meno has been closer to the
first type of response of the three I enumerated
regarding the Seventh
. The Platonic dialogues are every bit as context-enmeshed
as that letter, however, and attention to such contexts will greatly reward
(and transform) the readings. Just as my ideal „type-3″
of the Seventh Letter will turn to
the geopolitical history
Sicily and Syracuse
of the 5th-4th centuries,
I turn now to the
intellectual history of 5th-4th century Greece

and the Meditterranean in order to re-read the Meno.

    It is important to situate both Socrates and Plato
in terms of their relations with earlier schools of philosophical endeavor.
The Ionians
and Milesians
and other presocratics occupy Socrates and Plato in complex
. But perhaps more than any other school of thought, the one which
galvanizes the position of Socrates in this dialogue (and it our overall
picture of him from the Platonic canon) is that of the 

      The Sophists.
were a group of professional – often itinerant teachers
of argumentation, elocution,
rhetoric (eristic).They originated in Sicily but soon spread throughout
the Greek archepelago. The changes in Greek government toward greater partiicipation
encouraged individuals to learn sophisticated means of expressing oneself
clearly in public. The techniques the sophists taught were particularly
valuable for politics and in the courts of law. The sophists prided themselves
on being able to make a favorable case on either side of an argument. Successful
self-expression depended neither on the side taken nor on the truth of
the position advanced. This moral relativism was fostered through this
practical side of effective elocution, but it also either derived from
or led to forms of epistemological relativism: rejection of the notion
of any „objective truths,“ the adherence to a perception-based view of
reality, or the disbelief in any reality whatsoever.

     The expressive techniques they
developed and disseminated („eristic“ but derisively called „sophistic“;
would become considered „rhetoric“) divorced the  artfully executed
utterance from the world it depicted. Students were taught to be able to
take any side, and to win the decision through their skill. This took no
account of the „real facts“ of the case, or the „real“ belief of the speaker.

     Any one wishing to make the
association between „poetic license“ of sophist’s student’s speeches and
the tendency toward an epistemological relativism can find it early in
their tradition, with 
famous proclamation that „Man is the measure of all things,“
something which Socrates frequently refers to in the dialogues. Several
sophists were well regarded as thinkers, Prodicus

for example.

    Others demonstrated a flamboyant disregard
for unconditional truths. Gorgias
of Leontini
was the most spectacular of the sophists, and he receives
a great deal of attention in the dialogues, including the
of course.

   These tendencies in Greek intellectual history
are clearly legible between the lines of the Meno. Meno asked Socrates,
„Can arete be taught?“ The sophists’s schools, careers, and their tradition
of education itself all are intimately found up with an affirmative answer
to that question. (Arete in these contexts, however, meant something like
„statesmanship“ but even in saying that I may be making Socrates’s case
against the sophists). .

    While the Meno focuses on the Socratic
„what is“ question, this question was prompted by Meno’s question
to Socrates: „Is areté something that is [can be] taught?“
Socrates responds by saying that until one knows what something is it can’t
be taught.

Note how often Socrates’s protestation of his own ignorance
is used to launch satirical assaults on Gorgias.
[Meno 70b, 71d and passim]

Soc. Would you like me to answer like Gorgias
then, to make it easy for you to follow? [Meno 76c]

Socrates was one of the foremost opponents of sophism,
an opposition carried on by Plato.Socrates
was foremost among the philosophers who opposed the moral and epistemological
relativism of the sophists. Socrates‘ insistence on the existence of extra-linguistic
truths was often articulated directly in opposition to the teachings and
practices of the Sophists. This also accounts for the demands his „What
is . . . “ question places on the addressee: Where the sophists were interested
in what words could do and what words could make appear to be
the case
, Socrates’s dialectic and inquiry were directed at discovering
the true nature of things beyond any appearance or linguistic construction.

Meno Reading One

Meno Reading Two

Meno Reading Three

Ion Reading One

Why and how to read

The Syllabus


A Duet for Hermogenes and Cratylus