Meno. Reading One
The Meno is traditionally considered one of the exemplary dialogues
generated from the quintessential form of the Socratic question: ti esti
… “ What is …?“
In the Meno the question is „What is areté [virtue]?“
As in the Euthyphro
is it „What is hodion [piety]?“; in the Laches
„What is courage?“
The Meno also is a good example of Socratic method – profession
of ignorance, and the elenchus or cross-examination of the addressee.
The Destabilizing Inquiry
as much an ordeal for its addressee as the translation „cross-examination“
suggests. But I would extend the discomfort to the entire project of Socratic
inquiry. Although Socrates’s aim is to attain certain knowledge of the
reality behind appearances, and his inquiry is founded upon his faith that
such a level of „reality“ exists, the inquiry itself disturbs prior certainties
and even subverts some of the criteria for sustaining a belief in certain
knowledge or the givenness of a „truth.“
Every statement that Meno makes is called into questioned,
and its internal contradictions exposed. Of course, this is to be expected,
and Meno is a quientessential Socratic foil. But Socrates’s „deconstructive“
interventions, I think, destablize the bases for belief in knowledge and
attainable truth beyond the limited scope of Meno’s worldview.
A case in point: After all his attempts at defining „arete“
have been dismissed, an exasperated Meno, claims that Socrates’s interrogation
has „stunned“ him as would the shock of the torpedo fish. The effect of
the interrogation has not illuminated Meno’s knowledge of what „arete“
is but robbed him of that knowledge. [Meno ]. Socrates considers this a
fortuitous outcome of the elenchus so far: at first Socrates alone claimed
to be ignorant of what arete is, now they both
are. Socrates invites Meno to join him in his „enquiry“ after arete..
Below is Meno’s reply and Socrates’s response.
Why, on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature
you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you
know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing,
at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you
did not know?
I understand the point you would make, Meno. [80e] Do you see what a captious
argument you are introducing–that, forsooth, a man cannot inquire either
about what he knows or about whit he does not know? For he cannot inquire
about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need
of inquiry; nor again can lie inquire about what he does not know, since
he does not know about what he is to inquire.
While the cynical view regarding the possibility of
enquiry is Meno’s, it is Socrates who fully explicates it, thereby putting
it completely into the discourse of the dialogue. In so doing, of course,
Socrates calls it a „tiresome dispute,“ but, as Freud has pointed out,
„negation“ is one way of making a statement without taking responsibility
for it. I do not suggest a psychological motivation here on Socrates’s
part, but merely a logical effect
on the text since this paradox is given full enunciation. Secondly, while
Socrates promises to disprove the validity of the paradox, his proof, as
it turns out, depends upon his belief in reincarnation and the access to
truth through recollection of truth that the soul had learned in previous
In the midst of the already destablizing elenchus
on areté, Socrates responds to a cynical theory of regarding the
futility of inquiry and the impossibility of knowledge by:
1 Making the paradox more explicit and
lucid; in fact the lucidity of the paraphrase is greater than that of the
original utterance, and one which neutralizes the delegitimating judgement
that Socrates appends to it.
2 Offering as proof of the paradox’s invalidity,
a theory that requires belief in past lives and mystical recollection of
knowledge from those lives.
Here the destabilization of the Socratic text is greater
for a contemporary reader than for Socrates’s contemporaries. Meno accepts
Socrates’s theory of recollection. The modern reader is very unlikely to
do the same. Therefore, to a modern reader, Socrates introduced a paradox
that makes enquiry and knowledge impossible, and does not disprove its
validity. At least, he doesn’t disprove it there. I think there are
more positive alternatives offered in the Meno, and I’ll outline one of
them in the next reading. But I would also like to direct the reader’s
attention to a great summary of the above paradox, by Professor S. Marc
Cohen, a classicists and specialist in Plato at the University of Washington.
You can find his summary and discussion of the paradox by clicking Here.
For an overview of the course (and links to more materials) for which Professor
Cohen wrote these lecture notes, click Here.
Meno Reading 1
Meno Reading 3
Meno Reading 4
Ion Reading 1
Why and how to read
A Duet for Hermogenes and Cratylus