Plato’s Meno

Summary of G.M.A. Grube translation of Plato’s dialogues (Hackett)

First Half

  • Can virtue be taught?
  • What is virtue?
  • Meno’s Paradox
  • Does the slave recall? What is recollection?
  • Hypothesis
  • Analogy

Second Half

  • The Forms


Meno’s Paradox:  How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all?

Socrates: Recollection. As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things.


Meno: Learning is recollection?  Can you teach me that this is so?

Socrates:  You now ask me if I can teach you, when I say there is no teaching but recollection…

Meno: …show me…

Socrates:  Call one of these many attendants of yours, whichever you like, that I may prove it to you in his case.

Meno:  Certainly. You there come forward….He was born in our household.

A.                              B.

Image result for meno diagram

D.                            C.

Socrates: Tell me boy, … you know that a square figure is like this?

Slave Boy: I do.

Socrates: And such a figure could be larger or smaller?

Slave Boy: Certainly.

Socrates: If then that this side were [x] feet, and this other side [x]feet … how many feet would the whole be? Consider it this way: If it were two feet this way and only one foot that way, the figure would be once two feet? –Yes.

Socrates: But if it is two feet also that way, it would surely be twice two feet? –Yes.

Socrates: How many feet will that be? –Eight.

Socrates:…how long [will] each side of this … be [?] …–Obviously, Socrates, it will be twice the length.

Socrates: You see, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but all I do is question him. And now he thinks he knows

Socrates: And does he know? 

Meno: Certainly not.

Socrates: Watch him now recollecting things in order, as one must recollect. Tell me, boy, do you say that a figure double the size is based on a lone double the length? …a figure such as this, …equal in every direction, and double the size, that is eight feet. See whether you still believe that it will be based on a line double the length. — I do.

[Etc. until problem is solved.]

Socrates: What do you think, Meno? Has he … expressed any opinion that was not his own?

Meno: No…

Socrates: And yet, as we said a short time ago, he did not know?

Socrates: So these opinions were in him, were they not? –Yes….

Socrates: So the man who does not know has within himself true opinions about the things that he does now know? –So it appears.

Socrates … In the end his knowledge about these things would be as accurate as anyone’s.–It is likely.

Socrates: And he will know it without having been taught, but only questioned, and find the knowledge within himself? –Yes.

Socrates: And is not finding knowledge within oneself recollection? — Certainly.


86 d

Teaching by hypothesis

  • Examples and definitions of hypothesis
  • What is virtue?
  • If virtue is knowledge, then it can be taught
  • Is virtue knowledge?
  • Virtue is in itself something good.
  • Is anything else good?
  • Not knowledge.
  • Good things sometimes harm.
  • Right use
  • Quality of soul
  • Courage and understanding
  • Wisdom and ignorance



Socrates:  The wise would directs them right, the foolish soul wrongly? — That is so.


  • a kind of beneficial wisdom in the soul that leads to knowledge.
  • virtue accompanied by wisdom produces happiness.
  • virtue accompanied by folly or ignorance produces sadness.

Socrates: We say that virtue is wisdom, either the whole or the part of it?

  • Wisdom
    • Soul
      • Human Activities

Meno: What you say, Socrates, seems to me quite right.

Socrates: Then … the good are not so by nature? –I do not think they are.

Socrates: For if there were, …we would have people who knew which among the young were by nature good…

Socrates: Since the good are not good by nature, does learning make them so?

Meno: Necessarily …

Socrates: …but may it be that we were not right…?

Meno: Yet it seemed to be right at the time.

Socrates: We should not only think it right at the time, but also now and in the future if it is to be at all sound.

Meno: [Why] doubt that virtue is knowledge?


Teachers and Learners

If … anything whatever can be taught, should there not be of necessity people who teach it and people who learn it.?

Meno: … do you think there are no teachers of virtue?

Socrates: I cannot find any. And yet I have searched for them…

Socrates:  And now, Meno, Anytus, here has opportunely come to sit down by us. Let us share our search with him…the son of Anthemion, a man of wealth and wisdom, who did not become right automatically or as the result of a gift…but through his own wisdom and efforts. …did not seem to be arrogant not puffed up or offensive citizen … but well mannered and well behaved … Also, he gave [Anytus] … a good upbringing and education, as the majority of the Athenians believe, for they are electing him to the highest offices.

[Analogies: physicians, shoe makers, flute players, crafts people]

Socrates: …Meno here…has been telling me for some time…that he longs to acquire that wisdom and virtue which enables men to manage their households and their cities well, to take care of their parents, to know how to welcome and to send away both citizens and strangers as a good man should. Consider to whom we should be right to send him to learn this virtue. Or is it obvious … we should send him to those who profess to be teachers of virtue and have show themselves to be available to any Greek who wishes to learn, and for this fix and fee and exact it? … that they are those whom men call sophists.

Anytus: …May no one of my household or friends, whether citizen or stranger, be mad enough to go to these people and be harmed by them, for they clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers.

Socrates: How do you mean? … Are these people, alone of those who claim the knowledge to benefit one, so different from the others that they not only do not benefit what one entrusts to them but on the contrary corrupt it, even though they obviously expect to make money from the process? I find I cannot believe you, for I know that one man, Protagoras, made more money from this knowledge of his … If those who mend old sandals, and restore clothes would be found out within the month if they returned the clothes and sandals in a worse state than they received them … they would soon die of starvation, but the whole of Greece has not noticed for forty years that Protagoras corrupts …I believe that he was nearly seventy when he died…his reputation has stood high…and many others. Are we to say … that they deceive and harm the young knowingly … or … not aware of it?

Anytus: …It is…the young who pay their fees who are mad, and even more the relatives who entrust their young to them and most of all the cities who allow them to come in and do not drive out any citizen or stranger who attempts to behave in this manner.

Socrates: …Why are you so hard on them?

Anytus: …by Zeus, I have never met one of them, nor would I allow any one of my people to do so.

Socrates: How  …  can you know whether there is any good in their instruction or not?

Anytus: Easily, for I know who they are, whether I have experienced them or not.

Socrates: Perhaps you are a wizard, Anytus …–but tell us, and benefit your family friend here by telling him, to whom he should go in so large a city to acquire … virtue…

Anytus: …Any Athenian gentleman he may meet…will make him a better man than the sophists would.

Socrates: And have these gentlemen become virtuous automatically, without learning from anyone, and are they able to teach others what they themselves never learned?

Anytus: …these men have learned from those who were gentlemen before them…

Socrates: …there are many men here who are good at public affairs … but have they been good teachers of their own virtue? That is the point we are discussing…

Socrates: …have you ever heard anyone, young or old, say that Cleophantus, the son of Themistocles, was a good and wise man at the same pursuits as his father? –Never…

Socrates: And yet he was, as you yourself agree, among the best teachers of virtue in the past….Let us consider another man, Aristides, …Or take Pericles …reflect that Thucydides too… so if virtue could be taught he would have found the man who could make his sons b good men. But, friend Anytus, virtue can certainly not be taught.

Socrates: …are there not worthy men among your people [who are ] willing to offer themselves to the young as teachers … agree they are teachers, and that virtue can be taught?

Meno: No … but sometimes you would hear them say that it can be taught, at other times, that it cannot.

Socrates: Should we say that they are teachers of this subject, when they do not even agree on this point? –I do not think so…

Socrates: …do you think that these sophists, who alone profess to be so, are teachers of virtue?

Meno:  I admire this most in Gorgias…he ridicules the others when he hears them making this claim. He thinks one should make people clever speakers.

Socrates: You do not think then that the sophists are teachers?

Meno: I cannot tell…like most people, at times I think they are; at other times I think they are not.

Socrates: Do you know that not only you and the other public men at times think that it can be taught, at other times that it cannot, but that the poet Theognis says the same thing?… In his elegiacs “Eat and drink with these men, and keep their company. Please those whose power is great, for you will learn goodness from the good.  If you mingle with bad men you will lose even what wit you possess.” You see that here he speaks as if virtue can be taught?  — So it appears.

Socrates: Elsewhere , he changes somewhat: “If this could be done,” he says, “and intelligence could be instilled,” somehow those who could do this “would collect large and numerous fees,” and further: “Never would a bad son be born of a good father, for he would be persuaded by wise words, but you will never make a bad man good by teaching.” You realize the poet is contradicting himself on the same subject? –He seems to be.

Socrates: Can you mention any other subject of which those who claim to be teachers not only are not recognized to be teachers of others but are not recognized to have knowledge of it themselves, and are thought to be poor in the very matter which they profess to teach?  Or any other subject of which those who are recognized as worthy teachers as one time say it can be taught and at other times that it cannot? Would you say that people who are so confused about a subject can be effective teachers of it? –No, by Zeus, I would not….

Socrates: …If there are no teachers, neither are there pupils? …And …not teachable.

Meno: … I certainly wonder, Socrates, whether there are no good men either, or in what way good men come to be.

Socrates:…We were right to agree that good men mys be beneficent…if they give us correct direction in our affairs. … but that one cannot give correct direction if one does not have the knowledge….

Socrates: What if someone had a correct opinion as to which was the way but had not gone there not indeed had knowledge of it. Would be not also lead correctly? …So true opinion is in no way a worse guide … than knowledge. …

Meno: …but the man who has knowledge will always succeed, whereas he who has true opinion will only succeed at times.



True Opinions v. Knowledge

Socrates: …true opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by [giving] an account of the reason why.  And that, Meno, my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After they are tied down, in the first place, they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. that is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge differs from correct opinion in being tied down….

Socrates:  Indeed, I too speak as one who does not have knowledge but is guessing, However, I certainly do not think I am guessing that right opinion is a different thing from knowledge. If I claim to know anything else–and I would make that claim about few things–I would put this down as one of things I know….

Socrates: Since then it is not only through knowledge but also throught right opinion that men are good, and beneficial to their cities when they are, and neither knowledge nor true opinion come to men by nature but are acquired–or do you think either of these comes by nature? –Surely not.

Socrates: Then if they do not come by nature, men are not so by nature either. …As goodness does not come by nature, we inquired next whether it could be taught…We thought if could be taught  if it was knowledge…and that it was knowledge if it could be taught…and that if there were teachers of it, it could be taught, but if there were not, it was unteachable…and that there were no teachers of it…neither teachable nor knowledge…

Socrates: But we certainly agree that virtue is a good thing…and that which guides us correctly is both useful and good…and that only these two things, true belief and knowledge, guide correctly, and that if a man possesses these he gives correct guidance.  the things that turn out right by some chance are not due to human guidance, but where there is correct human guidance it is due to …true belief or knowledge….

Socrates: Now because it cannot be taught, virtue no longer seems to be knowledge…and knowledge is not the guide in public affairs.

Socrates: So it is not by some kind of wisdom, or by being wise, that such men lead their cities…the reason why they cannot make others be like themselves, because it is not knowledge which makes them what they are….

Socrates: Therefore, …it is through right opinion that statesmen follow the right course for their cities. As regards knowledge, they are no different from soothsayers and prophets. they too say many true things when inspired, but they have no knowledge of what they are saying….

Socrates: And so, Meno, is it right to call divine these men who, without any understanding, are right in much that is of importance in what they say and do? –Certainly.

Socrates: We should be right to call divine also those soothsayers and prophets …and all the poets, and …those public men …though they have no knowledge of what they are saying….

Socrates: Women too, Meno, call good men divine…

Meno: And they appear to be right…

Socrates: ..if we were right… virtue would be neither an inborn quality nor taught, but comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods which is not accompanied by understanding, unless there is someone among our statesmen who can make another into  a statesman….such a man would, as far as virtue is concerned, here also be the only true reality compared, as it were, with shadows. …

Socrates:  … virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods. We shall have a clear knowledge of this when, before we investigate how it comes to be present in men, we first try to find out what virtue in itself is.