Plato's Dialogues may be grouped naturally into early, middle, and late periods of composition. They were most likely intended to be read in this approximate order, each group serving as a preparation for the next. Otherwise much of what is imbedded in the later Dialogues might remain hopelessly obscure. The early group thus forms a syllabus or compendium of the philosopher's first lessons in soul education, being principally concerned with the purpose of life and death, the nature of human obligations, and contemplation of the virtues. Socrates' aim here is not to convert us to what he believes, but to encourage us to think for ourselves, to arouse our innate desire to see through illusion and know things as they are.
Echoing the commandment of the Delphic Apollo, Socrates' basic prescription for wisdom is to "know thyself." Simple words — but an immensely difficult task. Socrates, however, understands human nature, and his first objective is to penetrate the greatest barriers to true knowledge, presumption and false belief, to help us realize how profound is our ignorance. As in the ancient Greek Mystery-schools, before one can be admitted to the precincts of truth, one must first submit to purification — a catharsis — to purge the mind of false and degrading thought.
The Meno introduces us to Socrates' purgative method and to his doctrine of learning. Meno is a wealthy man who has purchased instruction from some of the best known Sophists (teachers of rhetoric and a kind of political "wisdom" — from whence the word sophistry (1)) and he prides himself on his learning. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates if virtue can be taught. The question seems appropriately directed, for does not Socrates, more than any other man, constantly exhort us to virtue? Socrates, in his typical fashion, does not answer yes or no. But he does astonish us — and Meno, too — by "confessing" that he knows "literally nothing about virtue; much less whether it is acquired by teaching or not." If one is to answer the question, one must first know what virtue is; and in Socrates' judgment, although he readily admits he could be mistaken, he has never known anyone who did. The "sophisticated" Meno, however, is pleased to inform Socrates that his teacher Gorgias had taught him just exactly what virtue is:
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; he must also be careful not to 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. — §§ 71-2
From this "definition," we get a fairly good insight into the disastrous condition of Meno's mind — obscured by conventional prejudice and filled with the thoughts of other men. We also begin to appreciate the enormous task faced by Socrates. He is patient, though, and willing to press on with the inquiry; but not without poking a little fun at Meno: "How fortunate I am, Meno! When I ask you for one virtue you present me with a swarm of them, . . ."
Socrates points out that numerous illustrations do not define the quality that is common to them all. Carefully guiding the conversation away from the purported virtues of men and women, he introduces the thought that neither a state nor a home can be well ordered without temperance and justice. Meno agrees, and suggests that if a definition is to be given, then virtue is the power of governing justly, for justice is virtue. Socrates probes again: Should we say that justice is virtue, or is it a virtue? Are there not other virtues as well, such as courage, wisdom, and magnanimity?
And so the conversation continues, back and forth, Meno trying out new and better definitions — Socrates trying to help Meno in each attempt to form a more refined and enlightened view. Nevertheless, all the definitions are found wanting; upon examination each is seen to be an example and therefore only a part of virtue. The task is arduous, and Socrates is persistent: "Meno, you have not yet delivered virtue into my hands whole and unbroken." Reduced to exasperation, Meno replies,
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 [an electric ray], 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; . . . at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. — §80
Meno has reached a crucial point in his education, and Socrates has a ready reply. But he astonishes us again: he admits he is the cause of torpor in others, not because he is clear, but because he is utterly perplexed himself. He has said all along that he didn't know what virtue is. And now, it would seem, Meno doesn't either. Having at long last recognized and admitted his own ignorance, Meno may now be ready to begin a profitable inquiry into the real nature of virtue. Or is he?
For ignorance, even when discovered, does not yield its stronghold easily. When one's dearest illusions are challenged, the mind is capable of performing the most extraordinary feats of rationalizing. So we see Meno futilely grasping at one last Sophist argument: In the search for knowledge, how is it possible to discover what you want if you do not know it? Even if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?
It is here at the hard spot in the argument that we see Socrates' teaching skill at its best. Simply exposing ignorance is a job half done; in fact to do so is potentially dangerous, for the inquiring soul could perish in a sea of doubt, skeptical of everything whether true or not. Socrates thus attempts to rescue Meno from the dilemma, not by providing a simple intellectual solution, which would be contrary to his purpose, but by breaking away from purely mental analysis and tossing Meno a lifeline in the form of a story. It is a technique that Socrates often uses to help us intuit the real issues at stake, to elicit a deeper understanding which intellectual argument alone can never yield. (2) In this instance, Socrates objects to the Sophist doctrine that a man cannot inquire into that which he does not know, and he tells us why:
I have heard from certain wise men and women who spoke of divine things — . . . 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. . . . 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 inquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of inquiry: for it will make us idle and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In confiding that, I will gladly inquire with you into the nature of virtue. — §81
Nearly the whole of Socrates' — and Plato's — philosophy is packed into this one paragraph, its chief feature being that real knowledge is "recollection," an anamnesis — literally an "un-amnesia" or "un-forgetting." To illustrate the principle, Socrates guides Meno's uneducated slave-boy to the solution of a mathematical problem, suggesting that true learning is not the acquisition of factual information from external sources, but a remembering of truths stored in the immortal portion of the soul — truths recoverable to those who live in harmony with themselves, who "are strenuous and do not faint" in the effort.
Book 10 of the Republic resumes and elaborates this teaching in Socrates' story about the soul's experience after death. (3) Nearing the end of its postmortem journey, and having already chosen its future life, the soul is led through the scorching plain of Forgetfulness to the River of Unmindfulness, from whose waters each soul, just before it reincarnates, is obliged to drink a certain quantity. According to the tale, "those who are not saved by wisdom drink more than is necessary and forget all things." We may infer that it is these "things" which Socrates would help us remember — hence his exhortation to Meno:
we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to inquire, 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. — §81
(To be concluded)
1. Cf. Sophist §§231b, 268e. (return to text)
2. See "Plato's Myths and the Mystery Tradition," Sunrise, December 1988/January 1989. (return to text)
3. Cf. "The Vision of Er," Sunrise, June/July 1998. (return to text)