“Meno” by Plato

The Dialectical Method

The contentious way of philosophical discourse is to make your statement and challenge others to examine and refute it; The dialectical way is not merely to answer what is true, but also to make use of those points which the questioned person acknowledges he knows.

All Learning is But Recollection

Meno_Socrates_demoMeno argues 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.” IOW, if one doesn’t know the truth, there is no use for him to seek, because he wouldn’t recognize truth even if it stares him in the face.

If there were a flaw in the argument, Socrates would have pounced on it. But instead, he counters with the theory of recollection, which I interpret in this way: that the soul does indeed know the truth already, but it doesn’t always recognize the truth in all its manifestations, derivations and ramifications. By recollecting the truth that she knows, she can by causal reasoning, recognize all the rest. “For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else”.[81d]

Before the demonstration, the boy didn’t know that the double space is the square of the diagonal, but Socrates proves that he has the knowledge already, as it can be deduced directly from what he already knows, namely, 1+1=2. He just didn’t recognize the formula in the geometrical form.

How the soul comes to know anything in the first place? The soul is immortal and has always known it. There is no period of time when she doesn’t know anything at all, because, as has been argued, it cannot know something from nothing.

[–Update in 2014–]

Knowledge as Path

Socrates analogizes knowledge to the way to any place you please [97b]. Those who have walked to a place before can lead others to it. In other words, knowledge is retraceable and reproducible.

This is in part Socrates’ demonstration with the boy. “What one fool can understand, another can”. The boy didn’t do any analysis or problem solving, as he didn’t have the analytic faculty that Euclid and Pythagoras possessed. But the knowledge the pioneers discovered can be appropriated by a boy with no background in the field. Because all knowledge are akin, and with the one knowledge he possesses, he can gather all the rest. To extend Socrates’ analogy: A man who stands on one tiny spot on the earth can travel across the face of the whole earth. The one spot gives him access to the entire world, because one point in space is similar to another. “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”

Virtue is different from knowledge in this regard. If a man travelled a path and became virtuous, he cannot lead others to the same destination. In fact, he doesn’t even know how he got there himself. Virtue is not retraceable nor reproducible.

Knowledge vs. True Opinion

For [true opinion], so long as they stay with us, are a fine possession, and effect all that is good; but they do not care to stay for long, and run away out of the human soul, and thus are of no great value until one makes them fast with causal reasoning. And this process is recollection. But when once they are fastened, in the first place they turn into knowledge, and in the second, are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more prized than right opinion: the one transcends the other by its trammels.

Knowledge are necessarily chained together by causal reasoning [98a]. If we gets hold of a single piece, everything else follows. True knowledge is more valuable than opinion, because of the chain of causal relations which has its beginning in truth, whereas opinion has no substance, it has no relation to the truth except a superficial resemblance.

From the causal nature and necessity of true knowledge, Plato derives the duty of seeking knowledge and living by it. Ideally, there is a harmony between a person’s life and knowledge; Kant, OTOH, denies any possibility of the knowledge of the nature of things, and yet he insists on duty. What was he thinking?

On Virtue

Socrates provides a working definition of virtue: Virtue is what guides good and right conduct, both personal and political conduct [96e,97a]. If we don’t have the knowledge of what is good, following a code of conduct would be no different from slavery. Virtue cannot exist apart from wisdom.

There are two things that guide human conduct, knowledge and opinion, neither of which is natural. If virtue can be taught as rational knowledge, why aren’t the sons of wise men as virtuous as their fathers? If not knowledge, then virtue is a sort of opinion. Socrates states provisionally that virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but a gif of god, imparted to us by a divine dispensation without understanding in those who receive it.

A statesman who has true knowledge of virtue would be capable of making a statesman of another. In other words, he would be able to reproduce, i.e., give birth to, virtue. However, Socrates has found nobody that meets the tall order. “If there should be any such, he might fairly be said to be among the living what Homer says Teiresias was among the dead—’He alone has comprehension; the rest are flitting shades.’ In the same way he on earth, in respect of virtue, will be a real substance among shadows.”[100b]

A Flawed Hypothesis

Socrates followed a line of argument that I find curious, if not ironic.

He first puts forth a hypothesis that if virtue is a type of knowledge, it can be taught. But, since the virtuous men of Athens, e.g., Themistocles and Aristides, Pericles and Thucydides, all failed to raise virtuous sons, though their sons were well-instructed in many other things, virtue cannot be taught, therefore it is not knowledge.

Firstly, how can we know that those famous statesmen of Athens are virtuous, and their sons are not, if we don’t know what virtue is? Pericles and Thucydides were political rivals, and so were Themistocles and Aristides, how could they both be good statesmen when they promoted contrary policies for the state?

Secondly, as Plato argues in Republic, knowledge cannot be learned by all men, but only the elite. Not all great scientists raise their children as scientists. Therefore, we cannot conclude that virtue cannot be taught, just because the Athenian statesmen cannot raise their sons as virtuous statesmen.

A Platonic Rationale for Reincarnation

1. A man cannot acquire new knowledge unless he already has knowledge, from which other knowledge can be deduced or produced.

2. True knowledge is substantial, whereas false opinion is but fleeting shadow. What is substantial, in the Platonic sense, is immortal, like the mathematical truths.

3. To hold true knowledge, the soul must also be substantial. Socrates analogizes this strong bond between the soul and knowledge to a chain. The chain would fail if either end is not solid.

4. If the soul is immortal, then it must have always existed. Plato doesn’t believe substance can come from nothing, which is different from the Christian doctrine that God, Who is incorporeal, creates the corporeal world from nothing.

5. If the soul has always existed, as Plato posits, it must have either lived many lives in various bodily forms, or existed as a disembodied soul. Most souls choose the former state. Hence reincarnation.

Incidentally, the concept behind Purgatory may not be that different from reincarnation. Obviously the soul doesn’t become perfectly virtuous in one lifetime, so it must spend many, many lifetimes in purgation, with or without a body. Immortality of the soul is a necessity, as Kant asserts, if perfection is the requirement.


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