30 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Meno”

One of the founding documents of Western philosophy, Plato’s Meno recounts a dialog on the nature of virtue between Socrates and his pupil Meno, a rising star among the leaders of ancient Greece. They discuss how virtue can be recognized, where it comes from, and whether it can be taught.

Meno takes place in 402 BCE in Athens; Plato, Socrates’s most famous student, in 385 BCE wrote down his recollection of the conversation. It offers a clear picture of Socrates’s method of thinking on difficult topics, and it highlights Socrates’s quick mind, sharp wit, and skill at countering objections and resolving dilemmas raised by students. Meno joins 29 other Socratic dialogs, including The Republic and the Apology, that have influenced philosophical and political thought to this day.

Meno, a wealthy and ambitious young leader from Thessaly, visits Socrates in Athens, accompanied by an entourage of enslaved people. Meno previously studied with the Sophist philosopher Gorgias. He asks Socrates for his views on virtue.

Socrates declares that the Thessalians, once known only for their wealth and horsemanship, now have eclipsed even Athens in their wisdom. This, Socrates says, is largely due to Gorgias, who has trained the Thessalians in “the habit of answering questions in a grand and bold style” (1).

Socrates pleads ignorance of the nature of virtue; he also claims that no one else knows what it is. Meno says that Gorgias taught him about virtue; Socrates asks him to elaborate. Meno declares that a man should know how to administer a state and that a woman should manage a house and obey her husband; the young and old, the free and the enslaved, each also have their distinct virtues.

The old philosopher replies that Meno has sent him a swarm of virtues, and that, like bees, each is different. Yet there must be something that bees have in common; Meno agrees. Socrates suggests that virtues, too, must have a common quality, as with, for example, “health, and size, and strength” (5). Meno insists that virtue is different.

Socrates asks whether both men and women must conduct their duties with “the same virtues of temperance and justice” (6). Meno agrees. Socrates asks if this applies as well to the young and the old; Meno concurs. Yet Meno believes that virtue consists of “governing mankind.” Socrates asks whether a child can govern a parent or an enslaved person or a master. Meno concedes that this isn’t possible.

Socrates suggests that the virtue of governance must include justice; Meno concurs by saying “justice is virtue” (7). Socrates asks whether justice is the only virtue or one of many; Meno repeats that there are many virtues. Socrates asks for examples, and Meno suggests courage, temperance, wisdom, and magnanimity.

Socrates states that, if someone said that round is figure, he would correct them by saying that round is a figure, one of many. Likewise, if someone were to say that whiteness is color, he would correct them and say that whiteness is a color, one of many. In this sense, “justice is virtue” must be amended to read, “justice is a virtue”—again, one of many. The goal, then, is to discover the quality common to all figures, and to all colors, and, similarly, the quality common to all virtues.

Socrates offers to explain what he believes are the essential qualities of figure and color if Meno will explain his and Gorgias’s beliefs about virtue. Meno agrees and insists that Socrates continue. Socrates teases him, saying that even a blind man would know that Meno is handsome and has many lovers “because you always speak in imperatives” (13).

Using Gorgias’s Sophist style, Socrates explains color by saying that, in life, there are certain “effluences” that flow through certain passages, and that color is an outpouring of form that is “commensurate with sight, and palpable to sense” (14). Meno is pleased with this answer. In turn, he explains the Sophist definition of virtue: “Virtue is the desire of things honourable and the power of attaining them” (15).

Socrates asks whether those who desire the honorable also desire the good; Meno agrees. Socrates wonders whether anyone desires evil; Meno says they do. Socrates argues that anyone who realizes that what they desire will lead to evil results for them will reject that path; Meno assents. Thus, all people desire the good, but some believe wrongly in the goodness of paths that turn out to be evil. In this respect, by Meno’s Sophist definition, all people are virtuous because all desire “things honorable and the power of attaining them.”

Virtue, suggests Socrates, isn’t the desire for the good but the power to attain it. However, this must be achieved “piously, justly.” Meno accepts this. Thus, refusing to acquire honors dishonestly is itself an example of virtue; what matters more than the outcome is the justice and honesty of the pursuit.

Socrates asserts, however, that they still haven’t come to a complete and unified picture of virtue. Meno, flustered, jokes that Socrates is like the torpedo fish that makes listless those who touch it. He adds that “if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician” (22). Socrates retorts playfully that he perplexes others because he is himself perplexed, and that now neither he nor Meno knows what virtue is, “although you did once perhaps know before you touched me” (23).

Meno asks how they can look into the question of virtue if they know nothing about the topic and therefore can’t recognize the answer. Socrates replies that the human soul is immortal and experiences reincarnation over and over and has long since learned everything, and that questions about reality find answers through a process of “recollection.”

To prove this, Socrates asks Meno to bring forward an enslaved person. Meno does so, and the philosopher draws a square and explains to the man how the side of that figure, multiplied by an adjacent side, gives the area. The enslaved man catches on quickly. Socrates then asks the enslaved man to suggest a new length for the square’s side that would double the area. The enslaved man guesses that the side should double in length. Socrates shows him that this would result in a square with four times the area. The enslaved man sees that the correct length must be larger than, but less than twice the length of, the first square’s side.

Socrates then proves to the enslaved man that a line running diagonally across a square is the same length as the side of a square with twice the area. Meno confirms that the enslaved man was never taught geometry. The enslaved man thus demonstrates that a person can understand immediately the basic principles of geometry if that understanding is brought out through questioning. The enslaved man knows some things naturally and therefore can judge whether other information conforms to those things or is false. In this way, it’s possible for those not formally trained to validate a result through their own recollection of the deeper truth involved.

Socrates offers to return to the question of the nature of virtue, but Meno wants instead to learn how virtue is acquired, whether naturally or by instruction or in some other manner. Socrates replies with the example of a geometer who, asked whether a given triangle can fit inside a particular circle, must first make a conjecture about whether the fit is possible, then test it by examining the two shapes. Likewise, Socrates must suggest a hypothesis about virtue—in this case, “that virtue is or is not knowledge” (39)—and then test that hypothesis: If virtue is knowledge, then it can be taught.

He and Meno agree that virtue is “profitable” if it is helpful and not hurtful. A man with “no sense” but plenty of courage will come to harm, but a person with sense will be wisely courageous. Thus, good outcomes depend on wisdom, and people are good, not by birth, but according to the wisdom of their actions. Otherwise, it would be a simple matter to pick out the good people and raise them in seclusion until they were ready for service. Virtue, then, relies on wisdom, and wisdom can be taught; it appears, therefore, that virtue can be taught.

Meno asks Socrates why he nevertheless is “so slow of heart to believe that knowledge is virtue?” (44). Socrates answers that he is unable to locate any teachers of virtue. He invites Meno’s friend Anytus to join the conversation, and asks him whether, if someone should learn to become, for example, a physician or a cobbler or a flute player, they should be sent to those who profess to know how to teach those skills. Anytus concurs.

Socrates then asks whether Meno, who wants to learn about virtue, should be sent to the Sophists, who charge for just such instruction. Anytus replies that the Sophists “are a manifest pest and corrupting influence” (47). Socrates protests that a cobbler who repairs shoes so that they are worse than when he received them would be found out forthwith, whereas the Sophist Protagoras, who taught for 40 years, “was never found out” (48), and instead enjoyed a stellar reputation. Anytus replies that the reason is because the youths’ guardians and the cities that welcomed the Sophists were simply “out of their minds” (49).

What, asks Socrates, have the Sophists done to anger Anytus? Anytus replies that they have done nothing to him, for he and his charges have had nothing to do with them. How then, wonders Socrates, can Anytus hold so poor an opinion of people about whom he has no direct knowledge?

Setting that question aside, Socrates asks Anytus for advice on selecting someone who can instruct Athenian sons in the virtues. Anytus says that any random gentleman will do better than the Sophists. Socrates asks how such a gentleman acquires the knowledge of virtue, and Anytus supposes that he gets it from the previous generation of gentlemen.

This, says Socrates, doesn’t settle the question of whether such gentlemen are able to teach virtue. He offers the examples of Themistocles, Pericles, and other Athenian leaders widely honored as great men, who trained their sons in horsemanship and many other arts but somehow were unable to transmit virtue to them. Anytus takes offense and warns Socrates to “be careful.” Socrates says that he’s not trying to defame great men but merely to point out that virtue can’t be taught.

He turns to Meno and asks if he has found any gentlemen who offer to teach virtue. Meno replies that his own teacher, Gorgias, laughs at the notion and insists instead that men should simply learn oration. They agree that there is a great deal of controversy among philosophers, teachers, and poets as to whether virtue can be taught at all. Given the confusion, Socrates and Meno infer that virtue isn’t a subject that can be transmitted by instruction.

Socrates then asks how correct behavior can be acquired. He suggests two ways: experience and opinion. The person who has traveled to a city knows the way from experience; the man who hasn’t but figures out where the city must be knows the way from opinion. Opinions, however, tend to be forgotten—to wander off like runaways and become useless—whereas knowledge obtained from experience is chained to the soul’s recollection of the truth.

If opinions aren’t grounded in knowledge, and if knowledge cannot be taught but must be recollected, then virtue itself can’t be taught. Therefore, Socrates and Meno conclude, virtue must be a “gift of God” (66), and that great leaders act and speak greatly, not because of what they know, but because of a quality of the divine within them.

To know for sure, says Socrates, they must discern the “actual nature of virtue” (66), perhaps at another time. Meanwhile, Socrates asks Meno to persuade an “exasperated” Anytus of their conclusions, for “if you can conciliate him, you will have done good service to the Athenian people” (66-67).