Monday, September 12, 2016

Plato's Little Book About Everything

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 73
Plato, Meno

Sometime early in his career, with his reputation building but his ideas not fully formed, Socrates, the great questioner, sat to dinner with the prominent Athenian Anytus and his guest, Meno. As happened whenever Socrates sat down, talk turned to higher subjects. Meno, a student of Socrates’ rival Gorgias, saw an opportunity to score points against a foe. So he channeled the conversation toward a hotly contested question: it is possible to teach students virtue?

Though this dialog, slim and plainspoken enough for non-philosophers to savvy in one sitting, represents an early development of Socrates’ thinking, and is often taught first in liberal arts curricula, Plato actually wrote it around the midpoint of his career. Thus it probably doesn’t reflect a conversation that actually took place. However, its use of real Athenian personalities probably indicates Socrates had this type of debate several times; therefore, it likely reflects Socrates’ actual ideas.

Pinned on the question of teaching virtue, Socrates follows his usual approach of answering the unasked question. Here Meno has left two questions unasked: what is virtue? And what is learning? The disputants tentatively define virtue as knowledge, a not uncommon belief in times when traditional religious definitions were in retreat. But the process of acquiring knowledge, they find more controversial. Indeed, learning becomes so abstract that they finish by abandoning their definition of virtue.

Plato and Aristotle, depicted by Raphael
Readers intimidated by longer Platonic dialogs, like Republic or Symposium, may find this a more amenable way of comprehending the foundations of Western philosophy. In most English translations, Meno barely runs forty-five pages, and largely avoids grandiloquent monologs. Perhaps Plato wanted the equivalent of a first-semester introduction for his students at the Academy of Athens. This book certainly fits the bill, and several Great Books colleges, like St. John’s and Notre Dame, begin with Meno.

Socrates considers knowledge something incorporeal, a transmission of the soul. We don’t learn things new, he says; we simply remember truths our spirits understood before our births. (Plato contradicts this in later dialogs, but he always values questions higher than answers.) Thus Socrates enlists Anytus’ boy slave to prove we already know everything important. In one of Plato’s most remarkable exchanges, Socrates, without having to explain almost anything, proves an untutored boy already understands geometry.

This discussion of philosophical precepts gets very abstract and mystical. Western philosophy actually began, among Pre-Socratics, as an attempt to understand reality without recourse to gods. Thales of Miletus believed reality was entirely physical. Pythagoras of Samos thought reality was mathematical. But Socrates found mechanical explanations too small for human motivations, and sought an emergent truth antedating man. His reliance on the clouds of glory Wordsworth says we trail was pathbreaking, but remains controversial today.

Meno, a general of the Thessalonian army, has the distinction of being, like Socrates, one of the few characters mentioned by both Plato and his contemporary Xenophon. Therefore, most scholars agree that Meno (or Menon) must have been an authentically historical figure. The ambitious Meno climbed high, and fell fast. The question, then, becomes: how much of his speech in this dialog can we consider authentically his? That’s a question we may never satisfactorily answer.

Both Meno and his host Anytus were generals of the Athenian-led alliance that fought the Peloponnesian war. Moreover, Plato’s own audience would’ve recognized Anytus’ name immediately. Both Plato and Xenophon name Anytus as Socrates’ accuser in the trial that cost his life. Like Judas, Anytus was apparently the master’s ally before becoming his enemy. We see the rift beginning in this dialog, when Socrates gently mocks Meno’s political strivings and sexual license. Anytus isn’t amused.

By the conclusion, as common in Plato’s dialogs, the motivating question remains unanswered. The teaching of virtue, as important a concept in democratic societies today as in ancient Athens, seems less clear than when we started. However, in the best philosophical tradition, we maybe finish up more confused, but we’re confused at a higher level of inquiry. We better understand what we don’t know, and why finding out matters. We’re prepared to keep asking questions.

Like most works from its era, Meno exists in multiple modern translations. College philosophy courses often favor GMA Grube’s translation, since it pirouettes between high-flown mystical discourse and Socrates’ famous earthy humor with ease. However, for self-guided students, Grube’s academic detachment may not be enough. I like the Focus Philosophical Library edition, because in addition to its plain-English prose style, it includes almost twenty pages of notes, the most thorough and useful annotation I’ve found.

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