Friday, March 18, 2016

Plato's Meno

I read things as an aesthetician these days, a philosopher of art and beauty.  So in rereading and teaching the Meno after many years I am struck by the ending, which for me is interestingly related to the Ion, which is so important for aesthetic theories.  Both make a big deal out of the idea that right opinion, even when divinely inspired, is different from knowledge, and that although knowledge is to be preferred, there are some areas in life where right opinion divinely inspired is to be preferred on practical grounds.  The main theme of Meno is the question of the nature of virtue.  

The dialogue begins with an attempt to define virtue, followed by the famous discussion of the doctrines of reincarnation and recollection, followed by the discussion with Meno's slave which is supposed to show that knowledge is recollection, followed by a discussion with the politician Anytus over whether virtue can be taught (certainly not by the Sophists) and ending with the notion that it cannot be taught and hence is a matter of mere right opinion, although perhaps only when such opinion is divinely inspired.  The ending is rather depressing.  Generations of philosophy teachers have suggested that we are expected to come to our own conclusion, that although virtue cannot be taught in the traditional sense, Socrates is implying that we can learn how to be more virtuous through the method of question and answering, i.e. the Socratic method.  That is, the Socratic method will succeed where the Sophistic method and the more traditional methods of Anytus failed.  Perhaps also, it is commonly suggested, the solution to the problem is to be found in the Theory of Forms which, although not fully set forth in this dialogue, features strongly in such dialogues as the Republic and the Phaedo.  I tend to believe that dialogues need to stand on their own and that the ending of this one leaves us with inspiration alone with no real intimation of salvation in a worked out theory of Forms. 

Perhaps inspiration is supposed to be tied up with recollection in some weird way, although it is hard to draw a strong parallel between the work of an inspired politician like Pericles and the capacity of Meno's slave to come up with a sophisticated mathematical proof when sufficiently questioned.  After the discussion with the slave, Socrates says "a man who does not know has in himself true opinions on a subject without having knowledge." (86c) But this would make the slave and the brilliant politician the same, except that the slave's true opinions are not actualized and the politicians are.  Before going on to discuss the dialogue in more detail I should note the strangeness of a dialogue that can jump so quickly from religious stories of reincarnation to mathematical proof connecting the two under the same mantle.  

But let's begin rather with the question of whether or not virtue can be taught, i.e. in our own situation.  I teach philosophy in a university and sometimes I teach classes in ethics.  The question often comes up whether we can make our students more virtuous by teaching them ethics.  Of course, as Socrates observes, the question of what is virtue is prior in some sense.  For example, the teaching of ethics, if it were possible, would be different for each one of the definitions of virtue that Socrates and Meno consider. So we need to know which definition is right in order to know whether virtue can be taught. (There is a sense in which the process of investigation into the nature of virtue is itself the only valid training in virtue.)  

Let's say that virtue is just action and a virtuous person is someone who always acts in a way that is just.  So the question is whether telling students about various theories of justice and even asking them to apply these theories to their own lives will make them more just. Socrates makes fairly clear that virtue is not just a form of knowledge:  if we want to teach virtue we do not just want to teach people the various theories of virtue or of justice.  We want to make them more virtuous at the end of the process.  Can this be done?  I am not sure that those who teach ethics classes are trying hard to do this, although I have known some who are strong advocates for certain ethical positions and for certain changes in society that would themselves bring more justice, for example those who advocate radical reform of our criminal justice system. Others think that just getting students to think more logically and/or more deeply is imbuing them with virtue, especially rational or intellectual virtue, but maybe even something more than that:  we often say that we are trying to make them better citizens.  

So what are we to make of the idea, as presented at the end of the Meno, that virtue, both in politics and in art, is not gained through nature or through teaching but through divine influence?   If we don't like the strictly religious take on this (and I, as an atheist, would reject it) we can focus on Socrates' use of the word "unconscious."  The virtuous individual is "divine" or god-like in that "with no conscious thought" (99c) he is "outstandingly successful."

And what are we to make of the thought that wisdom is of no help in this situation?  Doesn't this imply that the solution offered in the Republic, where the philosopher-kings rule by and through their wisdom, is not available here?  Doesn't an emphasis on inspiration and the "right opinion" that comes from that undercut the entire rationalist project?  Socrates says "it is not only under the guidance of knowledge that human action is well and rightly conducted."  He even implies that it is through the non-knowledge method that "men are made good." (96e)  

Socrates does suggest the possibility of an exception, i.e. someone who not only had virtue but would be able to "create another like himself."  Such a person would be "a solid reality among shadows." The concluding paragraph of the dialogue does hold out some hope in this respect: "On our present reasoning then, whoever has virtue get it by divine dispensation.  But we shall not understand the truth of the matter until...we try to discover what virtue is in and by itself."  But then, oddly, Socrates finishes by asking Meno to convince Anytus "that what we now believe is true" where "what we now believe" would seem to be that virtue is a matter of divine inspiration and cannot be taught by anyone, not even the average gentleman citizen of Athens, which was the position of Anytus. 

So we are left with the thought that perhaps in some sense virtue is teachable, or at least that would still be a question that is left open, as long as we come up with a definition of virtue, i.e. one that meets all of the criteria for a good definition that were set forth early in the dialogue.  There are no teachers of virtue now, but perhaps there will be in the future, and perhaps these will use the method of Socratic elenchus, as it is tied to recollection, which is not strictly a matter of teaching.  (The idea that the elenchus will ultimately give knowledge is suggested when Socrates says of the slave "if the same questions are put to him on many occasions and in different the end he will have a knowledge of the subject as accurate as anybody's."  But if the elenchus is understood in this way it should not be simply equated with what Socrates normally does with his interlocutors.  It is a different kid of instruction, for example it does not lead to aporia.  It is really more a kind of training than a kind of inquiry.  So maybe this is not elenchus.  But then it is hard to see how virtue could be taught in this way: in what way is virtue like mathematics and in what ways is it  different?)

However, Socrates' view on this is not too convincing for us as we are unlikely to accept the idea of reincarnation.  It is not even clear that reincarnation helps since if one learned virtue in a previous life the problem would remain how one learned it.  Or to put it in terms of the lesson taught to Meno's slave:  if he learned how to prove this mathematical theorem in a previous life and is only recollecting it now we still have the problem of how he learned it then.  Of course Socrates has a way out of this in arguing that the slave learned these opinions "when he was not in human shape" which implies that the relevant previous life is not a previous human life and thus does not have the limitations of human life, and further that "if...there are going to exist in him, both while he is and while he is not a man, true opinions which can be aroused by questioning and turned into knowledge, [then] his soul has been forever in a state of knowledge" which would imply that the soul is immortal and the knowledge is somehow fixed in its eternal essence. (86a)  From this he infers that we should "take courage" and try to discover what is there, i.e. our immortality means it has got to be there.

Perhaps the theory of recollection is just a metaphor for the process of interactive questioning and answering in which the student is expected to come at the correct solution by way of thinking for herself rather than by way of, e.g., memorizing the answer.  I think this is the lesson most of us take from the Meno, not one about an earlier life or even about some sort of recollection.  Nothing is re-collected or re-called, but rather the potential exists in the mind of the pupil to learn this through the process of guided thinking for herself.   If you want to call this potential "recollection" well, fine, there is recollection.  

Of course, as Socrates observes, knowledge is more valuable than right opinion in that it is "tethered down" by "working out the reason." (98a)  The difference between knowledge and true opinion is that when you have knowledge you have "the reason."  I suspect that "the reason" is pretty much the same as what he was looking for earlier in the dialogue, i.e. the correct definition.  We will have knowledge of virtue and not just right opinion of it when we have the right definition of it.  But since, "for practical purposes right opinion is no less useful than knowledge," (98c) it is not entirely clear how having the reason or the definition can help. 

Another problem: if it is true that, as Socrates says "good men themselves are not good by nature" then how can he also imply that wise men are wise by nature insofar as what they recollect in their wisdom is part of their natures?   Why do we need to bring in gods and inspiration when nature should do the trick? Even the doctrine of recollection does not bring in gods: it is not that we recollect because we access something divine (although of course this in implied in the Phaedrus.)  

One final point for now.  Socrates can be read as taking a position ironically quite close to that of Protagoras as set for in the Theaetetus and arguably a position that the real Protagoras accepts, i.e. that instead of giving his students truth (or knowledge) he is teaching them virtue by way of helping them replace bad ideas with better, more useful, ideas.  So, similarly, Socrates slides away from the doctrines of reincarnation and recollection and simply says that he will fight long and hard for this "thing":  "that we shall be better, braver, and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we don't know than if we believe there is no point in looking because what we don't know we can never discover." (86c)  Interestingly, this is a sentence that few scientists or philosophers would reject even today.  Perhaps it is the moral of the story.  But it is ironic that it is essentially a sophist move given that most of the story is in reaction against the work of the sophists, Meno himself being one of them, trained by Gorgias himself.


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