Meno as a "Mean" in Plato's "Meno"

Meno stands between Anytus' combination of rage and ignorance and Socrates' high-minded talk.

Meno as a "Mean" in Plato's "Meno"

Cathal Woods' translation is quoted below. Previous writings about the "Meno:" Plato, "Meno," 86b & Plato, "Meno," 70a-72a

It is remarkable that Meno—eventually, a general noted for betraying his own men—occupies a middle position between Socrates and Anytus. A "mean" in the "Meno," if you will.

But he does. Socrates speaks the language of science, of wholes and parts, of shapes and colors. When Socrates descends, he moves to myths so elaborate they could be found in an epic. Anytus, on the other hand, wastes no time in displaying his anger. Anytus exaggerates the danger Sophists present, acting as if they are no less than a foreign enemy at the gates. They "obviously [are] the ruin and corruption of those they associate with" (91c), though he admits, under questioning, that he has absolutely no experience with the Sophists (92b).

He would seem to be a caricature, except for the fact that he voices an opinion common in the US. When Socrates asks who can teach virtue, Anytus boasts that any Athenian gentleman can (92e). There's no need for Sophists if the city practices virtue. Like American exceptionalism, the unstated assumption that the United States cannot fail, it can only be failed, Anytus' patriotism cannot withstand scrutiny. Athens' greatest leaders have repeatedly shown they cannot make their own children virtuous. Like those blinded by American exceptionalism, Anytus takes this refutation resentfully (94e-95a). He cannot possibly be wrong, as he has been entrusted by his countrymen with power. Socrates must be a traitor.

Anytus' attitude is terrible, to say the least. I wonder if the attitude is not just a product of entitlement, but entitlement itself. When your father is honored, respected, and has means, and you are given more because of him, it becomes very hard to understand virtue as anything other than yourself. Thanks to Xenophon, we know Anytus' son was anything but honored, respected, or decent (Xenophon, Apology of Socrates 29-31). I believe Anytus was not only in denial about his son (and therefore angry at anyone who might have challenged his "parenting"), but also thoroughly committed to his incredibly self-serving view of virtue.


Meno stands between Anytus' combination of rage and ignorance and Socrates' high-minded talk. One might say that contrasted with Anytus, anyone can appear thoughtful. But there are at least two moments where Meno voices something much greater than himself. Much greater than anything I could say. The first, I conjecture, is his "stung by the stingray" moment, where he admits he has become numb and cannot speak because of Socrates' questioning (h/t Peter Lund):

You seem to me, if it is possible to joke a little, to be, in appearance and in every way, exactly like the broad electric ray of the sea, for it too numbs anyone who approaches and comes in contact with it, and now you seem to have put me in something like the same state. For truly I am numb, both my spirit and my tongue, and I do not know what response I could give you.

And even though I have on countless occasions said many things to
many people about virtue, and did so well, as it seemed to me, anyway, now I cannot say at all what it is. I think you are wise not to sail away from here or go abroad, because if you acted in this way as a foreigner in another city, you would probably be arrested for sorcery. (80a-b)

Meno is a little bit angry. He "jokes" that Socrates is a stingray "in appearance," that his influence might result in an arrest "for sorcery." That anger, though, is not a performance, an attempt to indulge an "us versus them" as Anytus does. Rather, it signals authenticity. He could speak about virtue eloquently and at length before, but "now I cannot say at all what it is."

His bewilderment is philosophic. I believe I am learning best when knowledge and confidence reinforce each other. I have an idea which contains some truth ("if I flank the enemy here, I'll do damage to their weakest point and force a retreat"), the idea proves profitable ("flanking worked! I won the game"), I use the idea in similar and dissimilar conditions. This is probably not philosophy, as it is simply knowledge being more or less practical.

What is philosophy? Maybe when we're completely numb, unable to speak, because we're acutely aware we don't know. We put in the effort, thought through things that seemed promising, and we failed. There's no confidence, but instead the knowledge you don't know. Socrates denies being the stingray because, he claims, he himself feels numb (80c-d).

Meno brings us to an incredible moment in the history of thought. Generations have sold knowledge as progress, as leading with certainty to what is beneficial for us. Knowledge makes us stronger and better and feels good. This isn't untrue, but real intellectual honesty might feel like something completely different. And what good genuine knowledge provides might be difficult to accept.


Meno may be even more reflective, a more moving character, when he recalls that his own teacher, Gorgias, never promised virtue could be taught. In the passage below, Meno says the people he grew up with are "fine and noble." Still, he's frustrated with them ("By Zeus"), as he wanted them to teach him how to be virtuous. To train him in rule and allow him to rule. But they couldn't begin to do any of this. Then he went to Gorgias, who he clearly admires, and still couldn't get what he wanted:

Socrates: ...Tell me, don't you think there are fine and noble men where you come from, too?
M: Very much so.
So: Well, then. Are they willing to provide themselves as teachers of the young, and do they agree that there are teachers and that virtue is teachable?
M: By Zeus, no, Socrates. Sometimes you might hear that it's teachable, and sometimes that it's not.
So: Shall we say that people who can't even agree on this are teachers
of this subject?
M: I don't think so, Socrates.
So:  What, then? These sophists, who are the only people to declare themselves able, do you think they are teachers of virtue?
M: Now, this is something that strikes me about Gorgias in particular, that you'll never hear him promising this, and he mocks others when he hears them promising. Though he does think people must be made clever speakers.
So: Then you don't think that the sophists are teachers either?
M:  I'm unable to say, Socrates. I am affected in the same way as many others: sometimes I think so, sometimes not. (95a-c)

The problem of whether virtue can be taught is emotionally charged. Young men, like Meno, desperately want to learn it. This sounds strange to us, and I don't think equating virtue with rule is always helpful in grasping what's occurring. What's happening, I guess, more resembles situations where everyone starts mimicking the cool youth pastor. Everyone wants to belong, and the one who seems like he doesn't have a problem belonging displays control. Virtue isn't only a qualification to rule, a line on a CV or resume one talks about at the interview or before senators. It's about being accepted socially by one's peers, perhaps being accepted as a leading peer. It carries force in the city beyond them. Your name is enhanced, thus your family's name, and this means social status. The Bieber family has now heard of Meno, famed for his eloquence, and wishes to invite him to stay at Ibiza where he may help Justin conduct better press conferences.

I am guessing, to be sure. I imagine Pheidippides from Aristophanes' "Clouds," the useless son who ends up beating up his father. How he probably would have been shamed by at least a few of his friends for not going to a Sophist and trying to learn. They'd be running around him with fast arguments that are hard to refute because they sound so much smarter. The need to rule, then, might be a lot like our need to rule. —i.e. I can't be popular, but I need to find some respect to feel better about myself and make sure I'm not completely neglected by everyone. I need power to get that respect.—


I believe Meno's earnestness moves Socrates to give him a gift. A philosophically interesting bit of moralistic rhetoric. Socrates introduces the idea of "true opinion" instead of insisting "virtue is knowledge." True opinions ground virtue—we don't know exactly why what is right is right—and are as effective as knowledge in each and every instance. How Socrates illutrates "true opinion" is the gift. Once, Daedalus made statues that move. They're not worth very much, unbound, because they will run away. But bound, they are incredibly beautiful, remaining steadfast. True opinion is like these statues, prone to leave unless bound by reason and turned into knowledge:

So: haven't paid attention to the statues of Daidalos. Perhaps there are none where you live.
M: What are you thinking about when you say this?
So: Because if it is not tied down, it sneaks off and runs away, but if it is tied down, it remains by you.
M: So what?
So: Acquiring one of his unbound statues is not worthy of any great honor, like a runaway slave, since it won't stay with you. But a bound one is worth much, since his works are very beautiful.

What am I thinking about when I say this? About the true beliefs. Since the true beliefs, too, for as much time as they stay with you, are fine possessions and bring about entirely good results. But they are unwilling to stick around for long, and they run away out of the soul of a man and so are not worth much, until someone binds them by working out the reason.

And this, Meno my companion, is recollection, as we agreed previously. Whenever they are bound, first, they become knowledge, and second, steadfast. For these reasons knowledge is more honored than true belief, and knowledge differs from true belief in being bound. (97d-98a)

What is Socrates actually talking about? True opinions do not often fly away. If we have bad habits that need to be broken, it does take effort to create good habits. Sometimes we'll do beneficial things which should be done more often, but not make them routine. However, a lot of times we'll repeat what works for us, especially if we were taught it growing up.

The unbound statues, honestly, sound like free human beings. To a lot of people, other people only exist inasmuch as they are useful to them or their ideas. The human race is really not conceived as free by a number of people, perhaps especially those who want to rule. Free human beings, here, might run around a lot. They also have the truth, even if they don't know exactly how it works.

These free human beings, then, are made "steadfast" through knowledge. They're still free, but they understand why the truth is such. Meno, for his part, has to think of the statues not as objects, but as ends-in-themselves. To that end, understanding has to do with reconciling what's within them—what's within their "soul"–with the world we experience. (Socrates' rhetoric would privilege Meno's soul, if it were not for the previous demonstration of the boy's capability). What Socrates gives Meno, I believe, is another vision of rule. Not rule by the virtuous, where everyone is taught to know their place. Rather, rule through knowledge, where free people understand and respect each other as part of a whole. Knowledge, as you'll note, does not bind like chains or handcuffs, nor does it bind by causing anxiety or distress. It simply leads.