The question being debated by Socrates and Meno throughout Plato’s “The Meno” is ultimately the question of what virtue is, though it does begin with and occasionally return to the question of whether or not virtue can be taught (Plato, 59–92). One of the first solutions given by Meno to the question of the definition of virtue is the idea that virtue exists in multiple separate forms differing between every type of individual from men and women to children and slaves. Socrates refutes this idea by creating an allegory to bees in which he posits that while they may be different from each other in some regards, bees do not differ from each other in being bees. He then proceeds to say that the same applies to virtue. Though there may be many various, they all fall under the same form, which is virtue. Socrates likens this to health and gets Meno to admit that the definition of health does not differ between different types of people (Plato, 60–61). Meno then later presents the idea that virtue is “to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them (Plato, 66). To this idea, Socrates essentially argues that it would be ridiculous to desire bad things while knowing that they are bad, as bad things harm their possessors and can cause them to be miserable, which is something that no one seeks in life. Therefore, the people desiring the bad things believe that said bad things are good and are actually desiring what they believe to be good without knowing that they are bad. Securing bad things or securing things in an unjust way would be considered wickedness, and therefore they must be acquired with justice. However, requiring justice leads to the fragmentation of virtue into other elements again (Plato 66–69).
Meno’s Paradox is that a person “cannot search for what he knows — since he knows it, there is no need to search — nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for” (Plato, 70). It presents a paradox because it implies that if an individual starts as a blank slate they cannot learn about something they do not already know because they do not know what it is that they are learning about and thus would have no idea how to go about doing so, and they can not learn about something that they already know about because they already know it and therefore have no reason to search for it. It effectively creates a situation in which a person simply cannot learn yet they do. Meno’s Paradox is an epistemological inquiry since it focuses on the gaining of knowledge, or more specifically, it creates a paradox regarding how or when the knowledge that individuals possess is acquired.
The Theory of Recollection puts forward the concept that individuals do not learn anything throughout their life, but instead that they are recollecting knowledge already known. In this theory, the human soul is immortal and therefore possesses all knowledge as it has seen all things (Plato, 71). The theory works around Meno’s Paradox by stating that humans do not start as a blank slate, but instead with all knowledge, and therefore do not have to learn anything new. Socrates defends the Theory of Recollection by triggering recollection in a slave boy via asking questions regarding the base lines of different sized squares and causing the boy to recollect the knowledge that was known by his immortal soul already that eventually leads to him the conclusion that the diagonal of a four square foot square is equal to the base line of an eight square foot square. The boy who knew nothing of geometry managed to solve the issues by being asked question that caused him to recollect the knowledge (Plato, 72–77). I do not find Socrates’s defense of the theory of recollection to be successful. Throughout the process of triggering recollection in the slave boy, he uses many leading questions by bringing aspects such as the base line and diagonal up himself in questioning and drawing the boy’s attention to them, which likely would not have happened otherwise (Plato, 72; Plato, 77). The display of proof does not factor in the concept of an individual learning through reasoning. When given a and b in any situation, it is quite simple and rather expected for an individual to be capable of deducing c. As Socrates introduced aspects to the boy through leading questions, he provided enough information for the boy to figure out, or learn, the remaining information via deduction skills.
Plato, George Anastaplo, and Laurence Berns. Plato’s Meno. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2004.