Plato: Can Meno Be Taught


“Plato’s recollection theory is his answer to how we come into contact with the abstract. With this theory we have certain capacities, but if we do not realize them, due to lack of proper education, then the soul atrophies into entropy, unable to ever see the light of Truth.”


“Tell me more about this recollectionist theory of mind, how does it store information?”


“In Plato’s Phaedo it is described as this:


But if the knowledge which we acquired before birth was lost by us at birth, and afterwards by the use of the senses we recovered that which we previously knew, will not that which we call learning be a process of recovering our knowledge…


It’s somehow stored within the soul. What sorts and sifts the information is the “intuition”. However, the intuition is shrouded in mystery. It can only be half-seen and half-grasped at; we don’t know how it sifts and sorts information. If we do have a sixth sense, then it is our intuition.”


“I understand,” Daniel said, “but given that I haven’t remembered this recollectionist theory, is it that I have a bad memory, or that it may not be the case?”


“I detect a hint of irony there, Daniel,” John said with the slightest hint of a smile.  “When it suddenly dawns on us that something is the case, it’s as if a flash of lightning strikes us within and that’s our intuition. Intuition is yoked to wisdom. Experience maybe the basis of many of our core beliefs, but it is through intuition that we are able to make the leap to lead us from empiricism to wisdom. Empirically, one may believe that every numerical integer is discovered one at a time. However, is this the case? No, we sit in our armchairs and come to these conclusions just as we thought of the idea of infinity, or pi, or the Pythagorean theorem. Even further:


 For Plato the effort and preparedness facilitative of sophia [wisdom] emerge only through dialogue and protracted discussion: ‘For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences, but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself’ (Letters, VII, 341). Therefore, intuition is yoked to wisdom. So wisdom is reflection of intuition (D. Robinson pg. 80-82).


“Let’s go back to the dialogue and the question of virtue.” John continued:


“Socrates: Let the first hypothesis be that virtue is or is not knowledge—in that case will it be taught or not? Or, as we were just now saying, “remembered”? For there is no use in disputing about the name but is virtue taught or not? Or rather, does not everyone see the knowledge alone is taught?


Meno: I agree.


Socrates: Then if virtue is knowledge, virtue will be taught?


This is “the” question of the dialogue,” John said. “Socrates could try to teach anything: how to be a physician, cobbler, or a politician. However, he chooses none of that. Instead, he decides on teaching virtue. After reading this closely, I believe that virtue can be taught, but not to all. Some are deficient in their cognitive capabilities to understand when they see a virtuous action, just like some might not understand the Pythagorean theorem, nor can one see valor on the battlefield. These concepts can only be understood by the attentive mind.”


“I agree whole-heartedly with you, John. We can’t see courage on the battlefield. It’s invisible to the perceptive eye. All we see is the crashing and colliding of matter. It’s finally the mind that must recognize courage, not the eye, just like it is the mind that understands the Pythagorean theorem or that 2+2=4. Are there any other obstacles to teaching virtue?”


“Yes there are other obstacles to teaching virtue. Some tragically let their desires trump their reason. They let addictions–that may have taken the course of a lifetime to develop–rule their lives. They become slaves to their passions, do you see? Temptations of the flesh which we are heir to, temptations of some drug, alcohol or some other worse addiction which can rule us, some slavish passion where someone from the outside could manipulate that person as if he were but a puppet attached to strings. It just takes another person to see that person for who they are, and play on them like one plays the piano. If that person was so weak and vulnerable, then they wouldn’t be ready to act virtuously.”


            Daniel takes a sip of coffee and sits back in his chair taking in the consequences of one’s own actions. He thought how the littlest pleasure could take one down a darkened path where Chaos could control one for a lifetime if one wasn’t on guard. Then he puts the cup back down.


John continued, “Now Plato gives us the myth of a man, who did let passions trump reason named Gyges, in his book The Republic, who finds a ring in the earth, Plato writes:


The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges… According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

With this ring he is able to turn invisible at will. What does he do with the power of invisibility? He does whatever he damn well pleases. He takes the queen and kills the king. If we expand Gyges to the size of the polis now, then this power would aptly represent the power Athens had, and tried to employ against the forces of Sparta; and in comparison, Athens lost, and actually Gyges, too, falls on hard times if we follow his myth to the very end. Socrates’ interlocutors, in The Republic, believe they have the poor, old man cornered, but what they fail to understand is that it isn’t about how we do behave; that was never the question. The real question is regarding how we ought to behave. Why did these two entities, Gyges and Athens, fail? They lacked virtue; their souls were not harmonized appropriately to instantiate virtue itself. This harmony of soul is just that which resonates from Socrates.


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