Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.01.01

Roslyn Weiss, Virtue in the Cave. Moral Inquiry in Plato's Meno.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. x, 229.  ISBN 0-19-514076-1.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Guillaume Dye, ATER, Université de Toulouse 2 (
Word count: 1576 words

In this book, Roslyn Weiss takes and defends the position that the Meno (hereafter M.) is a self-conscious analysis and assessment of the worth and the limitations not of inquiry in general but of moral inquiry, that is, the open-ended and never-ending investigation into moral matters (3). The M. thus appears as an apology for the Socratic enterprise, justifying it not on the grounds of "Platonic" theories like the immortality of the soul but on its own terms, namely, its progress toward true opinion. Moral knowledge, in the M., is unavailable to humans. Until such time as human beings attain a wisdom greater than human, moral matters will remain matters of opinion. In a word: human beings, in the M., live in a moral Cave--a world of moral opinion--and the best thing they can do is to keep inquiring about the best way to live. They thus engage into the only life worthy of their humanity, a life of critical reflection (4). Accordingly, the M., like most Socratic dialogues, is mainly aporetic, but, contrary to them, it contains an examination and a defense of the elenctic method itself.

Weiss takes seriously the literary genre of the dialogue and shows an outstanding ability to interpret the puns, allusions and dramatic indications to be found in Plato's text. She is also right to follow through the full force of the arguments exposed in the M. without appealing to supposed parallel passages in other dialogues (see for example 38-39, note 50). She does not, however, read the M. in isolation from the other dialogues--on the contrary, the title rightly puts the M. in relation to the Republic.1 This idea is aptly clarified in Appendix II ("The Abandonment of Moral Inquiry in the Republic", 203-209), where Weiss explores the change in the status of moral inquiry due to the introduction of the Theory of Forms: in the Republic, philosophers are defined not by their love of wisdom but by their actual attainment of it. Moral inquiry is then abandoned and replaced, for the philosophers-kings, by the vision of the Forms, and, for the citizens, by the rulers' exercise of persuasion and, if necessary, of compulsion.

The Conclusion and Appendix I also explore the relations between some aspects of the M. and other dialogues. The Conclusion ("The Examined Life", 171-184) focuses on the relationship between Plato's portrayal of Socrates in the M. and his portrayal of Socrates in the Socratic dialogues, especially in the Apology: Socratic ideals and commitments in the M. (his high regard for true opinion 2 and his determination to fight for the worth of moral inquiry) agree with those in evidence in the Apology (notice that, whereas for Socrates knowledge is a sufficient condition for virtue, it is not a necessary one (183), and that's why even though the examined life fails to achieve moral knowledge, it is nevertheless, for Socrates, a happy life).

Appendix I ("Recollection in the Phaedo", 185-201) 3 studies the relationship between the Phaedo's and the M.'s versions of the recollection thesis. It seems that the recollection thesis in the Phaedo, which is integral to Plato's conception of learning in that dialogue, runs counter to Weiss' interpretation, according to which the recollection thesis is mainly, in the M., a strategic ploy of Socrates to keep Meno from abandoning the inquiry into the nature of virtue. Weiss shows that the Phaedo's discussion is not a development of the M., but a radical departure from it. Socrates indeed signals in the Phaedo his break with the M. in at least three ways (188): he challenges rather than defends, the kind of recollection he espoused in the M., whereas Cebes' task is to defend it; he corrects M.'s version of recollection; he makes parts of the Phaedo's argument incomprehensible unless one reads them as a response to the M.'s account. Roughly speaking, the recollection in the Phaedo is not recollection by way of questions and diagrams: "it is recollection of pure Forms by way of deficient sensibles" (199)--a theme completely absent in the M.

The body of Weiss' book, however, deals directly with the M., and follows closely the order of the text. As a matter of fact, it is not far from being a close commentary on the dialogue.

Weiss' method of interpretation, which combines a real sensitivity not only to the humor of Plato's text and its dramatic indications but also to its dialectical and philosophical implications, makes her book difficult to summarize--unless one is willing to obliterate the depth and subtlety of her reading. I will therefore only sketch the main lines of her commentary and briefly present the contents of each chapter.

The main lines of this commentary can be described as follows. Firstly, Socrates, in the M., believes moral knowledge to be out of the reach of human beings because there are, in morality, no conclusive criteria. Secondly, all inquiry is for knowledge, whether or not the inquirer believes knowledge to be a possible result. Thirdly, Socrates, though not a sophist, willfully deceives Meno. Fourthly, the dramatic action of the dialogue as well as in Plato's many hints, help the reader discern when Socrates is not earnest and should not be taken at his word (these hints, of course, go unnoticed by Meno). Finally, Socrates introduces doctrines he does not endorse because he hopes thereby to improve his interlocutor and because they contain, beneath the surface, an important message for the reader.

Chapter 1 ("The Struggle over Definition", 17-47, on M. 70a-79e) skillfully portrays Meno's and Socrates' characters and replays Socrates' struggle to deprive Meno of his passion for power and money and to encourage him to place value instead on justice, temperance and piety.

Chapter 2 ("Impasse, Paradox, and the Myth of Learning by Recollection", 49-76, on M. 79e-81e) follows the tensions between Socrates and Meno. These tensions lead to an impasse in their search for the nature of virtue, which culminates in "Meno's paradox". Weiss takes seriously the differences between Meno's paradox (85d5-8) and Socrates' reformulation (80e2-6), and argues that Socrates eliminates this paradox "because he recognizes that with respect to the nature of virtue he cannot answer it" (61): in inquiry about virtue (but not necessarily in other areas of investigation), one will not know that one has found the answer one seeks, even if it is actually the case. But Meno believes the only way to learn is to be taught, and has no interest in an elenctic inquiry that will not yield knowledge in moral matters, whereas Socrates wishes to persuade him to persist in elenctic inquiry. This compels Socrates to use trickery to keep Meno from abandoning the inquiry: Socrates has then recourse to the myth of recollection with which he responds to Meno's paradox, but this myth does not represent his own beliefs: it is mainly a ploy designed to sustain the discussion.

Chapter 3 ("The Slave-Boy. Learning by Demonstration", 77-126, on M. 81e-86c) emphasizes the farcical nature of the slave-boy demonstration and permits it to be seen for what it really is: a lesson in geometry, with teacher, student and new material taught (see especially 94-107). Notice that Weiss' interpretation of the diagram deviates from traditional ones in two ways (84-94): according to traditional interpretations, the two equal lines that go through the center of the original square are transversals that bisect the sides of the square, and Socrates draws a new square in the final stage of the demonstration. Weiss argues that the equal lines that go through the center of the square are diagonals and claims that Socrates, at the end of his demonstration, returns to the original square with its original diagonals (this interpretation seems to me more natural). This chapter also discloses the deeper message of "recollection": since moral true opinions are always in the soul, they can be released and recovered through the Socratic method of elenctic questioning. Geometry, however, and the other kinds of knowledge, are simply taught and are not supposed to be "learnt" by recollection.

Finally, chapter 4 ("The Road to Larisa. Knowledge, True Opinion, and Eudoxia", 127-170, on M. 86c-100c) closes this commentary of the M. by portraying Socrates' reluctant relinquishing of the search for what virtue is. It shows how Socrates seeks to aid Meno even within the investigation's newly narrowed scope (namely, "how virtue is acquired?") by persuading him that virtue comes to men neither by nature nor by teaching nor spontaneously. This chapter shows too how Socrates makes the case for true opinion as the source of virtue: according to Socrates, he and Meno have failed to recognize in true opinion a second way besides knowledge by which men conduct their affairs rightly and well (152-170). The goal of a life of moral reflection is therefore, in the M., true opinion, and not moral knowledge, which is out of reach, or the mere recognition of one's ignorance, which would be insufficient. In a word, this is an excellent book which must be read by everyone with a serious interest in Plato. I find Weiss' argumentations often convincing and stimulating, but readers less eager to find a (supposed, according to them) hidden meaning in Plato's text will probably not share this opinion. More could and should be said about this book, which will no doubt provoke discussions, but in any case, Weiss must be praised for her rigorous and careful reading, which sets a high standard for future commentaries on the M.


1.   Linking the M. and the Republic is not an original idea, but it is a true and a significant one. Cf. Friedländer, on the parallelism between the structure of the M. and the myth of the Cave (Platon. Die platonischen Schriften, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1954, p. 271), and the reflections of Brague, which can be summarized by the following sentence: "Le Ménon est ainsi l'image renversée de la République" (Le Restant. Supplément aux commentaires du Ménon de Platon, Paris: Vrin, 1978, p. 81).
2.   As Weiss notices (7), the M. is the only Platonic dialogue that celebrates the practical worth of true opinion, equating its practical effectiveness with that of knowledge.
3.   An earlier version of this appendix, entitled "The Phaedo's Rejection of the Meno's Theory of Recollection" appeared in Scripta Classica Israelica 19 (2000), p. 51-70.

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