Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.12.30

Dominic Scott, Plato's Meno.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. x, 238.  ISBN 13: 978-0-521-64033-6.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Roslyn Weiss, Lehigh University (

Table of Contents

Dominic Scott's contribution to the McCabe series of commentaries on Platonic dialogues is a most welcome addition to that still short but fine list. Scott's clear analysis and considered judgments illuminate previously dark corners of the dialogue. His book begins with an Introduction in which he offers a concise and accurate synopsis of the dialogue, followed by a defense of J. S. Mill's assessment of the Meno as a philosophical "gem." Scott both disputes the charge that the arguments the dialogue contains are seriously flawed and promises to construe them charitably, supplying implicit premises when possible, and, when not possible, showing why the arguments are nevertheless intriguing and important. Scott also appreciates the drama that unfolds between the characters of the dialogue and steers a middle course between, on the one hand, those commentators on the Meno who disregard the dramatic aspects of the dialogue as "mere packaging," and, on the other, those whose excessive emphasis on the drama restricts their access to the dialogue's "philosophical pay-off" (5). Scott also strikes a balance between two other extremes: one, the tendency to view the Meno as containing separate and unrelated topics and arguments; the second, the inclination to see in the dialogue "extreme unity." Scott's strategy for avoiding these extremes is to identify in the dialogue two unifying themes: (1) what he calls "Socrates on trial," that is, Plato's subjecting to criticism the views and doctrines of the historical Socrates through objections raised by Meno, however unwittingly, and (2) the moral education of Meno. Finally, the introductory chapter takes up the question of whether the Meno is "the" transitional dialogue. Here, too, Scott adopts a kind of middle ground, recognizing that viewing the Meno in this way can be illuminating but noting that this approach has made it difficult for scholars to appreciate the work's integrity.

The Introduction is followed by fourteen rather short chapters that track the course of the dialogue sequentially. The final three chapters--15, 16, and the Conclusion--raise and address critical interpretive issues: whether there is irony in the Meno; whether Meno progresses morally and intellectually; how the two unifying themes of the dialogue are themselves unified; what the function of the dialogue form is; and why the dialogue ends with the injunction to Meno to persuade Anytus of the things of which Meno himself has been persuaded.

The book concludes with three appendices, the first concerned with the compatibility of Meno 77b-78b with Rep. 4; the second, with whether the hypothesis at 87a3 refers to the biconditional, "virtue is teachable if and only if virtue is knowledge," or simply to the proposition, "virtue is knowledge"; the third, with the relationship between mathematics and the mysteries.

Scott's analysis illuminates several of the Meno's puzzles. For example, he argues convincingly for following manuscript F and deleting " by practice" from Meno's opening list of possible ways in which one might acquire virtue (16-18), and for translating σχῆμα as "surface" (37-42). On several issues, he strikes out boldly on his own. Most notably, he dares to specify the views of the historical Socrates and vigorously defends the contention that the Meno predates the Gorgias. In determining the views of the historical Socrates, however, Scott relies on what he gleans from the "early" Platonic dialogues and from Aristotle's reports, a procedure whose soundness is open to doubt. It is no straightforward exercise to extract the views of the historical Socrates from the Platonic dramatizations (and fictionalizations) of Socratic conversations. Nor is it clear that what has come to be known as "the Fitzgerald canon" is a fully successful attempt to distinguish Aristotle's references to the historical Socrates from his references to the Socrates who is a character in Plato's dialogues.

The first of two unifying themes that Scott identifies in the Meno is that of "Socrates on trial." According to Scott, Plato, through Meno, takes the historical Socrates to task for the following four difficulties in his views and practice: (1) the "unitarian assumption," i.e. the assumption that the connotation of a word used in different contexts remains constant; (2) the numbing effect that Socrates as "sting-ray" has on his interlocutors and hence on the progress of discussion; (3) the ineffectiveness of Socratic inquiry as captured in Meno's posing of the "discovery problem"; and (4) the insistence that the definition of a thing precede the investigation of all other questions about it.

With respect to (1), it is unlikely that Plato would criticize Socrates for adopting the unitarian assumption. First, according to Aristotle, as well as to a widespread and fairly standard reading of Plato's Theory of Forms, Plato himself subscribes to this principle. Second, Socrates in the Meno seeks no more than the virtue common to all human beings--he surely would not hold that the virtue of, say, a knife, involves justice and temperance. And, third, it is far from evident that Meno actually challenges the unitarian assumption. Meno seems to have no objection to the assumption in the case of bees and even in the case of health and strength (and he is in none of these cases too "obtuse" to understand it). That he resists its application to the case of virtue must signal, then, something other than his rejection of it. Perhaps the reason he resists this further application is that the only thing he regards as genuine virtue is ruling others and having power and money, and not whatever it is that women, old men, children, and slaves might have that goes by that name.

With respect to (2), it is certainly possible that Plato is troubled by the way in which Socratic examination tends to result in stand-offs between Socrates and his interlocutors. Yet Plato seems consistently to place the blame for the impasse on Socrates' intransigent interlocutors rather than on their examiner. Are we to think that Plato sides with Meno in this instance, believing him to have a legitimate complaint against Socrates? Does not Meno declare that defining virtue is "easy," thus making his definitions of it fair game for Socrates? Moreover, the numbing effect need not be paralyzing: both here and in other dialogues Socrates somehow manages to find a way to proceed.

With regard to (3), Scott admits the difficulty of discovering which of the views of the historical Socrates is being challenged by Meno's "discovery problem" and settles, rather conservatively, on the Socratic insistence that inquiry is a duty (91). But if Plato's criticism of Socrates amounts to little more than that Socratic inquiry is not always beneficial, that it is at times even counterproductive, it is hardly new to the Meno. As early as the Apology Socrates is aware that he is alienating those he questions and even entertains the possibility that he is corrupting the young, albeit unintentionally. (It is evident that he is troubled by young people's viewing his serious work as amusement and practicing it as sport.) A more forceful objection on Plato's part might be that elenctic investigation is hopeless--at least if its aim is to produce knowledge. But even if this critique is apt, it is hard to see what alternatives to elenchus Socrates has--if indeed he is as lacking in wisdom as he claims to be.

As far as (4) is concerned, might it not be that Socrates insists on the priority of definition because asking for a definition is the best way to elicit the views and commitments of his interlocutors? It is not as if Socrates is unable to test virtue for teachability without considering first what it is--in the Meno he does so by raising the question of whether there are teachers of it, and it is the answer to this question that finally settles the matter. Nevertheless he pretends, even as he proceeds without a definition in hand, that this is something that cannot be done.

The second unifying theme that Scott identifies is Meno's moral progress and education. Scott contends that once Socrates takes up the question of virtue's teachability, Meno shows signs of having improved: not only is he no longer "overtly rude," but he has become a more active participant in the inquiry and more inclined to follow on his own the sequential reasoning of Socrates' arguments (211).

Surely, however, the change in Meno is not a matter of his having made moral progress but a matter of Socrates' willingness to "capitulate" to him (συγχωρήσομαί σοι - 86d8). Indeed, it is just before the alleged change in Meno that Socrates is at pains to emphasize that Meno has not changed, that, on the contrary, wishing to hold onto his freedom (cf. Callicles at Gorg. 491e), he makes no attempt to master himself but seeks instead to master Socrates (86d). Meno remains the same bully now as before, and Socrates in effect warns us not to be taken in by his current turn to politeness and collegiality. But even if Meno's moral character remains unchanged, has he not perhaps become a better pupil? The fact is that Meno was never opposed to learning from others: he has studied with Gorgias and now turns to Socrates to resolve a matter that has apparently not yet been resolved to his satisfaction ("Can you tell me, Socrates," he begins at 70a1; see also 86c-d and 95c). There is every reason to expect that he would have cooperatively followed Socrates from the start had Socrates assumed the role of teacher. We have indeed seen instances where Meno is pleased to continue the discussion so long as Socrates gives him what he wants--for example, a definition of color that he likes (see 77a1-2; for other instances of his agreeableness when not confronted see 76d6-7, 81a7, a9). It is only when Meno is made to venture an answer which is then subjected to intense scrutiny--that is, when he is made to look like a fool--that he becomes belligerent and offensive. In the Meno, as in other dialogues, it is not the interlocutor who changes, but Socrates. It is Socrates who adapts to his interlocutor and tries taking a more obliging and conciliatory approach in the second round.

Scott offers an interesting analysis of why Anytus is introduced into the dialogue, suggesting that Anytus represents a more extreme or exaggerated version of Meno's character, and that Socrates uses him to alert Meno to the dangers of continuing on the trajectory of antipathy to inquiry. Scott thinks Meno reverses course in part in reaction to the example of Anytus. If, however, as Socrates says, Meno has not changed, if, indeed, he squandered the opportunity for moral improvement provided by the model of the slave, might it not be the case that both in bringing Anytus into the dialogue and in reintroducing him at the dialogue's close Plato is showing the reader where Meno is headed? It is likely that Plato already knew when he wrote the Meno that Meno had become a villainous and unrestrained man. The Meno then turns out to be yet another instance in which we are shown that Socrates, no matter how hard he tries to improve his interlocutor, fails time and again. One of the clearest examples of Scott's charitable reading of the Meno is his interpretation of recollection. On Scott's view, Socrates answers Meno's challenge by maintaining that whereas inquiry begins with opinions held at the conscious level--that is, with mere opinions that are subject to revision--nevertheless, since inquiry is actually guided by latent knowledge, discovery, too, is possible: there is reason to hope for progress toward success because there is something in our minds all along that can act to guarantee success (130). Although Scott admits that Socrates certainly makes it sound as if recollection involves the bringing out of truths that are already latent in one's soul (109), he argues that what recollection actually amounts to for Socrates is the ability to follow a sequential argument. According to Scott, what the slave has in his soul is not the geometrical truth that is the subject of the demonstration; all he has are "his own criteria by which to accept or reject any suggestion put to him" (108). Nevertheless, as Scott sees him, the slave is thinking "for himself." For Scott, inasmuch as the slave follows the demonstration (103), he may be said to be making "a substantial contribution from his own resources" (102). Scott so inflates what is involved in "following a proof" that it becomes comparable for him to how people discover "new geometrical proofs that no one had ever taught them" (103).

Scott refuses to recognize even the slightest irony or hyperbole in Socrates' response to Meno's challenges, and rules out in advance the possibility that the dialogue might contain "self-consciously bad argument" (4). Although Scott regards the drama in a Platonic dialogue as more than mere window-dressing, he nevertheless makes it quite clear that what is "philosophical" in it are its doctrines and the arguments that support them. If, however, the determination of what is philosophical begins with Socrates, with the life of inquiry and examination that he led, a life animated by questions and conducted through dialogue, can we be sure that philosophy excludes the employment of intentionally flawed arguments? That for us philosophy has ceased to be a way of life or a practice, and has come to be instead a series of answers, that is, of doctrines and dogmas, has inevitably colored--and skewed--what we regard as properly philosophical.

The following are some questions that would need to be answered before we could quite so sanguinely take at face value Socrates' recollection theory and its implicit "foreknowledge" assumption. (1) Why does Socrates in his reformulation of Meno's challenge ignore that part of the challenge that contains the discovery problem if he is confident that he can answer it? (Whereas Scott satisfactorily accounts for how Socrates gets away with his distortive reformulation--he attributes it to Meno's obtuseness--he does not explain why Socrates does not reformulate the challenge so that it features precisely that part of it that he intends to--and believes he can--satisfactorily address.) (2) Why does Socrates in the end assert that what the slave did here--namely, recover from within himself a truth that he did not know--is something he would be able to do in all subjects (85e1-3): does one learn carpentry, for example, by recollection? (Scott is surely incorrect to understand "would be able to do the same" as "would be able to become as expert as anyone" [108].) (3) Why does Socrates assume that had the slave been taught geometry--or any other subject--Meno would surely have known about it (85e3-5): does this not suggest, first, that geometry, like other subjects, can, quite literally, be taught, and, second, that Meno would have known if it had been taught because there would have been a teacher in his home? (4) Is recollection really meant to be nothing more than the ability to follow a proof, to think, to understand, to have criteria for assent, or, as some have suggested, to have an "aha" experience? Are not all of these no less prerequisites for being taught? (5) How are we to understand Socrates' diffidence at the end of the demonstration with respect to what has been proved? (Whereas Scott suggests that all Socrates is less than confident about is that he has provided sufficient support for recollection [121], it is surely surprising that, in the final analysis, Socrates affirms the moral value of inquiry as the only thing that has been established and that he would fight for in both word and deed [86b7-c3].) (6) Why does Socrates describe the process of recollection initially as one in which the recollector proceeds from one recollected bit of knowledge to another and then another, presumably without a partner (81d)? (7) How can Socrates explain his own failure to attain knowledge of virtue, considering how assiduous and dogged his pursuit of it has been? (8) Why is Socrates so amenable to substituting "teachable" for "recollectable" at 87b8-c1, as if the difference between them were "merely one of terminology" (as Scott contends on 143), when he has worked so hard to make the case that they are in fact mutually exclusive? (9) How does the demonstration conducted with the slave (in which Socrates clearly knows the solution to the geometrical problem posed) address Meno's challenge concerning how there can be discovery if the inquirer lacks knowledge? Does the demonstration not in fact suggest that, in the absence of a teacher who knows, recollection is insufficient to yield knowledge, yet that recollection is hardly needed at all if such a teacher is present? (Scott indeed acknowledges that there can be no teaching, not even of the "maieutic" kind, unless the teacher has knowledge [144].) (10) Why is the recollection described at 98a seemingly so different from the earlier recollection? (Here, too, Scott is aware of the problem but simply asserts that we should not expect them to be the same [184]. But, indeed, this is something we should expect since Socrates says at 98a5: "This, my friend Meno, is recollection, as we have agreed in what we said before.")

Scott's refusal to acknowledge any irony in the Meno is responsible, too, for his interpretation of the dialogue's end. In dealing with εὐδοξία and divine dispensation, Scott insists that εὐδοξία must mean true opinion. It doesn't strike him as odd or significant that in a dialogue that used extensively and exclusively only two expressions, δόξα ἀληθής and ὀρθὴ δόξα, a word, εὐδοξία, suddenly appears that never means in Plato anything but good repute. Moreover, in the Meno, the two people who are said to be εὐδόκιμοι are Protagoras and Anytus. Is this mere coincidence? At 99a both knowledge and true opinion are contrasted with things that come by chance or luck, by τύχη. If εὐδοξία's source is divine dispensation, surely a form of τύχη, is that not another reason to suspect that εὐδοξία is not simply true opinion?

I close with one final problem that I believe bears mentioning, namely, the assimilation of the beneficial to the instrumental. Scott contends that there is no final good in the Meno, that, indeed, such goods are conspicuously absent from this dialogue (155). It seems to me that for Socrates good things, that is, things that are intrinsically good, also have the effect of making other things good, yet such goods are not on that account "instrumental." Painful surgery might qualify as an instrumental good, but neither virtue nor knowledge does. For Socrates, even that good that is most widely agreed to be his ultimate good, happiness, is nevertheless "profitable": "It is not profitable (λυσιτελεῖ) to be wretched but to be happy" (Rep. 1.354a). Good things, even final goods, are beneficial and profitable. They are not, however, instrumental.

The great value of Scott's book lies in the stimulating questions it raises and in the often novel and always carefully supported ideas it advances. It should not be missed by anyone interested in Plato's Meno.

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