Our first extract, from the Meno
.385 BC), begins with Meno taunting Socrates for his role as a stingray or ‘torpedo-fish’, paralysing his victims by relentlessly attacking their confused and inconsistent beliefs. But it ends showing Socrates in a more positive role, more like that of the ‘midwife’,1
using careful and systematic questioning to draw out, from the minds of his pupils, the seeds of true and reliable knowledge. From its own inner resources, the mind, suitably guided, can reach a genuine understanding of the truth. We have within us ‘true thoughts which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions’. This notion is graphically expressed in terms of the poetic idea of the soul’s immortality: it ‘remembers’ or ‘recollects’ truths it knew in a previous existence. The point is made through a detailed mathematical example. By careful questioning Socrates is able to get the slave boy to recognize that the way to construct a square double in area to a given square is to use the diagonal of the given square as a base.
Though readers may feel that Socrates is ‘leading’ the boy in the direction he wants, it should be clear that the result of the exchange is quite different from what happens in ‘spoon-feeding’, where the learner simply accepts what the teacher imparts. For after his exchange with Socrates, once the areas have been drawn in, and various attempted solutions discarded as wrong, the boy is able to ‘see for himself’ that the square drawn on the diagonal does, and indeed must, produce the right answer. The choice of a mathematical example to illustrate the theory of the mind’s innate cognitive powers is no accident. For Plato, mathematical understanding is an example of the kind of reliable cognition which takes us beyond the unsatisfactory world of everyday appearances towards a realm of more permanent and secure truths. As will become apparent, this notion, together with the doctrine of innate knowledge, plays a key role in the subsequent development of the philosophy of knowledge.
MENO: Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits’ end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons – and very good ones they were, as I thought – at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. And I think that you are very wise in not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.
SOCRATES: You are a rogue, Meno, and had all but caught me.
MENO: What do you mean, Socrates?
SOCRATES: I can tell why you made a simile about me.
SOCRATES: In order that I might make another simile about you. For I know that all pretty young gentlemen like to have pretty similes made about them – as well they may – but I shall not return the compliment. As to my being a torpedo, if the torpedo is torpid as well as the cause of torpidity in others, then indeed I am a torpedo, but not otherwise; for I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself. And now I know not what virtue is, and you seem to be in the same case, although you did once perhaps know before you touched me. However, I have no objection to join with you in the enquiry.
MENO: And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?
SOCRATES: I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire?
MENO: Well, Socrates, and is not the argument sound?
SOCRATES: I think not.
MENO: Why not?
SOCRATES: I will tell you why: I have heard from certain wise men and women who spoke of things divine that –
MENO: What did they say?
SOCRATES: They spoke of a glorious truth, as I conceive.
MENO: What was it? and who were they?
SOCRATES: Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how they might be able to give a reason of their profession: there have been poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many others who were inspired. And they say – mark, now, and see whether their words are true – they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness. ‘For in the ninth year Persephone sends the souls of those from whom she has received the penalty of ancient crimes back again from beneath into the light of the sun above, and these are they who become noble kings and mighty men and great in wisdom and are called saintly heroes in after ages.’ The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry for it will make us idle, and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you, into the nature of virtue.
MENO: Yes, Socrates; but what do you mean by saying that we do not learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection? Can you teach me how this is?
SOCRATES: I told you, Meno, just now that you were a rogue, and now you ask whether I can teach you,...