Plato's Meno

Published 1.13.2017
Fridays in the Arenas are set aside for a review of a book I've read or a movie I've seen. I don't really watch much television, but if I find a show worth writing about, I will. Today's review is of Plato's Meno.
Plato is one the authors generally included in lists defining the "Western Canon," who people point to as essential reading. I'm sure I was exposed to excerpts of Plato's writings in high school, but as an engineering student in college, most of my time was spent learning chemistry and physics rather than reading the "classics." Classics is in quotes there because not everyone uses the same definition.

In any event, I had a version of Meno in Kindle (on my phone) because it was going to be something my daughter had to read in high school before she chose to drop that particular class. I’d never read it, so I figured what the heck, I'll read along with her. Once she dropped the class, though, I put it aside— until now. Of course I read this without an English teacher guiding and manipulating my reactions to the prose. I’m sure I’m missing all sorts of minutia and defined nuance, but that's okay be me. No one, as I'm fond of saying, can destroy a love of reading like an English teacher.

There was an introduction at the beginning of the file that I suppose was written by an English teacher to explain what I was about to read, but I deliberately skipped it because I wanted to read the writing without someone else's views and interpretation in my mind. There was also a section about Plato, but I skipped that as well. Nor did I decide to read those two selections before writing these thoughts. If I was taking a class, I would expend the time, but happily, I'm simply reading for enjoyment.

Meno must be part of Plato's Dialogues as it is written as a circular dialogue between Socrates, who is from Athens, and Meno, who is from another Greek city called Thessaly. I guess some would say the dialogue is a demonstration of the Socratic method, but in the end, I was ready to hand Socrates the hemlock.

Meno asks if Socrates if he can define virtue. Socrates tells Meno , no and neither can you or anyone else. Meno thinks he can and gives it a go, multiple times. Each time Socrates pokes holes in the attempt, occasionally employing questionable comparisons. In particular, the use of geometry to demonstrate virtue can't be defined left me cold— and was probably the point when the hemlock occurred to me. However, I read through to the end.

At the end and after all that, virtue is dismissed as god given. If you’re not born with it, you don’t have it. Excuse me? So there's no way, at all, that good behaviors (virtues) can be learned? Certainly it won't be learned from someone who claims not to know what it is. Maybe that was the point?

Are there teachers of virtue? No, though I think preachers and ministers might take issue with that. Are the examples of virtue? Yes. Can a person learn from others example? I say yes. Virtue isn’t god given, and what is considered virtuous in one age of humanity might not be considered virtue in another. Is god changing his/her/its mind?

It will be readily apparent to anyone still reading this that philosophy is not a topic that I've studied or even read much of. I often state that I'm not a medical practitioner when I write about health matters. Perhaps I should a similar disclaimer here. Nah. It's my review, and this is what I thought of Plato's Meno as I read it and afterward. Did it make me want to read more of Plato? Not really, though I might just to see if other works are similar.

The book did change how I see the "Socratic method," my impression of which was that it was a good way to learn. I know when homeschooling my son, the subjects that he had questions that he wanted answers to were the ones he retained best. In my ignorance I thought allowing him to ask questions and guide the direction of inquiry was the "Socratic method."

Do I recommend others read Meno? Not unless you feel compelled to complete the canon, or get it assigned in a course.

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