Meno defines virtue to Socrates in many forms. For a man virtue is managing public affairs and in turn benefiting his friends, and harming his enemies. For a woman she must manage the home well, preserve its possessions, and be submissive to her husband. He also explains that a child, a slave or an elderly man also have different virtues. Socrates refutes this definition of virtue. He has not been given a definition but yet a list of examples. He gets his point across to Meno by using bees as an example. There are many different types of bees, but one bee does not differ from another in the fact that they are both bees.
This same concept has to be true with virtue, for there are many and various types but they all have the same form making them virtues. Here we are presented with the first rule of giving a definition, and that is simply to not give examples. Meno attempts to give Socrates a second definition, stating that virtue is simply the ability to rule over people. Once again Socrates refutes this definition. In the case of a slave or a child this cannot be true; hence this is merely another example of a specific trait of someone who is virtuous. Socrates also adds that if this were true than it would have to be justly and not unjustly.
Menos response to this is that justice is virtue. Is justice virtue or is it a type of virtue? This is the next issue Socrates points out to Meno. In response Meno says that justice is a type of virtue, therefore he has done nothing more than give another useless example of virtue. Socrates wants to put an end to this problem so he gives Meno the definition of both shape and color to give him an example of a good definition. We are given a third definition by Meno, in which he states that virtue is to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them.
With this Socrates translates desire for beautiful things as the desire for good things. Meno agrees with this statement, in turn allowing Socrates to once again disprove this definition. There are those who desire bad things, but in their own minds believe these bad things to be good. Therefore these people essentially desire good things but are not virtuous. Meno now explains to Socrates that he has found the definition; it is the capacity to acquire good things with justice. Socrates goes on to explain that this is yet again just a fragment of virtue.
In essence all Meno has explained now is that virtue is virtue, for justice is a type of virtue. Socrates has brought forward the second rule of definitions, which is that you can’t use the word in the definition. At this point Meno is perplexed, and begins to get angry with Socrates. He informs him with the fact that he came here knowing exactly what virtue was, but now Socrates has driven Meno to the point that he now doesn’t know what virtue is either. Socrates explains that he has not done this purposely but that he truly is just as perplexed, and therefore they should search for this answer together.
Meno displays his confusion by asking how it is even possible to search for something that you do not know at all. This is where Socrates introduces the idea that the soul is immortal and learning that which we do not know is recollection. Meno would like Socrates to show him that this is true. Consequently Socrates picks out a slave boy, who was raised in the home of Meno, and begins to ask him geometric questions. He questions the boy about a square, naming the different principles and rules of a square.
As the boy begins to answer these questions correctly, Socrates points out to Meno that he has created his own right opinion concerning this logic. Through constant questioning the boy is able to form right opinions on logics that he has never before been presented. Socrates reveals to Meno that this is recollection. Being immortal the soul has learned all there is to know, whether it be in this life as a human or in a time prior to that. In turn recollection is simply the process of turning true opinions into knowledge through constant questioning.
With this being known, Socrates illustrates to Meno that one should always seek to find out that which they do not know. In order to find out whether virtue can be taught Socrates and Meno set up a hypothesis that virtue is something good. Socrates begins to elaborate on this fact by stating that if virtue is good, than it is beneficial. They begin to examine what kind of things benefit an individual. Socrates and Meno both agree that Health, strength, beauty, and also wealth all benefit us. Socrates also points out that these same things can do harm do someone.
So what is the directing factor that determines whether they are beneficial or harmful? All things directed by wisdom end in happiness. Therefore since virtue is beneficial, it must be knowledge. In turn virtue must be a kind of wisdom. If this is true, then virtue can be taught. Meno agrees with Socrates that this is true. Immediately after the two agree Socrates questions whether they were wrong by agreeing to this. He points out to Meno that virtue might not be knowledge. If knowledge is teachable, and virtue is knowledge, then there would be teachers as well as learners of virtue.
Up to now they have not been able to come across any such individuals. At this point Anytus is introduced into the story, and Socrates invites him to join them in their search for teachers of virtue. Socrates asks Anytus if they should send Meno to the sophists who profess to teach virtue. Anytus wastes no time in sharing his negative harsh views of these sophists. Socrates tells Anytus to give Meno the name of an Athenian in which he should visit to learn the meaning of virtue. Anytus claims that any Greek citizen would be able to make him a better man that the sophists.
Of these good men can any of them teach virtue, for they have yet to see this. Socrates uses Themistocles as a prime example; he was even the best of men but failed to pass down his virtue to his son. Instead he taught his son to be a great horseman. He presents Anytus with a couple other examples of virtuous men who failed to pass their virtue down to their children. At this point Anytus becomes angry and he leaves. He asks Meno if there are many good men among his people. Meno says that there are many good men. Among these good men do they agree hat they are teachers and virtue can be taught? Meno states that sometimes they say it can be taught, and other times they say it cannot be taught. After hearing this Socrates goes on to explain that these men cannot even agree on this point, therefore they are not teachers of this subject. Thus there are no teachers of this subject, as well as no learners, consequently virtue cannot be taught. Now that Meno and Socrates have agreed that virtue cannot be taught, Socrates begins to explain where they went wrong in their original investigation.
He explains that they were right in agreeing that good men must be beneficial, and that they will be beneficent if they give correct direction in our affairs. The agreement that one cannot give correct direction if one does not have knowledge, is where they have gone wrong. One may use right opinion as a guide for correct action, in which it is no less useful than knowledge. Right opinion and knowledge differ in the fact that right opinion escapes a man’s mind very quickly. It is not until one ties these right opinions down, by giving an account of the reason why, that they become knowledge.
Socrates explains to Meno that this is recollection, as they have previously gone over. At this point Socrates and Meno have come to a conclusion. Virtue is not teachable and is not acquired by nature, but comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods which is not accompanies by understanding. Socrates leaves Meno and ends the story with one final statement. He says to Meno, “We shall have clear knowledge of this when, before we investigate how it comes to be present in men, we first try to find out what virtue in itself is. ”