I have always been fascinated at the idea of the saying: “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again. ” Learning to me has always been upon the idea of problem solving, that we must attempt to figure out the truth while stumbling upon questions and false answers. In Meno’s dialogue with Socrates, Meno attempts to ask Socrates if virtue can be acquired.
Expecting a bold and grand statement as heard upon by his sophist peers from Thessaly, Meno was amazed to hear that Socrates had no clue to his question, even going further by stating that Socrates hasn’t met anyone who knows what virtue is.
While in their quest to find out if virtue can be acquired by teaching, they struggle through the logic behind it. Meno points out by defining virtue as a list: “there will be no difficulty, Socrates, in answering your question. Let us take first the virtue of a man-he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described her duty is to order her house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.
Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue: there are virtues numberless, and no lack of definitions of them; for virtue is relative to the actions and ages of each of us in all that we do”. But Socrates manages to debunk this error with his example of Meno’s list of virtues being like a swarm of bees. A second attempt by Meno makes the same mistake as the first, as Meno manages to say that health is a virtue: “I should say that health is the same, both in man and woman. A third attempt at defining what virtue also comes up empty handed. After coming up with no luck, Meno states that he feels numb and confused, and this is known in the story as paradox of inquiry.
The paradox states that learning isn’t possible, because you either know what you’re looking for or you do not. But rather than being arrogant or simply giving up, Meno manages to listen to what Socrates is about to teach him, unlike the old and conceited politician Anytus, who is insulted after Socrates debunks his theory of “talking to any gentleman on the streets of Athens to see true irtue” by explaining that not all the sons of well-respected Athenian men turned out to be perfect and well off. Thus, both Socrates and Meno are problem solving to find out if virtue can be taught to an individual by using one of Meno’s slaveboy as an example. Socrates then manages to draw a square with four equal sections and asks the slave to find the length of the side of a square that has an area that’s double in size. As the slave incorrectly attempts to answer time after time the correct answer, it proves to us something about how learning proceeds.
The slaveboy manages to figure out the correct answer with Socrates only telling him hints to figure out the problem. We ultimately are not stuck in a paradox and learning is possible by constantly using the dialectic method, that is, constantly questioning oneself. What does all this mean for the nature of reasoning or logos and its importance in coming to know things? It ultimately shows us that mankind wonders for things and are willing to learn, even if they are unknown to them. Even in the ancient days of Athens, people were curious to learn and obtain new knowledge.
The way people learn is by through dialectic method, as I mentioned earlier, to have back and forth discussion with your arguer or yourself until you have come to right conclusion or answer. As we have with the slaveboy, he repeatedly wondered and questioned himself until he manages to stumble upon the correct answer, rather than being spoonfed by Socrates. A common analogy to this story I grew up with that’s common to me is the education system I went through in Indonesia and here in the United States.
In Indonesia, learning and being spoonfed are both intertwined, as teachers would give you the answer to the questions ahead of time and students are supposed to regurgitate the information back. Here in the United States, more critical thinking comes into play into the education I got here, I was forced to think through for my answers rather than the teacher giving me the answer. As in the story of Meno, such dialectic reasoning or critical thinking is prevalent in trying to find out the truth.