In high school we got a very brief glimpse at this dialogue. A photocopy of it was handed out to us in Social Studies, and we talked about it for fifteen minutes until the teacher abandoned that ship. But one of the students said something that has stuck with me. She was an actress, first and foremost, and she said that Meno's part was the worst she'd ever read. '"Yes, Socrates", "It is as you say", "Indeed"--that's all he gets to say,' she said. But that's the whole point. You've got this callow youth, who refuses to think for himself because "anyone talking to [him] could tell blindfold that [he is] a handsome man and still [has] admirers....Because [he is] forever laying down the law as spoiled boys do, who act the tyrant as long as their youth lasts." It's easy for Meno to charm a glib answer out of someone. He doesn't want to go through the hard work of contemplation. He wants his buffalo now.
Socrates isn't biting. He flirts with Meno, true, but keeps returning to the actual object of discussion, when Meno is clearly bored out of his mind. Socrates is trying to tell Meno something. And given Meno's later history, it's something that he well might listen to. How do you talk to someone who isn't interested? How do you convince someone of the importance of discussing something when they view discussion as inherently dull?
That's one interlocutor. The other, Anytus, is one of the men who accuses Socrates and puts him to death. He's convinced that these things under discussion are important, but he also feels that he knows the answer to the questions that Socrates is asking. "Any decent Athenian gentleman" can tell you about virtue: what it is, where to find it, and how much the instructors charge. Socrates is not so sure, but the subject is so important to Anytus that he can't hear anything contrary to what he already believes. And he makes it clear that he believes such questioning is malicious, foolish, and dangerous.
Meno and Anytus are both impossible to persuade or engage in dialogue. The one because he is incapable of belief, the other because he believes so strongly that he cannot bear to have his beliefs challenged. How do we get through to such people? How do we talk to people with who we disagree? This question is the same one that puzzles Socrates:
SOCRATES:Do you realize that what you are bringing up is the trick argument that a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know? He would not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for.And of course it isn't. But how do we learn? That we recollect all knowledge seems like a "high-sounding answer", but doesn't fit with my own experience of learning. Nor does it aid us in persuading others to listen to us.
MENO: Well, do you think it is a good argument?
We don't really see someone listen to Socrates in this dialogue. We can see it in others, including Xenophon's Symposium, which involves another of Socrates' accusers. But this accuser doesn't leave the party with threats. He leaves, and as he goes he tells Socrates that "So help me Hera, Socrates, you seem to me to have a noble character."
I don't know if Xenophon meant his Symposium as a response to Plato's. It seems possible to me, but impossible to achieve certainty. But what we see in it is a group of men--clever, disputatious sorts, ranging from the very rich to the very poor, from fervent followers of Socrates to Lycon, one of his accusers, and who have a wide variety of jobs and experience. And yet they can argue calmly, at least in this arena, and learn from each other. The relaxed atmosphere of a party, with all the distractions of the most irritating jester in the world, a dancing girl, and a great deal of wine with which to "besprinkle" themselves, allows these men to discuss things of great import without becoming angry or bored.
How far from this ideal, then, the Meno discussion. I instinctively dislike the idea of a "ruling class", or that the ordering of every day lives is best left to men trained to order them. In unusual and unpleasant circumstances I can see occasional necessity for such. But living my life is something I do every day. I am willing to take advice on parts of it, but the whole of it is mine to manage and no one--no one--has as much experience at it as I do. I am an expert at, if nothing else, living my life.
The predominant assumption at the Meno discourse was that the men and women of this country were clearly incapable of managing their lives, given recent political decisions. How, then, it was asked, do we persuade them that they are wrong? Moreover, how do we persuade them that their certainty (and this certainty was most derided) about morals is founded on unsteady and untested principles, and all their answers about life must be abandoned for the Socratic questions? The answer to which we were expected to glean from the Meno, that we, as intellectuals (and once more my resistance to scare quotes prevents their application), might teach those around us that we are their betters, and ought to run their lives. A more repugnant discussion I have seldom had.
All this snide, supercilious whispering about the plebians' lack of self-reflection, when that same mirror might very profitably be held up to the self-satisfied men around that table, drove me quite mad. The assumption that I share any political view is enough to drive me half-way up the wall; the assumption that I share that of a worn-out, intellectually dishonest, moustachio'd would-be Plato (and remember that "if you offer Plato a dish of figs he will take them all"!) asking questions in a tone which tells you that he has the answer behind his back, soon to be produced for the edification of--you, is enough to have me pacing furiously about the ceiling. So you think that you can run the "unquestioning masses" (I quote!)lives' for them? That they are the ones who need a moment of self-examination? Physician, go f--- yourself.