MENO’S PARADOX AND PLATO’S VIEW THAT LEARNING IS RECOLLECTION

 

SOCRATES: As for myself, if the sting ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself, then the comparison is just, but not otherwise. It isn't that, knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself. So with virtue now. I don't know what it is. You may have known before you came into contact with me, but now you look as if you don't. Nevertheless I am ready to carry out, together with you, a joint investigation and inquiry into what it is.

            MENO: But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn't know?

            SOCRATES: I know what you mean. 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.

            MENO: Well, do you think it a good argument?

            SOCRATES: No.

            MENO: Can you explain how it fails?

            SOCRATES: I can. I have heard from men and women who understand the truths of religion . . .

            MENO: What did they say?

            SOCRATES: Something true, I thought, and fine.

            MENO: What was it, and who were they?

            SOCRATES: Those who tell it are priests and priestesses of the sort who make it their business to be able to account for the functions which they perform. Pindar speaks of it too, and many another of the poets who are divinely inspired. What they say is this--see whether you think they are speaking the truth. They say that the soul of man is immortal. At one time it comes to an end--that which is called death--and at another is born again, but is never finally exterminated. On these grounds a man must live all his days as righteously as possible. For those from whom:

 

Persephone receives requital for ancient doom,

In the ninth year she restores again

Their souls to the sun above.

From whom rise noble kings

And the swift in strength and greatest in wisdom,

And for the rest of time

They are called heroes and sanctified by men.†2

 

            Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is. So we need not be surprised if it can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed. All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledge--learned it, in ordinary language--there is no reason why he should not find out all the rest, if he keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection.

            We ought not then to be led astray by the contentious argument you quoted. It would make us lazy, and is music in the ears of weaklings. The other doctrine produces energetic seekers after knowledge, and being convinced of its truth, I am ready, with your help, to inquire into the nature of virtue (Meno 80c-81e).