Can You, Socrates?

The first thing mailed to you when you’re admitted to the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College is your acceptance letter; the second, a copy of Plato’s Meno.

Meno is, in fact, your first assignment. As part of orientation, every new graduate student meets to discuss the first half of the dialogue (Stephanus pagination 70a to 86d). It is the one text everyone in the program will have read by the time they graduate, regardless of which segment he takes or which campus she attends; this means Meno is also the one text which is allowed to be discussed in all classes, in any seminar, tutorial, or preceptorial.

But why Meno? Having a common text that connects every student makes sense, especially for a graduate program which prides itself on true connection, not only to the Great Ideas of the past but also with your fellow classmates — but what makes Meno so special that it has become the introductory text for the entire Graduate Institute?

I should remember that, as ubiquitous as this Platonic dialogue is at St. John’s, perhaps some of you reading this post aren’t familiar with it. Meno — Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue, based to some extent on the historical figure who lived at the same time as the historical Socrates — begins the work by asking:

Can you, Socrates, tell me, is human excellence something teachable? Or, if not teachable, is it something to be acquired by training? Or, if it cannot be acquired either by training or by learning, does it accrue to men at birth or in some other way?

Plato, Meno (trans. Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno, 38)

Socrates almost immediately answers in the negative, but, to his credit, he admits he doesn’t know what “human excellence” even is. What’s more, he’s never met anyone who did either! This takes Meno aback, as Meno himself has given lectures on this topic before large audiences; surely Meno knows what “human excellence” is.

Thus begins a back-and-forth where Socrates presses Meno to describe his definition. The definitions (multiple, as Meno revises his a couple times) are picked apart by Socrates, whereupon Meno, backed into a corner, finally offers up what’s become known as Meno’s Paradox. Namely, if you know something, you don’t need to search for it; if you don’t know something, how will you know that you’re in fact searching after it? How will we search for the definition of “human excellence” if we don’t already know it, and if we do already know, why should we search?


In response, Socrates expounds his belief in the immortal soul, which knows everything but must recall all of its stored knowledge to its consciousness. Everyone has this immortal soul; everyone has access to the knowledge of the ages; thus, all that’s required to search is a dauntless curiosity and (perhaps implied) a curious interlocutor. Socrates next proposes to demonstrate this hypothesis using a boy slave of Meno’s. Only by asking questions does Socrates guide the slave from an incorrect assumption of a square’s area to a correct calculation. Meno observes and thus wholly accepts Socrates’ belief in the immortal soul. Socrates asks Meno afterward if they can together search for what “human excellence” is? Meno replies that he’d prefer it if Socrates helped answer his original question on whether virtue can be taught…

The dialogue continues, but your very first seminar at St. John’s only has you discuss the work up to this point. Here’s Jacob Klein, philosopher-scholar and past Dean of the college, on what readers (or listeners) of Plato would have witnessed:

What is revealed in the dialogue is the character of Meno, his ἦθος, the nature of his soul. Meno’s soul is revealed as incapable of learning. To be incapable of learning means to have a very special kind of soul. Let us not forget, most people learn something. It is strange that they do, but they do. Meno, on the other hand, is presented to us as having a soul of a unique sort…Plato has also a special phrase to characterize a soul such as Meno’s. He calls it a “little soul.”

Jacob Klein, “On the Platonic Meno and Platonic Dialogues”

I hope you see by now where, I think, the Graduate Institute fits in. The very fact that we students have all chosen and paid to discuss this millennia-old text proves that we are not like Meno. We dare ourselves to ask the toughest questions which all but obliterate our most entrenched assumptions. We are not content to be fed the usual answers — we want a bite of the real thing, if ever we can find it. We crave greater souls. And we know the only hope we have is if we truly believe it’s possible.

And maybe also if we have friends to compare questions with, along the way.

Klein (light jacket) leads a tutorial in Annapolis. Care of St. John’s Digital Archives.

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