The Lost Plato Volume 1: Plato's Struggle With Socrates
Chapter 10: Plato versus Anytus
Plato’s struggle against Socrates’ ignorance culminated with the Clitopho. In accusing Socrates of being a stumbling block to those who pursued virtue and happiness Plato went too far. He had to recant, which he did in a spectacular fashion, in the Meno. Meno opens the dialogue by asking Socrates in which way virtue can be acquired (70a1-4), to which Socrates answers:
‘Here in Athens there appears to be a lack of wisdom; it seems to have emigrated from us to you, to Thessaly. I am certain that if you were to ask any Athenian this question, he would laugh and say: “Stranger, you must think me a blessed man, if you think that I know whether virtue can be taught or in which way it is acquired. For I do not even know what virtue is.”’ (70c3-71a7)
I date the Meno after the Clitopho, as Plato’s next dialogue; in these two dialogues Plato engages Clitopho and Anytus, two figures of the restored democracy, as in the preceding days of the aristocratic upheaval he engaged two prominent figures from the aristocratic circles, Critias and Charmides. Furthermore, I date the Meno after Meno’s visit in Athens in 402,(1) and prior not only to the trial and death of Socrates, but prior to Meno’s participation in Cyrus’ anabasis that took place in the spring of 401. My main arguments for this dating are concerned with Socrates’ two interlocutors in the Meno, Meno and Anytus. Let me begin with Meno.
In 401, two years before Socrates died, Meno took part in the ill-fated attempt of Cyrus the younger to dethrone the Persian king Artaxerxes. He joined Cyrus’ army at the head of a mercenary contingent from Thessaly (Xenophon, Anabasis I.ii.6) and after Cyrus fell he became instrumental in the capture of the Greek commanders by the Persians (Xen. An. II.iii-vi). In the Meno, Socrates in his closing words exhorts Meno to persuade Anytus, Meno’s host, of all that of which he himself has been persuaded by Socrates in their discussion (su de ta auta tauta haper autos pepeisai peithe kai ton xenon tonde Anuton), so that he might become more gentle (hina praioteros êi): ‘if you succeed in persuading him, you will benefit the Athenians’ (hôs ean peisês touton, estin hoti kai Athênaious onêseis, 100b7-c2). If Plato wrote the Meno after the death of Socrates, as is currently believed, both he himself and his readers were bound to think of Anytus first and foremost as the principal accuser of Socrates, and of Meno as the scoundrel (hôs ponêros, Xenophon, Anabasis II.vi.29) who betrayed the Greek army commanders to the Persians. I cannot see how Plato could have written the Meno in these circumstances. This is why I date the dialogue prior to Meno’s involvement in Cyrus’ military expedition.
It might be asked whether Xenophon was not unduly biased against Meno. Might it not be the case that Plato wants the reader to form a more balanced view of him?(2) Let us consider Meno’s actions as described in Xenophon’s Anabasis. The battle between the forces of Cyrus and those of Artaxerxes took place deep inside the Persian empire, at Cunaxa. After the death of Cyrus, the Greek army became isolated, yet the Persians were afraid to attack it. The Persian satrap Tissafernes, governor of the coastal provinces in Asia Minor and commander of the Persian army, offered Clearchus, the commanding general of the Greeks, a safe passage to the Greek colonies in Ionia; Clearchus accepted the offer (II.iii.17-29). But as the two armies progressed on their way to the coastal provinces, the Persians appeared to be more and more suspicious of the Greeks. Clearly, someone had sowed mistrust in the hearts of the Persians. Clearchus therefore asked Tissafernes to reveal ‘the name of the man who is so clever a talker (tis houtôs esti deinos legein) that he could persuade you that we were cherishing designs against you’ (II.v.15). These words point at Meno, for as we know from the Meno (cf. 70b, 76a-b, 95c) Meno was a disciple of Gorgias, the most famous teacher of rhetoric of those days.Meno had meetings with Tissafernes and was plotting against Clearchus’ leadership; his intention was to secure the friendship of Tissafernes and win over to himself the entire Greek army (II.v.28).
Tissafernes agreed to reveal the name Clearchus demanded, but only in the presence of all the Greek military leaders. Assembled in his tent, the Greek commanders were treacherously seized. After capturing the generals the Persians sent to the Greek army messengers led by Ariaeus, Meno’s friend (II.ii.1, II.iv.15). The Persian envoys were met by the remnant of the Greek military leaders accompanied by Xenophon (II.v.37). Ariaeus said:
‘Clearchus, men of Greece, inasmuch as he was shown to be perjuring himself and violating the truce, had received his deserts and is dead, but Proxenus and Meno, because they gave information about his plotting, are held in high honour. For yourselves, the King demands your arms; for he says they belong to him, since they belonged to Cyrus, his slave’ (II.v.38, tr. C.L. Brownson).
These words speak for themselves, and Xenophon does not go into any further speculations about Meno’s betrayal. Meno’s treachery is confirmed by Ctesias of Cnidos in his Persika.(3)
Against the veracity of Xenophon’s account it might be asked, if Meno betrayed the Greek generals in assisting the Persians, why did they reserve for him such a hideous end? For Xenophon says that
‘as everyone knows’ (ha de pantes isasi, II.vi.28), the other Greek generals were simply put to death by beheading, whereas Meno ‘was tortured alive for a year and so met the death of a scoundrel, as the report says’ (zôn aikistheis eniauton hôs ponêros legetai tês teleutês tuchein, II.vi.29, tr. C.L. Brownson).
This seems to be inconsistent with Ariaeus’ praise of Meno as a man held by the Persians in high esteem.
To this it may be answered that after the seizure of Clearchus and the other generals, against all the odds, the Greek army, instead of surrendering, elected new military leaders and succeeded in finding its way back to Greece. Thus, instead of having to deal with a friendly and powerful mercenary force under the leadership of the Spartan general Clearchus, who had promised to Tissafernes his gratitude for the safe guidance of the army back to Ionia, willing to assist him in any future battles that he might wage (II.v.12-15), the Persians were left with an implacable enemy deep inside their empire, an enemy they did not dare confront militarily.
The Greek generals were seized in the spring of 401, and I date the Meno prior to this event, although both accounts of Meno’s betrayal that have been preserved are considerably later: Ctesias’ Persika was published after 393/2 and Xenophon’s Anabasis was published even later.(4) It is pretty certain that people in Greece learnt of the fate of the Greek generals, and of Meno’s role in bringing it about, soon after it happened; Tissafernes seized the Generals on his way back to Asia Minor with its numerous Greek colonies, and there were many Greeks in his entourage. Xenophon’s Anabasis contains an interesting hint concerning the transmission of information in those days. After Cyrus fell in battle, the Persians sent the Greek envoy Phalinus to persuade the Greeks to surrender. Clearchus appealed to Phalinus to give the army his personal advice: ‘you know that any advice you may give will certainly be reported in Greece’ (oistha de hoti anankê legesthai en têi Helladi ha an sumbouleusês, II.i.17). The Greek army was ten thousand men strong, and the soldiers came from all parts of Greece, from Ionia, Sparta, Boetia, Athens, and Thessaly. Thousands of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, wives, sons and daughters would have been interested in their welfare, and Cyrus’ death and the fate of the Greek generals must have been the hottest news of the day. Therefore, in all probability people in Athens learnt of Meno’s treachery almost two years before Socrates died. At any rate, the Greek army succeeded in reaching the Greek settlements more than a year before Socrates’ death.
We may find in the Meno an indication that it was written even before Meno joined Cyrus’ army as a general of a mercenary force. For the virtue that according to Plato Meno desired to obtain had nothing to do with the career of a military leader; it was the virtue of an aristocrat who desired to play a leading role in his own country (Cf. 91a1-6 with 71e2-5 and 95c9-10). I cannot see how Plato could have specified the virtue coveted by Meno in this manner after learning that Meno took part in Cyrus’ adventure, and he must have learnt of Meno’s involvement almost as soon as it took place, for it immediately concerned Xenophon, a disciple of Socrates. Xenophon joined the army of Cyrus on the invitation of Proxenus, an aristocrat from Thessaly, a man closely associated with Meno after they both joined the Greek mercenary contingent in Cyrus’ Persian army (An.III.i.4; II.vi.16-17); Xenophon sought Socrates’ advice concerning his involvement in the expedition (III.i.4-7).
Let us now turn our attention to Anytus. Towards the end of the dialogue, Meno asks Socrates whether he thinks that there are no teachers of virtue. Socrates answers:
‘I have certainly often enquired whether there were any, and taken great pains to find them, and have never succeeded; and many have assisted me in the search, and they were the persons whom I thought the most likely to know. Here at the moment when he is wanted we fortunately have sitting by us Anytus, the very person of whom we should make enquiry; to him then let us repair.’ (89e6-10, tr. B. Jowett)
Why does Socrates speak of Anytus as the very person of whom one should make enquiry concerning the teachers of virtue? Socrates justifies his subsequent appeal to him by praising his father as a good citizen who brought him up and educated him well ‘as the people of Athens believe’ (hôs dokei Athênaiôn tôi plêthei, 90b1-2). What entitles Socrates to presume that the people of Athens believed Anytus to be well educated? Socrates explains: ‘for the people of Athens choose him to fill the highest offices’ (hairountai goun auton epi tas megistas archas, 90b2-3), and ‘it is right to involve these sort of men in our enquiry’ (dikaion dê meta toioutôn zêtein, 90b3)whether there are any teachers of virtue, and who they are. Socrates thus puts the question of proper education and the quest for virtue into the centre of the political agenda; on the dating that I propose Plato wrote the dialogue at the time when his political aspirations were reaching its second peak (Seventh Letter 325a-b).
Socrates begins his enquiry by subjecting Anytus to inductive questioning concerning those who profess to teach virtue as professionals:
‘Consider the matter thus: If we wanted Meno to be a good physician, to whom should we send him? Should we not send him to the physicians?’ (90b7-c2, tr. B. Jowett)
Anytus agrees, and after being asked a similar question concerning flute playing and the other arts (peri aulêseôs kai tôn allôn, 90d7), he agrees with Socrates that it is proper to send men who want to learn an art (tên technên, 90e2) to those who profess to teach the required art for money (misthon prattomenous, 90e3). In consequence of this agreement, Socrates finds Anytus in a position to advise with him about Meno, Anytus’ guest (nun toinun exesti se met’ emou koinêi bouleuesthai peri tou xenou toutoui Menônos, 90e10-91a1):
‘Meno has been telling me (palai legei pros me) that he desires to attain that kind of wisdom and virtue (hoti epithumei tautês tês sophias kai aretês)by which men order well their houses and their cities (hêi hoi anthrôpoi tas te oikias kai tas poleis kalôs dioikousi), and attend to their parents (kai tous goneas tous hautôn therapeuousi), and know when to receive and when to send away citizens and strangers (kai politas kai xenous hupodexasthai te kai apopempsai epistantai), as a good man should (axiôs andros agathou, 91a1-6).’
In fact, in the course of the preceding discussion Meno told Socrates no such thing and expressed no such desire. Supposedly, Socrates wants Meno to desire virtue thus defined, and this is the reason why he attributes to him the desire to obtain it. Deeply affected by Socrates’ previous arguments, Meno does not protest against this ascription of these virtuous aspirations to him.
The intended educational effect on Meno of this step can be best assessed if we compare Meno’s own initial attempts at defining virtue with Socrates’ present definition. In part, the virtue as defined by Socrates reflects Meno’s definitions of virtues of men and of women – ‘virtue of a man consists in the ability to manage the state affairs’ (hikanon einai ta tês poleôs prattein, 71e3), ‘virtue of a woman consists in ordering well the house’ (dei autên tên oikian eu oikein, 71e6-7). The traits that Meno defined separately as the virtue of a man and that of a woman Socrates views as belonging to human virtue as such. Meno in his definition specified the virtue of a man as the ability to do good to friends (tous men philous eu poiein) and evil to enemies (tous d’ echthrous kakôs) without suffering harm himself (71e4-5), and the virtue of a woman he characterized by her obedience to her husband (katêkoon ousan tou andros, 71e7). All this is omitted in Socrates’ definition. The omission of the first point is in tune with Socrates’ definition of justice in the Clitopho, and the omission of both is in tune with Plato’s Republic, where Socrates argues that it is wrong to do evil even to one’s enemies (332d-335e), and where women are given unparallelled equality with men. Since the dating of the Meno that I propose falls into the days of Plato’s growing interest in a political career within the framework of the restored democracy, we may presume that these two morally and politically significant corrections of Meno’s original definition are in tune with Plato’s own political program.
Apart from these important corrections, Socrates’ definition contains new points that are missing in all of Meno’s preceding attempts to define virtue: 1. attending to one’s parents, and 2. knowing when to receive and when to send away citizens and strangers. The first addition has no relation to anything that precedes or follows in the dialogue itself, and it therefore should be viewed in relation to the long standing charge against Socrates that he taught his young followers to be disrespectful of their parents: in Aristophanes’ Clouds a young man, after becoming a disciple of Socrates, corrects the old fashioned views of his father with a stick (1321-1405), and Xenophon says that Socrates was accused of teaching his young followers ‘to treat their fathers with contempt’ (Memorabilia I.ii.49). This addition seems to indicate that when Plato wrote the Meno Plato felt the need to parry this charge against Socrates.But why did Socrates address his words particularly to Anytus? Xenophon says that after the trial, as Socrates saw Anytus passing by, he remarked:
‘There goes a man who is filled with pride at the thought that he has accomplished some great and noble end in putting me to death, because, seeing him honoured by the state with the highest offices, I said that he ought not to confine his son’s education to hides’ (ouk ephên chrênai ton huion peri bursas paideuein).(5)
Anytus was elected to the highest offices as soon as the aristocrats were defeated and the democracy restored, and we may surmise that Socrates’ caustic remark prompted Anytus to re-kindle the old charges against Socrates. By incorporating filial duties into the definition of virtue concerning which Socrates consults Anytus, Plato wanted to make it clear to him that Socrates did not want to turn his son against him, and also to the Athenians at large that Socrates was not turning young people against their parents, quite the contrary.
The second addition – knowing when to receive and when to send away citizens and strangers – points forward to Anytus’ tirade against the sophists triggered by Socrates’ question:
‘Concerning this virtue (tautên oun tên aretên), consider (skopei) to whom should we rightly send Meno (para tinas an pempontes auton orthôs pempoimen;)? Or is it not clear, according to the previous argument, that we should send him to those men who profess to be teachers of virtue and who offer themselves to any Greek who wants to learn, asking a wage that they consider appropriate?’ (91a6-b5)
Anytus ripostes: ‘Whom do you mean, Socrates?’ When Socrates replies that he means the sophists, Anytus exclaims:
‘By Heracles, Socrates, forbear! I only hope that no friend or kinsman or acquaintance of mine, whether citizen or stranger, will ever be so mad as to allow himself to be corrupted by them; for they are a manifest pest and corrupting influence to those who have to do with them’ (epei houtoi ge phanera esti lôbê te kai diaphthora tôn sungignomenôn, 91c4-5, tr. B. Jowett).
Anytus lambastes the cities of Greece as mad for not driving the sophists out (hai poleis, eôsai autous esaphikneisthai kai ouk exelaunousai), be they citizens or strangers (92b2-3). It is at this point that the second addition in Socrates’ definition of virtue finds its relevance. Plato sheds light on this point in the Republic, where such men as the sophists have no place in the ideal state, yet far from being chased away, they are sent away with honours due to their accomplishments (398a).
Socrates asks Anytus why he is so angry: ‘Were you wronged by any of the sophists?’ (92b5-6). Anytus answers that he has never met any sophist and would not allow any of his people to converse with them (92b7-8). So Socrates asks: ‘Then you have no experience with them at all?’ (Apeiros ar’ ei pantapasin tôn andrôn; 92b9). Anytus answers: ‘And let me stay that way’ (Kai eiên ge, 92b10). Socrates asks ‘Then, my dear friend, how can you know whether a thing is good or bad of which you are wholly ignorant?’ Anytus answers ‘Quite well; I am sure that I know what manner of men these are whether I am acquainted with them or not.’ Socrates remarks ‘You must be a diviner, Anytus, for I really cannot make out, judging from your own words, how, if you are not acquainted with them, you know about them.’ (92c1-7, tr. B. Jowett). Socrates ends this part of his discussion with Anytus on a conciliatory note, by noting that in his criticism of the sophists Anytus may have a point (kai isôs ti legeis, 92d8-e1). This remark presumably reflects on Socrates’ and Plato’s own encounters with the sophists; Socrates goes as far as conceding that Anytus may be right in viewing them as corruptors of the young, ‘for let these be the sophists, if you want’ (houtoi men gar, ei su boulei, estôn hoi sophistai, 92d1-2).
There are two points that are noteworthy concerning this exchange. Firstly, Anytus inveighs against the sophists, not Socrates, as corruptors of the young. This in itself indicates that the dialogue was written before Socrates was indicted on this basis, as Godofredus Stallbaum was still able to see in the first half of the 19th century.(6) Plato could hardly have presented Anytus in the Meno as a man denouncing the sophists as corruptors of the youth, if at the time of writing the dialogue Anytus and the men around him (tous amphi Anuton,Ap. 18b2) had already indicted Socrates of this same charge. Secondly, Plato contrasts here Socrates’ ignorance that compels him to resume again and again his search for virtue and for truth, examining himself and his interlocutors, with the wilful ignorance of Anytus that underlies his political judgments concerning the education of the young. In the state of ignorance in which Anytus prides himself he is unworthy of any role in government. This takes us back to Socrates’ opening words in his address to Anytus in which he praised his father as a man who acquired wealth by his own wisdom and industry (têi hautou sophiai kai epimeleiai, 90a5), and who is neither arrogant, nor over-bearing and offensive, but a modest man (kosmios), correct in habit and manner (eustalês, 90a6-b1); like his father, Anytus should stick to his trade, or change profoundly.(7)
Socrates ends the discussion on the sophists by reminding Anytus that the task is not to look for those who would corrupt Meno (par’ hous an Menôn aphikomenos mochthêros genoito, 92c8-d1),but to deliberate and find out who in Athens could teach Meno virtue (92c8-d5). In response, Anytus suggests that any good and noble Athenian citizen (hotôi gar an entuchêi Athênaiôn tôn kalôn kagathôn)would do Meno far more good than the sophists (oudeis estin hos ou beltiô auton poiêsei ê hoi sophistai, 92e3-6). In view of Anytus’ later role as Socrates’ principal accuser, this answer is particularly significant, for the ideal of a ‘good and noble’ man was at the very heart of Socrates’ search for virtue;(8) the transformation of the term kalos kagathos from a term designating aristocrats into a term reserved for moral excellence was one of Socrates’ most important contributions to culture and politics in Athens. It is clearly in this Socratic sense that Anytus uses the term. When Plato wrote the Meno, face to face with Socrates Anytus not only did not include Socrates among the sophists whom he denounced as corruptors of the young, but he paid at least lip-service to Socrates’ moral and educational ideal.
Socrates met Anytus’ suggestion that any kalos kagathos Athenian could teach Meno virtue better than the sophists with a question: ‘Without any teachers, did these good and noble men become capable of teaching others that which they themselves had never learned? (92e7-93a1)’ Anytus answered ‘I presume that they too learned it from those who came before them, who were noble and good’, and then he launched a counter-attack: ‘or, in your view, have there not been many good men born in this city?’(93a2-4). With this question Anytus clearly intended to take to task Socrates for his lack of respect both for his fellow-citizens and for the great men of the past. If he hoped to receive a negative or evasive answer from Socrates, he was disappointed, for Socrates answered that in his view there were good statesmen (emoige kai einai dokousin agathoi ta politika) in Athens, and that especially in the past there had been such men (kai gegonenai eti ouch hêtton ê einai), but that the question was, whether these men had also become good teachers of their virtue (alla môn kai didaskaloi agathoi gegonasin tês autôn aretês, 93a5-7). To make his point, Socrates took as examples Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, and Thucydides; none of them was capable of transmitting their political excellence to their sons, although they wished for them to acquire it (kalous kagathous genesthai, 93c7). Socrates concluded tentatively: ‘But perhaps, my friend Anytus, virtue cannot be taught’ (alla gar, ô hetaire Anute, mê ouk êi didakton aretê, 94e2).
At this point, Anytus withdrew from any further discussion with a warning:
‘Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men: and, if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful. Perhaps there is no city in which it is not easy (raidion) to do men ill or good (kakôs poiein anthrôpous ê eu, 94e6), and this is certainly the case at Athens, as I believe that you know.’ (94e3-95a1).
Socrates remarks that Anytus appears to be angry with him (Anutos men moi dokei chalepainein, 95a2):(9)
‘For he thinks, firstly, that I am defaming (katêgorein) these men, and secondly, he believes himself to be one of them. But if one day he learns (ean pote gnôi) what it means to defame (to kakôs legein), he will cease to be angry with me (chalepainôn); now he does not know (95a2-6).’
These words of Socrates on their own testify that Plato must have written the dialogue before Socrates’ trial and death, for in the Apology Socrates speaks as ill of Anytus as he deserves because of his role in the accusation of Socrates: Anytus is bad, for he commits a great evil (megala kaka), ‘in doing what he does now, unjustly endeavouring to take the life of another’ (ha houtosi nun poiei, andra adikôs epicheirein apokteinunai, 30d4-5). Had Plato written the Meno after the trial, he could not but think of these words of Socrates concerning Anytus, knowing that his readers would do likewise. With this in mind, how could Plato have Socrates say that if one day Anytus learns what it means to be spoken ill of, he will cease to be angry with Socrates? Socrates’ words are clearly referring to the possibility, all too frequent for Athenian politicians, that Anytus himself might become the subject of slander and political defamation, be it justified or unjustified.
It might be objected that Anytus’ good name was well established, for he was one of the main heroes of the restored democracy,(10) and that there was therefore no point in Socrates’ alluding to the possibility of Anytus’ change of fortune in this respect. But as we know from Aristotle (11) and from Diodorus of Sicily (13.64.6), Anytus had been accused of treachery in 409 on account of his failure to relieve Pylos from the Spartan siege, and he escaped conviction by bribing the judges; in fact, he is reputed to have been the first to introduce this infamous practice. Socrates’ words thus may have been viewed by Anytus and the men around him as a threat, especially since Plato’s political ambitions were ripening in those days.
This gives the Meno a grave significance, for we must consider the possibility that it may have occasioned the indictment of Socrates. If this was indeed so, then Plato must have been unhappy about the Meno and its role in Socrates’ fate. Late in his life, he all but says that it ought never to have been written. For at the heart of the Meno stands Socrates’ interrogation of one of Meno’s slaves, in the course of which he demonstrates that all learning is Recollection of knowledge acquired by the soul prior to its incarnation (81c-82a), and he claims that if the slave were subjected to further questioning, he would acquire knowledge of geometry in its totality, and of all other branches of learning (85e1-3). In the Laws Plato says that ‘in addressing a slave one ought to speak almost exclusively in commands’ (tên de oiketou prosrêsin chrê schedon epitaxin pasan gignesthai, 777e4-778a1).
Concerning Anytus’ words ‘I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men’ Bluck notes:
‘We are no doubt intended to realize that Anytus must have heard of remarks that Socrates had made about famous Athenian statesmen on other occasions also – remarks such as those attributed to Socrates in the Gorgias, for instance. Cf. Gorg. 522b, tous presbuterous kakêgorein legôn pikrous logous ê idiai ê dêmosiai[‘speaking ill of old men and using bitter words towards them, whether in private or in public’] (522b8-9). There must be an allusion here to some of the reasons that caused Anytus to take the lead in the prosecution of Socrates in 399 B.C.’(12)
The words Bluck quotes come from the passage in the Gorgias where Socrates refers to the accusation that he speaks ill of the great old men of Athens and uses bitter words towards them both in private and in public. On the conventional dating adhered to by Bluck, the Gorgias precedes the Meno, so that Anytus in the latter is alluding to the former when he refers to Socrates’ ‘speaking ill of men’. But in the Gorgias, far from denying the accusation, Socrates confirms it: ‘I have been saying all this rightly’ (Dikaiôs panta tauta legô, 522b9-c1). In the Gorgias Socrates refuses to attribute any political virtue to the great men of the past, Themistocles and Pericles (503c-e), the very men to whom he attributed virtue in the Meno (93a-94b). In the Gorgias he argues that they have been the cause of all the ills that befell the city (tous aitious tôn kakôn, 519a6-7). Focusing in particular on Pericles, Socrates debunks him as a man who has made the Athenians idlers and cowards, chatterers and spongers by starting them on drawing pay for participating in political activities (515e5-7). The Gorgias indicates that Socrates did often speak ill of the great old men of Athens, and the Meno suggests that Anytus was well aware of it, and this is why he accosted Socrates with his abrupt ‘or, in your view, have there not been many good men born in this city?’(93a2-4). The difference between these two presentations of Socrates is occasioned by very different situations in which Plato stood when he wrote the Meno and the Gorgias. In the Meno, by ascribing virtue to the great men of Athens in response to Anytus’ challenge, Plato, himself an aspiring politician, identifies Socrates and himself with the political ideals of the Athenian people, correcting as far as possible Socrates’ past negative pronouncements concerning those ideals and the politicians who promoted them. In the Gorgias, with Socrates dead, and having realized that there was no place for him within the framework of Athenian politics, Plato radically negates those ideals, and accentuates Socrates’ authentic criticism of them. The ideal of virtue outlined in the Gorgias, in the light of which the great politicians of the past are unmasked as promoters of political vice, points directly to the ideal of the Philosopher-King outlined in the Republic; there is no place for the Meno in between the Gorgias and the Republic.
What might have contributed to the difficulty in properly appreciating the difference between the Gorgias and the Meno is the fact that at the end of the Meno Socrates depreciates the virtue that he had ascribed to the great men of Athens in his discussion with Anytus. This depreciation concerns three points:
1. Socrates in the Meno ascribed virtue to the great men of Athens as a consequence of hypothetically defining virtue as right opinion (orthê doxa, 97b5), thus temporarily abandoning his identification of virtue with knowledge. Socrates had made his identification of virtue with the right opinion conditional: ‘if all our present arguments are sound’ (ei de nun hêmeis en panti tôi logôi toutôi kalôs ezêtêsamen te kai elegomen, 99e4-5).
2. He then says that the definition of virtue as right opinion can be considered as valid only as long as no politician can be found who is able to teach his political excellence to another man (ei mê tis eiê toioutos tôn politikôn andrôn hoios kai allon poiêsai politikon, 100a1a-2), for if such a politician would arise, Socrates’ definition of virtue as knowledge would be reasserted.
3. Finally, he says that if there were a man capable of teaching virtue (ei de eiê), he would differ from the politicians incapable of teaching virtue as a true entity differs from its mere shadow (ho toioutos hôsper para skias alêthes an pragma eiê pros aretên, 100a6-7).
But these remarks have no bearing on Socrates’ positive appreciation of the political achievements of the great men of Athens in the Meno, which stands in sharp contrast to the Gorgias, in which those very achievements are branded as products of political and moral vice and as inducements to vice. The great politicians of the past to whom Socrates ascribed virtue in the Meno fulfilled two essential conditions: 1. ‘that good men are necessarily doing good’ (hoti men tous agathous andras dei ôphelimous einai, 96e7), 2. ‘that they will be doing good only if they guide us to actions in the right way’ (hoti ge ôphelimoi esontai an orthôs hêmin hêgôntai tôn pragmatôn, 97a3-4). These two conditions are fulfilled both in the case that the politician thus praised is a man who knows the right way to the given goal, and in the case that he has the right opinion concerning it. The difference between the two is great, it is the difference between true virtue and its mere shadow, but this difference does not affect the goals pursued and achieved in these two cases.
There is another point concerning Anytus that has preoccupied the minds of interpreters of the Meno, and rightly so. What did Anytus do after he gave his warning to Socrates, did he go away or did he stay? Were Socrates’ critical remarks concerning the virtue that he attributed to the great men of Athens reserved only for the ears of Meno, a foreigner, or did he make them in the presence of Anytus who lapsed into silence?
R.W. Sharples writes in his commentary:
‘Anytus takes no further part in the discussion. He is referred to by the relatively remote demonstrative houtos at 95a5; but at 99e2 and 100c1 he is referred to by the more immediate hode, which would imply that he is still present. The easiest supposition is that he stalks off in a rage, but remains within sight.’(13)
I do not know of any other use of two demonstratives, one relatively remote and the other more immediate, where using them both in reference to the same man in the same situation would signify that the man remains in sight but out of hearing. Moreover, Sharples makes a mistake in his rendering of the two demonstratives, for in fact, at 100c1 Socrates uses the relatively remote demonstrative houtos, whereas in the immediately preceding line, at 100b8, he uses the more immediate hode. Viewing Anytus as present during the closing discussion between Socrates and Meno, Friedlaender ‘interpreted the change from hode [at 89e10] to toutôi [i.e. houtos in the dative, at 95a5] as indicating that Socrates turns from Anytus to Meno’.(14) I believe that Friedlaender is right, and I find the confirmation of his view in Socrates’ closing words: ‘Persuade this host of yours Anytus (peithe kai ton xenon tonde Anuton, 100b8) ... for if you persuade him (hôs ean peisêis touton, 100c1), you will have done good service to the Athenian people’. Here we have a similar shift in Socrates’ reference to Anytus; in the first clause he points to Anytus sitting (parekathezeto, 89e10) there with him and Meno, whereas in the second he speaks of Meno’s exercising his influence on Anytus when the two will be on their own, without Socrates.
What in my view decides the matter is Meno’s remark towards the end of the dialogue concerning Anytus’ reaction to a new point that Socrates has made. Socrates, having compared the great men of Athens to prophets and poets who are possessed by divine inspiration but have no knowledge of what they are saying (mêden eidotes hôn legousi, 99d5), refers to women who call good men divine (tous agathous andras theious kalousi, 99d7-8), and to the Spartans who do the same (99d8-9). Meno approves of Socrates’ words, but remarks that ‘Anytus here appears to be displeased with what you have said’ (kaitoi isôs Anutos hode soi achthetai legonti, 99e2).
Socrates tells Meno that he should not worry about Anytus’ displeasure: ‘We will have a discussion with him again, Meno’ (toutôi men, ô Menôn, kai authis dialexometha, 99e3-4). Sharples writes that this
‘may, as Thompson suggested, be an allusion to Socrates’ speech at his trial, parts of which, as portrayed by Plato in the Apology, are very much in the manner of Socratic discussion (cf. Apology 24d-27e, though it is Meletus, rather than Anytus, who is in particular addressed there).’ (Sharples p.188, note on 99e2)
Yet Socrates in his defence speech does not address his words to Anytus at all, let alone have a discussion with him. In the Meno, when Socrates says that he will have further discussions with Anytus, he wants to discuss with him that which has made him angry. It is within this context that Socrates in his closing words appeals to Meno:
‘persuade your friend Anytus (peithe kai ton xenon tonde Anuton) of the very same things of which you yourself have been persuaded (ta auta tauta haper autos pepeisai, 100b7-8), so that he becomes more gentle and conciliatory (hina praioteros êi, 100b-c1); for if you persuade him, you will do good service to the Athenian people’ (hôs ean peisêis touton, estin hoti kai Athênaious onêseis, 100c1-2).
Jacob Klein asks ‘We wonder: has Meno been persuaded of anything?’(15)He writes in his commentary:
‘Whether Plato, when he wrote the Meno, had or had not read the accounts of Xenophon or of Themistogenes (whom Xenophon mentions elsewhere and who may or may not be identical with Xenophon himself) or of Ctesias seems rather irrelevant. Various episodes involving Greek mercenaries and their generals, Meno in particular, in the struggle between the Great King and his brother could not help becoming common knowledge. Meno was certainly a well known public figure at the beginning of the fourth century, a “Thessalian Alcibiades,” in Jowett’s phrase. Fame, be it of a glorious or an infamous kind, does not need – especially at that time in Greece – the channel of the written word to run its course. There can hardly be any doubt that Meno’s image as that of an arch-villain was fixed in the minds of Plato’s contemporaries.’ (Klein pp. 36-37)
Klein can therefore view the dialogue only as a comedy:
‘The dialogue begins abruptly with Meno asking Socrates: “Can you, Socrates, tell me, is human excellence (aretê) 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 (physei) or in some other way?” ... That a question concerning human excellence should be put by Meno, to Socrates, on whom we tend to look as a memorable example of virtue ... is startling and comical. The suddenness of the question heightens its comical character. Nothing appears to precede it.’
Klein adds, in brackets: ‘The abruptness of Meno’s initial question and of the dialogue’s beginning, however, may have also another and perhaps more serious significance which escapes us, at least for the time being’(Klein p. 38). The ‘serious significance’ behind the comedy, as he sees it, can be found in the last sentence of his commentary: ‘we, the readers and the witnesses of the dialogue, have to continue the search for human excellence on our own.’ The comedy, with which Plato thus supposedly intends to intensify the sense of loneliness in our search for virtue can be further magnified if we view the Meno in the light of the Phaedrus as it is dated by modern interpreters, that is as one of Plato’s late dialogues, written after the Meno, Ctesias’ Persika and Xenophon’s Anabasis. In that light Plato’s choice of Meno as Socrates’ counterpart in the search for and examination of virtue becomes truly farcical, for in the Phaedrus Socrates characterizes a true philosopher as a man who:
‘selects a soul of the right type, and in it he plants and sows his words founded on knowledge, words which can defend both themselves and him who planted them, words which instead of remaining barren contain a seed whence new words grow up in new characters; whereby the seed is vouchsafed immortality, and its possessor the fullest measure of blessedness that man can attain unto.’ (276e5-277a4, tr. R. Hackforth)
The farce into which Plato’s works are thus turned is not of his own making; it is the result of the modern dating of his dialogues. Because of Meno’s treachery against his fellow military commanders and his infamous end on the one hand, and because of Anytus’ infamous role in the accusation of Socrates and his condemnation to death on the other, it is only if we predate the Meno to these two events that we can properly appreciate Socrates’ closing appeal to Meno. On the proposed dating Socrates’ final words invite us to review all the important points that Socrates makes in the dialogue and to pay due attention to Meno’s reactions to these points, so as to see what has qualified him in the eyes of Socrates – and of Plato as the writer – for the task of attempting to cure Anytus of his lackadaisical attitude concerning the education of the young towards virtue, and of his ill will towards Socrates who viewed such education as the fundamental task of politicians.
On the proposed dating of the dialogues that I have discussed so far, the Meno follows the Clitopho, and in relation to this dialogue the abruptness of Meno’s opening question concerning the ways in which virtue can be acquired is fully appropriate, for the Clitopho ends with Clitopho’s imploring Socrates to stop his speeches of exhortations and tell him what virtue is and how it can be attained and brought into action. Meno reopens the discussion in the Meno where Clitopho ended it in the Clitopho, and he does so by a clear reference to the opening words of the protreptic speech with which Socrates addressed the Athenians:
‘You do not find for your sons teachers (didaskalous) of justice, if it can be learnt (eiper mathêton), or if it can be acquired by practice and exercise (ei de meletêton te kai askêton), people to exercise them and make them practise it adequately.’ (Clitopho 407b5-7).
Meno has been well informed about Socrates before addressing him with his question; he tells Socrates that before meeting him (prin kai sungenesthai soi) he heard that he was doing nothing but doubting himself and making others doubt (hoti su ouden allo ê autos te aporeis kai tous allous poieis aporein, 79e7-80a2). The Clitopho is Plato’s shortest dialogue, and it can be assumed that before addressing Socrates with his question concerning virtue Meno had read it, especially since Clitopho was a politician of some note, associated with Anytus.(16)
In the Clitopho Socrates leaves his interlocutor guessing as to whether his failure to reveal to him what virtue is sprang from his unwillingness to instruct him or from a lack of knowledge concerning it. In the Meno he begins by dispelling this uncertainty; he proclaims that he does not know what virtue is (71a5-7). Yet this does not make Socrates a hindrance on the way to acquiring virtue, as Clitopho had suggested, far from it. He is bent on learning what virtue is and involves Meno in his search. In stark contrast to Socrates, at the beginning of the dialogue Meno believes that he himself knows what virtue is, and says that defining it is for him an easy task (All’ ou chalepon eipein, 71e1): ‘I have given an infinite variety of speeches about virtue and to many people before now, and very good ones’ (80b2-30). But he soon finds that Socrates can dismiss all his definitions as faulty, and has to acknowledge that the definition of virtue eludes him completely (nun de oud’ hoti estin to parapan echô eipein, 80b4). The introductory part of the dialogue ends with Meno’s going a step further than Clitopho in his criticism of Socrates; Clitopho ended by considering Socrates a stumbling-block on the way to virtue, while Meno tells him that if he did in other places as he does in Athens, he would be arrested as a magician (hôs goês apachtheiês, 80b6-7).
However strongly Meno expresses his unhappiness about Socrates whom he blames for finding himself all of a sudden in a muddle about virtue, in Socrates’ eyes he is capable of joining him in the enquiry concerning it because he has become aware of his being in a muddle (80d3-4). But Meno ripostes:
‘And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?’ (80d5-8). (Tr. B. Jowett)
Faced with this challenge Socrates shows Meno that acknowledging one’s own ignorance not only does not prevent investigating that which one does not know, but quite to the contrary, it is the first step towards overcoming it. To make the point, Socrates takes recourse to Recollection, questioning one of Meno’s slaves – ‘any one you want (hena, hontina boulei, 82b1). In doing so, Socrates answers both Clitopho’s and Meno’s criticism of his ignorance as disabling men in their pursuit of virtue. This is the first thing of which Meno is going to be persuaded in the course of the dialogue, and other such things will follow.
Socrates questions the slave on a problem concerning geometry, the science of which the slave has no knowledge of, as Meno well knows, for the slave was born and raised in his house. At the beginning, the problem seems simple enough for the slave to have an opinion concerning it. The given square has an area of four square feet. What is the area of a square that is twice as big? The slave answers confidently: it is eight square feet. The length of the side of the first square is two feet; what is the length of the side of the square that is twice as big? The slave answers confidently: it is twice as long, it is four feet. Meno knows geometry, and so he knows that the answer is wrong. The first stage of Socrates’ questioning of the slave ends by the slave’s realisation that he does not know the correct answer to the problem (egôge ouk oida, 84a2). Meno agrees with Socrates that the slave’s realization of his ignorance is an important step towards overcoming it, and that it is a much better state than the former state in which he thought he knew what in fact he did not know. He tells Socrates simply: ‘You are right’ (Alêthê legeis, 84b2).
In what follows Socrates awakens in the slave the right opinions concerning the problem, so that he ends by finding the right answer. Socrates concludes that the slave must have had the correct opinions in him all along, and that since he had not acquired those correct opinions in his present life, he must have acquired them in his previous existence. Moreover, he maintains that if the slave were subjected to further questioning along similar lines, he would recollect not only all that can be known in geometry, but all that can be known in any branch of knowledge (85e1-3). ‘Is there anyone who taught him all?’ Socrates asks. Meno answers that he knows that nobody ever taught him anything. Socrates thus demonstrates to him that in the soul of each of us there are true opinions about all things that can be brought to light by proper questioning: ‘you must therefore set to work with good courage to investigate and recollect that which you do not know at present’ (hôste tharrounta chrê ho mê tunchaneis epistamenos nun epicheirein zêtein kai anamimnêiskesthai, 86b2-4). Meno again expresses his full agreement with Socrates; he really likes what Socrates has said (Eu moi dokeis legein, ouk oid’ hopôs, 86b5). Socrates underlines the importance of Meno’s assent. He too likes the results of his own enquiry (Kai gar egô emoi, 86b6), and although he is not entirely sure about all that he has said, he is sure
‘that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know – that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed to the utmost of my power.’ (86b7-c2).(Tr. B. Jowett)
Meno again signals his full agreement with Socrates: ‘Socrates, this too you put very well, as it seems to me’ (Kai touto men ge dokeis moi eu legein, ô Sôkrates, 86c3).
Socrates returns to the theme of Recollection towards the end of the dialogue, after his discussion with Anytus, and Meno again expresses his full agreement with him (97e6-98b6). There can thus be little doubt that this is what Meno was persuaded of by Socrates; and it is therefore something of which Socrates wants Meno to persuade Anytus. For Anytus entered the dialogue in a state of ignorance that corresponded to the initial state in which Meno entered the dialogue and in which then Socrates found Meno’s slave, that is in a state of ignorance that in their self-deception they considered to be knowledge. Unlike Meno and the slave, Anytus remains in that state. He pays lip-service to the ideal of excellence, of being noble and good, yet he is ignorant of what this ideal really means and what it requires of those who are devoted to its pursuit. Socrates leaves it to Meno to find a way of pricking Anytus’ conceit, just as he in the Lysis in his introductory protreptic discussion humbled Lysis and left it to Lysis to do the same service to Menexenus, the friend of Lysis.
Another very important thing of which the Meno of the dialogue becomes persuaded is Socrates’ thesis that nobody can desire evil who knows what evil is, which reinforces Socrates’ argument in support of this thesis in the Clitopho. This reinforcement was urgently needed, for Socrates ended the Hippias Minor, which preceded the Clitopho, with the assertion that ‘the man, if there is such a man (eiper tis estin houtos), who deliberately makes mistakes and acts contemptibly and commits injustice, is the good man’ (376b4-6). The need to put this dialogue in a proper perspective became imperative after it failed to achieve its aim of pulling and pushing Socrates out of his ignorance. After the equally desperate and futile attempt along the same lines in the Clitopho Plato had to rethink Socrates’ ignorance and reinterpret it positively. This task was especially acute since very few people were prepared to agree with Socrates that nobody could willingly commit evil, and in reading the Hippias Minor they willy-nilly had to sympathize with Hippias against Socrates. It was imperative for Socrates to prove to his fellow Athenians that nobody could willingly commit evil; there was no place for ignorance in this matter.
Meno initially defines virtue in the Meno as ‘having the desire for all that is noble and beautiful’ (epithumounta tôn kalôn) which is combined with ‘the ability to provide it for oneself’ (dunaton einai porizesthai, 77b4-5). Socrates asks whether by desiring all that is noble and beautiful Meno means desiring that which is good (agathôn epithumêtên einai, 77b6-7). When Meno answers that this is what he means, Socrates asks ‘don’t you think that all men desire what is good?’ When Meno answers ‘No, I don’t’, maintaining that some people desire what is evil, Socrates asks whether in his view such people know that what they desire is bad. Meno answers that some do and some don’t. Socrates then asks whether a man who desires evil does so thinking that what is evil is of benefit to him who is affected by it (Poteron hêgoumenos ta kaka ôphelein ekeinon hôi an genêtai) or whether he does so knowing that evil things harm him (ê gignôskôn ta kaka hoti blaptei hôi an parêi, 77d1-2). Meno answers that among men who desire evil things there are those who think that what is evil is of benefit to them (hoi hêgoumenoi ta kaka ôphelein) as well as those who know that evil things are harmful (hoi gignôskontes hoti blaptei, 77d3-4). By preserving the distinction between ‘thinking that evil things are benefiting a man’ and ‘knowing that evil things are harmful’, which Meno picks up from Socrates and immediately appropriates, he shows himself as a worthy partner of Socrates, and a man who in the course of the ensuing discussion will become worthy of the task of attempting to persuade Anytus of those very things of which he himself has been persuaded.
Socrates’ next step is to make sure that Meno fully understands the distinction between thinking and knowing: ‘Does it seem to you that those who think that evil things are of benefit know that evil things are evil?’ Meno answers: ‘No, it does not seem to be the case.’ When Socrates then asks whether it is not the case that those people who do not know that the things they desire are evil do not in fact desire what is evil – they desire what they think is good – Meno agrees that ‘this appears to be the case with these men’ (Kinduneuousin houtoi ge, 77e4). Socrates asks: ‘Those who, as you say, desire evil things and think that evil things are harmful to those whom they affect, do they know that they will be harmed by them?’ Meno answers ‘Necessarily so’ (Anankê, 78a1). Socrates then asks whether these men do not think that those who are thus harmed are miserable in proportion to the harm thus incurred by them, and Meno answers that this too is necessarily so (Kai touto anankê, 78a2-3). So Socrates asks whether anybody wishes to be miserable, and Meno agrees that in his view this is not the case. Socrates concludes: ‘But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?’ (ti gar allo estin athlion einai ê epithumein te tôn kakôn kai ktasthai, 78a7-8). Meno answers: ‘It appears that what you say is true (Kinduneueis alêthê legein), Socrates, and that nobody desires evil’ (kai oudeis boulesthai ta kaka, 78a8-b2). In view of the availability of the Hippias Minor as a plausible argument against Socrates and his followers, it was essential to provide Anytus and the men around him with an opportunity to learn from Meno, a nobleman from Thessaly who could not be dismissed as a partisan of Socrates, that in Socrates’ view nobody who knew what evil was could ever desire it, let alone commit it, and least of all Socrates himself.(17)
Could Plato ever have realistically hoped that with his appeal to Anytus in the Meno he could succeed in positively influencing the political scene in Athens? The Seventh Letter makes it quite clear that after the initial despondency caused by the collapse of his dream of a society founded on virtue that was to be brought about by the Thirty, Plato began to hope that the restored democracy opened the possibility for him to engage in politics. If his participation were to be meaningful, Anytus had either to evolve or to leave politics. By putatively presenting Anytus with the example of Meno’s slave through Meno’s eyes, Plato wanted to show to him and others like him that all human beings were capable of evolving, if only they realized their ignorance and joined Socrates in the quest for human excellence. In doing so, he placed on the table his radically democratic credentials. These beliefs belonged to his early years only; the writer of the Gorgias, the Republic, the Politicus, and the Laws had lost the Socratic conviction that all human beings had the potential for acquiring knowledge and goodness.