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Platonic Paradox Essay, Research Paper

Platonic Paradox

To research Plato s paradox in the Meno, we can first consult the definition of what platonism is. Websters defines platonism as “actual things are copies of transcendent ideas and that these ideas are the objects of true knowledge apprehended by reminiscence.” For this essay, we will assume that trancendency is- “that which is beyond comprehension”, and reminiscence as “past experience”. The Meno is a dialogue between Socrates, a scholar and Meno, who eventually became an explorer. For this essay, however, we will assume that Meno is at the time of the dialogue, an upper-class citizen of average to better than average intelligence and superior stubbornness. The piece, according to the translation by G.M.A. Grube is thought to have taken place in approximately 402 B.C. in Athens, Greece. Late in the text, a third character, Anytus, a politician, who would eventually be an accuser of Socrates, joins in the dialogue. In the text, Meno in trying to define virtue accidentally slips in to a paradox or contradictory statement, which Socrates immediately refutes. It is the purpose of this paper to recognize the paradox, examine how Socrates disproves the paradox through argument and evidence. Socrates also brings up a key distinction between true opinion and knowledge, relating to the paradox, which will too be examined. Socrates then gives basis for more argument regarding the paradox, and why he does this will also be examined.

The initial argument takes place when Socrates challenges Meno to define virtue. Meno does not realize here what he has started. Meno has before inquired whether virtue is a quality that can be taught or if it is a natural trait, that men are born with. Socrates, in method true to form, twists the question and re-poses it to Meno to see if Meno can answer it all on his own. Meno lists what he thinks are virtuous qualities, and is content at that simple definition. Socrates then says:

“I seem to be in luck, Meno, while I am looking for one virtue, I have found you to have a whole swarm of them.”

Meno s frustration begins to set in. He tries theatrical metaphor to define virtue, as well as relating to physical philosophy and philosophers such as Empedocles.

Meno at this point gives up and hands the philosophy to Socrates. Socrates presents Meno with a paradox:

“….He cannot search for what (a debater) knows- since he knows it, there is no need to search- nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

In an obscure manner, Socrates points out that sometimes, we accidentally stumble on to the unknown. The paradox exists here: One can search and search for something all of their existence and never find it, and another can never even be searching for the same thing and come across it in a flash. If one does look for and find, they may be severely disappointed. The other may find what the first was looking for and not even care, and the inverse is also true. To sum up in modern layman s terms, “You are darned if you do and you are darned if you do not.” The paradox can appear to be quite obscure but has an undertone for the rest of the text. As the argument ends in doubt, in a sense, so does the question of the paradox; it is left to the reader to ponder on his own.

To refute the paradox, Socrates pulls aside a common slave boy of Meno s to show that in even complicated matters, there is always some form of wisdom. He draws a square and divides it in to four equal smaller squares, each side of the larger square we are told is two feet, making it an eight foot figure total, or so the boy believes. What we are told is that

“the eight foot square is double the four foot square and half the sixteen foot square, double the square based on a line two feet long, and half the square based on a four-foot side, so it must be based on a line between two and four feet in length. The slave naturally suggests three feet, but that gives a nine foot square and is still wrong”

Another paradox has been created. That which we thought was very simple makes no sense at all without careful thinking, and even then, can make no sense. What Socrates has done is he has taken a simple thing and made it complex. What he does next is to take this complex problem and make it even simpler than it was before. He builds up the square to make it a sixteen foot square by joining two more four foot squares. He adds three quarters of a four foot square with one two foot section missing. He then fills in another two foot square to complete the sixteen foot square. Then, through practicality, he solves the puzzle of how long the line should be by asking the slave to measure the line on his own. Socrates then suggests to Meno:

“So the man who does not know has within himself true opinions about the thing that he does not know?”

Socrates is trying to prove to Meno that people may posses knowledge that they do not even know of. Perhaps, this relates back to the original argument of virtue. Men posses virtue instinctively, and do not know that they have virtue until they have already used it, just as the slave had the knowledge to solve the problem, but did not know that he did until he had solved it.

Meno has begun to learn something. He has become more three-dimensional in his thinking. Meno suggests that virtue is a kind of knowledge. This is the next point that they ponder. They agree that virtue is a good quality and that good qualities benefit us. Socrates then appears to strike down the same argument that he has just nurtured when he explains this to Meno:

“….do they not at times harm us, at other times benefit us? Courage, for example, when it is not wisdom but like a kind of recklessness: when a man is reckless without understanding, he is benefited.”

This provides for an accurate definition of knowledge, with Socrates explaining that knowledge, while it can be virtuous, that virtue is subject to a sort of corruption. This makes for an interesting query. What, then if knowledge is virtue and subject to corruption, is true (or in this translation, right) opinion? We turn to a different translation here for a quote:

“Then right opinion is not a whit inferior to knowledge, or less useful in action; nor is the man who has right opinion inferior to him who has knowledge?”

Meno affirms this.

“Then true opinion is as good a guide to correct action as knowledge; and that was the point which we omitted in our speculation about the nature of virtue, when we said that knowledge only is the guide of right action; whereas there is also right opinion.”

Meno then suggests that he who has knowledge is always right, but he who has right opinion will sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong. Socrates, refutes this point in a key line in the dialogue:

“I mean to say that they are not very valuable possessions if they are at liberty, for they will walk off like runaway slaves; but when fastened, they are of great value, for they are really beautiful works of art. Now this is an illustration of the nature of true opinions: while they abide with us they are beautiful and fruitful, but they run away out of the human soul, and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection, as you and I have agreed to call it. But when they are bound, in the first place, they have the nature of knowledge; and, in the second place, they are abiding. And this is why knowledge is more honorable and excellent than true opinion, because fastened by a chain.”

Socrates says that those who focus and utilize their virtue and use it wisely are most likely to be using their true opinions. He states that knowledge is better than true opinion because knowledge is bound forever while opinions can, and indefinitely will change.

The distinction that Socrates raises about true opinion and knowledge raises an interesting topic for debate. The possession of true opinion and knowledge combined with the search for virtue and whether or not it should be sought after. This re-opens the debate about the paradox for several reasons. If someone has true opinion, should they search for the meaning of virtuousness? Or, should they accept the fact that they will sometimes be wrong and simply let it come to them? The argument should be re-opened for another rebuttal for the inverse reasons as well: Should he who possesses knowledge then seek the meaning of virtue or simply be content to know that he possesses it? Can he who possesses true opinion ever be virtuous? These questions are all left to the reader by Plato, and would provide for excellent debate. There is no reason not to open up any point for rebuttal simply because every argument has a side.

In closing, the Meno has many arguments in it but leaves the reader even more confused coming out of the book than they were going in. Virtue, certainly is a trait that we to this day may never understand, and it is quite possible that Plato, himself was none too certain when he wrote this text. We can paradox ourselves to death and try to analyze that which we do not understand, but to concern ourselves with one small aspect of our lives, thus trivializing our existence will result in nothing. Even if tomorrow a wonderful universally agreed upon definition of virtue is revealed to the world, that it would not overhaul society as we know it. Plato though, has raised an interesting point. Can we call each other a title when we do not know the real meaning ourselves? That is a question for us and future generations to ponder, which was the goal of the Meno in the first place.

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