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Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | Knowledge and Right Opinion, and Conclusion Summary (96d–100c) | Summary

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Summary

Socrates returns to their previous inferences that "good men must be beneficial ... and that they will be beneficial if they guide matters rightly." Where they went wrong, apparently, is in thinking that this "right guidance" is directed by knowledge. When Meno expresses confusion over this result, Socrates offers an example. Someone who knows the road to Larissa or some other place not only can get there himself but also can guide others. So, too, can someone who neither knows the road nor has taken it himself, if he has the "right opinion." The one who knows and the one who does not know but has the right opinion "will be no worse a guide than the man who understands it, even though he only believes truly without understanding."

Meno points out that there is a difference between the two. Whereas the knowledgeable person "will always hit upon the right answer," the one with the right opinion will sometimes get the right answer and sometimes not. Socrates counters that, so long as the opinion is right, the answer will be right as well. However, Meno persists wondering what it is, then, that makes knowledge "more highly valued than right opinion, and in what respects one is different from the other."

Socrates's response is that knowledge, if "tied down" by reasons, stays put. He likens true opinion to Daedalus's statues, which get up and run away, leaving their owners bereft of that possession. Knowledge, achieved through recollection, "abides" in the mind of the one who has undertaken the process. As such, it is of great value.

Still, Meno and Socrates remain in something of a quandary. Virtue is not taught, it would appear, but it's not at all clear how one becomes virtuous. Socrates advances the idea that virtue is something of a divine inspiration. Just as the prophets and diviners say things that are true without knowing why they are true, perhaps this is also the case with virtuous people.

The dialogue ends with Socrates leaving, reminding Meno as he does to not give up the search for the nature of virtue. That must happen before investigating how one becomes virtuous. His parting words are a request that Meno persuade Anytus of what he has learned, not only so that his anger will be mitigated, but also so that Athens is thereby benefitted also.

Analysis

The distinction between knowledge and opinion (particularly true opinion), is an important one for Plato's philosophy. This distinction is on full display in the Republic Books 6 and 7 (the analogy of the divided line, and the allegory of the cave), where Plato assigns opinion (or belief) to the sensible realm, which is associated with the senses and always in flux. However, knowledge is assigned to the intelligible realm, which is associated with reason and is stable.

The dialogue ends in uncertainty, but the conclusion that there are no teachers of virtue (no one knows what it is) is consistent with Socrates's conclusion at the end of his initial inquiries into the oracle's pronouncement (Apology). He interprets his findings, that no one knows anything good, no one knows about the most important things, as reflective of the value of human wisdom in comparison with the God's.

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