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Extract from Meno -a Socratic dialogue by Plato.

Socrates

They spoke of a glorious truth, as I conceive.

Meno

What was it? and who were they?

Socrates

Some of them were priests and priestesses, who had studied how they might be able to give a reason of their profession: there have been poets also, who spoke of these things by inspiration, like Pindar, and many others who were inspired. And they say⁠—mark, now, and see whether their words are true⁠—they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed. And the moral is, that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness. “For in the ninth year Persephone sends the souls of those from whom she has received the penalty of ancient crime back again from beneath into the light of the sun above, and these are they who become noble kings and mighty men and great in wisdom and are called saintly heroes in after ages.” The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection. And therefore we ought not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry: for it will make us idle; and is sweet only to the sluggard; but the other saying will make us active and inquisitive. In that confiding, I will gladly enquire with you into the nature of virtue.

Meno

Yes, Socrates; but what do you mean by saying that we do inot learn, and that what we call learning is only a process of recollection? Can you teach me how this is?

Socrates

I told you, Meno, just now that you were a rogue, and now you ask whether I can teach you, when I am saying that there is no teaching, but only recollection; and thus you imagine that you will involve me in a contradiction.

Meno

Indeed, Socrates, I protest that I had no such intention. I only asked the question from habit; but if you can prove to me that what you say is true, I wish that you would.

Socrates

It will be no easy matter, but I will try to please you to the utmost of my power. Suppose that you call one of your numerous attendants, that I may demonstrate on him.

Meno

Certainly. Come hither, boy.

Socrates

He is Greek, and speaks Greek, does he not?

Meno

Yes, indeed; he was born in the house.

Socrates

Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.

Meno

I will.

Socrates

Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

Boy

I do.

Socrates

And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

Boy

Certainly.

Socrates

And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

A square may be of any size?

Boy

Certainly.

Socrates

And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?

Boy

There are.

Socrates

Then the square is of twice two feet?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

Boy

Four, Socrates.

Socrates

And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And of how many feet will that be?

Boy

Of eight feet.

Socrates

And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet⁠—what will that be?

Boy

Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

Socrates

Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?

Meno

Yes.

Socrates

And does he really know?

Meno

Certainly not.

Socrates

He only guesses that because the square is double, the line is double.

Meno

True.

Socrates

Observe him while he recalls the steps in regular order. (To the Boy:) Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this⁠—that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

Boy

Certainly.

Socrates

And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

Let us describe such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

Boy

True.

Socrates

And is not that four times four?

Boy

Certainly.

Socrates

And four times is not double?

Boy

No, indeed.

Socrates

But how much?

Boy

Four times as much.

Socrates

Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

Boy

True.

Socrates

Four times four are sixteen⁠—are they not?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet;⁠—do you see?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

Boy

Certainly.

Socrates

Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

Boy

Yes; I think so.

Socrates

Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

Boy

It ought.

Socrates

Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

Boy

Three feet.

Socrates

Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. Here are two and there is one; and on the other side, here are two also and there is one: and that makes the figure of which you speak?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

Boy

That is evident.

Socrates

And how much are three times three feet?

Boy

Nine.

Socrates

And how much is the double of four?

Boy

Eight.

Socrates

Then the figure of eight is not made out of a line of three?

Boy

No.

Socrates

But from what line?⁠—tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

Boy

Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

Socrates

Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

Meno

True.

Socrates

Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?

Meno

I think that he is.

Socrates

If we have made him doubt, and given him the “torpedo’s shock,” have we done him any harm?

Meno

I think not.

Socrates

We have certainly, as would seem, assisted him in some degree to the discovery of the truth; and now he will wish to remedy his ignorance, but then he would have been ready to tell all the world again and again that the double space should have a double side.

Meno

True.

Socrates

But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?

Meno

I think not, Socrates.

Socrates

Then he was the better for the torpedo’s touch?

Meno

I think so.

Socrates

Mark now the farther development. I shall only ask him, and not teach him, and he shall share the enquiry with me: and do you watch and see if you find me telling or explaining anything to him, instead of eliciting his opinion. Tell me, boy, is not this a square of four feet which I have drawn?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And now I add another square equal to the former one?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And a third, which is equal to either of them?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

Suppose that we fill up the vacant corner?

Boy

Very good.

Socrates

Here, then, there are four equal spaces?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And how many times larger is this space than this other?

Boy

Four times.

Socrates

But it ought to have been twice only, as you will remember.

Boy

True.

Socrates

And does not this line, reaching from corner to corner, bisect each of these spaces?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And are there not here four equal lines which contain this space?

Boy

There are.

Socrates

Look and see how much this space is.

Boy

I do not understand.

Socrates

Has not each interior line cut off half of the four spaces?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And how many spaces are there in this section?

Boy

Four.

Socrates

And how many in this?

Boy

Two.

Socrates

And four is how many times two?

Boy

Twice.

Socrates

And this space is of how many feet?

Boy

Of eight feet.

Socrates

And from what line do you get this figure?

Boy

From this.

Socrates

That is, from the line which extends from corner to corner of the figure of four feet?

Boy

Yes.

Socrates

And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno’s slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy

Certainly, Socrates.

Socrates

What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Meno

Yes, they were all his own.

Socrates

And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Meno

True.

Socrates

But still he had in him those notions of his⁠—had he not?

Meno

Yes.

Socrates

Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Meno

He has.

Socrates

And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as anyone at last?

Meno

I dare say.

Socrates

Without anyone teaching him he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions

Meno

Yes.

Socrates

And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is recollection?

Meno

True.

Socrates

And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have acquired or always possessed?

Meno

Yes.

Socrates

But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has anyone ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he was born and bred in your house.

Meno

And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.

Socrates

And yet he has the knowledge?

Meno

The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.

Socrates

But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he must have had and learned it at some other time?

Meno

Clearly he must.

Socrates

Which must have been the time when he was not a man?

Meno

Yes.

Socrates

And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?

Meno

Obviously.

Socrates

And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember.

Meno

I feel, somehow, that I like what you are saying.

Socrates

And I, Meno, like what I am saying. Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But 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.

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