This short piece of argument is set within the larger question debated by the Meno – what is virtue and can it be taught? Meno presents a series of definitions of virtue, which Socrates demolishes, and this passage begins with one of them.
The philosophical issues and questions raised by this passage are fascinating and complex. However, the simple statement ‘Everyone desires the good’ is very striking and inspiring, because it offers a common ground at the basis of everyone’s actions and thus a chance that we can find a way to resolve even the most irreconcilable views and the most impossible of conflicts.
In 2016, Brexit and the US election have showed us all that people have startlingly different concepts of what would be good for their countries. I write this at the start of 2017, a year in which I truly hope that people are able to remember their common humanity and find a civilised and harmonious way forward.
Μένων δοκεῖ τοίνυν μοι, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἀρετὴ εἶναι, καθάπερ ὁ ποιητὴς λέγει, ‘χαίρειν τε καλοῖσι καὶ δύνασθαι:’ καὶ ἐγὼ τοῦτο λέγω ἀρετήν, ἐπιθυμοῦντα τῶν καλῶν δυνατὸν εἶναι πορίζεσθαι.
Σωκράτης ἆρα λέγεις τὸν τῶν καλῶν ἐπιθυμοῦντα ἀγαθῶν ἐπιθυμητὴν εἶναι;
Μένων μάλιστά γε.
Σωκράτης ἆρα ὡς ὄντων τινῶν οἳ τῶν κακῶν ἐπιθυμοῦσιν, ἑτέρων δὲ οἳ τῶν [77ξ] ἀγαθῶν; οὐ πάντες, ὤριστε, δοκοῦσί σοι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἐπιθυμεῖν;
Μένων οὐκ ἔμοιγε.
Σωκράτης ἀλλά τινες τῶν κακῶν;
Σωκράτης οἰόμενοι τὰ κακὰ ἀγαθὰ εἶναι, λέγεις, ἢ καὶ γιγνώσκοντες ὅτι κακά ἐστιν ὅμως ἐπιθυμοῦσιν αὐτῶν;
Μένων ἀμφότερα ἔμοιγε δοκοῦσιν.
Σωκράτης ἦ γὰρ δοκεῖ τίς σοι, ὦ Μένων, γιγνώσκων τὰ κακὰ ὅτι κακά ἐστιν ὅμως ἐπιθυμεῖν αὐτῶν;
Σωκράτης τί ἐπιθυμεῖν λέγεις; ἦ γενέσθαι αὐτῷ;
Μένων γενέσθαι: τί γὰρ [77δ] ἄλλο;
Σωκράτης πότερον ἡγούμενος τὰ κακὰ ὠφελεῖν ἐκεῖνον ᾧ ἂν γένηται, ἢ γιγνώσκων τὰ κακὰ ὅτι βλάπτει ᾧ ἂν παρῇ;
Μένων εἰσὶ μὲν οἳ ἡγούμενοι τὰ κακὰ ὠφελεῖν, εἰσὶν δὲ καὶ οἳ γιγνώσκοντες ὅτι βλάπτει.
Σωκράτης ἦ καὶ δοκοῦσί σοι γιγνώσκειν τὰ κακὰ ὅτι κακά ἐστιν οἱ ἡγούμενοι τὰ κακὰ ὠφελεῖν;
Μένων οὐ πάνυ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦτό γε.
Σωκράτης οὐκοῦν δῆλον ὅτι οὗτοι μὲν οὐ τῶν κακῶν ἐπιθυμοῦσιν, [77ε] οἱ ἀγνοοῦντες αὐτά, ἀλλὰ ἐκείνων ἃ ᾤοντο ἀγαθὰ εἶναι, ἔστιν δὲ ταῦτά γε κακά: ὥστε οἱ ἀγνοοῦντες αὐτὰ καὶ οἰόμενοι ἀγαθὰ εἶναι δῆλον ὅτι τῶν ἀγαθῶν ἐπιθυμοῦσιν. ἢ οὔ;
Μένων κινδυνεύουσιν οὗτοί γε.
Σωκράτης τί δέ; οἱ τῶν κακῶν μὲν ἐπιθυμοῦντες, ὡς φῂς σύ, ἡγούμενοι δὲ τὰ κακὰ βλάπτειν ἐκεῖνον ᾧ ἂν γίγνηται, γιγνώσκουσιν δήπου ὅτι βλαβήσονται ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν;
Μένων 78α] ἀνάγκη.
Σωκράτης ἀλλὰ τοὺς βλαπτομένους οὗτοι οὐκ οἴονται ἀθλίους εἶναι καθ᾽ ὅσον βλάπτονται;
Μένων καὶ τοῦτο ἀνάγκη.
Σωκράτης τοὺς δὲ ἀθλίους οὐ κακοδαίμονας;
Μένων οἶμαι ἔγωγε.
Σωκράτης ἔστιν οὖν ὅστις βούλεται ἄθλιος καὶ κακοδαίμων εἶναι;
Μένων οὔ μοι δοκεῖ, ὦ Σώκρατες.
Σωκράτης οὐκ ἄρα βούλεται, ὦ Μένων, τὰ κακὰ οὐδείς, εἴπερ μὴ βούλεται τοιοῦτος εἶναι. τί γὰρ ἄλλο ἐστὶν ἄθλιον εἶναι ἢ ἐπιθυμεῖν τε τῶν κακῶν καὶ κτᾶσθαι;
Μένων κινδυνεύεις [78β] ἀληθῆ λέγειν, ὦ Σώκρατες: καὶ οὐδεὶς βούλεσθαι τὰ κακά.
Meno Well, in my view, Socrates, virtue is, in the poet’s words, “to rejoice in things honourable and be able for them”; and that, I say, is virtue—to desire what is honourable and be able to procure it.
Socrates Do you say that he who desires the honourable is desirous of the good?
Socrates Implying that there are some who desire the evil, and others the good? Do not all men, [77c] in your opinion, my dear sir, desire the good?
Meno I think not.
Socrates There are some who desire the evil?
Socrates Thinking the evil to be good, do you mean, or actually recognizing it to be evil, and desiring it nevertheless?
Meno Both, I believe.
Socrates Do you really believe, Meno, that a man knows the evil to be evil, and still desires it?
Socrates What do you mean by “desires”? Desires the possession of it? [77d]
Meno Yes; what else could it be?
Socrates And does he think the evil benefits him who gets it, or does he know that it harms him who has it?
Meno There are some who think the evil is a benefit, and others who know that it does
Socrates And, in your opinion, do those who think the evil a benefit know that it is evil?
Meno I do not think that at all.
Socrates Obviously those who are ignorant of the evil do not desire it, but only what they supposed [77e] to be good, though it is really evil; so that those who are ignorant of it and think it good are really desiring the good. Is not that so?
Meno It would seem to be so in their case.
Socrates Well now, I presume those who, as you say, desire the evil, and consider that the evil harms him who gets it, know that they will be harmed by it?
Meno They needs must.
Socrates But do they not hold that those who are harmed are miserable in proportion to the harm they suffer?
Meno That too must be.
Socrates And are not the miserable ill-starred?
Meno I think so.
Socrates Then is there anyone who wishes to be miserable and ill-starred?
Meno I do not suppose there is, Socrates.
Socrates No one, then, Meno, desires evil, if no one desires to be such a one: for what is being miserable but desiring evil and obtaining it? [78b]
Meno It seems that what you say is true, Socrates, and that nobody desires evil.
Text and translation are both taken from the Perseus Digital Library