On the generally accepted developmental theory of Plato’s thought – generally accepted when I came to Oxford in 1980 – there are no Forms in the Meno, only the theory of recollection. As Bostock puts it: ‘the Meno was written before Plato had reached his theory of forms’. (David Bostock, Plato’s Phaedo, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, p. 71). This theory has led to an impoverished view of Plato’s early dialogues, impoverished view of Socrates, and thus to an view of Plato’s thought and work.
When Socrates asks Meno what virtue is, the latter answers: ‘There will be no difficulty (All’ ou chalepon), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates), in answering your question (eipein). Let us take first the virtue of a man (prȏton men, ei boulei andros aretȇn) … A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that (ei de boulei gunaikos aretȇn) … Every age, every condition of life, young or old, male or female, bond or free, has a different virtue (kai allȇ estin paidos aretȇ, kai thȇleias kai arrenos, kai presbuterou andros, ei men boulei, eleutherou, ei de boulei, doulou).’ (Meno 71e1-72a1) – Socrates points out that virtues, ‘however many and different they may be (k’an ei pollai kai pantodapai eisin), they have all common nature (hen ge ti eidos t’auton hapasai echousin) which makes them virtues (di’ ho eisin aretai); and on this he who would answer the question “What is virtue” would do well to have his eye fixed (eis ho kalȏs pou echei apoblepsanta ton apokrinomenon tȏi erȏtȇsanti ekeino dȇlȏsai, ho tunchanei ousa aretȇ).’ (Meno 72c6-d1, tr. B. Jowett)
In the Euthyphro Socrates asks Euthyphro: ‘Is not piety in every action always the same (ȇ ou t’auton estin en pasȇi praxei to hosion auto hautȏi)? and impiety, again (kai to anosion au) – is it not always the opposite of piety (tou men hosiou pantos enantion), and also the same with itself (auto de hautȏi homoion), having, as impiety, one notion or form which includes whatever is impious (kai echon mian tina idean kata tȇn anosiotȇta pan hotiper an mellȇi anosion einai)?’ – Euthyphro: ‘To be sure (Pantos dȇpou), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates).’ – Soc. ‘And what is piety (Lege dȇ, ti phȇis einai to hosion), and what is impiety (kai ti to anosion)? – Euth. ‘Piety is doing as I am doing (Legȏ toinun hoti to men hosion estin hoper egȏ nun poiȏ); that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or nay similar crime (tȏi adikounti ȇ peri phonous ȇ peri hierȏn klopas ȇ ti allo tȏn toioutȏn examartanonti epexienai …’ (5d1-10) – Soc. ‘Remember (Memnȇsai oun) that I did not ask you (hoti ou touto soi diekeleuomȇn) to give me two or three examples of piety (hen ti ȇ duo me didaxai tȏn pollȏn hosiȏn), but to explain the general form (all’ ekeino auto to eidos) which makes all pious things to be pious (hȏi panta ta hosia hosia estin). Do you not recollect saying that one and the same form made the impious impious, and the pious pious (ephȇstha gar pou miai ideai ta te anosia anosia einai kai ta hosia hosia, ȇ ou mnȇmoneueis)?’ – Euth. ‘I remember (Egȏge). – Soc. ‘Tell me what is the nature of this form (Tautȇn toinun me autȇn didaxon tȇn idean tis pote estin ), and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions (hina eis ekeinȇn apoblepȏn kai chrȏmenos autȇi paradeigmati), whether yours or of anyone else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such action is pious (ho men an toiouton ȇi hȏn an ȇ su ȇ allos tis prattȇi phȏ hosion einai), such another impious (ho d’ an mȇ toiouton, mȇ phȏ).’ (6d9-e6, tr. Jowett)
In the Parmenides Socrates asked Zeno: ‘Do you not acknowledge that there exists (ou nomizeis einai), alone by itself (auto kath’ hauto), a certain Form of similarity (eidos ti homoiotȇtos), and an opposite one to it (kai tȏi toioutȏi au allo ti enantion), that of dissimilarity (ho estin anomoion), and that of these, being two (toutoin de duoin ontoin), you and I (kai eme kai se) and all other things, which we call many, get a share (kai t’alla ha dȇ polla kaloumen metalambanein)’? (128e6-129a3)
Then Parmenides began to question Socrates: ‘Do you think, as you say, that there are certain Forms (einai eidȇ atta), of which these other things (hȏn tade ta alla) having a share get their names (metalambanonta tas epȏnumias autȏn ischein)? As for example, things that get a share of similarity become similar, of largeness large, of beauty and justice beautiful and just?’ (130e5-131a2) When Socrates agreed, Parmenides pointed out that the theory of the many sharing in the Forms, thus stated, cannot be right. For each thing that gets a share must get a share of the whole Form or of a part of it. If the whole Form is to be in each of the many, then being one and the same it would be present at once as a whole in things that are many and separate, and thus it would be separate from itself. If only a part of the given Form is to be in things that share in it, then the Forms themselves become divisible (merista). (31a-e) And so Parmenides conjectured: ‘I think that you came to think (oimai se oiesthai) that each Form is one (hen hekaston eidos einai) from the following (ek tou toioude); when many things appear to you to be large (hotan poll’ atta megala soi doxȇi einai), there seems to be one Form perhaps (mia tis isȏs dokei idea einai) which is the same as you look on all of them (hȇ autȇ einai epi panta idonti), whence you believe that the large is one (hothen hen to mega hȇgȇi einai).’ Socrates replied: ‘What you say is true’ (Alȇthȇ legeis, 132a1-5).
Having correctly diagnosed how Socrates arrived at his Forms, Parmenides pressed on with his objections: ‘And what about the large itself (Ti d’ auto to mega) and the others, which are large (kai t’alla ta megala), if in the same way you look on them all with your soul (ean hȏsautȏs epi panta tȇi psuchȇi idȇis), will not there appear again some one large (ouchi hen ti au mega phaneitai), by which they all appear to be large (hȏi tauta panta megala phainesthai)? … So another Form of largeness (Allo ara eidos megethous) will have made its appearance (anaphanȇsetai), that came to be alongside largeness itself (par’ auto te to megethos gegonos) and the things which have a share of it (kai ta metechonta autou), and upon all these another (kai epi toutois au pasin heteron), by which all these will be large (hȏi panta tauta megala estai); and so you will not have one of each Form (kai ouketi dȇ hen hekaston soi tȏn eidȏn estai), but they will be infinite in number (alla apeira to plȇthos).’ (132a6-b2)
Having exposed the Forms to more trenchant criticism, Parmenides said to Socrates: ‘Do you see, then (Horais oun), how great the perplexity is (hosȇ hȇ aporia), if someone were to define Forms that are alone by themselves (ean tis hȏs eidȇ onta auta kath’ hauta diorizȇtai)?’ (133a8-9) … And yet (Alla mentoi), if someone (ei ge tis dȇ), on the other hand (au), will not allow Forms of things to be (mȇ easei eidȇ tȏn ontȏn einai), in view of all these and other such difficulties (eis panta ta nundȇ kai alla toiauta apoblepsas), and will not define some Form of each thing (mȇde ti horieitai eidos henos hekastou), he will not even have whither to turn his mind (oude hopoi trepsei tȇn dianoian hexei), since he will not allow a Form of each thing to be ever the same (mȇ eȏn idean tȏn ontȏn hekastou tȇn autȇn aei einai); and so he will utterly destroy the power of discourse (kai houtȏs tȇn tou dialegesthai dunamin pantapasi diaphtherei). Of this sort of consequence (tou toioutou men oun), it seems to me (moi dokeis), you are only too well aware (kai mallon ȇisthȇsthai).’ – Socrates: ‘True (Alȇthȇ legeis).’ (135b5-c4)
Parmenides with his criticism thus left the young Socrates in a situation of philosophical not-knowing; he could not ontologically determine the Forms, yet he could not abandon them in so far as he found them to be essential in all his philosophic discussions.
In the Phaedo Socrates says that in his youth he had a great desire ‘to know the causes of each thing, what is the cause of its coming into being and what is the cause of its perishing and what is the cause of its being’ (eidenai tas aitias hekastou, dia ti gignetai hekaston kai dia ti apollutai kai dia ti esti, 96a6-10). Unable to find such causes (96c1-2), he conceived of a different method: ‘Then I no longer understand nor can I recognize those other wise reasons (Ou toinun eti manthanȏ oude dunamai tas allas aitias tas sophas tautas gignȏskein); but if anyone gives me (all’ ean tis moi legȇi) as the reason why a given thing is beautiful (di’ hoti kalon estin hotioun) either its having a blooming colour (ȇ chrȏma euanthes echon) or its shape (ȇ schȇma) or something else like that (ȇ allo hotioun tȏn toioutȏn), I dismiss those other things (ta men alla chairein eȏ) – because all those others confuse me (tarattomai gar en tois allois pasi) – but in a plain, artless, and possibly simple-minded way, I hold this close to myself (touto de haplȏs kai atechnȏs kai isȏs euȇthȏs echȏ par’ emautȏi): nothing else makes it beautiful except that beautiful itself, whether by its presence or communion or whatever the manner and nature of the relation may be (hoti ouk allo ti poiei auto kalon ȇ hȇ ekeinou tou kalou eite parousia eite koinȏnia eite hopȇi dȇ kai hopȏs prosgenomenȇ) as I don’t go so far as to affirm that, but only that it is by the beautiful that all beautiful things are beautiful (ou gar eti touto diischurizomai, all’ hoti tȏi kalȏi panta ta kala kala). Because that seems to be the safest answer to give both to myself and to another (touto gar moi dokei asphalestaton einai kai emautȏi apokrinasthai kai allȏi); if I hang on to this (kai toutou echomenos) I believe I’ll never fall (hȇgoumai ou pote pesein); its safe to answer both to myself and to anyone else that it is by the beautiful that beautiful things are beautiful (all’ asphales einai kai emoi kai hotȏioun allȏi apokrinasthai hoti tȏi kalȏi ta kala kala).’(100c9-e3, tr. David Gallop)
It is the safest answer, for everyone Socrates approaches readily accepts that beauty makes equal things equal, holiness makes holy things holy, courage makes courageous people courageous, justice makes them just. This simple-minded answer nevertheless allows the question ‘Is it then something’ (Oukoun esti ti touto)? Socrates asks this question in the Greater Hippias, to which Hippias readily answers ‘Of course’ (Panu ge). This answer allows the next question ‘What is this?’ which in the Greater Hippias Socrates asks concerning beauty, and fails to obtain from Hippias and fails himself to find the answer. (287c4-d3)
This simple awareness of the Forms that make things what they are – in that simple-minded way, not as real causes, but as merely notional causes – combined with the inability to find a satisfactory answer to the ‘What is?’ question is the basis of Socrates’ theory of recollection.
In the Phaedo Socrates asks Simmias: ‘If a man knows things, can he give an account of what he knows or not (anȇr epistamenos peri hȏn epistatai echoi an dounai logon ȇ ou?’ – Simmias: ‘Of course he can (Pollȇ anankȇ), Socrates (ȏ Sȏkrates).’ – Soc. ‘And do you think everyone can give an account of those objects we were discussing just now (Ê kai dokousi soi pantes echein didonai logon peri toutȏn hȏn nundȇ elegomen) – [about the beautiful itself (peri autou tou kalou), and the good itself (kai autou tou agathou), and just (kai dikaiou) and holy (kai hosiou), 75c11-d1]? – Simmias: ‘I only wish they could (Bouloimȇn ment’an), but I’m afraid that, on the contrary, this time tomorrow (alla polu mallon phoboumai mȇ aurion tȇnikade) there may no longer be any man (ouketi ȇi antrȏpȏn oudeis) who can do so properly (axiȏs hoios te touto poiȇsai).’ – Soc. ‘You don’t then think that everyone knows these objects (Ouk ara dokousi soi epistatsthai ge pantes auta}? – Sim. ‘By no means (Oudamȏs).’ – Soc. ‘Are they then reminded of what they once had learned (Anamimnȇiskontai ara ha pote emathon)?’ – Sim. ‘They must be (Anankȇ).’ – ‘When did our souls get the knowledge of those objects (Pote labousai hai psuchai hȇmȏn tȇn epistȇmȇn autȏn)? Not, at any rate (ou gar dȇ), since we were born as human beings (aph’ hou ge anthrȏpoi gegonamen).’ (76b5c7, tr. David Gallop)