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Plato's Meno:

86E-87A:

The Geometricul

Illustration

of

The

Argument

by

Hypothesis'

ROBERT STERNFELD & H. ZYSKIND

he

formal structure of Plato's

conception

and

application

of the

geometrical

illustration to the

question

of virtue's

teachability

is clear. The

objective

is to state an

hypothesis

which will de-

termine whether or not a

given property

is ascribable to a

given object;

that

is,

whether the

property,

inscribable

triangularly,

is ascribable to

the oint object,

a

given

area and a

given

circle,

or whether the

property,

teachable,

is ascribable to the

object,

virtue. Yet the

hypothesis

adopted

to

provide

the determinative criterion in the case of the

geometrical

illustration is stated so

succinctly

that it has been

subject

to diverse

interpretations.

We use W. H. S. Rouse's translation of

87 A 3-6 to serve as a

point

of

beginning

for our

interpretation.

"If the

space

is such that when

you apply

it to the

given

line of the

circle,

it is deficient

by

a

space

of the same size as that which has been

applied,

one

thing appears

to

follow,

and if this be

impossible,

another.

"2

Further,

R. S. Bluck3 has

given

a selective review of the literature on

this

question

which we take as

representative

and from which the

linguistic

issues are drawn as follows: Does in "its"

given

line

(87

A

3)

refer to

ywptov (space)

or to

(circle),

as Rouse

pre-

sumes and Butcher

argues despite

the

necessity

to twist the Greek

a bit at this

point?

4 Is Cook Wilson correct in

holding

that "the

given

line" has to be a line of the

circle;

for if

not,

then the line "would not

bring

it

[the space]

into relation with the circle.?"5 Or can "the

given

line"

be considered as "a line or side of the

figure

into

which,

as its

equivalent

area,

it has been

transformed,"

as A. S. L.

Farquharson argues?

6

Does ... olov with the addition of iXù't'6 in the clause

specifying

the deficient area

(87

A

5),

state that the area is similar to

(Butcher)

207

or the same size as

(Rouse)

the

applied

area? And a related

question

referring

to the deficient

area,

is èÀÀe:(1te:LV to be read in its

strictly

technical

sense,

as found in a

passage

of Proclus7

reporting

Eudemus

on the

Pythagoreans

and in

Euclid,

or can this be read in a looser

non-technical sense as A.

Heijboer suggests

in his

reading

"to leave

sufficient room? "8 Does &8óvoc.'t'ov ette

yfi (87 B)

refer to the in-

scribability

of the area or

merely

to its

applicability,

which latter

Butcher

argues - again apparently forcing

the

language?

Or,

are the

criticisms of T. L. Heath9 and Cook Wilsoni° correct in their

insisting

that Butcher's

analysis

must be

generalized

to

provide

"a real

diorismos,

or determination of the conditions or limits of the

possibility

of a

solution of the

problem

whether in its

original

form or in the form to

which it is reduced?"" And does the Wilson-Heath solution

(which

generalizes

Butcher's

suggestion) depend upon geometrical knowledge

beyond

that available when the Meno was

written,

as Heath himself

suggests,

and is its reduction to a

problem involving

two mean

pro-

portionals,

solved

by

the use of conic

sections,

and

only approximated

by

mechanical devices in Plato's

day,

a

satisfactory interpretation

of what Plato intended ?12 Or

again,

is there

any significance

in the use

of the masculine accusative

participle (87 A)

which in-

volves a

personal

use of the

accompanying

£xxcl<cw13 or is Butcher's

change

of to the dative to make the use of èlli(1te:LV im-

personal helpful?

Now Butcher

apparently recognized

that the

question

of whether

an area could be inscribed

triangularly

within a circle turned on the

fact that the inscribable

equilateral triangle

was the

largest triangular

figure

that can be so inscribed in a

given

circle.14 Yet E. S.

Thompsonl5

has

reported

that Butcher

rejected

this lead in

reformulating

the

Platonic illustration because the

simple question

of the distribution

of an area

triangularly

within a circle was too

simple

a

problem -

208

apparently presenting

no

geometrical

difficulties. Butcher thus

interpreted

the

question

as "whether for

any given rectangle,

can it be

inscribed

triangularly

within the circle?"

though

he

admittedly

failed

to

give

a method which would

definitely

determine that a

given

area

was not inscribable if it did not meet his criterion as Plato

requires.

(We

have not found in Butcher's article

any

flat

rejection

of the broad-

er

problem

because it was too

simple

such as

Thompson

attributed to

Butcher).

Our

interpretation begins

with the notion that Plato was

referring

to an illustration

readily

understandable

by any

educated Greek and

available to

any

ninth

grade

student

today.

Historians of Greek

mathematics

agree

that the

geometrical

contents of Books

I, II,

and

VI of Euclid's Elements were known

long

before the end of the fifth

century

B. C.16 And our construction is based

upon

this

material,

which must have been available to educated Greeks

(including Meno)

at the time Plato wrote the Meno. And we

believe,

in contrast to

Butcher,

that the solution must be

immediately

available,

but at the

same

time,

it must make sense of the detailed clues Plato offers in

presenting

this illustration.

We

identify

"its

given

line"

(87

A

3)

as one side of the

equilateral

triangle

which could be inscribed in the circle - this side

being

also

the baseline of

any

area to be

triangularly

inscribed within the circle.

The area is

"applied"

to this line in the form of a

square.

Euclid shows

how

any

rectilinear

figure

can be redrawn as a

square (II,

14 - in

our

figure1 ?, A

or

A2

to

Si

or

Sz ) .

The

squared

area can then be

applied

to this line so as to determine the third

proportional (VI,

11 - in our

figure "h")

which taken with the side of the

equilateral triangle

will

constitute the two

lengths containing

the same area

rectangularly

as

originally given

in rectilinear and then in

square

form - but now

stretched out

along

the

given

baseline

(in

our

figure

BCDE or

BCIJ).

The

proportion

here is

simply

as follows: the side of the

equilateral

triangle

is to the side of the

square

as the side of the

square

is to

the third

proportional. Finally,

since one wishes to inscribe the

area within the circle in a

triangular shape,

one must be able to draw

another area at least the same within the

remaining portion

of the

circle

(87 A).

This means that a

rectangle congruent

to the one stretch-

ed out

along

the baseline

(the

side of the

equilateral triangle

inscribable

209

within the

circle)

is drawn

adjoining

the first

rectangle

on the side of

the first

rectangle parallel

to the baseline. Both the

original rectangle

and the second one

adjoining

it are constructed

along

the baseline on

the side of the baseline toward the center of the circle

(in

our

figure

DEFG or

IJMN).

The

point

of focus is now

upon

the line of the

second

rectangle

which does not

adjoin

the first

rectangle

but which

is

parallel

to the line common to both

rectangles

and to the baseline

(FG

or

MN).

The

question

is now

simply

a matter of whether that

line

(or

extensions of

it)

cut the circumference of the circle. There are

three

possibilities: (i)

the line is

completely

outside the circle. In this

case,

the area is not inscribable

triangularly

within the circle.

(ii)

The

line is

tangent

to the circle. In this

case,

the area is inscribable and is

exactly

the

equilateral triangle

which can be inscribed in the circle.

(iii)

The line falls within the circle and cuts the circumference in two

points.

In this

case,

the area is inscribable in two

ways upon

the

baseline - each

point

where the line or its extension cuts the circum-

ference is the third

point

of a

triangle

with the

given

area inscribed

within the circle

(in

our

figure,

BFC and BGC or BKC and

BLC).

Put in

algebraic

terms,

the

height,

h

(the

third

proportional)

of the

rectangle

drawn

by stretching

out the

original

area

along

the base line

must itself be re-drawn or extended

again

"above" its

original drawing

and

yet

the

duplicated figure

remain in the circle. Then one has

determined that the

triangle

is inscribable within the circle and of

course that the

height

of the inscribable

triangle

is

equivalent

to 2

h,

this

triangle having

the same area as the

original

area. If

however,

2 h is

greater

than the

portion

of the diameter

perpendicular

to and

"above" the

baseline,

the area is not inscribable within the circle.

Arithmetically,

since the

height

of

any equilateral triangle

inscribable

within

any

circle can be

expressed

as a function of the

radius,

what is

being

stated

simply

is that if and

only

if

h <

3r /4,

the area is inscribable

within the circle.

This

interpretation appears

to us to take account in a direct and

easy

manner of all the clues Plato

gives

and to

get

the

either/or

results

the

problem

demands.

Thus,

auTOV

(87

A

3)

refers to

xeùptov

as the

baseline of the area inscribed

triangularly

as well as to the side of the

equilateral

triangle

inscribable within the

circle; thus,

providing

the

link to the circle as Wilson demands and

being

the line into which the

figure, equivalent

in

area,

is

transformed,

as A. S. L.

Farquharson

suggests. Second,

the

applied

area falls short

by

an area

the same as the

applied

area,

... fi .

In context this could

210

not mean

only

the

same,

for then

only

one area could be

inscribable;

nor could it mean the same or

less,

for this would make no

sense;

it

has to mean at least the same.

Accordingly, Heijboer's reading

of

èÀÀd7te?v as "leave sufficient room for" is

equally acceptable.

This

reading

is consistent with -

virtually

calls for - the clause's

meaning

that the

remaining portion

of the diameter

(possible height

of the

triangle

within the

circle)

is the same as or more than

(or again,

"leaves sufficient room

for")

another area of the same

size,

similarly

situated. And ct<c «BuvaTOV ct<c

(87 B)

does refer to the

inscribability

of the

area,

as Wilson and Heath

maintain,

and not

merely

to its

applicability

in contrast to Butcher's limited solution. This thus does

provide

a

genuine

At the same

time,

in contrast with the

Wilson-Heath

solution,

this solution remains well within the

knowledge

available at the time Plato wrote the Meno and does not

require

two

mean

proportionals using

conic

sections,

and

allowing only approxi-

mate solutions in Plato's

day.

Further,

and a matter of considerable

significance

for the

general

context of the

argument, though

not

affecting

the

geometrical

construction,

the masculine accusative

participle 7tocpoc-rdvocv't'oc (87 A),

which involves the

personal

use of the

accompanying

èÀÀd7tE?V,

seems most

appropriate.

The

personal reading

provides

that the

application

of the area be

recognized

as an

operation

of the

geometer. Operationism

is what

geometers

are criticized for in

Republic

VII

(527 A).

But we take this to be

just

the

point

for the

Meno,

since the

geometer's

method here is

expressly presented

as the

model for a 7tOLOV

inquiry.

Finally,

an

interesting sidelight appears

in

expressing

the

length

of

the side of the inscribable

equilateral triangle

in

any given

circle as a

function of the

length

of the

radius,

r. What

emerges

is that the two

lengths

are

incommensurable;

the

length

of the side of the

equilateral

triangle

is

y'3r.

For those who believe the

slave-boy episode

is

pushing

the limits of Greek

geometrical knowledge

about incom-

mensurable

lines,

this

interpretation provides

further

grist.

Diagyam for argument by hypothesis

in Plato's Meno 86 E-87 A

Given

any

area

(Ai

or

A2)

in rectilinear

shape

and a circle with center

at

0,

first redraw the area as a

square (Sl or Sz) according

to Euclid

(II, 14)

and then

apply

each

by

Euclid

(VI,

11)

to the baseline of the

circle. The baseline is a chord of an arc of 120° - thus is a side of a

possible equilateral triangle

inscribable within the circle.

211

The inscribed

triangles

BFC and BGC are

equal

in area to the recti-

linear

figure Al

and the

square S,.

And the inscribed

triangles

BKC

and BLC are

equal

in area to the rectilinear

figure A2

and the

square S2.

State

University of

New York at

Stony

Brook

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