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206

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