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Last Updated on August 27, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

Plato’s Protagoras is a brilliant dialogue and a splendid piece of argumentation. It incorporates a picture of the Sophist and a glimpse of the cultured aristocrats of the Periclean Age, facts that cannot fail to interest anyone who has a desire to know more about the life of classical Greece.

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Protagoras, along with three middle period (388-368 b.c.e.) dialogues, Politeia (Republic, 1701), Phaedn (Phaedo, 1675), and Symposion (Symposium, 1701), represents the high point of Plato’s literary activity. Some experts believe the dialogue is surpassed in literary quality only by Symposium. Philosophical development and dramatic development parallel each other precisely in the dialogue, exemplifying the high level Plato achieved in the very special literary form he used to articulate his philosophy. The philosophical argument is presented clearly and distinctly, and the characters in the dialogue are drawn with great finesse. The reader comes to know not only the Protagorean position but also the man Protagoras.

The comic relief provided by Socrates’ ridiculous analysis of Simonides’ poem—a satire on the kind of literary criticism that must have been current in Periclean Athens—is a fine diversion, separating the preliminary discussion between Socrates and Protagoras from the final demonstration of the unity of the virtues. Another fine touch is the description of the Sophist Protagoras marching back and forth in Callias’s house, followed by his coterie, who are careful always to execute the necessary close-order drill at the turns so that the flow of wisdom need not be interrupted. Then there is the irony of Socrates in saying how moved he is by Protagoras’s long speeches, even though he cannot follow them—an emotion that Socrates’ subsequent arguments clearly reveal he did not experience. Finally, there is Socrates’ reduction of Protagoras to impotent fury at the end of the argument, so that when Socrates asks why he will no longer answer the questions, Protagoras explodes, “Finish the argument yourself!” Such a scene aptly describes a situation all philosophers would like to find themselves in vis-à-vis their opponents.

Socrates and Hippocrates

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

As the dialogue begins, Socrates explains to a companion how Hippocrates early one morning brought him the news that Protagoras was in Athens. Hippocrates hoped to be introduced to Protagoras by Socrates so that he might become one of Protagoras’s pupils. Socrates was surprised at the request, and because it was still too early to go to Protagoras, the two friends spent the time in conversation until they could make the call. The dialogue goes back in time to that conversation.

Socrates asks Hippocrates why he wants to study with Protagoras. If he were to study with a physician, he would become a physician, or if with a statuary, he would become a statuary. However, what is Protagoras? The answer is that he is a Sophist. However, what does one learn from a Sophist? Does Hippocrates wish to become a Sophist? Hippocrates replies that he does not wish to become a Sophist, but he thinks he can learn from Protagoras how to be a good public speaker. Such a reply does not satisfy Socrates because Hippocrates will learn from Protagoras not merely how to say something but also what to say. The Sophist, Socrates points out, offers “food for the soul.” The trouble is that one cannot first try a sample before buying food for the soul. The best advice in such a case is that one should exercise considerable care before letting another person “tend his soul.” The two friends then go to call on Protagoras.

The Sophists’ Teachings

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Socrates and Hippocrates go to the home of Callias, where Protagoras is staying, and a servant grudgingly ushers them into Protagoras’s presence. This occasion offers Plato an opportunity to give the reader an amusing description of the Sophist. Protagoras is pictured as pompous and as eager for the attention his fawning disciples are paying him. He is marching back and forth, passing judgment on important matters, followed by a group of admirers who cluster around him in a way not unlike modern-day reporters gathering around a celebrity.

Protagoras’s pomposity contrasts noticeably with the straightforward manner of Socrates, who, when he comes up to the Sophist, introduces Hippocrates and, on his behalf, asks Protagoras what Hippocrates will learn if he studies with Protagoras. Protagoras frankly acknowledges that he is a Sophist, stating that he is the first to admit openly his profession. However, Socrates is not to be put off without an answer to his question, so he asks Protagoras to state specifically what he teaches his students. Protagoras then replies that his students become better each day as a result of his instruction. Socrates asks if this means that Protagoras teaches good citizenship, that is, how to be a good person in the context of the Greek city-state, and Protagoras replies that Socrates has understood him correctly.

Socrates then raises some doubts about whether this kind of goodness can be taught. He remarks that the Athenians, who are not all fools, recognize that particular people should be listened to as experts on such matters as shipbuilding or medicine, but they regard all people as equally well qualified to speak on matters of goodness. Furthermore, people who are renowned for their personal goodness (for example, Pericles) feel that they cannot offer instruction even to their own children in this subject. Therefore, it seems that at least some persons are not willing to admit that what Protagoras professes to teach really can be taught. Can Protagoras reply to this?

Protagoras replies by launching into a long speech. He recites the fable of Prometheus and Epimetheus. Epimetheus, under Prometheus’s supervision, was given the job of distributing the various qualities to the animal kingdom—swiftness to animals who were sought as prey, fur to animals who lived in cold climates, and so on—but he distributed all the qualities without leaving any for people. Prometheus then stole fire and knowledge of the industrial arts from heaven to make up for people’s deficiencies. However, in spite of their knowledge, people were forced to live in cities for their mutual protection. This was impossible unless people were made ethically sensitive, so Zeus commanded Hermes to distribute conscience and moral sense equally among all people. This myth describes the situation that exists, Protagoras says. All people are ethically sensitive, and all people must learn the principles of morality. All adults, quite properly, regard themselves as responsible for the moral education of the young, but some are better teachers than others in this area of moral instruction. Protagoras happens to be better than most people as a teacher.

The Virtues

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Socrates professes to have been impressed by the splendid speech Protagoras has made, yet, characteristically, he has “a little question,” which he is sure Protagoras can easily answer. Are the virtues—justice, wisdom, temperance, and courage—identical? Protagoras answers confidently that they are not, although they have certain likenesses and they are all parts of virtue, which itself is a unity. Socrates then presses to find out whether they are homogeneous parts of an aggregate (as a pail of water is a unity consisting of many uniform drops) or are heterogeneous parts that together make a unity (as eyes, nose, and mouth are parts of a face). Protagoras replies that they are heterogeneous elements that together make a unity.

Socrates now moves to the attack. He gets Protagoras to agree to the logical principle that a thing can have only one contrary opposite. He also gets the admission from Protagoras that folly is the opposite of both wisdom and temperance. This forces an alternative on Protagoras: Either he must admit that wisdom is identical with temperance or he must abandon the logical principle. Protagoras reluctantly admits the identity of wisdom and temperance, and he tacitly concedes that justice and holiness, too, are identical. Socrates then pushes for the final admission, that justice and temperance are identical. However, because Protagoras senses that the argument is beginning to turn against him at this point, he tries to divert the argument. He launches into a long-winded discourse about the relativity of goods: What is good food for animals is not always good food for humans; oil may be good for massaging the body but not good if taken as food.

However, Socrates will have none of this. He pleads that he has a bad memory and therefore cannot remember long answers—he can only handle short ones. He knows Protagoras can speak either at length or with brevity, but he protests that he himself cannot manage long speeches. Will not Protagoras please confine himself to short answers? Protagoras, however, recognizing that he is losing the argument, refuses to let Socrates determine the rules for the debate. The discussion almost collapses at this point; Socrates remembers that he has an appointment elsewhere that he must keep, and he begins taking his leave.

The listeners plead with the two disputants to continue. Plato uses this occasion to give the reader a brief glimpse of the other two Sophists who are present, Hippias and Prodicus, by having them offer suggestions about how the discussion may be resumed. Prodicus urges them to “argue” but not to “wrangle” so that they will win “esteem” and not merely “praise.” This type of discussion will give the hearers “gratification” rather than “pleasure,” the latter reaction being concerned only with the body, while gratification is “of the mind when receiving wisdom and knowledge.” Prodicus’s linguistic pedantry, akin to that of some modern linguistic philosophers, emerges clearly in one paragraph to delight the reader. Hippias, too, is the butt of Plato’s wit. He is made to say that all those present are really “kinsmen,” by nature if not by law, and should conduct themselves as such. He is an advocate of the brotherhood of humanity, lofty in speech but with very little thought to fill out his speech.

Socrates finally rescues the situation by suggesting that he and Protagoras reverse their roles; Protagoras will ask the questions and Socrates will answer. Later on, when Protagoras has asked all the questions he desires, Socrates will resume his customary role as questioner. Protagoras agrees, even though he does so half-heartedly, and thus the dialogue can continue.

Protagoras is not the master of cross-examination that Socrates is, however, and he soon loses the initiative. Protagoras begins questioning Socrates about a poem written by Simonides, pointing out an apparent contradiction in the poem. Socrates has a good deal of fun making long speeches that present a ridiculous literary analysis of the poem (and that show, incidentally, that he need not take a back seat to Protagoras in the matter of windiness). He appeals to Prodicus, the pseudoexpert on usage, to justify out and out equivocations; he cites the Spartans, who conceal their concern for knowledge under a counterfeit cultivation of physical prowess, as the most truly philosophical of all the Greeks. Nothing is too wild for him as he dissolves the contradiction with an exegesis of the poem that is undoubtedly a satire on the excesses of silly literary criticism in the Athens of the day. His serious point is well taken, however, for he reminds Protagoras that one ought to judge a poem in the light of its total effect, instead of rejecting it because of one relatively minor flaw.

Socrates now gets back to the main argument. He asks Protagoras again whether the virtues are identical, and this time Protagoras admits that all are alike, with one exception—courage is different from the rest. Protagoras insists that people may be courageous either because they have knowledge or because they are in a passion. However, it turns out that people do not really regard the person in a passion as courageous but as foolhardy. What distinguishes brave people from foolhardy people who do the same deed is, of course, that the brave people know the possible consequences of what they are doing. Thus, it turns out that courage really is identical with wisdom.

Socrates does not arrive at this conclusion directly, however. After Protagoras states that people may act bravely either out of knowledge or out of passion, Socrates shifts his attention to another problem. He raises the question whether whatever is good is also pleasant. Neither he nor Protagoras accepts the hedonistic version of this doctrine, but for the sake of the argument both agree to develop its consequences. As the reader might expect, it turns out that wisdom and courage are the same. The argument is as follows: Ordinary people believe that one always acts so as to increase the ratio of pleasure over pain for himself. However, sometimes people say that they are “overcome by pleasure,” and hence do not do the good that they should. However, if people always seek their own pleasure, and if whatever is good is also pleasant, this can only mean that they have chosen a lesser pleasure rather than a greater pleasure (or a lesser ratio of pleasure over pain instead of a greater ratio of pleasure over pain). If one adds that no one ever knowingly does evil unless the individual is “overcome by pleasure,” then the inference is clear that when people do not do good, they have acted out of ignorance of what good is. They have chosen short-range pleasure instead of long-range pleasure. This choice results only from their having failed to estimate the consequences of their act properly. Proper estimation of the consequences, however, is a matter of knowledge. So the conclusion that must be drawn is that the wise person is the good person—knowledge being identical with goodness (justice).

A Reversal of Positions

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 293

At the end of the argument, Protagoras and Socrates part on surprisingly good terms, considering how near they came to conversational disaster earlier. Protagoras comments favorably on Socrates’ skill in argument and predicts that he will become eminent in philosophy. Socrates courteously excuses himself and leaves. However, just before these closing compliments, Socrates points out the paradoxical reversal of positions that has taken place in the course of the dialogue. Protagoras had taken the position at the beginning that virtue can be taught and said that he himself had adopted the teaching of it as his profession. At the end of the dialogue, however, Protagoras had been maintaining that virtue was not knowledge, and thus, by implication, he was denying that virtue can be taught. Socrates, on the other hand, had begun by raising doubts that virtue can be taught; he ended by identifying virtue with knowledge, thus implying that it can be taught.

The reversal is not so strange as it seems at first glance, however. Protagoras had implicitly identified virtue with skill at getting along in public affairs. Such skill cannot, of course, be taught. One must acquire it by doing it, by practicing. Socrates denies only that virtue can be taught when “virtue” is defined as a skill. If, on the contrary, virtue is not a skill, but is a form of knowledge, then of course it can be taught. Socrates has not shifted his position in any fundamental sense. At the end of the dialogue, he still holds to his conviction that a skill cannot be taught. What he has done is to argue that virtue is knowledge, and, once this shift to the proper definition of virtue is made, he obviously must hold that virtue can be taught.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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