(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Protagoras cover image

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.

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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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...

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The Virtues

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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A Reversal of Positions

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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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(The entire section is 437 words.)