Context

(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.