is a dialogue
Dialogue is a literary and theatrical form consisting of a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people....
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...
. The traditional subtitle (which may or may not be Plato's) is "or the Sophists, probative". The main argument
In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, or give evidence or reasons for accepting a particular conclusion.Argument may also refer to:-Mathematics and computer science:...
is between the elderly Protagoras
Protagoras was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and is numbered as one of the sophists by Plato. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato credits him with having invented the role of the professional sophist or teacher of virtue...
, a celebrated sophist, and Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...
. The discussion takes place at the home of Callias
Callias was the head of a wealthy Athenian family, and fought at the Battle of Marathon in priestly attire. His son, Hipponicus, was also a military commander...
, who is host to Protagoras while he is in town, and concerns the nature of Sophists, the unity and the teachability of virtue
Virtue is moral excellence. A virtue is a positive trait or quality subjectively deemed to be morally excellent and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being....
. A total of twenty-one people are named as present.
Of the twenty-one people who are specifically said to be present, three are known sophists. In addition to Protagoras himself, there are Hippias of Elis and Prodicus of Ceos. Two of the sons of Pericles
Pericles was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars...
are said to be there, Paralus and Xanthippus. With the exception of Aristophanes, all of Socrates' named friends from the Symposium
In ancient Greece, the symposium was a drinking party. Literary works that describe or take place at a symposium include two Socratic dialogues, Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium, as well as a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara...
are in attendance: Eryximachus the doctor, and Phaedrus are there, and so are the lovers Pausanias
Pausanias an Athenian of the deme Kerameis, and was the lover of the poet Agathon.Although Pausanias is given a significant speaking part in Plato's Symposium, very little is known about him. Ancient anecdotes tend to address only his relationship with Agathon and give us no information about his...
Agathon was an Athenian tragic poet whose works, up to the present moment, have been lost. He is best known for his appearance in Plato's Symposium, which describes the banquet given to celebrate his obtaining a prize for his first tragedy at the Lenaia in . He is also a prominent character in...
(who is said to be a mere boy at this point), and Alcibiades. Additionally, there are several unnamed foreigners who Protagoras is said to have picked up in his travels and a servant (a eunuch) in the employ of Callias
Callias was the head of a wealthy Athenian family, and fought at the Battle of Marathon in priestly attire. His son, Hipponicus, was also a military commander...
. Callias, Prodicus and Hippias, also appear in another dialogue of Plato, The Apology
The Apology of Socrates is Plato's version of the speech given by Socrates as he unsuccessfully defended himself in 399 BC against the charges of "corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel"...
The dialogue begins with an unnamed friend of Socrates asking him how his pursuit of the young Alcibiades, just now reputed to be growing his first beard, was proceeding. Socrates explains that while he has just been in the company of Alcibiades, he has just come from meeting with someone who is "more beautiful . . . No doubt the wisest of men nowadays-- if in your opinion the wisest is Protagoras"(309c-d). Socrates relates the story of how his young friend, Hippocrates, son of Apollodorus, came knocking on his door before daybreak and roused him out of bed. Hippocrates was in a big hurry to be present when Protagoras held court, as he was expected to do, at the home of Callias.
Socrates warns the excitable Hippocrates that sophists are dangerous. He tells him that the words of the sophists go straight into the soul (psuchē
) and can corrupt a person straightaway. Socrates says that buying wisdom from a sophist is different from buying food and drink at the market. With food and drink, you never know what you are getting, but you can consult experts for advice before consuming anything that might be dangerous (313a-314c).
Socrates says he regards Prodicus as a man of inspired genius (316a). He expresses the same admiration for Prodicus in another dialogue, the Theaetetus
Theaetetus could mean:* Theaetetus , a Greek geometer* Theaetetus , a dialogue by Plato, named after the geometer* Theaetetus , a lunar impact crater....
. Socrates later notes that Prodicus was assigned to sleep in a storage room that his host had cleaned out for the visit (315d).
Socrates accompanies Hippocrates to the home of Callias, and they stand in the doorway chatting about "some point which had come up along the road" (314c). A eunuch opened the door, took one look at them, guessed they were sophists, and slammed the door in their faces (314d). They knocked again, and this time assured the porter they were not sophists, but only wanted to visit with Protagoras. The porter let them in, and it is at this point that Socrates recites the list of guests.
Prodicus is wrestled out of bed
Protagoras does not deny being a sophist, and claims that it is an ancient and honorable art, the same art practiced by Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...
Hesiod was a Greek oral poet generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer. His is the first European poetry in which the poet regards himself as a topic, an individual with a distinctive role to play. Ancient authors credited him and...
. These poets, he says, used the arts as a screen, a front, to protect themselves from the charge. He says that he is more straightforward than the ancient artists, trainers, and musicians in frankly admitting that he is an educator. Protagoras says he is old enough now to be the father of any of the men present, and would like now to address himself to the whole company of people in the house. Socrates assumes that Prodicus would not want to miss the lecture, and so Callias and Alcibiades are sent to rouse him from his bed (317c-e).
Protagoras' great speech
Socrates asks Protagoras "in respect to what" will Hippocrates improve by associating with him, in the manner that by associating himself to a doctor he would improve in medicine (318d). Protagoras begins his discourse with the statement that a good sophist can make his students into good citizens. Socrates says that this is fine and good, but that he personally believes that this is not feasible since virtue cannot be taught (319b). He adds that technical thinking can be imparted to students by teachers, but that wisdom cannot be. By way of example, Socrates points to the fact that while in matters concerning specialised labour one would only take advice from the appropriate specialist, like for example builders (τέκτονες) about construction, in matters of state everyone's opinions is considered, which proves that political virtue is within everyone, or that at least that is what Athenians in their democratic ideals believe. Another example is that Pericles did not manage to impart his wisdom to his sons (319e). Socrates' uses a similar example in the Meno
Meno is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. It attempts to determine the definition of virtue, or arete, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style and Meno is reduced to...
. He then adds that Clinias, younger brother of Alcibiades, was taken from the family for fear that Alcibiades would corrupt him, and he was given back as a hopeless case. Socrates says he could give more examples, but thinks his point is sufficiently established.
Protagoras says his claim that virtue can be taught is better made by a story than by reasoned arguments, and he recounts a myth about the origins of living things. He says that Epimetheus (whose name means "Afterthought") who was assigned the task of passing out the assets for survival, forgot to give mankind anything so his twin brother Prometheus (whose name means "Forethought") stole fire from Hephaestus
Hephaestus was a Greek god whose Roman equivalent was Vulcan. He is the son of Zeus and Hera, the King and Queen of the Gods - or else, according to some accounts, of Hera alone. He was the god of technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes...
and practical wisdom from Athena
In Greek mythology, Athena, Athenê, or Athene , also referred to as Pallas Athena/Athene , is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, justice, and skill. Minerva, Athena's Roman incarnation, embodies similar attributes. Athena is...
and gave them to man. However, man was never granted civic wisdom which belonged to Zeus
In the ancient Greek religion, Zeus was the "Father of Gods and men" who ruled the Olympians of Mount Olympus as a father ruled the family. He was the god of sky and thunder in Greek mythology. His Roman counterpart is Jupiter and his Etruscan counterpart is Tinia.Zeus was the child of Cronus...
or the art of politics, so the race was initially in danger of extinction. Zeus, however, sent Hermes to distribute shame and justice equally among human beings. To Protagoras, this answers Socrates's question why people think that wisdom about architecture or medicine is limited to the few while wisdom about justice and politics is thought to be more broadly understood (322d).
Protagoras states that he has two good pieces of evidence that people agree with him. First, people do not rebuke the ugly, dwarfish, and weak, but pity them, because they cannot help being as they are (323d). Second, they do instruct people who are unjust and irreligious, hoping to impart goodness in them. He says that parents begin with their children from earliest childhood, and teachers carry on the task. Protagoras notes that none of this is surprising, but what would be surprising is if this were not the case (326e). He closes by addressing Socrates's question why, if virtue is teachable, the sons of virtuous men often lack virtue. Protagoras lays out a thought experiment where a hypothetical city state is resting its survival as such to the skill of flute playing. Being the most important thing for that society, parents would be eager to teach the skill to their sons. Not everyone would be successful though, as we can imagine, as some would have a greater natural inclination than others and often the son of a good flute player would turn out bad and vica versa. Any of them however, even the bad ones, would be better than an average citizen in the real world which might have never been taught how to play. Same goes for virtue, it is considered so important that everyone is taught to a certain degree, to the point that it seems like a part of human nature while it is not. (327b-d).
Socrates admits that Protagoras has given an excellent answer and that there is only one small thing to clarify which he is certain that the sophist will do easily. He asks Protagoras as to whether the attributes that form virtue, such as bravery, kindness and wisdom are one or many things, like for example the parts of a golden object which are fused together or that of a face which form a whole while retaining their individual substance (329d). Protagoras answers the second but avoids to engage in dialogue and digresses into a rhetoric which does not answer the question sufficiently but still manages to arouse the excitement of the their young public. Socrates complains that Protagoras is long-winded, like a gong that booms when you strike it and won't stop until you lay a hand on it. It is a typical moment of Socrates opposite a sophist where the latter is using eloquent speech to hide arguments that might not stand logical scrutiny while the former is trying to use his notorious question/answer format that will lead to a logical conclusion in his favour. Protagoras begins to bristle at this and so Socrates supposes that their styles are opposite. He personally doesn't like long-winded speeches like the one Protagoras just delivered, because he is forgetful and cannot follow the train of thought (334d), and Protagoras does not like to be peppered with questions that seem to lead them off track. Socrates gets up to leave, grousing that companionable talk is one thing and public speaking another (336b). After the intervention of several of the listeners, the men agree to compromise their styles so the discussion can continue.
Socrates praises the Spartans as the best people in the world not only because of their fierceness in battle but because of their wisdom and philosophical skills. This is contrary to the common belief that the Spartans lacked in these issues and devoted themselves exclusively to physical training but Socrates claims that they are masters at concealing their skills. While they appear to be unimpressive speakers, at just the right moment, they can provide pithy phrases of wisdom (342e). He adds that Laconic brevity was the earliest characteristic of philosophy (343b). Then the debaters return to their previous analysis of some poetry, discussing now the difference between being and becoming.
Socrates then broaches the initial question of whether virtue is one or many things, himself claiming that all virtue is knowledge and therefore one. He argues that the reason people act harmfully, to others or themselves, is because they only see the short term gains while ignoring the long term losses which might outweigh them, just like one makes errors in judging the size of objects that are far away. He says that if men were taught the art of calculating these things correctly, have a more exact knowledge that is, they would not act harmfully (357c-358d). Same goes for bravery. A brave swimmer is one who knows how to swim better and therefore, in a way, all virtues are essentially knowledge and can be considered one and the same, more like parts of golden objects (as discussed above) rather than the parts of a face. While Socrates seems to have won the argument, he points to the fact that if all virtue is knowledge, it can
in fact be taught. He draws the conclusion that to an observer he and Protagoras would seem as crazy, having argued at great lengths only to mutually exchanged positions with Socrates now believing that virtue can be taught and Protagoras that all virtues are one instead of his initial position (361a). Protagoras acknowledges Socrates a notable opponent in dispute while being much younger than him and predicts that he could become one of the wisest men alive. Socrates departs for whatever business he claimed he had when he wanted to end the dialogue earlier.
Texts and Translations
- Burnet, J., Plato Opera Vol. III (Oxford University Press, 1922). ISBN 9780198145424 (Greek with critical apparatus)
- Denyer, N., Plato Protagoras (Cambridge University Press, 2008). ISBN 9780521549691 (Greek with English commentary)
- Lamb, W. R. M., Plato Vol. II (Harvard University Press, 1926). ISBN 9780674991835 (Greek and English)
- Lombardo, S. & Bell, K., Plato Protagoras, (Hackett Publishing, 1992). ISBN 9780872200944 (English with notes)
- Taylor, C. C. W., Plato Protagoras, Revised Edition (Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 9780198239345 (English with commentary)