Protagoras by Plato (trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

“While the power of appearance often makes us wander all over the place in confusion, often changing our minds about the same things and regretting our actions and choices with respect to things large and small, the art of measurement in contrast, would make the appearances lose their power by showing us the truth, would give us peace of mind firmly rooted in the truth and would save our life” – Socrates.

The Protagoras presents a comical theatrical performance that pits two Greek intellectual heavy weights against each other in an all out battle of methods where the central questions are: What is virtue? And can it be taught?

At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates meets up with a friend where he recounts a philosophical discussion he had with Protagoras, along with other well-known Sophists. Hippocrates wakes Socrates up in excitement that Protagoras is in town. Hippocrates would like to train with Protagoras, but Socrates warns him that he should know what he is paying for before he spends his money. So Socrates goes with him to visit Protagoras who is staying at another sophist’s house. When they arrive, Socrates asks Protagoras what he teaches. The famous sophist responds that he teaches virtue to young man. Socrates is not sure that virtue can be taught, and wants to see if Protagoras can convince him otherwise. Protagoras presents a myth and a long-winded speech that at first seems to effectively prove his point. However, Socrates is still not entirely convinced and has a few minor quibbles. He attempts to engage Protagoras in a back-and-forth Socratic dialogue to discover what virtue is and whether it can be taught, which the infamous sophist participates in reluctantly.

This dialogue reads like a comedy that could make Aristophanes blush with envy, poking fun at the Sophists featured in it. Plato consistently mocks them, especially Prodicus who consistently splits hairs about the meaning of words. Socrates’ attitudes towards Protagoras might also be seen as ironic more than genuine; he continually refers to him as a wise man, despite showing that he knows very little about the teaching of virtue.

One major theme of the dialogue is the battle between Sophistic Rhetoric versus Socratic Dialectic as methods for the inquiry into truth. Socrates wants to engage the issue with a question-and-answer method, while Protagoras wants to address the problem with long-winded polemics. The problem with bloated speeches is that they are difficult to follow, jump from point to point without really saying anything significant, and it is far too easy to manipulate listeners by giving superficial answers to complex topics without any real precision; likewise, it encourages your opponent to spend his time coming up with his or her own speech without having to pay much attention to what you are actually saying. The sophist Hippias does just that when he compliments Socrates on his thorough analysis of the Simonides poem that they end up briefly discussing and then wants to deliver his own speech about the poem, while completing missing the fact that Socrates was spouting nonsense about the poem. In other words, Hippias did not pay close attention to what Socrates was actually saying. The difference of the dialectic method is its question-and-answer structure forces speakers to pay attention to each other and requires precision in the inquiry of the topic; it allows you to get into the details of a topic and better see contradictions and inconsistencies in a response rather than gloss over the substance for polished superficial responses.

Socrates repeatedly claims he cannot follow the argument of long speeches. However, we realize right away that this statement is untrue by the fact that Socrates has thus far responded point-by-point to Protagoras’ initial speech. Likewise, the entire dialogue is frame-story in which Socrates is recalling this event and the speeches Protagoras gave during it to a friend by memory. Is Socrates being duplicitous then? Well, we can say with certainty that this is one of those times Plato is demonstrating his characteristic irony. Socrates’ goal here is to disarm Protagoras’ greatest strength and the biggest detriment to discovering truth, long meandering speeches that lack precision. He wants Protagoras to engage in a Socratic dialogue, while Protagoras is reluctant to do so.

On the other hand, one might be tempted to read the character of Protagoras more generously and Socrates slightly less so. Instead of reading this as a play that mocks Protagoras as ignorant along with his fellow Sophists, we can instead read it as a play where both Socrates and Protagoras have some of their initial points confirmed and some of their initial thoughts proven wrong: Protagoras was right that virtue can be taught, but has the wrong method at getting to that point. Socrates is wrong in his belief, but has the right method to get at the truth.

In the middle of the dialogue, Socrates threatens to leave like a petulant child because Protagoras will not play along with his method. However, is this really all that different from the behavior Protagoras displays when he refuses to engage in the dialectic any longer and wants to debate with his own method? I think the parallels between the two characters are no accident, and it may be fair to judge Socrates at times as acting like a hypocrite. However, the real test of their characters come at the end when we see that Socrates does not mind being proven wrong so long as it leads to the truth, but Protagoras chooses to end the dialogue apparently from sour grapes.

Protagoras tries to con his way around Socrates by drawing on an argument from a Simonides poem. Protagoras claims early on in the play that Homer, Hesiod, and the poets were the early Sophists, while Plato demonstrates his characteristic mistrust of literature. It is with a great sense of irony that Protagoras opens his initial speech about virtue with a myth, a literary construct. This only furthers the divisions between the two men’s methods.

Socrates pokes fun at the art of literary criticism by concocting wild and crazy interpretations of the Simonides poem; one of the most hilarious interpretations of the poem proved that the success of the Spartans during the Peloponessian War was not because of their intense military training, but because they possess a secret cabal of philosophers to guide them that they horde and keep away from the other city-states. He notes the slippery nature of literary criticism, while mocking those who engage in it:

“Discussing poetry strikes me as no different from the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd. . . . When a poet is brougnt up in a discussion, almost everyone has a different opinion about what he means, and they wind up arguing about something they can never finally decide.”

Socrates glorifies the precision and accuracy of math over the relativisitic subject of literature. He is attempting to apply mathematic principles to human knowledge of abstract concepts. Where Protagoras, famous for his statement, “Man is the Measure of all Things,” flourishes in plurality and relativism, Socrates wants to delimit truth to one precise answer.

The dialogue resolves with only a partial resolution and without a completely satisfactory answer to the question: what is virtue, and can it be taught? Keeping Plato’s other dialogues in mind, the answer seems to be that virtue can be taught, but only to those with a certain philosophical inclination already born in them.

Plato in this dialogue states that no one willingly does bad or what he believes to be bad. However, he also recognizes that despite this truth people still perform bad actions. He suggests that when people do bad it is from ignorance, they literally do not understand that what they are doing is harmful to themselves and others; they might even mistake the good with the bad, as many of the Sophists do in this very dialogue.

Plato seems to suggest that all people are born essentially good, but some are born with a higher capacity for good than others. Still, anyone no matter what their aptitude can improve their level of virtue and become more virtuous with practice, sort of like practicing the guitar. Anyone can become a better guitarist with practice and time, but not everyone will end up as the next Jimi Hendrix. The exception is that some people become so tainted with evil over time by making the wrong decisions that they can never improve themselves. Another way to think of this concept is to imagine that one is born with a seed inside them that we’ll call virtue, and when someone more virtuous than yourself teaches you it functions as water to nourish that seed and help it blossom into a full grown tree; however, if nobody ever properly nourishes the seed it can rot and wither. And, of course, the proper method of teaching virtue is through the Socratic dialogue.


2 thoughts on “Protagoras by Plato (trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

  1. Thanks for an excellent and engaging commentary on this dialogue. It is refreshing to see criticism of philosophers’ parsing words from so long ago and realize that they are still at it. This is one of my favorite of Plato’s dialogues and you reminded me why.

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