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Plato's Protagoras - Selections - Comments

Translator W.K.C. Guthrie. In classical times this dialog was also titled "Sophists" and was said to illustrate "the method of critical objections" (Diog. L. iii, 59, 51).

Despite its name and principal character, what is not discussed in this particular dialog are Protagoras' famous doctrines "Man is the measure of all things" (found in Plato's Theaetetus 160c-d), and "as to whether the gods exist, I don't know; the question is obscure, and life is short", and his promise to "make the worse appear the better" reason (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1402a).

What is discussed in this dialog: What do Sophists do, for they claim to teach virtue, but can virtue be taught? And virtue itself -- are there several virtues or is virtue a single thing? Is knowledge of pleasure and pain what virtue is (for many say that pleasure is the only good for man and pain the only evil)?

Outline of this page ...


Introduction to the Protagoras

In this dialog Plato tries to give an account of "what a Sophist is" by examining what the Sophist does: can the Sophist do what he claims to be able to do, or does the Sophist give a false account of what he does? If the Sophist can, as he claims, teach virtue, then presumably he knows "what virtue is", and if he knows, then he can tell others what he knows. Thus whether or not he knows is a question to be answered in Socratic dialectic (answering and cross-questioning).

The Sophist claims to be able to teach virtue. But can political wisdom -- i.e. good citizenship, or, civic virtue -- be created in man through teaching? In other words, can virtue be taught?

It seems not because, first, although men recognize experts in the other arts, apparently none are recognized in political life, because with respect to politics everyone regards himself as qualified to express opinions and no one is reproached for this; and second, virtuous fathers are unable to make even their own sons virtuous.

So says Plato's Socrates, but the Sophist Protagoras disagrees with him. For although it is true that not all men possess knowledge of such things as architecture and painting, all men are capable of engaging in politics because every man is endowed with the "qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice", qualities which must be shared among all men if they are to live in community with other men.

By the word 'justice' Protagoras appears to mean such qualities as fairness, piety, decency, and moderation. But if that is so, Plato asks, is virtue a single thing or a multiplicity of things -- and which of those is what Protagoras claims to be able to teach?

In this dialog Plato seeks to demonstrate that the various moral virtues are really only one virtue, which to my way of thinking ought to be wisdom, as in Virtue is wisdom (The word 'wisdom' is, or appears to be, synonymous with 'knowledge' and also with 'the use of reason' or 'rationality'). But to the Greek way of thinking wisdom is itself a virtue -- i.e. not a mere excellence, but a moral excellence, that is proper to man (The two kinds of virtue: natural and moral).

Indeed, wisdom is one of the five "cardinal virtues of Greece", the others being holiness (piousness or piety), justice, temperance (self-control), and courage (bravery). Is it possible, Plato asks, for an action to be an instance of one without at the same time being an instance of all the others? For example, can an action (and thereby the man who acts) be brave without also being holy, just, temperate, and wise?

Wisdom does, nonetheless, appears to be unique among the virtues, because not only is wisdom a virtue, but conversely virtue is itself wisdom. Plato shows this by the argument that if, as is commonly believed, the pleasant is the good and the painful is evil, then no one chooses to do what is evil except through not knowing that it is evil but rather through thinking it is good, or in other words, through ignorance of which is which. In this way, virtue is knowledge.

Is it a thesis of the Protagoras (351d-e) that pleasure is the good for man, or does Plato only take up that commonly held belief in order to ask: If pleasure is a good for man, then ...? (Plato's Philebus assigns pleasure a very low position on its list of the goods for man.)


The setting of Plato's dialog

A friend [Jowett's translation has "a companion"] asks Socrates if he has "just been meeting some wise man", to which Socrates replies, "Say rather the wisest man now living, if you agree that that description fits Protagoras" of Abdera (309c-d). And now for the rest of the dialog Plato's Socrates tells the friend the story of his meeting Protagoras.

SOCRATES: Last night, a little before daybreak, Hippocrates ... knocked violently on my door with his stick, and when it was opened, came straight in in a great hurry and shouted out, Socrates, are you awake or asleep? (310a-b)

Socrates asks the young man, "What ... brings you here at such an hour?" Hippocrates answers that Protagoras has come to Athens! But Socrates says that he already knows this: Protagoras has been in the city for two days already. But Hippocrates has learned of Protagoras' visit only last evening, and that is why he has come to see Socrates now. (310b-c)

SOCRATES: I recognized his determination and the state of excitement he was in, and asked him, What is your concern in this? Has Protagoras done you any harm?

HIPPOCRATES [laughing]: Of course he has, Socrates ... He keeps his wisdom to himself instead of sharing it with me.

SOCRATES: Not at all ... If you pay him sufficient to persuade him, he will make you wise too. (310d)

Hippocrates wants Socrates to go with him right away to see Protagoras, but Socrates replies, "we can't go there at this early hour. Let's come out here into the courtyard and walk around it to pass the time until it is light. Then we can go. Protagoras spends much of his time indoors, so don't worry; we are pretty sure to catch him there." And as they walk about the courtyard Socrates begins "to examine and question" Hippocrates. (311a-b)

Just what is a Sophist? (To teachers the souls of the young are entrusted)

SOCRATES: Tell me this ... It your present intention to go to Protagoras and pay him money as a fee on your behalf. Now whom do you think you are going to, and what will he make of you? (311b)

Socrates puts the question to Hippocrates this way: If someone asked us "What do you suppose Protagoras is, that you intend to pay him money [to also make you]? what should we answer ...? What particular name do we hear attached to Protagoras in the sort of way that Phidias is called a sculptor and Homer a poet?" (311d-e)

HIPPOCRATES: Sophist, I suppose ... is the name generally given to him.

SOCRATES: What do you yourself hope to become by your association with Protagoras?

HIPPOCRATES: If this is like the other cases [they have mentioned, namely doctoring and sculpting: one associates with a doctor to become a doctor, and with a sculptor to become a sculptor (311b-c)], I must say "to become a Sophist". [But in reply to Socrates' further question of whether he would not be ashamed to "face [his] fellow countrymen as a Sophist", Hippocrates admits that he would.]

SOCRATES: Perhaps then this is not the kind of instruction you expect to get from Protagoras, but rather the kind you got from the schoolmasters who taught you letters and music and gymnastics. You didn't learn these for professional purposes, to become a practitioner, but in the way of liberal education, as a layman and a gentleman should.

HIPPOCRATES: [That is indeed] the sort of instruction I expect from Protagoras. (311e-312b)

As at the very beginning of this dialog (309a-b), where Plato assigns his own predilection to Socrates, so too here Socrates appears as a literary character, because, unlike Plato, the historical Socrates was not an aristocrat ("gentleman") but was instead of the artisan class (some say a stone mason, some a sculptor).

SOCRATES [asks if Hippocrates understands what he is now going to do or not. He explains what he means by this]: I mean that you are going to entrust the care of your soul to a man who is, in your own words, a Sophist, though I should be surprised if you know just what a Sophist is. And yet if you don't know that, you don't know to whom you are entrusting your soul, nor whether he represents something good or bad.

HIPPOCRATES: I think I [do] know ... [And when Socrates asks what Hippocrates thinks "a Sophist" is, Hippocrates replies] I suppose, as the name implies, one who has knowledge of wise things. (312b-c)

A 'philosopher' is 'one who seeks (as the lover seeks) wisdom' whereas a 'sophist' is 'one who believes that he possesses wisdom, that he is already wise, or, a wise man'. The root of the word 'Sophist' is sophia, the English equivalent of which is the word 'wisdom' -- more or less, because note that we don't call knowledge of sculpting or painting or building or doctoring wisdom, whereas the Greek word is applied to knowledge of that kind, and so maybe 'knowledge' is a more apt translation of the Greek word sophia, although that is not common practice. Socrates' objection below to Hippocrates' definition -- "A Sophist is one who has knowledge of wise things" (312c-d) -- will perhaps show this.

In the Euthyphro, Socrates says: "for I do not believe that you would prosecute your father for impiety if you did not think you knew what piety is" (15d). Similarly here: "for I do not believe that you would entrust your soul to a Sophist if you did not think you knew what a Sophist is". In both cases: Those who think they know what they don't know are themselves misled and mislead others.

"... entrusting your soul to." The definition of the word 'soul' used by Plato is different from the historical Socrates' definition, for by the word 'soul' Socrates means 'the ethical aspect of man'. Whereas Plato means by 'soul' an Orphic something-or-other (spirit, ghost), the essential existence of which is independent of the body. (Whether or not there is an afterlife for man is not something Socrates thinks he knows in Plato's Apology 40c-41c, nor does Socrates' particular use of the word 'soul' imply that he does think he knows.) But despite that difference, for both Socrates and Plato the most important thing for man is "care of the soul" (see Xenophon's Memorabilia i, 2, 4).

SOCRATES: [But one] could say the same ... of painters and builders, that they are those who have knowledge of wise things. But if we were asked what sort of wisdom painters understand, we would reply, wisdom concerned with the making of likenesses, and so on with the others. If then we were asked what sort of wise things the Sophist had knowledge of, what would we answer? Of what is he the master?

HIPPOCRATES: The only answer we could give is that he is master of the art of making clever speakers.

SOCRATES: [That answer] might be true, but would hardly be sufficient. It invites a further question, On what matter does the Sophist make one a clever speaker?

HIPPOCRATES: Obviously on the subject of which he imparts knowledge.

SOCRATES: And what is this subject on which the Sophist is both an expert himself and can make his pupil expert?

HIPPOCRATES: I give up.... I can't tell you. (312c-313a)

Hippocrates thus discovers his own ignorance. -- Through Socratic dialect (cross-questioning) he has been shown that he does not know what he thought he knew. To both the definitions Hippocrates suggests, namely "A Sophist is one who has knowledge of wise things" and "A Sophist is one who is master of the art of making clever speakers", Socrates' words apply -- that is, that although the proposition Hippocrates states may be true it is not sufficient. His words are an allusion to the second condition of a Socratic definition: a definition must not only say what a thing is but also say in what way that thing differs from all other things -- i.e. a definition has to point out in what way the thing being defined is unique.

It is for that reason that I proposed the word 'philosophy' be defined as 'love of wisdom in logic, ethics, and metaphysics' and 'a philosophy' as 'a rational way of looking at things in the context of logic, ethics, and metaphysics' (Of course not every philosopher has worked in all three areas) -- for it may be that there are wisdoms that one may love that are not philosophy and rational ways of looking at things that are not philosophy. The rational and in logic, ethics, and/or metaphysics is what differentiates philosophical wisdom from all other kinds of wisdom.

Warning, sign-posts at false paths (Logic of language)

Note.--Normally I would think it vital to point out that best practice in logic of language is to maintain the slogan "In philosophy we define words not things" -- but so far in this dialog is there a difference between "a definition of the thing Sophist" and an account of how (i.e. to what) the word 'Sophist' is commonly applied? This is an historical question: "There were in Greece men who ...", but there are diverse ways to characterize those men (cf. Russell's "theory of descriptions", as in e.g. PI § 79). And so Plato in this dialog asks what it is that men like Protagoras, men whom everyone calls 'Sophists', really do (for there may be false accounts of what they do).

We use the word 'definition' in many ways, and whether we call what Plato seeks a "definition of a Sophist" is not important -- so long as that form of expression doesn't suggest to us some vague picture of an independently existing "thing" or "concept" bearing the name 'Sophist' floating about intangibly somewhere-or-other (God only knows what, how and where!) whose essence Plato is trying to grasp.

That is the point of the slogan above: to escape (PI § 309) self-mystification, "bewitchment by means of language" (ibid. § 109). Again, in philosophy we define words (-- which is also utterly different from "linguistic analysis", i.e. pondering "the concept Sophist" in order to determine what its true content is --), not "things" (as in "A noun is the name of a person, place or thing", which is a long way of saying "A noun is the name of a thing", which is the pathway to every philosophical muddle).

That is to say, it's not important if you have already understood Wittgenstein's logic of language. But I certainly would not have said that it was unimportant years ago when I spoke of feeling "surrounded by vagueness and confusion". (Once you have learned your way about, it may not be necessary for you to put up the old warning sign-posts marking off false paths that were once so needed by you. But that does not mean that those sign-posts are not needed by everyone who might read these words!)

Does youth know to whom it should entrust its soul?

SOCRATES: Well then ... do you realize the sort of danger to which you are going to expose your soul? If it were a case of putting your body into the hands of someone and risking the treatment's turning out beneficial or the reverse, you would ponder deeply whether to entrust it to him or not, and would spend many days over the question, calling on the counsel of your friends and relations. But when it comes to something which you value much more highly than your body, namely your soul -- something on whose beneficial or harmful treatment your whole welfare depends -- you have not consulted either your father or your brother or any of us who are your friends on the question whether or not to entrust your soul to this stranger who has arrived among us.

On the contrary, having heard the news in the evening ... here you come at dawn, not to discuss or consult me on this question of whether or not to entrust yourself to Protagoras, but ... as if you had already made up your mind that you must at all costs associate with this man -- whom you say you do not know and have never spoken to, but call a Sophist, and then turn out not to know what a Sophist is though you intend to put yourself into his hands. (313a-c)

In the next selection Socrates suggests a definition that, like Hippocrates' earlier ones, does not say in what way the Sophist is different from all other categories of teachers. Because if what nourishes the soul is what it learns, then there are many teachers, e.g. sculptors teach sculpting, doctors teach doctoring (311b-c). So just what is it that the Sophist nourishes, or claims to be able to nourish, the soul with; what does he alone claim to teach: what goods (or evils) does he peddle?

SOCRATES: [continuing with their discussion (dialectic) now offers this counter-thesis (definition) to Hippocrates]: a Sophist is really a merchant or peddler of the goods by which the soul is nourished.

HIPPOCRATES: But what is it that nourishes a soul?

SOCRATES: What it learns, presumably.... And we must see that the Sophist in commending his wares does not deceive us, like the wholesaler and the retailer who deal in food for the body. These people do not know themselves which of the wares they offer is good or bad for the body ... and those who buy them don't know either ...

So too those who take the various subjects of knowledge from city to city, and offer them for sale retail to whoever wants them, commend everything that they have for sale, but it may be ... that some of these men also are ignorant of the beneficial or harmful effects on the soul of what they have for sale, and so too are those who buy from them.

If then you chance to be an expert in discerning which of them is good or bad, it is safe for you to buy knowledge from Protagoras or anyone else, but if not, take care that you don't find yourself gambling dangerously with all of you that is dearest to you.

[The food and drink you buy you can bring home to have examined by an expert who knows what you should eat and drink, a doctor or a trainer, for example.] But knowledge cannot be taken away in a parcel. When you have paid for it you must receive it straight into the soul. You go away having learned it and are benefited or harmed accordingly. (313c-314b)

What the philosopher checks are the account books (cf. PG p. 295) -- i.e. whether men know what they think they know or not, ignoring their rhetoric.

Would the word be 'wisdom' be more apt here than the word 'knowledge'? A false proposition you believe to be true is harmful to you, but when is a true proposition harmful to you? When the true proposition concerns something (e.g. gossip or entertainment or filth) that you are harmed by knowing; "soiling the imagination": the mind is not like a blackboard that can be written on and then erased: what enters the mind may never leave it; in this respect, nothing that is not beneficial is harmless. But to know what is or is not evil (i.e. harmful rather than beneficial) here -- is it a question of wisdom or of knowledge? If, as Socrates thought, moral virtue is knowledge, then either word is appropriate: virtue (i.e. knowledge of how to live one's life) is wisdom.


The visit to the Sophists Protagoras, Prodicus and Hippias

And now apparently it is dawn and Socrates says that now he and Hippocrates can "carry out our plan to go and hear [Protagoras], and when we have heard him we can bring others into our consultations also, for Protagoras is not here by himself. There is Hippias of Elis, and I think Prodicus of Ceos too, and many other wise men." And so Socrates and Hippocrates start out, but when they find themselves in the doorway of the house where Protagoras is staying, they remain there to continue "a discussion which had arisen between [the two of them] on the way. So that we might not leave it unfinished, but have it out before we went in, we were standing in the doorway talking until we should reach agreement" [cf. Plato, Symposium 174d-175b, 220c-d].

Socratic Dialectic

"Until we should reach agreement." The structure of Socratic dialectic: (1) a question or proposition (thesis) to be discussed is proposed; (2) an answer to the question, or the proposition itself, is either agreed to or refuted in cross-questioning; (3) if it is refuted, then a modified or a different thesis is suggested in its place; (4) this new thesis is also either agreed to or refuted; (5) and so the discussion continues until either agreement is finally reached or the discussion ends in the recognition of the discussers' ignorance. This is Socrates' method in philosophy.

It is the method of step-by-step agreement Socrates used, because he held to the philosophical standard that if someone knew anything he could give an account of what he knew to others ('know' = 'be able to tell'), an account that could be put to the test in dialectic, to either be agreed to or refuted. If the account is refuted, then the one who offered it has been shown not to know what he thought he knew. (Cf. Plato, Theaetetus 187c, tr. Cornford: "If we go on like this, either we shall find what we are after, or we shall be less inclined to imagine we know something of which we know nothing whatever, and that surely is a reward not to be despised.")

Note that Socratic dialectic is not the only kind of -- or, maybe, better: not the only possible aim of the method of -- dialectic, because there is also eristic dialectic or "word-wrestling" (as in Plato's Euthydemus), dialectic that is quite willing to make "the worse appear the better", quite indifferent to the true and the good, which are the very things Socratic dialectic seeks.

The porter has overheard Socrates and Hippocrates discussing in the doorway, so that when they "knocked on the door, [the porter] opened it, saw us and said, Ha, Sophists! He [the master of the house, Callias] is busy. [Callias was a very wealthy Athenian aristocrat (c. 450-370 B.C.); Xenophon sets his Symposium [see i, 2] in Callias' house.] And thereupon he slammed the door as hard as he could with both hands." But when they knocked on the door again and Socrates said that "It is Protagoras we want to see and not Callias" and, further, that Hippocrates and Socrates were not themselves Sophists, the porter at last "reluctantly opened the door to [them]". (314b-d)

Protagoras of Abdera

When [Socrates and Hippocrates] were inside, [they] came upon Protagoras walking in the portico, and walking with him in a long line were, on one side Callias, son of Hipponicus [and cousin to Aristides; this is a different Callias from the Callias who is master of the house, but the son of Hipponicus is also from a very rich Athenian family]; his stepbrother Paralus, the son of Pericles; and Charmides [d. 403 B.C., the nephew and ward of Plato's uncle Critias; Plato's dialog the Charmides is named after him], son of Glaucon; and on the other side Pericles' other son, Xanthippus; Philippides, son of Philomelus; and Antimoerus of Mende [an ancient Greek colony on the peninsula of Chalcidice], the most eminent of Protagoras' pupils, who is studying professionally, to become a Sophist. Those who followed behind listening to their conversation seemed to be for the most part foreigners -- Protagoras draws them from every city that he passes through ... -- but there were some Athenians in the band as well. (314e-315b)

The naming of those who are with Protagoras is apparently to indicate that it is the offspring of the most eminent families of Athens who are visiting Protagoras (316c-d; the identifications I have been able to make are from the OCD 2e). Likewise when Socrates introduces Hippocrates he describes him as coming "of a great and prosperous family" (316b), something the historical Socrates did not come from (Was Socrates "of a good family" (319d) in Plato's eyes? I don't think so).

Hippias of Elis

Hippias of Elis, who was "sitting on a seat of honor in the opposite portico", was also present. Those who had come to see him were seated on benches and "appeared to be asking him questions on natural science, particularly astronomy, while he gave each his explanation ... and held forth on their problems". (315b-c)

Prodicus of Ceos

[Also there was Prodicus of Ceos who] was occupying a room [in Callias' house] ... Prodicus was still in bed, wrapped up in rugs and blankets, and plenty of them. [But what Prodicus and those who were sitting on the neighboring couches beside him] were talking about [Socrates] couldn't discover from outside, although [he] was very keen to hear Prodicus ... You see, he has such a deep voice that there was a kind of booming noise in the room which drowned the words. [It is for this reason, I think, that Plato has Socrates compare Prodicus to Tantalus (Odyssey 11.582), or maybe it is because the distinctions Prodicus makes appear bafflingly subtle.] (315d-316a)

Shortly after Socrates and Hippocrates had come in, Alcibiades and Critias [maybe the same as the Critias of Xenophon's Memorabilia i, 2, 29-31], son of Callaeschrus, also entered Callias' house. And so after Socrates had observed all that has been described, he "approached Protagoras, and ... said [to him], Protagoras, this is Hippocrates, and it is you that we have come to see". (316a-b)

PROTAGORAS: Do you wish to speak to me alone ... or with others?

SOCRATES: It is all the same to us ... Hear what we have come for and then decide for yourself.... Hippocrates here is one of our citizens, son of Apollodorus.... I think he is anxious to make a name for himself in the city, and he believes that the most likely way to success is to become a pupil of yours. So now it is for you to decide whether you think this calls for a conversation between ourselves or with others.

PROTAGORAS: I appreciate your forethought on my behalf, Socrates. A man has to be careful when he visits powerful cities as a foreigner, and induces their most promising young men to forsake the company of others, relatives or acquaintances, older or younger, and consort with him on the grounds that his conversation will improve them. (316b-d)

The historical Socrates contrasted with the Sophists

Question: how is what the Sophists did different from what the historical Socrates did? Here are five ways. First, Socrates never left Athens to seek students abroad [cf. Diog. L. ii, 22-23]. Second, he did not call his friends and companions to follow him, nor to abandon the company of others, their family and friends [Plato, Apology 19e-20a (which names Gorgias, Prodicus and Hippias in this context)]; they came for the sake of companionship with a thoroughly good man and of hearing his discussions with those he questioned to see if they knew what they thought they knew about things worth knowing in ethics, in how man should live his life. Third, he concerned himself, not with metaphysics [Plato, Apology 19 b-d], but only with ethics [cf. Plato, Phaedrus 229e-230a] and elemental logic (the method of cross-questioning propositions for clarity and truth; and definition) as the tool for investigations in ethics [Memorabilia iv, 6, 1]. Fourth, he did not take money (charge a fee) to teach [Plato, Apology 19d]. Fifth, he sought only to learn the truth, something the Sophists (who claimed to teach the art of practical life) were accused of being less concerned with than with "winning" arguments, even if that required making "the worse appear the better" reason (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1402a).

[In the Euthydemus Plato displays the wisdom of two Sophists who have mastered the art of eristic (or, wrestling in words), characterizing them as "[denying] all differences, whether of good and evil, white or black, or any other". (303d-e, tr. Jowett)]

But by those who did not know those things about Socrates, Socrates was thought to be a Sophist, as he was portrayed as being in Aristophanes' The Clouds [Plato, Apology 19 b-c].

Protagoras on the Sophist's ancient art

PROTAGORAS [continuing]: Such conduct arouses no small resentment and various forms of hostility and intrigue. Personally I hold that the Sophist's art is an ancient one, but that those who put their hand to it in former times, fearing the odium which it brings, adopted a disguise and worked undercover. [Examples of the Sophists of former times are Homer and Hesiod and Simonides "who used poetry as a screen" to escape malice; "others [used] religious rites and prophecy, like Orpheus and Musaeus and their school"; others used music; some even physical training. But] I don't believe they accomplished their purpose, [because their disguises were seen through] by the men who held the reins of power in their cities, [and their failure to disguise themselves aroused] even greater hostility. For people think that a man who behaves like this is in addition to his other faults an unprincipled rogue.

I therefore have always gone the opposite way to my predecessors'. I admit to being a Sophist and an educator, and I consider this a better precaution than the other ... [I have] come to no harm through being a confessed Sophist, though I have been many years in the profession [cf. Meno 91d-e] ... So if there is anything you want of me, I would much prefer to say my say in front of the whole company.

SOCRATES: Then why should we not call Prodicus and Hippias, and the people who are with them, to listen to us? (316c-317d)

Protagoras agrees to this, and on Callias' suggestion that they form a circle such that everyone can talk while sitting down, everyone "eagerly took hold of the benches and couches with their own hands and arranged them beside Hippias, where the benches were. Meanwhile Callias and Alcibiades got Prodicus out of bed and fetched him along with his companions". Then when they are all seated, Protagoras asks Socrates to say something "on this young man's behalf". (317d-318a)

SOCRATES: Hippocrates has a feeling that he would like to become one of your followers. He says therefore that he would be glad to be told what effect [becoming one of your followers] will have on him. (318a)

Protagoras replies that if Hippocrates comes to follow him, each day the young man will make progress toward a better state. And when Socrates asks what Hippocrates will make progress toward -- what will he become "better at"? Protagoras replies that from him Hippocrates will learn the "proper care of his personal affairs, so that he may best manage his own household, and also that of the state's affairs, so as to become a real power in the city, both as a speaker and a man of action". (318a-319a)

Can men be taught to be good citizens? (Protagoras' promise)

SOCRATES: Do I follow you?... I take you to be describing the art of politics, and promising to make men good citizens.

PROTAGORAS: That ... is exactly what I profess to do.

SOCRATES: Then it is a truly splendid accomplishment that you have mastered ... if indeed you have mastered it. I warn you that you will hear nothing from me but my real mind. The fact is, I did not think this was something that could be taught ... But it is up to me to say why I believe it cannot be taught nor furnished by one man to another. (319a-b)

Cf. Meno 89d-e, where Plato has Socrates say: "[If virtue] is knowledge, it must be teachable, but as for its being knowledge, see whether you think my doubts on this point are well founded." And Plato says this is why he has doubts: "If anything -- not virtue only -- is a possible subject of instruction, must there not be teachers and students of it?... And what of the converse, that if there are neither teachers nor students of a subject, we may safely infer that it cannot be taught?" (Tr. Guthrie)

Plato now has Socrates say why he does not believe that it is possible to teach the virtue (or, maybe, the moral art) of politics that makes men good citizens. (Note: 'Virtue cannot be taught nor furnished by one man to another' is the thesis Socrates offers for dialectic, a proposition to either be agreed to or refuted.) There are two reasons.

SOCRATES: [If] the state is faced with some building project ... the architects are sent for and consulted about the proposed structures ... If anyone else tries to give advice, whom they do not consider an expert ... the members reject him ... [And so it is as well with all things "the Assembly regards as a subject for learning and teaching"] ... But when it is something to do with the government of the country that is to be debated, the man who gets up to advise them may be a builder or equally well a blacksmith or a shoemaker, merchant or ship owner, rich or poor, of good family or none. No one brings it up against any of these, as against those [who are not expert in the applicable art], that here is a man who without any technical qualifications, unable to point to anybody as his teacher, is yet trying to give advice.

The reason must be that they do not think this is a subject that can be taught.

[Furthermore, this is not] true only of the community at large. Individually also the wisest and best of our countrymen are unable to hand to others the [moral] virtue which they possess. (319b-e)

"... they do not think this is a subject that can be taught" (319d). Taking into account the common opinion of mankind is an Aristotelian method. But the reply to that is Plato's rhetorical question: Is the truth of a proposition determined by taking a vote?

Further, it would be Socratic to ask whether philosophical men sometimes, maybe quite often, think they know what they do not know, each being burdened with his own "conceited ignorance", his belief that he knows what he does not know? And are most men philosophical: do they not mistake what they are inclined to believe (i.e. their opinions) for knowledge? Again, the common opinion of mankind does not decide arguments -- i.e. what is true, what false.

SOCRATES: With these facts in mind, Protagoras, I do not believe that virtue can be taught ... If then you can demonstrate more plainly to us that virtue is something that can be taught, please don't hoard your wisdom but explain.

PROTAGORAS: [Protagoras says that he will not be a miserly with his wisdom. But he asks whether he should put his explanation [of why virtue can be taught] in the form of a story, or give it as a reasoned argument? When his listeners reply that either form is acceptable to them, Protagoras say that he thinks] it will be pleasanter to tell you a story. (320b-c)

Protagoras' myth of the creation of mankind (Epimetheus, Prometheus)

The myth Protagoras relates 320c-322a is this, that when the gods created man and the other animals out of earth and fire, they allowed Epimetheus and Prometheus to bestow on these mortal creatures the qualities they would need in order to survive, but Epimetheus, who was allowed a free hand, left man until the very end, and then there were no qualities left over to give him: the animals were "well off for everything, but man [was] naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed" -- and therefore Prometheus, "in order to provide a means of salvation for man", "stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts ... In this way man acquired sufficient resources to keep himself alive, but had no political wisdom. This was in the keeping of Zeus, and Prometheus", having given to man not only skill in the arts but also the one thing necessary to use those arts (i.e. he had also stolen from Hephaestus the "art of working with fire"), "no longer had the right of entry to the citadel where Zeus dwelled ..." Thus it was left for Zeus to endow mankind with the qualities it would need for life in community (the Greek polis), and these were "the qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice". In answer to the question of whether the gift of political wisdom should be distributed "as the arts were distributed -- that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many laymen, and so with the other experts", Zeus said that all men were to be given their share of political wisdom. But added, strangely (for Protagoras says that "A man cannot be without some share in justice, or he would not be human" (323b-c)), "... you must lay it down as my law that if anyone is incapable of acquiring his share of these two virtues, he shall be put to death as a plague to the city". (320c-322d)

PROTAGORAS: Thus it is, Socrates, and from this cause, that in a debate involving skill in building, or in any other craft, the Athenians, like other men, believe that few are capable of giving advice, and if someone outside those few volunteers to advise them, then as you say, they do not tolerate it -- rightly so, in my submission. But when the subject of their counsel involves political wisdom, which must always follow the path of justice and moderation, they listen to every man's opinion, for they think that everyone must share in this kind of virtue; otherwise the state could not exist. That, Socrates, is the reason for this.

I shall next try to demonstrate to you that men do not regard [justice and civic virtue] as innate or automatic, but as acquired by instruction and taking thought.

In punishing wrongdoers ... punishment is not inflicted by a rational man [in contrast to the irrational man who takes "blind vengeance like a beast"] for the sake of the crime that has been committed [and cannot be undone] ... but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else from doing wrong again. But to hold such a view amounts to holding that virtue can be instilled by education ... (322d-324b)

But fear of being "punished" is not what philosophy calls by the name 'Ethics'. (And that remark applies to Gorgias 526d-e as well.) Fear is irrational, an animal instinct, but ethics is not. And, again, the truth of a proposition, namely, "Virtue can be acquired by education", is not determined by taking a vote: common beliefs, although to be examined in dialectic, are not proof of a proposition's truth.

PROTAGORAS: There remains the question which troubles you about good men -- why is it that whereas they teach their sons the subjects that depend on instruction, and make them expert in these things, yet in their own brand of goodness [i.e. moral virtue] they do not make them any better than others.

On this ... I will offer you a plain argument rather than a parable as I did before. Think of it like this. Is there or is there not some one thing which all citizens must share, if a state is to exist at all? In answer to this question, if anywhere, lies the solution of your difficulty. (324d-e)

A philosopher says: "Look at things this way!" (CV p. 61) And I think that is what Protagoras is doing here, because would there only be one way to "Think of it like this"?

PROTAGORAS: If there is, then this one essential is not the art of building or forging or pottery but justice and moderation and holiness of life, or to concentrate it into a single whole, manly virtue [moral excellence] -- if ... it is this in which all must share and which must enter into every man's action whatever other occupation he chooses to learn or practice [and anyone who is lacking it must be reformed or, if unreformable, be put to death] ... and in these circumstances our good men teach their sons other accomplishments but not this one thing, then think what extraordinary [i.e. utterly strange] people good men must be! [Jowett has: "... consider how extraordinary their conduct would appear to be. For we have shown --"]

We have already shown that they believe it can be taught ... But although virtue can be taught and cultivated, yet it seems they have their sons instructed in the other arts, ignorance of which is no matter for capital punishment ... or exile [and "alienation of property and in a word the ruin of their estate"] -- are we to suppose [that they don't] bestow every care and attention [on instructing them in civic virtue]? Of course they do ... They teach and admonish [their sons] from earliest childhood and throughout their lives ... pointing out, "This is right and that is wrong, this honorable and that disgraceful, this holy, that impious; do this, don't to that." (324e-325c)

Again, 'being obedient (or, conforming) to the will of others' is not what philosophy means by the word 'ethical'. But by 'ethics' philosophy means 'the rational assessment (or, evaluation) of what is right (good) and what is wrong (evil)', and by the word 'ethical' is meant 'freely choosing to do what is right (good)'.

An animal can be trained to behave in such-and-such ways, but it can never be made ethical, for it will always be "a beast wanting discourse of reason": Language (i.e. discourse, held both with oneself and with others, as in Plato's Apology 28e) makes many things possible for man, including the three parts of philosophy. (Connection between the concepts 'language', 'logic' and 'reason' ('rational discourse'), 'philosophy', 'ethics')

The ethics (world-picture) of the historical Socrates

Aside. In Socratic ethics man is not left without a guide to answer these questions but directed to seek ("Know thyself") to learn what the excellence that is proper to man is, because therein lies their answer. Moral virtue = Ethics is knowledge of that excellence, because no rational man chooses to do evil. (But maybe there are two parts of virtue?)

PROTAGORAS: All this is done by those best able to do it -- that is, by the wealthy -- and it is their sons who start their education at the earliest age and continue it the longest ... Why then, you ask, do many sons of good men turn out worthless?... It is nothing surprising, if what I have said earlier was true, that this faculty, virtue is something in which no one may be a layman if the state is to exist at all. If it is as I say ... consider the matter with the substitution of any art you like. [If we make this comparison we see that it is whoever's son has] the greatest natural talent [who "rises to fame", or who without this talent "remains in obscurity"].

[But as with instruction in every other subject, with respect to civic virtue, some are better instructors than others.] My claim is that I am one [of those who can advance others "on the road to virtue", but Protagoras says that he is] rather better than anyone else at helping a man to acquire a good and noble character, worthy indeed of the fee which I charge ... (326c-328b)

Protagoras has finished his long discourse -- which again and again has foundered on this contradiction, that (1) all men are endowed with civic virtue, but (2) some men are without it, and (3) those men who are endowed with more civic virtue than others may be compared to those with greater natural talent than others, but (4) nonetheless, apparently, Protagoras will, for a fee, undertake to make any man good and noble (apparently even if that man lacks "respect for others and a sense of justice" or is quite talentless).

The short questions and answers of Socratic dialectic

Well, and so when Protagoras has finished, Socrates again speaks, with the aim of engaging Protagoras in dialectic -- i.e. in short questions and answers whereby step-by-step agreement can be reached before the mind is overwhelmed by a rush of words, and one loses the thread of the argument (336b-c and 334c-d). Ora procediamo con ordine (methodically rather than chaotically).

"Books and Orators" (Companionable talk)

SOCRATES: [There are "popular orators" who] if one asks any of them an additional question, like books [Cf. "the written word" in Plato's Phaedrus 275c-e] they cannot either answer or ask a question on their own account ... like a gong ["brazen pots" (tr. Jowett); cf. Cratylus 430a] which booms out when you strike it and goes on until you lay a hand on it [and then it is silent] ... Protagoras on the other hand ... has also the faculty of answering a question briefly, and when he asks one himself, of waiting and listening to the answer -- a rare accomplishment. [Jowett (329b): "... when he is asked a question he can answer briefly; and when he asks he will wait and hear the answer; and this is a very rare gift." (This would be the nature of the companionable dialectician in contrast to the speechifying of the Sophists, as Plato describes them.)]

Now then, Protagoras, there is just one small question left, your answer to which will give me all I want. You say that virtue is teachable ... But there is one thing which took me by surprise ... and I would like you to fill this gap in my mind. You said that Zeus bestowed on men justice and respect for their fellows [(322c-d)], and again at several points in your discourse justice and self-control and holiness [piety] and the rest were mentioned as if together they made up one thing, [namely,] virtue. (329a-c)


Are the moral virtues one or many?

This is the point that I want you to state for me with more precision. Is virtue a single whole, and are justice and self-control and holiness parts of it, or are these latter all names for one and the same thing? (329c-d)

"You say that virtue is teachable ..." Socrates' question: Does Protagoras claim to teach one thing or several things when he says that he is able to teach virtue? Protagoras own words suggest this question when he speaks of "some one thing", despite listing several things, namely, "justice and moderation and holiness of life" (324e-325a).

What does Protagoras mean by the expression 'manly virtue'? I think, that he is not only claiming to teach civic (or, public) virtue but also private (or, personal) virtue. Certainly self-control and holiness of life are necessary in both man's civic and personal life. Public speaking, on the other hand, is not (Hippocrates apparently thinks that if he is "to make a name for himself in the city" (316b-c), then he must be instructed by a Sophist, such as Protagoras, who is "master of the art of making clever speakers" (312d)).

"Virtue is a single thing, and the individual virtues are its parts" (cf. Stoicism's model of philosophy)

PROTAGORAS: [That is easy to answer.] Virtue is one, and the qualities you ask about are parts of it.

SOCRATES: Do you mean ... as the parts of a face are parts -- mouth, nose, eyes, and ears -- or like the parts of a piece of gold, which do not differ from one another or from the whole except in size?

PROTAGORAS: In the first way ... they are in the relation of the parts of a face to the whole.

SOCRATES: Then do men so share in these parts of virtue that some have one and some another, or must a man who possesses one of them possess them all?

PROTAGORAS: By no means. Many men are brave but unjust, and others are just but not wise. (329d-e)

Socrates asks if wisdom and courage are parts of virtue. And Protagoras answers that they are, and further, that "Wisdom is indeed the greatest of the parts", although that does not seem pertinent to the discussion at this point.

SOCRATES: [Has each of these parts of virtue] its own function? In a face, the eye is not like the ear nor has it the same function. Nor do the other parts resemble one another in function any more than in any other respects. Is this how the parts of virtue differ, both in themselves and in their function?

PROTAGORAS: Yes ["the parallel holds good"].

SOCRATES: Then no other part of virtue resembles knowledge or justice or courage or temperance or holiness.

PROTAGORAS: [Agreed.] (329e-330b)

I have the idea that an apt metaphor for moral virtue maybe would be the individual virtues as faces of a cube. About the "individual functions" metaphor -- the question is if an act can be e.g. brave without at the same time being holy, just, temperate and wise? If to do what is brave is to do what is good -- and note that courage could not be a moral virtue otherwise -- then it does not seem (i.e. I do not see how it could be) possible.

All that if, that is, the "individual functions" metaphor implies that the individual virtues can act (exist) independently of one another (as e.g. a deaf man can see, a blind man hear), although it is true that, for example, the proposition 'Such-and-such act is brave' cannot be rewritten as 'Such-and-such act is holy' without loss of meaning (and that is why the "faces of a cube" metaphor seems apt, because it maintains both unity and the possibility of making distinctions, unlike the "pieces of gold" metaphor).

SOCRATES: Now let us consider together what sort of thing each [virtue] is. (330b)

Is holiness holy, swiftness swift, justice just, bigness big?

Socrates asks first about the virtue of justice, and both he and Protagoras agree that "there is such as justice". And they both agree that justice "is itself just" rather than unjust. And they both agree that "there is also such a thing as holiness". And Socrates says that the question "Do you say that this thing [i.e. holiness] is of a nature to be holy or unholy?" is "a blasphemous question", and Protagoras agrees that it is, that "holiness is indeed holy". (330b-e)

When Plato says that holiness is or must be holy (330d-e), is he not saying that an adjective must apply to its nominal (i.e. noun-form), such that e.g. swiftness is or must itself be swift? But the proposition 'Swiftness is swift' or its contrary 'Swiftness is not swift', is neither a true nor a false statement but instead both statements (propositions) are nonsense (i.e. undefined combinations of words). To say that 'Holiness is holy' is to say nothing. (Is bigness big and smallness small?)

Socrates again states what Protagoras' thesis is, namely, that: "The parts of virtue are so related that one does not resemble the other." (331a)

SOCRATES: [And if someone asks us] "Then is it not the nature of holiness to be something just, nor of justice to be holy; [justice] will be not-holy [i.e. unholy], and holiness will be not-just [i.e. unjust]?" What shall we answer? I would say ... that justice is holy and holiness just, and ... that justice is either the same thing as holiness or very like it, and that justice unquestionably resembles holiness and holiness justice.

PROTAGORAS: I don't think it's quite so simple ... I can't really admit that justice is holy and holiness just; I think there is some difference there.

However ... what does it matter? If you like, let us assume that justice is holy and holiness just.

SOCRATES: Excuse me ... It isn't this "if you like" and "if that's what you think" that I want us to examine, but you and me ourselves. (330e-331c)

[Jowett's translation: "Pardon me ... I do not want this if you wish ... sort of conclusion [i.e. thesis] to be proven [i.e. put to the test], but I want you and me to be proven [i.e. tested]: I mean to say that the conclusion will be best proven if there be no if." (331c)]

The thesis of a discussion (i.e. the proposition to be tested), if it stands the test and is agreed to, becomes the conclusion of the discussion.

What Socrates wants to examine is whether each man knows what he believes himself to know (Apology 23b), and here specifically: whether Protagoras knows what he claims to know or not.

SOCRATES: What I mean is, I think the argument will be most fairly tested if we take the "if" out of it. (331c)

Possibly, I think (and that means that I don't know), Socrates means that he does not want to begin their discussion with a hypothetical proposition: "Let us assume p" (ibid.) = "If p is true, then ..." -- i.e. a discussion where the truth or falsity of the thesis proposition p is not itself examined. Plato has Protagoras say "But what does it matter?" (ibid.), suggesting that to Protagoras a discussion is merely an exercise in rhetoric, in making "the worse appear the better" reason, in speech-making to win applause (cf. 335a, 336b and 337a-b) -- not philosophy, not companionable dialectic, not a shared search for the truth, as it is to Socrates.

Comparisons can always be made

PROTAGORAS: Well of course ... justice does have some resemblance to holiness. After all, everything resembles everything else up to a point. There is a sense in which white resembles black, and hard soft, and so on with all other things that present the most contrary appearances. Even the parts of the face, which we described earlier as having different functions and not being like each other, have a certain resemblance and are like each other in some way. So by your method you can prove, if you want to, that they too all resemble one another. But it is not right to call things similar because they have some one point of similarity, even when the resemblance is very slight, any more than to call things dissimilar that have some point of dissimilarity. (331d-e)

When an analogy is introduced in dialectic the proposition to be tested is: 'A resembles B in such-and-such a way' -- not in every way that we can imagine. And likewise if it is claimed that A is unlike B. The question isn't whether A and B are alike or unalike in "some point or other", but whether A and B are alike or unalike in such-and-such specific point. And as long as Socrates and Protagoras are not specific about which way holiness is like justice, the discussion wanders lost in a cloud of vagueness. (The logic of comparison.)

SOCRATES: And this is how you suppose justice to be related to holiness, that there is only a slight resemblance between them?

PROTAGORAS: Not quite that, but not on the other hand in the way that you seem to believe. (331e)

Well yes, but exactly in which "way"? Neither Protagoras nor Socrates at this point says. But later Socrates does point out a way in which all the moral virtues resemble one another (See 332a-b).

However, at this point Socrates suggests they drop "this line of argument" since "it doesn't seem agreeable" to Protagoras (332a) -- i.e. in other words, Socrates believes that Protagoras' thesis has been refuted, that Protagoras has been shown not to know what he thinks himself to know, although Protagoras will not concede that at this point in their discussion (Maybe later in 360e he does).

It is not possible to refute nonsense

If anyone says that "Holiness is just" or indeed if someone says that "Holiness is unjust", is it clear what that person is saying, if anything, with that combination of words? (A meaning can of course be invented for those words or for any other normally undefined combination of words, but they haven't meaning as they nakedly stand here). And likewise if someone says that "Justice is holy rather than unholy", what would anyone mean by saying that? It has as little meaning as dialog's earlier agreed statement that "Holiness is holy". (As to the proposition 'The adjective A-ish applies to A' -- the question is: in which specific way? That is what must be asked if our words are to be sense rather than nonsense.)

And so I don't think that Socrates has refuted Protagoras' thesis, because it is not possible to refute nonsense (other than by showing it to be nonsense). A proposition cannot have less than three values -- namely, true or false or nonsense (i.e. undefined in meaning). Plato has simply wandered off into a lot of undefined language.

On the other hand, if what Plato says in 330c-331e is intelligible (i.e. if it is not nonsense, where 'nonsense' = 'undefined language'), and that is an "if" I am not willing to concede, then it would appear that Socrates has refuted Protagoras' thesis stated in 330b that "No other part of virtue resembles knowledge or justice or courage or temperance or holiness". In any case, the dialog assumes that refutation and pushes forward on another tack.

Contraries and Contrary Agents: a proof that the virtues, despite their various names, are one rather than many

SOCRATES: [Let us] look at something else ... You recognize the existence of folly?

PROTAGORAS: Yes. [Protagoras will agree to the rest of Socrates' propositions cast in the form of questions as well -- i.e. 'Does folly exist? Yes.' is equivalent to 'Folly exists.']

A thing has only one contrary

SOCRATES: Is not wisdom altogether contrary to [folly]?... And when men act rightly and advantageously, do you regard them as acting temperately ["That is to say with temperance"]?... And those who act wrongly act foolishly, and in doing so do not behave temperately?... Then foolish behavior is the opposite of temperate? (332a-b)

But if all that is true, then folly has two contraries (or, opposites), namely, temperance and wisdom. Which contradicts (and thereby refutes) Protagoras' thesis that "The parts of virtue are so related that one does not resemble the other" (331a), because from the above propositions, and from those which come next in the discussion, it follows that not only do temperance and wisdom resemble one another (in that both are contrary to folly) but appear to be the same virtue (again, because both are contrary to folly) -- if it is true that "each thing has one contrary and no more" (332d). And so, Socrates asks Protagoras, which of those two propositions are they to give up (333a)?

Question: can a word -- i.e. one that is the name of a single concept, or in other words, a single sense of a word -- have more than one antithesis (or, contrary, or, opposite)? Well, I don't know. To disprove that thesis we would have to find an example of a word with more than one antithesis. Plato next gives many examples of fictitious agents (agencies), that maybe are the result of following a false grammatical analogy.

An example. According to Xenophon's account of Socrates' definitions (Mem. iii, 9, 6), madness is the opposite of wisdom but is not identical to ignorance (despite its being true that not knowing oneself and thinking one knows what one does not is next to madness [How do we distinguish between the two? Both the ignorant and the mad base their actions on false beliefs]). Thus wisdom would have (at least) two opposites: ignorance and madness.

Examples of fictitious agents

SOCRATES: And foolish behavior is the outcome of folly, and temperate of temperance? ... If something is done with strength, it is done strongly, and with weakness weakly, if with speed quickly, and if with slowness slowly?

What is done in the same manner is done by the same agency, and if contrariwise, by the contrary? (332b-c)

Plato appears to be presuming that what is done strongly is caused -- for what else is 'an agency' to mean except 'a cause' -- by a mysterious agency named 'strength'. And that foolish acts are caused by a mysterious agency named 'foolishness' ('folly'). But that presumption needs to be tested in dialectic -- not to determine if it is true or false, but to determine what meaning it has, if any. (Plato's application of the word 'agency' or 'agent' here may be an instance of "the fallacy of following a false grammatical analogy".)

[Jowett's translation is about the same, no clearer: "And foolish actions are done by folly, and temperate actions by temperance?... And that is done strongly which is done by strength, and that which is weakly done, by weakness?... And that which is done with swiftness is done swiftly, and that which is done with slowness, slowly?... And that which is done in the same manner, is done by the same; and that which is done in an opposite manner by the opposite?" (332b-c)]

It is as if Plato were noticing the relationship between an adverb (or adjective) and its corresponding noun: 'done with strength' = 'done strongly', as if he regards the noun as the cause of its adverb (or adjective), as if 'swiftness' were the sine qua non of 'swiftly' (and 'swift'). (Note.--Plato's "Forms" notion is not mentioned in, and may not even have been invented by the time of the Protagoras.) I say "as if" because I really don't know what Plato is doing.

But it strikes me that the word 'swiftly' (or 'swift') might well exist without the word 'swiftness', that is, that in many cases the noun appears as an afterthought -- having been invented as the result of following a false grammatical analogy -- i.e. that because it seems that some adverbs (or adjectives) must have noun-forms (e.g. 'man' seems necessarily to precede its adjective 'manly'), all must have -- which seems to be a misunderstanding of the logic of our language.

There is, contra Plato, no ontological priority for the noun. Indeed, why shouldn't some adverbs (and adjectives) be invented before their noun-form, or exist without any noun-form or any need for a noun-form? A noun as it were institutionalizes the adverb (or adjective), but that institution may well be a mistake. You could say of 'The man runs swiftly' -- why do you need the noun 'swiftness' at all?

It is the noun form of words that causes so many muddles in philosophy. Yet it strikes me that some nouns ("nominals", "substantives") should not even exist, as e.g. 'swiftness'.

Which came first in man's natural history (which is the natural history of language) -- the noun, the verb, the adverb or the adjective? Yes, it's a question without an answer, but it does open up possible lines of thought, suggest possibilities, possible questions to ask about any particular noun.

SOCRATES: [You] recognize the existence of the fair?... Has it any contrary except the foul?... And the good too you recognize?... Has it any contrary except the bad?... And also high pitch in sound?... And has it any contrary but low?... In short ... to everything that admits of a contrary there is one contrary and no more.

Now ... let us recapitulate our points of agreement. We agreed that each thing has one contrary and no more. That what is done in a contrary manner is done by a contrary agency, that a foolish action is contrary to a temperate one, and that a temperate action is performed with temperance and a foolish one with folly.

PROTAGORAS: [Agreed.]

SOCRATES: If then what is done in a contrary manner is done by a contrary agency, then one action is performed with temperance and the other with folly -- in a contrary manner and so by contrary agencies -- then folly is the contrary of temperance.

PROTAGORAS: It seems so.

SOCRATES: Now you remember our earlier agreement that folly was the contrary of wisdom [332a]?... And [our agreement] that one thing has one contrary [332e]?

PROTAGORAS: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Then which statement are we to give up? The dictum "one thing one contrary" or the statement that wisdom is a distinct thing from temperance [330b], both being parts of virtue, and that in addition to each being distinct, they are dissimilar both in themselves and in their functions, like the parts of a face?

Which shall we renounce? The two statements are not very harmonious ... How could they [be], if one thing can have only one opposite, and yet though folly is only one thing, temperance as well as wisdom appears to be contrary to it? Isn't that the way of it ...?

PROTAGORAS [reluctantly]: [Agreed.]

SOCRATES: Then must not temperance and wisdom be the same ...?

Come now, Protagoras, we must not falter, but must complete our inquiry. (332c-333b)

And so Socrates next proposes (although Protagoras, and maybe Socrates as well, will shipwreck this part of the discussion) this question to Protagoras: "Do you think that a man who commits an injustice acts temperately in committing it?" (333b-c)

Jowett's translation: "Do you think that an unjust man can be temperate in his injustice?" Which seems to be a different question. Is not the reply of the historical Socrates that "A man who is in control of himself (self-controlled) can commit a wrongdoing only if he is ignorant that it is a wrongdoing but believes it to be a right-doing", or, in other words, "if he thinks himself to be wise even though he is not" -- i.e. if he thinks he knows what he does not know? The "unjust man" is none other than the ignorant (i.e. ignorant of the good) man.

For Socrates, no one knowingly does wrong, because (with respect to the moral virtues) wrong-doing is harmful to man -- specifically it is harmful to man's "soul" -- i.e. to the ethical aspect of man (or, to use Albert Schweitzer's phrase, to man as an "ethical personality") ... so maybe I should say: harmful to man's "Socratic soul" -- i.e. Socrates' sense of the word 'soul' (psyche), in contrast to Plato's Orphic meaning for the word 'soul'.

Socrates begins a new line of questioning, but Protagoras violates the format of dialectic with a lengthy speech that puts an end to it

SOCRATES: Do you think that a man who commits an injustice acts temperately in committing it?

PROTAGORAS: [I do not.] Of course many people do.

SOCRATES: [Shall] I direct my argument against them or against you?

PROTAGORAS: If you wish ... argue first against the proposition of the many.

SOCRATES: It is all the same to me ... provided you make the replies, whether it is your own opinion or not. It is the argument itself I wish to probe, though it may turn out that both I who question and you who answer are equally under scrutiny. (333b-d)

That last clause seems to make Socrates' statement here equivalent to his earlier statement that he wants to examine "you and me ourselves" (331c), although maybe it is contrary to Socrates' saying that he wants no "if" (ibid.), because Protagoras goes on to say "We will suppose so" (333d).

What are synonyms for 'temperance'? Usually 'self-control' is one, but that word may not be equivalent in meaning to 'temperance' in what follows.

SOCRATES: Now let us start from the beginning. You believe that some people show temperance in doing wrong?

PROTAGORAS: We will suppose so ... [Protagoras agrees to Socrates' next two propositions as well.]

SOCRATES: And to show temperance is to show good sense?... Which means that in doing wrong they have planned well?... If their wrongdoing is successful or unsuccessful?

PROTAGORAS: If it is successful.

SOCRATES: You agree that some things are good?... And do you mean by good those things which are beneficial to man?

PROTAGORAS: Not only those ... [There are things that are] not beneficial to me [that I nonetheless] call good.

SOCRATES: Do you mean things which are beneficial to no human being, or things that are not beneficial at all? Do you call them good also?

PROTAGORAS: Of course not ... (333d-334a)

Protagoras' speech: things are good or bad relative to other things

And now Protagoras makes another long speech (334a-c), the sum of which is that some things are harmful and other things are beneficial: harmful in one way, beneficial in another, harmful to some, beneficial to others. One example Protagoras gives: manure "is good for all plants when applied to their roots, but utterly destructive if put on the shoot or young branches". [There is in Xenophon's Memorabilia a discussion of "the good is the useful (or beneficial)", a dialectic between Aristippus and Socrates, also.]

Everyone "applauds this speech" of Protagoras', but Socrates does not. Because dialectic, with its step-by-step agreements, is the only form of discussion that Socrates is able, with understanding, to take part in [335b-c].


If Protagoras will not keep to the brief question and answer format of dialectic, then Socrates will refuse to continue their discussion

Brevity is wanted in order not to lose sight of the thread (i.e. line of reasoning) of the argument.

SOCRATES: I'm a forgetful sort of man, Protagoras, and if someone speaks at length, I lose the thread of the argument. If I were a little deaf, you would recognize the necessity of raising your voice if you wanted to talk to me; so now since you find me forgetful, cut down your answers and make them shorter if I am to follow you.

PROTAGORAS: What do you mean by "make my answers short"? Am I to make them shorter than the subject demands?

SOCRATES: Of course not.

PROTAGORAS: As long as is necessary then?... As long [an answer] as I think necessary, or you?

SOCRATES: What they told me ... is that you have the gift of speaking yourself and of teaching others to speak just as you prefer -- either at length, so that you will never run dry, or so shortly that no one can beat you for brevity. If then you are going to talk to me, please use the second method and be brief.

PROTAGORAS: I have fought many a contest in words [logomachy], and if I had done as you bid me, that is, adopted the method chosen by my opponent, I should have proved no better than anyone else, nor would the name of Protagoras have been heard of in Greece. (334c-335a)

And so it is clear to Socrates that Protagoras will "not of his own free will continue in the role of answerer", and it seems therefore to Socrates that it is not Socrates' "business [cf. Republic 496d: "his own affair"] to remain any longer in the discussions". (335a-b)

SOCRATES: I have no wish myself to insist on continuing our conversation in a way that you don't approve. I will talk with you another time, when you are willing to converse so that I can follow. [I] cannot manage these long speeches ... (335b-c)

And so it is that Socrates gets up to leave. But Callias says, "Our talk won't be the same without you. Please stay with us. There is nothing that I would rather listen to than a conversation between you and Protagoras." But Socrates again says that he can't follow a discussion if there are long speeches in it.

Companionable discussion

SOCRATES: So if you want to hear Protagoras and me, ask him to go on answering me as he did at first, briefly and keeping to the point of my questions. How can we have a discussion otherwise? Personally I thought that companionable talk was one thing, and public speaking another. (336b)

Compare "dialectic" versus "speech-making" in Gorgias 461d-462a. And Xenophon's Memorabilia iii, 8, 1, is also comparable to the distinction made in Protagoras 336b between "public speaking" and "companionable talk"; Jowett's translation is: "For discussion is one thing, and making an oration is quite another, in my humble opinion."

Callias, however, replies that "Protagoras is surely right in thinking that he is entitled to talk in the way that suits him, just as much as you are". But here Alcibiades breaks in to offer his own view of the matter. (336b)

Intelligent give-and-take in discussion

ALCIBIADES: Socrates admits frankly that long speeches are beyond him and that Protagoras has the better of him there, but [not] in discussion and the intelligent give-and-take of arguments [Jowett: "the power of holding and apprehending an argument"] ... If Protagoras in his turn admits that Socrates beats him in discussion, Socrates will be satisfied. But if [Protagoras] maintains his claim [that he is able both to speak at length or to speak briefly (with brevity)], let him continue the discussion with question and answer, not meeting every question with a long oration, eluding the arguments and refusing to meet them properly, spinning it out until most of his hearers have forgotten what the question was about. (336b-d)

Prodicus' many subtle distinctions: 'discussion' versus 'dispute'

Then Prodicus states his own view of it, while demonstrating his ability to make subtle distinctions (Plato calls these "Prodicus' precise verbal distinctions" (358a)) with words that aren't commonly (normally) used to make those distinctions. For example, he says of the words 'impartially' and 'equally' that "the two things are not the same", and he also distinguishes between the words 'discussion' and 'dispute', and between 'esteem' and 'praise', and between 'enjoyment' and 'pleasure'. It's not that the distinctions he makes aren't real distinctions; it's simply that, if we do no more than describe our normal use of those words, then we must admit that they are synonyms, and that Prodicus' distinctions are not normally made by means of them.

Prodicus says that "a discussion is carried on among friends with good will, but a dispute is between rivals and enemies", and there is a real distinction there. But in philosophy -- a title mere logomachy is not worthy of -- if, as Socrates and Plato held, philosophical argument is dialectic in form and truth-seeking in purpose, the words 'discussion' and 'dispute' are not used to make that distinction. In philosophy those words are synonyms -- because in philosophy the only "rivals" are contrary [or, contradictory] propositions, and the only "enemies" falsity and nonsense. In any case, Prodicus' view is that the conversation between Protagoras and Socrates should be "a discussion, not a dispute". (337a-b)

Hippias: nomos ("custom, convention") versus physis ("nature")

Then after Prodicus, Hippias speaks: "Gentlemen ... I count you all my kinsmen and family and fellow citizens -- by nature, not by convention. By nature like is kin to like, but custom, the tyrant of mankind, does much violence to nature. For us then who understand the nature of things, who are the intellectual leaders of Greece and in virtue of that very fact are now assembled in Athens, the center and shrine of Greek wisdom", etc. In Hippias' view Socrates and Protagoras should take a middle course between brevity and lengthiness of speech, and "appoint an arbitrator, referee, or president" to "preserve a moderate length in the speeches of both". (337c-338b)

Socrates questions who that arbitrator could be, however, since there is no one there who is "wiser than Protagoras", and to assign the task of arbitrator to a less wise man would be "an insult" to Protagoras. He proposes instead a different way "to enable" his discussion with Protagoras "to proceed".

SOCRATES: If Protagoras is unwilling to give replies, let him be the questioner and I will answer, and at the same try to show him how, in my submission, the respondent should speak. When I have answered as many questions as he likes to put, let him in return render similar account to me ["and make brief replies"] ... For this purpose we have no need of a single arbitrator; you will all keep watch on us together. (338c-e)

Protagoras is "most unwilling, but he [has] to agree to be the questioner", because that is what "everyone thought was the right way to proceed". (338e)


Is it hard to be or only to become virtuous?

PROTAGORAS [now begins "his questions something like this"]: In my view, Socrates, the most important part of a man's education is to become an authority on poetry. This means being able to criticize the good and bad points of a poem with understanding, to know how to distinguish them, and give one's reasons when asked. My question to you therefore will concern the subject of our present discussion, namely virtue, but transferred to the realm of poetry. That will be the only difference. (338e-339a)

But their original question concerned whether or not the moral virtues can be taught, because that is the what Protagoras claims to be able to do. But then the question became whether Protagoras knows "what virtue is" -- because if he knows, surely he can tell (cf. Laches 190c). And so now Protagoras, maybe (i.e. I don't know), tries to show that he does indeed know "what virtue is" ... although note that he has not yet won agreement for his answer (indeed, it appears to have been refuted in 331e) to Socrates' question about whether the moral virtues are one rather than many.

At the beginning of the discussion of Simonides' poem, Socrates far from giving serious discussion to Protagoras appears instead to be mimicking (and thereby mocking) the methods of the Sophists themselves, seeking by any means -- i.e. as if the question of truth and falsity were of no importance to him -- to "win" the argument (339d-e) rather than to speak ingenuously. So it appears because Socrates, not seeing at first how to parry (i.e. refute) Protagoras' thrust (i.e. thesis), in order to delay his reply to Protagoras, appeals to Prodicus, Simonides' fellow countryman, for help.

And again, it's not that Prodicus' sometimes bit more than a bit subtle distinctions are idle, e.g. there is a clear distinction even as we normally use those words between 'to be' and 'to become' (340c) -- although maybe it is harder to see, as we normally define (or use) those expressions, a difference between 'to wish' and 'to desire' (340a-b) -- but Plato's question may be: why does Prodicus make those distinctions? Is it for the sake of discovering the truth or for the sake of winning -- or, rather, appearing to win -- the argument, as when Protagoras claims able to make "the worse appear the better" reason (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1402a)? How does Plato portray Prodicus and Hippias in this dialog -- as dishonest men or as simply mistaken about how man should live his life (which, for both the historical Socrates and Plato, is philosophically)? The discussion is, in any case, at this point amusing, as much like Aristophanes as Plato.

Protagoras now quotes Simonides of Ceos who has said, "Hard is it on the one hand to become / A good man truly / ... / Nor do I count as sure the oft-quoted word / Of Pittacus / ... To be noble, said the sage, / Is hard." Protagoras asks if Socrates thinks "the two passages are consistent" (339b-c). Socrates, in reply, and making use of the distinction between 'to be' and 'to become', which he has elicited from Prodicus, quotes Hesiod (Works and Days 289): "The gods have put sweat on the path to virtue, / [but when] / The summit's reached, / Hard though it was, thenceforth the Task is light / To keep it" (340c-d).

PROTAGORAS: Your justification, Socrates, involves a greater error than the one it sets out to defend ... The poet must be very stupid, if he says that it is such a light matter to hold onto virtue, when everyone agrees that there is nothing more difficult. (340d-e)

Plato, "Spartan sages"

Socrates says that he is "ready to tell [Protagoras Socrates'] own opinion of Simonides' meaning in this song ... but if you prefer it I will listen to you". Protagoras replies: "Please speak if you will ..." (341e-342a). The reply Plato has Socrates make is not, I think, in part spoken without irony. The enigmatic utterances of oracles and sages, creators of proverbs and slogans, are not exactly rational, and are therefore not exactly philosophical either: their words are instead raw material (cf. PI § 254 and CV p. 56) for philosophical discussion (dialectic, which is "discourse of reason", either with oneself or with one's companions). I think, and that means I don't know, Plato speaks somewhat ironically at first because the Spartans, according to everything I have read about them, seem to have been "misologists and strangers to the Muses" (Republic 411d). They did not engage in dialectic, that is, in philosophy.

"Wise sayings were the earliest philosophy"

SOCRATES: Well, then ... I will try to expound to you the view that I take. The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta, where are found more Sophists than anywhere on earth. But they conceal their wisdom like the Sophists Protagoras spoke of [316d], and pretend to be fools, so that their superiority over the rest of Greece may not be known to lie in wisdom, but seem to consist in fighting and courage.

Plato's "Seven Wise Men of Greece"

Now there are some, both at the present day and in the past, who have tumbled to this fact, namely that to be Spartan implies a taste for intellectual rather than physical exercise, for they realize that to frame such utterances ["a telling phrase, brief and taut" (342e)] is a mark of the highest culture. Of these were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, our own [i.e. the Athenian] Solon, Cleobulus of Lindus, and Myson of Chen, and the seventh of the company, we are told, was a Spartan, Chilon. All these were emulators, admirers, and disciples of Spartan culture, and their wisdom may be recognized as belonging to the same category, consisting of pithy and memorable dicta uttered by each.

Moreover they met together and dedicated the first fruits of their wisdom to Apollo in his temple at Delphi, inscribing those words which are on everyone's lips, 'Know thyself' and 'Nothing too much'. [Jowett's translation | Other lists of the Seven Wise Men of Greece.]

I mention these facts to make the point that, among the ancients, this Laconic brevity was the characteristic expression of philosophy. In particular this saying of Pittacus, "Hard is it to be noble", got into circulation privately and earned the approval of the wise ...

Pittacus said, "Hard is it to be noble", and Simonides replied, disputing the point, "No, to become a good man is hard truly" -- not, by the way, "to become truly good" -- he does not refer the "truly" to that, as if some men were truly good and others good but not truly so. Simonides [response to Pittacus is] "That is not true, Pittacus; not to be but to become a good man ... that is hard truly." (342a-344a)

Despite having said that he cannot follow the thread of an argument if someone speaks at length (334c-d), Plato's Socrates gives a very long speech about the meaning of Simonides' poem. And it must be noted that Socrates fails to show how a proper dialectician should reply to questions, which was what he promised to do (338d), not if dialectic has anything to do with brevity of questions and answers, certainly.

"Virtue is knowledge"

SOCRATES: Simonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised all who did no evil voluntarily, as if there were any who did evil voluntarily. For myself I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willing perpetuates any evil or base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary. (345d-e)

Now, what does "involuntary" or "against one's will" or "unwillingly" mean here? No man is willingly ignorant of what the good is for him, because all men seek that good (however deluded they may be about what that good truly is for them). And therefore, although this is an awkward way of putting it, man only does what is wrong unwillingly -- i.e. because he is ignorant in a way he does not will -- i.e. want, or, freely choose -- to be.

And if that is so, then although it may be difficult to become good -- i.e. difficult to know what the good is for man -- it cannot be difficult to be good, not if virtue is knowledge. Even a man's persisting in the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance shows that he believes that he knows those habits to be good, despite his saying that he knows that they are not.

Sometimes we say this is because the man deceives himself, but other times that he is not forthright with himself -- i.e. that he prefers not to ask himself what the truth is. Why? There is this: "the stubborn man within", the irrational brute who is always at home, arrogant in his conceited ignorance. (Despite man's being endowed with rationality (the gift of "discourse of reason"), there is an irrational root in man, Aristotle's "rational animal".)

Preconception might be compared to brutish stubbornness. Question: if you are convinced that there is nothing there to find, will you look to find there (cf. PI § 52)? If you are convinced that philosophical argument cannot discover how to amend bad habits ... Because where does that conviction come from -- is its source not ignorance? And it is conviction -- i.e. irrational certainty -- rather than skepticism, because skepticism is willing to look to see if ethics might not be rational and therefore able to discover ways to amend man's life. No, it is not the skepticism of Socratic ignorance, but the conceited ignorance that thinks it knows what it does not know -- i.e. that ethics is fundamentally irrational -- and therefore that there is no need even to look.

"... it cannot be difficult to be good, not if virtue is knowledge", which is what the statement that no one willingly does evil implies. It can only be true that it is difficult to become good if man's state of mind is ignorance (which is the antithesis, or, contrary of knowledge). Wrong-doing is involuntary because no rational man chooses to be ignorant of what the good is for him. (And man is not always rational ... "But it is irrational to be irrational!" Exactly.)

If the proposition 'No one willingly sins or continues in wrong-doing' is a statement of fact it must be possibly true or false. If it can only be true, then it is a tautology, which is what it appears to be. And yet tautologies can be very powerful in ethics, as e.g. Plato's tautological ethics is.

After Socrates has finished his long, very long exposition of Simonides' poem, Alcibiades says, "Socrates and Protagoras must carry out their agreement. Let Socrates reply if Protagoras wants to ask further questions, or if he prefers to answer Socrates, then let Socrates do the questioning." (347b)

Absent poets cannot be cross-questioned about the meaning of their poetry

SOCRATES: I leave it to Protagoras to do whichever pleases him. But if he is agreeable I suggest we leave the subject of songs and poems, for I would be glad to reach a conclusion ... in the joint investigation with [Protagoras], on matters about which I asked [him] at the beginning [namely, whether virtue is one or many (329c-d)].

[Even at a symposium (wine party), where men are not uneducated but] of worth and culture, you will find no girls piping or dancing or harping. They are quite capable of enjoying their own company without such frivolous nonsense, using their own voices in sober discussion and each taking his turn to speak or listen ... In the same way gatherings like our own, if they consist of men such as most of us claim to be, call for no extraneous voices -- not even of poets. No one can interrogate poets about what they say, and most often when they are introduced into the discussion some say the poet's meaning is one thing and some another, for the topic is one on which nobody can produce a conclusive argument. The best people avoid such discussions, and entertain [as at a wine party (symposium)] each other from their own resources, testing one another's mettle in what they have to say themselves. These are the people, in my opinion, whom you and I should follow, setting the poets aside and conducting the conversation on the basis of our own ideas. It is the truth, and our own minds, that we should be testing [cf. 331c; cf. Plato, Lesser Hippias 365c-d]. (347b-348a)

Protagoras, although again reluctantly (cf. 333b), says that he will answer Socrates rather than question him and tells him to put the questions, Socrates having said that he wants "to bring to its conclusion the discussion which we broke off in the middle". (348a-c)

In both 348d-349a and 360e-361a, Plato has wrapped the protests he has Socrates make in so-called Socratic irony, making them appear as insincere as Socrates' claim that he has an appointment elsewhere (335c and 362a), as if anything could be more important to the historical Socrates than the topic of their discussion, namely virtue, or as if he would forget his responsibility towards the youth Hippocrates. In its mocking of Protagoras' claim to teach virtue, 348d-349a is so rude that Protagoras would have to be stupidly vain not to see through it, and the historical Protagoras -- and indeed the Protagoras of Plato's dialog -- was and is not stupid. (As to "Socratic irony", I know of no evidence independent of Plato's dialogs that it is historically Socratic rather than Platonic.)

"When two investigate" (Iliad 10.224)

SOCRATES: Protagoras ... please don't think that I have any purpose in this discussion than to investigate questions which continually baffle me. I believe Homer hit a nail on the head when he said, "If two go together, one perceives before the other" [Iliad 10.224]. Somehow we all feel better fortified in this way for any action or speech or thought. But to continue the quotation, "If one alone perceive" -- why he goes off at once looking for someone to whom he can show his idea and with whom he can confirm it, and will not rest till he finds him. (348c-d)

[Jowett: "... one to whom he may show his discoveries, and who may confirm him in them." (348d)]

To show and seek to confirm is Socratic dialectic. To "show" is to give an account (a proposition) of what one thinks one knows. And to "confirm" is to put (the proposition) to the test of cross-questioning, there to be agreed to or refuted.

SOCRATES: I want then to go back to the beginning, to my first questions to you on this subject. Some things I want you to remind me of, and others I want to investigate with your help. The question, if I am not mistaken, was this. Wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, and holiness are five terms. Do they stand for a single reality, or has each a particular entity underlying it, a reality with its own separate function, each different from the other? (349a-b)

Inapt expressions lay down false paths

This false account of the logic of our language is found again and again, not only in Plato but in all his heirs in philosophy (which all of us are), namely that "Words are names, and the meaning of name is the object the name stands for" ... "[The Pythagoreans are convinced] that the number of revolving heavenly bodies is ten, and as there are only nine visible, they invent the Antichthon ["counter-earth"] as a tenth" (Aristotle, Metaphysics 986a, tr. Taylor). In cases where there is no object, Antichthon is what the "object the name stands for" is (cf. PI § 36). Antichthon is not the result of an investigation; it is a preconception that determines what the investigation is required to find (cf. ibid. § 107) -- but such an investigation is no investigation at all.

Maybe it is not necessary to post a warning sign-post here, because Plato's picture of language does not seem to get him into a muddle yet. But words such as "... are five terms. Do they stand for a single reality, or has each a particular entity underlying it, a reality with its own separate function" are not mere nothings to be passed over in silence. (The persistence of a false notion of how our language works, that all words are names of objects, even if of objects of a bit more than a bit mysterious kind.)

Maybe it is not that Plato does not distinguish between a verbal convention and a "real definition", but that he tries to make hypotheses about the "entities" (i.e. objects, in this case "intangible objects") he posits (i.e. preconceives) as existing behind the verbal conventions, and that often plunges him hopelessly into a muddle.

SOCRATES: Your answer was [329d-e] that they are not names for the same thing, but that each of these terms applies to its own separate reality, and that all these things are parts of virtue ... like the parts of a face, resembling neither the whole nor each other and each having a separate function. If you are still of the same mind, say so, but if not, then declare yourself.

PROTAGORAS: No ... My view is that all these are parts of virtue, and that four of them resemble each other fairly closely, but courage is very different from all the rest. The proof of what I say is that you can find many men who are quite unjust, unholy, intemperate, and ignorant, yet outstandingly courageous. (349a-c)

The view which Protagoras here denies holding is the very view he said was his own in 330b.

SOCRATES: [You] consider virtue an honorable thing, and it is on the assumption that it is honorable that you offer to teach it?

PROTAGORAS: Unless I am quite mad, it is the most honorable of all things.

SOCRATES: Part base and part honorable ... or all honorable?

PROTAGORAS: All honorable, as honorable as can be. (349d-e)

Further questions and answers about courage follow, but the discussion ends without resolution. And then Socrates moves on to ask about the relationship between pleasure and the good.


If pleasure is a good for man, does pleasure and pain or does knowledge govern man's life?

SOCRATES: My question [is] whether [pleasures] are not, qua pleasant, good. I am asking in fact whether pleasure itself is not a good thing.

[Jowett's rendering: "Then my meaning is, that in as far as they are pleasant they are good; and my question would imply that pleasure is a good in itself."]

PROTAGORAS: Let us ... as you are so fond of saying yourself [cf. 349e], investigate the question; then if the proposition we are examining seems reasonable, and [i.e. because] pleasant and good appear identical, we shall agree on it. If not, that will be the time to differ.

SOCRATES: What is your attitude to knowledge? Do you share the common [man's] view about that ...? Most people think ... that [knowledge] is nothing strong, no leading or ruling element. They don't see [knowledge as being] like that. They hold that it is not the knowledge that a man possesses which governs him, but something else -- now passion, now pleasure, now pain, sometimes love, and frequently fear. They just think of knowledge as a slave, pushed around by all the other affections. Is this your view too, or would you rather say that knowledge is a fine [an excellent] thing quite capable of ruling a man, and that he can distinguish good from evil, and that if he can distinguish good from evil, nothing will force him to act otherwise than as knowledge dictates, since wisdom is all the reinforcement he needs? (351d-352c)

According to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics 1145b21-29, Plato's view of knowledge here is similar to the view of the historical Socrates.

[Jowett's translation of 352a-c: Socrates asks Protagoras for his "opinion about knowledge", if he agrees "with the rest of the world. Now the rest of the world are of the opinion that knowledge is a principle not of strength, or of rule, or of command: their notion is that a man may have knowledge, and yet that knowledge which is in him may be overmastered by anger, or pleasure, or pain, or love, or perhaps by fear, -- just as if knowledge were a slave and might be dragged about anyhow. Now is that your view? or do you think that knowledge is a noble and commanding thing, which cannot be overcome, and will not allow a man if he only knows the difference of good and evil, to do anything which is contrary to knowledge, but that wisdom will have strength to help him?"]

PROTAGORAS: Not only is this my view ... but I above all men should think it shame to speak of wisdom and knowledge as anything but the most powerful elements in human life.

SOCRATES: Well and truly answered ... But I expect you know that most men don't believe us. They maintain that there are many who recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be open to them, but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be the reason for this, they answer that those who act in this way are overcome by pleasure or pain of some other of the things I mentioned just now.

PROTAGORAS: Well, Socrates, it's by no means uncommon for people to say what is not correct [i.e. to think they know what they don't know].

SOCRATES: Then come with me and try to convince them, and show what really happens when they speak of being overcome by pleasure and therefore, though recognizing what is best, failing to do it.

PROTAGORAS: But why must we look into the opinions of the common man, who says whatever comes into his head [Jowett: "the opinion of the many, who just say anything that happens to occur to them"]?

SOCRATES: I believe ... that it will help us to find out how courage is related to the other parts of virtue. (352c-353b)

Socrates now says that this is the view of the common man, that the common man's idea of "evil is pain, and [his idea] of good is pleasure. Even enjoying [oneself he calls] evil whenever it leads to the loss of a pleasure greater than its own, or lays up pains that outweigh its pleasures". (354c)

An example of what Plato is calling the common view of mankind is that unlimited indulgence in sensual things (food and drink and so on), which is pleasant, would be good if it did not "lay up for the future disease or poverty or such like". In other words: that gluttony is evil not because of "the actual momentary pleasure" it gives, but only because of its later consequences. (353c-e)

If gluttony were bad only because of the consequent ill-health (pain), then if it did not have that consequence, and if pleasure = good, then gluttony would be good. But if gluttony were the good for man, then moderation (self-control, temperance) would be bad for man -- because it would limit the enjoyment [possession] of the good for man. So thinks the common man or "the many", on Plato's account, that: pleasure = good, and pain = evil, and, I think, conversely, that good = pleasure, and evil = pain.

Limitless feeding as by the horse on cereals certainly does not belong to the excellence that is proper to man. That absence of self-control defines the beast, not man. Epictetus: If the beasts had discourse of reason, "they would deride those who thought much of anything but fodder!" (Disc. ii, 14, tr. Crossley). For man, such unlimited indulgence is not a virtue [excellence] but a vice [i.e. the opposite of virtue], nor is it a pleasure that is neither good nor evil (if indeed there are such pleasures in the context of "care of the soul": for it may be that whatever does not benefit the ethical aspect of man harms it).

Socrates now addresses his argument to the common man, that is to say to the opinion of the common man (or, of "the many").

SOCRATES: You say that a man often recognizes evil actions as evil, yet commits them, under no [external] compulsion [Jowett: "you say ... that a man often does evil knowingly [i.e. knowing it to be evil], when he might [i.e. even though he is free to] abstain"], because he is led on and distracted by pleasure, and on the other hand that, recognizing the good, he refrains from following it [Jowett: "you say that a man knowingly refuses to do what is good"] because he is overcome by the pleasures of the moment.

The absurdity of this will become evident if we stop using all these names together -- pleasant, painful, good, and evil -- and since they have turned out to be only two, call them by only two names -- first of all good and evil, and only at a different stage pleasure and pain. (355a-b)

[Jowett: "And that is this ridiculous will be evident if only we give up the use of various [pairs of] names, such as pleasant and painful, and good and evil. As there are [only] two things, let us call them by [only] two names [i.e. to each thing give one name rather than two names] -- first, good and evil, and then pleasant and painful." (355b)]

It occurs to me, perhaps wrongly, to somehow (I don't know just how) compare Plato's method to Pappus' isosceles triangle proof (Plato's method is to say that, If, as you say, 'A' = 'B' and 'C' = 'D', then let us use only the names 'A' and 'C', setting aside for the moment 'B' and 'D').

"Pleasure is the good for man. The good for man is pleasure." -- But does it follow, therefore, that 'good' and 'pleasure' are synonymous, that one word can be used as a substitute (i.e. interchanged) for the other? "It is pleasant to be wise, just, temperate, brave, and pious." But it isn't always pleasant to be any of those; quite the contrary it is sometimes painful. But then, is it the view of "the common man" that wisdom, justice, temperance, courage, and holiness are the good for man rather than e.g. fodder? 'It is pleasant to eat' = 'It is good to eat'? (It's a nice question for logic of language: "Pleasure has changed its name to good" versus "The word 'good' has replaced the word 'pleasure'.")

SOCRATES: Having agreed on this, suppose we now say that a man does evil though he recognizes it as evil. Why? Because he is overcome. By what? We can no longer say by pleasure, because it has changed its name to good. Overcome, we say. By what, we are asked. By the good, I suppose we shall say. [In sum: "Man does evil because is overcome by good."] ... Then by being overcome you must mean taking [Jowett: "choosing the"] greater evil in exchange for lesser good. (355b-e)

A science of measurement (or, knowledge) for pleasure and pain

SOCRATES: Having noticed this result, suppose we reinstate the names pleasant and painful for the same phenomena, thus: A man does -- evil we said before, but now we shall say painful actions, knowing them to be painful, because overcome by pleasures --. (355e)

That is, because the painful outweighs the pleasant, the painful rather than the pleasant action is chosen (That seems to be Plato's meaning, his point being that this claim is as foolish as the one in 355b-e, that man does (or, chooses to do) evil because he is overpowered by the good). [Jowett's translation: "And now substitute the names of pleasure and pain for good and evil, and say, not as before that a man does what is evil knowingly, but that he does what is painful knowingly, and because he is overcome by pleasure ..." (355e)] And which of those, whether pleasure or pain, is greater and which lesser can be weighed. (Weighing -- i.e. measuring -- is the metaphor Plato uses, or tries to use, because it may not be applicable in the way Plato presumes it is; cf. Plato's Euthyphro 6d-7d).

SOCRATES: In weighing pleasures against pleasures, one must always choose the greater and the more; in weighing pains against pains, the smaller and the less; whereas in weighing pleasures against pains, if pleasures exceed the pains ... one must take the course which brings those pleasures; but if the pains outweigh the pleasures, avoid [those pleasures]. (356b-c)

Plato attempts to use the metaphor (or, picture) of weighing, but is it possible to weigh pleasure against pain -- not merely to estimate -- i.e. guess -- (which would, I think, be what Plato calls an "impression made by appearances") which is greater, but to measure the quantity by which one is greater, the other lesser, that is to say, to assign a numerical value to each? Not as we normally use those words -- i.e. in this context the combination of words 'to place pleasure and pain on a balance scale' is undefined.

Plato speaks of a difference between "present pleasure and pleasure or pain in the future", and he asks how this is to be measured, and he gives examples of why he asks this, one of which is the following.

SOCRATES: The same magnitudes seem greater to the eye from near at hand than they do from a distance ... If now our happiness consisted in [choosing] greater lengths and avoiding smaller, where would salvation lie? In the art of measurement or in the impression made by appearances? [The "metric art" -- i.e. the art of measuring -- cancels "the effect of the impression".] Faced with these considerations ... our salvation would lie in the art of measurement ...

PROTAGORAS: [The common man (Jowett has "the world") would agree to that proposition.]

SOCRATES: Again, what if --

I.e. this is another example; Plato also gives such examples in Euthyphro 7b-c. Note that by saying "what if", Plato is not saying that it does, but only: If it were the case that it did, then ...

-- our welfare lay in the choice of odd and even numbers ...? What would assure us a good life then? Surely knowledge, and specifically a science of measurement ... or to be more precise, arithmetic, since it deals with odd and even numbers.

Well then ... since our salvation in life has turned out to lie in the correct choice of pleasure and pain -- more or less, greater or smaller, nearer or more distant -- is it not in the first place a question of measurement, consisting as it does in a consideration of relative excess, defect, or equality? ... And if so, it must be a special skill or branch of knowledge ... What skill, or what branch of knowledge it is, we shall leave till later; the fact [that knowledge provided by the art of measurement is more powerful than our impressions of what the reality is] is enough ... (356c-357b)

But that isn't enough, because all Plato has shown is that, in the specific examples he points to, knowledge overrules mere impressions (i.e. opinions). But "the common man" is not asking about those examples, but whether there is knowledge to contrast with mere opinion in this particular case. All Plato can do is to suggest that "If there were a science of measurement in this case ..." But from a false antecedent -- anything you like can logically follow: "If the world weren't the way it in fact is, then ..." But the world is the way it is.

And therefore you cannot "leave that till later" -- It must be answered before your thesis can be agreed to. The question I asked before: What is this branch of knowledge, this art of weighing pleasure and pain? You must give us an account of that knowledge that can stand up against refutation. You must show us that your thesis (proposition) is not merely a failed metaphor (i.e. an invalid comparison, which it is if A is not like B in the way Plato says it is).

Plato's proposition contra the proposition of "the common man" cannot be proved by means of hypothesis viz "If there were a way to measure pleasures versus pains, then ..." Because there is no such way, Plato must either invent a way or give up his thesis. As things stand, merely pointing out that there is no applicable "science of measurement" is refutation enough of the validity of Plato's comparison.

Maybe Plato would argue that there must be such a science; he does have such preconceptions, as e.g. the one from Heraclitus that if there is nothing that is unchanging, then there can be no knowledge, because knowledge can only be of what is unchanging.

Plato says "wherever it is found" -- but he has not demonstrated that it is found here.

Before Socrates began his question-and-answer directed toward the opinion of the "common man", both he and Protagoras "agreed [352c-d] that there [is] nothing more powerful than knowledge ... wherever it is found it always has the mastery over pleasure and everything else ..." (357c)

SOCRATES: You [i.e. the common man] on the other hand, who maintain that pleasure often masters even the man who knows, asked us to say what this experience [Cf. the experience of being governed not by knowledge but by "now passion, now pleasure, now pain, sometimes love, and frequently fear" (352b)] really is, if it is not being mastered by pleasure. [And the answer to that question is: ignorance. Because all have agreed] that when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains -- that is, of good and evil -- the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge. We can go further, and call it ... a science of measurement, and you know [yourself] that a wrong action which is done without knowledge is done in ignorance. (357c-e)

Of course you can "call it" anything (give it any name) you like, but until (unless) you say what this "science of measurement" is, that name is without meaning; it is "sound without sense".

SOCRATES: So that is what being mastered by pleasure really is -- ignorance [i.e. ignorance only rules in the absence of knowledge], and most serious ignorance ... (357e)

But saying that amounts to no more than saying that: where man is without knowledge, he is ruled over by ignorance (which is a tautology, because the opposite of knowledge is ignorance ('knowledge' and 'ignorance' are antitheses). About what we don't know, either we confess our ignorance or we hold beliefs -- but belief belongs to the realm of "maybe true, maybe false" and that means that our beliefs are ignorance). It does not follow from that, however, that there is a possibility of knowledge in this particular case, much less in every case.

Socrates now asks "Hippias and Prodicus as well as Protagoras" if the answer Socrates has made to "the ordinary run of people" is true. And they all agree that it is true, and so Socrates can proceed to the next step.

SOCRATES: You agree then ... that the pleasant is good and the painful bad ... Well, here is another point ... All actions aimed at ... a pleasant and painless life must be [actions that are] good and beneficial ... Then if the pleasant is the good, no one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better. To "act beneath yourself" [i.e. to choose the less rather than the more pleasant] is the result of pure ignorance [i.e. of not knowing which is which]; to "be your own master" [i.e. to choose the greater rather than the lesser pleasure] is wisdom [i.e. knowing which is which] ...

And may we define ignorance as having a false opinion and being mistaken on matters of great moment [i.e. matters concerning "no small matter, but how to live"]? ... Then it must follow that no one willingly goes to meet evil or what he thinks to be evil ... instead of making for the good ... [And] when faced with the choice of two evils no one will choose the greater when he might choose the less. (358a-d)

"If the good is the pleasant, then all man's actions are aimed at a pleasant and painless life." But the Socratic view is that for the good man, that is to say, the wise man, that is to say, the one who is not ignorant (of how man should live his life), all actions are aimed at what is good or beneficial both to oneself -- that is, to the "ethical perfecting" of one's soul -- and to others. To aim for that is the good for man.

I don't think you can say that seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain belongs to the excellence that is proper to man; it certainly is not unique to man, nor is it defining of man (even if it is, as it may be, characteristic of all life). However, knowingly seeking to do good rather than evil is unique to man, the beast not lacking "discourse of reason", and it is defining, at least of the wise man.

As I noted elsewhere, the difficulty with the concept 'pleasure' is its broadness; if by 'pleasure' we mean solely the sensual pleasures, then, with respect to what is the good for man, one thing may follow; but if we mean also the pleasures of the soul or mind in our definition, then something different may follow. For instance, as we normally use the word 'pleasant' it seems that only a "monster" [Hume's expression, meaning here "someone without normal feelings of compassion and empathy"] would call entering into battle (359e) pleasant, no matter how honorable it may be; nonetheless, what is honorable may be said to be pleasant for the soul (i.e. the ethical aspect of man). So fluid and equivocal are the concepts of our natural language.

SOCRATES: Now you recognize the emotion of fear or terror. I wonder if you conceive it as I do? ... I define it as expectation of evil. (358d)

Now, as always, I would want to ask: What is this "it" that you say you conceive? (Point this "it" out to me prior to your "conceiving it": point the percept out to me prior to your giving birth to "it" as a concept.) But here the word 'it' refers not to some mysterious hypostatized object but instead to the emotion, that is to say, to the phenomenon/a of fear or terror, and asking "Do you conceive it as I do?" means: Do you think the definition I now suggest -- i.e. the concise description or account I will now give of how we actually use the words 'fear' and 'terror' -- to be an apt?

Prodicus says that Socrates' definition applies "to fear but not to terror". Someone else's impression of those words' meaning might e.g. be that although 'fear' may be defined as 'expectation of evil', the word 'terror' suggests that the evil is not expected but is instead actually present. The truth, however, is that the concepts 'fear' and 'terror' are quite "fluid". But when Plato defines the word 'fear' and 'terror' (i.e. their Greek equivalents) as "expectation of evil", whether we normally define the word that way or not, it seems -- and that means it may not be -- clear in the discussion that follows he is using the word 'fear' "as we normally use it".

SOCRATES: This is the point. If what I have said is true, will anyone be willing to go to meet what he fears, when it is open to him to go in the opposite direction? Do not our agreed conclusions make this impossible? It is admitted [i.e. agreed] that what he fears he regards as evil, and no one willingly meets or accepts what he thinks is evil. (358e)


"Four of the virtues are fairly similar, but courage is quite different from the rest"

Socrates now calls on Protagoras to "make his defense" of the proposition (thesis) he stated earlier [349d], namely that "four of [the five virtues, namely holiness, justice, temperance, and wisdom] are fairly similar, but one, namely courage, is quite different from the rest". (359a-b)

SOCRATES: This, [Protagoras] said, the following evidence would show me: "You will find, Socrates, men who are utterly impious, unjust, licentious [i.e. intemperate], and ignorant [i.e. not-wise], yet very brave, which will show you that courage is quite different from the other parts of virtue." ... I asked him if he described the brave as confident [349e], and he replied, "Yes, and eager." ... Tell me then ... in what direction are the brave eager to go? Toward the same thing as cowards?

PROTAGORAS: No.

SOCRATES: Toward something else then? ... Is it that cowards go to meet what inspires confidence [rather than fear or terror], and brave men to what is terrible [i.e. terrifying or fearsome]?

PROTAGORAS: So men say ...

SOCRATES: I know they do, but that was not my question. What do you say brave men go eagerly to meet? Is it what is terrible, knowing it to be terrible?

PROTAGORAS: You own argument [358e] has shown that to be impossible.

SOCRATES: [If] my argument was sound, no one goes to meet what he believes to be terrible [i.e. terrifying or inspiring fear], since not being one's own master [358c] was shown to be due to ignorance [i.e. to not knowing which direction is wise, which foolish]. But ["cowards and brave men alike ... make for the same things" -- namely "for what inspires confidence"].

PROTAGORAS: What the coward makes for is precisely the opposite of what the brave man makes for. For instance, the brave are willing to enter battle; the [cowardly] are not.

SOCRATES: Is this willingness an honorable thing, or disgraceful?

PROTAGORAS: Honorable ...

SOCRATES: Then if honorable, we agreed earlier that it is good, for we agreed that all honorable actions are good [cf. 349e, if we presume that "virtue is good", although what would the meaning of that combination of words be? or that virtue is the good for man, which it is by definition, because 'virtue' = 'the excellence that is proper to man'] ... But which class did you say were unwilling to enter battle although that is a ... good thing to do?

PROTAGORAS: The cowards ...

SOCRATES: Well, if it is ... good, it is also pleasant.

PROTAGORAS: We certainly agreed to that [358a].

SOCRATES: Then do the cowards act with knowledge when they refuse to approach what is the more honorable and better [i.e. more good] and pleasanter thing?

PROTAGORAS: If we say so ... we shall confound our former conclusions.

SOCRATES: [The brave man] makes for what is honorable [and therefore good] ... and pleasanter [whereas the cowardly man makes for what is less honorable (and therefore less good) and less pleasant, and he does so from ignorance]?

Well then, is it cowardice or courage that makes a man a coward?

PROTAGORAS: Cowardice. (359b-360c)

Fictitious agents

The words 'cowardice' and 'courage' are not the names of agents (agencies). Instead, their adjectival forms are words we apply to acts and, by extension, to men who do those acts. And if we made lists of those acts, then we could divide the members of those lists into the class named 'courage' and the class named 'cowardice'. That is roughly, maybe too roughly, how we use the words 'cowardice' and 'courage'. (Other examples of fictitious agents | The result of following a false grammatical analogy.)

It could be noted that Jowett's translation at this point is not muddled -- but whether the apparent muddle in Guthrie's translation is in Guthrie's interpretation or in Plato's text, I have no way of knowing. For example, in 360c Jowett has: "Then as to the motive from which cowards act, do you call it cowardice or courage?" Maybe Guthrie intends 'agency' to be synonymous with 'motive' here, but is that the way we normally use those words? I don't know, but to say that fire is the agency (i.e. cause) of water boiling seems very different from saying the cowardice is the cause of cowardly acts (Indeed, the second proposition looks like a grammatical joke).

SOCRATES: Yet we have seen that it is ignorance of what is to be feared that makes men cowards; and if this ignorance makes them cowards, and you agree that what makes them cowards is cowardice, ignorance of what is and is not to be feared must be cowardice ... (360c)

It may be that ignorance of what is to be feared is the source of cowardice. Or, in other words, we could say that cowardice is a kind of ignorance -- but not as if cowardice and ignorance were identical. Because saying that cowardice is ignorance is very different from saying that ignorance is cowardice (if indeed the combination of words 'ignorance is cowardice' is not nonsense).

To clarify that remark: for example, impiety is ignorance of what is and what is not holy -- i.e. it is a different kind of ignorance from cowardice; likewise the other moral vices are kinds of ignorance, but they are not therefore identical. (Maybe we speak of "the faces of ignorance".)

Now, are those grammatical remarks -- or are they tautologies which follow from the proposition 'Virtue is knowledge'? (Again, Plato's tautological ethics appears to have a very strange logical status.)

SOCRATES:Well, courage is the opposite of cowardice ... And knowledge of what is and is not to be feared is the opposite of ignorance ... Which is cowardice [i.e. cowardice is not knowing what is to be feared and what is not, which is the opposite of knowledge, i.e. ignorance].

PROTAGORAS [with great reluctance]: [Agreed.]

SOCRATES: Therefore knowledge of what is and is not to be feared is courage. (360d)

At this point, presuming that his proposition (thesis) has been refuted, Protagoras falls silent and tells Socrates to finish the argument himself.

SOCRATES: Just one more question first ... Do you still believe, as you did at first, that men can be utterly ignorant yet very brave?

PROTAGORAS: You seem to be bent on having your own way, Socrates, and getting me to give the answers; so to humor you, I will say that on our agreed assumptions it seems to be impossible. [Jowett: "... this appears to me to be impossible consistently with the argument."] (360e)

The "assumptions" of dialectic (Protagoras)

Given that the results of dialectic are the results of the day only (Plato uses the expression "the present outcome" in 361a), as further thought may lead to new refutations and theses, it may seem that Protagoras is correct to call their agreed-to propositions "assumptions" (as in the hypothetical form: "If it is true that ..., then it is also true that ..."). And if Socrates in Plato's Apology is correct (that the wisest man of all men is the one who recognizes that he is not wise, that only the gods are wise, and hence 'philosopher' not 'sophist'), then maybe Protagoras is correct to call these 'assumptions'. That is certainly how they may appear to us tomorrow.

Although Protagoras' remark must be seen in this context if its meaning is to be understood, because we don't normally use the word 'assumption' that way: normally by 'an assumption' we mean 'an untested proposition', not one that has survived being examined in Socratic dialectic. (This is, in some instances, a quite different idea from "doubt on a deeper level", because this is rational, whereas the other may be more a "sense of things" akin to suspicion or wariness, although metaphysics has many rational doubts too, both physical and conceptual.)

What can stand the test of Socratic dialectic today can tomorrow fall to that test. And this is another reason to say that "... the wisest of men is the one who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing" (Apology 23b, tr. Jowett). Man's wisdom of today may show itself to be foolish tomorrow. (In this respect Plato's tautologies in ethics seem to be in a singular position, because if the propositions of our ethics are like the rules of chess -- i.e. if they are rules of grammar -- then it appears that the wisdom of today is eternal, i.e. not subject to refutation. (But what is the logical-grammatical status of the proposition 'The good for man is to live in accord with the excellence that is proper to man'? Surely that is not a rule of grammar -- but if not, then what is it?))

Following a false grammatical analogy (Virtuousness causes virtue, and other fictitious agents)

Of course the proposition that Socrates has used to refute Protagoras' thesis, namely that: It is cowardice "that makes a man a coward" (But cowardice is not an agent, nor as these agents (agencies)), and that consequently "ignorance of what is and what is not to be feared must be cowardice" because cowards are ignorant "of what is and is not to be feared" and that is what "makes" them cowardly rather than brave, and apparently then, Plato concludes, that if ignorance makes men cowards, and cowardice makes men cowards, then ignorance and cowardice are the same thing --. (Is this only "at least in this case", or is it, as it may be, that the contraries of the all the virtues are the same as ignorance.) The proposition 'It is cowardice that makes men cowards, or, cowardly' is an undefined combination of words that results from following a false grammatical analogy, as e.g. Salt (i.e. "saltiness") makes things salty, and likewise Bravery (i.e. "braveness") makes men brave (and presumably then, virtue = virtuousness makes men virtuous).


In sum, the discussion's questions have not been resolved, neither whether virtue can be taught nor whether virtue is one or many

SOCRATES: I assure you ... that in asking all these questions I have nothing else in view but my desire to learn the truth about virtue and what it is in itself. I know that if we could be clear about that, it would throw the fullest light on the question over which you and I have spun such a coil of argument, I maintaining that virtue was not teachable and you that it was.

It seems to me that the present outcome of our talk is pointing at us, like a human adversary, the finger of accusation and scorn. If it had a voice it would say, "What an absurd pair you are, Socrates and Protagoras. One of you, having said at the beginning that virtue is not teachable, now is bent upon contradicting himself by trying to demonstrate that everything is knowledge -- justice, temperance, and courage alike -- which is the best way to prove that virtue is teachable. If virtue were something other than knowledge, as Protagoras tried to prove, obviously it could not be taught.

"But if it turns out to be, as a single whole, knowledge -- which is what you are urging, Socrates -- then it will be most surprising if it cannot be taught. Protagoras on the other hand, who at the beginning supposed it to be teachable, now on the contrary seems to be bent on showing that it is almost anything rather than knowledge, and this would make it least likely to be teachable." (360e-361c)

The presumption here is that only what is knowledge can be taught (or, is teachable) and what is not knowledge is not teachable. But we need a definition then of 'teachable', because it does seem that some skills, e.g. physical skills, can be taught through training even though that training does not involve transmitting discursive knowledge -- that is to say, knowledge that can be put into words -- to the one who is taught the skill. I have in mind something like teaching a child to ride a bicycle. (Absolute pitch would be a contrary example: it can neither be put into words nor taught.)

SOCRATES: For my part, Protagoras, when I see the subject in such utter confusion I feel the liveliest desire to clear it up. I would like to follow up our present talk with a determined attack on virtue itself and its essential nature. Then we could return to the question whether or not it can be taught ... (361c)

Finally, Socrates alludes to Protagoras' once-upon-a-time story about Epimetheus and Prometheus [320c], and says that he wants to follow Prometheus and not overlook, as Epimetheus did, to make provision for himself by seeking to know what virtue -- which is the good for man -- is, and therefore he spends his "time on all these matters as a means of taking forethought for [his] whole life". (361d)

So concludes the dialog, but whether Hippocrates has found the question Socrates asked him (311b) answered by it, will be decided I think by which of these two "natural gifts" (316b-c) is the stronger in him -- the love of wisdom or the love of renown. That will decide whether he seeks instruction from the Sophists or recognizes that he has already found the best teacher for him.


Notes:

Pappus' proof and Plato's proof

Pappus isosceles proof, 13 KB

Plato's "The absurdity of this will become evident if we stop using all these names together -- pleasant, painful, good, and evil -- and since they have turned out to be only two" (355a-b) -- rightly or wrongly (I don't know which), I want to compare Plato's proof to Pappus' proof of the theorem that "In every isosceles triangle, the base angles are congruent to each other" (see Euclid, Elements i, 5), because for that proof Pappus relabels the angles A, B, C as A', C', B' where thus A = A', B = C', C = B' (Here the equals-sign means: is congruent to) and thus where what is true for one set of angles is also true for the other set: angle ABC = angle A'C'B'. Pappus' proof is valid -- but is Plato's?

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"They just think of knowledge as a slave, pushed around by all the other affections" (Protagoras 352b-c). Hume: "Reason is and only ought to be a slave to the passions". Although it is most difficult to figure out what Hume means by the word 'reason': what is this reason that is "a slave to the passions" (affections)? Rather, oughtn't -- indeed, isn't -- reason a slave to knowledge? Reason and knowledge are rational, the passions irrational. The rational and irrational are not allies, but alien to one another.

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The individual virtues likened to the faces of a cube

Rather than like the elements of a face (eyes, nose, etc.) (329d), could we say, rather, like the faces (facets) of a cube or pyramid: one essence approached (seen) from different sides? Some such thing, but the faces of a cube do not have individual functions as do the eyes and nose and other elements of the face (The notion that the virtues have "functions" -- what would it mean?). The face-facets of the cube are essentially the same, but yet we are able to identify them -- how? By attaching labels to them: piety, temperance, etc. -- These labels are examples of what we call 'concepts' (But what are, if there are, the percepts here?).

Do such comparisons (pictures) make anything clearer? I am trying to picture what Plato is talking about (But only because Plato introduces pictures into the discussion, and those pictures do not seem to help towards understanding what he is talking about) in such a way that virtue can be both one and many at the same time. Or is that the very picture Plato's Protagoras rejects when he says that the relationship is not like that of the parts of a piece of gold? Do such pictures make for clarity or muddle? "A is like B" -- but if the resemblance is vague ...

... or the aspects of a Gestalt

There is only one duck-rabbit image, but there are two duck-rabbit aspects. And so the individual virtues would be aspects of the virtue-image [or the Form of Virtue, if the Forms are thought of as visual archetypes, patterns]. [Cf. if there were a Christian God Gestalt, then the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost would be the three aspects of the Trinity-image. (As they would be the individual faces of a three-sided solid.) And in this way 1 = 3 and 3 = 1.] But there is no virtue Gestalt; and therefore this is a fanciful metaphor.

The individual virtues likened to the facets of a cut precious stone

I find the following passage in Guthrie's The Greeks and their Gods. It's not quite the same idea, but its metaphor is related to ours.

... a stone of many facets, any one of which can be turned to face the light while the gleam of the others is dulled by shadow ... (Rev. ed. 1954, Chapter vi, "Dionysos")

And so, to adapt Guthrie's metaphor to our context, when we look at an act, characterizing it as brave or pious or as some other facet of virtue, we must remember that if an act is virtuous the whole of virtue is present in the act, some facets being only "dulled by shadow". (If by 'virtue' we mean 'moral excellence' -- how does excellence in ethics contrast with excellence in ability intellectual or gymnastic? That in ethics man has choice: the limits are not set by something independent of his soul.)

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How to define 'holiness'?

Russell, On Denoting: "a sense of justice" versus "a sense of 'justice'". (The distinction between a sign and its meaning or use.)

The concepts 'justice' and 'holiness' exist -- in logic of language: 'concept' = 'rules for using a word', and the words 'just' and 'holy' are indeed tools that are used in our life. But as to the proposition, that if we did not have those concepts, the phenomena we call 'justice' and 'holiness' would nonetheless exist -- I don't see how someone could defend that proposition (thesis for dialectic) unless they also claimed that the particular way we divide up the landscape (i.e. reality), that is to say, the particular conceptual scheme we have is somehow, I don't see how, the "true" scheme.

Cf. the notion of reality as being what the eye of God sees -- if that notion isn't nonsense, because: a perspective is a perspective is a perspective, God's or anyone else's; no way of looking at things is the true or a false one. Because that would be like saying that there is an absolute point of reference -- despite 'absolute point of reference' being an undefined combination of words: every point of reference is relative to other possible points of reference, the eye of God's included.

It isn't at all clear what anyone might mean by saying that the phenomena would exist even if the concepts did not exist. Because whatever Plato means by the word 'thing' here, it certainly isn't 'name of an object', at least not the name of an object in "this world", i.e. pace Plato's Forms. The words 'justice' and 'holiness' if they are the names of "things" are most certainly not the names of objects which even if they had no names we would bump our noses up against regardless.

Can we define the word 'holiness' other than by describing the various phenomena we call 'holiness' or 'acts of piety' or 'sacred things'? (And if so, it would seem more akin to an ostensive than to a verbal definition.) Well, how else is there to give an explanation of our use of the word 'holy'? But, indeed, wasn't that (i.e. describing phenomena) what I did when I defined the word 'hope' (or, 'hoping') in talking about play-acted definitions, a variation of ostensive definition? Well, wasn't it?

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Ethical terms and the absence of strict rules

It is, or maybe is, pious -- i.e. if 'piety' = 'the relationship of man to god that is the good for man'; if 'justice' = 'the relationship of man to man that is the good for man'; but those concepts, i.e. our use of those words, is not so strictly defined: with respect to 'piety' there is 'filial piety', and with respect to 'justice' there is 'equity (fairness)', 'mercy' -- and the laws of God versus man's writ -- to be brave, but is it brave to be pious? Is holiness of life bravery, that is to say, courageous? Only in a time of religious persecution, not in times of peace (religious tolerance)? So it does not seem that all the moral virtues are necessarily (i.e. always) characterized by the adjectives of each of the other moral virtues. For instance, 'brave' to 'holiness' -- that is, in this particular case it does not look that way.

There are limits to what we can say about the moral virtues due to the absence of strict rules for the application of the names of the moral virtues as those names are normally used. We -- or Plato -- could make strict rules for their use, but if we did that we would be inventing language, i.e. inventing concepts, not describing our actual use of our language.

The words 'pious', 'brave', 'temperate (self-controlled)', 'just', and the adjectival forms of the names of the other moral virtues are "used in a terribly complex game" [as in "language-game"], and "there are ... no strict rules for the use of any and yet [their] uses are interdependent" (cf. Wittgenstein's remarks about defining the word 'good', on which this paragraph is modeled).

*

Can virtue be taught? (Socrates and Alcibiades)

If virtue could be taught then would not Socrates have made Alcibiades virtuous.

If virtue is wisdom (Here, I think, 'wisdom' = 'knowledge of the good for man') and if that wisdom can be taught, then Socrates' failure -- i.e. his inability -- in this case cannot be accounted for in Xenophon's way, by saying that Alcibiades was virtuous when he was with Socrates, but that when Alcibiades went away the effect of Socrates' teaching on him waned (Memorabilia i, 2, 24).

Not if virtue is wisdom, and that wisdom can be taught. Because once man learns what is good, he ever after does what is good ... But he must first learn what is good -- i.e. not merely learn to give mouth honor to one proposition while actually believing that a different proposition is true -- i.e. believing that the good is something other than what he says it is: "I say I know, but I think I know something else, something wiser than what I say is wise."

But on the other hand, Xenophon's account is consistent if this is true, that Alcibiades was virtuous when he was with Socrates, not because he had learned the wisdom of Socrates, but because he was imitating Socrates, and therefore his apparent virtue was "a virtue without wisdom" -- i.e. it was not virtue, but only imitation --, and that the farther away Alcibiades got from Socrates, the less he imitated him, and this was how he fell into vice.

In my view (i.e. opinion), can virtue be taught? If a proposition of ethics can be proved true in dialectic, and I believe it can, and if moral virtue is having knowledge of true and false propositions (i.e. of which propositions are true, which false) in ethics, then yes, virtue can be taught. However, whether it can be learned is a different question.

The parts of virtue

... that virtue, either in whole or in part, is wisdom. (Plato, Meno 89a, tr. Guthrie)

Suppose there are two parts of virtue, one wisdom, but the other love. Without love, will anyone even seek to become virtuous -- i.e. to become a good human being? (Because that can't be done by halves, i.e. without sincerity.) And what kind of love is this? To love wisdom and virtue more than anything else -- that is to say, to love the truth and what is good more than anything else.

Such love may possibly be kindled in a human being by literature or by another human being. But it can't be taught [-- Only methods and skills and propositions (tested in dialectic) can be taught --] because you can't teach anyone to love (kindling alone cannot sustain a lifelong fire; there must first be love there; it is like the Parable of the Sower), although you may encourage them by your own example to, as the historical Socrates, I imagine, did do.

Then, apropos of "either in whole or in part", I think I have said what the two parts are, that part of virtue is wisdom or knowledge, but that the other part is love.

Well, it may be that way. (But whether that way is consistent with Socrates' account of ethics is not yet clear to me.)


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