Plato's Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

In any case, earlier that day a young friend of Socrates, Hippocrates, had come to tell him that Protagoras was in town, and to ask him to speak to Protagoras on his behalf, to request that he take him as a student. Now, Protagoras was a Sophist, and it’s already clear from other dialogues that Socrates was… well, not a fan of the Sophists. So before leaving, the two take a walk to kill some time before seeing Protagoras, since it was still early morning, and Socrates takes the opportunity to urge Hippocrates to think carefully before hiring Protagoras as a teacher. He asks what Hippocrates would expect to learn if he went to  a doctor or sculptor for instruction, and Hippocrates answers, of course, medicine or sculpture. Socrates then asks in what field Protagoras is a master.

Here Hippocrates says that he is a Sophist, which, “as the name implies, [is] one who has a knowledge of wise things.” Socrates presses for further clarity on this, but Hippocrates is only able to say that he trains clever speakers, imparts knowledge, and other vague answers, before saying “I give up. I can’t tell you [what he teaches].” Socrates then tells his friend explicitly what he is trying to get at:

[D]o 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 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, so you tell me, here you come at dawn, not to discuss or consult me on this question of whether or not to entrust yourself to Protagoras, but ready to spend both your own money and that of your friends 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.

Socrates’ words are harsh, but it’s a serious subject and his friend may be putting himself in serious moral danger. He continues by asking Hippocrates whether a Sophist is, in fact, “a merchant or peddler of the goods by which a soul is nourished.” Hippocrates asks what, exactly, nourishes a soul, and Socrates explains, “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.” We are, after all, cautious about buying food, to ensure that it’s of good quality and take the advice of others on what is good to eat and in what amounts. If we make a bad purchase, though, we usually don’t lose too much. Knowledge, though, is quite a different matter. “Knowledge,” Socrates says, “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.”

The idea that it’s better not to hear some ideas at all reminds me of St. Robert Bellarmine’s, and other writers’, advice to “guard one’s senses” to avoid sin. Lust is the obvious example of a sin we can be drawn to by allowing ourselves to be exposed to indecent images, stories, and the like, though it’s not hard to think of similar examples for, say, wrath or envy. However, I seldom see this advice applied to realms like philosophy, and certainly not from modern writers. Instead, it’s far more common to urge people to read as much as they can, and then “decide for themselves” what to believe. This, however, presumes that everyone is capable of deciding such things independently, and that their conclusions will in fact be from the merits of the arguments presented and not on rhetorical skill. Remember, Hippocrates described the Sophists as “master[s] of the art of making clever speakers.” Didactic literature often, for good reason, urges plain, honest speech. Confucius said that “clever talk and a pretentious manner are seldom found in the Good” (Analects 1.3), and “Clever talk can confound the working of moral force, just as small impatiences can confound great projects” (15.26). In fact, Socrates’ view has become woven into our language, as the term “sophist” has acquired a firmly negative meaning in English.

Actually recognising and avoiding sophistry, though, is difficult. In The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius says, “Men all say, ‘We are wise’; but being driven forward and taken in a net, a trap, or a pitfall, they know not how to escape.” How, then, are we to avoid these nets and traps? First, we should recognise our own limitations and not reach for things too high for us, and that we often need the help of others. Scripture gives the example of the Ethiopian courtier (at Acts 8:26-39) who, when St. Philip asked if he understood a passage of Isaiah he was reading, answered humbly, “How could I, without someone to guide me?” Here we come up to an extraordinarily thorny problem. We need teachers, sure, but how do we go about choosing those teachers? We could go by popularity or public acclaim, as Hippocrates does when seeking to learn from Protagoras. However, it should be plain that if the opinion of one fool is worthless, adding a greater quantity of fools does not increase the average IQ or amount of erudition. Most men aren’t fools, but nonetheless, there’s no reason the opinions of many laymen would be worth more than that of one expert.

Fine, so we should hire our teachers based on the recommendations of experts. How, though, are we to recognise an expert if we aren’t yet an expert ourselves? We’ve regressed to the beginning of our difficulty. Socrates advises Hippocrates to seek the counsel of his friends and relations, that is, of those immediately and genuinely concerned with his welfare. This may be the best we can do. Our friends and family may or may not be any more qualified than anyone else, but we can at least (one hopes) trust that they will give us honest advice and not snare us with clever speech for their own ends.

By the way, is Socrates himself a good teacher? He certainly has a sterling reputation today, but on the other hand, the Athenians, who unlike us were there at the time (as I pointed out when discussing Socrates’ Defense), thought he was such a menace that a jury voted to put him to death. Of course, we’ve just said that the opinions of the general public aren’t to be taken at face value. The multitude, after all, urged Aaron to make the golden calf, and to release Barabbas instead of Christ. We can at least say, though, that Socrates has been admired by many men, including many learned and pious men, throughout the centuries.

Getting back to the narrative, after this word of caution the two do go to visit Protagoras, and find a group of people already there speaking with him. Socrates recognises these people, and interestingly he introduces a couple with a short quotation from Homer, “‘After that I recognized,’ as Homer says, Hippias of Elis, […] ‘And there too I spied Tantalus’ - for Prodicus of Ceos was also in town […]” These lines from Odyssey seem like unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, but they do give a sense of dignity or gravity to the meeting. After introducing Hippocrates to Protagoras, the question is raised whether they should speak privately or with the whole group, which Socrates leaves to him to decide, so Protagoras opts for speaking with everyone there because, Socrates “suspect[s] that he wanted to display his skill to Prodicus and Hippias and get some glory from the fact that we had come as his professed admirers.” This seems like an uncharitable assumption on his part, but the way the Sophist speaks throughout the dialogue gives the impression that Socrates is probably correct in his suspicion - though to be fair to Protagoras, who after all was a real historical figure, I should make the obvious caveat that this is according to Plato; doubtless one of Protagoras’s students would portray his motivations differently.

Once everyone was seated, Socrates asks on Hippocrates’s behalf what he can expect to learn from Protagoras, who answers that “The very day you join me, you will go home a better man, and the same the next day.” The Sophist barely gets three sentences in when Socrates cuts him off at the pass and presses for more detail. The main theme of the rest of the dialogue is whether virtue is something that can be taught, which was previously touched on in Meno. I won’t go through the entire thing here, but will give a few highlights that particularly stood out to me.

Early on, Protagoras shares a myth that explains the origin of society. The first men “lived at first in scattered groups; there were no cities. Consequently they were devoured by wild beasts” since men are weaker than predatory animals and at this point had little technical or organisational skill. “Zeus therefore, fearing the total destruction of our race, sent Hermes to impart to men the qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice, so as to bring order into our cities and create a bond of friendship and union.” He continues:

Hermes asked Zeus in what manner he was to bestow these gifts on men. ‘Shall I distribute them as the arts were distributed - that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many laymen, and so with the other experts? Shall I distribute justice for many laymen, and so with other experts? Shall I distribute justice and respect for their fellows in this way, or to all alike?’
‘To all,’ said Zeus. ‘Let all have their share. There could never be cities if only  a few shared in these virtues, as in the arts. Moreover, 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.’
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 […] 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.

This is similar to the argument G. K. Chesterton gives for democracy in Orthodoxy, where he asserts that though there are some fields that we only want men to do if they’re skilled at it, there are others, like politics, that we expect every man to do himself. Thus, taking Protagoras’s story analogically, we have an interesting argument for democracy. After all, man is a social animal, and a society can only function if every member does indeed have some inherent political sense.

Unfortunately for the republicans in the audience, observation reveals the analogy’s invalidity. Many people, from petty criminals to tyrants, don’t seem to have this sense of justice. Even excluding them as either deliberately wicked or mentally ill in some way, the remaining healthy population has this sense in different amounts. Furthermore, even if we grant, in a counterfactual manner, that all men are equally just, much of the work of government requires something different, i.e., competency. For example, Louis XVI may have been virtuous, but he was not competent enough for the challenges to his reign. St. Edward the Confessor was certainly a just man, but in political matters he was more of a mediocrity. Whether justice without competence is preferable to competency without justice (to give an extreme example, someone like Joseph Stalin) is, perhaps, debatable, but it’s clear that good government requires both, and the general public does not have a sufficient amount of them.

Now, after his first speech, Socrates has, of course, “one small question.” Protagoras has spoken of “justice and self-control and holiness and the rest […] as if together they made up one thing, virtue.” So, “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?” This is another question covered in Meno, and, well, it didn’t go well last time and doesn’t this time, either, though Protagoras defends his position better and at greater length than Meno did. The dialogue almost comes to a halt halfway through as both men become frustrated with each other and Socrates begins to leave, but the other listeners convince the two to continue.

Protagoras resumes the discussion by analysing, with Socrates, two passages from a poem by Simonides, first:

Hard is it on the one hand to become
A good man truly, hands and feet and mind
Foursquare, wrought without blame.


Nor do I count as sure the oft-quoted word
Of Pittacus, though wise indeed he was
Who spoke it. To be noble, said the sage,
Is hard.

Protagoras asserts that the poet has contradicted himself, because first he says that becoming noble or good is hard, then claims that being noble is not hard, though Socrates responds that “to be” and “to become” are different things and therefore these statements by the poet are not contradictory. I’ll set the further developments of this line of argument aside, and note that Protagoras using poetry during a discussion of a philosophical question may seem, at first glance, rather odd, as if we’re conflating works of fiction and non-fiction. When we see this today, it typically takes the degenerate form of Harry Potter political analogies. However, it’s very common for Christian writers to draw from the Psalms for philosophical and theological questions, and the Confucians love nothing more than to refer to the Book of Odes at every opportunity.

Is this a legitimate avenue for such discussions? Simonides’s poem is straightforwardly didactic, as is Works and Days, which Socrates brings up a little later, but even poetry that’s not explicitly didactic can certainly be used to illustrate virtue and vice in a way similar to history. Due to some passages in The Republic Socrates has gathered a reputation for having a low opinion of poets, but he’s clearly willing to refer to Homer and Hesiod when their works are relevant. Alas, those references aside, Socrates clearly isn’t impressed with men like Protagoras and me, who enjoy making heavy use of poetry in all manner of discussion, and he concludes this part of the dialogue by saying:

[I]f [Protagoras] is agreeable, I suggest we leave the subject of songs and poems […] Conversation about poetry reminds me too much of the wine parties of second-rate and commonplace people. Such men, being too uneducated to entertain themselves as they drink by using their own voices and conversational resources, put up with the price of female musicians, paying well for the hire of an extraneous voice […] But where the drinkers are men 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 - even if the drinking if really heavy. 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 discussion, and entertain each other from their own resources, testing one another’s mettle in what they have to say themselves.

So what are we to make of this? One thing to notice is how Socrates and Protagoras each use poetry. Socrates peppers his speech with references in a way that adds dignity and gravity, as said above, but he doesn’t build his arguments directly on them as Protagoras does with Simonides’s work. I’ve written about the use of literature previously, with reference to Confucius and Ben Jonson about the benefits of studying poetry, but I will concede that there are limits to using literature in a discussion of philosophy. Though truth and beauty are related, they are distinct things and so we should be cautious about when it’s appropriate to bring poetry into a discussion and when it’s not.

I suppose now would also be a good time to make the point that which works we use also matter. Say that you’re writing an essay that you expect to be taken seriously. If you’re considering using a reference to a work from the Western canon, something from Sophocles or Ovid, for instance, then assuming the analogy is valid go right ahead. If it’s from popular culture but still highly regarded, like something from Tolkien, pause a moment and consider if there’s a better source, but you may still be good. However, if it’s something firmly in the realm of popular culture, like Star Wars or Batman, stop what you’re doing immediately - you’re about to make a fool of yourself. Notice that Plato’s dialogues restrict their references to Homer, Hesiod, Simonides in this case; all conservative choices.

There’s also something to be said for how one goes about using poetry, that we do so honestly and not as, well, a sophist. Mencius provides a good example Book 5, Part 1, Chapter 4 of his work in a discussion with a student, Hsien-ch’iû Mang, regarding Mang’s interpretation of a poem from the Book of Odes (my emphasis):

Hsien-ch’iû Mang said, ‘On the point of Shun’s not treating Yâo as a minister, I have received your instructions. But it is said in the Book of Poetry,
Under the whole heaven, Every spot is the sovereign’s ground;
To the borders of the land,
Every individual is the sovereign’s minister;
-- and Shun had become sovereign. I venture to ask how it was that Kû-sâu was not one of his ministers.’ Mencius answered, ‘That ode is not to be understood in that way:– it speaks of being laboriously engaged in the sovereign’s business, so as not to be able to nourish one’s parents, as if the author said, “This is all the sovereign’s business, and how is it that I alone am supposed to have ability, and am made to toil in it?” Therefore, those who explain the odes, may not insist on one term so as to do violence to a sentence, nor on a sentence so as to do violence to the general scope. They must try with their thoughts to meet that scope, and then we shall apprehend it. If we simply take single sentences, there is that in the ode called “The Milky Way,”–
Of the black-haired people of the remnant of Châu, There is not half a one left.
If it had been really as thus expressed, then not an individual of the people of Châu was left.

In other words, Mencius is saying that when interpreting a poem, or really any text, we are to consider the full context, and not be overly literal-minded. Either fault leads to faulty interpretation, and opens the door to sophistry.

With that, I’ll go ahead and set the rest of this dialogue aside. In my edition of The Collected Dialogues, this work is only about forty pages, but at nearly 3,500 words this “highlight reel” is the second-longest post I’ve ever written. I think that I could, without much difficulty, write 3,500 more, and that would only be an overview of a first reading of Protagoras. I’ve mentioned on Twitter that I always feel some pressure when writing about an author who I can tell is far more intelligent and well-educated than I am, and I can honestly say that I’ve never felt so overwhelmed by a writer than I have been while going through Protagoras. It’s still relatively early in this whole project, too - I’m only about one-third through the dialogues, and the most famously difficult ones, Republic and Laws, for example, are still ahead of me. There’s a possibly apocryphal saying attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, “I fear the man of one book.” Well, Plato’s dialogues certainly qualifies as a book whose dedicated students I’d fear to debate.

Well, on we go, bravely. Next up is Hippias Major, or Greater Hippias as my edition calls it.