“Protagoras” by Plato

Portrait of Socrates
Portrait of Socrates. Marble (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Hazard of Sophists

There are many sophists, the ancient counterparts of modern-day self-help gurus, who claimed that they could teach others virtue and make them better, but when Socrates examined them closely, they were exposed as frauds. How could they teach others virtue when they didn’t know it themselves?

One of the most famous sophists, Protagoras, claimed that he was wiser above all men and would make others wiser at a charge. To examine his claims, Socrates engaged him in a debate on the nature of virtue, good and evil. Although Protagoras was more skilled in debates than most other men, and charmed his audience with enchanting fables and eloquent speeches, Socrates carved him up with incisive arguments and delicious irony.

[–Update in 2014–]

Prior to the debate, Socrates gave his young friend an earnest warning against the hazard of the sophists:

Are you aware upon what sort of hazard you are going to stake your soul? If you had to entrust your body to someone, taking the risk of its being made better or worse, you would first consider most carefully whether you ought to entrust it or not, and would seek the advice of your friends and relations and ponder it for a number of days: but in the case of your soul, which you value much more highly than your body, and on which depends the good or ill condition of all your affairs, according as it is made better or worse, would you omit to consult first with either your father or your brother or one of us your comrades,—as to whether or no you should entrust your very soul to this man; and are ready to spend your own substance and that of your friends, in the settled conviction that at all costs you must converse with Protagoras, whom you neither know, nor have ever met in argument before, in patent ignorance of what this sophist may be to whom you are about to entrust yourself?

We must take care, my good friend, that the sophist, in commending his wares, does not deceive us, as both merchant and dealer do in the case of our bodily food. Those who take their doctrines the round of our cities, hawking them about to any odd purchaser who desires them, commend everything that they sell, and are ignorant which of their wares is good or bad for the soul; in just the same case are the people who buy from them, unless one happens to have a doctor’s knowledge of the soul. So then, if you are well-informed as to what is good or bad among these wares, it will be safe for you to buy doctrines, but if not, take care, my dear fellow, that you do not risk your greatest treasure on a toss of the dice. For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of doctrines than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body you can lay them in your house and take the advice of an expert as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when; so that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel: you are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your very soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man.

Sophistry in Art

By the mouth of Protagoras, Plato class the famous poets, musicians and some athletes with the sophists. It is evident that Plato strongly objects to using art as a cloak for falsehood, but whether he is serious with his classification here, or whether it is Protagoras’ own vanity that class the famous artists with the sophists is unclear.

Sophistry is an ancient art, and those men of ancient times who practised it, fearing the odium it involved, disguised it in a decent dress, sometimes of poetry, as in the case of Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides, sometimes of mystic rites and soothsayings, as did Orpheus, Musaeus and their sects; and sometimes too, of athletics, as with Iccus of Tarentum and another still living—as great a sophist as any—Herodicus of Selymbria, originally of Megara; and music was the disguise employed by your own Agathocles, a great sophist, Pythocleides of Ceos, and many more. All these from fear of ill-will made use of these arts as outer coverings.

Virtue in All?

Socrates believes that virtue cannot be taught by men or acquired from men (see Meno for a detailed exposition), which flies in the face of the sophists, who make a living of teaching virtue.

Protagoras gives the following reasons in support of their profession.
1. All men should have a claim in virtue. If some don’t, they should be able to acquire it from others.
2. If virtue is by nature like beauty and ugliness, and cannot be taught or acquired, it wouldn’t make sense to punish the wicked.
3. Athenian children are taught virtue in schools, where they learn of the deeds of great men in poems and are exhorted to imitate them. They are trained in mind and body, through music and gymnastics, to be temperate and courageous.
4. Not all have the same aptitude for learning virtue, but by diligent practice, even the relatively wicked among the taught are more virtuous than the barbarians who don’t teach virtue.

First, Protagoras argues that, in body politic, where men should be guided throughout by justice and good sense, everyone should partake of this excellence, or else states cannot be. Therefore, everyone has an equal claim to matters of state and justice, and their opinions are all valid. He is only half right. The operative word is “should”. Everyone should be guided by justice and good sense for the body politic to be healthy. But in fact, few men are just and good in their personal and political conduct, and the body politic is far from healthy. Accordingly, Plato posits, most notably in Republic, that only a few excel in civic art as in professional or artistic excellence, because good statesmanship requires wisdom and knowledge, which few men have.

Second, the law deals out rewards and punishments and enforces a code of conduct, which is also taught in schools and other institutions. However, the code itself is not necessarily good and just. To follow a code of conduct without knowledge of the good is the same as slavery.



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