Category: Plato in 80 entries

The Myth of Protagoras

In the dialogue Protagoras, Plato puts a myth in the mouth of the homonymous sophist (320c- 322d). The story is a variation of the Promethean myth. It is appropriated to suit a philosophical debate regarding the possibility of political virtue to be taught. Protagoras recounts the myth in an attempt to convince Socrates that political virtue can indeed be instructed.

According to the myth, Prometheus supplied human species with arts and fire in order to help them survive the nasty and hostile natural environment. However, due to the lack of the political art, which allows for agreement and peace among men, they reached the edge of distinction by turning against each other. This is when Zeus sent Hermes to bring justice (dikē) and conscience (aidōs) to humans. In the messenger's question if they should be distributed among all humans or just a fraction, Zeus responded that they should be given to all "for cities would never come to be if only a few possessed these, as is the case with the other arts. And establish this law as coming from me: Death to him who cannot partake of shame and justice, for he is a pestilence to the city" (322d).

In what concerns the platonic Protagoras, no discrimination can be made between humans on account of their qualification to participate in the political community. For a start, they are all endowed with the same predispositions; it is education on the part of family, and mainly of the city, that improves the virtue of every citizen. Therefore, political virtue can be instructed, for it may be developed upon the predisposition of man.

The myth of Protagoras in one of the few texts of political philosophy that we have from classical Greece. It establishes equality among men, and propagates democracy. On that score, it strikes us as a paradox that it has been penned by a philosopher who cannot be ranked among the supporters of democracy. And this paradox is telling of Plato's excellent writing skills, and impartiality.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
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