Category: Philosophical theories

The myth of Protagoras

In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras the renowned sophist transforms the myth of Prometheus with the aim of pointing out that no one should be ruled out from participation in the common affairs of the city. The myth is a rare textual instance in the context of the ancient grammatology and philosophy since it overtly supports the notion of equality among citizens and openly defends democracy.

Plato ascribes the myth to the sophist Protagoras and embeds it in the dialogue bearing the name as its title (320c-322d). In essence, it reads as a variation on the myth of Prometheus, which has been adjusted so as to serve the Platonic exchange of arguments on whether political virtue can be taught or not. Protagoras the character delivers the myth in order to convince Socrates that civic virtue is transmissible through (political) education.

According to the myth, Prometheus provided humankind with the necessary crafts and with fire so that it could survive and withstand the dangers and hardships coming from nature. However, although humans prevailed upon their natural environment, they came o the brink of extinction because of internal strife since they were not in possession of the art of politics, which guaranteed mutual understanding and peace. It was then that Zeus sent Hermes with the gift of reverence [αιδώς] and justice [δίκη]. In response to Hermes' question whether all, or only a select few (as is customary with the other arts) should participate in these, Zeus replied: "I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state." (322d) [Jowett's translation].

The myth seeks to impart the teaching that, concerning political virtue, humans should set off on the same starting line. Whereas nature has bestowed citizens with differing abilities regarding the other arts and activities, when it comes to politics there are no innate differences. According to the Platonic Protagoras, then, no one should be excluded from political participation, following what the advocates of Athenian democracy believed. All people bear the same aptitudes and have by nature the ability to develop those aspects of themselves that contribute to the right civic coexistence within the city. Nevertheless, education in the context of the family and, most important, the state enhances the citizen's virtue. Therefore, political virtue can be taught since the right predisposition of people serves as its fertile ground.

The myth of Protagoras is one of a very small number of works in the context of classical Greek political philosophy that unambiguously ground the notion of equality among citizens and openly call for democracy. It comes as a paradox that it was written by Plato, who cannot be counted among the supporters of the democratic regime. This fact has led quite a few interpreters to conclude that the myth had been delivered by the historical character Protagoras, and Plato merely reproduced it in his written dialogue. This view, however, underestimates both Plato's amazing capacity to integrate "alien" views in his works and the philosophical self-confidence that undergirded his impartiality.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
  • Nightingale, A.W. Genres in Dialogue, Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge, 1995.
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