A Socratic aporetic dialogue, probably dating to Plato's early period, discussing the teaching of virtue.

Dramatic context, date of composition

The Protagoras is a dialogue featuring several characters, composed, for its better part, in indirect speech. The dramatic time of the dialogue has not been conclusively confirmed, yet according to the prevalent view the dialogue’s action takes place in c. 433/2 BC, shortly before the onset of the Archidamian War. Before an unnamed audience, Socrates recounts the events that occurred during his meeting with the sophist Protagoras earlier that morning, in the house of the affluent Athenian Callias. The occasion for the meeting was the unexpected arrival of Hippocrates, son of Hipponicus, at Socrates’ house and his fervent desire to meet the celebrated sophist. The action is transferred from Socrates’ courtyard to the house of Callias, where the most prominent Sophists of the era (Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias), elite personages of Athenian society, inquisitive and ambitious youths, as well as various foreigners have been gathered. All these characters, either speaking or silent, play a decisive role in outlining the intellectual climate of Classical Athens and providing an answer to the crucial question posed by Socrates in this dialogue, i.e. the examination of the goal of moral instruction and the means through which such instruction can be given.

The dialogue’s intricate structure, its dramaturgical flawlessness and the vividness it exudes make the Protagoras one of Plato’s finest works. It remains, however, one of the most complex and enigmatic Platonic dialogues, mainly because of the -peculiar by Socratic standards- identification of pleasure (hedone) with the good. All the above cause additional difficulties with respect to the precise dating of the dialogue’s composition and the appraisal of its philosophical import. This dialogue is considered an early work of Plato, and according to all indications, it should be dated towards the end of Plato's first period. Thematically it is strongly connected with the Laches, the Charmides and the Euthyphro, but also with the Meno.

Dialogue’s structure and content

The Protagoras is structured in multiple episodes, starting with a short prologue that functions as the external narrative framework for the dialogue, and is the sole part of the work articulated in direct speech (309a-310a). This is a chat between Socrates and a friend of his, which provides the occasion for Socrates to announce the arrival of the sophist Protagoras in Athens, and thus commence narrating the discussion he had with him.

The first narrative episode (310a-314c) takes place in Socrates’ house, early in the morning, when his young friend rushes in pleading with Socrates to intervene so that he can meet the celebrated Protagoras. Socrates takes advantage of the opportunity to submit the enthusiastic young man to a test, to ascertain whether he has a clear idea of the reason why he wishes to study under Protagoras, but also to point out the dangers of uncritically accepting sophistic teachings. Socrates continues the narrative, which constitutes a fine example of Plato’s descriptive genius, masterfully depicting the host of sophists gathered at the house of their affluent patron, Callias (314c-316a).

Surrounded by admirers and followers, Protagoras will introduce himself to the dialogue’s readers and define the subject-matter of his teaching, i.e. εὐβουλία, which consists in the prudent handling of private and public affairs (316b-319a). Socrates’ objection arrives promptly: εὐβουλία or otherwise πολιτικῆ ἀρετῆ (=political virtue) can not, in Socrates’ opinion, be taught. Socrates’ arguments (319b-320c), for which he draws assumptions from the shared experience of Athenian politics and private life, will elicit a most lengthy rejoinder by Protagoras; the sophist will recount the etiological origin myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus and through a series of concomitant arguments he will attempt to substantiate his view that virtue can be taught (320d-328d).

In the next part of the dialogue (329e-334c) Socrates, taking advantage of certain ambiguities in Protagoras’ speech, will initiate a persistent, but ultimately abortive, elenctic process focusing on specific virtues (justice, sagacity, piety, wisdom, bravery) and the way in which these fit in together. Protagoras, having already accepted that the names of the above virtues correspond to different parts of virtue, loses his temper when Socrates tries to prove that these are in fact identical, and the discussion enters a critical stage following Socrates’ protestations about the sophist’s unwillingness to provide brief replies to his questions. In this inserted episode (334d-338e) we witness some of those present (Callias, Alcibiades, Critias, Prodicus, Hippias) attempting to dissuade Socrates from abandoning their gathering and trying to arrive at a mutually acceptable mode of discourse. When it has been decided that the discussion can resume, we witness a remarkable role reversal: Protagoras invokes some verses by Simonides on virtue, accusing Socrates that he accepts one of the poem’s contradictions, which Socrates will endeavor to defend resorting to a long-winded analysis. This passage (339a-347a) has greatly puzzled commentators, mainly with respect to the sophistic methods employed by Socrates, as well as in terms of its role in the context of the entire dialogue, especially since towards the end of his lengthy analysis Socrates himself will deny the expediency of continuing the discussion on poetic matters (347b-349a).

In the dialogue’s final part (349b-362a), Socrates will present a strong argument to prove the unity of virtues in wisdom. His reasoning is predicated on the identification of pleasure as the good, and the subsequent interpretation of ἀκρασία (=incontinence, lack of moderation) as an error of judgment. Albeit rather reluctantly, Protagoras agrees with the discussion’s final conclusions, admitting the impasse reached, and Socrates recognizes the paradox of their reversed roles: he argues that inasmuch as virtue is a form of knowledge it can be taught, while Protagoras, notwithstanding his acknowledgement of the primacy of science, is forced to defend the opposite view, i.e. his inability to impart virtue. This dialogue does not arrive at a positive conclusion. The original question of whether it is possible to teach virtue remains, and the need for further elucidation of the nature of virtue is recognized by both as a necessary precondition for answering this question.

Commentary

The intricate structure of the Protagoras, as well as its refined dramaturgy, present those wishing to discover indissoluble links between dramatic form and philosophical content in Plato’s dialogues with a paradigmatic hermeneutical challenge. The apparent imbalance between the purely dialectic sections of the dialogue and the dramatic episodes framing these does not point to the dialogue’s philosophical deficit, but in fact illuminates the full meaning and practice of dialectics as a mode of live philosophizing between individuals. The Protagoras is chiefly a dialogue about dialogue itself, a concrete proof of the fact that moral knowledge does not constitute a body of propositional data that can be conveyed as such from teacher to student, but rather a continuous process of change, which involves the knowing subject, the object of knowledge and the method employed as an indivisible totality.

Author: Kalliopi Papamanoli
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  • Cobby, P. Socrates and the Sophistic Enlightenment. A Commentary on Plato’s Protagoras,. London and Toronto, 1987.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
  • Taylor, C. C. W. Plato: Protagoras. Oxford, 1976.
  • Sauppe, H. Plato: Protagoras. Boston, 1889.
  • Lombardo, S, Plato Protagoras. Indianapolis & Cambridge, 1992.
  • Karnofsky, E. S. , Hubbard, B. A. F. Plato’s Protagoras. A Socratic commentary. London, 1982.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
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