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Topic #C24

Plato, Protagoras 348c-362c


2 November 2001

Scribes: Aris Demosthenous and Antony Hanson


These minutes were spoken on 5 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


Professor Hutchinson began class with a quick reference to the Lesser Hippias, where Plato tries to foster our freedom of judgment by not making anything easy, in other words by not giving us any straight forward answers.  It was stated that this is the same endeavor Plato is attempting in the Protagoras.  The Professor then reminded us that this was a figure we have already investigated; particularly his open conversations with Hippocrates about learning.  Professor Hutchinson then presented the food analogy where once you eat something it can either positively affect you (ie.  make you healthy) or negatively affect you (ie.  make you sick), but either way you cannot take it back.  The damage would already be done, and you couldn’t know ahead of time what the outcome was going to be.  Teaching is similarly dangerous because it also has an impact on our future mental wellbeing.  The moral is that learning changes us, and it is difficult to predict the outcome of this change.  Both Socrates and Plato, in this way, admit that there is an element of danger in the act of learning.  They want us to be on guard by expanding our power of reason and judgement through mental conditioning.  As the professor put it, we are to exercise the mind with “mental push-ups” to give us more power to resist false or bad ideas.  Education can be safe if the student acquires control over possible changes by using certain tools, for example skepticism, to filter new information.  Using this tool, one can judge what information corresponds more to ones own interests, and perhaps even weigh certain information as better or worse.


                  As an aside, the professor revealed that every Thursday night he and a small group of individuals are reading the Protagoras in Greek.  The text is so rich and interesting, you cannot speed-read it and as a result only a small section is discussed in each meeting.  He then stated that they are on pace to finish the text in about two years. 


                  The professor got back on track by pointing us to lines 348c – 348d where ‘round two’ of the discussion begins.  Socrates starts with a methodological preface that is intended to ease the tension between them and get Protagoras to continue answering his questions.  He states:

I don’t want you to think that my motive in talking with you is anything else than to take a good hard look at things that continually perplex me.  I think that Homer said it all in the line, Going in tandem, one perceives before the other.  Human beings are simply more resourceful this way in action, speech, and thought.  If someone has a private perception, he immediately starts going around and looking until he finds somebody he can show it to and have it corroborated (Protagoras, 348c-d). 


This, the Professor thought, was harmless enough.  But then, when Socrates re-quotes Protagoras in saying that ‘man is the measure of all things’ and shows him to believe that everyone possesses a private perception through private channels that can be expanded upon through these views of things, this harmlessness begins to fade.  For, in the first part of the Theages, Plato shows he is disagreeing with Protagoras and yet here he is agreeing with him.  Either way, Plato believes that we should share our perceptions in order to be more resourceful in action, thought and speech.  This is do to Plato’s notice that our perceptions, being each our own, have an intrinsic quality of belief, and that there is no way of knowing which belief is correct, whether it be mine or yours.


                  Next, the professor read a quote from lines 348d to 349a, which reads: “I think you are the best qualified to investigate the sort of things that decent and respectable individuals ought to examine… calling yourself a sophist, highlighting yourself as a teacher of virtue, the first ever to have deemed it appropriate to charge a fee for this” (ibid).  Socrates and Plato have no problem with the idea of fostering virtue through education.  What they do have a problem with is charging a fee for teaching services.  This is an issue they also take up with Gorgias.  Socrates believes Gorgias does not have a clear focus on the utility of education.  He traps Gorgias and Callicles when they state that education should be used primarily for obtaining power.  Both Gorgias and Callicles believe that virtue, skill, and power should be utilized to fulfill desires.  As a result, Socrates has a vicious argument with Gorgias and Callicles.  It should be noted here that though Plato considers this an immoral method of teaching, he is also trying to signal that he does agree with Protagoras on certain issues of virtue.


                  Before making his next point, Professor Hutchinson points out that though Socrates is portrayed as winning most of the arguments in this dialogue, things being said actually seem to fit better with what Protagoras is saying.  This may be the reason for Plato choosing Protagoras as Socrates’ interlocutor for this text.


                  The Professor then points out how Socrates then suggests that all the virtues are different forms of the same thing and tries to sign Protagoras on by stating: “Wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, and piety – are these five names for the same thing, or is there underlying each of these names a unique thing, a thing with its own power or function” (ibid, 349b – 349c).  Before continuing on, Professor Hutchinson explains how important the words ‘power’ and ‘function’ are in Plato’s writings by stating that we say them repeatedly and specifically in Hippias.  Now, there are serious difficulties with Socrates’ claim that they are all the same thing and Protagoras immediately recognizes this.  Socrates proclaims that he selected Protagoras for this discussion because he is the leading example of this style of thought.  Protagoras maintains the view that the virtues are different and the Professor acknowledged that this is not a bad thesis.  For example, a friend can remind you of your good qualities but they can also remind you of your shortcomings.  Therefore, it is difficult to conclude without saying “well on the other hand”.  Socrates’ assertion does not allow for any middle ground, one is either wise or unwise.  If they are wise then they possess all the virtues, if they are not then they possess none.  To Socrates, then, if it does not make you wise then it is not virtue.  The Professor asserted that he has never met anyone who was totally virtuous or totally lacking in all the virtues either.  Professor Hutchinson then returned to the crux of the argument by explaining that Protagoras recognizes that courage is the most different of all the virtues, even if the rest do resemble each other closely.  This is because courage has the most to do with personality, while the rest do not.  Wisdom can exist in people with different personalities, but not courage.  Courage is the disposition to have or not to have fear.  For example, the children differ wildly in terms of the amount of fear they feel.  Children will even change on this scale and become less fearful and foolhardy than they were before.  The Professor therefore concludes that it is difficult to see how courage could be equated to wisdom, as Socrates would have us believe.


The five virtues were originally four, as the stoics knew it: justice, temperance, wisdom and courage, no piety.  Plato restored piety to the virtues in the Euthyphro.  Justice and piety to Plato were the same thing but in different realms.  Plato thought piety was justice aimed at the divine and not just people.  However, this claim is arguable because piety and justice do not go together that well in other religions. 


One of the Republic’s endeavors was to assign each of the virtues with the parts of the soul.  Plato, in this way, assigned the virtue wisdom to the mind, and temperance to desires.  This latter attribution of desire becomes a matter of self-control, which is to follow the rules of reason and not to be too large, small or tumultuous.  Plato had to invent another part of the soul to facilitate courage.  As a result, in book four, the soul was divided into mind, desires, and emotions (such as fear).  As wisdom and temperance were equated to mind and desires respectively, courage became equated to this third part, namely emotions.  And justice became the virtue of the soul that ruled the rest (as it does in society).  This third part of the soul was not universally approved and it took tremendous work for Plato to analyze courage. 


                  A student then asked if the opposite of wisdom was ignorance or madness.  The Professor stated that it could be madness but actually it was probably closer to unwisdom.  Professor Hutchinson then suggested that there are different types and flavors of knowledge and wisdom.  One cannot be self-contained in mind but in actions “knowing is not enough.”  It is fine to be confident but it should be based on knowledge.  For example, you do not praise a child for being confident because they stepped off a cliff.  This confidence is based on foolishness or madness, not on courage.  Socrates and Protagoras argue about courage and the role of confidence.  Protagoras is portrayed by Socrates to believe that the most confident people are the most courageous.  Protagoras catches Socrates in 350c-d pulling a fast one: “You are doing a poor job of remembering what I said when I answered your questions, Socrates.  When I was asked if the courageous are confident, I agreed.  I was not asked if the confident are courageous” (ibid.  350c-d, p.  780).  Socrates reasons that A is B, therefore B is A, or that all apples are fruit, therefore all fruits are apples.  Professor Hutchinson here notes that this is a strange occurrence because Plato usually uses Socrates as his voice, while here it can be clearly seen that Protagoras is playing that role.  Plato, unlike Socrates, believes that if one is courageous, one needs to be both knowledge and emotional as well.  He thus devotes books three and four of The Republic to education, a kind of boot-camp for the emotions.  Here Professor Hutchinson notes that an essential skill to make progress in philosophy is to see the underlying logical argument in a text.  And that we will see a terrific display of it in the Parmenides.


After Protagoras senses Socrates’ fallacy in reasoning, Socrates seems to have no answer for Protagoras’ correction and therefore escapes by changing the subject 351b.  However, Socrates immediately commits the same mistake by postulating that the fine life, or the good and the pleasant are the same while the bad and the painful are the same..  Protagoras rightly resists Socrates by disagreeing with these unions, but allows Socrates to continue on.  At 352b Socrates gets Protagoras to agree that it is wisdom and not pleasure that rules the individual.  Since the weakness of the will and the pleasure of the good equate to a bastard thesis, Socrates and Plato believe that the weakness of the will does not exist.  Therefore, the true skill of life is measuring pleasure, sizing it up and defining how large it is.  However, Plato is famous for attacking this concept and rejects this thesis elsewhere.  In the Pheado, for example, starting at line 68d and ending at line 69c, he shows his contempt for such an argument.  Therefore, it is strange that Socrates would advocate “sizing-up” pleasure.  So, Plato rejects Socrates’ argument and agrees instead with Protagoras.


The Professor, before making one final comment, then stated that you should let yourself become irritated by dialogues and try to workout what went wrong in order to get more out of them.  The benefit comes in allowing this irritation to exist and then explore analytically this irritation without the book.  This he stated is what should be happening with our position papers.  Find something that gets under your skin, quote it, and explore it.


                  Finally, Professor quickly read a clever passage form a student’s position paper concerning two parts of a solution being held apart and not being put together.  Real virtue takes talent, training and education, whereas Socrates thought that all that was required is knowledge.