back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #C24

Plato, Protagoras 348c-362c


2 November 2001

Scribes: Laura Giordano and Rose Healy


These minutes were not spoken; for another version,

go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began his lecture stating that Plato seems to be trying to foster our freedom of judgment.  This is shown in the Lesser Hippias dialogue as well as the Protagoras dialogue.


Protagoras as a teacher has been brought up much in previous lectures including the discussion on learning in the earlier part of the Protagoras dialogue (311-314d) between Hippocrates and Socrates.  According to Professor Hutchinson, when one endeavors into any form of learning activity they must in turn expect to be changed.  Thus, there is a certain danger in any educational endeavor, according to both Plato and Socrates.  It was therefore in the interest of Socrates and Plato to ensure that we are on guard against this danger of education by expanding and exercising our power of judgment, thus giving us the power to resist false ideas.  Education is then safe if a student has acquired control over the changes that are to take place.  Educational change can have a disastrous effect, however, if it is not first run through a filter of skepticism – i.e. only when the power of skepticism is developed is it safe for people to assume a different way of thinking. 


Protagoras is a complex dialogue that is read in Greek every Tuesday night.  Two pages a night are accomplished because of the difficulties of the Greek.  According to Professor Hutchinson, Protagoras is a dialogue that cannot be read quickly, as it is interesting yet complicated.


As noted in the lecture, there are many complexities in the Protagoras dialogue.  At 348c Socrates and Protagoras resume a conversation that was previously broken off regarding virtue and whether it is teachable.  The conversation picks up again with a methodological preface spoken by Socrates and addressed to Protagoras.  In this methodological preface, Socrates states that “[h]uman beings are simply more resourceful in action, speech and thought” (348d). 


“Protagoras,” I said, “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 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.  And there is a particular reason why I would rather talk with you than anyone else: I think you are the best qualified to investigate the sort of things that decent and respectable individuals ought to examine, and virtue especially.  Who else but you?  Not only do you consider yourself to be noble and good but, unlike others who are themselves decent and respectable individuals yet unable to make others so, you are not only good yourself but able to make others good as well, and you have so much self-confidence that instead of concealing this skill, as others do, you advertise it openly to the whole Greek world, 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.”       (348c-349a)


This preface outlines much of Protagoras’ doctrine that Plato is agreeing with through the voice of Socrates.  That each of us develops our own views through means of private understanding but that complete understanding can only be developed through means of our coming together, and thus expanding our private understanding, is the view of Protagoras restated here by Socrates.  From this we derive at Protagoras’ idea that every perspective is an equal perspective and there is then no privileged position or view for judging right or wrong (this is discussed further in Plato’s Theaetetus dialogue).  Further, Plato, through the voice of Socrates, shows that as he disagrees with the fact that Protagoras charges a fee to those who come to learn from him, although he agrees with Protagoras on the notion that virtue can indeed be promoted.  Here Plato is highlighting where Socrates and Protagoras agree, as they both ultimately believe that a true educator should aim for the promotion of true virtue.  Professor Hutchinson then drew a distinction between this dialogue of Socrates and Protagoras and that of Socrates and Gorgias where Gorgias made no claim to, nor did he have any desire to teach virtue.  Gorgias was a pure technician who claimed to teach not virtue but skill.  Socrates and Protagoras have an ongoing battle with Gorgias in this matter and this is shown with Socrates earlier in the Protagoras dialogue when Gorgias was made to agree with Socrates that virtue should be included within an educational realm.  It is thus indicated here that Plato adamantly criticizes Gorgias for his amoral insight of teaching.


Another point of interest is that Plato intentionally portrays Protagoras as a truly cleaver man, although he is not always right.  In this, there are several times throughout the dialogue where Protagoras presents an argument that is more sound than Socrates’ arguments.  Thus, Protagoras is presented as a leading example with regard to education.


Next Socrates and Protagoras contemplate the five virtues, “[w]isdom, temperance, courage, justice, and piety”, questioning whether they are “names for the same thing,” or whether each of them have their own “power or function” (349b). 


“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 of function, each one unlike any of the others?  You said that they are not names for the same thing, that each of theses names refers to a unique thing, and that all these are parts of virtue, not like the parts of gold, which are similar to each other and to the whole of which they are parts, but like the parts of a face, dissimilar to the whole of which they are parts and to each other, and each one having its own unique power or function.”       (349b-c)


It was the original statement of Protagoras’ that each of these virtues is not a name for the same thing, but that each has a unique function and power.  According to Professor Hutchinson, the idea that these virtues are different from one another seems to be a matter of common sense.  It is human nature to talk of the good and bad virtues of our friends, often complimenting them on there virtuous ways yet then adding, “but on the other hand…”, and we could not talk this way unless the virtues where different.  Other evidence indicating that these five virtues are unique in their power and function is the notion that, if each was merely a different name for the same thing, if a man was wise, he would thus necessarily possess all of the five virtues, yet if a man was not wise, he would necessarily possess none of the five virtues.  The problem rests in that we do not believe that there are men who are entirely virtuous, nor do we believe that there are men who completely lack virtue altogether.


When Socrates asks if Protagoras maintained this initial statement, he responded by stating that there is a definite similarity between wisdom, temperance, justice and piety, yet courage is most distinct both from each individual virtue as well as the whole of which they are part.  As noted by Professor Hutchinson, Protagoras is not wrong in stating that if any of these virtues were to be dissimilar from the rest it should undoubtedly be courage on the grounds that courage, unlike the other virtues, has the closest relationship with personality.  Courage seems to be a disposition regarding having fear or not having fear, and evidence for this is in the notion that our disposition towards fear changes as our personality changes and thus is not necessarily associated with our wisdom. 


Professor Hutchinson then went on to explain that the five initial virtues were made into four, stating that it was indeed a popular thought that there were in fact only four virtues.    In Plato’s Euthyphro, piety was omitted from the list of five virtues, as according to Plato, piety is essentially the same as justice but of a different realm – i.e. ‘piety’ refers to justice towards the Gods while ‘justice’ refers to justice towards humans.  Piety is thus intimately connected with justice and is therefore not a separate virtue.  This notion of there being only four virtues became apparent at Plato’s academy and spread rapidly thereafter. 


Of the four remaining virtues, Plato assigned each to corresponding parts of the soul (this is done in Plato’s Republic, Book IV).  With wisdom he attributes the virtue of the mind, and of temperance he attributes the virtue of desires, yet Plato had to invent a third part of the soul to accommodate courage.  This third part of the soul is thus the emotional part of the soul.  Justice is not a part of the soul per se, but a virtue of the soul as a whole with regard to the relations of all its parts with one another – just as it is with regard to the relations of all the parts of a state.


A question then asked by a student was, “is wisdom knowledge?”  Professor Hutchinson answered by saying that wisdom for Plato is knowledge but it comes in various types and the opposite of wisdom can be madness and/or lack of knowledge.  This wisdom for Plato was a sort of self-control – one could not be self-controlled without having their desires under control – thus, knowledge was not enough.


Socrates then made the point that, as it is a fine thing to have confidence, one must also have a grasp on reality to be courageous as well.  People are generally not praised for being “courageous” if they have a poor grasp on reality.  Moreover, according to Socrates, the wisest man equates the most confident man who in turn equates the most courageous man.  Here however emerges an important point in the dialogue.  At 350d Protagoras must correct Socrates, stating that Socrates has done a poor job of remembering what Protagoras had previously said.  Protagoras has thus far merely stated that the courageous are confident, but he has stated nothing about the reversal, that the confident are courageous.  Here Socrates makes a mistake by trying to infer “if B then A” from “if A then B”, a step that cannot logically be made – i.e. although the statement ‘all apples are fruit’ is correct, it would be most incorrect to infer from this the statement that ‘all fruits are apples’.  The only point that Plato is trying to make thus far is that one must cultivate both the emotional and logical sides of the soul; we must do exercises in emotion as well and logic.  This is a point that Plato much likes to dwell on in all his dialogues.


What is interesting here is that Socrates is found out in trying to pull a fast one in logic: he misses the essential skill in seeing the logical skeleton. Socrates has no answer to Protagoras after being caught in this mistake, so he therefore changes the subject.  Interestingly enough however, Socrates commits the same mistake immediately again by inferring from the notion that the fine life is a life of pleasure to the notion that a life full of pleasure is a fine life: a hypothesis deemed incorrect upon consulting basic common sense.  He then marries this hypothesis that Plato does not agree with, with a Socratic thesis that Plato does agree with, that there is no such thing as weakness of will (352b).  We then are resulted in a bastard conclusion stating that the true skill of living is a matter of measurement of pleasure.  It is evident from numerous Platonic dialogues that Plato does not agree with this conclusion and thus here he agrees with Protagoras.  Plato rejects Socrates thesis that pleasure is the good in the Phaedo.


“My good Simmias, I fear this is not the right exchange to attain virtue, to exchange pleasure for pleasure, pains for pains and fears for fears, the greater for the less like coins, but that the only valid currency for which all these things should be exchanged is wisdom.  With this we have real courage and moderation and justice and, in a word, true virtue, with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and all such things are present or absent.  Exchanged for one another without wisdom such virtue is only an illusory appearance of virtue; it is in fact fit for slaves, without soundness or truth, moderation and courage and justice are a purging away of all such things, and wisdom itself is a kind of cleansing or purification.”       (Phaedo, 69b-c)


Professor Hutchinson concluded his lecture stating that if you let yourself become irritated with logical mistakes, the result of reading the dialogue will not be beneficial to you. The benefits come when one acquires the desire to figure out what has happened analytically.  Thus, according to Professor Hutchinson, if one reads the Platonic dialogues passively, they will reap no benefits, as these dialogues are only truly beneficial if one reads in an active analytical manner.  In a position paper read at the end of the lecture, one student made an insightful suggestion that often you see a Socratic mistake because the two parts of the solution are held apart and not kept together in the final conclusion.