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Topic #A11

Protagoras

 

3 October 2001

Scribes: Marcela Crowe and Leigh Cunningham

 

These minutes were not spoken; for another version,

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Protagoras represents a different stage in the course because of the shift in the material with which we have to read.  We have a complete Platonic dialogue, Protagoras, from which the Waterfield text uses certain isolated points as Testimonias.

 

We should think of Protagoras as the first professional educator.  Although elementary education was well developed during Protagoras’ time, he was the first to make a living educating people in the higher arts, which we would now consider post-secondary education.  A comparison was drawn between Protagoras and Mick Jagger.  They are not only talented but clever businessmen as well.

 

In the case of Protagoras, he was able to market himself by traveling around and giving speeches or seminars about the content of the education he would provide.  He charged a hundred minas which, to put in context, was a hundred times the amount that Socrates felt he could pay as a fine in Apology. 

 

Although not mentioned in the text, the way in which Protagoras was probably able to charge a hundred minas was by offering a money-back guarantee.  The enemies of Protagoras, however, would criticize such an offer because it would always work to Protagoras’ advantage.  For example, if the student won the court case then this would prove that he had, in fact learned something from Protagoras.  If the student lost the case then this would prove that the student was entitled to a refund because he had not learned anything.

 

The content of the education that Protagoras provided is considered abstract in general, but nonetheless has a clear focus on language and the arts.  Not only was Protagoras the first professional, he was the first professional of the humanities.  Unlike Plato, Protagoras did not think that mathematics was worth studying. (T19)

 

Protagoras thought that “literacy should be a matter for public concern and expense.” (T17)  This belief is not necessarily consistent with his charging of fess, for public education did not exist.

 

In T1, Protagoras is regarded as the first person to use what we now know as “Socratic” method, and also the first to argue “that there are two contradictory arguments about everything,” in response to the argument of Antithenes, who maintained that contradiction is impossible.

 

Protagoras can also be considered a theoretical grammarian, as reflected in T14, where he is said to have made a distinction between “the genders of words as masculine, feminine, and neuter.”  Also, in T1, language is again the focus as Protagoras distinguished four kinds of speech: wishing, asking, answering and commanding.  There are two contexts where exceptional oratory skills can place a person at an advantage.  The first context is the area of merchandising and advertising, such as in public relations, as well as for communications directors.  The second context is within the political domain, where discussing common problem and persuading people around you are necessary in any direct or representative democracy to ensure political success.  In the case of Athens, a direct democracy, theoretically, someone trained by Protagoras would have much power as a result of their abilities in the art of persuasion.  Protagoras also taught his students to analyze language and to know the proper context in which to present their argument.

 

Professor Hutchinson mentioned that we are like-minded with Protagoras, in that we believe that studying humanities enhances a student’s thinking ability and the skill of persuasion.  Although Professor Hutchinson considers Plato a hostile source because he gently ridicules Protagoras and calls him a Sophist, Professor Hutchinson feels that for him to criticize would be hypocritical.  Hutchinson maintains that modern universities are a fusion between two ancient philosophical traditions: Protagorean and Platonic.  We are indebted to the Protagorean tradition for its emphasis on the humanities, whereas we are indebted to the Platonic tradition for its emphasis on abstract, mathematical modes of thinking.  Furthermore, private education finds its origin in Protagoras and free public education from Plato.  For instance, the institution of higher learning known as The Academy, founded by Plato, was free of charge.

 

A criticism that Socrates puts forth against the Sophists is seen in a dialogue by Xenophon (I.6) where Socrates is criticized for being so clever but without any sensibility, upon which Socrates replied that we have a word for people who sleep with anybody for money.  In this way, Socrates accuses Sophists of being intellectual prostitutes.

 

In the Protagoras, Socrates has a testy relationship with Protagoras.  Socrates is very skeptical of Protagoras’ teaching methods and the two exchange verbal assaults, each winning points.  The main question in the dialogue is whether virtue can be taught, as Protagoras claims.  However, there is not a conclusion and scholars have debated greatly about the answer.  Ultimately, Protagoras is a sympathetic portrayal of Protagoras.

 

T12 (and Plato’s Protagoras starting at 320d) is the persuasive myth about the creation of different species including men.  According to the myth, everyone has virtue.  The benefit of living in a civilization is that a person is socialized with norms and, with training and education, a person can develop their skills and become experts.  Professor Hutchinson says that some people do develop authority and they give off an authoritative impression.  The professor’s example was Trudeau at a lecture at Oxford in 1977.  This authoritative quality is what Protagoras is trying to teach, however, it is most likely a combination of background and education.

 

The lecture concluded with the definition of a sophist.  A sophist is an “expert maker” or “expertizer.”  Philosophia means the ‘love of wisdom’.  Sophist is the root of words like sophisticated and sophomore.  Sophomore means a mixture of “bright and stupid/moronic.”