The Rush to Study with Protagoras

The Protagoras opens with a conversation between Socrates and a friend. Socrates explains that he has come from seeing Protagoras. The friend is excited and wants to hear all about their conversation. Socrates says that it started when Hippocrates came to his door early in the morning in a rush to study with the great Sophist, Protagoras. Socrates questions Hippocrates to see if he knows what he is doing, and this questioning quickly shows that Hippocrates is not sure what he hopes to gain from his study, other than "a general education suitable for a gentleman" (Protagoras 312b). Nor does he know what Protagoras professes to teach. His best reply is that a Sophist "has understanding of wise things" and "is an expert at making people clever speakers" (Protagoras 312c).

Hippias wants to entrust his soul to a Sophist

Socrates does not share Hippocrates' enthusiasm for a sophistic education.

"Are you aware, Hippias, of the hazard with respect to which you are going to stake your soul (ψυχήν)? If you had to entrust your body to someone, taking the risk of its being made better or worse, you would first consider whether you ought to entrust it or not, and would seek the advice of your friends and relations and ponder it for a number of days. Yet for your soul, which you value much more highly than your body, and on which depends the good or ill condition of all your affairs (εὖ ἢ κακῶς πράττειν), according as it is made better or worse (χρηστοῦ ἢ πονηροῦ αὐτοῦ γενομένου), would you omit to consult first with your father or your brother or one of us your comrades, ... and instead, having heard of Protagoras in the evening, as you say, and coming to me at dawn, to make no mention of whether you ought to entrust yourself to him, and take no counsel upon it, are you ready to spend your own substance and that of your friends, in the settled conviction that at all costs you must converse with Protagoras, whom you neither know, as you tell me, nor have ever met in argument before, and whom you call sophist' (σοφιστὴν) in patent ignorance of what this sophist may be to whom you are about to entrust yourself. ... [T]he sophist is a sort of merchant or dealer in provisions on which a soul is nourished. For such is the view I take of him. ... It is with doctrines (μαθήμασιν), presumably, that the soul is nourished, and we must take care that the sophist, in commending his wares, does not deceive us, as both merchant and dealer do in the case of food for the body. For among the provisions in which these men deal, not only are they ignorant what is good or bad, since in selling they commend them all, but the people who buy from them are so too, unless one happens to be a trainer or a doctor. And in the same way, those who take their doctrines the round of our cities, hawking them about to any odd purchaser who desires them, commend everything they sell, and there may well be some of these too who are ignorant which of their wares is good or bad for the soul. The same is true of the people who buy from them, unless one happens to have a doctor's knowledge here also, but of the soul. So then, if you are well informed as to what is good or bad among these wares, it will be safe for you to buy doctrines from Protagoras or from anyone else you please. If not, take care that you do not risk your greatest treasure on a toss of the dice. For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of doctrines than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when. So that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel. You are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man (Protagoras 313a-314b).

On the Question of Whether Virtue is Teachable

Socrates agrees to take Hippias to see Protagoras, but he does not hand him over straightaway. He first tries to determine whether Protagoras is a suitable teacher. "My friend Hippocrates finds himself desirous of joining your classes; and therefore he says he would be glad to know [from you Protagoras] what result he will get from joining them" (Protagoras 318a). Protagoras' first replies are vacuous, but he eventually says that he teaches his pupils "good judgement (εὐβουλία) in his own affairs, showing how best to order his own home; and in the affairs of his city, showing how he may have most influence on public affairs both in speech and in action" (Protagoras 318e-319a). Socrates expresses surprise and says that he thought that "virtue is not teachable."

This sets up one of the great debates in ancient philosophy. The issue is about how human beings acquire the competency involved in living a good life.

(In the Meno, Plato frames the issue more explicitly. At the outset of the dialogue, Plato has Meno (who has spent time with the Sophist Gorgias) ask Socrates "whether virtue can be taught, or is acquired by practice, not teaching? Or if neither by practice nor by learning, whether it comes to mankind by nature or in some other way?")

 "I wonder whether I follow what you are saying, Protagoras; for you appear to be speaking of the civic science (πολιτικὴν τέχνην), and undertaking to make men good citizens.
 That, Socrates, is exactly the purport of what I profess.
 Then it is a goodly accomplishment that you have acquired, to be sure, if indeed you have acquired it—to such a man as you I may say sincerely what I think. For this is a thing, Protagoras, that I did not suppose to be teachable; but when you say it is, I do not see how I am to disbelieve it. How I came to think that it cannot be taught, or provided by men for men, I may be allowed to explain. I say, in common with the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise. Now I observe, when we are collected for the Assembly, and the city has to deal with an affair of building, we send for builders to advise us on what is proposed to be built; and when it is a case of laying down a ship, we send for shipwrights; and so in all other matters which are considered learnable and teachable: but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the tipstaves pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the chair. Such is their procedure in matters which they consider professional. But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught. Nay further, it is not only so with the service of the State, but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this virtue (ἀρετὴν) of theirs to others; for Pericles, the father of these young fellows here, gave them a first-rate training in the subjects for which he found teachers, but in those of which he is himself a master he neither trains them personally nor commits them to another's guidance, and so they go about grazing at will like sacred oxen, on the chance of their picking up excellence here or there for themselves. Or, if you like, there is Cleinias, the younger brother of Alcibiades here, whom this same Pericles, acting as his guardian, and fearing lie might be corrupted, I suppose, by Alcibiades, carried off from his brother and placed in Ariphron's family to be educated: but before six months had passed he handed him back to Alcibiades, at a loss what to do with him. And there are a great many others whom I could mention to you as having never succeeded, though virtuous themselves, in making anyone else better, either of their own or of other families. I therefore, Protagoras, in view of these facts, believe that virtue is not teachable (οὐχ ἡγοῦμαι διδακτὸν εἶναι ἀρετήν): but when I hear you speak thus, I am swayed over, and suppose there is something in what you say, because I consider you to have gained experience in many things and to have learnt many, besides finding out some for yourself. So if you can demonstrate to us more explicitly that virtue is teachable, do not grudge us your demonstration" (Protagoras 319a-320c).

Virtue Makes Group Living Possible

Protagoras gives a long speech (Protagoras 320c-328d) to show that virtue [= competency in living a good life] is "taught" all the time.

First, to explain the basis of virtue in human society, Protagoras presents a "myth" (μῦθον) (Protagoras 320c). According to this myth, the gods gave to human beings a certain ability they initially had lacked. In their original condition, human beings lived in small groups and were unable to defend themselves against the beasts. Fear soon drove these small and scattered groups together into larger communities, but the features necessary for the survival of these larger communities did not exist because human beings did not yet have the proper attitudes necessary for group living. The mutual antagonisms that plagued the larger communities (antagonism based in greed and other individualistic desires) drove these communities apart, leaving the smaller groups once again at the mercy of the beasts. To save humankind from destruction, Zeus intervened to give human beings what they lacked. He directed Hermes (the messenger from the gods) to implant in human beings "shame and right (αἰδῶ τε καὶ δίκην), so within cities there would be the ties of friendship to unite the people" (Protagoras 322c) and hence they would stay together in political communities.

With the myth in the background, Protagoras explains that teaching virtue is matter of manipulating the sense of "shame and right" Hermes implanted in human beings.

The suggestion is that shame is the basis for a coordination among attitudes that promotes stable group living. This coordination among attitudes is instilled in children in school and then later in the city through the laws. This manipulation occurs in childhood in the home, through lessons in the school, through the punishments in the legal system, and through the power of persuasion in rhetoric. Education instills the right sense of "shame and right" in children. This process begins in the nursery. The lessons develop the implanted sense of "shame and right" so that the conventional morality becomes second nature to the children. This process transforms the children. It causes them to come to agree in thought and action with their parents, teachers, and lawgivers when they say "this is just, that is unjust, this is fine, that ugly, this pious, that impious, he should do this, he should not do that" (Protagoras 325d). This manipulation continues into adult life with the enforcement of the laws.

"As soon as one of them grasps what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the tutor, and the father himself strive hard that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is just, and that unjust, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that. If he readily obeys,—so; but if not, they treat him as a bent and twisted piece of wood and straighten him with threats and blows. After this they send them to school and charge the master to take far more pains over their children's good behavior (εὐκοσμίας τῶν παίδων) than over their letters and harp-playing. The masters take pains accordingly, and the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken, are furnished with works of good poets to read as they sit in class, and are made to learn them off by heart: here they meet with many admonitions, many descriptions and praises and eulogies of good men in times past, that the boy in envy may imitate them and yearn to become even as they" (Protagoras 325c-326a). Cf. Aristophanes, Clouds 961-1009.

Rhetoric is a quick way to manipulate the sense of "shame and right"

For those willing to pay to become even better, Protagoras says that he himself is "uniquely qualified to assist others in becoming fine and good (καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθὸν)" (Protagoras 328b). He has the right motive. He says that he uses rhetorical persuasion to manipulate the sense of "shame and right" in wayward individuals to help them conform to the traditional morality, but his proof that virtue is teachable helps explain why the sons of the aristocracy were willing to pay the Sophists huge sums of money: they hoped to apply the routine Protagoras uses to "teach virtue" to enrich themselves and their families and friends. They hoped to use the power of persuasion to redirect the resources that accrue from group living so that these resources are expended in ways that satisfy their personal desires. In this way, to the sons of the aristocracy and to many others, the power of persuasion the Sophists taught appeared to be the key to happiness because it appeared to be an easy route to desire satisfaction.

From Socrates' perspective, as Plato portrays him, the power of persuasion the Sophists teach is an easy way to ruin one's life. This power is a kind of routine to satisfy the desires one happens to have in mind. Desire satisfaction alone, however, is not enough for the good life. Knowledge of what is good and hence is desirable is necessary. This knowledge is not something the Sophists explicitly teach. Plato leaves his readers to conclude that this makes the Sophists dangerous. Their teaching helps their students go through life blindly, so to speak, without direction from knowledge of what is good.

Justice and The Good life

Protagoras does not develop the point, but his myth suggests a conception of the connection between justice and the good life. According to the myth, justice is a set of customs or ways of life that result from a coordination procedure that has played out historically among individuals to promote stable group living. From within these customs, multiple conceptions of the good life are possible. Individuals are free to work out which of these possibilities they themselves understand as good lives. The only restriction is that they must live within the confines of the customs for stable group living.

The problem, though, as a moment of reflection shows, is that there are possible procedures for stable group living that can seem unjust because they are inconsistent with lives one finds attractive and might think are good. So it looks like what is good and what is bad should constrain the permissible arrangements for group living. If so, then Protagorean approach to "teaching virtue" is inadequate.

(Callicles, in the Gorgias, rejects one procedure for stable group living as unjust. "The makers of the laws (τοὺς νόμους) are the weaker sort of men, and the more numerous. So it is with a view to themselves and their own interest that they make their laws and distribute their praises and censures; and to terrorize the stronger sort of folk who are able to get an advantage (πλέον), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement is foul and unjust (αἰσχρὸν καὶ ἄδικον), and that wrongdoing is just this endeavor to get the advantage of one's neighbors: for I expect they are well content to see themselves on an equality, when they are so inferior. So this is why by convention (νόμῳ) it is termed unjust and foul to aim at an advantage over the majority, and why they call it wrongdoing: but nature (φύσις), in my opinion, herself proclaims the fact that it is right for the better to have advantage of the worse, and the abler of the feebler. It is obvious in many cases that this is so, not only in the animal world, but in the states and races, collectively, of men--that right has been decided to consist in the sway and advantage of the stronger over the weaker" (Gorigias 483b-d).)

Perseus Digital Library:
Plato's, Protagoras
Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
αἰδώς, aidōs, noun, "shame,"
δίκη, dikē, noun, "what is right,"
εὐβουλία, euboulia, noun, "soundness of judgment"