The Sophists Sell Teachings for the Soul

The Rush to Study with Protagoras

In Protagoras 310e, Hippocrates says that he was a child when Protagoras last visited Athens (which must have been sometime before 443 BCE, when Pericles entrusted Protagoras to draft the laws for the new colony at Thurii (in Southern Italy on the Ionian Sea). His return to the city was a cause for excitement, as the opening scene shows. The entourage Socrates sees upon entering the house of Callias (where Socrates introduces Hippocrates to Protagoras) includes Pericles' sons (Protagoras 315a). They died in the plague of 429 BCE. This does not determine an exact date for the dialogue, but it seems likely that it occurs on the eve of the Peloponnesian War (430-404 BCE), which Pericles did much to cause and from which Athens would never recover. In 399 BCE, Socrates would be executed on the charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. Some of the Athenians who played a role in Athen's undoing in the war had followed Socrates around when they were young. After the war, the Athenians were looking to place blame. They looked to Socrates, but Plato seems to invite his readers to conclude that they should have blamed the sophistical education Socrates opposed. 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. Socrates questions Hippocrates to see if he knows what he is doing, and this questioning quickly shows that Hippocrates does not know what will 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).

A Sophist sells Doctrines for the Soul

"Are you aware 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 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 in provisions on which a soul is nourished. ... 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 313c).
Socrates does not share Hippocrates' enthusiasm for a sophistic education. He cautions Hippocrates that the Sophists are merchants, that they sell "doctrines" for the soul, that they themselves do not know whether what they sell is good or bad. Their interest is in the sale.

Socrates agrees to take Hippias to see Protagoras, but he does not hand him over straightaway. He first tries to determine what Protagoras is "selling" and thus whether he is a suitable teacher.

"My friend Hippocrates finds himself desirous of joining your classes; and therefore he says he would be glad to know what result he will get from joining them" (Protagoras 318a).

In reply, Protagoras says that Hippias will learn "good judgement (εὐβουλία) in his own affairs, showing how best to order his home; and in the affairs of his city, showing how he may have most influence on public affairs in speech and in action" (Protagoras 318e-319a; cf. Meno 91a)

Socrates expresses surprise and says that he did not think that that "virtue is teachable."

On Whether Virtue is Teachable

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" (70a)?
Protagoras' reply to the question Socrates poses (on behalf of Hippocrates) sets up one of the most important opposing viewpoints about "education" (παιδεία) in ancient philosophy.

 "I wonder whether I follow what you are saying, Protagoras; for you appear to be speaking of the political art (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 that I did not suppose to be teachable.... How I came to think that it cannot be taught, or provided by men for men, I may be allowed to explain. ... 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 speech (Protagoras 320c-328d) to show that virtue is "taught" all the time.

First, to explain the need for virtue, Protagoras presents a "myth" (μῦθον) (Protagoras 320c). He says that the gods gave to human beings a certain ability they initially had lacked. In their original condition, humans 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.

"I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important" (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man I.IV). The idea in the myth is that human beings changed in a fundamental way. At first they could not get along well enough to cooperate with one another for there to be communities. This changed when their psychology changed so that they were more egalitarian in their outlook. Human beings acquired a sense of "shame and right" that made them behave in terms of norms that reduced conflict and produced the kinds of group behavior that exists in a community.

With this idea in the background about the psychology of human beings, Protagoras explains that teaching virtue is a matter of manipulating the sense of "shame and right" so that humans beings internalize the specific norms for group behavior enforced in their community.

"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 orderly 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. The sense of "shame and right" is the basis for a coordination among attitudes about what is permissible and forbidden. The specific form the coordination takes is instilled in children in the home, in lessons in the school, in the punishments in the legal system, and through the power of persuasion in rhetoric. Education instills the sense of "shame and right" reflected in the morality enforced in the community. This begins in the nursery. The lessons develop the implanted sense of "shame and right" so that this 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 way of developing the sense of "shame and right" continues into adult life with the enforcement of the laws.

What the Sophists give their Students

For those willing to pay to become even better, Protagoras says that he is "uniquely qualified to assist others in becoming fine and good (καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθὸν)" (Protagoras 328b).

He explains 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 such huge sums of money: they hoped to apply the routine Protagoras uses to "teach virtue" to enriched themselves and their 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 desires. In this way, to the sons of the aristocracy, 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.

To Socrates, however, as Plato portrays him, the power of rhetorical persuasion the sophists teach is not a route to happiness. What it is is an easy way to ruin one's life. It is a routine to satisfy the desires one happens to have, but this alone is not the competency involved in how to live. It is necessary to know what is desirable, and this is not something the sophists teach. For this reason, as Socrates understands them, the sophists are dangerous. Their teaching helps their students go through life blindly, without direction from knowledge of what is good and what is bad.

"Man is the Measure of All Things"

Protagoras does not talk in the myth about changing the customs in society, but his explanation of how virtue is taught provides the mechanism. Given that it is possible through rhetorical persuasion to manipulate the sense of "shame and right" in individuals, it is possible to introduce changes in the customs that ensure stable group living. In essence, this is what the sons of the aristocracy want to learn how to do. They want to apply the persuasion Protagoras uses to "teach virtue" to change the customs in such a way that others are motivated to help them satisfy their desires.

Callicles, in the Gorgias, rejects one convention for group living and promotes an alternative arrangement he claims is "natural." "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 ἔχειν), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement (πλεονεκτεῖν) 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 (τὸ πλέον ζητεῖν ἔχειν τῶν πολλῶν), 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 (ὅτι οὕτω τὸ δίκαιον κέκριται, τὸν κρείττω τοῦ ἥττονος ἄρχειν καὶ πλέον ἔχειν)" (Gorigias 483b-d).)
In the myth Protagoras sets out, there is a conception of justice and the good life

According to the myth, justice is a set of customs that result from a coordination procedure that has played out historically among individuals to promote stable group living. From within the current customs, multiple conceptions of the good life are possible. Individuals work out for themselves which possibilities they understand as good lives. They risk of punishment if they live contrary to the existing customs, but otherwise they are free to pursue their desires and to work out for themselves what activity or activities constitute "happiness" (εὐδαιμονία).

"'But my dear fellow,' Protagoras will say, ... 'the truth is as I have written; each one of us is the measure of the things that are and those that are not... that to one person some things appear and are, and to another person other things. ... For I claim that whatever seems right and honorable (δίκαια καὶ καλὰ δοκῇ) to a state is right and honorable to it, so long as it believes it to be so [or: maintains this opinion (ἕως ἂν αὐτὰ νομίζῃ)]...'" (Theaetetus 166c-167c).

  "I think, Socrates, that he who knows anything perceives that which he knows, and, as it appears at present, knowledge is nothing else than perception.
Good! Excellent, my boy! That is the way one ought to speak out. But come now, Theaetetus, let us examine your utterance together, and see whether it is a real offspring or a mere wind-egg. Perception, you say, is knowledge?
  And, indeed, if I may venture to say so, it is not a bad description of knowledge that you have given, but one which Protagoras also used to give. Only, he has said the same thing in a different way. For he says somewhere that 'man is the measure of all things (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον’ ἄνθρωπον εἶναι), of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.' You have read that, I suppose?
  I have read it often" (Theaetetus 151e; cf. Theaetetus 178b).

The Theaetetus is traditionally a late middle dialogue.
Given the way Plato portrays Protagoras' understanding of justice, it is not possible to criticize a set of of existing customs as unjust. A set of customs is just if, and only if, it is the currently being enforced. It might be that these customs are inconsistent with a life one regards as the good life, but this means nothing more than that one does not like these customs. The recourse, in this case, is to use power of rhetorical persuasion to promote a set of customs one likes better.

Perseus Digital Library:

Plato's, Protagoras, Theaetetus

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἄδικος, (ἀ +‎ δίκη), adikos, adjective, "wrongdoing, unrighteous, unjust,"
αἰδώς, aidōs, noun, "shame,"
αἰσχρός, aischros, adjective, "causing shame, dishonouring, reproachful,"
δίκη, dikē, noun, "what is right,"
εὐβουλία, euboulia, noun, "soundness of judgment,"
μάθημα, noun, mathēma, "thing learned, lesson,"
μῦθος, mythos, noun, "tale, story, narrative,"
παιδεία, paideia, noun, "rearing of a child,"
πλεονεξία, (πλέον +‎ ἔχω), pleonexia , noun, "greediness,"
σοφιστής, sophistēs, noun, "a Sophist"

Arizona State University Library.
Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1
Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians

move on go back