The Examination of Virtue in the Protagoras

The Protagoras is a dialogue that is entirely narrated by Socrates. Unlike The Republic, the Protagoras dialogue begins with Socrates’s conversation with an unknown “friend”. His friend asks where Socrates has come from -he asks if he has hunting for the ‘beautiful’ man and follower, Alcibiades. In fact, Socrates has just seen Alcibiades, but Socrates declares that he was with someone more beautiful and wise: Protagoras, perhaps the wisest man alive. This framing conversation with Socrates’s anonymous “friend” takes place on the same day as Socrates’s exchange with Protagoras. As a favor to his friend, which is a mutual favor, Socrates recounts his exchange with Protagoras.

Earlier that same day, before the sun had even risen, Hippocrates banged on Socrates’s door and barged right in while Socrates was asleep. He sat at the foot of Socrates’s bed to let him know that Protagoras was in town. Socrates was already aware of this, as Protagoras had been in town for two days prior. Hippocrates was clearly excited about the prospect of seeing Protagoras -Socrates had clearly been trying to avoid Protagoras.

As the sun is rising, Socrates and Hippocrates go for a walk and discuss the question of what a sophist is. Hippocrates’s claim is that a sophist is someone who has an understanding of wise things, and an expert in making people clever speakers. After raising concerns in the discussion for a person’s soul, Socrates warns Hippocrates about the dangers of the sophists. He asks Hippocrates what benefit he will get by paying Protagoras for speeches, to the point that Hippocrates blushes (312a), not unlike Thrasymachus in The Republic. However, he is beckoned by Hippocrates to go to Protagoras who is staying at the luxurious home of Callias. When they arrive they are turned away by the slave boy at first. However they are finally allowed in (notice the difference in beginning the dialogue at Socrates’s home in the Protagoras, in contrast to the opening scene of the Symposium at the home of Agathon). Socrates recounts the many busy guests roaming around the house who are overcome by Protagoras’s celebrity. All the men in the Symposium are present in this dialogue, excluding Aristophanes.

When they arrive, Protagoras is addressed by Socrates. They have come because Hippocrates wants to be a great man in the city of Athens and believes he can only do this through association with Protagoras. Protagoras then admits his identity as a sophist and welcomes a crowd to listen to their discussion. The dialogue moves from the question of how a man is improved by association with a sophist, to what the art of citizenship is, and then finally to what virtue is and whether it can be taught. This leads Protagoras to give an account of the gods, a long-winded story about Epimetheus and Prometheus, and an account of punishments, as a way to improve men (for certainly the act of crime is not merely punished for its own sake). Protagoras claims that virtue can be taught. At first he claims that virtue is one single entity, but later says that courage is a different kind of part of the whole. Protagoras gets frustrated and does not want to continue. Socrates tries to leave but Callias grabs his cloak, compelling him to stay.

They come to a compromise and Protagoras asks a seemingly unrelated question about the analysis of a poem by Simonides, Socrates responds with a detailed analysis of the poem by memory, and then Socrates proceeds to grill Protagoras about the original question. However, it ends on the question of courage and cowardice, and whether a pleasant life is good, and a painful life is bad. Socrates concludes by exposing Protagoras as a soft, self proclaimed intellectual. He and Hippocrates take their leave.

For this reading I used the Stanley Lombardo translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s