Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Protagoras

"Now I am persuaded, except for one small obstacle which Protagoras will explain away, I am sure, since he has explained away so much already."

In this dialogue we see Socrates in intellectual combat with a fellow philosopher: Protagoras the Sophist. The Sophists (the term means something like “professional expert in wisdom”) were itinerant scholars who offered to teach (often for a hefty fee) the art of success in life -- where this often included the art of persuasive speaking, since so much of Greek life turned on skill in argument in the Assembly or the lawcourts. The typical Sophist was part philosopher, part rhetorician, part psychologist, and part self-help expert.

The term “sophistry” has a pejorative meaning nowadays, being used to refer to clever, tricky, deceptiove and fallacious argument. This shift in meaning is largely due to the influence of Plato, who was hostile to the Sophists and penned a largely hostile portrait of them in his dialogues, often portraying them as amoral, self-important windbags. But we should recognize that the Sophists were the first to introduce higher education into Greece, and that Socrates himself owed much to their ideas.

One of the main topics of the Protagoras is the relation of moral truth to ordinary common sense. Protagoras is a defender of common sense -- and thus of democracy, which presupposes the wisdom of the common people. Protagoras thinks that the average person’s beliefs about morality are approximately correct; they need improvement, certainly, and Protagoras thinks his own teaching can provide such improvement. But for Protagoras, taking a course in ethics is like taking a course in one’s native language; one simply learns how to do better what one had been doing all along. Protagoras thinks everyone has at least a basically adequate grasp of moral truth, just as everyone has a basic grasp of his native language; some may have a better grasp than others (Protagoras suggests that his own grasp of ethics is better than most) , but everyone is approximately on the right track. To prove his point, Protagoras appeals to the fact if social cooperation: if moral knowledge were not universal, or nearly so, society would break down into chaos and conflict. Since in fact social cooperation is the norm and conflict the exception, most people must possess moral knowledge, absorbing it from their social environment in the same way that they acquire their native language (a comparison Alcibiades also made at Alcibiades 111 a).

Socrates vigorously disagrees. Although the Socratic method starts from ordinary beliefs, Socrates believes that those ordinary beliefs conceal deep and pervasive contradictions, and that in order to resolve such contradictions it will be necessary to revise our starting beliefs so radically that the end result will be greatly at odds with common sense (as Socrates’ moral teachings often are). Socrates is not impressed by Protagoras’ appeal to social cooperation; he would want to know “Cooperating to do what?” before he would grant that the cooperators possessed moral knowledge.

This difference in turn reflects a still deeper one. Protagoras seems to see the point of morality as being to facilitate social cooperation. Socrates, by contrast, sees morality primarily as a matter of a person’s relationship toward his own soul. For the sake of argument, Socrates puts himself forward as a proponent of democracy (319 a-e) and as an admirer of democratic statesmen like Pericles (319 e-320 b), but he is probably not being sincere, since at Gorgias 515 c-517 a, Socrates dismisses Pericles and other Athenian statesmen as corruptors of the city. This is not to say, however, that Socrates necessarily preferred some other political system to democracy; at Crito 52 b-53 a, he suggests an attachment to Athens’ democratic system of law. But Socrates thinks no political system can achieve much of value unless its citizens are awakened to the examined life. Protagoras is interested in politics in the conventional sense; Socrates’ concern, however, is with the inner politics of the soul (in Mitchell’s sense).

Different too are their styles of argument. Protagoras likes to teach by giving long speeches; Socrates prefers the give-and take of question and answer. Part of Socrates’ objection to Protagorean speechifying is that it does not draw its premises from the audience and so cannot effectively persuade them.

In this dialogue Protagoras presents his ethical views in the form of a myth about the gods. Since the historical Protagoras was famous for being an agnostic about the gods (one of his books began with the sentence “About the gods I cannot say what they are like or whether they exist, thanks to the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life”), the myth he tells is presumably meant to be understood metaphorically rather than literally. According to Protagoras, what sets us apart from the animals is our capacity for wisdom. But there are two kinds of wisdom: technical wisdopm and political wisdom. Technical wisdom leads us to cooperate with one another, but it also leads us to cheat on such cooperation in order to promote our own advantage. So if technical wisdom were the only kind of wisdom we possessed, human social cooperation would be hopelessly unstable. The fact that it isn’t shows that we also possess another kind of wisdom -- political wisdom, or the knowledge of right and wrong -- and that this wisdom is spread fairly evenly throughout the population rather than being confined to a small group of experts (because otherwise only those experts would succeed in cooperating). Such wisdom is not innate, however; it is a convention into which we are habituated through cultural osmosis. Socrates, by contrast, defend the notion of moral expertise.

In this dialogue Socrates also defends two of his most famous and controversial positions: that all the virtues are simply the same state of character under different names, so that to possess one virtue is to possess them all (this is known as the Unity of Virtue), and that all action is determined by one’s judgment as to what is good or valuable, so that no one ever consciously chooses anything they know to be bad, and thus that all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance (this is known as the Socratic Paradox). Together these two doctrines amount to the claim that being virtuous is simply a matter of possessing knowledge of what is good.

Knowledge of the good may be broken down into two types: knowledge of what is intrinsically good -- i.e., that which is worth having for its own sake -- and knowledge of what is instrumentaly goood -- i.e., that which is worth having because it is is a means to obtaining that which is intrinsically good. We shall see in the Gorgias that Socrates calls intrinsic value “pleasure” and instrumental value “benefit.” But we shall also see, in both the Gorgias and the Apology, that Socrates’ conception of pleasure is rather different from the ordinary one. For the purposes of the Protagoras, then, we can take Socrates’ talk of “pleasure” here simply as a shorthand for whatever is intrinsically valuable. (Note that at 358 a-b Socrates says he doesn’t want to be a stickler for terminology, and will accept the terms “delightful” or “enjoyable” in place of “pleasant.”) Knowledge of the good will include both knowledge of what is intrinsically good and knowledge of how to achieve it.

Socrates is often accused of an excessively intellectualist view of human psychology and motivation.. As early as Aristotle (Plato’s chief student), philosophers have complained that Socrates, in teaching that we always act in accordance with our judgment about what is best, has ignored the influence of non-rational desires and the possibility of moral incontinence (weakness of will, giving in to temptation against one’s better judgment).

This charge is probably mistaken, however. Socrates’ student Xenophon sees no conflict between the Socratic paradox and the existence of nonrational desires:

[1.2.19] But many self-styled lovers of wisdom may reply: A just man can never become unjust; a prudent man can never become wanton; in fact no one having learned any kind of knowledge can become ignorant of it. I do not hold with this view. I notice that as those who do not train the body cannot perform the functions proper to the body, so those who do not train the soul cannot perform the functions of the soul: for they cannot do what they ought to do nor avoid what they ought not to do. [1.2.20] For this cause fathers try to keep their sons, even if they are prudent lads, out of bad company: for the society of honest men is a training in virtue, but the society of the bad is virtue's undoing. ...

[1.2.21] My testimony agrees with theirs; for I see that, just as poetry is forgotten unless it is often repeated, so instruction, when no longer heeded, fades from the mind. To forget good counsel is to forget the experiences that prompted the soul to desire prudence: and when those are forgotten, it is not surprising that prudence itself is forgotten. [1.2.22] I see also that men who take to drink or get involved in love intrigues lose the power of caring about right conduct and avoiding evil. For many who are careful with their money no sooner fall in love than they begin to waste it: and when they have spent it all, they no longer shrink from making more by methods which they formerly avoided because they thought them disgraceful. [1.2.23] How then can it be impossible for one who was prudent to lose his prudence, for one who was capable of just action to become incapable? To me indeed it seems that whatever is honourable, whatever is good in conduct is the result of training, and that this is especially true of prudence. For in the same body along with the soul are planted the pleasures which call to her: "Abandon prudence, and make haste to gratify us and the body."

-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates

Moreover, Xenophon attributes to Socrates the view that nonrational desires cause incontinence, not by making us act contrary to our clear recognition of the good, but by temporarily confusing or obscuring our perception of the good:

[4.5.3] SOCRATES: Then do you think that the man is free who is ruled by bodily pleasures and is unable to do what is best because of them?

EUTHYDEMUS: By no means.

SOCRATES: Possibly, in fact, to do what is best appears to you to be freedom, and so you think that to have masters who will prevent such activity is bondage?

EUTHYDEMUS: I am sure of it. ...

[4.5.4] SOCRATES: And do you think that the incontinent are merely prevented from doing what is most honourable, or are also forced to do what is most dishonourable?

EUTHYDEMUS: I think that they are forced to do that just as much as they are prevented from doing the other. ...

[4.5.6] SOCRATES: As for Wisdom, the greatest blessing, does not incontinence exclude it and drive men to the opposite? Or don't you think that incontinence prevents them from attending to useful things and understanding them, by drawing them away to things pleasant, and often so stuns their perception of good and evil that they choose the worse instead of the better?

EUTHYDEMUS: That does happen.

-- Xenophon, Recollections of Socrates [see also Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus]

Moral knowledge and wrongdoing cannot coexist; but it does not follow that they cannot alternate. Plato seems to have a similar model in mind in the Protagoras, where we go wrong because our bodily nature causes us to have mistaken perceptions of what is valuable. (356 d-e)

Study Questions

1. Why, according to Socrates, is it more dangerous to buy instruction than to buy food and drink? Is he right? (312 b-314 a)

2. What is Socrates’ first argument for holding that virtue cannot be taught? (319 a-e) Does Socrates accept the premises? If not, why do you think he makes the argument?

3. What is Socrates’ second argument for holding that virtue cannot be taught? (319 e-320 b) Again, does Socrates accept the premises? If not, why do you think he makes the argument?

4. What is the intended moral of Protagoras’ myth about the origin of civilization? (320 c-322 d) If it is meant to be taken metaphorically rather than literally, what is it a metaphor for?

5. How does Protagoras’ myth provide a response to Socrates’ first argument against the teachability of virtue? (322 d-323 a)

6. What does Protagoras see as the difference between flute-playing and morality? And how does he use this as an argument for the universality of moral knowledge? (323 a-c)

7. How does Protagoras use our practice of blame and punishment as evidence for his view? (323 c-324 c)

8. How does Protagoras respond to Socrates’ second argument for the unteachability of virtue? (324 d-328 b)

9. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that justice and piety are the same thing? (330 b-331 e)

10. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that wisdom and temperance are the same thing? (332 a-333 b)

11. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that wisdom and courage are the same thing? (349 b-350 c)

12. What is Protagoras’ counter-argument? (350 c-351 a) What light does this dispute shed on the unresolved puzzle of the Laches?

13. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that pleasure is the good? (351 a-354 e)

14. What is Socrates’ argument for holding that voluntary wrongdoing is impossible? (354 e-356 c) How does Socrates’ view on pleasure support his view on voluntary wrongdoing?

15. What is Socrates’ argument for the “art of measurement”? (356 c-357 b) Is this art of measurement the same as Nicias’ knowledge of future goods and evils?

16. How do Socrates’ arguments on pleasure and voluntary wrongdoing support his claim that courage is wisdom? (357 c-360 e)

17. In what sense does Socrates think that he and Protagoras have switched sides during the argument? (361 a-c) What’s the solution?

Back to Study Guide index