Protagoras, the celebrated sophist has come to Athens and Hippocrates is so excited by his arrival and the chance to hear him that he proceeds at once to Socrates and give him the great news. It is very early and sun has not yet risen. Plato would have posterity believe that Socrates can drink copious amounts of wine without getting drunk and go without sleep for days and while he doesn’t admit outright that Hippocrates catches our hero asleep, the fact that he doesn’t aver that Socrates was already awake and bustling about indicates that he did.
In another refreshing change from some of the other dialogues, Socrates isn’t agog at Protagoras wisdom.
He concedes that the sophist may possess great learning and ability but he remains doubtful that he can teach Hippocrates to be wise and he is worried that the young man is placing himself so heedlessly in the hands of a teacher he’s never met. As soon as the sun is up, he and Hippocrates head over to see Protagoras for themselves.
Plato has brought himself to admit that Socrates does sleep, but in compensation he makes some of the sophists very sedentary indeed. One of them, Prodicus, is still abed, bundled in sheepskins and blankets, but holding forth from that supine posture. Protagoras himself is on his feet, walking back and forth, his listeners trailing him, parting when he turns around so not to get in his way and falling in behind him again like a school of fish.
Plato is poking fun of the sophists but his ridicule is straightforward, without the disguise of feigned veneration, and the picture he’s drawn is amusing without being spiteful. Socrates himself doesn’t believe excellence can be taught but he defers to Protagoras learning and experience and will change his mind if Protagoras can prove that he can instill virtue in his pupils. He doesn’t flatter Protagoras and beg him to share his wisdom, but admitting his own reservations, he asks how this course of study will benefit Hippocrates.
Upon this invitation, Protagoras holds forth at length but in a manner selected by his listeners. He asks whether they prefer that he tell a story or expound an argument. Men, women, and children alike relish stories, and the ominous phrase ‘expound an argument’ forebodes that this argument will be abstruse and soporofic. It is somewhat surprising that his audience leaves the choice up to Protagoras.
Protagoras picks the story and that story turns out to be the one of Prometheus and Epimetheus. The myth is well known and we can dispense with a full retelling. Yet in this version, fire was not enough and despite being able to huddle around bonfires and brandish torches, they were still at the mercy of wild beasts. They were helpless because they were solitary and they could not band together for their common protection. When they banded together, they injured one another and so that they might gather themselves into groups, Zeus was forced to give them the supplementary gift of citycraft.
This citycraft is a skill originally dispensed by Zeus but as a skill it is teachable. Unlike every other skill it must be learned by every citizen. No citizen is faulted for not knowing how to play the lyre or sculpt statues but those who are unjust and persist in their injustice are either cast out or killed. Because justice is teachable and injustice can be corrected, the unjust are deemed worthy of blame. There are defects of the body which are the result of birth or chance, and those who are blind or crippled are not blamed for their condition. The unjust are blamed because they can learn to be better but don’t bother to reform themselves.
The unjust are reviled, shunned, and severely punished and so all parents do their utmost to bring their children up to be just. The Prisoner’s Dilemna and Game Theory teach that the optimal course for a group is tit for tat. But the best thing for any one individual is to betray the rest and benefit over and over. To protect the interests of the group, betrayal is marked and remembered and it is repaid. Thieving and aggression cannot be tolerated. The individual is forced to cooperate and sacrifice, and those who are unwilling to do so are killed or driven away.
For our ancestors on the savanna, no single member of the band can long survive alone among the ferocious predators and hardships of the wilderness, and exile means a quick and ugly death. The band itself is only barely surviving, always hungry and close to starvation, menaced by predators much bigger, faster, and deadlier than the weak, slow, naked, ungainly bipeds who must resort to tools and weapons to fend them off. The stakes are life and death and they are all so close to the edge that they can’t put up with any nonsense.
The band makes some provision for the sick and the injured but all must pull their own weight. Those who feign illness and injury to get out of work will be found out. Only those who do their share of the work get their share of the reward. He who will not work, will not eat. The rest of the mothers will watch the young of one of their number while she sleeps, and she in turn will take on these babysitting duties when it is her turn. The sick and the injured will be fed and nursed to recovery and he will do the same for his fellows when they are struck down. The hunters share their meat with the gatherers, and the gatherers turn over their roots, tubers, and berries to the hunters.
The society is ruled by fairness and equity and the penalties for harming the group or shirking are dire. The members of the band make it very plain when they are dissatisfied with one of their own. They gossip incessantly discussing the faults and failings of those not present. Every member is hungry and every member is tired. They’ve all loafed at their work, snatched the choicest cut of meat, pleaded off sick when they may have taken part. It is crucial to their survival that they monitor how widely these acts of selfishness have been marked and how bitterly they’re resented. A large part of our brain is devoted to reading facial expressions and bodily demeanor. When our fellows scowl at us, when they glance at us and huddle in conference but fall silent when we come near, then we know that we should work harder than anybody else, give a portion of our food away to somebody needy, assume the position of greatest danger during the hunt. We must outdo ourselves to win back the grace and favor of the group. If we don’t we may be expelled, doomed to wander the grasslands alone until thirst, hunger, or some huge predator put an end to our exile.
These skills allow us to work together in groups and for almost all of us they are innate. There are some who, by birth or chance, are born unable to read faces or understand the feelings and intentions of those around us. Yet almost all of us know when we’re being thoughtless, lazy, or greedy and we are perfectly aware that when we’re caught out our fellows are angry and disgusted with us.
Pericles has been mentioned several times before as an individual who was remarkable for his citycraft. Yet his citycraft was a very different thing. He wasn’t accepted, he was preeminent. He wasn’t a member of the band, he was the leader. He was above the rest of the Athenians and he had correspondingly exalted dreams for his city. He didn’t aim for Athenians to have enough to eat and live in safety. He wanted them to dominate the other states of Greece, to build astounding monuments at their expense, to take more than their share and to live at ease while the rest labored to support them.
He distinguished himself from the rest of the Athenians with a curious deportment. On the savannah, the disruptive must be met with snarls and cowed instantly. Athens was so rich and secure that this was no longer necessary. As Pericles was heading home, a stranger who had a grudge against him began following him screaming threats and obscenities, tottering after him and abusing him all the way to his door. Pericles showed not the least discomposure at any of this, and when he was under his own roof he sent one of his servants out to see the man home and light his way, since it was growing dark and the streets were soon to become unsafe.
Pericles deliberately departed from the behavior necessary to survive in one of the primate bands of the savanna. He didn’t try to fit in; he did the very opposite. In his comportment, he was haughty and oblivious to the expressions and feelings of those around him. He was too lofty and noble to lower himself to tit for tat. He acted superior to the other Athenians and believing him to be superior, they chose him to lead them again and again. This superiority will raise feelings of jealousy. Aristides was acknowledged to be the justest man in Athens and he was so respected for his virtue that he came to be resented for it and he was exiled. Men who try to rise above their fellows risk ostracism for this preeminence.
Men who eschew this primitive citycraft believe they’ve attained a second and higher citycraft, one that nowadays is usually called statecraft. Pericles was convinced that he alone saw the true destiny of Athens, and that destiny was grasping and shirking on a scale that no single malcontent could ever aspire to. The rest of Greece was to pay and labor to support Athens so that the Athenians could be set free to achieve something far greater than mere survival. There was one great obstacle to this dream, Athens one rival, Sparta.
The two cities must go to war and Pericles planned this war far in advance. He knew how much money there was in the treasury and he plotted how much they will have to spend per year if they restrict themselves to a purely defensive strategy. He plotted how long the Spartans will batter against the Long Walls before they grow weary of their fruitless assault and agree to peace. He tried to guess how much food they’d need to store and how likely their enforced allies were to revolt. In the end he was wrong. The Spartans were more tenacious, the Athenians more impulsive, the allies more aggrieved than he planned. And he never counted on the plague that ended up killing him and so many of the citizens who followed him.
Yet this kind of statecraft does seem like something teachable, if not by Protagoras, then by someone else. It’s a compound of economics, statistics, probability, political science, and military strategy, but it is a science of some kind. Could Pericles’ calculations be improved upon, and if so, how? Can experience fix the numbers so the outcome is predicted correctly? Is the problem beyond the calculating capacity of a human brain but tractable to a supercomputer? If RAND had been on hand to counsel Pericles, could he have beaten the Spartans?
Whatever the answer, these sort of war games are far from what Protagoras or Socrates had in mind when they spoke of virtue. They will go on to consider what virtue is and how it relates to its components but that will have to wait til later.