Virtue and the Buffets of Fortune

Virtue and the Buffets of Fortune


After some discussion, a compromise is reached on the matter of brevity and Protagoras is given the privilege of questioning Socrates. Professing that the greatest mark of education is the skill at discussing verses of the poets, he proposes that they review some lines of Simonides:

To be a good man in truth, I admit, is hard-a man in mind and frame a flawless minting foursquare struck.

Some of the poem is omitted until this:

Yet Pittacus’ familiar words, I find, do not ring true, though they come from a wise man; it is hard, he said, to be noble.

While a man cannot escape being bad dragged down by helpless circumstances

For if he does well, any man is good, but bad if he does badly.

So I’ll not waste my lifetime’s meager ration on an empty dream, in search of what can never ever become: that flawless man among us who for our living toil in the broad earth; should I find one, I’ll let you know.

I praise and love all men who do no evil willingly; even the gods do not combat necessity.

Simonides says first that it is hard to be a good man, and then disagrees with Pittacus that it is hard to be noble. Protagoras sees that the poet contradicts himself and that either the first or the second lines are unsound.

Socrates takes up the poem, and calling on Prodicus for support, he avers that at the very beginning Simonides says that to become a good man was hard, and that becoming and being are different things. Upon the urging of the whole company, Socrates goes on to explain what Simonides really did mean in these verses.

Many eminent sages kept their wisest sayings very terse and brief. Socrates explains that they learned this brevity from the Spartans. Whatever the likelihood of this provenance, Pittacus was one of those philosophers who expressed themselves in these maxims and that one of his most admired aphorisms was ‘It’s hard to be noble.’ Simonides attacked this celebrated piece of wisdom, so that by disproving it, he might himself win fame. In the very first line he concedes that it is hard to be good, and in so doing he uses the words ‘I admit’. The only sense in which an admission makes any sense is if Simonides is conceding the truth of the statement which he takes to mean that it is difficult to become good.

Pittacus goes further and says that it’s impossible to remain good when dragged down by helpless circumstances. Simonides counters that a flawless man can never become among us who toil for our living. Even the gods don’t combat necessity. Men cannot be flawless and they are often carried along by events. But they can do their best and Simonides is quite ready and willing to praise and love men who do no evil.

Socrates exposition is applauded, and after his performance he begs to return to dialectics. He finds it unsatisfactory to speak in the borrowed voices of the poets rather than through their own voices. These lyrics lie between them and the truth, and they should be set aside so that those who seek wisdom can go straight to the heart of the matter. These lines are a veil over reality, a colorful veil which delights the vulgar, but true philosophers will want to pass beyond it.

This discussion of the dialogue has been broken up into four parts principally because of its length. It is a long dialogue but it’s also quite various. In its composition, it might be broken up into four movements. In the first, Hippocrates and Socrates go to meet Protagoras, and he introduces himself by a long speech. Socrates is very impressed and asks for a small clarification, and in so doing he pulls Protagoras into a dialectical discussion in which he’s bested. After being shown up, the sophist becomes churlish and it takes some persuading to get him to go on. He takes the role of the questioner and he introduces the poem by Simonides. The poem is discussed and then Socrates asks that they return to dialectic and this exchange Protagoras has had enough and calls off.

In the first movement, the discussion is conducted on Protagoras terms and he holds forth at length. He is very eloquent but in the next movement, Socrates is allowed to examine the sophist in dialectic and he picks the speech apart. In the third movement, the discomfited sophist is allowed to set the terms, and he chooses to critique the verses by Simonides. Socrates follows him and after his exposition is praised, he doesn’t revel in this triumph, but regarding it as child’s play he entreats that they go back to dialectics. Protagoras is reluctant but rather than admit defeat in front of onlookers, he agrees to take part. The last movement is a dialectical treatment of the virtue courage and again Socrates bests the sophist. By now, Protagoras has had enough and he breaks off the examination.

Socrates and Protagoras carry on the discussion according to different formats, as Protagoras would like in the first and third movement, and as Socrates prefers in the second and fourth, but in each of them Socrates comes out ahead. And while the form of the inquiry alters, the object remains the same. Even the third movement, where the poem seems out of place, the question remains whether virtue is attainable and if it’s practicable in this world. To be entirely good, as Simonides understands it, is impossible in this life, and Socrates agrees, but whether or not it is feasible to be good as Socrates understands it may be quite another matter.

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