Protagoras Part Two

Socrates asks if justice is itself just or unjust. To assert that just men are just is nothing more than a tautology and tautologies lead nowhere. To go further and ask whether justice is just may lead to a tautology but this is a treacherous path that may land us in a paradox and we’re veering close to territory where barbers shave themselves. To accept that justice is just will simply assert a tautology and no interesting premises can follow from a tautology. The only point of such a useless question is to snare the respondent in difficulties.

Justice and holiness are the virtues most mentioned. Justice is ordinarily applied to human beings and their laws. It is in relation with one another that men and women are considered just, and the hermit, the outcast, the solitary, and the marooned are neither just nor unjust. The term just may be applied to the laws of man but not the laws of nature. It is because they are written by men that laws and decrees may be just or unjust. The laws of gravity or magnetism are neither just nor unjust.

The holy is much wider in its application. Persons, places, plants, physical objects, names, letters, and numbers may all be considered holy. A great many things may be holy but not everything. Socrates asks Protagoras whether justice is holy or unholy and whether holiness is just or unjust. To assert that holiness is just or justice is holy isn’t tautological but it makes little sense. The just is a narrower property than the holy because fewer types of things may be considered just than may be considered holy. A man may be considered holy and just but while a spring, or a tree, or an ibis may be considered holy they cannot be considered just. And while men may be thought both just and holy, their laws may be considered just but the laws of men aren’t considered holy. To be considered holy, laws come down from the gods but holy laws cannot be framed by human legislators.

There is an intersection between the just and the holy but the terms don’t align. How much more mischief will result when we try to ascribe justice to holiness and holiness to justice. Protagoras won’t assent to describing justice itself as holy or holiness as just, but though he balks he doesn’t back out and go on the attack. Some terms are simply not related and have nothing to do with one another. Socrates might ask whether binomials are carnivorous or herbivorous. If we deny they’re carnivorous, that doesn’t mean that we’re asserting they munch grass. The terms carnivorous and herbivorous apply to animals and have nothing to do with number. Whether that’s solely by convention or in the attribute itself, it’s equally true in either case.

Protagoras has refused to go along with the predications Socrates has set before him and so Socrates advances a new argument. When men are acting wisely or correctly, they are controlling their actions. Protagoras agrees to this. Next, when they are acting foolishly, they are not controlling their actions. Protagoras assents. Yet Socrates is again defining the terms of the argument in a fashion in line with his own thinking and advantageous to his own position. Wisdom is reason restraining and governing the passions.


There’s a joke about a man who’s the greatest villain alive, but fortunately for humanity, he’s also the greatest fool. The point of the joke is that this is a happy accident but not a necessary correlation. Some villains possess incredible patience, assiduity, self-control and in these ordinarily commendable qualities they match our greatest saints, sages, and benefactors. However, many villains are drunken, impatient, garrulous, and undisciplined and because of these faults, their schemes are thwarted or miscarry.

Whether Socrates or the joke is correct may best be left to the judgment of psychology and criminology but it is clear that the two visions of the nature of evil are incompatible. Protagoras is led to another impasse and in his frustration he points out that good and bad are taken in many senses. He enumerates examples of things that are beneficial to animals but not to men, to the roots of plants but not to the shoots or leaves, to be rubbed on the skin but not to be swallowed.

Protagoras hasn’t gone on at great length but Socrates accuses him of making long speeches and prepares to leave. The listeners beg him to stay but he protests that while Protagoras may be proficient in giving short and concise answers and in delivering long, splendid speeches, he, himself, cannot follow these lengthy orations and is skilled only in briefer expositions, comparing Protagoras to a great runner who must hold himself back so that Socrates may keep up with him. Plato makes Socrates gracious in his refusal but he has Alcibiades break in to protest that Protagoras drones on so that everyone forgets what is at issue and he can evade the question.

Protagoras Part One

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.


When Socrates was found guilty of refusing to recognize the gods and corrupting the youth and condemned to death, he was guarded but loosely, and his judges had hoped that he’d escape and flee Athens forever. His friends wondered that he seemed resolved to die when he might yet live by slipping away quietly. Socrates knew that his flight would make it seem that the charges against him were just, and in the Phaedo he explains why he was prepared to die. He begins by asking whether a philosopher should concern himself with the pleasures of the body: food, drink, fine clothes, or sex. His interlocutors almost invariably share his premises and supply him with the answers he’s seeking, and in this case, they don’t disappoint. They agree that he should gratify the body only as far as it’s unavoidable. Socrates then asks if the body is a help or a hindrance in the acquisition of wisdom, reminding his listeners of the fallibility of the senses and the distraction of the appetites. In chorus, it’s agreed that the body is a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom. In the end, it’s borne out that the soul comes to wisdom when it is freed from the body, and it apprehends truth clearly and fully only when discarnate.

In the supposition that the highest endeavor of the human soul is intellectual and in the denigration of matter, this is the epitome of Plato’s thought. The one point that’s curious and seems out of place is the qualification that the philosopher should gratify the body only when, out of necessity, he must concern himself with the corporeal. Why should the philosopher bother with the corporeal at all? Imagine a scholar who works in a dingy chamber, studying all day long in the search for wisdom. This sage wishes to study deep into the night, snatching only such sleep as he cannot do without. Yet he is given only one hour of illumination. He has very powerful electric light at his disposal, and he may read in perfect ease, but for only one hour every evening before he’s plunged into darkness. When will he turn on this light? Since he wants to study without interruption, he’ll wait to avail himself of this short period of illumination for as long as possible. As the afternoon wears into night, the light dims as the sun sets, he’ll pick up his books from off the table and carry them over to the window, and here he’ll stand on tiptoe, holding his nose right up to the pages, angling the volume this way and that to catch the last rays. Yet the sun will sink below the horizon and all sunlight will be lost to him. Then and only then will he carry his books back to his table, flick the switch, and bathe his chamber in the short brilliance allotted to him. Once this precious allowance is used up, he’s swallowed up in darkness, and no more study is possible, will he resign himself to sleep.


What will happen if the restriction is lifted, and he’s given as much electricity as he wants? The bulbs will never burn out, and he may keep his chamber continuously flooded with the brightest light. Will he bother to huddle at the window and try to peer at the pages under a dim crepuscular glow? No, of course not. He’ll stay at the table, overhead lights blazing, and he’ll study until he’s so tired that he falls asleep and his forehead lands on the pages. In his all-consuming, unquenchable thirst for truth, this scholar is much like Plato’s philosopher. As he tries to make out the truth under the dying orange rays of dusk, he’s like the sage in his prison of flesh. Fooled by illusion and perspective, torn by lust, hunger, and thirst, he’s hampered in his search. As he flicks the switch and turns the dusk to noon, he’s like the soul freed of the body and bathing under the radiance of the forms in themselves.

The philosopher will want to leave the body as quickly as possible, and released he may apprehend the truth in all its purity. What will stop him? Why will he stay alive? Why will he feed, clothe, and look after the body which is an affliction, a bondage, a durance? Hamlet furnishes a reason:

To be, or not to be,-that is the question:-whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?-To die,-to sleep,-no more; and by a sleep say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,-‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die,-to sleep;-to sleep! Perchance to dream;-ay there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would pains and fardels bear to grunt and seat under an weary life, but that the dread of something after death,-the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,-puzzles the will and makes us bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

We all dread death. Plato may lecture on the soul, and wring an agreement that it is invariable and indissoluble, yet these eristics do nothing to allay our dread. Montaigne recommends a study of death, its causes and circumstances. We may familiarize ourselves with death, yet the viewing of corpses, an inquest into mortal accidents, the study of the physiology of the body and its innumerable frailties, will seem to confirm and redouble our terror rather than dispel it. When we look into that gray, ashen, unmoving face, we’d ask of it mysteries it can never tell. Those lips will never part again and their secrets will be carried into the beyond. Socrates may quiz and tease Simmias and Cebes until the hemlock carries him off, but in our heart of hearts we remain unconvinced. To study philosophy is to learn to live. This seems poor stuff; an obvious antithesis. How very trite; a platitude fit for a greeting card or bumper sticker.

We cling to life no matter how miserable it may be. A few, in the grip of a terrible depression, afflicted with a mortal, incurable, and agonizing disease, engulfed in scandal, shame, and ruin, do end their own lives but those left behind feel somehow abandoned. They should not have borne their misery silently and alone. They should have taken counsel, and almost all may have been swayed from such an awful and final step. Those hopelessly and mortally ill may do well to die on their own terms, and save themselves these last pains, losses, and degradations. Yet even in these cases we are deeply torn. Why are we so tenacious of life? Few of us seriously fear the torments of an afterlife. We may regret our sins and petty cruelties but we don’t anticipate being sunk in some malebolge. Only those of us in the worst extremity will seek death to flee the fears and pains of life. Hamlet listed many pains and fardels, and from our own bitter history we may supply thousands more, yet we bear them. We don’t balance our pains against our pleasures, like numbers in red and black, written down and added up in a ledger. Our hearts don’t beat, our lungs don’t draw in breath, simply because our joys in this life outbalance our miseries. There is no list of pros and cons and we carry on because we’re stubborn in our habit of living.

We all know that we’re all going to die. Writers may describe the young as thinking they’ll live forever, but even in our youth we don’t really believe that. Young or old, we’re aware of our mortality but knowledge comes in many weights and shades. We all know that we won’t live forever, but we live like we will all the same.

Some philosophers grow very cross with this careless frivolity. Men and women feast, and drink, and laugh, and fuck like they have not a care in the world. They do this to distract them from their own death. Their end is coming. They will soon be no more. They cannot bear up under this horrible certainty and so they try to lose themselves in heedless mirth and debauchery. This is wrong. Men and women don’t make merry to hide their own oncoming death. They know they’re doomed and nothing could ever hide this from their gaze or distract them from their terror if they couldn’t master themselves by their own strength. They know full well but they live with the knowledge. They can gaze into the darkness but they summon their will and they look away. They don’t forget. They know and the knowledge never leaves them, but they are the knower, they are the holders and the masters of this truth. They eat and drink and make merry because it’s fun, and though their joy is short, it is yet theirs, and nothing, not even death, will take it from them.

Some of these indignant philosophers aren’t content to scorn these buoyant souls as fools but will also attaint them as cowards. Anybody who loves his own life makes himself a hostage to fortune. Only somebody who can quit this world without regret can be considered truly free. Most of us cling to this life and when we are dragged from this world, our nails will dig furrows in the ground. Yet for the sake of children, loved ones, friends, family or country, some of us are still perfectly willing to lay down all their joys in this life. It isn’t a sacrifice to throw off what is sordid and worthless, especially when we gain something of inestimable value in return. It is a sacrifice, the greatest of sacrifices, to give up all that is precious, every hope and bliss, so that those we love may continue in their enjoyment.


Crito, one of Socrates’ Athenian friends, comes to visit him just before he is to be executed. The purpose of the visit is to make one last attempt to persuade Socrates to run away and leave Athens before the sentence is carried out. An escape can be arranged with little trouble and expense. Socrates friends may be blamed for abetting his flight and may be punished but they are more than willing to accept any penalties. Crito goes further, insisting that he cares little for any such legal penalties but that he fears he’ll be widely censured for allowing his friend to die and caring more for money than his friend’s life.

This introduction grounds the dialogue in time and place, and Crito has mentioned that he fears the bad opinion of most of his fellow citizens. By bringing in the ‘many’ Crito has guided the dialogue into one of Plato’s favorite themes. In the next exchange Socrates establishes that we should hearken only to good opinions and not worthless ones. By the terms themselves, this is tautological and understandably conceded with no objection.

And in the next step, it’s proposed that the good opinions are held by the wise, and worthless by the foolish. He doesn’t say merely that good opinions are wise opinions, and that worthless opinions are foolish opinions, which would be synonymous and again tautological, but slips in the assumption that one set of men hold wise opinions and another set hold foolish opinions. From this, he falls back on another of his favorite devices, and asks if a man who is in training consults all men or a single expert. Crito quickly avers to both these assertions, either because he doesn’t detect that new premises are being put forth without being proven, or because he agrees with them.

It may be thought that some men are wiser than others by proportion. Some men may be wise and correct in half of what they believe and wrong in the other half. Some men may be considered foolish, holding a few wise opinions but most of what they believe is foolish, while others may be wise, correct in most of what they think but still often mistaken. Men are wise and foolish by degree and most fall somewhere in the middle.

Plato’s Socrates will have none of this. He holds that most men are foolish and wrong about nearly everything while only a very few are wise and know the truth. Firm in this conviction, he therefore holds the many in contempt. How then can Socrates love and revere Athens when he despises nearly all of her citizens? Plato answers this difficult question in a curious manner:

Suppose the laws and the commonwealth were to come and appear to me as I was preparing to run away (if that is the right phrase to describe my escape) and were to ask, “Tell us Socrates, what have you in mind to do? What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the laws and the whole state, so far as you are able? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are of no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals?”

Socrates says that the commonwealth appears to him, and so he doesn’t merely hear a voice as did Samuel, but he actually sees the commonwealth, and since it speaks to him, we can only conclude that while it is discarnate, it is yet in human form. Readers are prone to imagine a figure towering and majestic like Phidias’ great statue of Athena.

As vivid as this image is, the notion that Athens is something above and apart from her many citizens is a category mistake. Gilbert Ryle described a visitor touring a university, walking by the dormitories, stepping into classrooms, and peeking into offices, who complains that he’s seen the dormitories, classrooms, and offices but has not been shown the university. Similarly the laws and the commonwealth of Athens are nothing more than the many granting powers to the few, all binding themselves by the law, and punishing the one who transgresses that law. The university is a body of people dividing themselves into teachers, students, administrators and staff, each taking on one role in that body and all working in concert. The commonwealth is likewise a body of citizens dividing themselves into legislators, magistrates, leaders, functionaries, taxpayers, and law-abiding private citizens, those in government working within the bounds of the constitution and those in a private station living within the constraints of the laws.

This figure goes so far as to insist on the rights of a parent and a master, claiming that through them his father took his mother and brought him into the world. As to this strangely derived parenthood, men sometimes will bed women even when not legally obligated to do so. As to mastery, Socrates has lived his whole life within the borders of Athens, choosing to obey her laws and abide by her customs when he may have gone away to live in any other state either Greek or barbarian. Socrates may not have been barred from leaving, but as millions of refugees throughout history may testify, every emigrant is by necessity an immigrant as well, and those who flee their homeland may find every border and every shore barred to them. Denied any refuge, they are left to wander the earth or perish.

The flight of talent and capital does serve as a salutary check on misgovernment and despotism, but it should not be the only means of redress. The figure of Athens condemns Socrates’ contemplated flight as the base actions of a slave, trying to run away and breaking the contracts and agreements he made. Yet slaves are held in durance not by will, and it is free citizens who make contracts and agreements, and these are binding on both the rulers and the ruled. If Socrates had been set upon and lynched by a mob he would have been the victim of the injustice of men, but he was tried in a court and sentenced to death, and so he is the victim of the injustice of the laws.

It’s commendable to resist unjust laws, and it’s allowable to flee their penalties, but the object is not to flout these laws but to overturn them. If it is Phye and not Athena who has appeared to Socrates, he has a duty not merely to disobey her but also to expose her. It is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it, but it is also better to end injustice than to resign oneself to it and condemn others to follow and suffer the same fate.