Virtue in Plato’s ‘Protagoras’

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras discuss whether or not virtue, or “the ability to live the best possible life” (Taylor, Introduction), can be taught.  Protagoras begins the dialogue by asserting that virtue is something that can be taught and that he is capable of teaching it.  Socrates takes the position that virtue is something that cannot be taught.  Socrates challenges Protagoras’ claim that virtue is something he is capable of teaching.  Socrates and Protagoras then proceed to advance their discussion by sharing what their conceptions of knowledge entails, which then leads to a discussion of right and wrong, which ultimately circles back to the starting point of their conversation, which was whether or not virtue can be taught.  But, by this point of the dialogue, Socrates and Protagoras seem to have swapped positions on this matter — Socrates seems to believe that virtue is something that can be taught, and Protagoras is no longer confident arguing that virtue is something that can be taught. 

In this dialogue, Socrates identifies knowledge with virtue.  Characteristics of virtue are patience, courage, justice, temperance, and prudence, among others.  Moreover, virtue, or a virtuous object, is an object that is the best form of itself.  For example, a virtuous human being is a human being that is the best form of a human being.  Socrates argues that in order for an individual to be virtuous, he or she must have knowledge of how to be virtuous when the occasion calls.  Meaning a virtuous individual is patient, courageous, just, and prudent when needed.  This necessary condition, the being-a-virtuous-person-when-needed is what Socrates thinks knowledge entails.  Additionally, for Socrates, each and every characteristic of virtue cannot be separated; the characteristics are unified as a ‘single quality’ (Protagoras, 329c6).  This means even if an individual is courageous and patient, he or she cannot be virtuous if he or she is not temperant and prudent, as well.  Furthermore, Socrates’ conception of knowledge foreshadows a major Socratic philosophic theme, which associates knowledge with the good, which Socrates and Protagoras explore in depth later in their discussion.

Protagoras, on the other hand, holds the position that the characteristics of virtue, such as patience, courage, justice, temperance, prudence, are, in fact, their own autonomous aspects of virtue.  This means that Protagoras does not agree with Socrates’ assertion that virtue is a single quality.  Protagoras thinks that it is possible for an individual to possess some aspects of virtue, but not others.  An individual can be courageous and patient, but not temperant and prudent, and still be considered a virtuous individual, according to Protagoras.

Socrates denies this claim because each ‘part’ of virtue, such as patience, courage, justice, and prudence all have the same opposite: stupidity.  According to Socrates, people are not patient, courageous, and just due to the same phenomenon: a lack of knowledge.  If two things are to be thought of as distinct from one another, then they necessarily must have different opposites.  Therefore, according to Socrates, since the ‘different aspects’ of virtue have the same opposite, they must be the same.

The dialogue continues with Protagoras using the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus to initiate the discussion of right and wrong.  According to this myth, human beings did not always share a common notion of right and wrong; it was given to them.  Zeus gave everyone the shared notion of right and wrong and a conscience because, at the current time, people were not capable of living peacefully with one another. So, in order for humans to successfully live with one another and flourish, Zeus realized they needed a conscience and common notion of justice.  This shows that justice is what allows people to flourish together in a society. Thus, this myth demonstrates that without justice, a society will not flourish and that justice is not capable without a shared notion of right and wrong.

Additionally, Protagoras cites that “everyone gets annoyed with anyone who does wrong, and corrects him” (Protagoras, 324a) as evidence that society possesses a shared notion of right and wrong, and that society plays a key role in teaching right and wrong.  This suggests that the notions of right and wrong are tethered to the greater good of the society, or people, as a whole.  Moreover, right and wrong, as Protagoras asserts, are only right and wrong because they allow people to flourish and live peacefully in a society with one another.  There is an implicit implication here that people understand that a shared notion of right and wrong plays a crucial role in producing a just society.  This is why people hold one another accountable for their actions.  Given that people hold one another accountable for their actions, argues Protagoras, virtue must something that can be taught/learned.  If virtue could not be taught/learned, then people would not be justified in holding one another accountable for their actions.

From this point on, the remaining portion of the dialogue is Socrates examining this argument put forth by Protagoras.  Ultimately, Socrates never successfully refutes the essence of Protagoras’ argument; Socrates just modifies the argument to his own liking.  Socrates takes up the position that no individual can knowingly do the wrong thing; that when an individual does something that is deemed to be ‘wrong’, all that has actually occurred is that this individual has made the wrong assumption about what the right action to do is.  This has to do with Socrates’ idea of knowledge of as “measuring know-how” (Protagoras, 356e).

Socrates’ idea of knowledge as “measuring know-how” (Protagoras, 356e) represents a realistic suggestion for how sophistry should market its educational wares.  Rather than the traditional method of teaching rhetoric, Socrates suggests sophists should be teaching their students how to be more virtuous people.  Moreover, “measuring know-how” (Protagoras, 356e) is not only compatible with Protagoras’ earlier claim to teach “good decision making” (Protagoras, 318e), it is the exact way one should go about teaching good decision making, because good decision making necessarily requires that one is capable of measuring what is good and bad for his or herself.  Thus, rather than teaching their students rhetorical tricks, the sophists should be teaching their students to identify what is good or bad for themselves.

This is a major turning point in this dialogue.  It is with this development of “measuring know how” (Protagoras, 356e) that Socrates inadvertently changes his position from the idea that virtue is not something that can be taught, to the idea that virtue is something that can be taught.

Ultimately, Socrates equates an individual that makes good decisions with a virtuous person.  This is the basic idea behind “measuring know-how” (Protagoras, 356e) – knowing how and when to make the right decisions in order to flourish as a human being.  This understanding of virtue necessarily requires knowledge, which is what Socrates is pointing out when he says, “What would save us? Wouldn’t it be knowledge? And wouldn’t it be some form of knowledge of measurement…” (Protagoras, 357a).  This sets up a major Socratic theme, which was foreshadowed earlier: knowledge is associated with the good, and that pleasure, in itself, is the supreme good.  With pleasure being the supreme good, it follows that pain is the greatest evil.  Therefore, knowledge of how to bring about the supreme good instead of the greatest evil will allow the individual to flourish and live a virtuous life, and this can only be accomplished via Socrates’ idea of knowledge as “measuring know-how” (Protagoras, 356e).  Socrates suggests that rather than teaching rhetoric, the sophists should be teaching their students how to develop their ‘measuring know-how’ skills so that these students can live their best possible lives.  As a result of these students living their best possible lives, the cities in which these students live will be just and flourishing, as well.  This is because these cities will be filled with virtuous citizens, rather than citizens who are trained rhetoricians.

Works Cited

Plato, and C. C. W. Taylor. Protagoras. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.

Plato, and William K. C. Guthrie. Protagoras and Meno. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970. Print.


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