90. Protagorus by Plato (387-380 BC)

90. Protagorus by Plato (387-380 BC)

Plot: Socrates engages the famous Sophist Protagorus on the the nature of human goodness (virtue), specifically what it consists of and if it is teachable.

My version is contained in the Cambridge Press edition Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagorus edited by Malcolm Schofield and translated by Tom Griffith (9780521837293)

My thoughts:

Ack! I think I have hit the Socratic wall with this one. A relatively long dialogue which starts with Socrates arguing that goodness is not teachable (and therefore his young friends should not waste their money becoming students of Protagorus or any other Sophist who charges for his teachings). Part of the argument asks if the various parts of human goodness (wisdom, prudence, courage, justice, holiness, etc.) are similar but not identical, or all one. After lengthy digressions through mythology and poetic criticism, we finally turn back to the question and the conclusion reveals that now all is knowledge, which by definition can be taught, so Socrates has changed his mind on that, while Protagorus who stated that the various virtues were separate must also change his opinion.

I did feel Protagorus fared much better against Socrates’ style than earlier adversaries, and raised logical points as well as rebelling against Socrates’ method of twisting words and denying his opponents lengthy replies.

Favourite lines/passages: Rather than the argument over defining goodness, the section my zoologist heart enjoyed most was the description of the mythological distribution of characteristics to each species by Epimetheus, who neglected to keep anything back for mankind.

“Once upon a time there were gods but no mortal species. And when their time came, the time appointed for their creation, the gods formed them within the earth from a mixture of earth and fire … they commanded Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them and assign to each species the powers appropriate to it. And Epimetheus asked Prometheus to let him do the job by himself … His way of assigning them was to bestow strength but not speed on some, and to equip the weaker ones with speed. To some he gave weapons, or if he gave them an unarmed nature, then he devised some other mechanism for their safety. Some of them he clothed in smallness, but gave them winged flight or a dwelling under ground. Others he made larger, making this their salvation in itself. In the same way he assigned the remaining powers, keeping a balance between them.

His chief concern in all these provisions was that no species should be exterminated; …. the next thing he devised was protection against the elements, clothing them in thick hair and tough hides … on their feet he gave them hooves, and others hard, bloodless skin. Next he provided different creatures with different food  -the earth’s pasture for some. fruit from the trees for others, roots for yet others. And to some he gave the flesh of other living things as their food. To these he gave few offspring, while to those who were preyed on by them he gave many offspring so preserving the species”                                                                                                                        page 157

If I was writing Genesis now, I would have plagiarised this without a second thought. Excellent observation and description.

Unfortunately Epimetheus uses up everything and forgets mankind, leaving him “naked, unshod, without bedding or weapons”. So Prometheus steps in and steals knowledge of the arts from the Gods, including fire, to give to the humans  (he gets punished for this in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound)

Personal rating:  Overall only a 3.

Next :  OK, so I really need a break from Plato’s Socratic dialogues or I will collapse into a puddle of incoherent mumblings ; but I really want to push through the Greeks so I think I will take advantage of the rubbery dates and start some Xenophon. His works are not nailed down to specific dates either, and since I don’t need more Socrates in my life right now, I will leave his Socratic stuff for later and start with perhaps his most famous work, The Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition, or The March Up-Country.


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