lunes, 6 de julio de 2015

Plato - Protagoras (English edition).

Here we have one of the leading sophists of ancient Greece, facing an interesting discussion with our philosopher, Socrates. We had already mentioned in previous books like Theaetetus, The sophist famous phrase: ''man is the measure of all things '', which means that everyone has the truth to the extent that it represents them. Of course, this was not enough to Socrates who refutes with great intelligence and cunning, the way of life of Protagoras. In the next book we will see the care with which Socrates warned about Hippocrates the teachings of Protágoras.



  • Socrates
  • Hippocrates
  • Alcibiades
  • Critias
  • Protagoras
  • Hippias
  • Prodicus
  • Calias

In Calias's house

From the beginning, we have an unknown participant talking with Socrates. This asks if he is looking for Alcibiades whom he describes as very handsome, but with a little beard. Socrates defends Alcibiades saying that even Homer himself considered beard a sign of charm when it appears.

Socrates with Alcibiades had previously been helping in some issues. But curiously, was not with Alcibiades with whom he had spoken, but Protagoras. The unknown companion of Socrates is astonished and asks him to tell all about the conversation between him and Protagoras. And so Socrates proceeds.

The arrival of Protagoras and the anxieties of Hippocrates

In the morning, Hippocrates wake Socrates up because he has heard that Protagoras comes to town. Hippocrates is anxious because he wants to see the sophist himself to teach everything he knows; and he is willing to pay.

Naturally, Hippocrates wants to be accompanied by Socrates, but before he goes, Socrates asks him some uncomfortable questions. Hippocrates will pay a sum of money to Protagoras, for some lessons. If he gives him the money, then you will get knowledge as sophist Protagoras, but What Hippocrates will receive from this exchange? With this exchange, Hippocrates would become a sophist.

The argument is this: A doctor is paid because he is a doctor, being what he get in return? in the case of the doctor, be a doctor; in the case of the sculptor, to be a sculptor. Each man gives us a lesson and we're nurturing from their knowledge.

What are the teachings of sophists?

The questions are becoming getting deeper. Socrates asks what would be the ability of the Sophists toward men. Hippocrates answer is undoubtedly the ability to speak eloquently to the other men. Here comes trouble.

Suppose we have an expert in playing the lyre. This is the only expert who can make another man talks eloquently about the lyre. Then the sophist What topics can sophists make speak eloquently to other men? Given that each expert speaks eloquently about their own theme. Well it seems that sophists cannot make talk to anyone about anything.

Thus, Socrates warns  Hippocrates about danger to consider paying the sophist, being that even he did not have clear the work of the sophist. However, although he warns the risks that could run into the deception of the Sophists, both agree to visit Protagoras and check everything they say.


When they arrived, Socrates and Hippocrates found a crowd of people including sophists. Finally they found Protagoras. He was available to answer any questions they want to give to our two characters. Between having the discussion in private or in public, Protagoras you prefer public in order to demonstrate their skills.

Once all assembled, the dialogue is available to start. Socrates begins with the following question:

What if I associate (Hippocrates) with you?

Protagoras's response is that he will become a better and wiser man than before discussion. However, Socrates says that this could be a very ambiguous answer.

This question has the same problem as the previous reasoning; For example, if Hippocrates would like to learn the art of a doctor, then he will learn medicine; if he goes to a flutist, he will learn how to play the flute; if he goes to a carpenter, he will learn carpentry. What he could learn and what he could improve with Protagoras's teachings?

Neglecting other teachers who teach mathematics, geometry and astronomy, Protagoras ensures he will become wiser in all matters that involve the State.

In short, it seems Protagoras can teach the art of politics whomever consult.

Virtue can not be taught

Socrates is not satisfied with Protagoras's response, and he gives some examples of how some of them have failed in trying to teach this kind of thing. What Protagoras proposes to teach is nothing but virtue; However, Socrates doubts that virtue can be taught. Can Protagoras to be so good to teach virtue? In fact, Protagoras will explain it but in the form of myth.

The myth of Prometheus

The myth of Prometheus is about the beginning of all time, where there were only gods.

  • Men were created from earth, fire and various mixtures between these two elements. They were first created from within the earth.
  • When they saw the light of day, the gods ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to distribute and equip men throughout all the land.
  • Epimetheus assumes the task of distributing men throughout the land, while Prometheus has to inspect it.

Distribution of Epimetheus

  • Epimetheus distributed the strongest with low speed, and weaker with high speed. He disarmed and armed other species. He made long and small (latter could fly). All this was made so that they could be preserved from extinction.
  • Also he protected from weather stations, giving them skins for certain climates and claws to defend themselves from predators. At the same time, it also gave them food so they could survive.

The help of Prometheus

  • Epimetheus, who had not realized his own distribution, stood in front of dumb animals, a naked man, unarmed and weak.
  • Seeing this, Prometheus, who wanted to avoid being faced, stole the techniques of Hephaestus and Athena, including fire.
  • Prometheus gave fire to men who survived animals (4). Thus, these could cope with life, but not the political or intellectual life.

Judgment of Prometheus

  • By stealing fire from Hephaestus and Athena, Prometheus was prosecuted by Zeus because of the clumsy mistake of Epimetheus.

The gift of Zeus

  • Because of all these events, Zeus gave man the meaning of life.
  • Men in gratitude will build altars and offer tributes to Zeus.
  • However, men having no cities or habits of war, were easily torn by wild animals.
  • So that men could survive, Zeus gathered men in cities to protect themselves, but evil would always threat to destroy the city from within.

Hermes: the messenger of god

  • Zeus feared that race became extinct. Then, send the messenger god Hermes to distribute justice and reverence for Zeus, and that men consider coexistence and reconciliation.
  • Hermes asks Zeus if he can make the distribution of justice should be carried out as the arts (giving the gift of a certain art to some and not giving to others), but Zeus says no, but all citizens. Who ignore the justice of Zeus, will die.

Virtue can be taught

In this way, Protagoras responds to Socrates' question about if it is possible to teach virtue. Sure, we can infer from the question of Hermes that the arts were distributed to a few and not to all of them. However, justice was distributed to everyone, and that is why everyone is able to teach virtue.

Protagoras says that a man who is not skilled in playing the lyre and he says that he knows how to play it, people will mock him afterwards. Moreover, when a man who is dishonest, is sincerely and honestly, and he talks about his dishonesty, he will immediately be considered by those around him as crazy. That is why Protagoras says that everyone participates to a degree of virtue.

What it is given by nature

Another argument arises that people generally do not punish or rebuke the ugly for being ugly, on the contrary, feel sorry for him because it's part of their nature to be ugly.

What is given by punishment

On the other hand, it is easy to show that when an offender commits a crime, he is punished for not reoffend. In fact, family and teachers try to teach children not to do since childhood.

What it is given by education

Education has been the element which virtue is taught from infancy, even to old age. Parents and teachers are responsible for providing education to the children and they learn what virtue is.

The answer of Socrates

Socrates is quite surprised by the defense that did Protagoras, but he still feels that things are discussed.

As Protagoras had spoken of justice, honesty and wisdom, What would be virtue? Would be a whole? Or is it split by parts? Would it be the combination of all the things mentioned above?

So easy, Protagoras replied that all these things are part of virtue, as well as parts of the face (mouth, eyes and nose) are parts of the visage.

Protagoras adds that it is wrong for a man to have only part of virtue, and then we call this man a virtuous one. Protagoras also says that the parts of virtue (as might be the justice, wisdom, mercy and courage) are different from each other, and also, wisdom is the noblest of them.

Justice and mercy are they related?

Socrates's doubts begin with the nature of justice, and then they both agree that the nature of justice is fair. The nature of mercy is holy. Therefore, the nature of piety would not be the nature of justice and vice-versa.

Nevertheless impiety would be related to injustice and injustice would be related to impiety. How can it be said this, if Protagoras had claimed that parts of virtue could not be related to each other?

Protagoras has no argument and can not defend their position. Socrates says that justice and mercy are the same (or at least similar). With no further explanation, Protagoras accepts the statement of Socrates.


Continuing the dialogue, Socrates wants to make clear the opposite of each of the concepts that are part of virtue. Protagoras tells us that there is only one opposed to everything, but when you ask the opposite of each part of virtue, answer the following.

  • Wisdom is opposed to madness.
  • Temperance is opposed to madness.
  • Speed ​​is the opposite of slow.
  • The force is opposite to that weakness.
  • The beauty is the opposite of ugliness.
  • The good is opposed to evil.
  • The sharp sound is opposed to sound serious.

Obviously Protagoras has not been consistent with what he has previously claimed. He said the parts had just one opposite, and we see in the first two comparisons that wisdom and temperance have the same opposite, madness.

To which of the statements we give up?

  • Everything has just one opposite.
  • Wisdom is distinct from temperance (if wisdom and temperance have as opposed to madness, then they would be similar).
The problem is that none of these statements can be secured since they are not in harmony. Then, out of the problem, Socrates with Protagoras accepted that temperance and wisdom are the same, or at least similar.

The unjust man and temperance

Is it possible that an unjust man could be temperate at the same time? For Protagoras tells us it can be possible. Also he clarifies that temperance would be sensible even doing injustice if this materializes.

He also recognizes good exists and it could be as a convenience. In fact, also he calls some goods as disadvantageous and he can call them goods.

Indeed, there are things that are suitable for men and others not, for example, a type of oil can be bad for plants, but very good for men. Hence what is convenient for man, can be harmful to animals. The oil would be suitable for humans and harmful for animals.

After Protagoras finished his argument, Socrates could not understand at all what he said, and asked him to speak more slowly so, what Protagoras flatly refuses to do. Socrates, maybe a little angry, gets up from his chair when Callias interrupts him and asks him not to go and keep the discussion.

The agreement between Socrates and Protagoras

Calias asks Socrates not to go, but Socrates can not continue if Protagoras dialogue takes that attitude. Calias tells him it's just that everyone speak as I can, but Alcibiades enters the discussion to defend Socrates.

Alcibiades claims that, as the discussion has to please Socrates, Protagoras must begin to speak at that pace (probably so that nobody can understand what he is talking).


After Alcibiades, Critias interrupted saying it is not good to take part either, and took part Calias by Protagoras and Alcibiades by Socrates. Critias stresses that the discussion should be as objective as possible.


Prodicus agree with what was said by Critias, but remembering that objectivity or impartiality is not the same as equality because sooner or later the audience will have to support only one of them. Finally, he asks Socrates and Protagoras not to fight and continue with the interesting discussion.


Hippias tries to reassure the two opponents telling them each take a position of agreement and peace. In addition, he proposes an arbiter in order to asks him help in the dialogue, measuring the speed and length of the words of Protagoras.

The arbiter

All praise Hippias's proposal and ask Socrates to choose an arbiter. However, this would not be possible because no one in the audience is better than Protagoras or Socrates judging a type of speech.

Then, to this proposition, Socrates refuses to do so but offers another. If Protagoras is not willing to answer, he can ask whatever he wants. In this way Protagoras will be given more benefits in the conversation that Socrates. Finally, all audience will be arbiters of the conversation.


Protagoras begins his argument by saying that poetry is the main part of education. Every man should be instructed in the art of poetry and they should know it. Protagoras begins with an analysis of the following Simonides's quote:

''It's really hard to become a truly good man. Balanced feet, hands and mind, without a glitch''.

Socrates knows the poem by Simonides, Protagoras asks if it is well made and Socrates says it is. But what if we look at the whole poem?

''I do not agree with the words of Pittacus, although the words are those of a wise man: It is difficult to become a truly worthy man. ''

By Socrates, there is no problem in stating that this sentence is consistent, but Protagoras said the inconsistency is present and is as follows:

''It's hard to really become a truly good man. ''

''It's hard to be a good man. ''

It would be inconsistent because First says it's hard to be a good man, but then says he does not agree with the appointment of Pittacus says, according to him, is exactly the same.

After Protagoras ended, everyone applauded and praised. Socrates is in trouble saying he was feeling like hit from a boxer. Then, remembering that Prodicus was a friend of Simonides, Socrates asked Prodicus to defend Simonides. Prodicus accepts and begins to conversation with Socrates.

The difficult as evil

If we look closely, the two phrases have a difference in the verb ''to be'' because the first begins with ''become'' and the second ''to be''. Hence one could say that Simonides had not inconsistent with their sentences, since both mean entirely different things and not be related. Protagoras said that Socrates thought there would be a terrible mistake and starts to explain. Hesiod also said:

''Because virtue before the gods placed sweat. But when you reach the top of it, then it is easier to retain it, it does not matter how difficult it is''.

Protagoras tells us that Socrates made a mistake, as the poet could never consider that virtue can be easily retained.

Socrates says that Protagoras has not fully understood the word ''difficult''. In fact, when it asks Prodicus What Simonides meant by the word difficult? He answers that he referred to the ''evil''.

So it is understandable that Simonides blames Pittacus sating that '' It is difficult (bad) to be a good man''. Prodicus tells us that perhaps was wrong to blame Prodicus, but Protagoras said that what is meant by hard is it is not easy to be good.

To counter all this, Socrates begins to tells us how was the ancient philosophy in the city of Lacedaemon. The Spartans concealed his knowledge so that no one could know how wise they were. However, when talking to one of the least educated Spartans immediately wisdom gradually surfaced in conversation with one of them. There circulated the phrase ''It's hard to be good'', which Simonides wanted to overcome to become more famous among his contemporaries; therefore, it can be inferred that the intention of Simonides was hurt Pítaco.

Otherwise, if Pítaco and Simonides were discussing their sentences, Simonides would tell Pítaco that the hardest part is not ''to be good'' but ''becoming good''. On the other hand, it is only because of the circumstances that man becomes good or bad. An unknown author said:

''The good with sometimes good and sometimes bad''.

Socrates says that bad men do not become bad, but they are always bad. Pittacus as we saw says it is hard to be good, but the really difficult thing is to be good because it would be impossible to be good.

But what makes men become good at writing letters, in carpentry or medicine? Obviously, the study of each discipline. However, the good always goes bad, according to the circumstances in which it becomes involved. The man is always bad, but there are chances for it to become good again as well as bad.

Socrates adds another extract of the Simonides says Pittacus:

''More praise and appreciation to anyone who does not voluntarily do something embarrassing; against the need to combat even the gods''.

It is important to remark here the idea that evil is caused only by ignorance. That man does not commit evil voluntarily is an aspect that we saw in the book Gorgias (or rhetoric) and also in the ninth Book of Laws where you see a little deeper.

Is virtue a part or a whole?

After the long silence of Protagoras, Socrates asks him back to the subject that they had been agreed before. If the parts of virtue are completely different from one another, or have something in common. Is temperance, wisdom, courage, justice and mercy, five names for the same thing (virtue in this case)?

Protagoras says that wisdom, temperance, justice and mercy are parts of virtue, but not the courage. The sophist tells us that, in fact, he has known people who are ignorant, unjust, impious, senseless, and yet are courageous.

Socrates asks if he considers that a brave man is fearless and if considers virtue something that is beautiful. Protagoras says yes to everything. Besides, it is known that someone that has self-confidence, is because he has knowledge of such skills. However, there are also people who are ignorant on these skills, but still have confidence. These people are considered by Protagoras would not as crazy people.

Protagoras claims:

  • The brave is fearless.
  • Virtue is good as a whole.
  • Who is confident is because he has knowledge.
  • The ignorant can have confidence, even without knowledge.
  • Who has confidence in himself being ignorant, it's crazy.

To this, Socrates responds that those who are ignorant and confident, are crazy. Just as the wisest man who has confidence in himself, he is also the bravest; therefore, be brave also would be wise.

Protagoras immediately says it is a mistake when it arises. It is not the same as saying that all the brave are confident that all who are confident are brave. Protagoras in the latter had responded that not all of them.

He adds that if the brave surpass ignorant in terms of confidence, at the same time he would be saying that the brave is wise (as it surpasses the ignorant) and thus say that the wisdom and courage are the same agreeing with Socrates.

The same would happen if Socrates asked if the strong are powerful. Of course, if the strong learn to be strong, would also be wise because they surpass those that are not. But Protagoras does not support this saying is not the same as saying the powerful are strong than strong are powerful.

Good as pleasure and evil as pain

It seems that the subject changes radically. This has been discussed many times. Did Socrates no arguments to answer Protagoras? Everything indicates that it could be.

Socrates is questioning again. Protagoras says to us through the questions of Socrates that a man who is living well,  is not living in pain or distressed. It is well resolved, to live well is good and to live bad is pain; also Protagoras tells us that this will be feasible provided if it is done enjoying the good things.

This time, Socrates tries to categorize the types of goods, i.e, things are good because they are enjoyable and things are bad because they are painful. Protagoras is not convinced by this statement, since it believes that there are some good things that are painful and bad things that are pleasurable.

''Being dominated by the pleasures''

This phrase has lasted until these days, and many of us believe that we are sometimes dominated by the pleasures. Socrates tries to refute this statement by saying that we call things good as pleasures, provided that they have a good end. Instead, bad things are painful because they end up with bad consequences.

To understand this, the idea is not to see immediate pleasure. For example, we can say that a medicine tastes bad when you drink immediately, but the end of the drug is that the body is healthy. Then, as the good things, the drug while we produce disgust at first, its purpose is to avoid pain. And avoid the pain would acquire pleasure.

Thus, it would be absurd to say that the man knowing that something is evil, he does evil. It would be absurd to say that being dominated by the pleasures, he made something that causes pain being the pleasures painless. Moreover, as we said earlier, that man does not commit evil voluntarily.

The brave and the cowards

It seems to be returning to the subject of courage, but not quite. Socrates tells Protagoras if states that the brave are nimble. He says yes, but not with the very bases of cowards. For example, the brave go where the danger is and cowards where security is.

However, no one can be subjugated to what is frightening, since being dominated is ignorance. But there is another ''but''. The brave and the coward are directed to the same things they can trust. Protagoras does not seem to agree with this because the brave will always want to go to war while the coward does not want.

Is it honorable or shameful to go to war? Protagoras said to be honorable, and if it is honorable then it is good and pleasant addition.

Protagoras claims:

  • War is honorable.
  • If it is honorable, it is good and pleasant.

However, the cowards are reluctant to attend it, which would be impossible under the above reasoning that the ignorant do not want to avoid good. On the other hand, braves have pleasures and also have confidence.

Socrates continues to delve deeper a little more, and Protagoras even say that cowardice consists of ignoring what is and is not dangerous. Naturally, wisdom consist in knowing what is and is not dangerous. Finally, Socrates asks if courage would know the things that are and are not dangerous. However, Protagoras does not respond and remains silent ... After a while, Protagoras says:

''Finish your argument''

Why? because if Protagoras says that courage is knowing the things that are and are not dangerous, it would also saying that courage and wisdom are similar. And as we know from the beginning, Protagoras said that parts of virtue are not similar.

Finally, they can not resolve the issue of whether virtue can be taught, and both dialoguing show themselves grateful to have such a conversation and show mutual admiration.


I was stunned to see that Socrates was indeed defeated by the great argument of Protagoras about the strong and powerful men. The change of theme is noticeable by the philosopher; however, I found a pleasant dialogue between them, especially the final part where they give a very cordial farewell. Here we will continue with the theme of virtue in another book called Meno.

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