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Protagoras

Plato

Lines 338e-348c

Lines 328d-338e

Lines 348c-362a

Summary

Protagoras takes his turn as the questioner and uses the opportunity to turn to the subject of lyric poetry. Socrates and Protagoras will still discuss the question of virtue, although not in general, as before, but rather as it is embodied in a poem. Both agree that for a poem to be properly composed, it should be coherent, but Protagoras asserts that Simonides contradicts himself in a poem that Socrates admires. At one point, the poet declares that it is difficult to become good; later he criticizes the sage Pittacus's statement that it is hard to be good. How can the same poem maintain the truth of the statement that virtue is difficult to attain, while asserting the falsity of the statement that virtue is difficult to possess? The remainder of this section is devoted to Socrates's demonstration that this contradiction is, in fact, only apparent. Along the way, he introduces the important doctrine that it is impossible to knowingly commit an evil act.

Socrates's argument begins by noting the difference between the verbs in the two statements: the first states that it is difficult to become good; the second, that it is hard to be good. It should be noted that the first verb is in the past infinitive form. The line could therefore be translated as "it is hard to have become good (at one point or another) in truth," and consequently means "hard to be good" in the sense that one is what one has become. The ambiguity of this verb is an important factor in the ensuing argument. Socrates concludes that, since being and becoming are not synonymous, there is no contradiction. However, Protagoras argues that, in criticizing Pittacus's statement as false, Simonides must then be asserting that it is easy to be good—which is certainly not the case. Socrates, after an extended parody of Prodicus's quibbling style of argument, establishes that by attacking Pittacus, Simonides means that it is in fact impossible to be good, not merely difficult, as Pittacus had stated.

Socrates takes further textual evidence from the poem to support this argument; the whole poem, he contends, should be considered as an implicit criticism of Pittacus's aphorism. Reading (or, more probably, reciting) the poem, we need to "suppose Pittacus himself to be speaking and Simonides replying" (343e). The poem, understood within the context of this hypothetical dialogue, then argues that virtue can be attained only temporarily and with difficulty; even good people backslide when suffering the adversities of fortune. But what exactly comprises these adversities? Socrates states that it is the lack of knowledge of what is good: "there is only one sort of ill fare—the deprivation of knowledge" (345b).

Socrates then asks Protagoras what he wishes to do now. Does he prefer to take his turn at being questioned, or does he want to challenge Socrates's argument so far? In any case, Socrates wishes not to discuss poetry any further. Discussing poetry is a defective form of doing philosophy, he states, for the poet cannot be questioned about the meaning of his or her poem. Direct questioning, on the other hand, allows "a trial of the truth and of ourselves" (348a).

Analysis

Protagoras and Socrates both agree that Simonides's poem appears to contradict itself. For Protagoras, recognizing that this contradiction exists is the end-point of interpretation: we should note the inconsistency, lower our estimation of the poem accordingly, and move on to the next text. For Socrates, by contrast, this contradiction provides a beginning for interpretation: the inconsistencies on the surface of a text invite further investigation. But this investigation is not merely sparked by contradiction. Indeed, Socrates's interpretation of Simonides's poem is guided by very acute attention to the precise meaning of the points at which the logic of the poem appears to fail. This sense that incoherence, difficulty and slippage afford points at which philosophical thought can gain leverage is central to the Socratic method. In this sense, Socrates's method of interpretation, as represented in this section, is exemplary. When reading the Socratic dialogues we should try to imitate Socrates's refusal simply to note a contradiction; his insistence on uncovering what lies behind the appearance of inconsistency should be replicated in reading the Protagoras. Thus, the most important conclusion to draw from this section is the need to continue asking questions, to be aware of the inadequacy of any position at which we feel we can stop thinking.

In interpreting the poem, Socrates provides us with elements of a theory of Socratic interpretation, a way of reading that ought to be applied to the Socratic dialogues themselves. One crucial part of this incomplete theory is the obligation to place the text we are reading within the context in which it was produced. The internal dynamics of the text—exemplified by the contradiction Protagoras discovers—point the reader beyond the limits of the text itself. Why does Simonides cite Pittacus? Socrates argues that it is because the poem itself is written in opposition to Pittacus's philosophical position. In the previous section, Socrates's favored method of philosophy (the elenchus) was under attack. Here Protagoras is forced to employ the question and answer technique, but turns the subject to poetry, introducing a third, and seemingly stable, element to place between himself and Socrates. But Socrates counters by reading dialogue into the poem itself. As Socrates contends, we cannot understand the poem unless we see that it is arguing against something else. The poem, therefore, continues beyond the text; it is involved in a dialectic with other texts, and this dialectic determines the text we read. Contradiction, slippage and inconsistency are not merely internal problems with a piece of writing. Instead, they should be understood as the marks within a text that allow us to place that piece of writing in relation to other texts.

However, in converting the internal contradiction noted by Protagoras into a coherent poem, Socrates wrests the meaning of the poem to his own ends. His interpretation is deeply embedded in layers of irony; his adoption of Prodicus's ridiculous method of verbal nitpicking signals that we should be careful when reading this section. Socrates ends his exposition of the poem's meaning by criticizing the idea that interpreting a poem is an acceptable method of philosophy. Rather, he claims that philosophical thinking is best practiced by exchanging ideas without having a text in the middle. Poetry can only ever represent a hypothetical dialogue, argues Socrates, even when we try to understand it (as we should) as participating in a dialogue. True wisdom is not represented in written words; instead, it must be spoken by those who possess and represent it. This is the significance of Socrates's insistence that doing philosophy should be a test of both a doctrine and of those who express that doctrine. If virtue can be articulated (embodied within language), it can only be articulated properly by those who embody virtue outside of language. In this section Socrates provides us with a guide for reading Plato, but he also points out that reading—if we think of reading as merely understanding what an author intends to convey—falls short of the true aim of philosophy. Understanding virtue is not the same kind of thing as understanding what a poem means; we can only approach knowledge of virtue by "making trial of the truth and of ourselves" (348a).

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