In modern societies that operate under a system of liberal democracy, the political opinions expressed in Plato's dialogues can seem quite alien, even somewhat despotic. This argument was made most famously by the Austro-British philosopher, Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and its Enemies. There, Popper examines the anti-democratic doctrines existing in Plato's works and, in an audacious rhetorical move, aligns Plato with Karl Marx in a philosophical tradition of repression that culminates in the catastrophic regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Since their first publication in 1945, Popper's views have been a source of great controversy amongst philosophers, and should certainly not be taken as authoritative. However, Popper's extreme position obliges us to examine carefully the political stances expressed in the Protagoras.
When placed in the context of Popper's argument, the almost unopposed advocacy of democratic doctrines in the Protagoras comes as something of a surprise. One of the crucial implications of Protagoras' story about the distribution of political skills to all people is that all people are entitled to participate directly in making collective decisions concerning how their community is governed. Protagoras fails to argue logically for the full force of what his fable entails. Nonetheless, he does vigorously suggest that—once it is accepted that all people have the basic skills necessary to take part in political activities—being human entitles someone to be a citizen, in the fullest sense, of the country in which they live. Nowhere in the Protagoras does Socrates directly confront this principle, which was far less acceptable in fifth-century Greece than it is in the democratic societies of the twenty-first century. However, the tenor of Socrates's argument about sophistry hints at a line of argument against democratic politics that Plato will only develop fully in the Republic.
For Socrates, as for many other Greeks of the period, education was an urgent philosophical, political and moral issue. Part of the reason for this urgency was the changing composition of Greek societies. Athens, for instance, was embroiled in a struggle between populist democratic forces and conservative aristocrats. Education played a very significant part in this struggle; one of the key reasons for Plato's dislike of sophistry is the fact that Sophists were paid to teach argumentative skills. (Protagoras himself was the first Sophist to accept payment.) For Plato, this was both a debasement of philosophy (a point through which the values of the marketplace could enter the arena of abstract thought) and a dangerous propagation of the ability to think critically amongst those who may use that ability to attack the power of the aristocrats. What is involved in teaching future citizens of the state to be virtuous (i.e., to be good citizens) was therefore a very contested issue. Depending on what one meant by virtue, education could be a means of changing the constitution of the state, or a way of defending the existing order. Socrates's arguments about what virtue is and how it is acquired therefore need to be understood as an indirect response to Protagoras's radically democratic position. The ironic treatment of the Sophists Prodicus and Hippias may at points seem to cast this dialogue as a comedy routine. Beneath this humor, however, Plato is beginning to marshal some very somber attacks on the philosophical and social characteristics of sophistry.
These political concerns about Sophistry may, at first, appear to be remote from the central subject of the Protagoras, the question of whether virtue is teachable or not. This question, and the related one of what virtue is, echo throughout the Protagoras, even at those points where the topic being discussed has apparently little to do with virtue. While Protagoras asserts that he can teach young men how to administrate their estates, Socrates never challenges this claim. Instead, the two thinkers battle over whether Protagoras can teach political virtue, whether he can educate citizens to become good citizens. But Socrates and Protagoras have different ideas about what is involved in being a good citizen. Is citizenship simply a matter of obeying the laws, or is something more involved? In the course of his questioning, Socrates reveals that Protagoras is operating with an unexamined concept of virtue, and the dialogue as a whole can be interpreted as a clarification and analysis of this tricky concept. In this, the Protagoras is typical of the early dialogues. Like the Meno and the Laches, the Protagoras sets out to arrive at a firm definition of virtue; also like the other two dialogues, it fails to accomplish this task.
However, these repeated failures do not lead to the conclusion that the question of virtue is not worth pursuing, or that it will inevitably fail. In the Protagoras, this question about virtue takes the form of a lengthy attempt by Socrates to prove that what are commonly thought of as separate virtues—courage, temperance, holiness, justice and wisdom—are in fact simply different names for the same thing. It might seem somewhat irrelevant whether virtue is one thing, or a conglomeration of different things; however, Socrates has a very definite aim in mind when trying to prove that virtue is singular. Virtue, for Socrates, is not only an indivisible thing. As he argues in the Protagoras, virtue is the same as knowledge. Learning how to be virtuous means learning a specific type of knowledge or science. But this means that we need to understand properly what knowledge is.
The Protagoras provides what is probably the best exposition of a central doctrine of Socratic philosophy: that virtue is knowledge, and that evil is merely another name for ignorance. This makes comprehensible the immense importance Socrates (and also Plato) grants to the subject of education. If virtue is knowledge, then education—the instruction of youth—is, in a very real sense, the creation or destruction of virtuous souls. One of the key arguments of the Protagoras consists of a re-examination of what is entailed in the experience commonly referred to as being overcome by pleasure. Socrates argues that the idea that pleasure can dissuade one from doing what one knows to be right is absurd, for what is right is always what is most pleasurable. Knowledge (or virtue) is then the ability to perceive what will bring most pleasure. There is a strange inconsistency in the progression through these concepts: the analysis of virtue demands an analysis of knowledge; Socrates's consideration of knowledge states that knowledge is an awareness of how to attain pleasurable ends. But this seems to require the further step of examining precisely what these pleasurable ends are. What people take pleasure in is clearly not a constant thing. Socrates's arguments place a great deal of conceptual weight on the notion of pleasure, but this notion remains unexamined. But this failure to complete the course of reasoning is characteristic of Socrates, and occurs repeatedly in the Protagoras. Indeed, even the analysis of knowledge is rather incomplete: Socrates does not adequately differentiate what he means by knowledge from what Protagoras means by the kinds of knowledge he claims to be able to teach at the beginning of the dialogue. However, this pattern of absences does not entail that the Protagoras is in any way a badly written philosophical text. Rather, it points to a conception of knowledge as a process, not as something that can be abstracted from life and written down once and for all. If we can learn the knowledge of virtue from the Protagoras, we cannot learn it by waiting for Socrates to provide us with all the answers. The unfinished arguments, apparent contradictions and absent conceptual explanations are in fact the spaces in this dialogue from which true knowledge can be acquired.
Attempting to comprehend the meaning of the two central themes of the dialogue—virtue and knowledge—directs the reader to pay close attention to the form of the dialogue. Hoping to have thematic questions answered thematically by Socrates is to hope in vain. To uncover what Plato is really up to, the reader must look for answers in the method, not the matter, of the argument. In this sense, Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum, "the medium is the message," needs to be taken very seriously when reading a Platonic dialogue.
For Plato, the best method of discovering truth is the dialectic (in Greek, elenchus), the kind of question and answer format favored by Socrates. Not incidentally, the dialectic is in fact a theme of the Protagoras, and Socrates makes a number of arguments to demonstrate that it is indeed the best way to do philosophy. Socrates states that the dialectic tests both the opinions under review and the people who express those opinions; thus, it deals with abstract argument at the same time that it grounds that abstraction in real figures. Plato's dialogues do much the same thing; in the same moment that they treat difficult questions of great philosophical importance, they are also dramatic texts representing real people. This ability to represent psychological conflict and abstruse reasoning simultaneously is as much a feature of the dialectic as the back-and-forth motion set up by the frequent questions.
But the dialectic is not merely internal to the text, something represented by the words on the page. This internal mechanism is part of the dialectical process initiated by Plato, but that process continues beyond those words. Reading the text, we too enter into a dialectic—a process of question and answer—with the characters having the conversation, with the theories being expounded, and also with the form in which those characters and theories are represented. One of the results of this is that, in reading Plato, we too are being tested, as much as we wish to test the text. Another result is that any interpretation cannot be taken as final. Each interpretation is merely a starting point for another series of questioning. As Socrates states at the end of the Protagoras, everything has to be thought through once again, from the very beginning.