Historical Context for Protagoras

Among scholars of Plato, the precise dates and order of composition of the Socatric dialogues is still an unsettled issue. However, there is a consensus that the Protagoras can be classed amongst the early dialogues, which also are generally thought to include the Meno, The Apology, Euthryphro and Lysis. In the later dialogues, Socrates becomes more purely a mouthpiece for the exposition of Plato's own theories. In these earlier dialogues, however, Socrates's own theories appear, though they are often mediated and complicated by elements of Plato's own thought. Untangling what Socrates said—or might have said—from what Plato represents him as saying is therefore a very difficult task.

Despite these complications related to the attribution of ideas, we can safely state that these early dialogues have a genuine historical value, as well as being philosophically important. Whether or not we can be sure that any actual debate took place precisely as it appears, the dialogues do provide us with invaluable portraits of real thinkers engaging in serious philosophical discussion. Moreover, they are dialogues; and here, philosophical thought does not take place in a solitary mind, but in social situations. Reading the dialogues therefore requires an engagement with the social aspect of thought: how does the society in which one thinks shape the forms that that thought eventually takes? Again, such questions return us to the historical setting of the dialogues. The philosophy cannot be understood without considering the history (similarly, studying Greek history without returning to Greek philosophy can be a barren business).

Among the Platonic dialogues, Protagoras is something of an anomaly in that it is set before Plato's own birth at a period in which Socrates is still young. Socrates was executed in 399; Plato was born three decades earlier, in 427; the dialogues of the Protagoras are set before the beginning of the First Peloponnesian War, sometime around 433. These wars were disastrous for Athens: after lengthy and costly fighting, Athens was finally defeated by its archrival Sparta. In the ensuing political reconstruction, the Athenian democratic system was replaced in 404 by the oligarchy of the 'Thirty Tyrants,' but this new order was soon overturned and democratic rule re-established. It was in the aftermath of this change of systems that Socrates was tried and condemned in 399.

For its first readers, then, just as for its readers today, the Protagoras was partly a historical work, describing events taking place in an Athens that had changed dramatically in the ensuing forty or fifty years. In 433, Athens was at the pinnacle of its political influence, having lead the coalition of Greek city-states in the defeat of the invading Persian army. Its political system was probably the most democratic of any functioning society ever (once we overlook the fact that this political system was founded on the exclusion of women and the use of slaves). All free citizens took part in the Athenian political process; decisions were made collectively, without being mediated by a representative system of government. When Plato writes the dialogue, however, Athens had fallen a long way from this peak.

Socrates's and Protagoras's discussion of political virtue takes on a new significance once this historical setting is taken into account. The question of how virtue can be acquired was certainly more urgent for Plato, who had seen his mentor tried and executed, than for the audience assembled in Hippias' house to listen to Protagoras and Socrates. Both Socrates and Protagoras, for all their differences, present quite optimistic views of the benefits of education within social and political systems. For Protagoras, all people have an equal right and duty to take part in political decision-making; for Socrates (by the end of the dialogue), ethical behavior can be taught. Neither presents a pessimistic vision of the aspirations and the possibility of philosophical thought in their society. However, the dialogue itself does not meet these optimistic hopes. If Socrates manages to persuade Protagoras to his position, Protagoras only acquiesces reluctantly and sullenly. He is right to be suspicious, for many of Socrates's arguments are unsound. Similarly, Socrates himself summarizes the dialogue by stating that all the arguments need to be gone over again, that we have arrived not at the end, but at the beginning. After nearly one hundred pages of dense philosophy, Plato only presents conclusions that are so tentative and qualified that the reader must be unsure whether he or she can accept them at all. This is not an optimistic end; the difference between Athens in 433 and Athens at the beginning of the fourth century may suggest one reason why.

Philosophical Context for Protagoras

Protagoras, as mentioned above, is considered an early dialogue. Like most of the other early dialogues, it sets out to define what virtue is, and fails to come to any systematic and definitive conclusion. Indeed, the parody of Prodicus—who attempts to pin down precise definitions of words—suggests that perhaps this definitional enterprise is off-target from the outset. Would knowing a precise definition of what virtue is help someone to behave virtuously? Possibly not, despite Socrates's doctrine that it is impossible to behave badly in the knowledge of what is good.

Indeed, posing the question of virtue in this definitional form indicates just how bizarre such a philosophical investigation would be; this suggests that Plato intends to do something else in these dialogues besides arriving at exact definitions. In part, these dialogues can be thought of as clearing away false pre-suppositions and deconstructing received opinions, a process of mental spring-cleaning that is required before the grand constructions of The Republic and The Symposium can be begun. But to read these early dialogues as performing such a purely negative function also seems to be too reductive.

Certainly, there is a great deal of demolition of false beliefs in these dialogues; certainly, Socrates wields the scalpel of the question-and- answer method to great effect. However, these two operations are not identical. If Socrates uses the method of dialectic to knock over his opponents' arguments, he also uses this method to formulate his own doctrines. His interlocutors are not simply antagonists, but can also be assistants. At one point in Protagoras Socrates cites Homer: "When two go together, one sees before the other" (348d). Thinking together can proceed more quickly and efficiently than thinking alone. And this method is not merely useful for thinking negatively—for locating and criticizing the weaknesses in arguments—but can also, and even more profitably, be used to arrive at new and more incisive questions that lead to more decisive conclusions.

While the early dialogues may not always provide conclusions, they establish the pre-eminent method by which such conclusions can be arrived at. This, in itself, is a kind of conclusion. The questions posed in the Protagoras (what is virtue, and how is it acquired?) are therefore given answers, although these answers do not appear in the same form as the questions. Reading these dialogues is an education in methods of thinking, and it is this method of thinking that, as Socrates argues, will lead to true knowledge. The doctrine quoted above (that we cannot do bad knowingly) is then not quite so bizarre. To arrive at the knowledge that is synonymous with virtue we must think together, posing questions at each step of the way. Philosophical thought should then contain these two aspects; like Plato's dialogues, they should include voices that examine and interrogate the direction of argument at all points. It is questions, after all, that lead to new conclusions. Rote learning cannot teach us how to acquire virtue.