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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Protagoras!