Below is an outline of the Protagoras that should make things clearer even to those who have not read the dialogue. If you are really pressed for time, the most important sections are “Protagoras’ myth,” followed by “Protagoras’ logos,” and the Socratic concerns about virtue which precede Protagoras’ myth. This post is about 1400 words.
Outline of the Protagoras
309a – 310a: Socrates encounters an unnamed companion. The companion seems to think there is something between Socrates and Alcibiades; Socrates does nothing to discourage this impression. The companion is an “enthusiast for Homer;” he did not know Protagoras was in town, which would mark him a bit less enthusiastic about sophistry than Hippocrates. Socrates relates to the companion his story of the events leading to and including the discussion with Protagoras. Socrates admits he has “just now come from seeing [Protagoras]” and he seems to have met this companion by chance: contrast with Socrates’ saying he “has something to do” (335c-d) and the “appointment” he is late for (361e). Socrates has nothing to do, but uses the first excuse (along with a threat to leave) to get control of the conversation from Protagoras. The second mention of “appointment” is more curious: does Socrates have something to report, i.e. did he learn something? The encounter with Hippias, a sophist (see the Greater Hippias) does result in Socrates’ saying he learned something (Greater Hippias 304e).
310b – 316b: Socrates recounts his accompanying Hippocrates to Protagoras. Hippocrates woke Socrates up at a very early time, before it was light out (311a). A bit too excited about Protagoras, he wanted Socrates to speak to the sophist on his behalf. Asked what exactly a sophist teaches, Hippocrates is at a near complete loss to answer (the closest he comes: “[the sophist] is master of the art of making clever speeches,” 312d). Despite all the warnings he gives about how a sophist may harm the soul, Socrates sets out with Hippocrates to Callias’ house, where the sophists Protagoras, Hippias, and Prodicus are. Socrates represents that house as Hades – “Protagoras is another Orpheus who by his voice alone arranges his followers into a disciplined chorus…. [the] butler is a very Cerberus… Socrates as Odysseus sees Hippias as Heracles and Prodicus as Tantalus” (Benardete 186).
316b – 320c: Protagoras is pushed to say what he teaches to a pupil: “how he might best manage his own household – and, concerning the affairs of the city, how he might be the most powerful in carrying out the city’s affairs” (318e5 – 319a2, trans. Bartlett). Socrates interprets this very generously: “I take you to be describing the art of politics, and promising to make men good citizens” (319a). Socrates then brings forth two concerns. First, he says that he “did not think this was something that could be taught” (319b). “This” is unclear: is Socrates talking about the political art, or creating good citizens? Socrates’ example is how Athenians in the Assembly allow everyone to speak about issues that aren’t terribly technical (319d). Does the example prove Socrates’ point, or conflate good citizenship and a political art? Second, Socrates speaks of the inability of the “wisest and best” to pass on virtue: Pericles’ own children are pretty useless (319d – 320b). Socrates says explicitly: “I do not believe that virtue can be taught.” His examples point at the impossibility of an art of rule (the closest one could get would be a philosopher-king), and what sort of knowledge governs citizenship. Is a citizen educated the way one trains a blacksmith? A doctor?
320c – 323a: Protagoras’ myth, which is meant to address Socrates’ concerns. The myth, very roughly: of the gods, Epimetheus (“afterthought”) and Prometheus (“forethought”) were put in charge of creating mortal creatures. It is not explicitly said they work in Hades, however:
Gods and Epimetheus both work in the dark. The gods fashion the shape of mortal animals and Epimetheus assigns them the various powers to survive…. Now the distinction between shapes supplied by the gods and powers supplied by Epimetheus certainly reminds us of Hades, or the region of powerless phantoms (Benardete 187)
Epimetheus gives properly to all the other animals, but gives humans nothing. This forces Prometheus to steal “the gift of skill in the arts, together with fire” and give it to man. Political wisdom, however, remains with Zeus, who eventually gives man justice and shame when man is threatened with extinction (322b8; Benardete 191). It is not hard to see that Prometheus can be reduced to forethought and cut from the myth as a god (cf. Bartlett 73), leaving us humans entirely to ourselves. What Zeus gives, of course, would allow one who aspired to glory or tyranny rule, especially if justice were conceived as convention only.
323a – 328d: Protagoras’ logos. A more specific response to the concerns Socrates voiced. One way to explain the respect people show each other in Athenian democracy: everyone, even if wicked, knows to pretend to be just. This stems from Zeus’ distribution in the story Protagoras made up. Also, everyone believes virtue can be taught. Look at how we administer punishment – we don’t punish for failings due to nature or chance, but we punish so as to teach either the wrongdoer or the body politic. Finally, it is the case that great men like Pericles teach their children virtue; Protagoras spends a great deal of words to imply this and not accidentally insult the sons of Pericles actually in the room.
328d – 334a: Socrates claims he is totally convinced by Protagoras, and wants to know just one “supplementary” thing: “Is virtue a single whole, and are justice and self-control and holiness parts of it, or are these latter all names for one and the same thing?” (329c-d). This small question results in Socrates saying, not much later, “I thought Protagoras was beginning to bristle, ready for a quarrel and preparing to do battle with his answers” (333e).
334a – 338e: Protagoras gives a wordy answer to dodge a question; Socrates threatens to leave. A compromise is reached: Protagoras asks questions, Socrates must answer.
338e – 347b: Protagoras criticizes Simonides for being inconsistent in a poem. Simonides says it is hard to become a good man in one part of the poem, but then criticizes Pittacus in the same poem for saying “to be noble is hard.” Protagoras seems to imply he has an easier road to excellence than the poets for those who listen to him. Socrates puts forth a lengthy but complete explication of Simonides’ poem, arguing that Simonides is consistent in his condemnation of Pittacus. Simonides’ actual point is that Pittacus is overly harsh, whereas Simonides has a lower, more realistic standard for who is good.
347b – end: The discussion moves away from poetry back explicitly to the unity of virtue. Courage becomes the principal concern of the rest of the dialogue. Protagoras: “My view is that all these [wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, holiness] are parts of virtue, and that four of them resemble each other fairly closely, but courage is very different from all the rest. The proof of what I say is that you can find many men who are quite unjust, unholy, intemperate, and ignorant, yet outstandingly courageous” (349d-e). Socrates gets Protagoras to say pleasure is the good, and ties the ability to have the good to knowledge. This results in no one willing wanting what is painful, and courage becomes knowledge of what to avoid. Not really a philosophic proof, but this has been a rhetorical competition of sorts the whole way through – see the Laches for a more thorough statement on courage, the Greater Hippias for the Socratic appreciation of Pittacus. One has to wonder what exactly is stake philosophically in this dialogue: it is there, but hiding. On the other hand, courage probably becomes the final issue discussed because of Protagoras’ earlier invocation of “manly virtue:” “If there is [something all citizens must have to have a city], and this one essential is not the art of building or foraging or pottery but justice and moderation and holiness of life, or to concentrate it into a single whole, manly virtue…” (324e – 325b, part of Protagoras’ argument that virtue can be taught, and seems to be taught all the time).