Socrates in Hades: On Plato’s Protagoras, Part I

Originally, I wanted to post comments regarding a reread of the Republic I am supposedly doing. But so many issues went over my head I broke away from the reread and started reading the Greater Hippias. While a shorter dialogue, the discussion of “the beautiful” and how it relates to how we use “both” and “each” also stumped me, even with the help of a secondary source (written by a teacher of mine, no less). Finally, I’ve been working on the Protagoras, and thanks to Google Books’ excerpt of Robert Bartlett’s commentary (“On the Protagoras,” in Plato’s Protagoras and Meno, Cornell 2004) and Seth Benardete’s “Protagoras’ Myth and Logos” (“The Argument of the Action,” Chicago 2000), I may have something sensible to say.

Preliminary Remarks

1. Perhaps the city is a thesis: many know what is right, but do not always act on what they know (Protagoras 352d-e). That “thesis” would explain the existence of things like law, executive power, etc. With law what matters is not that it is perfectly rational, but good enough. And I don’t need to spell out the obvious requirement of force.

Still, this thesis of the city, if we may call it that, runs into a strange sort of opposition. There are those who know and act well because of their knowledge. This is not the argument given us by philosophers, but the assumption guiding nearly all poetry, especially the poetry the Greeks revere: Homer and Hesiod. Protagoras’ criticism of Simonides, culminating at 339d-e, is an attack on poetic authority from a sophist. Protagoras, the sophist, allows his art to be described as teaching “the art of politics, and promising to make men good citizens” (319a). That is knowledge which translates directly into action, and the poets do certainly make claims about this knowledge. One could read the Odyssey as an exploration of those virtues that will be required in a post-heroic world. That Protagoras feels the need to attack a poet on becoming a good man and being noble (see esp. 339c, the word is “esthlon”), the latter the chief concern of a gentlemanly few, brings out most fully his awareness of his chief competitors.

The conflict between the poets and the city is very strange, as all cities have at their core some sort of myth. There is no such thing as a fully rational politics. But there is a sort of  knowing through imagining, and the poets give us rich images of what to do and what not to do. The poets should complement the work of the city. To a large degree, they do that, but as is evident from above, there is at least this break in principle between them (in Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ meditations on divinely founded human institutions, there may be another sort of break). We can address this break another way, a way that will be crucial to our investigation of the Protagoras: the city’s opinion can be extended into a “universal opinion.” The character of that universal opinion is seen most clearly through myth: take a myth that describes the founding of a people and invert it. What you have is a comment on every other people in the world. The more one engages a universal opinion – something like “common sense,” both an opinion about what is universal, and held to be universally held – the more one is dealing with something utterly estranged from its mythical root, but sometimes going back to a generic idea of myth in order to have an air of authority it otherwise lacks.

2. Protagoras, as already has been mentioned, is a sophist. He says that he teaches 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 and speaking about the city’s affairs” (318e5-319a2, trans. Bartlett). Bartlett points out how Protagoras is already exposed to the usual condemnation of sophists: “most powerful” regarding the city is not the same as “best” (Bartlett 71). One can read the Protagoras as a moralistic and polemical Socrates’ attack on a slick teacher of injustice. But for a number of reasons, that is not how I want to explore the dialogue. The usual condemnation of sophists, of course, has a total disregard for their practice and teaching of science (Hippias is cited by both Protagoras and Socrates as teaching astronomy, 315c & 318e). The usual condemnation also gives populism too much credit, and fails to see another culprit. It lets people allow themselves to get enraged by some slick politician, willingly believe and promote his lies, and then turn on him saying they were duped the whole time. I’m not saying that we can ever escape that cycle – I know full well we can’t. But I’m not going to accept that as defining the historical record.

I’m more curious about an issue Bartlett brings up: why is Socrates eager to talk to Protagoras in the first place?

We must wonder, however, whether Socrates’ concern for Hippocrates fully explains the conversation before us. After all, it is Socrates who suggests that he and Hippocrates make their way to Protagoras and the other sophists (314b6-c2), just after he has issued a stinging rebuke to Hippocrates for his uninformed desire to do so, and at an important juncture in the dialogue Socrates assures Protagoras that his cross-examinations have as their goal the discovery of the truth about virtue, about a question that perplexes Socrates himself. His conversation with Protagoras is intended to make certain one or more of Socrates’ own thoughts, as only conversation with or “testing” of another can do (347c5-349a6; consider also, e.g. , 328d8-e1, as well as 357e2-8: Socrates is not consistently concerned with harming the business prospects of the sophists, Protagoras included). (Bartlett 68)

A few more things about Protagoras need to be mentioned before we move to considering the general structure of the dialogue. Protagoras claims a certain openness as a “sophist and an educator,” and contrasts this openness with many sophists who used screens. He cites Homer and Hesiod as sophists using poetry as a screen; Orpheus as using religion and prophecy as a screen. Those who teach gymnastics and music were even sophists of a sort (316d-317b). Now how open Protagoras (whose name means “first to speak out” – Bartlett 71) is, that’s another question. When grilling Hippocrates, who wants to learn from Protagoras, Socrates asks him what he would become if he paid a sculptor to teach him (311c-d). Ultimately the question becomes “what do you expect to learn from a sophist? How to be a sophist?” (311e-312a) One has to wonder whether the concept of sophist itself is a screen, and what that may or may not have to do with the character of the masks philosophers wear.

There is something curious about Protagoras’ ability to completely control a crowd. From Socrates himself:

Those who followed behind listening to their conversation seemed to be for the most part foreigners – Protagoras draws them from every city that he passes through, charming them with his voice like Orpheus, and they follow spellbound – but there were some Athenians in the band as well. As I looked at the party I was delighted to notice what special care they took never to get in front or to be in Protagoras’ way. When he and those with him turned around, the listeners divided this way and that in perfect order, and executing a circular movement took their places each time in the rear. It was beautiful (315a-b).

Protagoras can also hit like a boxer and get applause (339e), and there are probably more instances of Socrates describing Protagoras I should note for later. Following Benardete:

Socrates’ narration gives a mythical setting to a nonmythical event. Protagoras is another Orpheus who by his voice alone arranges his followers into a disciplined chorus; the house of Callias, whose butler is a very Cerberus, is itself Hades where Socrates as Odysseus sees Hippias as Heracles and Prodicus as Tantalus (Benardete 186).

The “voice” is key. The musical education in the Republic forces the issue, pushes Socrates to address the nature of the soul and the philosophic. It should not be surprising, then, there is a sort of competition between Socrates and Protagoras for the place they are at (Socrates’ nearly leaving, 335d). Are sophists musicians? Are they able to create any place one can imagine, by stirring – perhaps even shaping – the soul however they like? There’s more irony to come, in that case:

…it is Protagoras himself who suggested to Socrates the notion of representing Callias’ house as Hades and the sophists as so many ghosts: Socrates brings the sophists into the light and gives them life. Socrates makes sense of them. Orpheus, for all his enchanting music, failed to bring Eurydice back (Benardete 187).

I’m going to end there for now; I realize this is a bit disorganized, but I think a good number of relevant issues and concerns are on the table, and we can move to more careful consideration of some passages, and hopefully a general outline can be presented.


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