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

Part 1 | Part 2

From Part 1: there may be a conflict between poetry and the city. Poetry oftentimes works on the assumption “virtue is knowledge:” isn’t it the case if you read a poem well, you will be better for it? The city, on the other hand, has laws and enforcers of the laws not just because people won’t read, but because even those who know better may not act better.

The question, if this conflict holds: Where do Protagoras (sophistry) and Socrates (philosophy) come in? A good portion of the Protagoras is a discussion of a poem of Simonides. From Part II:

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.

I’m not entirely sure about what Protagoras’ exact position regarding Simonides is. Does Protagoras believe he has an easier way to achieve excellence than the poets? The ultimate source of my confusion is something no less than Socrates brings to light. There is a being/becoming distinction in Simonides’ thought as regards the holding and acquisition of virtue. Following Benardete:

Protagoras criticizes Simonides for having a contradiction in a short lyric poem. Protagoras calls such criticism a large part of education. He thus implies that education in poetry is not political virtue and is incompatible with it. In criticizing Simonides, he sides with all men who believe that to keep virtue in one’s possession is the hardest of all things, whereas the poets are at one in saying that once it has been acquired it is easy to retain. The poets say virtue suits man, Protagoras says it is troublesome (Benardete 196).

The poetic thesis: it is hard to become virtuous, but once one acquires virtue, it is easy to be [remain] virtuous. This is to some degree doublespeak on the part of the poets. While poetry raises deep questions, tensions not easily resolved, and paints a serious picture of the human condition, it does have an element active within which appeals to realization. The “difficulty” of virtue is whether or not you can internalize the poem or not. No poet will ever turn down a reader. The Platonic dialogues are maddeningly complex by contrast: it is very difficult to know what Plato meant nearly 2300 years after the fact.

Now why would Protagoras want to say that to keep virtue [being] is the hardest of all things? There is unintentional irony all over the place with Protagoras. In Part I, we noted that he was another Orpheus, represented by Socrates in a Hades that is a poetic workshop (literally: Protagoras, of all people, spun a myth). Orpheus is not only a poet, but is unremarkable for courage [Leo Strauss, “On Plato’s Symposium 76]. This dialogue ends with an argument over the nature of courage, which Protagoras seems to misunderstand completely. And anyone can see why it would be in Protagoras’ favor to simply claim he’s a better poet, which is what criticism implies in one sense. If he’s a better poet, he can show the way to an excellence which will not be lost much more easily than others. Given that Protagoras says the ancient poets were actually sophists in disguise, one wonders if he is actually making the claim to being a better poet simply.

Still, I think the safe argument with Protagoras himself is that he says a lot of things where he doesn’t realize the full consequences of what he’s saying. What Protagoras wants is business, and my confusion is perhaps stemming from that: he’s probably not at all clear in his own mind on being/becoming as regards virtue. He is clear that certain impressions have to be given to prospective clients. They have to believe he can help them, that excellence is achievable. But it can’t be too easy or too hard in their minds to get. It has to be a hard thing to maintain, so that way Protagoras can be hired by them again when they have political success and a state treasury to lavish on his services.

Socrates’ exposition on Simonides’ poem starts with a discussion of being/becoming and virtue (339e-340e). It moves to consideration of what is “terrible” (or clever – the word is deinos, which means both) or “hard” (340e-342a) before arguing that Spartans are really philosophers in disguise and the ancients knew this (342a-343d). Spartan brevity inheres in Pittacus’ “Hard is it to be noble,” and that’s what Simonides is challenging (343d-e). Simonides brings forth a steersman metaphor to demonstrate that good people are sometimes forced in bad situations to be less than excellent. A steersman is such by virtue of having some prowess; in a storm, though, he can be worse than useless. This contrasts with Pittacus in that it not merely hard to be noble, but impossible over time (344a-e; time is the issue of “becoming”). The good can become bad, but the bad are bad simply (345a-c: does poetry deny any serious relation between “being” and the “good?”). Thus, Simonides lowers the standard for moral excellence, and in doing so, seems to say that those who are bad are only bad out of ignorance (345c-346b). Socrates concludes by saying that Simonides thought himself not a “faultfinder,” like the philosopher Pittacus, and quotes passages of Simonides that discuss “nations,” the “broad earth,” and “all” (346c-347a).

Where exactly Socratic philosophy fits into all of this is difficult to discern. There is obviously agreement and disagreement with the poets: that the bad are simply ignorant is more or less a Socratic thought. That does not mean “virtue is knowledge” for Socrates, though. In Xenophon, one has to work to maintain a moderate state: it requires habit, practice. But that does not mean Socrates agrees with Protagoras in thinking that being virtuous is one of the most difficult things. In fact, the area of their disagreement is probably the area where they do agree most. Knowledge matters; the whole of virtue may be comprehended by knowledge. Knowledge matters so much for Socrates that he won’t accept payment for knowing or sharing his knowledge: Protagoras feels very differently. This, more than anything else, dictates the break between philosophy and sophistry. Sophists are firmly in the realm of becoming. Not only are they training people to speak well for the sake of politics, the here and now, but knowledge is their own private fortune in this life. Poetry aims a bit higher, at some kind of civic virtue, a discussion of the foundation of a given city, contemplation of the will of the gods. But poetry abandons logos almost entirely for mythos; Protagoras holds that myth can be entirely explained by a logical accounting. Again, following Benardete: Socrates is in Hades because the whole of the Protagoras is a story, the story of how the sophistic criticism of poetry fell short when being nearly decisive. In Part I, we mentioned that the city twists myth (poetry) into a “universal opinion” for its own purposes. What Protagoras is doing with his students is what all the politically ambitious do. The existence of politics implies an art of rule (even if that art does not exist). That art involves making a claim to understanding the city better than the city understands itself. But the ultimate irony is that everyone in the city has some degree of political ambition; the rage of the demos is inspired by how much they think is theirs. Courage implies the ability to sacrifice oneself for the city’s purposes, not one’s own. That negation – not-being – is impossible to put under an art of rule, since to be politically useful it has to be less than rational. One’s own good is emphatically not the city’s good. It is decisive that despite Protagoras’ slickness, he does not understand this: he is in over his head, partly by virtue of merely teaching.


Bartlett, Robert. Plato: Protagoras and Meno. Ithaca: Cornell, 2004

Benardete, Seth. “Protagoras’ Myth and Logos.” in The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, ed. Burger & Davis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 186-197.

Strauss, Leo. On Plato’s Symposium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.