Protagoras (dialogue)

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Protagoras (/prˈtæɡərəs/; Greek: Πρωταγόρας) is a dialogue by Plato. The traditional subtitle (which may or may not be Plato's) is "or the Sophists". The main argument is between the elderly Protagoras, a celebrated Sophist, and Socrates. The discussion takes place at the home of Callias, who is host to Protagoras while he is in town, and concerns the nature of Sophists, the unity and the teachability of virtue. A total of twenty-one people are named as present.

The characters

Of the twenty-one people who are specifically said to be present, three are known Sophists. In addition to Protagoras himself, there are Hippias of Elis and Prodicus of Ceos. Two of the sons of Pericles are said to be there, Paralus and Xanthippus. With the exception of Aristophanes, all of Socrates' named friends from the Symposium are in attendance: Eryximachus the doctor, and Phaedrus are there, and so are the lovers Pausanias and Agathon (who is said to be a mere boy at this point), and Alcibiades. Additionally, there are several unnamed foreigners whom Protagoras is said to have picked up in his travels and a servant (a eunuch) in the employ of Callias.



The dialogue begins with an unnamed friend of Socrates asking him how his pursuit of the young Alcibiades, just now reputed to be growing his first beard, was proceeding. Socrates explains that while he has just been in the company of Alcibiades, his mind is now on more interesting matters. He says that Protagoras, the wisest man alive (309c–d), is in town. Socrates relates the story of how his young friend, Hippocrates, son of Apollodorus, came knocking on his door before daybreak and roused him out of bed. Hippocrates was in a big hurry to be present when Protagoras held court, as he was expected to do, at the home of Callias.

Socrates warns the excitable Hippocrates that Sophists are dangerous. He tells him that the words of the Sophists go straight into the soul (psuchē) and can corrupt a person straightaway. Socrates says that buying wisdom from a Sophist is different from buying food and drink at the market. With food and drink, you never know what you are getting, but you can consult experts for advice before consuming anything that might be dangerous (313a–314c).

Socrates says he regards Prodicus as a man of inspired genius (316a). He expresses the same admiration for Prodicus in another dialogue, the Theaetetus. Socrates later notes that Prodicus was assigned to sleep in a storage room that his host had cleaned out for the visit (315d).

Socrates accompanies Hippocrates to the home of Callias, and they stand in the doorway chatting about "some point which had come up along the road" (314c). A eunuch opens the door, takes one look at them, guesses they are Sophists, and slams the door in their faces (314d). They knock again, and this time assure the porter they are not Sophists, but only want to visit Protagoras. The porter lets them in, and it is at this point that Socrates recites the list of guests.

Prodicus is wrestled out of bed

Protagoras does not deny being a Sophist, and claims that it is an ancient and honorable art, the same art practiced by Homer and Hesiod. These poets, he says, used the arts as a screen, a front, to protect themselves from the charge. He says that he is more straightforward than the ancient artists, trainers, and musicians in frankly admitting that he is an educator. Protagoras says he is old enough now to be the father of any of the men present, and would like now to address himself to the whole company of people in the house. Socrates assumes that Prodicus would not want to miss the lecture, and so Callias and Alcibiades are sent to rouse him from his bed (317c–e). According to Francis Bacon, Prodicus is led to produce a speech in the dialogue (337a), which seems to Bacon as humiliating for him.[1]

Protagoras' great speech

Socrates asks Protagoras "in respect to what" Hippocrates will improve by associating with him, in the manner that by associating himself to a doctor he would improve in medicine (318d). Protagoras begins his discourse with the statement that a good Sophist can make his students into good citizens. Socrates says that this is fine and good, but that he personally believes that this is not feasible since virtue cannot be taught (319b). He adds that technical thinking (techne) can be imparted to students by teachers, but that wisdom cannot be. By way of example, Socrates points to the fact that while in matters concerning specialised labour one would only take advice from the appropriate specialist, like for example builders (τέκτονες) about construction, in matters of state everyone's opinions is considered, which proves that political virtue is within everyone, or that at least that is what Athenians in their democratic ideals believe. Another example is that Pericles did not manage to impart his wisdom to his sons (319e). Socrates' uses a similar example in the Meno. He then adds that Clinias, younger brother of Alcibiades, was taken from the family for fear that Alcibiades would corrupt him, and he was given back as a hopeless case. Socrates says he could give more examples, but thinks his point is sufficiently established.

Protagoras says his claim that virtue can be taught is better made by a story than by reasoned arguments, and he recounts a myth about the origins of living things. He says that Epimetheus (whose name means "Afterthought") who was assigned the task of passing out the assets for survival, forgot to give mankind anything so his twin brother Prometheus (whose name means "Forethought") stole fire from Hephaestus and practical wisdom from Athena and gave them to man. However, man was never granted civic wisdom which belonged to Zeus or the art of politics, so the race was initially in danger of extinction. Zeus, however, sent Hermes to distribute shame and justice equally among human beings. To Protagoras, this answers Socrates's question why people think that wisdom about architecture or medicine is limited to the few while wisdom about justice and politics is thought to be more broadly understood (322d).

Protagoras states that he has two good pieces of evidence that people agree with him. First, people do not rebuke the ugly, dwarfish, and weak, but pity them, because they cannot help being as they are, yet they punish the unjust and generally feel as though someone is responsible for not knowing something that can be taught (323d). Second, they do instruct people who are unjust and irreligious, hoping to impart goodness in them. He says that parents begin with their children from earliest childhood, and teachers carry on the task. Protagoras notes that none of this is surprising, but what would be surprising is if this were not the case (326e). He closes by addressing Socrates's question why, if virtue is teachable, the sons of virtuous men often lack virtue. Protagoras lays out a thought experiment where a hypothetical city state is resting its survival as such to the skill of flute playing. Being the most important thing for that society, parents would be eager to teach the skill to their sons. Not everyone would be successful though, as we can imagine, as some would have a greater natural inclination than others and often the son of a good flute player would turn out bad and vice versa. Any of them however, even the bad ones, would be better than an average citizen in the real world which might have never been taught how to play. Same goes for virtue, it is considered so important that everyone is taught to a certain degree, to the point that it seems like a part of human nature while it is not (327b–d).

Socrates' complaint

Socrates admits that Protagoras has given an excellent answer and that there is only one small thing to clarify which he is certain that the Sophist will do easily. He asks Protagoras as to whether the attributes that form virtue, such as bravery, kindness and wisdom are one or many things, like for example the parts of a golden object which are fused together or that of a face which form a whole while retaining their individual substance (329d). Protagoras answers the second but avoids engaging in dialogue and digresses into a rhetoric which does not answer the question sufficiently but still manages to arouse the excitement of their young public. Socrates complains that Protagoras is long-winded, like a gong that booms when you strike it and won't stop until you lay a hand on it. It is a typical moment of Socrates opposite a Sophist where the latter is using eloquent speech to hide arguments that might not stand logical scrutiny while the former is trying to use his notorious question/answer format that will lead to a logical conclusion in his favour. Protagoras begins to bristle at this and so Socrates supposes that their styles are opposite. He personally doesn't like long-winded speeches like the one Protagoras just delivered, because he is forgetful and cannot follow the train of thought (334d), and Protagoras does not like to be peppered with questions that seem to lead them off track. Socrates gets up to leave, grousing that companionable talk is one thing and public speaking another (336b). After the intervention of several of the listeners, the men agree to compromise their styles so the discussion can continue.

Socrates praises the Spartans as the best people in the world not only because of their fierceness in battle but because of their wisdom and philosophical skills. This is contrary to the common belief that the Spartans lacked in these issues and devoted themselves exclusively to physical training but Socrates claims that they are masters at concealing their skills. While they appear to be unimpressive speakers, at just the right moment, they can provide pithy phrases of wisdom (342e). He adds that Laconic brevity was the earliest characteristic of philosophy (343b).

Then the debaters return to their previous analysis of Pittacus' and Simonides' poetry. On Socrates' interpretation, Pittacus claims that it is difficult to be a good man, but presumably possible. Simonides, on the other hand, claims that it is impossible to live without ever being a bad man, and even to be a good man on occasion is difficult (344a–45d). Simonides praises those who at least do not do wrong willingly. Socrates' interpretation is that, since Simonides was a wise man, he must know that no one does any wrong willingly; accordingly, he must mean that he will willingly praise those who do no wrong, not that some do wrong willingly and others unwillingly, only the latter garnering his praise (345d–46b). Socrates thus argues that the authority of Simonides does not stand against his understanding of virtue and whether anyone willingly does wrong.


Socrates then broaches the initial question of whether virtue is one or many things, himself claiming that all virtue is knowledge and therefore one. He argues that the reason people act harmfully, to others or themselves, is because they only see the short term gains while ignoring the long term losses which might outweigh them, just like one makes errors in judging the size of objects that are far away. He says that if men were taught the art of calculating these things correctly, have a more exact knowledge that is, they would not act harmfully (357c–358d). Same goes for bravery. A brave swimmer is one who knows how to swim better and therefore, in a way, all virtues are essentially knowledge and can be considered one and the same, more like parts of golden objects (as discussed above) rather than the parts of a face. While Socrates seems to have won the argument, he points to the fact that if all virtue is knowledge, it can in fact be taught. He draws the conclusion that to an observer he and Protagoras would seem as crazy, having argued at great lengths only to mutually exchanged positions with Socrates now believing that virtue can be taught and Protagoras that all virtues are one instead of his initial position (361a). Protagoras acknowledges Socrates a notable opponent in dispute while being much younger than he and predicts that he could become one of the wisest men alive. Socrates departs for whatever business he claimed he had when he wanted to end the dialogue earlier.


  1. Bacon, Francis. Essays. Essay number 26, "Of Seeming Wise".

Texts and translations

  • Burnet, J., Plato Opera, Vol. III (Oxford University Press, 1922). ISBN 978-0-19-814542-4 (Greek with critical apparatus)
  • Denyer, N., Plato Protagoras (Cambridge University Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0-521-54969-1 (Greek with English commentary)
  • Lamb, W. R. M., Plato, Vol. II (Harvard University Press, 1926). ISBN 978-0-674-99183-5 (Greek and English)
  • Lombardo, S. & Bell, K., Plato Protagoras, (Hackett Publishing, 1992). ISBN 978-0-87220-094-4 (English with notes)
  • Taylor, C. C. W., Plato Protagoras, Revised Edition (Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 978-0-19-823934-5 (English with commentary)

External links