Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Relying on Your Own Voice: An Unsettled Rivalry of Moral Ideals in Plato's Protagoras

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Relying on Your Own Voice: An Unsettled Rivalry of Moral Ideals in Plato's Protagoras

Article excerpt

PLATO'S Protagoras is composed of three distinct frames. The outer frame consists in Socrates' brief discussion with an unnamed companion. The remainder of the Protagoras is willingly narrated by Socrates to the companion (and unnamed others), from memory of course, and apparently right after the main action. The inner frame consists in Socrates' dialogue with Hippocrates. Roused before dawn by the impetuous young man,. Socrates leads Hippocrates to reflect on the wisdom of his enthusiastic desire to study with Protagoras. This is a classic and successful little example of Socratic dialogue. He then takes Hippocrates to meet Protagoras; the bulk of the dialogue--call it the innermost frame--consists in Socrates' exchanges with Protagoras. Hippocrates does not utter a word in this part of the dialogue, though it is initiated at his request and seems undertaken by Socrates for his benefit.

I use the word "exchanges" because one of the striking aspects of the innermost frame of the Protagoras is its failure as a philosophical dialogue. Indeed, a recurring issue in the exchanges concerns the desirability and character of a philosophical conversation. Protagoras does not want to have such a conversation, as he makes clear already at 331c; and on no less than five subsequent occasions, the same issue flares up.(1) The conversation keeps breaking down, not so much because of irreconcilable views about some thesis or other, but because the interlocutors seem to have irreconcilable views about the value of Socratic account giving as such. The fourth time this happens, Socrates literally gets up and prepares to walk out. He is restrained from doing so, and there ensues a lot of talk about procedures governing any further talk. While Socrates agrees to carry on, and Protagoras bows to the pressure, it immediately becomes clear once again that Protagoras is not interested in continuing on Socrates' terms. Protagoras simply is not convinced of the virtues of philosophical conversation, at least not given how Socrates conceives of that conversation. Indeed, he is explicit that he views this as a verbal contest, the prize being reputation.(2) For his part, Socrates implies (when narrating the day's events) that he regards his entry into Callias' house as being like Odysseus' descent into Hades.(3) The gathering of the sophists is closed off from the sun, from what Socrates thinks of as true enlightenment.

Plato has structured the dialogue such that the breakdown of communication is its most salient and striking dramatic feature. The innermost frame exchange is also characterized by four other noteworthy features. First, a great deal of attention is given to the exegesis of a poem of Simonides. Socrates' exegesis is forced--hardly a model of fair literary criticism--and, in its length and in its mostly monological character, contradicts his own insistence on the importance of short exchanges. Indeed, in a passage to be examined in a moment, he turns around and rejects the entire project of providing such exegeses. All this seems to hinder the conversation. Second, a number of Socrates' arguments about the unity of the virtues are unpersuasive if not downright poor.(4) His arguments often seem rhetorical. On other occasions, notably 351a, when it seems that Protagoras has offered a congenial point and has done so in good philosophical spirit, Socrates turns his back on it. In a way, the richest part of the innermost frame's dialogue consists, ironically, in Protagoras' justly renowned "Great Speech." Even in responding to that brilliant performance, Socrates seems to decline a chance for continuing the discussion fruitfully. For he poses a question about the unity of the virtues, an issue of seemingly marginal importance to the speech and not obviously related to the challenge to which the speech is a response. Third, perhaps the most famous exchange concerns the hedonistic calculus, and a well-known point of disagreement about it centers on the question of responsibility for the argument. …

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