Book Review: Protagoras by Plato (Maliha Arosha Hasan)

One of the most renowned and distinguished names in the world of philosophy is Plato. His book, titled “Protagoras” explores the idea of virtue, how it is defined and whether it can be taught. Just like his other books, it was set as a dialogue between Socrates and the well-known philosopher Protagoras in front of a party of different scholars.

The dialogue commences with a conversation between Socrates and his unnamed companion about the arrival of Protagoras in the city of Athens and his meeting with Socrates. Socrates begins to describe the events that took place during meeting Protagoras. Socrates was approached by Hippocrates at dead of night to visit Socrates as he wanted to become a disciple of Protagoras. While they were both waiting for dawn to break in, Socrates tested the determination of Hippocrates and asked him to give a thought about what Protagoras will make of him as a pupil. They go to the house of Callias, a wealthy Athenian, where Protagoras was residing for the time being along with his company of disciples who chose to be with him on his journey.

Socrates asks Protagoras what he will make of Hippocrates. The former replied that Hippocrates will be a better and wiser man in his company. Socrates follows up with the question of what he will be better at. Protagoras replied that he will teach him prudence in affairs both private and public – in short, the science and knowledge of human life. However, Socrates remains doubtful as to whether this can be taught. He cites the reluctance of Athenians to distinguish between skilled and unskilled politicians in contrast to their habit of distinguishing between the skilled and unskilled in various arts. Moreover, his doubt also stems from the view that Athenians do not teach their sons political virtue.

Protagoras clears up his doubts with an apologue. After Prometheus had given men the arts, Zeus sent Hermes to impart justice and reverence to all men. For this reason, all men have political virtue in some degree and hence the Athenians are right in not distinguishing between the skilled and unskilled politicians. Protagoras also clarifies that political virtues can be taught. This is proved by the fact that Athenians punish wrongdoers not with the intention of retribution of something which cannot be changed but to prevent the wrongdoers as well as others from doing such things, it is a sort of teaching. Protagoras also says that the education of virtue starts as soon as a child starts speaking and is then continued by the state when they are out of parental control. He also mentions that all men are teachers of political virtue in some degree.  Finally, he mentions that political virtue is not a private position of any man and all men have political virtue to some extent in accordance with their natural capabilities. Hence good fathers may have bad sons and vice versa.

Socrates was highly delighted with this explanation and brought up another doubt of his lingering in his kind. He wanted to know about virtue. Are there many kinds of virtues as parts of a whole or are they the name of the same thing? Protagoras replies that they are parts. He hastily makes an admission that these parts of virtue are different from one another in function just like parts of a face. This admission then is cross examined by Socrates and hence the philosophical debate begins between the two in front of distinguished scholars.

With a few aberrations, Protagoras and Socrates start discussing virtue. Socrates keeps cross examining and keeps asking questions with a view to test the validity of his argument. With this he is able to prove that the five virtues: justice, temperance, holiness, wisdom and courage are all but one. They are knowledge. Interestingly, at the beginning of the debate, Socrates wanted to prove that virtue cannot be taught while Protagoras affirms that it can be taught. Towards the end of the debate however, their positions change and they hold opposing thoughts. Protagoras wanted to maintain that the political virtues are unique while Socrates coalesce the five virtues and prove that virtue is knowledge.

The interesting things about this book, in my opinion was the highly sophisticated technique of Socrates to question the validity of arguments, clearing up lingering doubts and establishing absolute truths about virtues. His questioning was thought provoking in a nutshell. At times, it can be a bit puzzling but this debate does teach a lot about virtues, which we, in a modern society, do not pay much attention to.

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