September 05, 2007

The Structure of Protagoras

Protagoras is one of Plato's most interesting dialogues- focusing on the question of how we might teach excellence and ultimately what excellence is itself, Socrates unfolds a theory that to be evil is to be ignorant. One of the most interesting things about the dialogue though is that in itself it contains a defence of the dialogic form- a defence of the principle of theoretical discussion in question and answer format. Its interesting because it reflects on what Plato meant by philosophy and also upon what he took to be the best procedure to educate with and also the starting point of philosophical enquiry- one senses in this dialogue for Plato that those two things are one and the same.

The dialogue's setting is fairly simply conveyed. A young friend of Socrates, Hippocrates who wishes to be educated in the arts of government, leads Socrates off to meet with Protagoras who resides at the house of Critias. Despite the fact that there are many people there- up to 21- it appears that they are all content to listen to Protagoras and Socrates square off in a philosophical dual. There are interruptions and some of them are important to this argument- in particular it is important to note the presence of two characters Alciabedes and Prodicus, both of whom we shall return to.

The discussion between Protagoras and Socrates is fairly ill tempered- at various points, one or other threatens to leave or seems upset with the others approach in argument (see for example 331c, 334c-338e5 and 348b). Its worth examining several segments of this argument and in particular the middle segment which encapsulates the key issues between the two individuals, Socrates and Protagoras. Protagoras's view of the good life is that the good life can be learned from individuals who teach how to live it. He is keen to offer Hippocrates his teaching in public (317c) because he contends that being a sophist is something that it is not neccessary to hide, it is he says an 'ancient' calling (316d). As Socrates tells us Protagoras wants to 'put on a performance' to the large audience. (317c-d) Protagoras then proceeds to tell Socrates and Hippocrates and the others exactly what Hippocrates will learn from him:

What I teach is the proper management of one's own affairs, how best to run one's household and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city both by word and by action.
During the dialogue Protagoras continually assumes a teaching role- there is a sense in which the dialogue is indeed a seminar with him in the role of teacher, in 320c for example he tells Socrates that he will 'as an older man speaking to his juniors' tell a parable to explain his argument. There is much about Protagoras's method that strikes one as longwinded- he is addicted to making long and verbose speeches about various subjects- an example could be for instance his parable (320c8-328d2).

Both Socrates and Alciabedes reflect on the fact that this though isn't a perfect method of teaching people. Both of them state that the problem is that even an educated man can only 'nearly' remember what has been said after such a long time (Socrates 329b) and Alciabedes is even more blunt, arguing that it merely demonstrates the teacher's inadequacy to the subject if he makes
a long speech in reply to every question, staving off objections and not giving answers, but spinning it out until most of the people forgot what the question was.(336d)
What Socrates and Alcibiades seek on the other hand is a model of argument by question and answer, where propositions are disputed and then discarded if found untrue. This is the model that prevails during the rest of the dialogue after the middle section.

But its worth noting what this form of argument does. Firstly it discards the use of elegance and allusion. Hippias is right to deem that Socrates's argument is plainer than Protagoras's style of argument (338a) and its also worth noting that when Protogaras seeks to teach through literary example, Socrates disables that kind of argument with ease when he shows that you can bend the words of the poet Simonides (who Protogaras alludes to) into a Socratic form (338e6-347a5). The point of this discussion of Simonides is to undermine yet another Protogaran approach to education, it undermines the virtue of using literary or textual exempla in order to convey a point. Socrates wants us to argue in plain language and question and answer format and that is how the crucial theoretical points within the argument are made- including the revelation that both Socrates and Protogaras have learnt from the argument. (361a-b) Secondly its worth noting that the question and answer format is much less confrontational and much more egalitarian than the Protogaran format. Protagoras assumes his age and wisdom allows him to make speeches and for those speeches to be accepted by the others. Socrates though establishes a format of equality, without a chairman, where each protagonist in the argument takes turns to ask and answer simple questions about their position (338d-e). Under the Protogaran format egos had broken loose and it seemed likely that one of the participants at least might leave (335c8-d), Socrates' format allows both participants to remain, philosophically grow and even promise to meet each other once more to discuss issues not yet resolved (361e-362a).

If we turn once more to the issue of education, what is Socrates saying here- because I do beleive it has a wider importance than just the choice of long speeches as against dialogue as a form for learning. The first thing that I think Socrates is getting at is that sophistical or Protogaran education merely breeds ego and respect for seniority. He suggests that alluding to philosophy is ultimately a waste of time- that it distracts from the actual argument and as Alciabedes says it avoids the questions at stake. Indeed Socrates attacks even the idea of writing philosophy down in Phaedrus (275c). And I think that leads us on to a second point which is that philosophy in Plato's scheme is authorityless- short extracts from poetry are cited by Socrates often to explain a point- but a knowledge of a poem (poets taken by many Greeks to be as wise as philosophers- Protagoras in this very dialogue compares himself to Homer for example (316d)) is irrelevant to the true study of philosophy- it is dialogue and examination in the here and now that matters, not authorities cited or footnotes shown.

Obviously Plato's argument has relevance only for philosophy, which he is willing to admit is a distinct type of knowledge (312a-b) from others like music or literary studies. But the simple point that the structure of the Protagoras makes is that long speeches, disquisitions filled with allusions and argument by means of continuous illustration without questioning is flawed and does not bring forth truth or light, but in the end culminates with discord, pride and wounded dignity. Dialogue on the other hand is the way not merely to produce a discussion in which both parties are partners, and neither age nor increased literary or even historical knowledge separates them, but a rigorous examination of the logical coherence of concepts and arguments unites them, produces real results and also real comity between those engaged within it.


Winchester whisperer said...

Hurrah for Socrates. He knew he knew nothing. I started reading Socratic dialogues when I was 15 and they blew me away. It's a far clearer way of explaining philosophy than writing long tracts of existentionalist thought. Boo for the men who put him to death. There again, if he hadn't been executed, perhaps Plato wouldn't have bothered to transcribe his thoughts?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fascinating post, with many lessons for our time.

Anonymous said...

I was about to say that...

Ashok said...

What's the argument, in the dialogue, that philosophy is a distinct type of knowledge from music or literary studies? Also, does he use the term literary studies, or is he talking about drama or poetry or is the whole thing "music?"

There's a lot you've got right, and what I'm uneasy about in your conclusions I can only address through question and answer, because I'm not sure what it is yet I want to get at. It suffices to say that there is something curious about how sophistry and the ancestral may both work, but how egalitarian philosophy is I don't really know. Consider what Brian Leiter thinks of Straussians, calling me a cultist by badmouthing my teachers, and I really don't feel like I'm on equal plane with him. He, after all, gets paid a lot of money to tell me what "or" might mean and why eating my dog could be wrong, and I am happy to be unequal with such a philosopher.

Gracchi said...

Good points Ashok. Firstly on the issue of literary studies- this is an issue I think where translation is important- unfortunately I don't have my translation of the dialogue to hand- but the translation here gives this speech by Socrates

But you should not assume, Hippocrates, that the instruction of Protagoras is of this nature: may you not learn of him in the same way that you learned the arts of the grammarian, musician, or trainer, not with the view of making any of them a profession, but only as a part of education, and because a private gentleman and freeman ought to know them?

Unfortunately this internet site doesn't have the key numbers but its in the first exchange between Hippocrates and Socrates- as soon as I find my own translation I'll give the reference numbers. As I remember it the translation I used for this article has a different translation to grammarian- but its similar.

I think we have to be careful as well about equality here. I think the presumption of egalitarianism is there. Let me clarify- again I don't have the reference but from the MIT text quoted above again towards the very beggining, Socrates says that he decided to examine Hippocrates about his intentions in learning from Protagoras. Socrates obviously feels to a degree superior to Hippocrates but he is willing to declare and make his argument plain in plain language. What Protogaras does is not make an argument in plain language but direct windy and imprecise speeches relying upon analogy and story- obviously Protogaras is to some extent an acknowledged superior- but he goes further than that turning philosophy from a science to a priesthood.

Socrates's dialogic form allows both accessibility- everyone can see every step and understand it even without a deep knowledge of literature or old philosophy- but its also educational- in that logical principles are imparted from those that have them to those that don't.

Sir James Robison said... be evil is to be ignorant...

To be evil makes use of ignorance to spread its message but to be ignorant certainly doesn't excuse evil.

Gracchi said...

Plato would disagree with you there old fellow- I was merely describing his views not my own neccessarily in this article. His argument roughly is that to be good is to pursue what is best for oneself in terms of what he defines as pleasure- and hence that to be evil is to be ignorant of one's true good or pleasure. That's the way the argument runs- for a more sophisticated statement I'd suggest reading Protagoras- it isn't necessarily my doctrine though.