Plato Reading Protagoras

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Plato The Protagoras
Penguin Books, 2005, pages 15-30

In this extract, Plato presents the sophist !i.e., professional philosopher" Protagoras talking with Socrates about how people become good. The extract contains a theory of moral education, and a theory of punishment. But most importantly, it is a discussion of the principles of democracy. The view that Socrates puts forward, and that Protagoras endorses and explains # that ethical competence is a non-technical matter, and a universal human quality # is understood by both him and Socrates to be one of the basic ideas behind democracy. Think about why this is so. Do not assume that the ‘story’ that Protagoras tells shows that he thinks our ethical abilities have a divine origin. The story is certainly allegorical. Protagoras was a known agnostic, who famously declared that he had no view at all on whether or not the gods exist. In which case, you need to consider what its allegorical meaning might be.

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Anyway, after we'd come in and spent a little time taking in the scene, we went up to Protagoras, and I said, 'Protagoras, I'd like you to meet Hippocrates; he and I have come especially to see you.' 'And did you want to talk with me in private,' he said, 'or in front of the others as well?' 'We don't mind either way,' I said. 'Why don't we tell you why we've come, and then you can decide for yourself?' 'All right then,' he said. 'So why have you come?' 'Well, Hippocrates here is a local boy, Apollodorus' son from a powerful and wealthy family; and in terms of his natural abilities, I'd say he's on a par with any of the young men his age. And his ambition, as far as I can tell, is to make a name for himself in the city; and he thinks the best way to make that happen would be to spend some time as your pupil. That's it. So now you decide whether you think you should talk this over with us in private or in front of the others as well.' 'That's very thoughtful of you, Socrates - and quite right too. After all, if a man is an outsider, and comes into large and powerful cities, and persuades the very best of the young men in those cities to give up spending their time with anyone else, family or friends, young or old, and to spend their time with him alone, so as to better themselves under his influence ... well, a man who does that for a living has to watch his back. It can cause a lot of resentment, and hostility, and ill-wilJ.2 4 'My own view is that the sophist's profession has been around for a very long time; it's just that people who practised it in the

PROTAGORAS

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past devised covers for their profession and disguised it, because they were worried about offending people. Some of them used poetry as their cover: Homer, for example, and Hesiod, and Simonides. 25 Others used religious cults and oracular songs: Orpheus and Musaeus. 26 And I've noticed some people even use athletics-training, like !ccus from Taras, and another who's still alive and as good a sophist as any: Herodicus from Selumbria (although he's from Megara originally). And music; that was used as a cover by your own Agathocles - a great sophist - and by Pythoclides from Ceos/ 7 and plenty of others. 'All these people, I'm saying, hid behind the screens of these various professions, because they were scared of people's resentment. But in my case, that's exactly where I do things differently from all of them. And that's because I believe that they completely failed to achieve what they intended: they never fooled the powerful people in their cities; and they're the only ones the disguises were aimed at (because, let's face it, ordinary people never notice anything anyway; they just repeat whatever's dictated to them by the powerful). Now if you try to get away with something, and don't succeed, and instead get found out, that shows it was a pretty dumb idea even to make the attempt, and it's bound to make everyone even more hostile, because people look on someone who...
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