Teaching Virtue: A Necessity for Civilization
In Plato’s Protagoras there are two clear sides in the beginning of the dialectic, Socrates arguing that virtue cannot be taught and Protagoras arguing that it can. However, after Protagoras gives his explanation for why virtue and the art of citizenship can be taught, Socrates does not attempt to refute that and only keeps arguing so that he can attempt to learn exactly what Protagoras thinks virtue is and perhaps to have some competition in the name of collaborative learning. Instead, Socrates’ main argument for the rest of the dialectic is to refute Protagoras’ multi-part definition of virtue and to show that virtue is wisdom. Both Protagoras and Socrates have strong arguments regarding virtue. However, only Protagoras truly has a persuasive argument in relation to whether virtue can be taught by using common knowledge of the Athenian people. I would be persuaded completely by Protagoras’ argument if he could define this virtue he says is teachable, but since he cannot it really weakens his argument. Socrates on the other hand, is able to define virtue as wisdom through his questioning of Protagoras, but does not attempt to prove why virtue cannot be taught. For this reason I am not persuaded entirely by one side or the other that virtue can or cannot be taught. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately each fail to persuade me due to their lack of completeness. Protagoras sets up his argument that the art of citizenship can be taught by using common knowledge of myths in order to answer the questions first posed by Socrates. Socrates questions Protagoras about why only shipbuilders have credibility when speaking about building ships yet all men have credibility when speaking about political and civic matters, suggesting that the art of citizenship is inherent and therefore not teachable. Protagoras gives the audience the choice of hearing his answer in the form of a story or the form of an argument. The group decides to let Protagoras proceed as he wishes, so he tells the story of Epimetheus and Prometheus and the creation of man. This story leads to the conclusion that men were all given wisdom and the practical arts by Prometheus and later given shame and justice by Zeus (321d-322d). Protagoras concedes to Socrates that indeed all are born with justice and shame, and this is the reason why all are capable of speaking about matters of the state. By answering Socrates question, Protagoras strengthens his argument by showing the audience that he truly knows what he is talking about. Protagoras even goes as far as to say that everyone is capable of being an advisor on virtue since they all have a share of it (323c). This would seem to belittle Protagoras’ place as a teacher of virtue since he admits that all can advise on this matter, but it will eventually strengthen his position as a teacher of virtue as he continues to say that some have developed virtue more than others and therefore are more qualified to teach it. Protagoras then uses common knowledge of the Athenian people to demonstrate how virtue and the art of citizenship are taught and developed in people from an early age in order to strengthen his argument. In his long speech he points out that people are not admonished or punished for being ugly or scrawny because these things are natural and the person has no control over it. However, citizens are met with reproof when they act out of impiety, injustice, and everything opposed to civic virtue because Athenians believe they can correct the bad behavior (323d-324c). The fact that citizens are punished for behaviors that go against civic virtue shows that they believed virtue could be taught and developed in citizens. Furthermore, Protagoras moves on to say that it is imperative that virtue be teachable since those who continue to go against civic virtue without learning are subject to exile, execution, confiscation of property, and as a...
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