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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Protagoras: Plato Versus the Sophist

Democritus (center) and Protagoras (right)
Painting by Salvator Rosa
Plato’s dialogue Protagoras is an attack on the sophists—in it there is a direct contest between Socrates and Protagoras, who is an elderly and celebrated sophist. At one point, there is a breakdown in the conversation when Socrates and Protagoras start bickering about how long their answers to each other’s questions should be—Socrates, being a dialectician, favors short answers and rapid questions, but Protagoras, being a sophist, prefers long answers and fewer questions. Socrates is on verge of walking out of the home of Callias where the dialogue is taking place. But other speakers engineer a compromise and the dialogue is resumed.

Protagoras narrates an interesting story about the origin of living things. When the gods created the creatures on earth, two Titan brothers, Prometheus (“forethought") and Epimetheus (“afterthought") are given the task of assigning to each creature its powers and abilities. The brothers decide Epimetheus would do the assigning while Prometheus would evaluate the work. But Epimetheus is too profligate in his distribution, and by the time, it is the turn of man to receive his abilities, Epimetheus has nothing left to give. He had already assigned all the abilities to other creatures. Prometheus realizes that without speed, wings, claws, and other powers, mankind will not survive—so he steals wisdom from Athena and assigns it to man.

But what mankind has received is merely the wisdom to survive and not civic wisdom, which is the art of politics. Later on Zeus, becomes aware that even with wisdom mankind may not survive, and he asks Hermes to assign justice and sense of shame to mankind. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange between Hermes and Zeus:

“Zeus was afraid that our whole race might be wiped out, so he sent Hermes to bring justice and a sense of shame to humans, so that there would be order within cities and bonds of friendship to unite them. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute shame and justice to humans. ‘Should I distribute them as the other arts were? This is how the others were distributed: one person practicing the art of medicine suffices for many ordinary people; and so forth with the other practitioners. Should I establish justice and shame among humans in this way, or distribute it to all?’ ‘To all,’ said Zeus, ‘and let all have a share. For cities would never come to be if only a few possessed these, as is the case with the other arts. And establish this law as coming from me: Death to him who cannot partake of shame and justice, for he is a pestilence to the city.’”
 ~ (Plato: Complete Works; Edited by John M. Cooper & D. S. Hutchinson; “Protagoras,” translated by Stanley Lombardo & Karen Bell; Page 758)

Towards the end of the dialogue, Socrates and Protagoras realize that they are arguing the opposite of the positions that they had taken at the beginning of their conversation—it also becomes apparent that there is lot of similarity in their views. The dialogue ends when Socrates complains about a missed appointment and decides to leave. They promise to examine the issues that they have been discussing at some later date.

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