The questions that were pondered in Plato's
virtue knowledge, and can virtue be taught. Protagoras' position
was that virtue and knowledge are different things and that
virtue can be taught. Socrates, on the other hand, held that
virtue is knowledge, but that it can't be taught. Keep in mind
that Protagoras and the other Sophists claimed to be teaching
virtue. The best way to see the two points of view clearly is to
look directly at the argument. First we can look at Socrates'
case for virtue as knowledge.
Socrates; Do you think then that a man would be living well who passed
his life in pain and vexation?
Protagoras ; No.
Socrates; Then to live pleasurably is good, to live painfully bad?
Protagoras; Yes, if one's pleasure is in what is honorable.
Socrates; What's this, Protagoras? Surely you don't follow the common
opinion that some pleasures are bad and some pains good? I mean
to say, in so far as they are pleasant, are they not also good,
leaving aside any consequence that they may entail? And in the
same way pains, in so far as they are pleasant are they not also
good, leaving aside any consequences that they may entail? And
in the same way pains, in so far as they are painful bad?
Protagoras ; I'm not sure Socrates, whether I ought to give an answer
as unqualified as your question suggested and say that everything
pleasant is good, and everything painful evil. But with a view
not only to my present answer but to the whole rest of my life, I
believe it is safest to reply that there are some pleasures which
are not good and some pains which are not evil, others on the
other hand which are, and a third class which are neither evil
Many ethical philosophers, even up to the twentieth century, have
made this point. That there is something good about an action
simply because it is pleasurable and something evil about an
action simply because it is painful. Few have given as clear and
powerful an argument as Plato did why pleasure and pain, though
they are good and evil in themselves, do not automatically lead
to good and evil.
Socrates; Meaning by pleasure, what partakes of pleasure or gives it?
Protagoras ; Certainly.
Socrates; My question then is, whether they are not, qua pleasant,
good. I am asking in fact whether pleasure itself is not a good
Protagoras ; Let us, as you are so fond of saying yourself,
investigate the question; then if the proposition we are
examining seems reasonable, and pleasant and good appear
identical, we shall agree on it. If not, that will be the time
Socrates ; Good. Will you lead the inquiry or should I?
Protagoras ; It is for you to take the lead since you introduced the
The Socratic method of inquiry, which Plato learned from his
master, uses dialectical argument to bring out inner hidden
meaning behind propositions. Socrates never wrote things down
because he felt that it is only through live communication,
person to person, that understanding can be brought out. He
believed that his method of teaching was to bring out knowledge
that already existed in the mind of his adversary. In other
words he believed that all knowledge has existed since eternity
in the mind of every man. All that was necessary was for the
right kinds of questions to be asked so that knowledge hidden
deep in the individual could be brought out where he could use
and understand it.
Socrates ; I wonder then, if we can make it clear to ourselves like
this. If a man were trying to judge, by external appearance, of
another's health or some particular physical function, he might
look at his face and hands and then say: "Let me see your chest
and back too, so that I may make a more satisfactory
examination." Something like this is what I want for our present
inquiry. Observing that your attitude to the good and pleasant
is what you say, I want to go on something like this: Now uncover
another part of your mind, Protagoras. What is your attitude to
knowledge? Do you share the common view about that also? Most
people think, in general terms, that it is nothing strong, no
leading or ruling element. They don't see it like that. They
hold that it is not the knowledge that a man possess that governs
him, but something else --now passion, now pleasure, now pain,
sometimes love, and frequently fear. They think of knowledge as
a slave, pushed around by all the other affections. Is this your
view too, or would you rather say that knowledge is a fine thing
quite capable of ruling a man, and that if he can distinguish
good from evil, nothing will force him to act otherwise than as
knowledge dictates, since wisdom is all the reinforcement he
Protagoras ; Not only is this my view, but I above all men should
think it a shame to speak of wisdom and knowledge as anything but
the most powerful elements in human life.
Socrates ; Well and truly answered. But I expect you know most men
don't believe us. They maintain that there are many who
recognize the best but are unwilling to act on it. It may be
open to them but they do otherwise. Whenever I ask what can be
the reason for this, they answer that those who act this way are
overcome by pleasure or pain or some other of the things I
mentioned just now.
Protagoras ; Well, Socrates, it's by no means uncommon for people to
say what is not correct.
Socrates; Then come with me and try to convince them, and show what
really happens when they speak of being overcome by pleasure and
therefore, though recognizing what is best, failing to do it. If
we simply declare: "You are wrong and what you say is false",
they will ask us: "If it is not being overcome by pleasure then
what can it be? What do you two say it is? Tell us.
Protagoras ; But why must we look into the opinions of the common man,
who says whatever comes into his head?
Socrates ; I believe that it will help us to find out how courage is
related to other parts of virtue. So if you are content to keep
to our decision, that I should lead the way in whatever direction
I think we shall best see the light, then follow me. Otherwise,
if you wish, I shall give it up.
Note how skillfully Protagorus is forced to follow Socrates'
lead. This method gave Socrates a harsh reputation among
powerful Athenians. Inevitably they would be drawn into such
arguments and forced unwittingly to renounce their own beliefs.
But that is not what Socrates had in mind. Since he believed
that each man already has all knowledge buried in his mind, he
believed he was leading men to realize pure knowledge they
Protagorus ; No, you are right. Carry on as you have begun.
Socrates ; To return then: If they should ask us: "What is your name
for what we call being worsted by pleasure?" I should reply:
"Listen, Protagoras and I will try to explain it to you. We take
it that you say this happens to you when, for example, you are
overcome by desire of food or drink or sex―which are pleasant
things―and though you recognize them as evil, nevertheless
indulge in them." They would agree. Then we should ask them: "In
what respect do you call them evil? Is it because for the moment
each of them provides pleasure and is pleasant, or because they
lay up for the future disease or poverty or such-like? If they
led to none of these things, but produced pure enjoyment, would
they nonetheless be evils―no matter why or how they give
enjoyment?" Can we expect any other answer than this, that they
are not evil on account of the actual momentary pleasure which
they produce, but on account of their consequences, disease and
By now you should see the direction the argument is going. It is
the same with pains. Some pains, such as from physical exercise,
lead to long term pleasures. The point he finally made was that
since every person is motivated by the desire for pleasure and
the abhorrence of pain, then no one who knew the consequences of
an act would do that which is evil or abstain from that which is
good even though they knew it would lead to some momentary pain
or pleasure. Therefore virtue, which for Greeks of this period
was a measure of a person's tendency to do the right things and
avoid the wrong, about all of the things he does in life and not
just those things we consider allied with the virtues today, is a
form of knowledge, a knowledge of ultimate outcomes.
This is particularly important because we must remember that the
Athenian democracy was guilty of severe abuses of power, so
severe that they brought down the peace of the Delian league. On
the other hand, the actions of the dictators Peisestratus and
Cleisthenes set the stage for the highly successful period of the
democracy. Thus if we see that it was the long term effects of
the actions that made them good or bad, then the tyrannies of
Peisestratus and Cleisthenies were good and the Democracy of
Pericles was bad.
That leaves us with another thorny problem. Socrates just proved
that virtue is knowledge, but he also said that it cannot be
taught. Protagorus, on the other hand claimed it was not
knowledge at all, but at the same time he claimed that it could
be taught. Does this make sense? To understand why it does we
need to look closely at Plato's theory of knowledge. Notice that
I am turning now from Socrates to Plato. There is a general
agreement among scholars that the Socrates in the Protagoras is
probably consistent with the Socrates of real life. Beyond that,
however, the identification becomes more speculative. We will be
looking at the Meno which Plato probably wrote after his first
visit to Syracuse and the ideas in it should probably be
attributed to Plato rather than Socrates. At least this is the
more conservative view.
At the end of the Protagorus Socrates finally admitted that he
did not know what virtue was. The Meno begins when Meno, a
somewhat notorious politician, asked the same question, what is
virtue. The argument drifted then to another question, what is
knowledge. Then Meno proposed an interesting dilemma. "One can
never find out anything new: either one knows it already, in
which case there is no need to find it out, or else one does not,
and in that case there is no means of recognizing it when found."
The way out of this dilemma suggested by Socrates is based on the
pythagorean concept of the immortal soul. If one can never know
anything new and at the same time it is certain we are always
learning new things, then learning must be a matter of
In the Meno he demonstrated with a young ignorant slave boy. By
asking the lad leading questions he was able to show that the boy
knew certain mathematical theorems. Plato claimed that before
the soul entered the body at birth it existed in another world of
pure forms but at birth forgot these. From then on learning was
simply a matter of recollecting what one forgot at birth. For a
better description of this we will look at the dialogues
concerning the death of Socrates where these concepts are brought
out in detail.