What Virtue is and Whether it is Teachable

In the Protagoras, Hippocrates says that he was a child when Protagoras last visited Athens (Protagoras 310e). The date of this visit is uncertain. It may have been in 443 BCE, when Pericles entrusted Protagoras to draft the laws for the new colony at Thurii (in Southern Italy on the Ionian Sea).

Protagoras's return to the city was a cause for excitement, as the opening scene shows. The entourage Socrates sees upon entering the house of Callias (where Socrates introduces Hippocrates to Protagoras) includes Pericles's sons (Protagoras 315a). They died in the plague of 429 BCE.

This does not provide an exact date for the dialogue, but it is possible it takes place on the eve of the Peloponnesian War (430-404 BCE), which Pericles did much to cause and from which Athens would never recover.

After the war, the Athenians were looking to place blame. They placed some on Socrates because some of the Athenians who played a role in Athen's undoing had followed Socrates around in their youth. In 399 BCE, Socrates was executed for impiety and corrupting the youth.
Socrates and Protagoras are the main characters.

Protagoras is a famous Sophist.

Socrates asks Protagoras what he teaches. He says he teaches virtue.

Socrates replies that he does not think virtue is teachable. He asks Portagoras to show that it is.

Protagoras argues that it is teachable. Socrates questions him. In this questioning, Protagoras shows himself to be confused about what virtue is and thus to be in no position to teach it.

The conversation goes through the night. It ends in ἀπορία ("without passage" and hence "perplexity") like other early dialogues. Socrates wants to push on, but Protagoras has had enough. He tells Socrates that breaking the impasse will have to wait for another time.

The Rush to Study with Protagoras

The Protagoras opens with a conversation between Socrates and an unnamed friend. Socrates has come from seeing Protagoras. The friend treats this news with great excitement and wants to hear what he said, as Protagoras is reputed to have great wisdom (Protagoras 309d).

To his friend (who now drops out of the dialogue) Socrates recalls that the day began when Hippocrates Hippocrates comes from a rich family, is in the circle around Socrates, but is unknown outside the dialogue. came to his door early in the morning. He wants to study with Protagoras and to have Socrates make the introduction. Socrates agrees, but, as it is still early, he first questions Hippocrates to see if he has thought sufficiently about becoming Protagoras's student.

This questioning shows that Hippocrates has not thought through what he wants. He does not know what he will gain from his study, other than "a general education suitable for a gentleman" (Protagoras 312b). Nor does Hippocrates know just what it is that Protagoras, as a Sophist, professes to teach. His best reply to the question is that a Sophist "has understanding of wise things" and "is an expert at making people clever speakers" (Protagoras 312c).

Socrates Questions Protagoras

"Are you aware of the hazard with respect to which you are going to stake your soul? If you had to entrust your body to someone, taking the risk of its being made better or worse, you would first consider whether you ought to entrust it or not, and would seek the advice of your friends and relations and ponder it for a number of days. Yet for your soul, which you value much more highly than your body, and on which depends the good or ill condition of all your affairs, according as it is made better or worse, would you omit to consult first with your father or your brother or one of us your comrades, ... and instead, having heard of Protagoras in the evening, as you say, and coming to me at dawn, to make no mention of whether you ought to entrust yourself to him, and take no counsel upon it, are you ready to spend your own substance and that of your friends, in the settled conviction that at all costs you must converse with Protagoras, whom you neither know, as you tell me, nor have ever met in argument before, and whom you call sophist in patent ignorance of what this sophist may be to whom you are about to entrust yourself. ... "[T]he sophist is a sort of merchant in provisions on which a soul is nourished. ... It is with teachings, presumably, that the soul is nourished, and we must take care that the sophist, in commending his wares, does not deceive us, as both merchant and dealer do in the case of food for the body. For among the provisions in which these men deal, not only are they ignorant what is good or bad, since in selling they commend them all, but the people who buy from them are so too, unless one happens to be a trainer or a doctor. And in the same way, those who take their teachings the round of our cities, hawking them about to any odd purchaser who desires them, commend everything they sell, and there may well be some of these too who are ignorant which of their wares is good or bad for the soul. The same is true of the people who buy from them, unless one happens to have a doctor's knowledge here also, but of the soul. So then, if you are well informed as to what is good or bad among these wares, it will be safe for you to buy teachings from Protagoras or from anyone else you please. If not, take care that you do not risk your greatest treasure on a toss of the dice. For I tell you there is far more serious risk in the purchase of teachings than in that of eatables. When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when. So that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away teachings in a separate vessel. You are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man" (Protagoras 313c).

"I was never any one's teacher. If any one, whether young or old, wishes to hear me speaking and pursuing my mission [in support of the god], I have never objected, nor do I converse only when I am paid and not otherwise, but I offer myself alike to rich and poor; I ask questions, and whoever wishes may answer and hear what I say. And whether any of them turns out well or ill, I should not justly be held responsible, since I never promised or gave any instruction to any of them; but if any man says that he ever learned or heard anything privately from me, which all the others did not, be assured that he is lying" (Apology 33a).
Socrates does not share Hippocrates's enthusiasm for a sophistic education.

He cautions Hippocrates that the Sophists are merchants, that they sell "doctrines" for the soul, that the Sophists like most merchants do not know whether what they sell is good or bad. Their interest is in the sale, not in whether their doctrines improve the soul.

Socrates takes Hippocrates to see Protagoras, but he does not hand him over straightaway. He tries to determine what Protagoras is "selling" and thus whether he is a suitable teacher.

Others in the house have gathered around, and Socrates puts his question to Protagoras.

"My friend Hippocrates finds himself desirous of joining your classes; and therefore he says he would be glad to know what result he will get from joining them" (Protagoras 318a).

In reply, Protagoras says that Hippocrates will learn "good judgement, showing how best to order his own home; and in the affairs of the city, showing how he may have most influence in political debate and negotiating" (Protagoras 318e) to get what he wants.

Socrates expresses surprise and says he does not think "virtue is teachable" (Protagoras 319a).

Socrates thinks that someone with virtue knows what is good and bad in the circumstances he faces. This is the "good judgement" Socrates takes Protagoras to say he teaches.

Skepticism about teaching virtue is a point Socrates makes elsewhere in the dialogues. In the Apology, where he reports a conversation he had with Callias (who, in the Protagoras, is hosting Protagoras in his house during his visit to Athens), he seems to make fun of the suggestion that Evenus (gnomic poet and contemporary of Socrates) is a teacher of virtue.

"I happened to meet a man who has spent more on sophists than all the rest, Callias, the son of Hipponicus; so I asked him—for he has two sons—'Callias,' said I, 'if your two sons had happened to be two colts or two calves, we should be able to get and hire for them an overseer who would make them excellent in the kind of excellence proper to them; and he would be a horse-trainer or a husbandman; but now, since they are two human beings, whom have you in mind to get as overseer? Who has knowledge of that kind of excellence, that of a man and a citizen? For I think you have looked into the matter, because you have the sons. Is there anyone,” said I, “or not?” “Certainly,” said he. 'Who,' said I, 'and where from, and what is his price for his teaching?' 'Evenus,' he said, 'Socrates, from Paros, five minae.' And I called Evenus blessed, if he really had this art and taught so reasonably. I myself should be vain and put on airs, if I understood these things; but I do not" (Apology 20a).

To explain to Protagoras why he thinks that virtue is not teachable, Socrates points out that on questions in front of the Assembly about what Athens should do, the Athenians quite sensible do not require the speaker to be an expert, as they do when the question is about a technical matter, but allow every member the opportunity to make an argument (Protagoras 319b).

Socrates also points out that even those thought the most virtuous and wisest in Athens have not taught their sons virtue or found teachers who could do it for them (Protagoras 319d).

Virtue is Taught all the Time

In reply, Protagoras gives a long speech to show that virtue is taught all the time. He says that teaching virtue is teaching how to live and that his happens continuously in society.

To make this point, Protagoras uses a "myth" (Protagoras 320c).

In this myth, Protagoras explains how from the gods in the distant past human beings received the potential to learn virtue so that they could live together in communities.

At first, human beings lived in small groups and were unable to defend themselves against the beasts. Fear soon drove them to band together in larger communities, but the features necessary for the survival of these communities did not exist because they did not yet have the attitudes necessary for living in a community. Antagonisms drove them apart, leaving the smaller groups again at the mercy of the beasts. To save humankind, Zeus intervened to change the human psychology. He directed Hermes (the messenger from the gods) to implant in them "shame and right (αἰδῶ τε καὶ δίκην), so that within cities there would be the ties of friendship to unite the people" (Protagoras 322c) and hence that they would stay together as a community.

"I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important" (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man I.IV). The most important point here is the change in the human psychology.

At first human beings could not get along well enough to cooperate and hence to live as part of a community, but this changed when Hermes implanted "shame and right" in each human being. This changed them so that they were less likely to act in ways that were not conducive to stable group living and thus allowed them to stay together in communities.

"Shame and Right" makes Teaching Virtue Possible

Teaching virtue is manipulating this implanted "shame and right" so that humans beings internalize the specific norms for group behavior that exist in their community.

(Protagoras does not explain how the first such norms come into existence.)

"As soon as one of them grasps what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the tutor, and the father himself strive hard that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is right, and that not right, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that. If he readily obeys,—so; but if not, they treat him as a bent and twisted piece of wood and straighten him with threats and blows. After this they send them to school and charge the master to take far more pains over their children's orderly behavior than over their letters and harp-playing. The masters take pains accordingly, and the children, when they have learnt their letters and are getting to understand the written word as before they did only the spoken, are furnished with works of good poets to read as they sit in class, and are made to learn them off by heart: here they meet with many admonitions, many descriptions and praises and eulogies of good men in times past, that the boy in envy may imitate them and yearn to become even as they. Then also the music-masters, in a similar sort, take pains for their self-restraint, and see that their young charges do not go wrong: moreover, when they learn to play the harp, they are taught the works of another set of good poets, the song-makers, while the master accompanies them on the harp; and they insist on familiarizing the boys' souls with the rhythms and scales, that they may gain in gentleness, and by advancing in rhythmic and harmonic grace may be efficient in speech and action; for the whole of man's life requires the graces of rhythm and harmony. Again, over and above all this, people send their sons to a trainer, that having improved their bodies they may perform the orders of their minds, which are now in fit condition, and that they may not be forced by bodily faults to play the coward in wars and other duties. This is what people do, who are most able; and the most able are the wealthiest. Their sons begin school at the earliest age, and are freed from it at the latest. And when they are released from their schooling the city next compels them to learn the laws and to live according to them as after a pattern, that their conduct may not be swayed by their own light fancies, but just as writing-masters first draw letters in faint outline with the pen for their less advanced pupils, and then give them the copy-book and make them write according to the guidance of their lines, so the city sketches out for them the laws devised by good lawgivers of yore, and constrains them to govern and be governed according to these. She punishes anyone who steps outside these borders..." (Protagoras 325c). The implanted "shame and right" allows for a coordination among attitudes between different people about what actions are permissible. The specific form the coordination takes is reflected in the particular norms in the community. It is instilled in children in the home, in lessons in school, in punishments in the legal system, and through the power of persuasion in rhetoric. In the home, it begins in the nursery. The lessons there develop the implanted power of "shame and right" so that the traditional norms of morality become second nature to the children. This transforms them. It causes them to agree in thought and action with their parents, teachers, and lawgivers when they say "this is right, and that not right, one thing noble, another base, one holy, another unholy, and that he is to do this, and not do that" (Protagoras 325d). This manipulation of the implanted sense of "shame and right" continues throughout the years of school and later into adult life with the enforcement of the laws in the community.

This shows why Protagoras thinks that virtue is taught all the time.

He thinks that the virtues of character are necessary for stable group living. They induce agreement about what to do and thus eliminate the antagonisms that would otherwise arise between people and that would undermine the continued existence of the community. Protagoras thinks that every community must teach virtue if it is to function and to survive.

What is Right and Wrong

The right is what someone should do. What someone should do is wrong for him not to do.

In the myth Protagoras sets out, the customs for group living determine right and wrong. Individuals risk punishment if they live contrary to these customs, but otherwise they are free to pursue the desires they happen to have and thus to live in the way they see fit.

In the Theaetetus (which traditionally is thought to be middle dialogue), Plato has Socrates attribute this conception of the right to the historical Protagoras.

"'Protagoras will say that ... the truth is as I have written. ... He says that whatever seems right and fine to a city is right and fine to it, so long as it believes it'" (Theaetetus 166d, 167c).

(A "city" (πόλις) is the ancient Greek political system consisting of a ruling center and surrounding territory. Athens is the most famous example, but there were many others. Protagoras is from Abdera in Thrace on the Aegean Sea north and east of Athens.)

The Life the Sophists Sell

To identify his specific role in teaching virtue, Protagoras boasts to Socrates that he himself is "uniquely qualified to assist others in becoming fine and good" (Protagoras 328b). This makes it sound as if he helps wayward souls conform to the customs of morality, but this is not the reality. For those willing to pay, Protagoras teaches them how to use rhetorical persuasion to manipulate the power of "shame and right" and hence the customs that determine the right so that they can get what they want in life and avoid what they do not want. Callicles, in the Gorgias, rejects what he takes to be the current custom for group linving in most cities.

"The makers of the laws are the weaker sort of men, and the more numerous. So it is with a view to themselves and their own interest that they make their laws and distribute their praises and censures; and to terrorize the stronger sort of folk who are able to get an advantage (πλέον ἔχειν), and to prevent them from getting one over them, they tell them, that such aggrandizement (πλεονεκτεῖν) is foul and unrighteous, and that wrongdoing is just this endeavor to get the advantage of one's neighbors: for I expect they are well content to see themselves on an equality, when they are so inferior. So this is why by custom it is termed unrighteous and foul to aim at an advantage over the majority, and why they call it wrongdoing: but nature, in my opinion, herself proclaims the fact that it is right for the better to have advantage of the worse, and the abler of the feebler. It is obvious in many cases that this is so, not only in the animal world, but in the states and races, collectively, of men--that right has been decided to consist in the sway and advantage of the stronger over the weaker" (Gorigias 483b).

So that they could to enrich themselves, Hippocrates and other sons of rich families were willing to pay huge sums to learn the routine Protagoras says he uses to "assist others in becoming fine and good." They hoped to use the power of persuasion in rhetoric to redirect the resources that accrue from group living so that these resources would be expended in ways that helped them get what they want and avoid what they do not want.

In this way, the power of persuasion appeared to them to be the key to living the good life.

To Socrates, the rhetorical persuasion the Sophists teach is not the key to the good life. Instead, it is an easy way to ruin one's life because it is nothing more than a way to satisfy desires. Socrates thinks that to know which desires we should satisfy and which we should not satisfy, we need to know what is good and what is bad thus what does and does not benefit us. This is what the character has in mind in the Apology when he castigates the Athens he questions for caring more about money than about "wisdom, truth, and the best state of the soul."

The Discussion Ends in Perplexity

After Protagoras gives his speech to show that virtue is teachable, Socrates asks him about the virtues of character and their relation to virtue (Protagoras 329b). Protagoras is not able to defend his answers. He separates the virtues and in particular makes courage something different from wisdom. Socrates, in questioning, shows Protagoras that he himself has beliefs that contradict this understanding of virtue (Protagoras 360d).

Once he has done so, Socrates describes the terrible confusion into which they have fallen.

"Our discussion, in its present result, seems to me as though it accused and mocked us; if it were given a voice it would say: 'What strange creatures you are, Socrates and Protagoras! You Socrates, after having said at first that virtue cannot be taught, are now hot in opposition to yourself, endeavoring to prove that all things are knowledge—justice, temperance, and courage—which is the best way to make virtue appear teachable: for if virtue were anything else than knowledge, as Protagoras tried to make out, obviously it would not be teachable; but if as a matter of fact it turns out to be entirely knowledge, as you urge, Socrates, I shall be surprised if it is not teachable. Protagoras, on the other hand, though at first he claimed that it was teachable now seems as eager for the opposite, declaring that it has been found to be almost anything but knowledge, which would make it quite unteachable!' Now I, observing the terrible confusion into which we have managed to get the whole matter, am most anxious to have it thoroughly cleared up. And I should like to work our way through it until at last we reach what virtue is, and then go back and consider whether it is teachable" (Protagoras 361a).

Socrates wants to start again so that he can know what virtue is and whether it is teachable, but Protagoras has had more than enough of talking with Socrates for one night (Protagoras 361e).

So Socrates is forced quit the investigation and to leave. After he does, he runs into the unnamed friend whom he tells about his encounter with Hippocrates and then with Protagoras. With this friend, Socrates goes through the entire discussion again step by step.

In a prior lecture, we saw two reasons Socrates engages in these discussions again and again. He thinks he serves the god and is a gift the god sent to the Athenians.

To these reasons, we can add one more. Socrates thinks that how to live is life's most pressing problem. To ensure that he is not confused and thus is not inadvertently living incorrectly, he tests his beliefs again and again to see if everyone believes what he believes about virtue.

Most people, though, are not like Socrates.

They think monye and other matters are more important. So, instead of making the time to go through the arguments again, they return to living the way they have become accustomed.

Perseus Digital Library

Plato's, Protagoras, Theaetetus

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἄδικος, (ἀ +‎ δίκη), adikos, adjective, "wrongdoing, unrighteous, unjust"
αἰδώς, aidōs, noun, "shame"
αἰσχρός, aischros, adjective, "causing shame, dishonouring, reproachful"
δίκη, dikē, noun, "what is right"
εὐβουλία, euboulia, noun, "soundness of judgment"
μάθημα, noun, mathēma, "thing learned, lesson"
μῦθος, mythos, noun, "tale, story, narrative"
παιδεία, paideia, noun, "rearing of a child"
πλεονεξία, (πλέον +‎ ἔχω), pleonexia, noun, "greediness"
σοφιστής, sophistēs, noun, "a Sophist"

Arizona State University Library.
Loeb Classical Library:
Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1
Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians

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