Protagoras 309-319 (10 July 2010)
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Companion: Where are you coming from, Socrates? No wait – you’ve obviously been on the hunt for Alcibiades' youth. Well, when I saw him yesterday, he did look like a beautiful man, Socrates, but a man all the same – just between us – and his beard is already coming in.
Socrates: So what? Don't you approve of Homer, who says, 'the most delightful is the youth of the first beard-growth,' the very youth Alcibiades now has?
Com: What's the latest, then? Were you just with him? How does the youngster think of you?
Soc: Pretty well, or so I think. Especially today, since he said so much to help me. I left him just now. But I want to tell you about something weird: although I was with him, I wasn't paying him any attention – I pretty much forgot about him.
Com: What could have happened between you two - something big? You didn't come upon someone else more beautiful in this city, did you?
Soc: Quite a bit more.
Com: What? Was he a local or a stranger?
Soc: A stranger.
Com: And you found this stranger so beautiful that he looked more beautiful than the son of Cleinias?
Soc: Don't you know, my friend, that the wisest looks more beautiful?
Com: Aha! So you were with someone wise before you ran into us, Socrates?
Soc: The wisest man alive, I suppose, if you think Protagoras is the wisest.
Com: Oh! What are you saying? Has Protagoras been in town?
Soc: For two days now.
Com: So you’ve just come after spending time with him?
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Soc: Yes, and I talked and listened quite a lot.
Com: So why don’t you tell us about the conversation, if nothing’s stopping you? Let this boy1 get up, and you sit right here.
Soc: Sure, and you’ll do me a favor by listening.
Com: You’ll do us a favor by talking.
Soc: Call it a two-way favor, then. Here’s what happened.
Last night, when it was nearly morning, Hippocrates, the one who’s Apollodorus’ son and Phason’s brother, rapped on my door very loudly with his cane. When someone opened it for him, he rushed straight inside and boomed, “Socrates, are you awake or asleep?”
And since I recognized his voice, I said, “Well, Hippocrates, is the news bad?”
“Nothing but good news,” he said.
“You should tell me. What is it? Why have you shown up at this time of night?”
“Protagoras,” he said, standing beside me, “is here.”
“He came the day before yesterday. Did you only just find out?”
“I swear, only last evening.”
And as he groped about in the dark for the bed and sat beside my feet, he said, “Yesterday evening, I was coming back pretty late from Oenoe. My boy1 Satyrus, you see, had run away from me – Just when I was about to tell you that I was after him, something made me forget – Anyway, when I got back and we had dinner and were about to turn in, that’s when my brother told me that Protagoras is here. I was set to come straight to you, but I thought it was too late at night. As soon as I’d had enough sleep to not be so tired, I got up straightaway and came over here.”
Recognizing how fierce and excited he was, I said, “What’s it to you? Protagoras has done you wrong, has he?”
He laughed and said, “For god’s sake, Socrates, only because he’s wise and doesn’t make me so.”
“But I swear, if you pay him and talk him round, he will.”
“Oh god, if it was only about that, I wouldn’t spare any of my money or my friends’. But I came to you now so you’ll talk all this over with him for me. I’m too young, and I’ve never even seen or heard Protagoras. I was just a little boy last time he was in town. Come on, Socrates. Everyone speaks highly of this man and says he’s a very talented speaker.
1The term ‘boy’ is here used of slaves without regard to their age, as in the antebellum South.
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So why don’t we walk to where he is and get a hold of him inside? He’s staying, or so I hear, with Callias, the son of Hipponicus. Let’s go.”
I said, “Let’s not go there yet. It’s early. No, let’s get up and head to the courtyard instead. We can pass the time with a stroll until it’s light and then go. Besides, Protagoras spends a lot of time inside, so don’t worry – most likely, we’ll catch him there.”
So we got up and walked round the courtyard. I wanted to test Hippocrates’ resolve, so I set to examining him and asked, “Tell me something, Hippocrates. You’re all set to go to Protagoras and pay cash for his services. What sort of person do you think you’re going to and what sort of person do you think you’ll become if you do? Let’s say you were planning to go to your namesake Hippocrates of Cos, a devotee of Asclepius, and to pay him cash for his services, and someone asked you, ‘Tell me, Hippocrates, you’re going to pay Hippocrates – what sort of person do you think he is?’ What would you have answered?”
“I’d say that I thought he was a doctor.”
“‘What sort of person do you think you’d become?’”
“And if you planned on going to Polycleitus the Argive or Pheidias the Athenian and paying for their services, and then someone asked you, ‘You’re going to pay cash to Polycleitus and Pheidias – what sort of people do you think they are?’ What would you have answered?”
“I’d have said, ‘Sculptors.’”
“‘And what sort of person do you think you’ll become?’”
“Clearly, a sculptor.”
“Right. Now when we go, you and I, to Protagoras now, ready to pay him cash for his services, we’ll persuade him if we have enough money ourselves, and if not, we’ll spend up what our friends have. So if someone saw how eager we are about all this and asked us, ‘Tell me, Socrates and Hippocrates, what sort of person do you have Protagoras down as, that you plan to spend your money on him?’ What would we answer? What other word do we hear Protagoras called? Like ‘sculptor’ for Pheidias or ‘poet’ for Homer, what word of this kind do we hear for Protagoras?”
“Sophist – they call the man a sophist, Socrates.”
“So we’re going to spend our money on him because he’s a sophist.”
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“And what if someone went on to ask, ‘Well, what sort of person do you think you’ll
become if you go to Protagoras?’”
Hippocrates blushed (by that point there was enough daylight that I could see him) and said, “If it’s like the previous ones, it’s clear that I would be planning to become a sophist.”
“And wouldn’t you be ashamed, for heavens’ sake, to present yourself to the Greeks as a sophist?”
“By god, Socrates, yes I would – if I should say what I think, anyway.”
“But you don’t really think that the kind of education you’ll get from Protagoras is any diﬀerent from the kind you get from the writing tutor or the music teacher or the gymnastics coach, do you? You didn’t learn any of these things to go into a trade, but just for your education, since you’re a private citizen and a free man.”
“Oh. That‘s deﬁnitely how I think studying with Protagoras is.”
“So, do you realize what you’re about to do, or haven’t you noticed?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re about to hand over care of your soul to a man who is as you say a sophist. But I’d be surprised if you even knew what a sophist was. And if you don’t know this much, then you can’t know whether it’s a good or a bad idea to surrender your soul to him.”
“I think I know.”
“Tell me, then, what you think a sophist is.”
“I’d say a sophist is, as the name implies, someone who knows about clever things.”
“But then, couldn’t you also say that painters and builders know about clever things? If someone asked us, ‘What kind of clever things do painters know about?’ I suppose I’d tell him that they know how to make images. Likewise for the others. But if someone asked, ‘What kind of clever things do sophists know about?’ what would we answer? What sort of work are they in charge of?”
“We’d have to answer that a sophist is in charge of making people clever at speaking, wouldn’t we?”
“Maybe that’s right, but it isn’t enough by itself. Our answer to the question has to say what the sophist makes someone clever at speaking about. For example, the music teacher makes you clever, I guess, at speaking about the same thing which you then know about, namely music. Right?”
“All right. And the sophist, what does he make you clever at speaking about?”
“It’s clear that it would be the same thing he knows.”
“That’s reasonable. But then what is it that the sophist himself knows about and makes his student know about?”
“I swear, I don’t know what to tell you any more.”
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Here I said, “What? Do you know the sort of risk you’re running by gambling your soul? Look, if you had to hand over your body to someone and run the risk for better or worse, you’d look long and hard into whether you should do it or not. You’d call your friends and family together for advice for days on end to ﬁgure it out. But as for what you rate higher than your body – your soul – on which your success or failure entirely depends, as it turns to better or worse – about this, do you bother to consult your father or your brother or a single one of your friends about whether you should hand over your soul or not to this stranger who just turned up? No, as you say, you only found out last night and you’ve come this morning, without hearing argument or advice about it, ready to spend your own money and your friends’ money, since you’ve already ﬁgured out that you absolutely have to spend time with Protagoras, whom you don’t know and haven’t ever spoken to, as you admit. And you call the person you’re about to hand over your soul to a sophist, but you clearly don’t know what that is.”
When he heard this, he replied, “Well, it seems to be as you say, Socrates.”
“So, Hippocrates, maybe the sophist is a kind of shopkeeper or a retailer of stuﬀ which keeps the soul fed? Because that’s the kind of person he seems to me.”
“But what does the soul feed on, Socrates?”
“On lessons, I suppose. But watch out, so the sophist won’t deceive us when he praises what he sells, just like a shopkeeper or a peddler who sells food for the body might. In fact, these people don’t even know themselves which of their products is better or worse for the body, but they praise everything they sell. And their customers don’t know either, unless they happen to be a ﬁtness or medical expert. The same goes for those who go city to city, selling and hawking their lessons to anyone who’s interested. While they praise everything they sell, my friend, some of them probably don’t know whether their stuff is good or bad for the soul. Their customers are also ignorant unless, again, they happen to be doctors for the soul. So, if you somehow know which of their lessons is good or bad for you, it’s safe for you to buy from Protagoras or anyone else.
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But if you don’t, make sure you don’t gamble with such precious things on the line. What I mean is that there’s much more risk in buying lessons than in buying food, since you can store food and drink bought from a merchant or shopkeeper in a separate container. Before taking them into your body by eating or drinking, you can set them down at home and get advice by calling in an expert who knows what you should eat or drink and what you shouldn’t, and how much, and when. So this kind of purchase isn’t too risky. But you can’t store lessons in a separate container – when you hand over the money, you have to take the lesson right into your soul and once you’ve learned it, you are left to go your own way, for better or for worse. Now, we should think this over with our elders, since we’re still too young to sort out something so important. For the moment, let’s go like we planned and listen to Protagoras. Afterward, we can consult others. After all, he’s not the only one there. There’s Hippias from Elis, too, and maybe even Prodicus from Ceos, and a lot of other wise men.”
With that settled, we headed there. When we got to the porch, we stood and kept chatting about some point that had come up on the way. We wanted to first settle the argument and then go in, so we didn’t have leave it unﬁnished. We stood talking on the porch until we came to mutual agreement. I think the doorman, a eunuch, must have heard us – he was probably annoyed about visitors coming when the house was already full of sophists. At any rate, when we knocked on the door, he opened it, saw us, and said, “Ugh – sophists! Master’s busy.” Right away, he slammed the door shut with both hands as hard as he could. When we knocked again, he said with the door still closed, “Didn’t you people hear that master’s busy?”
“But, sir,” I said, “we’re not here for Callias and we’re not sophists. So don’t worry – it’s Protagoras we hoped to see. Please say we’re here.”
In the end, he opened the door for us rather reluctantly.
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When we went in, we found Protagoras walking around the portico. Walking beside him on one side were Callias the son of Hipponicus, Paralus (his half-brother on his mother’s side and the son of Pericles), and Charmides the son of Glaucon; on the other were Xanthippus the other son of Pericles, and Philippides the son of Philomelus, and also Antimoirus from Mende who has the best reputation among Protagoras’ students and is learning the trade and planning to become a sophist. Others followed behind, listening to the conversation. Many of these were clearly foreigners – Protagoras gathers them from every town he passes through, charming them with his voice like Orpheus so that they follow the voice in a trance. There were also some locals in this chorus. I really enjoyed watching them: they took such wonderful care not to get in front into Protagoras’ way, when he and his companions turned around. Each time, the hangers-on neatly split into two groups on either side, and they wheeled around in a circle and formed up again to the rear beautifully.
Then I beheld him, as Homer puts it – Hippias from Elis, sitting on a chair opposite the portico. On benches around him sat Eryximachus the son of Acumenus, Phaedrus from Myrrhinous, Andron the son of Androtion, and some foreigners, from Elis and elsewhere. They appeared to be asking Hippias about nature and heavenly bodies, and he, sitting in judgment on his throne, was dispensing thorough answers to all of their questions.
And then I saw Tantalus, so to speak – Prodicus from Ceos as it turned out was also in town. He was put up in a room Hipponicus used to use as a storeroom. Callias had emptied it out and converted it into a room for his lodgers since there were so many of them. Prodicus was still lying down, and it looked like he was bundled up under a pile of covers and bedspreads. Sitting around him on nearby couches were Pausanias from Cerameis, and, with him, a youngster I thought was pretty well-brought up – well, pretty, at any rate. I thought I heard that his name was Agathon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was Pausanias’ boy-toy. This young fellow was there, and so were both the Adeimantuses, Cepis’ son and Leucolophides’, and some others.
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I couldn’t make out what they were discussing from outside, though I was really eager to listen to Prodicus. He’s a genius, I think, a phenomenon. Unfortunately, his voice is so deep that the room rumbled, making his words indistinct. As soon as we had made it inside, the beautiful Alcibiades – as you say, and I have to agree he is – and Critias the son of Callaeschrus came in after us. Once we were inside, we spent a little time taking a good look about, but then, we went up to Protagoras and I said, “Protagoras, you’re the man Hippocrates here and I are after.”
“Would you rather talk in private or in front of others?”
“It makes no diﬀerence to us. Listen to why we’ve come and you can decide.”
“So, why have you come?”
“Hippocrates here is a local, Apollodorus’ son, from an influential and prosperous family, and a match for any his age in talent. I get the impression he wants to become a public figure in the city, and he thinks the best way is by spending time with you. So what do you think now? Should we discuss this in private or with others present?”
“You’re right, for my sake, to be cautious, Socrates. A foreigner who visits powerful cities and persuades the best of their young men to abandon the company of all others – from one’s own family or another, young or old – and to spend time with himself instead in order to be the better for it – a man who does these things has to be careful. After all, doing so provokes no small amount of envy not to mention ill-will and plotting. I claim that sophistry is ancient, but because its earliest practitioners were afraid of the stigma, they tried to disguise it and pass it oﬀ as something else. Some did so as poetry, like Homer and Hesiod and Simonides, and others as mystical rites and prophecy, like the followers of Orpheus and Musaeus. I’ve heard some even pass it oﬀ as athletics, like Iccus from Tarentum as well as Herodicus the Selymbrian (an ex-Megarian), who’s still around and a sophist nonpareil. Your own Agathocles used music as a cover, although he was a great sophist, not to mention Pythocleides from Ceos and lots more. All of them, as I say, have used such professions as screens out of a fear of envy.
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But I don’t put any stock in the method used by all these men, because I don’t think they achieved what they wanted. It never escaped the powerful people in the cities what these disguises were in service of. Of course, the common people barely notice anything and just recite the handful of things the powerful tell them. Now, running away, but not managing it and getting caught red-handed is really stupid and makes people even more hostile, so it’s not even worth trying. They just end up thinking that a guy like that is a crook on top of everything else. So, I’ve gone the totally opposite way: I admit that I’m a sophist and educate people, and I ﬁnd that making the admission is better protection than denial. I’ve taken other precautions besides this, too, so that, god willing, nothing awful happens to me because I admit to being a sophist. What’s more, I’ve spent quite a few years in the business, and, as you can see, I’m pretty old: there’s not a single man here too old for me to be his father. That’s why I’d prefer to make my speech about these things, with your permission, in front of everyone in the house.”
I suspected he wanted to put on a show in front of Prodicus and Hippias and bask in the fact that we had come as big fans of his. I said, “OK, why don’t we call over Prodicus and Hippias and the others they’re with to come and listen to us?”
“By all means,” said Protagoras.
“If it suits you,” Callias added, “shall we draw up the chairs council-style, so you can have the discussion sitting down?”
We thought that was a good idea. Since we were so glad that we were going to get to listen to wise men, we helped with the chairs and couches ourselves. We set up by Hippias since the chairs were around him. Meanwhile, Callias and Alcibiades came together leading Prodicus – they’d managed to get him out of bed – and his entourage.
When we were all sitting down together, Protagoras resumed, “Now, since everyone’s here, could you repeat what you told me a moment ago on the young man’s behalf.”
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I said, “I’ll start in the same place I did just now, Protagoras, and say what I came for. Hippocrates here really wants to spend time with you. He says he would like to know what he’ll get out of doing that. That’s all we’ve said so far.”
Protagoras responded, “Young man, if you come and learn from me, that same day, you’ll go home better, and the same thing the next day. And every day after, you will make progress towards betterment.”
I said in turn, “Protagoras, what you’re saying is no surprise; it’s only to be expected. Even you, despite your age and wisdom would become better if someone taught you something you happened to not know. So don’t just give us that; think of it this way: say Hippocrates here had a change of heart and longed instead to spend time learning from this young man who’s new in town, Zeuxippus from Heraclea. Say Hippocrates came to him, like he’s come to you now, and heard the same things from Zeuxippus that he has from you: that every day he’s with him, he’d become better and make progress. What if Hippocrates asked further, ‘Now, what exactly will I get better at and what am I going to make progress toward?’ Zeuxippus would tell him, ‘At painting.’ Now let’s say he went to study with Orthagoras the Theban, heard the same things he’s heard from you, and asked him what exactly he’d get better at by spending every day with him, Orthagoras would tell him, ‘At playing flute.’ Now, in the same way tell the young man – and me, since I’m asking for him – if Hippocrates here spends time learning from Protagoras, he’ll go home and be better on the first day he spends time with you and make progress every other day after that, but better in what, Protagoras? Better in what area?”
Protagoras listened to all this and said, “Excellent question, Socrates. I enjoy answering people who ask good questions. If Hippocrates comes to me, he won’t suffer what the other sophists would put him through. They treat young people disgracefully. Their students have managed to escape technical subjects, and then they’re thrown back into them unwillingly when their teachers make them do arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music” — here, he looked over at Hippias. “But if he comes to me, he’ll learn nothing but what he came for.
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What I teach is good judgment in domestic matters, so he can best manage his own household, as well as in public matters, so he can both act and speak most effectively when it comes to his city.” I said, “Do I follow what you’re saying? I get the feeling you’re talking about expertise in citizenship and that you’re claiming to be in the business of turning men into good citizens.” “That’s exactly what I’m advertising.” “Well, you certainly have a nice trick up your sleeve … if you have it. You see, Protagoras, I won’t tell you anything I don’t really think. The thing is, I've always thought this skill couldn't be taught. But I can hardly disbelieve you when you say that you do teach it. So it’s up to me to tell you where I got the idea that it can’t be taught or even passed on from person to person. It's because I say, along with everyone else in Greece, that the Athenians are wise. I’ve also noticed that when we gather in the Assembly and the city has to do something to do with building, they get the builders to come as building consultants. When it's to do with shipbuilding, they get the ship-builders to come, and the same thing for everything else they think can be taught and learned. But if someone they don’t consider an expert tries to give them advice, no matter how beautiful or rich or upper-crust he is, they still won’t have any of it. Instead, they boo him and shout him down, until the would-be speaker either takes the hint and leaves when he gets shouted down or the executive council gets the archers to drag or carry him away. So that’s what they do when they think it’s a technical matter. But when they have to decide on something to do with managing the city, on these questions, anyone who stands up advises them on the same footing, whether he’s a carpenter, a metal-worker, a shoemaker, a retailer, or a ship-owner, rich or poor, big-shot or nobody. Unlike before, no one chews them out and says, ‘This guy hasn’t studied anywhere, he doesn’t even have a teacher, and here he is trying to give advice.’ Clearly that’s because they don’t think it can be taught. Not only is this true in the public affairs of the city, but also in private, where our wisest and best citizens can’t pass on this goodness they have to others.”