BMCR 2006.06.27

Plato’s Protagoras. Proceedings of the Third Symposium Platonicum Pragense

, , Plato's Protagoras : proceedings of the third symposium Platonicum Pragense. Prague: OIKOYMENH, 2003. 258 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 8072980920. €23.00.

This is a useful addition to the scholarly literature on Plato’s Protagoras. Edited volumes are difficult to review because of the unevenness of individual contributions. Some are also difficult on account of a lack of overall focus, organization, or coherence. As the “Preface” states, the present volume is organized thematically, beginning with general structural considerations, then proceeding through the dialogue dealing with some of the important points that come up in the order in which they appear in the dialogue and concluding with a glance at the possible relation of the dialogue to the thinking of the Dissoi Logoi and the historical Protagoras. At the same time there are two focal groups: three papers concern Protagoras’ myth and four concern Socrates’ apparent hedonism.

The volume begins with Theodor Ebert’s discussion of “The Role of the Frame Dialogue in Plato’s Protagoras.” In many dialogues, Ebert claims, the dramatic framing provides an essential orientation to understanding the philosophical arguments by telling us the audience Plato means to address. The Parmenides, for example, wants us to consider a theory of Ideas that is older or more primitive, and a Pythagorean audience is addressed in the Phaedo. In the Protagoras Socrates narrates his conversations with Hippocrates, Protagoras, and other sophists to an unnamed but identifiably pleasure-minded person, “which makes him a perfect representative of the polloi” (16). Moreover, Protagoras is associated with popular democracy, and the polloi recur specifically at a number of important points, culminating in the final arguments about pleasure and akrasia, presented as the views of the polloi. The framing of the Protagoras can thus be seen as showing that Plato means to address here neither Pythagoreans nor adherents of the theory of Ideas, but the many.

The outer frame of the dialogue is studied in Filip Karfík’s “Die Seele in der Gefahr. Zu Protagoras 310a8-314c2.” Building on arguments developed in a 2001 article (“Die entkleidete Seele: Die erotische Psychagogie in Platons Charmides,” Listy filologicke 124, pp. 209-22), Karfík points out both similarities and differences between the psychotherapeutic aspects of the Charmides and the Protagoras. Socrates’ concern to care for the souls of young men, more erotic in the Charmides, here emphasizes the psychic danger of sophistic study to young Hippocrates.

The next three papers treat Protagoras’ myth about why sophistic teaching of the political art is possible and necessary. Bernd Manuwald, “Der Mythos im Protagoras und die Platonische Mythopoiie” argues that Protagoras’ myth shows Plato confronting not only the contents, but also the form in which an opponent argues. Manuwald shows how Plato has taken over the form of didactic prose myth from the sophists who invented it.

Karel Thein, “Teleology and Myth in the Protagoras” argues that Socrates’ raising the part-whole question flows more logically from Protagoras’ myth and his interpretation of it than is often thought. He sees the Protagoras myth about the origin of humans and cities in relation to that of the Timaeus, emphasizing 322a4, which some editors excise. On Thein’s reading of the myth, Protagoras sees a city as having been “prearranged teleologically, much like the human face according to Timaeus” (70).

In “Das ‘Ordnung’ der ‘Naturen’ ( Prot. 320d-321c)” Gottfried Heinemann draws connections between Epimetheus’ distribution of abilities to the various species and some Presocratic and Hippocratic texts to suggest that Plato has indirectly and also invisibly taken a significant step in the development of the concept of an ordered kosmos.

The unity and teachability of virtue are the subjects of the overt dispute between Socrates and Protagoras from 329b to the end. Ales Havlícek’s chapter, “Die Einheit und die Lehrbarkeit der arete im Protagoras,” argues that, despite the apparent reversal of opinions at the end, Plato’s point is more to emphasize the unity of virtue than to deny that it is teachable.

The two strongest chapters in the volume, though quite different in their orientations and claims, are those of Francisco Lisi and Christopher Rowe. In “Wissen und Unwissen in Platons Protagoras” Lisi adopts a holistic point of view in response to arguments that the dialogue is early and literarily brilliant, but unclear about specific philosophic doctrines. He explicitly rejects the piecemeal approach that has characterized scholarship on the Protagoras in the last thirty years, outlines the overall structure of the dialogue, and thus identifies as central the relationship between arete and episteme. An examination of details of the dialogue then reveals allusions to the idea of a numerical structure of reality, the connection of learning with medicine, a religious interest in the care of the soul, the idea that philosophic training requires personal discussion, contrasts between the oral and the written, and the issue of secrecy. The last two points suggest that Lisi’s position aligns to some extent with the Tübingen orientation of Gaiser and Krämer, who are cited. He concludes, persuasively in my opinion, that “the Protagoras is not the expression of a juvenile Plato’s enthusiasm, but a philosophically well thought-out work, the task of which is to define philosophy over against other teachings” (132).

In contrast with Lisi’s rejection of fragmentary treatments of Plato’s dialogues, the next four papers in the volume deal with the already much-discussed problem of why Socrates defends hedonism here in seeming contradiction to his views elsewhere and what are widely taken to have been Plato’s real view about the issue. Working from a magisterial understanding of the various debates around this issue in the last hundred years, Christopher J. Rowe (“Hedonism in the Protagoras again: Protagoras 351bff.”) argues that the solution is complex because Plato sometimes lets Socrates appear as a hedonist and sometimes as an anti-hedonist, because there are different ways in which to take the term ‘hedonism,’ and because Plato’s view of desire seems to have changed from the more ‘Socratic’ view found in the Protagoras to a rather different view in dialogues such as the Phaedo and Gorgias. Thus, though holding onto the idea of Platonic development, Rowe argues from a subtle awareness, as he often has, that the dialogues are far more complex literary-philosophic documents than is often recognized in the scholarly literature.

Christopher C. W. Taylor (“The Hedonism of the Protagoras Reconsidered”) also appreciates the complexity of the literary-philosophic qualities of the dialogues. Taylor takes the persistence of the debate about hedonism in the Protagoras as “an involuntary tribute on the part of modern scholars to Plato’s skill as a writer.” But, unlike Rowe, Taylor thinks Plato leaves the question, ‘Who is it who maintains hedonism?’ unresolved because he is interested in the truth of the proposition rather than in who maintains it. In the end, his Plato is also less dogmatic than Rowe’s, since he thinks the hedonism of the Protagoras is not really Plato’s view, but rather “one which he presents for consideration as filling a crucial gap in his theory, without positively endorsing it” (164).

Charles H. Kahn (“Socrates and Hedonism”) sees Socrates’ assertion of hedonism along with his denial of akrasia as “part of the systematic strangeness” (167) of the dialogue. Kahn thus changes the scope of the inquiry about Socratic hedonism from Plato and the Protagoras to an examination of Socrates’ hedonism in relation to ethical theory more generally and “the classical theory of rational action” (171). Plato, Kahn thinks, is interested “in the profound psychological appeal of hedonism, in the natural connection between pleasure and motivation” which “poses a problem for any theory that wishes to avoid hedonism.” From this point of view, hedonism in the Protagoras looks to Kahn like Plato “[m]eeting the many half-way” (174).

Where Rowe, Taylor, and Kahn all try to find an explanation for Socrates’ apparent assertion of hedonism, Julius Tomin (“The Protagoras in the Light of the Seventh Letter“) has a simpler solution to the problem. Based on what are assumed to be Plato’s autobiographical reflections in the Seventh Letter and assuming a now widely discredited form of Platonic chronology, Tomin concludes that attributing this position to Socrates is simply a “misinterpretation of the dialogue” (175).

The last four papers in the volume are on quite different and unrelated topics, though each highlights a connection between the Protagoras and something else. Like Tomin (and Rowe and Kahn), Pavel Hobza, “The Protagoras as Plato’s Apology of Socrates” assumes the old Platonic chronology as well as a dubious distinction between the paideutic and the philosophic. He argues that, since “Plato’s early dialogues are paideutic rather than philosophic texts,” it makes sense “to see the Protagoras as Plato’s apology of Socrates” (209) and as trying to distinguish Socratic synousia, which is rather traditional, from the new sophistic synousia.

Beatriz Bossi’s paper “On Aristotle’s Charge of Socratic Intellectualism: The Force of a Misunderstanding” follows up a suggestion made by Kahn that Aristotle’s statements about Socrates rely solely on Plato. She is concerned with the identification of virtue with knowledge and the denial of akrasia. “Aristotle, by interpreting Socrates’ episteme and akrasia in terms of his own conceptual scheme, misunderstood Socrates and contributed to the spread of a naïve caricature of his position” (231), she concludes.

Thomas M. Robinson, “Protagoras, the Protagoras, and the Dissoi Logoi” argues that the Dissoi Logoi is probably a school exercise book written “about the beginning of the fourth century, and that it seems to have been influenced . . . by the thinking of Protagoras . . . as evidenced by Plato’s Protagoras” (245).

The volume is a rich resource for specialists interested in Plato’s Protagoras because of the variety of topics, viewpoints, and methodological orientations represented in it. It is an advantage that a number of papers focus on or integrate into their treatment the more literary or dramatic aspects of the dialogue in relation to its philosophic meaning while others emphasize the argumentation more narrowly. Some papers could be richer in their intellectual apparatus and others could be less cavalier about accepting as assumptions matters of interpretive principle that are now widely doubted. Oddly there is no indication of the contributors’ institutions or of the extent to which the papers have been revised from the original conference presentations. The volume is handsomely bound and ends with an Index Locorum but contains no general Index or Bibliography on the Protagoras.