BMCR 2015.09.57

Plato’s Anti-hedonism and the ‘Protagoras’

, Plato’s Anti-hedonism and the 'Protagoras'. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. viii, 222. ISBN 9781107046658. $99.00.


With regard to the much-debated question of whether Socrates endorses hedonism in the Protagoras (in contrast to other dialogues), J. Clerk Shaw agrees with those who deny this, but aims to improve their arguments, which he considers as often “ ad hoc and philosophically uninspiring”, particularly in two ways1: (1) He intends to situate this question within the dialogue as a whole by a reading “that gives hedonism a crucial role in that work without attributing it to Socrates”. This procedure will also avoid “the whiff of special pleading that attaches to much current scholarship on the issue”. (2) “Second, the resulting picture not only reconciles the Protagoras with other dialogues, but harmonizes it with them and even illuminates their anti-hedonism.” Shaw’s main thesis is “that the Protagoras depicts Protagoras as having internalized, through shame, an incoherent complex of popular evaluative attitudes. Hedonism lies at the core of that incoherent complex” (p. 1). This leads to the conclusion that Socrates’ hedonist argument delivered against the fictitious group of the many is targeted at the secret hedonist (p. 92) Protagoras and therefore to be seen as ad hominem (pp. 88f.; 168). This bold hypothesis requires discussion in a number of respects.

Shaw’s book is clearly structured and regularly informs readers about the intended aims and the results achieved. It starts with an ‘Introduction’ (where Shaw provides overviews of the structure of the dialogue and of the argumentative shape of his book and comments on his approach to interpreting Plato [pp. 1–10]), followed by eight chapters.2 The first three focus on the Protagoras; the others present parallels meant to corroborate the conclusions achieved in chapters 1–3 and discuss the role of hedonism for the ethical views of the many and the sophists more generally.

In ch. 1 Shaw intends to show that in the Protagoras Socrates limits the hedonist argument to “bodily pleasures” (cf. p. 28) and that this view contrasts with Socrates’ position in the other dialogues in the Corpus Platonicum, “which invariably privileges goods of the soul over goods of the body” (p. 21). This thesis is then defended against a range of possible objections. Generally, Shaw’s reading is plausible (although it seems difficult to follow Shaw [p. 18] in interpreting τῶν πόλεων σωτηρίαι καὶ ἄλλων ἀρχαί [354b4] as “bodily pleasures”). But section 353c–354b, on which Shaw bases his analysis of the concept of hedonism in the Protagoras (p. 16), is not the main problem with regard to the question of coherence between the Protagoras and other dialogues: the passage (continuing until 355a) focuses on the opinion of the many, from which Socrates clearly distances himself (354b7–c2; d1–3; d7–e2; e8–355a5) —which Shaw seems to ignore— so that there is no conflict between Socrates’ comments in 353c–355a and his views expressed in other dialogues. Much more problematic is the remark in 351c4–6, made by Socrates in his own voice (ἐγὼ γὰρ λέγω), but not discussed in detail by Shaw: it could be read as if Socrates meant that every pleasure was good merely by being pleasure.3

In ch. 2 Shaw engages with existing attempts to interpret the difficult section 349d–351b (on the relationship between ἀνδρεία and σοφία). He suggests a reading according to which Socrates’ argument is logically sound and Protagoras’ denial of this matter therefore irrelevant (cf. p. 63). But, irrespective of the sophisticated logical problems, which Shaw discusses in detail, Plato can hardly have regarded the substance of Socrates’ argument as valid: (1) the context defines σοφία as technical knowledge of experts.4 To identify this with virtue (σοφία = ἀνδρεία, 350c4) would not be in line with Platonic doctrine (on the problem of which areas should be covered by knowledge cf. La. 192e1f.).5 (2) If Plato’s Socrates regarded this equation as true and if Protagoras’ objection only applied on a formal level, the second argumentative sequence on the relationship between ἀνδρεία and σοφία (359a3–360e5) would have to conclude with the same result. Shaw seems to assume these points when he paraphrases the result of the second argumentative sequence with the words of the first (pp. 5; 106). At this point, however, courage is not identified with knowledge, but described as a specific part of knowledge (360d4f.).6 Both statements cannot apply at the same time.7 Since Plato does not have Socrates protest against the false reversal stated by Protagoras (350c6–d2),8 as Shaw also notes (p. 63), Plato is likely to have regarded this objection as permissible.

From Protagoras’ further objections (cf. esp. 351a4–b2), Shaw infers as Protagoras’ view “that knowledge can be ruled by fear and so must be bolstered by spirit”, with Shaw equating “spirit” with θυμός (p. 68). But Protagoras merely rejects Socrates’ definition of courage and lists other factors causing it, without commenting on the relationship between “knowledge” and “fear”. In Protagoras’ view θυμός is among the factors causing θάρσος (and therefore to be understood as ‘anger’ rather than as ‘spirit’); he distinguishes these factors from the factors causing ἀνδρεία (φύσις and εὐτροφία τῶν ψυχῶν), so that, according to Protagoras, θυμός is not an element of φύσις, as Shaw supposes (p. 68). Hence Shaw’s conclusion (pp. 71f.), “that Protagoras thinks wisdom is weak in the face of fear”, is not well founded; consequently, it does not have the potential to bring the hedonist discussion “in its full context”, since, for a hedonist (sc. Protagoras; see on ch. 3), the power of knowledge could be proved on a hedonist basis. Moreover, Plato’s Socrates too is aware of φύσις as a non-intellectual element of courage ( R. 374eff.; 430a4f.) – in addition to the essential element of knowledge (cf. also esp. R. 442b10–c2). In Shaw’s opinion Socrates’ discussion of the unity or multiplicity of the virtues in the Protagoras is based on the so-called ‘Unity Thesis’ (cf. pp. 50; 98; 184; 204), which is incompatible with the doctrine of virtue in the Republic. While Shaw intends to explain his reading of the views of Protagoras and of the many by references to other dialogues (esp. Gorgias and Republic), the question of what the focus of the Republic means for Socrates’ doctrine of virtues in the Protagoras is not addressed.

As he outlines in ch. 3, Shaw knows what the character Protagoras thinks: this Protagoras has certain opinions; yet for fear of being refuted or causing offence, he hides them (cf. also pp. 2; 102): “he thinks that pleasure is the good, and he thinks that wisdom is weak and can be ruled by passions” (p. 74), moreover, “injustice can be prudent” (cf. p. 85).9 It seems, however, methodologically problematic to conclude that Protagoras was originally a hedonist, on the basis of Protagoras’ remarks that “it is most pleasant for him (μοι ἥδιστον, 317c4)” to have a conversation with Socrates in the presence of all and that a myth “would be more pleasant (χαριέστερον, 320c6–7)” (cf. p. 93). When at 351b3ff., in response to Socrates’ questions at the start of the hedonist discussion, Protagoras does not reveal immediately that he does not subscribe to a hedonist position, but rather restricts pleasure to noble things only at c1f., this does not turn him into a genuine hedonist (cf. p. 92). Moreover, Protagoras apparently understands Socrates’ statement as indicating that Socrates means that pleasure and the good are identical; he believes that this view requires testing (351e3–7; cf. Manuwald 1999, 388) and thus he does not assume identity at this point. His procedure only shows that, as elsewhere, he does not notice immediately what Socrates’ questions are aiming at, and he reveals uncertainty with regard to essential ethical questions.

Shaw concludes that Socrates too sees through Protagoras and believes that Protagoras does think that knowledge is weak and can be ruled by fear; this interpretation is based on the fact that Socrates does not immediately “complete his argument that courage is wisdom” in response to Protagoras’ statement that knowledge is strong (352c8–d3). “[T]he strength of wisdom and the unity of virtue are two sides of the same coin” (pp. 98f.; quotations on p. 98). But a leading role of knowledge with regard to ethical conduct does not necessarily imply the identity of knowledge and courage (cf. R. 442b10ff.); the Protagoras too allows the reading that Socrates assumes different parts of virtue (353b2), and an interpretation according to the Unity Thesis is not without alternatives.10 Showing, as Socrates does, that even under hedonist premises knowledge plays the decisive role makes sense even if Protagoras is not originally a hedonist and, in principle, shares Socrates’ view of the power of knowledge.11 That he thus implies something whose consequences he does not realize is a separate question.

Chs. 4–8 are meant to corroborate the results obtained in chs. 1–3 on the Protagoras by means of parallels and to place them in a broader context. They could only do this successfully if the basis with reference to the Protagoras had been established in a convincing way; yet, as indicated, this is not the case in my view. Nevertheless, these chapters provide many plausible observations, e.g. on “procedural” and “substantive shame” of sophistic interlocutors, on the relationship of the sophists’ moral views to those of the many, on the questions of why the many subscribe to a basic hedonist concept, on how this impacts on the concept of individual virtues, and on the attitude of the many towards sophists and philosophers. Those who do not see these points as a corroboration of Shaw’s views on the Protagoras, but rather read these chapters on their own, will certainly benefit from these discussions.


1. The group of those who do not regard the hedonist exposition in the Protagoras as the view of Plato’s Socrates includes the present reviewer: cf. “Lust und Tapferkeit: Zum gedanklichen Verhältnis zweier Abschnitte in Platons ‘Protagoras’ ”, Phronesis 20, 1975, 22–50; Platon, Protagoras. Übersetzung und Kommentar, Göttingen 1999; Platon, Protagoras, Göttingen 2006. Unfortunately, Shaw does not discuss secondary literature in languages other than English. His book is thus an instance of a growing split in academic literature in that scholars not writing in English tend to take scholarship written in English into account, while the reverse is not true to the same extent.

2. 1. “Against hedonist interpretation of the Protagoras ” (11–40); 2. “Courage, madness, and spirit at 349d–51b” (41–72); 3. “Drama and dialectic in Plato’s Protagoras ” (73–101); 4. “Drama and dialectic in Plato’s Gorgias, revisited” (102–122); 5. “Shame, internalization, and the many” (123–142); 6. “Hedonism, hedonic error, and ethical error” (143–170); 7. “Hedonist misconceptions of virtue” (171–190); 8. “Popular hostility to sophists and philosophers” (191–204). Bibliography, General Index and Index locorum follow (205–222).

3. While Shaw later (pp. 99–101) says that “hedonism is not really essential for Socrates’ argument” (p. 100), he does not provide evidence from the Protagoras for this view. But it can be shown that the last argumentative sequence on the relationship between courage and knowledge is separated from the hedonist argument. Cf. Manuwald 1999, 425ff.; 2006, 200ff.

4. αἰσχρόν (350b5) merely refers to the lack of expert knowledge (cf. 350b2 πάντων τούτων).

5. Shaw uses the idea of “unconditionally good and bad” as an argument only in a different context (pp. 68–70), but not to analyse 349d–351b.

6. This does not mean that this definition is Plato’s ultimate view. It fails in the Laches, as is well known (194e11ff.). It should be borne in mind that the Protagoras has an aporetic ending; this fact is disregarded in Shaw’s discussion.

7. This means that Shaw’s methodological premise is not universally valid: “I generally talk as though the character Socrates speaks for Plato, and as though Socrates has and expresses positive commitments” (p. 9). Neither does Shaw allow for the possibility that it may be an element of Socrates’ elenctic method to test the interlocutor by employing fallacy.

8. At least the last element of the proof (θαρραλεώτατοι δὲ ὄντες ἀνδρειότατοι, 350c3f.) can prompt Protagoras to criticize this as a false reversal.

9. How this statement can be inferred from Prot. 323a5–c2 is not clear since in this passage Protagoras demonstrates his belief that everybody must partake in justice to be among the fundamental premises of human society. Even if Protagoras states that he would be ashamed to say that someone who commits an injustice was σώφρων (333b8–c2), this does not lead to the view that “injustice can be prudent”. But cf. pp. 86ff.

10. Cf., in addition to my commentaries (n. 1), my article: “The Unity of Virtue in Plato’s Protagoras ”, OSAPh 29, 2005, 115–135.

11. Shaw regards the many as a proxy for Protagoras (e.g. p. 168). But how can this be the case when the many prefer “bodily pleasures” and Protagoras, as Shaw assumes, “reputational pleasures”? Cf. pp. 168f. And why has Plato both Socrates and Protagoras argue against the many (at least on a formal level) when the many are meant to be a proxy for Protagoras? Cf. Prot. 353cff. ​