Plato: Protagoras (excerpt)

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Protagoras (excerpt)

[317e] So now, Socrates, said Protagoras, since these gentlemen are also present, be so good as to tell what you were mentioning to me a little while before on the young man’s behalf.

To which I replied:

[318a] The same point, Protagoras, will serve me for a beginning as a moment ago, in regard to the object of my visit. 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. That is all the speech we have to make.

Then Protagoras answered at once, saying: Young man, you will gain this by coming to my classes, that on the day when you join them you will go home a better man, and on the day after it will be the same; every day [318b] you will constantly improve more and more.

When I heard this I said: Protagoras, what you say is not at all surprising, but quite likely, since even you, though so old and so wise, would be made better if someone taught you what you happen not to know. But let me put it another way: suppose Hippocrates here should change his desire all at once, and become desirous of this young fellow's lessons who has just recently come to town, Zeuxippus of Heraclea, and should approach him, as he now does you, [318c] and should hear the very same thing from him as from you,—how on each day that he spent with him he would be better and make constant progress; and suppose he were to question him on this and ask: In what shall I become better as you say, and to what will my progress be? Zeuxippus's reply would be, to painting. Then suppose he came to the lessons of Orthagoras the Theban, and heard the same thing from him as from you, and then inquired of him for what he would be better each day through attending his classes, the answer would be, for fluting. In the same way you also must satisfy this youth and me [318d] on this point, and tell us for what, Protagoras, and in what connexion my friend Hippocrates, on any day of attendance at the classes of Protagoras, will go away a better man, and on each of the succeeding days will make a like advance.

When Protagoras heard my words, –You do right, he said, to ask that, while I am only too glad to answer those who ask the right question. For Hippocrates, if he comes to me, will not be treated as he would have been if he had joined the classes of an ordinary sophist. The generality of them maltreat the young; for when they have escaped from the arts [318e] they bring them back against their will and force them into arts, teaching them arithmetic and astronomy and geometry and music (and here he glanced at Hippias); whereas, if he applies to me, he will learn precisely and solely that for which he has come. That learning consists of good judgement in his own affairs, showing how best to order his own home; and in the affairs of his city, [319a] showing how he may have most influence on public affairs both in speech and in action.

I wonder, I said, whether I follow what you are saying; for you appear to be speaking of the civic science, and undertaking to make men good citizens.

That, Socrates, he replied, is exactly the purport of what I profess.

Then it is a goodly accomplishment that you have acquired, to be sure, I remarked, if indeed you have acquired it – to such a man as you I may say sincerely what I think. For this is a thing, Protagoras, [319b] that I did not suppose to be teachable; but when you say it is, I do not see how I am to disbelieve it. How I came to think that it cannot be taught, or provided by men for men, I may be allowed to explain. I say, in common with the rest of the Greeks, that the Athenians are wise. Now I observe, when we are collected for the Assembly, and the city has to deal with an affair of building, we send for builders to advise us on what is proposed to be built; and when it is a case of laying down a ship, we send for shipwrights; and so in all other matters [319c] which are considered learnable and teachable: but if anyone else, whom the people do not regard as a craftsman, attempts to advise them, no matter how handsome and wealthy and well-born he may be, not one of these things induces them to accept him; they merely laugh him to scorn and shout him down, until either the speaker retires from his attempt, overborne by the clamor, or the tipstaves pull him from his place or turn him out altogether by order of the chair. Such is their procedure in matters which they consider professional. But when they have to deliberate on something connected with the administration of the State, [319d] the man who rises to advise them on this may equally well be a smith, a shoemaker, a merchant, a sea-captain, a rich man, a poor man, of good family or of none, and nobody thinks of casting in his teeth, as one would in the former case, that his attempt to give advice is justified by no instruction obtained in any quarter, no guidance of any master; and obviously it is because they hold that here the thing cannot be taught. Nay further, it is not only so with the service of the State, [319e] but in private life our best and wisest citizens are unable to transmit this excellence of theirs to others; for Pericles, the father of these young fellows here, gave them a first-rate training in the subjects for which he found teachers, but in those of which he is himself a master [320a] he neither trains them personally nor commits them to another's guidance, and so they go about grazing at will like sacred oxen, on the chance of their picking up excellence here or there for themselves. Or, if you like, there is Cleinias, the younger brother of Alcibiades here, whom this same Pericles, acting as his guardian, and fearing lie might be corrupted, I suppose, by Alcibiades, carried off from his brother and placed in Ariphron’s family to be educated: but before six months had passed he handed him back to Alcibiades, [320b] at a loss what to do with him. And there are a great many others whom I could mention to you as having never succeeded, though virtuous themselves, in making anyone else better, either of their own or of other families. I therefore, Protagoras, in view of these facts, believe that virtue is not teachable: but when I hear you speak thus, I am swayed over, and suppose there is something in what you say, because I consider you to have gained experience in many things and to have learnt many, besides finding out some for yourself. So if you can demonstrate to us more explicitly that virtue is teachable, [320c] do not grudge us your demonstration.

No, Socrates, I will not grudge it you; but shall I, as an old man speaking to his juniors, put my demonstration in the form of a fable, or of a regular exposition?

Many of the company sitting by him instantly bade him treat his subject whichever way he pleased.

Well then, he said, I fancy the more agreeable way is for me to tell you a fable.

There was once a time when there were gods, but no mortal creatures. [320d] And when to these also came their destined time to be created, the gods moulded their forms within the earth, of a mixture made of earth and fire and all substances that are compounded with fire and earth. When they were about to bring these creatures to light, they charged Prometheus and Epimetheus to deal to each the equipment of his proper faculty. Epimetheus besought Prometheus that he might do the dealing himself; “And when I have dealt,” he said, “you shall examine.” [320e] Having thus persuaded him he dealt; and in dealing he attached strength without speed; to some, while the weaker he equipped with speed; and some he armed, while devising for others, along with an unarmed condition, some different faculty for preservation. To those which he invested with smallness he dealt a winged escape or an underground habitation; those which he increased in largeness he preserved [321a] by this very means; and he dealt all the other properties on this plan of compensation. In contriving all this he was taking precaution that no kind should be extinguished; and when he had equipped them with avoidances of mutual destruction, he devised a provision against the seasons ordained by Heaven, in clothing them about with thick-set hair and solid hides, sufficient to ward off winter yet able to shield them also from the heats, and so that on going to their lairs they might find in these same things a bedding of their own that was native to each; and some he shod with hoofs, [321b] others with claws and solid, bloodless hides. Then he proceeded to furnish each of them with its proper food, some with pasture of the earth, others with fruits of trees, and others again with roots; and to a certain number for food he gave other creatures to devour: to some he attached a paucity in breeding, and to others, which were being consumed by these, a plenteous brood, and so procured survival of their kind. Now Epimetheus, being not so wise as he might be, [321c] heedlessly squandered his stock of properties on the brutes; he still had left unequipped the race of men, and was at a loss what to do with it. As he was casting about, Prometheus arrived to examine his distribution, and saw that whereas the other creatures were fully and suitably provided, man was naked, unshod, unbedded, unarmed; and already the destined day was come, whereon man like the rest should emerge from earth to light. Then Prometheus, in his perplexity as to what preservation he could devise for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena wisdom in the arts [321d] ogether with fire—since by no means without fire could it be acquired or helpfully used by any—and he handed it there and then as a gift to man. Now although man acquired in this way the wisdom of daily life, civic wisdom he had not, since this was in the possession of Zeus; Prometheus could not make so free as to enter the citadel which is the dwelling-place of Zeus, and moreover the guards of Zeus were terrible: but he entered unobserved the building shared by Athena and Hephaestus [321e] for the pursuit of their arts, and stealing Hephaestus’s fiery art and all Athena’s also he gave them to man, and hence it is [322a] that man gets facility for his livelihood, but Prometheus, through Epimetheus’ fault, later on (the story goes) stood his trial for theft.

And now that man was partaker of a divine portion, he, in the first place, by his nearness of kin to deity, was the only creature that worshipped gods, and set himself to establish altars and holy images; and secondly, he soon was enabled by his skill to articulate speech and words, and to invent dwellings, clothes, sandals, beds, and the foods that are of the earth. Thus far provided, men dwelt separately in the beginning, and cities there were none; [322b] so that they were being destroyed by the wild beasts, since these were in all ways stronger than they; and although their skill in handiwork was a sufficient aid in respect of food, in their warfare with the beasts it was defective; for as yet they had no civic art, which includes the art of war. So they sought to band themselves together and secure their lives by founding cities. Now as often as they were banded together they did wrong to one another through the lack of civic art, [322c] and thus they began to be scattered again and to perish. So Zeus, fearing that our race was in danger of utter destruction, sent Hermes to bring respect and right among men, to the end that there should be regulation of cities and friendly ties to draw them together. Then Hermes asked Zeus in what manner then was he to give men right and respect: “Am I to deal them out as the arts have been dealt? That dealing was done in such wise that one man possessing medical art is able to treat many ordinary men, and so with the other craftsmen. Am I to place among men right and respect in this way also, or deal them out to all?” [322d] “To all,” replied Zeus; “let all have their share: for cities cannot be formed if only a few have a share of these as of other arts. And make thereto a law of my ordaining, that he who cannot partake of respect and right shall die the death as a public pest.” Hence it comes about, Socrates, that people in cities, and especially in Athens, consider it the concern of a few to advise on cases of artistic excellence or good craftsmanship, [322e] and if anyone outside the few gives advice they disallow it, as you say, and not without reason, as I think: but when they meet for a consultation on civic art, [323a] where they should be guided throughout by justice and good sense, they naturally allow advice from everybody, since it is held that everyone should partake of this excellence, or else that states cannot be. This, Socrates, is the explanation of it. And that you may not think you are mistaken, to show how all men verily believe that everyone partakes of justice and the rest of civic virtue, I can offer yet a further proof. In all other excellences, as you say, when a man professes to be good at flute-playing or any other art in which he has no such skill, they either laugh him to scorn or are annoyed with him, and his people come and reprove him for being so mad: [323b] but where justice or any other civic virtue is involved, and they happen to know that a certain person is unjust, if he confesses the truth about his conduct before the public, that truthfulness which in the former arts they would regard as good sense they here call madness. Everyone, they say, should profess to be just, whether he is so or not, and whoever does not make some pretension to justice is mad; since it is held that all without exception [323c] must needs partake of it in some way or other, or else not be of human kind.

Take my word for it, then, that they have good reason for admitting everybody as adviser on this virtue, owing to their belief that everyone has some of it; and next, that they do not regard it as natural or spontaneous, but as something taught and acquired after careful preparation by those who acquire it, – of this I will now endeavor to convince you. [323d] In all cases of evils which men deem to have befallen their neighbors by nature or fortune, nobody is wroth with them or reproves or lectures or punishes them, when so afflicted, with a view to their being other than they are; one merely pities them. Who, for instance, is such a fool as to try to do anything of the sort to the ugly, the puny, or the weak? Because, I presume, men know that it is by nature and fortune that people get these things, the graces of life and their opposites. But as to all the good things that people are supposed to get by application and practice and teaching, [323e] where these are lacking in anyone and only their opposite evils are found, here surely are the occasions for wrath and punishment and reproof. One of them is injustice, and impiety, and in short all that is opposed [324a] to civic virtue; in such case anyone will be wroth with his neighbor and reprove him, clearly because the virtue is to be acquired by application and learning. For if you will consider punishment, Socrates, and what control it has over wrong-doers, the facts will inform you that men agree in regarding virtue as procured. No one punishes a wrong-doer from the mere contemplation [324b] or on account of his wrong-doing, unless one takes unreasoning vengeance like a wild beast. But he who undertakes to punish with reason does not avenge himself for the past offence, since he cannot make what was done as though it had not come to pass; he looks rather to the future, and aims at preventing that particular person and others who see him punished from doing wrong again. And being so minded he must have in mind that virtue comes by training: for you observe that he punishes to deter. This then is the accepted view [324c] of all who seek requital in either private or public life; and while men in general exact requital and punishment from those whom they suppose to have wronged them, this is especially the case with the Athenians, your fellow-citizens, so that by our argument the Athenians also share the view that virtue is procured and taught. Thus I have shown that your fellow-citizens have good reason for admitting a smith’s or cobbler’s counsel in public affairs, and that they hold virtue to be taught and procured: [324d] of this I have given you satisfactory demonstration, Socrates, as it appears to me.

I have yet to deal with your remaining problem about good men, why it is that these good men have their sons taught the subjects in the regular teachers’ courses, and so far make them wise, but do not make them excel in that virtue wherein consists their own goodness. On this point, Socrates, I shall give you argument instead of fable. Now consider: is there, [324e] or is there not, some one thing whereof all the citizens must needs partake, if there is to be a city? Here, and nowhere if not here, is the solution of this problem of yours. For if there is such a thing, and that one thing, instead of being the joiner's or smith's or potter's art, is rather justice and temperance and holiness – [325a] in short, what I may put together and call a man's virtue; and if it is this whereof all should partake and wherewith everyone should proceed to any further knowledge or action, but should not if he lacks it; if we should instruct and punish such as do not partake of it, whether child or husband or wife, until the punishment of such persons has made them better, [325b] and should cast forth from our cities or put to death as incurable whoever fails to respond to such punishment and instruction; – if it is like this, and yet, its nature being so, good men have their sons instructed in everything else but this, what very surprising folk the good are found to be! For we have proved that they regard this thing as teachable both in private and in public life, and then, though it may be taught and fostered, are we to say that they have their sons taught everything in which the penalty for ignorance is not death, but in a matter where the death-penalty or exile awaits their children [325c] if not instructed and cultivated in virtue – and not merely death, but confiscation of property and practically the entire subversion of their house – here they do not have them taught or take the utmost care of them? So at any rate we must conclude, Socrates.

They teach and admonish them from earliest childhood till the last day of their lives. As soon as one of them grasps what is said to him, the nurse, the mother, the tutor, and the father himself strive hard [325d] that the child may excel, and as each act and word occurs they teach and impress upon him that this is just, and that unjust, 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 good behavior than over their letters [325e] 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: [326a] 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, [326b] 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, [326c] 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, [326d] 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, and this punishment among you and in many other cities, [326e] from the corrective purpose of the prosecution, is called a Correction. Seeing then that so much care is taken in the matter of both private and public virtue, do you wonder, Socrates, and make it a great difficulty, that virtue may be taught? Surely there is no reason to wonder at that: you would have far greater reason, if it were not so.

Then why is it that many sons of good fathers turn out so meanly? Let me explain this also: it is no wonder, granted that I was right in stating just now that no one, [327a] if we are to have a city, must be a mere layman in this affair of virtue. For if what I say is the case – and it is supremely true – reflect on the nature of any other pursuit or study that you choose to mention. Suppose that there could be no state unless we were all flute-players, in such sort as each was able, and suppose that everyone were giving his neighbor both private and public lessons in the art, and rebuked him too, if he failed to do it well, without grudging him the trouble – even as no one now thinks of grudging [327b] or reserving his skill in what is just and lawful as he does in other expert knowledge; for our neighbors' justice and virtue, I take it, is to our advantage, and consequently we all tell and teach one another what is just and lawful – well, if we made the same zealous and ungrudging efforts to instruct each other in flute-playing, do you think, Socrates, that the good flute-players would be more likely than the bad to have sons who were good flute-players? I do not think they would: [327c] no, wherever the son had happened to be born with a nature most apt for flute-playing, he would be found to have advanced to distinction, and where unapt, to obscurity. Often the son of a good player would turn out a bad one, and often of a bad, a good. But, at any rate, all would be capable players as compared with ordinary persons who had no inkling of the art. Likewise in the present case you must regard any man who appears to you the most unjust person ever reared among human laws and society as a just man and [327d] a craftsman of justice, if he had to stand comparison with people who lacked education and law courts and laws and any constant compulsion to the pursuit of virtue, but were a kind of wild folk such as Pherecrates the poet brought on the scene at last year's Lenaeum. Sure enough, if you found yourself among such people, as did the misanthropes among his chorus, you would be very glad to meet with Eurybatus and Phrynondas, [327e] and would bewail yourself with longing for the wickedness of the people here. Instead of that you give yourself dainty airs, Socrates, because everyone is a teacher of virtue to the extent of his powers, and you think there is no teacher. Why, you might as well ask who is a teacher of Greek; [328a] you would find none anywhere; and I suppose you might ask, who can teach the sons of our artisans the very crafts which of course they have learnt from their fathers, as far as the father was competent in each case, and his friends who followed the same trade,– I say if you asked who is to give these further instruction, I imagine it would be hard, Socrates, to find them a teacher, but easy enough in the case of those starting with no skill at all. And so it must be with virtue and everything else; if there is somebody who excels us ever so little [328b] in showing the way to virtue, we must be thankful. Such an one I take myself to be, excelling all other men in the gift of assisting people to become good and true, and giving full value for the fee that I charge – nay, so much more than full, that the learner himself admits it. For this reason I have arranged my charges on a particular plan: when anyone has had lessons from me, if he likes he pays the sum that I ask; if not, [328c] he goes to a temple, states on oath the value he sets on what he has learnt, and disburses that amount. So now, Socrates, I have shown you by both fable and argument that virtue is teachable and is so deemed by the Athenians, and that it is no wonder that bad sons are born of good fathers and good of bad, since even the sons of Polycleitus, companions of Paralus and Xanthippus here, are not to be compared with their father, and the same is the case in other craftsmen's families. As for these two, it is not fair to make this complaint of them yet; [328d] there is still hope in their case, for they are young. ...

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