Virtue, Protagoras, and how the world can be changed.

Protagoras and Virtue


Whilst it has long been accepted in our culture that ideas and thoughts are generated by individuals, recent academic theories suggest that there was once a time, before writing, when it was believed that thoughts and ideas were the voices of gods talking to people, giving them instructions and/or suggestions as to appropriate action. At some moment in history, a shift occurred after which people began to believe that ideas were generated within the individual. This led eventually to the recognition of 'Cause and Effect', 'Reason', and 'Logic', all of which contributed to the foundation of western philosophy.

That the lineage of western thought, from which our Modern philosophical epoch sprang, can be traced back to Plato is accepted as a non contentious fact. The influence of his work dominates the historical enquiry of the subject. The effect he had during his lifetime, the influence he wielded over early Christian scholars, and the re-discovery of his work during the Renaissance has helped to place his name amongst those of the best known philosophers. His ideas are taught in universities, for even today, those who wish to be taken seriously as philosophers must reconcile their work to Plato's framework. "Philosophy" said the 20th century scholar A N Whitehead "is footnotes to Plato".

It is my contention that Plato owes his position not to the superiority of his ideas, but because he played a cynical trick. He constructed an idea which, if placed carefully into the flow of philosophical development, would ensure social and economic dominance for the class of which he was a member.

Plato was born into an affluent family at a time when philosophy, as a subject of study and debate, was flourishing. The 'CityState' dominated the political, as well as the physical landscape, and democracy was the vehicle which facilitated its development. Teachers of philosophy and rhetoric, known as Sophists, travelled the civilized world, teaching the skills of reasoned debate and argument to those who sought influence in the debating chambers of these new rising cities. The skills they taught were valued by the wealthy, powerful members of each community, so top Sophists were in great demand.

The most sought after Sophist of all was Protagoras. He made two fundamental statements. The first states "Man is the measure of all things". The second states that "Virtue can be taught". He died around about the year 411BC.

Plato's friend Socrates was renowned throughout Athens and the ancient Greek world for his ability to expose flaws in the arguments of some of the finest thinkers. So capable was he at undermining their arguments that he was nicknamed 'The Gadfly'. He never produced a theory of his own, and died in about 399BC leaving no known writings. His memory and greatness were preserved, after his death, by his friend Plato.

After the death of Socrates, Plato wrote a series of dialogues that purported to be accurate accounts of conversations between Socrates and the best known Sophists of the day. In 'The Protagoras', Socrates invites the philosopher to agree with him that Virtue can be likened to facial features. Socrates then uses this metaphor to discredit Protagoras' argument. By taking this route to discredit Protagoras, Plato is then positioned to insert his own idea, one which places people in a vulnerable position, unable to determine their own best interest.

Plato's idea can be expressed in the following metaphor;

Imagine a cave. The mouth of the cave is wide open, and light pours in, illuminating the back wall. A man sits on the floor, looking at the shadows cast upon the back wall by people walking past the entrance. The man knows that he is wise, for he understands the true nature of reality.

The man turns around. He sees, now, silhouettes of people passing the cave entrance. He now knows that what he believed to be real was only shadows, and that what he knows now is real. He knows, therefore, that he is truly wise.

But now the man stands up and walks to the mouth of the cave. He sees people walking past the entrance. He now knows that he can be nothing more than a fool, for he knows that what he first believed to be real was not, and what he believed to be wisdom was no more than silhouettes. Now he may see what appears to be reality, but he cannot be certain. He now knows that he may never know the true nature of reality, and returns to the cave, residing forever in the realm of doubt and darkness.

Plato further states that some people will be able to leave the cave and act as guides for those who choose to remain. The idea of individual powerlessness is established with Plato. He makes everybody dependent upon the expertise of someone else. The individual can no longer rely upon their own experience, but rely instead upon a class of guides, known in the present day as politicians, scientists, teachers etc.

The argument put forward by Protagoras, "Virtue can be taught", challenges Plato's argument for it allows each individual to understand their own best interest. It was important for Plato to discredit Protagoras in order to make his ideas dominate.

I consider that if the answer to the question, "What is Virtue?" is "That which benefits the possessor", then the whole subject could be re-examined since such benefits can be taught.

Imagine standing in a blind alley in a strange city. Between yourself and the street stands a ferocious dog, salivating and snarling, approaching you as if to attack. A large stick, now in your hands, could be a virtue for you, for it may well confer a benefit. Use of the stick could be learned, either as a weapon of defence, or as a toy with which to distract the dog. It could also be used as a walking aid if you are wounded in the attack or, if thrown accurately, used to attract the attention of passers-by, so that a rescue could be achieved. There are many ways to use the stick, all of which may be learned, and, therefore, taught. Anything, an object, a skill, a memory, or a talent, if it benefits the possessor, may be accepted as a virtue.

The real implication of Protagoras' philosophy comes from the realization that, by adopting this idea, the individual becomes responsible for their own decisions. Their position is elevated from that of one who must follow blindly, not knowing fully their own best interest, to one who searches for their own way through life. The 'expert', who has pursued knowledge and understanding, also benefits, for they no longer represent a barrier which impedes progress, but comes now to support the novice in their search for virtue.

How different the development of western philosophy would have been, and how different could have been the histories of all the cultures and societies it influenced can only be the subject of speculation. Plato went on to found, in Athens, the first Academy, devoted to the study of philosophy. Plato's place in history was established, whilst Protagoras was all but forgotten.

The successor to Plato at the Academy was Aristotle. He too has been influential in shaping western philosophy, even though he was a fool. He made claims as to physical phenomena which were spurious and he supported slavery. There is, however, one thing for which we may thank him. He said that the only question a person ever needs to ask is "What do I do next?" It is this question, coupled with "Virtue can be taught" that creates exciting answers.