In defense of Protagoras

The opening words of the opening dialogue* of the entire Platonic corpus are “From where, O Socrates, do you appear?” Perhaps we can grant these words some independence from the words that immediately follow and think about the way they inaugurate the whole Socratic trajectory. The words appear at the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras, and I want to submit that this question and this name are closely allied.

Protagoras is of course the sophist par excellence, a professional teacher of dubious “wisdom” and champion of radical relativism. He and his kind are the black-hatted villains opposed to the virtue-loving Socrates — or so we may be tempted to read. Conflict excites and agreement is boring, which makes us overemphasize the former at the expense of the latter. The tradition, starting with Plato, has naturally tended to emphasize the oppositions and antagonisms between sophist and philosopher. But this emphasis discounts the priority and importance of the sophist movement in Ancient Greece; it fails to understand the degree to which the sophists were predecessors to the philosophers, and were the first to frame the kinds of human questions that were to become its dominant obsession. It seems to me that Socrates is spiritually much closer to Protagoras than to Empedocles, say. A shared question, even when one disagrees vehemently over the answer, is evidence of a more basic deep agreement.

We begin with a question (“From where, O Socrates, do you appear?”) and are presented a dialogue called Protagoras in answer. Every statement has meaning only as an answer to a prior question. Oftentimes we get the answer first and must reconstruct the question. (The real heritage of the “first philosopher” Thales is not his claim that the source of all things is water, but the line of questioning he opens up to others, the quest for the arche or source/principle.) The sophistic profession of Protagoras is an answer to a nexus of unstated questions that look eerily Socratic: What is a properly human excellence? What is the best way to live? Can virtue be taught and, if so, how? What is the source of human value? How much are knowledge and wisdom worth? (Etc.) Socrates becomes an opponent of sophistry only after his mimesis of Protagoras’ questions leads him to different answers.

Thinking never begins with a clean slate. It never emerges from blissful ignorance or dark chaos. It begins when some positive attempt to order experience breaks down or is shown wanting. Thinking is inherently critical and necessarily comes in the train of a positive articulation of what seems to be the case. Thinking lives in the fluid of questions; questions are desires; desires are mimetic. The failure of the answers of Protagoras to satisfy Socrates leads Socrates to give voice to otherwise tacit questions concerning human aspiration that Protagoras’ teaching excite. Socrates makes explicit what is implicit in Protagoras — not the answers, but the questions. These questions are the true progeny of Protagoras. The humanistic turn in philosophy begins with Protagoras. Our debt to him is still earning interest.



* By “opening dialogue” I mean first in terms of the Reading Order of the dialogues as reconstructed by William Altman. I won’t defend that reconstruction here, other than to claim that I find Altman’s order more useful and more cogently argued than other forms of order, especially developmentalist or dramatic. The root idea is that the dialogues formed a pedagogical canon in the early canon and that Plato often used earlier dialogues to prepare the mind for later ones, and later dialogues to test the student’s mastery of the lessons the student was supposed to have learned in the earlier. Altman’s order has the Republic as the central dialogue, both chronologically and in importance. See his book Plato the Teacher for more.

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