Protagoras & Meno by Plato.

Protagoras and Meno are two separate works by Plato (427 - 347 B.C.) written in around the late 5th Century, early 4th Century B.C. It's generally thought that both Protagoras and Meno are early works of Plato and contain, on the whole, Socrates' own theories, Socrates of course being a philosopher and one of the founders of the Western philosophy; none of his works has survived.

I'll start with Protagoras (Πρωταγόρας): this work is set in about 433 B.C., which is the start of the First Peloponnesian War and, notably, three years before Plato's birth. It begins with a meeting between Socrates and "an unnamed friend": the two briefly talk about Alcibiades, a handsome young man who Socrates' friend jokes is being pursued by Socrates, but it is not Alcibiades who Socrates has chased; he has come from meeting Protagoras, "the wisest man living", he says. His friend replies, "Then lose no time in telling me about your conversation, if you are free", and Socrates obliges. The description of this meeting is the basis of Protagoras.

He beings,
Last night, a little before daybreak, Hippocrates son of Apollodorus, Phason's brother, knocked violently on my door with his stick, and when it was opened, came straight in in a great hurry...
Hippocrates is greatly excited, wishing to meet and learn from Protagoras, and wishing Socrates to accompany him. Being still very early in the morning Socrates asks why precisely Hippocrates wishes to be taught by Protagoras, and they begin discussing Protagoras' theories:
'Right', said I [Socrates]. 'Now here are you and I going to Protagoras perpared to pay him money as a fee for you - our own if it is enough to satisfy him, or if not, our friends' resources thrown in as well. If then, seeing us so full of enthusiasm, someone should ask: "Tell me, Socrates and Hippocrates, what do you suppose Protagoras is, that you intend to pay him money?" what should we answer him? What particular name do we hear attached to Protagoras in the sort of way that Phidias is called a sculptor and Homer a poet?"
Hippocrates replies that Protagoras is a Sophist, and Sophists, essentially, are teachers who teach virtue, philosophy, and rhetoric to attain wisdom. Hippocrates is unable to explain quite what it is he wishes to learn: he may teach speakers to be skilled, but what it is the speakers will speak on is uncertain.

Nevertheless they go to the home of Callias where Protagoras is staying, and, when they are eventually allowed in they finally meet Protagoras, who is surrounded by his disciples. From here Socrates and Protagoras begin their discussion, a dialogue in the sense that it Socrates' account of what was said. They speak of 'concealed' Sophism (as in, for example, art, music, and poetry), and then Socrates asks him just how Hippocrates will benefit from being educated by Protagoras. Protagoras replies, addressing Hippocrates:
Young man, if you come to me, your gain will be this: the very day you join me, you will go home a better man, and the same next day. Each day you will make progress to a better state.
The question is: what is the nature of "better"? This leads them on to the nature of what is good, and what is teachable, Socrates asserting that skill and technique may be imparted but not wisdom. Protagoras replies that virtue can be taught, and on that basis is founded the criminal justice system and political theory and policies. The notion of virtue is then discussed, and the role of ignorance in evil, then the relationship of goodness and pleasure, suggesting that to be virtuous is a love of pleasure in so far virtuous acts produce goodness, and goodness is pleasurable. Ultimately, though, to be virtuous is to be knowledgeable.

Protagoras is a tough read: a really tough read, and I can only say I have a vaguely tenuous grip on the arguments. But, such is philosophy: it questions things we hold to be true though we have not ourselves questioned. Furthermore this is a notoriously tricky read, and has been criticised by others for being very disjointed. It was above all else a little overwhelming, but I hope a certain amount of practice at least (i.e. reading more Plato) will help a little. For now, that will have to do for Protagoras!

Next, Meno. This is far shorter (and Protagoras was pretty short itself), but it is still on the question of virtue, wisdom, and to what extent they can be taught. The opening gets straight to the point:
Mᴇɴᴏ: Can you tell me Socrates - is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?
Socrates replies that he does not know exactly what virtue is, and the two go on to discuss the question of whether or not virtue is universal, or whether there are at least some common elements, such as temperance or a sense of justice (as Socrates argues). As with Protagoras, the idea of ignorance causing evil, or at least that which is not virtuous, is brought in, and Meno goes on to ask how, then, is it possible to enquire into something on which one is ignorant. Socrates, to prove his point, begins to question a slave on the basics of geometry. The slave eventually answers the questions correctly, leading Socrates to argue that there is such a thing as innate knowledge, itself proving the immortality of the soul. Knowledge and virtue are innate and even instinctive.

As they return to the original question of whether virtue is something that can be taught, Anytus arrives and Socrates uses him to argue against the idea of inheriting virtue, then he and Meno discuss the difference between knowledge and belief; knowledge being the certainty of what it is to be virtuous and belief in which virtue is inspired by the gods or indeed poets. Unlike in Protagorus, Socrates, throughout Meno, argues that virtue may be taught.

As with Protagoras, Meno is an exceptionally hard read and I'm sorry to say I think I've bungled it, but the one thing I have learned is the importance of definition in these dialogues, and not taking for granted meanings, which may be influenced by a variety of factors (social, etc). In the end, I suppose I must conclude from that we may think we know something, but in fact we more than likely don't. What virtue is however one does not learn from Meno.

And there it is, my first dip into Plato! Not a wild success! I hope with some practice and from that gradual familiarity will make subsequent reads a little more enlightening. For now, I'm not sure what my next Plato will be. I'm thinking either Gorgias (simply because I already have it) or The Symposium, which I've read before and did like. Whatever I go for, I think reading my 4th Century B.C. section of my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge will be particularly hard.

The School of Athens by Raphael (1510-11).
Further Reading


  1. if you haven't read it, i'd highly recommend Persig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"; it's not about Zen so much as an introduction to Platonic philosophy, mostly the disadvantages of it; having to do with reality and shadows and virtue... i must say the very little bit of Plato i've tried (in translation, of course) has been relatively impenetrable...

    1. I haven't read it. I actually had it... not sure if I still do or it was lent to someone... Glad I'm not the only one who found Plato tough. I think I might have been overly optimistic when I approached it!


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