12 October 2005

Protagoras 333b-c

Here's a question on the Protagoras.

Protagoras begins the dialogue holding that the five parts of virtue (temperance (T), courage (C), justice (J), wisdom (W), piety (P)) are separable from one another. To be sure, he says this only explicitly of the pairs, C/J andJ/W (329e), but presumably he thinks this is true of all five virtues.

But near the end of the dialogue, after the interlude of the dialogue, when the argument is resumed, Protagoras takes a different view. Now he holds that only courage is separable:

What I am saying, Socrates, is that all these are parts of virtue, and that while four of them are reasonably close to each other, courage is completely different from all the rest. The proof that what I am saying is true is that you will find many people who are extremely unjust, impious, intemperate, and ignorant, and yet exceptionally courageous (349d).
This suggests that Protagoras is meant to have been persuaded by the intervening arguments that J=P=W=T.

So here is my question, or problem. Socrates argues at 329c-331c that J=P (nearly so), and he argues at 332a-333b that W=T. But the identity of all four is nowhere established.

Or is it? There is of course the passage 333b-c (which begins with the conclusion about W=T):
[Socrates:] Wouldn't that make wisdom and temperance one thing? And a little while ago it looked like justice and piety were nearly the same thing. Come on, Protagoras, we can't quit now, not before we've tied up these loose ends. So, does someone who acts unjustly seem temperate to you in that he acts unjustly?
But at this point Protagoras shows himself wanting to quit, so Socrates moves on to another line of thought, "Let's start all over again, then, with this question..." (333d).

However, are we meant to supply the argument hinted at here, and to suppose that Protagoras, too, sees how it would unfold? What would the argument be? It would rely on premises already set down:
1. Someone who acts unjustly is not temperate in that he acts unjustly.
2. Thus, someone who acts unjustly acts intemperately.
3. When something is done F-ly (F being a virtue or vice), it is done through the agency of F.
4. Thus, someone who acts unjustly does so through the agency of intemperance.
5. Yet someone who acts unjustly does so through the agency of injustice.
6. What is done in an opposite way is done through the agency of opposites.
7. Thus, intemperance is the opposite of justice.
8. Moreover, intemperance is the opposite of temperance.
9. But each thing has one opposite.
10. Thus, justice is temperance.
This 'ties up the loose ends'. Because J=P; and W=K; and J=T; it follows that J=P=W=T. Only C is left out, to be dealt with in a different way, later.

Well, this seems correct. (Taylor in his commentary says that the argument breaks off before Socrates can establish J=T. But it seems better to say that this relatively trivial extension of arguments already made was meant to be obvious.) But then, another question arises: why is it necessary that courage be dealt with in a different way? Why couldn't arguments like the one above, like those at the beginning of the dialogue, suffice for courage as well?


Sam Rickless said...

This is a very good question. Presumably, Socrates does not think that the premises you would need to construct similar arguments establishing either C=T or C=W or C=P or C=J are warranted. He doesn't say why. Do you have a hypothesis?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Yes, my hypothesis is this.

Plato means the "Argument from Confidence" at 349e-350c to show conclusively that courage is a form of knowledge. (I add 'form of' in deference to your interpretation.) However, even given that argument, it might look as though that form of knowledge, alone, is not the virtue, but rather that this knowledge causes or leads to something else, 'confidence', which is necessary also for the virtue. Protagoras, indeed, keeps insisting that some emotional component is necessary for courage (351a). So Plato wishes to show (I believe) that, even granting that non-rational aspects are involved in courage(viz. those that are shown in how we experience pleasure and pain), still, if we admit that 'knowledge is the powerful force in human activity' (352d), then it follows that courage is (no more than) a form of knowledge.

While he's at it, Socrates argues for the same thing as regards temperance (353c-358d), because in principle someone might contest the identity of temperance with the other virtues on similar grounds (and especially by appealing to phenomena of akrasia).

I've now come to think that, when Aristotle says in NE at 1117b23-24 that courage and temperance "are thought to be virtues of the non-rational part of the soul" he has in mind precisely what Plato is concerned with in the end of the Protagoras.

Anonymous said...

Does it strike you that Plato is completely satisfied with the W=T argument that you’ve used as the model /template for your J=T argument? Protagoras of course voices no useful objections, but Plato can scarcely have been unaware of obvious objections to every premise in the argument.
The premises of your J=T version make the faults & fallacies even more glaring. For example: objection to premise 1. “Well, Socrates, some unjust acts no doubt stem from intemperance, but the injustice practiced by tyrants often seems to be very calculated & deliberate & anything but intemperate.” Objection to premise 3. “ So, Socrates if I do something negligently or recklessly or sloppily, I do it through the agency of what?” There are certainly replies Plato can make, and fixes/qualifications he can invoke, but the argument as it stands has all sorts of problems. Perhaps Plato just decided, prudently, not to press this formula.

Michael Pakaluk said...


Doesn't the fact that Plato deals with courage separately, as he does, suggest that your interpretation is correct, namely, that Plato is wishing to argue, not so much that the virtues are not distinct from one another (although he does hold this), as that each is 'knowledge'? Knowledge is the favored virtue, and Plato effectively grants that courage, among the virtues, is less easily assimilated to this.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it would help here if we could get clear on exact what sort of knowledge Plato thinks andreia involves. Is it a confident assurance about which sorts of fearful things & terrors we ought to steel purselves to endure and which we should try to escape?
Presumably temperance as knowledge involves the ability to make similar discrimations amongst our desires. And justice & piety involve similar fine discrimations with respect to what is due man & God.
If someone is confident they understand what "form of knowledge" andreia or sophrosune involve, this would be a good time to offer us some clarification.

Anonymous said...

If we are to debate the identity of the cardinal excellences, may I request some account of what a=b is supposed to mean in the domain/context of the aretai? Lexical synonomy is obviously not an available explicans. Co-reference seems also out of the question. Really, how can we proceed here if don't understand what kind of identity claim Plato wishes to pursue?

Sam Rickless said...


Interesting hypothesis I need to think about.

I agree that the fact that Socrates deals with courage separately, and attempts to show that it is a kind of knowledge, confirms my interpretation.

A few additional thoughts. When Aristotle says that courage, at least, is thought to be a virtue of the non-rational part of the soul, I think he must have Plato (Republic IV), but not Socrates (Protagoras), in mind. As Aristotle says in several places, Socrates thought that courage is knowledge (of a kind). On this intellectualist view, courage is a virtue of the rational part of the soul (since it is the rational part that is capable of knowledge). Further, the idea that the soul has parts is not Socratic, but is definitely Platonic.