15 October 2005

Unity of the Virtues in the Protagoras

I've been reading "Socrates' Moral Intellectualism", to which the author, Sam Rickless, was kind enough to refer me in a comment. Published in the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 78 (1998) 355-367, one can obtain it through the Blackwell Enquiry service if one's library is a subscriber.

According to Rickless, Socrates in the Protagoras maintains that courage, temperance, justice, and piety are all forms of knowledge (or 'wisdom'). These virtues are related as are various coordinate species of the same genus. Each is the same as wisdom, in the sense that each is a species of wisdom. So too each is the same as any other, in the sense that each is the same sort of thing as any other. As for wisdom, it consists of these species of knowledge all taken together.

This interpretation, Rickless maintains, is different from the two common interpretations which hold the field. Penner takes Socrates to be maintaining that 'courage', 'temperance', 'justice', and 'piety' are four different names for the same sort of knowledge, which is simply equivalent to virtue. Vlastos takes claims such as 'piety is justice' to be asserting biconditionals involving instances of the virtues: 'An act is pious just in case it is just'.

I may raise some difficulties in Rickless' view in a subsequent post. For now, I want to draw attention to a consequence of this view, which then leads to an interesting question.

The consequence is that Socrates does not end up endorsing any alternative he presents at the start of the dialogue. As you recall, Socrates gives Protagoras three ways of resolving the difficulty that 'virtue is a single thing' and yet we have different words for various virtues:

1. The different words all name the same thing.
2. Each word indicates a part of virtue, and the parts of virtue are either:
(a) similar to one another, as the parts of gold, or
(b) different from one another in their function and power, as the parts of the face.
Socrates clearly takes himself to be refuting 2(b). But on Rickless' interpretation, Socrates ends up endorsing neither 1. nor 2(a). The relationship of species to genus is not quite like any of these forms of composition (which are indeed more appropriate to corporeal things).

This might look like a disability of the interpretation. And yet, one thinks that the relationship of species of knowledge to genus would precisely be the sort of thing that would perplex Plato.

Hence the question. After reading Rickless' paper, I found myself wondering whether that curious passage in the Categories (11a20ff) is a record of a dispute in the Academy concerned precisely with these sorts of problems of classification. Read 'justice' and 'piety' for 'grammar' and 'music', and then wouldn't one have the Protagoras problem?
...the genera are spoken of in relation to something, but none of the particular cases is. For knowledge, a genus, is called just what it is, of something else (it is called knowledge of something); but none of the particular cases is called just what it is, of something else. For example, grammar is not called grammar of something nor music music of something. If at all it is in virtue of the genus that these too are spoken of in relation to something: grammar is called knowledge of something (not grammar of something) and music knowledge of something (not music of something). Thus the particular cases are not relatives. But it is with the particular cases that we are said to be qualified, for it is these which we possess (it is because we have some particular knowledge that we are called knowledgeable).
And take that last line to be Aristotle's insistence, against Plato, that the way the words are used with respect to particulars should be decisive for ethics, where particulars count.


Anonymous said...

The art of measurement discussion at Prot. 356-57 seems to be setting up the important claim that virtue is everywhere knowledge of how to calculate the course of action that is ultimately most pleasant. Thus the soldier who correctly calculates that following orders & going into battle will ultimately be more pleasant for him than running away and being branded a coward bravely does his duty. The coward miscalculates and runs away. ( Plato’s hedonism guarantees that if he judges x will be more pleasant, then he must choose to do x.)
Since there is only one kind of pleasure, only more or less of it ( 356 a-b), that soldier who calculated correctly in the face of fearful things should also be able to calculate correctly when tempted by sensual pleasures. Thus he will choose correctly, i.e., temperately there too. It is the same skill measuring the same thing. So courage and temperance are the same.
This seems to be the argument Socrates is setting up in the final part of the Protagoras, but where is it? Instead we get another feeble version of “ if vice is folly, virtue must be wisdom”. (360) Why has Plato suppressed a much better argument for the unity of the virtues, one, moreover, that he has carefully prepared?

Michael Pakaluk said...

It seems to me that your question is this: Socrates argues that temperance is knowledge (viz. accurate weighing of pleasures and pains), and that courage is knowledge just like that, so then why does he not throw in the additional inference that, therefore, temperance=courage?

Three possible answers:

1. Rickless': Socrates thinks that temperance is a species of knowledge, and that courage is a species of knowledge, but he does not want to claim that these are the same species. (This is hard to maintain, as you observe: why wouldn't both virtues be the same sort of knowledge of pleasures and pains?)

2. Plato took that inference to be obvious: after all, what is at stake, at this point of the dialogue, is only whether courage is distinct from the other virtues. Establish that it is not distinct from one of the others, and you thereby establish that it is not distinct from any of them.

3. His argument which involves the hedonic calculus is ad hominem and therefore of restricted utility. See my post above on the Protagoras. On this reading, the reason the hedonic calculus is introduced is to argue that, even if we allow that temperance and courage have a non-cognitive component, and even if we characterize the pleasures and pains they are concerned about in as 'low level' a way as the 'many' would agree to, still, these virtues end up being types of knowledge. --If that is the purpose, Plato wouldn't want to argue generally that virtue involves the apt measurement of pleasures and pains. (Not because this wouldn't be true in a sense, but because it wouldn't help settle what really counted as a pleasure or pain.)

Sam Rickless said...


I'm not sure why you think I'm committed to saying that Socrates endorses neither of the options he sets out at the beginning of the discussion with Protagoras. On my interpretation, Socrates holds that the virtues are all very much alike in that each is a particular kind of knowledge of good and bad. How much more resemblance could one possibly ask for in justification of the claim that the virtues are alike (in the way that the parts of gold are alike)? As I see it, then, Socrates endorses 2a, but not 1.

What's getting in the way, here, I think, is that you think that the claim that courage is a *part* of wisdom is not compatible with the claim that courage is a *species* of wisdom. But why? Couldn't it be that when Plato says that one kind is part of another, he simply means that the first is a species of the second? For example, when the Eleatic Visitor uses the method of collection and division, he refers to what we would think of as the species of a kind K as its *parts*. Of course, the method of collection and division appears in the late dialogues, and not in the early dialogues. But surely it doesn't follow that Plato's concept of *part* in the late dialogues differs from his concept of *part* in the early dialogues.

So I don't see why I'm committed to saying that Socrates does not plump for 2a. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

concerning the species-genus view: if we grant the (questionable) premise that each term has a unique contrary, it seems to follow that temperance is wisdom-NOT A SPECIES OR KIND OF WISDOM, BUT WISDOM TOUT COUR. Rod Jenks