Plato’s Protagoras

I don’t remember when I read Plato for the last time – it must have been quite a while ago.

Yesterday, I decided to listen to Plato’s Protagoras while driving for a few hours. I was quite struck with the image that Plato is giving from Socrates in this dialogue.

Socrates is supposed to be a renown philosopher, and my idea of a philosopher is a poised, respectful and sensible person, especially as Socrates is not a youngster anymore (he’s around 40). A philosopher is also supposed to study to the deepest details the object of his reflection. And above all, keep doubt in mind at all times.

Socrates, as presented by Plato in this dialogue is the exact opposite. Although the subject is quite interesting (basically, can Virtue be taught or is it something that we acquire at birth and that can never change for a person, no matter how much energy you put into teaching it), the analysis is very shallow, based on very rough shortcuts, and Socrate’s personality happens to reveal itself as extremely narcissistic and disrespectful.

First of all, by a clever twist of words, Socrates manages to confuse Protagoras, simply because he’s declaring some words to be equivalent to others (because from one point of view they indeed seem like they refer to the same thing), although they are absolutely not equivalent. Very similar to a demonstration like “glass is transparent, water is transparent so glass is water”.

But when Protagoras starts digging in the details and explains the shallowness and confusion of Socrates’ demonstration (without saying it of course, at least he is a real sport), Socrates gets angry and threatens to leave under a fallacious pretext. What a childish behavior! Not better than a teenager’s! The pretext is that “he has a very poor memory and cannot follow long demonstrations, so Protagoras should be more concise”. Well if he can’t maybe he should change his job! What a poor argument, coming from such a philosopher!

But then comes the best. As the audience finally manage with great expenditure of arguments to convince Socrates to stay, Protagoras asks him a question about a poem from Simonides. Socrates makes an extremely long demonstration to counter Protagoras, thus acting exactly the way he was fighting against minutes before. After covering Prodicus with ridicule, he concludes his demonstration by saying something we could summarize like: “well, are we going back to a real debate, I’m tired of this poem thing which is best suited for these lower souls who like banquets and orgies with dancing girls”.

Although this piece is quite interesting on the contents, I was really surprised with Socrates’ personality. Maybe the words of The Pythia made his ego over-inflate. But of course it is only the image of Socrates that Plato represents. And his real personality will always remain a mystery, since we will only have the vision that others conveyed to us (which might not even be their own true vision of him – at the time politics was vital as Socrates himself learnt at his own life’s expense, because he preferred not to betray himself rather than please politicians – well again that’s what we were told!).


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