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Myth and Argument in Protagoras’ “Great Speech” -- Plato’s Protagoras 320c-323c

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  • Jan E Garrett
    I prepared this for another purpose, but added the third paragraph below to indicate its relevance to Stoics. ... The translation I am looking at is in Julia
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2003

      I prepared this for another purpose, but added the third paragraph below to indicate its relevance to Stoics.


      The translation I am looking at is in Julia Annas, Voices of Ancient Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 373-75; reprint from the OUP translation of the Protagoras by C. C. W. Taylor (1996)


      The speech Plato puts into the mouth of Protagoras in his dialogue Protagoras is one of the earliest philosophical defenses of democratic institutions, such as allowing the vast majority of adults to vote when key decisions must be made and leaders selected as well as allowing ordinary people to serve on juries. 


      Since Plato and Socrates seem to have been major critics of Athenian democracy, and the radical Stoic distinction between the sage and mass of fools probably derives from the views at least of Socrates, we ought to give this interesting passage some attention as part of our philosophical general education as Stoics.


      It is probable that the speech reflects ideas in circulation inAthens in the fifth and early fourth centuries B.C., perhaps ideas of Protagoras himself. Unfortunately, we don’t have anything this substantial more directly from Protagoras himself. In what follows, all references to “Protagoras” will refer to Plato’s character of this name, in this particular passage.


      Most of Protagoras’ “great speech” consists of a carefully constructed myth involving the creation of human beings and human cities.  On the face of it, the myth, like many myths,  serves an explanatory function: “So that is why . . . “ (Protagoras 322d)


      In an explanation, what follows a phrase like this is a statement of what is to be explained (the explanandum). Typically, the reasoning in an explanation starts from what is to be explained, which is an indisputable fact, and reasons toward the causes of that fact (the explanans, i.e., that which does the explaining).  Thus, in the famous speech of Glaucon near the beginning of Republic book II, Glaucon starts from a description of justice (widely accepted), according to which justice is an agreement neither to injure nor be injured, and reasons to its “origins,” the alleged (probable) causes of this agreement. In this explanation, the reasoning is from supposed effect to cause.


      But overt mythical explanations can also conceal a reasoning process in which what is to be explained, the supposed effect, is justified by the reasoning of a god. This is especially the case when the god is assumed to be benevolent and wise, as Zeus is in Protagoras’ myth. Therefore, to a great extent, the reasoning of Zeus in this myth is precisely the reasoning that this Protagoras would give if he were not speaking mythically. In this case, the reasoning is from (final) cause (the value to be promoted) to effect, i.e., Zeus' action. (We shall see later that Zeus’ reasoning encapsulates the pragmatic reasoning of unnamed lawgivers and countless generations of civic leaders.)


      From the myth itself we can find the following premises:


      1) Survival of humanity is a worthwhile goal. (assumed from 320e on)

      2) The physical equipment that humans possess is insufficient to assure it. (321c)

      3) Technical gifts help but do not suffice when humans lack the capacity to

      cooperate. (321e-322b)

      4) Real cooperation among humans requires living together in a city. (322b5-6)

      5) Real cooperation in a city requires conscience and justice among all citizens of the city. (322c, 322d)

      So (6) survival requires conscience and justice among all citizens of the city.

      (based on 1-4)


      Zeus’ reasoning proceeds in purely mythical fashion thus:

      7) I wish human survival. (assumed throughout the section involving Zeus)

      8) Therefore I must send conscience and justice to (nearly) all (adult) human beings. (322d)

      From which one could conclude, assuming Zeus’ overwhelming power:

      9) Justice and conscience must have been sent by Zeus to nearly all (adult) human beings.


      Protagoras’ probable understanding of this is:

      7’) Cities have learned how to survive.

      8’) Over the years, they must have developed institutions to create conscience and justice, to some extent, among all their (adult) citizens.

      9’) Most (adult) citizens of cities have conscience and justice, at least to some extent.


      9’) is reinforced by a second, entirely nonmythical argument. See “here’s an extra bit of evidence” (at 323a).


      10) everyone thinks that anyone who does not pretend to be just is insane. (323b)

      (This is in contrast to the situation in the specific professions, e.g., carpentry and medicine, in which the person who falsely pretends to expertise is regarded as insane.)

      [How 10 supports 9’ is not as clear as one might like. Probably “Protagoras” is reasoning somewhat as follows:

      11) Thus everyone who is tolerated in a city must at least act as if he is just.

      12) Such external justice is itself a minimum form of justice. (He appears to assume this.)

      11 +12 à


      9 gives mythical and 9’ gives nonmythical justification for democratic institutions.

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