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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 July 2017

A.R. Nathan
The University of Sydney


This article seeks to present a detailed textual analysis of Protagoras’ Great Speech in Plato's Protagoras (320c–328d). I will argue that the concept of ἀρετή (‘excellence’ or ‘virtue’) as it appears in the Great Speech is whittled down to a vague notion of civic duty. In this respect, Protagoras is bringing himself in line with the democracy, but in doing so the ἀρετή he claims to teach loses much of its initial appeal, particularly in the eyes of his aristocratic clientele. Nevertheless, if the content of Protagoras’ Great Speech overlooks the abilities required to rise to political prominence, the form most assuredly does not. As one would expect from Plato's Protagoras, his speech is replete with just that oratorical prowess his students might expect to acquire from him. This, in turn, has a number of interesting and important implications in the broader context of the Protagoras, in particular regarding the contrast or conflict between long speeches and short-answer dialectic. Moreover, although it has long been noticed that Protagoras neglects rhetoric and personal pre-eminence in his account, as far as I know there has not been any serious attempt to analyse the stylistic aspects of this masterful speech. Accordingly, both this and (to a large extent) my attempt to interpret it within the economy of the dialogue are original.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2017 

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1 References are to the OCT.

2 Adkins, A.W.H., ‘ἀρετή, τέχνη, democracy and sophists: Protagoras 316b−328d’, JHS 93 (1973), 312 Google Scholar, at 6−9; see also Rutherford, R.B., The Art of Plato (London, 1995), 128−30Google Scholar and Maguire, J.P., ‘Protagoras … or Plato? II The Protagoras ’, Phronesis 22 (1977), 103−22Google Scholar, at 105, who presents the following convenient schema of equivalences that Protagoras seems to make: ‘good judgement = political expertise = good citizenship = virtue = political wisdom = political expertise = political virtue = justice and self-control = justice and the rest of political virtue = justice, self-control and piety = human virtue’. But see n. 6 below.

3 Zappen, J.P., The Rebirth of Dialogue (New York, 2004)Google Scholar, chapters 4 and 5.

4 Weingartner, R.H., The Unity of the Platonic Dialogue (Indianapolis and New York, 1973)Google Scholar, 92; see also 65−7.

5 Vlastos, G., ‘Introduction’ to Jowett, B. and Ostwald, M. (trans.), Plato's Protagoras (Indianapolis and New York, 1956)Google Scholar, liv.

6 Stokes, M.C., Plato's Socratic Conversations (London, 1986), 214−26Google Scholar. Similar claims are made by, for example, Alford, F.C., ‘A note on the institutional context of Plato's Protagoras ’, CW 81 (1988), 167−76Google Scholar, who emphasizes that an average citizen would pick up leadership skills as a matter of course by participating in an ancient democracy, and Kerferd, G.B., ‘Protagoras’ doctrine of justice and virtue in the Protagoras of Plato’, JHS 73 (1953), 42−5Google Scholar, who is followed by Gagarin, M., ‘The purpose of Plato's Protagoras ’, TAPhA 100 (1969), 133−64Google Scholar, at 142−4. Kerferd (this note), 44 argues that, if there is a confusion between the virtues of a leader and of a citizen, it is due to Socrates, and that it is actually quite a natural assumption for the sophist to make. I agree that Socrates adds to the confusion (see below), but this is all the more reason to see how Protagoras deals with it. In particular, the connection between sophists and amoral rhetorical skills cannot be ignored (even if it is often exaggerated), and it is unconvincing to suggest that the distinction between private good and public good can be overlooked in (of all things) a Platonic dialogue about Protagoras.

7 Stokes (n. 6), 226.

8 Stokes (n. 6), 229−35.

9 For the view that the Great Speech is basically historical, see, for example, Guthrie, W.K.C., The Sophists (Cambridge, 1971)Google Scholar [= Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 3.1 (Cambridge, 1969)Google Scholar], 63−4 and 64 n. 1 and Beresford, A., ‘Fangs, feathers and fairness: Protagoras on the origins of right and wrong’, in van Ophuijsen, J., van Raalte, M. and Stork, P. (edd.), Protagoras of Abdera: The Man and his Measure (Leiden and Boston, 2013), 132−62Google Scholar, at 143. For an attempt to separate out the Platonic from the historical see, for example, Maguire (n. 2), Schiappa, E., Protagoras and Logos (Columbia, 2003 2), 180−6Google Scholar and B. Manuwald, ‘Protagoras’ myth in Plato's Protagoras: fiction or testimony’, in van Ophuijsen, van Raalte and Stork (this note), 163−77, at e.g. 163−4. For a more negative assessment, see Stalley, R.F., ‘Punishment in Plato's Protagoras ’, Phronesis 40 (1995), 119 Google Scholar, at 3−7, esp. 4−5. For a discussion, see Taylor, C.C.W., Plato: Protagoras, revised edition (Oxford, 1991), 78−9Google Scholar. And lastly note Rutherford (n. 2), 127: ‘I take it for granted that, although no doubt it bears some relation to the historical views of Protagoras, this speech is not straightforwardly lifted out of a published work’; the important question, he urges, is ‘what place does the speech of Protagoras have in the dialogue Protagoras.’

10 Schiappa (n. 9), 168−70. Cf. Loenen, D., Protagoras and the Greek Community (Amsterdam, 1940), 1415 Google Scholar, who makes a connection between Protagoras’ enlightened approach and the classical Greek idea of equality before the law.

11 See e.g. Adkins (n. 2), 10; Stokes (n. 6), 188−90; and Frede, M., ‘Introduction’ to Lombardo, S. and Bell, K. (trans.), Plato's Protagoras (Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1992), xiixv Google Scholar.

12 Wallace, R., ‘The sophists in Athens’, in Boedeker, D. and Raaflaub, K.A. (edd.), Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (Cambridge and London, 1998), 203−22Google Scholar, at 214−22.

13 Cf. Stokes (n. 6), 213 for further complications: ‘The picture of an upper middle class conscious of its own superiority, exposed by that consciousness to resentful suspicion, but at the same time devoted to the pursuit of political and economic power under the democracy, should not strike one as implausible.’

14 Translations are my own.

15 On the importance of Hippocrates’ perspective, see Benitez, E., ‘Argument, rhetoric and philosophic method: Plato's Protagoras ’, Ph&Rh 25 (1992), 222−52Google Scholar, at 231 and Beck, M.C., Tragedy and the Philosophical Life: A Response to Martha Nussbaum, vol. 1: Protagoras (New York, 2006), 82−3Google Scholar.

16 Friedländer, P., Plato, 3 vols. (London, 1958−1969)Google Scholar, 2.6−7 and Stokes (n. 6), 194 note how the question Socrates asks Protagoras is anticipated by the question he asks Hippocrates.

17 For the connection between εὐβουλία and ‘success-producing skill’, see Adkins (n. 2), 6; Stokes (n. 6), 202; Taylor (n. 9), 71; Zappen (n. 3), 102−3 and cf. Eisenstadt, M., ‘Protagoras’ teaching in Plato's Protagoras’, SO 56 (1981), 4761 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 47. Friedländer (n. 16), 2.11 cites other passages in Plato that connect εὐβουλία with skill in ruling, for example, Resp. 428b. Benitez (n. 15), 235 links political ability with the art of persuasion. P. Woodruff, ‘Euboulia as the skill Protagoras taught’, in van Ophuijsen, van Raalte and Stork (n. 9), 179−93, at 180, on the other hand, shows how Protagoras’ answer implies that he teaches skills which benefit the household or the state, not self-serving skills. However, Woodruff ignores the socio-political dimension of the ‘sophistic movement’ and the rhetorical aims of Protagoras’ claims. These omissions seriously limit the usefulness of Woodruff's findings. Thus he reduces good speaking to discovering arguments and ignores rhetoric and presentation (e.g. at 192).

18 See n. 6 above.

19 Does Socrates really think ἀρετή is unteachable? That he argues from the claim that the Athenians are wise is highly suspicious; thus, Stokes (n. 6), 203. Weingartner (n. 4), 56−7 claims that Socrates is being perfectly honest because what Protagoras thinks ἀρετή is cannot be taught; cf. G. van Riel, ‘Religion and morality: elements of Plato's anthropology in the myth of Prometheus (Protagoras, 320d−322d)’, in Collobert, C., Destrée, P. and Gonzalez, F.J. (edd.), Plato and Myth: Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths (Leiden and Boston, 2012), 145−64Google Scholar, at 148. Lastly, Frede (n. 11), xvii seems to suggest that Socrates adopts this position as a dialectical pose. He notes that the teachability of virtue, qua knowledge, is often associated with Socrates (not least in this dialogue I might add, for example, 345b−c, 345e, 352c, 357d−e and 361). I consider it entirely possible to accept and combine all of these views.

20 Cf. Pangle, L.S., Virtue is Knowledge: The Moral Foundations of Socratic Political Philosophy (Chicago, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 139.

21 On which, see van Riel (n. 19), 147−8.

22 On Pericles’ special skill as a matter of pre-eminence, see Adkins (n. 2), 4; Maguire (n. 2), 107 and cf. Taylor (n. 9), 75.

23 On Socrates pitting Protagoras against the dēmos here, see esp. Stokes (n. 6), 203, as well as Adkins (n. 2), 10; Kerferd, G.B., The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge, 1981)Google Scholar, 133; Rutherford (n. 2), 130 and van Riel (n. 19), 149.

24 Further, McCoy, M.B., ‘Protagoras on human nature, wisdom and the good: the Great Speech and the hedonism of Plato's Protagoras ’, AncPhil 18 (1988), 2139 Google Scholar, at 22 says that the myth is ‘an appropriate mode of discourse because its topic is prehistoric … it provides a picture of the origins of human beings and their place in the cosmos and city’.

25 Beresford (n. 9), 139−40. Indeed, Protagoras denied knowing whether the gods existed (DK 80B4, Plato Tht. 162d−e).

26 See further Beresford (n. 9), 139−43, who links Protagoras’ account with Democritus via Diod. Sic. 1.7.1−6 and 1.8.109, and Lucr.  5.772−1104. There are many interesting aspects of Protagoras’ use of the Prometheus myth that I cannot afford to treat here. For an insightful discussion, see Ferrarin, A., ‘ Homo faber, homo sapiens, or homo politicus? Protagoras and the myth of Prometheus’, RMeta 54 (2000), 289319 Google Scholar, at 309−19, who argues that Protagoras uses the myth to throw off the shackles of tradition and to display the triumph of man over nature. See also n. 30 below.

27 On the teleology of the myth, see Loenen (n. 10), 1−6 and Thein, K., ‘Teleology and myth in the Protagoras ’, Proceedings of the Third Symposium Platonica Pragense (Prague, 2003), 6070 Google Scholar, at 60, who links it to the ‘explicitly teleological theory of political punishment and education’.

28 A good example of this ‘internal balance’ is 320d2−3: τυποῦσιν αὐτὰ θεοὶ γῆς ἔνδον ἐκ γῆς καὶ πυρὸς μείξαντες καὶ τῶν ὅσα πυρὶ καὶ γῇ κεράννυται. The first part of this sentence is centred around αὐτὰ θεοὶ and the second part centres around μείξαντες, which is enclosed by the chiasmus γῆς καὶ πυρός / πυρὶ καὶ γῇ.

29 See Loenen (n. 10), 15. McCoy (n. 24), 24−6 stresses the self-centred nature of Protagoras’ model of mortals.

30 On the parallels and differences between this and the traditional Prometheus story, see McCoy (n. 24), 23−5 and cf. Taylor (n. 9), 77−8. It is noted that Protagoras’ cosmos is much more ‘naturalistic’ and congenial to humans; in particular, Zeus seems surprisingly well disposed towards us.

31 On the shift in terminology, cf. Pangle (n. 20), 144.

32 Indeed, Charmides, Alcibiades or Callias (all who are present, see 315−316a) may begin to wonder whether this ability to live in a city is what they hope to learn from Protagoras?

33 I will argue below (n. 39) that this shows that Protagoras is consciously switching from mythos to logos.

34 It is possible to link Protagoras’ acceptance of traditional Athenian practice with his relativism (cf. 334a–c): what people think is right is right to them. See Vlastos (n. 5), xii−xxiv; Weingartner (n. 4), 65 and 92; Rutherford (n. 2), 128 and 138 and Zappen (n. 3), 107. But see Taylor (n. 9), 100−1. On Protagoras’ relativism, see below (n. 63).

35 Ferrarin (n. 26), 314−15 makes much of this. Cf. Pangle (n. 20), 144−5.

36 Occasionally I break up the Greek text into paragraphs and use indentation to facilitate my analysis.

37 Protagoras’ celebrated account of punishment is sometimes lauded as something strikingly new and profound. See Loenen (n. 10), 23; Guthrie (n. 9), 67; and Schiappa (n. 9), 183, who has additional references. But whatever we may say of the historical Protagoras, for Plato's Protagoras the more original this view is the weaker his argument is. He claims that, since (rational) people only punish for the sake of a better future they must hold certain beliefs about how ἀρετή is acquired. If this view were utterly original, that argument would be ineffective because it argues from what people actually do. More likely, Protagoras expects this rather ‘enlightened’ view to be quite acceptable to his ‘enlightened’ audience: even if its articulation is original, it must resonate with the personal experience and assumptions of his listeners at some level. Cf. Pangle (n. 20), 164.

38 For popular attitudes towards moral responsibility, see Dover, K.J., Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (Indianapolis, 1974), 144−60Google Scholar.

39 ‘In regard to this, Socrates,’ says Protagoras, ‘I will not give you a myth [mythos] but an argument [logos]’ (324d). Kerferd (n. 6), 42−4 (see also Kerferd [n. 23], 133−5) takes this to mean that the myth only ends here. However, even Kerferd must speak of a ‘myth proper’, and Protagoras begins the immediate sequel to the myth proper with the words ‘Just in case you still have doubts … here is some extra evidence’ (323a). This suggests that he acknowledges where the myth ends and that he is shifting to a logos to reassure the audience of his conclusion with an argument. Beyond this, it is hard to believe that someone so well spoken and articulate would cast his speech in such a mysterious structure. The speech is otherwise meticulously signposted (see Rutherford [n. 2], 127). I suggest that he is emphasizing the start of a new point, to the effect of: And this time I will not begin with a myth. The preceding two sections dealt with Socrates’ first objection regarding the public sphere; now he moves to the second objection that, in the private sphere, ἀρετή is not passed down to children. This will occupy almost half of the whole speech.

40 On the absence of courage and wisdom in the Great Speech, see Stokes (n. 6), e.g. 231 and 252; McCoy (n. 24), 29−30 and 33; and Zappen (n. 3), 103. Duncan, R., ‘Courage in Plato's Protagoras ’, Phronesis 23 (1978), 216−28Google Scholar, at 216−17 and Griswold, C.L., ‘Relying on your own voice: an unsettled rivalry of ideas in Plato's Protagoras ’, RMeta 53 (1999), 283307 Google Scholar, at 297 note the absence of courage.

41 Perhaps here the competitive ἀρετή of the Homeric hero creeps in. See Zappen (n. 3), 105.

42 See Friedländer (n. 16), 2.14−18 and 1.175−7 n. 41 for parallels between Protagoras and Platonic views in general. This claim about music recalls the ‘enlightened’ music-theorist Damon and the musical proscriptions that Socrates issues in the Republic (see Resp. 398e–400e).

43 Cf. Beck (n. 15), 212.

44 On kalokagathia as an aristocratic notion, see Vlastos (n. 5), li; Adkins (n. 2), 10; and Rutherford (n. 2), 129.

45 See 324e1, 325c4, 326e, 327b6, 327e1, 328a6 and 328c3.

46 See Weingartner (n. 4), 63, who says that ‘the confusion at the end of the dialogue is in good part attributed to this speech, which treats of so many questions at once’; Stokes (n. 6), 235; Rutherford (n. 2), 128−31; and Adkins (n. 2), 10−12, who calls this speech a cunning ‘smokescreen’ contrived to ‘bait’ both the masses and the elite while keeping both groups in the dark about this contrivance. My view has most in common with the latter. See also Ferrarin (n. 26), 304, 314−15 and 317−18.

47 On the crowd assembled at Callias’, see Wolfsdorf, D., ‘The historical reader of Plato's Protagoras ’, CQ 48 (1998), 126−33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Note Protagoras’ disparaging remarks about the many at 317a and 352e. Stokes (n. 6), 197 makes the reasonable suggestion that Protagoras would not express these views before a popular audience. Indeed, many scholars emphasize the antithesis between sophist and democracy. Guthrie (n. 9), 65 says that Protagoras has a difficult task in combining the claim that ἀρετή is held in common and that he is a specialist teacher of it, as do Rutherford (n. 2), 130 and McCoy (n. 24), 33; cf. Stokes (n. 6), 209.

49 Cf. Weingartner (n. 4), 64: ‘Unlike parents and nurses, but also unlike the great poets of the past, Protagoras has made it his business to reflect upon the practices of men and to make himself aware of what has hitherto remained implicit’; Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4. Plato: The Man and His Dialogues; Early Period (Cambridge, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 234: ‘The morality of Protagoras, based on conventional premises, was admirable and the outcome of much straight thinking about human nature and human affairs.’ However, I have argued that both the myth and the account of punishment are ‘enlightened’ and progressive. See also Weingartner (n. 4), 57 and Rutherford (n. 2), 121, who claim that Plato's Protagoras is no Platonic straw-man.

50 Cf. Baltussen, H., ‘Dialectic in dialogue: the message of Plato's Protagoras and Aristotle's Topics ’, in Mackay, E.A. (ed.), Orality, Literacy and Memory in the Ancient Greek and Roman World (Leiden and Boston, 2008), 203−25CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 213.

51 Weingartner (n. 4), 109−10 and Vlastos (n. 5), liv.

52 As Eisenstadt (n. 17), 45−50 notes, a similar idea is suggested by Protagoras’ claim that the unjust ought to lie and conceal their lack of justice (323b). On the contrast between courage and justice in the Protagoras, see e.g. Weingartner (n. 4), 102−3 and 108; Friedländer (n. 16), 2.26; Duncan (n. 40), e.g. 219; and McCoy (n. 24), 29−30.

53 See Griswold (n. 40), 299−300 and Pangle (n. 20), 132−3. Cf. n. 63 below.

54 With this in mind we can reconsider Protagoras’ grand claim that unlike the ‘closet sophists’ who came before him he does not conceal his art (316e4−317a1).

55 On the compromise between democratic and aristocratic interests, see Ferrarin (n. 26), 303 and Pangle (n. 20), 148−9, and cf. Beck (n. 15), 93, 106−8, 111−12, 116, 118, 121 and 126, though her treatment is quite speculative and rather unexpected.

56 Thus at 329a−b Socrates prefaces the dialectic with the remark that, unlike other orators who simply harp on and on when asked even a slight question, Protagoras (surely) is adept at both long and short answers. And at 343c Socrates recalls Protagoras’ bold claim that so many distinguished Greeks of the past were in fact ‘secret sophists’. Socrates, in his turn, claims that the Spartans and the Cretans are in fact ‘secret philosophers’ (342), and what is more they placed a high store on laconic brevity (343c).

57 Burnyeat, M.F., ‘Dramatic aspects of Plato's Protagoras ’, CQ 63 (2013), 419−22Google Scholar, at 419. The importance of this theme is also remarked by Benitez (n. 15), 231−2; Griswold (n. 40), 283−5; Cohen, J.R., ‘Philosophy is education is politics: the dramatic interlude in the Protagoras ’, AncPhil 22 (2002), 120 Google Scholar, at 2−3; Beck (n. 15), 93; and Baltussen (n. 50), 204, 213 and n. 36.

58 Griswold (n. 40), 297−307.

59 Benitez (n. 15) discusses Protagoras’ relativism on 233 and the contrasting methodological assumptions of Protagoras and Socrates on 235 and 242−7.

60 Cohen (n. 57), 10−12. Reflection of the exegesis of Simonides’ poem has led scholars to similar conclusion: e.g. Griswold (n. 40), 291 registers Socrates’ criticism that poems cannot be questioned in this connection as an injunction to rely on one's own voice, one's own opinions. Cf. Baltussen (n. 50), 214 with 222−3 on Socrates’ insistence on Protagoras giving his own views. Scodel, R., ‘Literary interpretation in Plato's Protagoras ’, AncPhil 6 (1986), 2537 Google Scholar, at e.g. 35 (in an attempt to save Plato from the contradiction of condemning writing) argues that Socrates endorses a particular use of poetry that actually encourages reflection. Thus also Woolf, R., ‘The written word in Plato's Protagoras ’, AncPhil 19 (1999), 2130 Google Scholar, at e.g. 28−9.

61 On Protagoras as a ‘confectioner’, see Griswold (n. 40), 293 and Benitez (n. 15), 226, who cites Soph. 223c−224d.

62 Wolfsdorf (n. 47), 128−9 notes that Callias’ house was a byword for licentiousness.

63 Homo mensura (Protagoras’ claim that man is the measure of all things) is found in DK 80B6 and his professed ability to argue both sides of an issue (as we find in the dissoi logoi) appears in DK 80B6. More generally, on Protagoras and relativism, see Benitez (n. 15), 223−5 and Pangle (n. 20), 146−7. Griswold (n. 40), 299 nn. 46 and 47 links Protagoras’ ‘detachment’ with the fact that he travelled from city to city, and cites Tht. 167c4−d2. For example, ἐπεὶ οἷά γ᾽ ἂν ἑκάστῃ πόλει δίκαια καὶ καλὰ δοκῇ, ταῦτα καὶ εἶναι αὐτῇ, ἕως ἂν αὐτὰ νομίζῃ (Tht. 167c). In this way, Protagoras can endorse the public values of any city or gathering he finds himself in and by this token further his own private ends.

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