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Persuasion vs. Instruction: Protagoras’ Inability to Teach Virtue in Plato

Audrey E Wallace

Bryn Mawr College

The claim Protagoras makes in Plato’s Protagoras that only satisfied students pay his fee is often ignored, yet this payment structure proves the incompatibility between Protagoras’ pedagogical practice and the teaching of virtue. The dialogue revolves around an examination of whether virtue can be taught, as Protagoras insists that his instruction makes men better, despite Socrates’ skepticism. By the end of the dialogue, however, Socrates argues in favor of the teachability of virtue, but, as Protagoras is unconvinced, the argument ends at an impasse. This lack of resolution can be resolved by shifting focus from whether teaching virtue is possible to an examination of what that instruction would entail. Socrates, through his analysis of a poem by Simonides, persuasively argues that becoming good is a difficult practice and that the pleasant and the good must be distinguished, using the example of medicine which is painful but ultimately good. Protagoras’ focus on the appreciation and enjoyment of his students, rather than proving his credentials as an instructor of virtue, thus implies that his lessons are neither painful nor difficult, which have been established as crucial characteristics of the process of improvement.

Scholars have generally overlooked Protagoras’ payment plan in favor of other elements of his Great Speech, and I suggest that this avoidance is due to the difficulty in reconciling Protagoras’ defense of his teaching practices with the depiction of the sophists as defined by their financial greed, a characteristic (appearing throughout the dialogues but especially ubiquitous in modern scholarship) that marks Socrates as superior. Gagarin reads this passage as proof that Plato is freeing Protagoras from this common complaint about sophists in order to depict Socrates and Protagoras as similar in intention. However, Harrison reminds us that the Protagoras, rather than ignoring the costs of teaching, actually highlights this practice, as the opening conversation between Hippocrates and Socrates features “no less than eight successive references to pay” (Harrison, 192). I argue that, although the moral failing attached to the accusation of cost may at first appear to be undermined by Protagoras’ practice which dilutes the association between sophist and payment, Protagoras’ reliance on his pupils’ enjoyment nevertheless proves that what he is teaching is persuasive but not transformative.

Through a critical examination of Protagoras’ teaching practices and Socrates’ arguments about self-improvement, I argue that Protagoras’ payment structure, reliant upon the pleasure of his audience, reinforces accusations against the sophists as incompetent teachers, providing a unifying theme to the dialogue which can appear disjointed due to its lack of resolution.  By paying attention to what is said about teaching and learning, rather than focusing on the definition of virtue, scholars can better understand the trajectory of the dialogue and its implications. Protagoras and Socrates may end the dialogue uncertain about whether virtue can be taught, yet Plato’s audience can be certain that virtue is not taught by Protagoras.

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