The opening conversation, or “frame narrative”, of the Protagoras depicts a casual meeting between Socrates and an anonymous companion that prompts Socrates to recount the discussion he concluded with Protagoras just a short time before. This paper examines how this frame narrative sets up and validates Socrates’ argumentative victory over Protagoras in the dialogue proper. Recent scholarship on Platonic frame narratives in general (Johnson 1998) and on that of the Protagoras in particular (Ebert 2003; Denyer 2008) has demonstrated that there are strong connections between these narratives and the philosophical content of the dialogues that they introduce. My analysis complements this work by uncovering links between Socrates’ competitive posturing in his discussion with Protagoras and the competitive lens through which Socrates introduces and colors this discussion for his audience in the frame narrative. Through a close reading of the frame narrative in the context of the dialogue’s use of athletic imagery and lyric poetry, I show that Socrates’ recapitulation of the discussion is configured as a means of publicizing his argumentative victory and that Socrates himself is configured as a kind of epinician messenger.
The frame narrative begins at 309a with leading questions by the anonymous companion to Socrates about whether he has just come from the “hunt” after Alcibiades, a question that Socrates then develops into a broader discussion of how the beauty of Alcibiades had come in second place earlier that day to the beauty of Protagoras’ wisdom. The comparative ranking of Alcibiades and Protagoras accords a programmatic importance to competition early in the dialogue, and at 309b Socrates provides a further detail that foreshadows Alcibiades’ contribution to Socrates’ own competition with Protagoras, namely, that Alcibiades “said much on my behalf helping me”. Later in the dialogue (336b-e; 348b) Socrates expands upon this point by relating how Alcibiades’ intervention helped to persuade a reluctant Protagoras to continue the discussion under conditions that were advantageous to Socrates’ idiosyncratic method of argumentation. Socrates also uses the other interlocutors to pressure Protagoras in this same way and even to stall for time to formulate responses to Protagoras’ arguments (e.g. 339e). Socrates and the other interlocutors acknowledge the competitive subtext of the discussion by deploying figurative language that likens Socrates’ argument with Protagoras to an athletic match. Socrates and Protagoras are compared to unequally matched long distance runners (335d-336b), are asked if they would accept an arbiter over their discourses (338b), and at a particularly telling moment one of Protagoras’ arguments strikes Socrates like the blow of a boxer, leaving him dazed (339e). This last example is the opening salvo in Socrates’ and Protagoras’ analysis of the Scopas Ode, the content of which has been shown to have distinct resonances with the philosophical content of the dialogue as a whole (Scodel 1986; Frede 1986) and which I argue prefigures Socrates’ encounter with the anonymous companion in the frame narrative.
At 346d the internal narrator of the Scopas Ode envisions a superlatively blameless man and promises that he will herald (apaggelein) him to the audience if he should ever encounter him. Carson 1992 has compared this heralding to the activities of the poet-messenger of Pindar’s epinician poetry (see Ol. 6.90, 7.21; Pyth. 1.32,9.1; and Nem. 6.65), and Socrates’ announcement in the frame narrative that in Protagoras he has encountered a superlatively wise man (309d) appears at first glance to be a real-world fulfillment of the Ode’s promise. Only at the end of the dialogue, when Protagoras has ceded the discussion to Socrates (360d), does it fully emerge that Socrates’ initial praise of Protagoras is ironic. In fact, Socrates’ heralding of Protagoras’ wisdom allows him to become the messenger of his own victory and the speaker of his own praise. Scholars may debate which of the two antagonists in the Protagoras makes the better or fairer argument, but the narrative structure of the Protagoras leaves no doubt that Socrates has made the winning argument.