(Beiträge zur Altertumskunde 341) Gabriele Cornelli - Plato’s Styles and Characters Between Literature and Philosophy-Walter de Gruyter (2016)
parted from him because of mere political ambition⁹⁴ and, with his subsequent
conduct, gave his enemies (mainly Polycrates⁹⁵) weapons to accuse him of cor-
rupting the youth.⁹⁶ A third evidence would be that, testing Xenophon,⁹⁷ Critias
gives Socrates the same advice that Callicles does in Gorgias (490C, e): “you have
Gorgias 481d3 presents him as his lover and 519a8 as his friend.
Cf. Gorg. 481d3 and 519a8.
Cf. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alcibiades, chap. 34.
Guthrie (1971: 299).
Menzel (1964: 115).
Ch. Cron (1870), cited by Menzel.
Xenophon, Mem., I, 2: “Ambition was his true life motivation”. The rupture with Socrates
happened when the former accused him of being “similar to a pig, because wanted to rub
against Euthydemus, as pigs do against stones” (Xenophon, Mem., I, 2, 12 ss.). Xenophon
adds that “for this reason, Critias hated Socrates”, and so, when he ended being part of the Thir-
ty, “he recalled Socrates and prohibited him from teaching the art of discussion”.
Cf. J. Humbert (1930).
Xenophon, Mem., I, 2. When Xenophon talked about Critias and Alcibiades he said that “no
one else has caused such harm to the State as they have. Because Critias was the greatest thief,
violent and assassin, during the oligarchy; whereas Alcibiades was the greatest libertine, inso-
lent and violent, during democracy”.
Xenophon, Mem., I, 2, 37.
Who Is Plato’s Callicles and What Does He Teach?
to avoid your favorite topics – says he: cobblers, builders, metal workers”. More-
over – evidence number four – Xenophon alludes to Critias’ passion for Euthy-
demus,⁹⁸ which recalls Callicles’ own for Demos, son of Pyrilampes.⁹⁹ Finally, ex-
plaining his view of life, our character quotes Euripides’ Antiope,¹⁰⁰ perhaps to
evoke the close friendship between Euripides and Plato’s uncle.¹⁰¹ But beyond
these indications, he puts forward several arguments. These focus on the person-
alities of Critias and Callicles, their political convictions and the literary produc-
tion of the former. (1) Common personality traits. One of these would be given
by the three qualities that are necessary to judge if someone has a good or bad
life: knowledge, kindness and openness (epistêmên te kaì eúnoian kaì parresí-
an¹⁰²), which Socrates discovers in Callicles. Many Athenians can testify to the
fact that he was a very educated character (487b6). Furthermore, he is gracious
to Socrates (487b8), advising him, moved by friendship, to abandon philosophy
as he conceived and practiced it.¹⁰³ Critias will do something similar when he
rises to power, but not advising him, instead barring him from sharing his teach-
ings.¹⁰⁴ Finally, Callicles openness has allowed him “to definitely state what oth-
ers think, but dare not say” (492d2–3). These qualities also characterized Critias,
who “participated in philosophical meetings, being considered profane among
philosophers and a philosopher among the profane”.¹⁰⁵ Philostratus says he “en-
joyed an excellent education”¹⁰⁶ and Plato says in Timaeus (20 A5) that “he is not
a novice in anything that concerns us”. Another common feature of both charac-
ters is their courage.
Callicles argues that those who govern “are not only smart (phrónimoi) but
also brave (andreîoi), since they are capable of running as planned and difficul-
ties do not withdraw them from the task”.¹⁰⁷ Critias said so in his works. Thus
fighting the democrats, he “was killed by the hands of Thrasybulus and his sup-
Xenophon, Mem., I, 2, 29.
Cf. Gorg. 481 d 5, 513 b 6.
Cf. Gorg. 484e, 485e ss.
The friendship between the two of them made some recent specialists attribute the Sisy-
phus’ fragment to Euripides, and not to Critias, as does Sextus Empiricus (Adv. Math. IX, 54 =
DK, 88 B 25) and the tradition that followed. Euripides did write a Sisyphus, now lost. Cf. Al-
brecht Dihle (1977) and Ch. Kahn (1997: 247–262).
Gorg. 487 to 2–3.
Cf. Gorg. 484c.
Cf. Xenophon., Mem., I, 2, 12 ss.
Scholas., ad. 1.
Philostratus, Vitae sophistarum, I, 168.
Gorg. 491b 2–4.
porters”.¹⁰⁸ He has been criticized, it is true, for his cruelty. According to Philo-
stratus, he “was the most wicked of all men who have become famous for their
wickedness”,¹⁰⁹ and according to Xenophon, he was “among the oligarchs, the
falsest, the most violent and the most criminal”.¹¹⁰ Critias and Charicles have
been, among the Thirty, responsible for numerous executions. But Critias justi-
fies himself by saying that “cruelty well used ( … ) is the one used for our
own safety, looking, as far as possible, to become useful for the people”.¹¹¹ (2)
common political beliefs. The two characters were avowed enemies of de-
mocracy. According to Critias, democracy is the great enemy of oligarchy:
“When we discover an enemy of oligarchy – he confesses – we use all the
power there is to remove him from our path”. “No middle ground is possible”.
Philostratus tells us that, in fact, he “collaborated with the Spartans with unpre-
cedented tenacity, so that Attica [bastion of democracy] was depopulated of hu-
mans and became grazing land for cattle”.¹¹² (3) Regarding Critias literary pro-
duction,¹¹³ it should be noted that: (a) his taste for “categorical expressions and
thoughts”,¹¹⁴ which Callicles found to be equally pleasing, (b) his close links
with Euripides,¹¹⁵ comparable with the constant attention Callicles throws at
this tragic poet,¹¹⁶ and with Pindar, who is one of his greatest inspiring figures.
To these literary similarities are added, by association, another common feature
of the two characters, namely, the inconsistency in behavior and thinking. Calli-
cles, prisoner of his dual love, the Athenian Demos and Demos, Pyrilampes’ son,
does not have, despite his talent (kaíper óntos deinoû: 481d7), the strength to say
“no” when he does have to, and allows himself “to go back and forth” (ánô kai
kátô metaballoménon: 481e1), at the mercy of his beloved’s claim. Socrates re-
Philostratus, Vitae sophistarum, I, 168
Philostratus, Vitae sophistarum, I, 16.
Xenophon, Mem., I, 2, 12.
Menzel (1964: 118).
Philostratus, Vit. Soph.,I, 16.
His most important works are the Elegies, the Constitutions (in prose and verse; among the
last of them one should notice the ones about the Thessalians and about the Spartans), the
Aphorisms, the Homilies and the Tragedies (among them Sisyphus).
Cf. Philostratus, Vit. Soph. II, 16.
He cites the following Euripides’ phrase at Tennes: “Oh, there is no fair one among humans
nowadays” (Stob., III, 2, 15). Cf. also the large Euripides’ citation in his drama Rhadamanthys,
collected by Stobaeus (Stob. II, 8, 12.). The ancient believed that Critias’ three tragedies: Tennes,
Rhadamanthys and Pirithous, were actually Euripides’ works. Nowadays, it seems to be well
demonstrated that Critias himself wrote a tragic tetralogy, which contains those drama and Sis-
yphus, which has also been attributed to Euripides.
Euripides’ Antiope is several times cited, but only a few fragments remain: cf. Gorg. 485e,
Who Is Plato’s Callicles and What Does He Teach?
proaches him for “never saying the same thing twice on the same object” (oudé-
pote tautà légeis perì tôn autôn: 491b8). The “best and most powerful”, for exam-
ple, are sometimes the “strongest” (ischyrotéros), while other times the “wisest”
(phronimôtérous) (491c1–2). And hedonic-wise, after maintaining that all pleas-
ures are equally good, he suddenly accuses Socrates of speaking “as if he did not
know, says he, that neither I nor anyone else forgot to distinguish between the
best and the worst pleasures (hôs men … beltíous hedonás, tàs dè cheírous:
499b7). This fickleness, logical and behavioral, repeats itself in Critias, who be-
gins by turning to Socrates and accepting his teachings¹¹⁷ and then, as he and
Alcibiades believe themselves to be “more superior than their peers”, “depart
from him to devote themselves to politics, the only reason for his dealings
with the teacher”.¹¹⁸ Equally incoherent was Critias regarding the political sys-
tem: among the Thessalians, “he tried to establish democracy and armed, to
this end, the “serfs” against their masters”,¹¹⁹ in Athens, however, “he establish-
ed tyranny and was one of the Thirty”.¹²⁰ No doubt the evidence and arguments
presented by Menzel, which I have freely commented on, make plausible the
identification of Callicles with Critias. They further help solve the worrisome
problem of Plato’s unwavering deference to his uncle: he never directly confront-
ed him and he always gave him seats of honor, but not without overlooking his
mistakes. By personifying them within Callicles, Plato found a good way to re-
port them. But it would be an exaggeration to claim that Callicles is only Critias,
as Menzel says. Among other things, it lacks in the speech of Callicles elements
that are important in the thinking of Critias and, conversely, in Critias it lacks
one of Callicles’ most characteristic doctrinal features. I refer respectively to Crit-
ias’ atheism and Callicles’ hedonism. I will just speak about the Critian atheism.
Following Sextus Empiricus it is commonly accepted that Critias scored the Sis-
yphus¹²¹ remaining fragment containing the oldest explanation of the naturalist
origin and evolution of religion. According to this, God is an invention of some
clever ruler who aspired to the fear of His alleged omnipresence making evil go
away in order to make social life more viable. Despite the importance that has
been given to this hypothesis, Callicles does not pay it any attention, although
the term “god” is repeated more than once in his discourse¹²² and although he
His intervention in Charmides does so demonstrate. Cf., in particular, 169c3 ss.
Cf. Xenophon, Mem., I, 2.
Xenophon, Hel., II, 3, 36.
Scholas., ad 1.
Sextus E., Adv. Math., IX, 54, DK B 88b25. Recently, some researchers have doubted this at-
tribution and have given it to Euripides. Cf. supra, note 109.
Cf. Gorg. 481b10, 458d1.
talks to Socrates about man’s behavior towards the gods (perì theoús),¹²³ arguing
that the uncontrollable “cannot be loved”¹²⁴ by them, but, on the contrary, can
only be “punished by (them)”.¹²⁵ Or if these references to divinity are not
enough, Socrates comes to speak in these terms: “wise men say, Callicles, that
heaven and earth, gods and men, are united by friendship, respect and order,
moderation and justice, and therefore the universe is called the order of things,
and not disorder or derangement”.¹²⁶ It seems that, although Socrates has
prompted him to take a stand before the divine, not once has Callicles given
signs of sharing Critias’ atheism. It would be a sign that there is not an equation
between him and Plato’s uncle, nor between him and any historical character,
and that what the author of Gorgias wants to represent in him is not a historical
figure, but a political-philosophical stance in vogue.
We could call it, with Guthrie¹²⁷ and Untersteiner,¹²⁸ “political realism”. The
term refers to the political action based on practical concerns rather than on eth-
ical theories and principles.¹²⁹ This posture, incubated during the Peloponnesian
War, is expressed in Thucydides¹³⁰ with singular strength, but also in the philo-
sophical fragments of Critias, Lycophron, Alcidamas of Elaea and Thrasymachus
of Chalcedon,¹³¹ and literary works of Pindar and Euripides. Let’s recall the dis-
cussions between envoys of Athens and representatives of Milos, an island that
Athens wanted to federate by force.¹³² The Athenians begin by stating that to re-
solve the conflict between them, they will not wield moral arguments because
they know, like the Milonians, that “in the world of men, legal arguments
have weight only to the extent that adversaries have equivalent means of coer-
cion and, if not, the strongest use their power to the best of their game, while
the weak have only to bend” (V, 89). Justice (tò díkaion) will not be complied,
Gorg. 507a8; cf. 507b3, 522d1.
Gorg., 472e7, 525b5.
W. K. C. Guthrie (1971: 84 ss).
M. Untersteiner (1967: II, 189 ss).
This type of politics has achieved a notable development in Modern Times. Its most impor-
tant precursor is N. Machiavelli, specially in The Prince. According to him, the only concern a
prince must have is to seek and maintain power, without taking in consideration ethical or re-
ligious concerns. Otto von Bismarck, in the 20th century, named this posture realpolitik. On the
concept “political realism”, see L. R. Oro Tapia (2009: 15–46). On the developments and exis-
tence of this line of thought, see R. A. Sanhuesa Carvajal (on line).
Cf. Bravo, (2001: 239).
Cf. M. Untersteiner (1967: II, 189–232).
Cf. Thucyd., V, 85–111.
Who Is Plato’s Callicles and What Does He Teach?
only interest (tò xymphéron). However not mutual interest, but the strongest’s,
which is Athens. The Milonians note with surprise that “justice has nothing to
do with the present discussion” and that what counts are the “utility considera-
tions”. Nevertheless, they do not rule out “the possibility, for whoever is in dan-
ger [and the Athenians may be], to appeal to the moral sense and fairness” (V,
90). But the Athenians affirm that the only thing that has brought them there
is “the welfare of our empire” (V, 91), if they seem interested in “saving”
Milos, know that they just want to “save” the “taxes” it can pay (V, 92). And
since the Milonians, as a last resort, trust that “the gods will not allow” them
to be in disadvantage, their opponents also point out that the gods “obey, for
natural necessity (hypò phýseôs anankaíon), a law that forces them to dominate
others whenever they feel the strongest” (V, 105). Among the gods, no less than
men, “always (…) the strongest places the weakest under his thumb” (I, 76). And
if the Milonians come to put their trust in the Lacedaemonians, their allies, they
should remember that “there is not a people who is more flagrantly inclined to
identify the agreeable with the good and its interest with justice” (tà mèn hêdéa
kalà nomízontai, tà dè xymphéron díkaion) (V, 105). These few fragments show
that the discourse of Callicles is not exactly an echo of the doctrines of Critias,
but of the prevailing political realism, first formulated by Thucydides, especially
in the speeches of Hermocrates of Sicily,¹³³ Pericles¹³⁴ and Cleon, the dema-
gogue.¹³⁵ Thucydides, meanwhile, has been inspired by the ode of Pindar and
has then inspired Euripides and Critias, one of the main representatives of the
political realism. And what is even more important, he has been able to inspire
the long struggle of Plato against Critias, first in Gorgias, through Callicles, then
in the Republic, through the speech of Thrasymachus (336b–354b), seconded by
Glaucon’s (357th – 361b), and finally and repeatedly in the Laws (690c, 714c,
890a) It is important to state, together with some interpreters, that in this rich
Greek literature, as revealed by the genius of Plato, did Nietzsche, in turn, in-
spire himself, he who was one of the leading representatives of contemporary
Thucyd., IV, 60.
Thucyd., II, 63.
Thucyd., III, 39, 40.
Berg, Th., Griechische Literaturgeschichte, 1872–1877.
Bravo, F., “Quién es y qué enseña el Trasímaco de la República”, in Estudios de Filosofía
Griega, Caracas, CEP/FHE, 2001.
—, “La antítesis sofística nomos-physis”, Ibidem.
—, “El Gorgias de Platón: ¿anti-hedonista o anti-relativista?”, in M. Erler & L. Brisson (Eds.),
Gorgias – Menon. Selected Papers from the Seventh Symposium Platonicum, Skt.
Augustin, Academia Verlag, 2007.
Cron, Beiträge zur Erklärung des platonische Gorgias, Leipzig, G.B. Teubner, 1870.
Dihle, A., “Das Satyrspiel Sisifo”, Hermes 105 (1977) 28–42.
Dodds, E.R., Plato, Gorgias, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1959.
Dümler, F.D., Academica, Huyesen, 1889.
Fouillé, A., Nietzsche et l’ immoralisme, 1902.
Gomperz, TH., The Greek Thinkers, London, Murray, I, 1901.
Grimal, P., Diccionario de mitología griega y romana, Barcelona, Ed. Paidos, 1994.
Guthrie, W. K. G., The Sophists, Cambridge, CUP, 1971.
Humbert, J., Le pamphlet de Policrate et le Gorgias de Platon, Paris, 1930.
Jaeger, W., Paideia, trans. by J. Xirau, Mexico, FCE, 1971.
Kahn, Ch., “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment” Phronesis 42, 3, (1997)
Kerferd, G.B., The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge, CUP, 1981.
Levinson, R., In Defense of Plato, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1953.
Menzel, A., Kalikles. Eine Studie zur Geschichte der Lehre vom Rechte des Starken, Wien und
Leipzig, Franz Deuticke, 1922, Spanish translation by Mario de la Cueva, Mexico, UNAM,
Nestle, W., Friedrich Nietzsche und die griechische Philosophie, Neues Jahrbuch für die
klassische Philosophie 29 (1912).
Oro Tapia, L.R., “En torno a la noción de realismo político”, Rev. Enfoques, vol VII, n° 10
Sanhuesa Carvajal, R. A., “El realismo político: ¿un denostado desconocido?”, On line.
Untersteiner, M., I Sofisti, Milan, L. Negri, 1967.
Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Platon, Berlin, 1919.
Who Is Plato’s Callicles and What Does He Teach?
Doing business with Protagoras
(Prot. 313e): Plato and the Construction of
In the ever-cogent Platon, Paul Friedländer states: “As Goethe is in Tasso and
Antonio, so Plato is not only in Socrates – or in the disciples Charmides, Theai-
tetos, Alkibiades – but also, to a certain degree and manner, in the opponents of
Socrates”¹. The analogy with Torquato Tasso², Goethe’s ambiguous drama, which
hinges on the contrast between the figure of the Italian poet and that of the con-
summate secretary at the court in Ferrara, Antonio Montecatino, and concludes
with a surprising twist that moved Wagner³ to admit his inability to comprehend
where right and wrong lay in the work, enables Friedländer to apprehend a cru-
cial aspect of the personality and art of Plato. According to Friedländer, Socrates’
struggle against his adversaries is to a certain extent a struggle of Plato against
himself, against his own nature, “endowed with overabundant powers”. For the
German scholar, there is something in Plato of the ability and astuteness of the
Eristics and Sophists, there is something of Callicles, “the ‘Strong Man’, some-
thing of his beloved Homer, and even something of Euthyphro’s ‘clerical piety’”.
Certainly, these pages by Friedländer, characterized by word choices that are
perhaps excessively marked by Existentialism⁴, conceal concepts that have by
now become established in the more modern exegetic tendencies regarding
Plato, in particular in the so-called new “literary” approach⁵: Plato, heir to the
Greek literary tradition, a discerning connoisseur of the mechanisms of tragedy
and comedy, conceals himself behind his characters and allows his message to
emerge through their interaction and dialogue, by means of the play of character
– to use Ruby Blondell’s acute expression⁶ – which probably represents the best
mimesis of the master’s real and lively synousia with his disciples.
], pp. 166–67).
Goethe (1790 , pp. 731–834).
In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck of April 15th, 1859 (Wagner 1999, pp. 37–39).
On the relationship between Friedländer and Existentialism, see Giovanni Reale’s preface to
the last Italian translation of Friedländer’s Platon (Reale 2004, pp. XI-XVI). Cf. also Trabattoni
, p. 310).
On this new approach to Plato’s texts see Erler (2007, pp. 5–7).
Opening up the gallery of characters, an incarnation of so many artistic pro-
jections of Plato’s “I”, Friedländer mentions, along with Agathon, the character
of Protagoras, recalling him in particular for his love of “resounding speeches”,
which he shared with Plato.
Certainly, among Socrates’ great adversaries, Protagoras is the one to whom
Plato gives most space in his own output. In the Protagoras, Plato allows the So-
phist about nine Stephanus pages (320c–328d = 80 C 1 DK). All the first part of
Theaetetus (151d–187a) is dedicated to a discussion of the principle of the man-
measure (80 B 1 DK) and in this same dialogue Socrates, like a ventriloquist,
even lends his own voice to Protagoras who has returned from Hades to defend
his position (166a–168c = 80 A 21a DK). Furthermore, there are references to Pro-
tagoras in many other works, explicit in Cratylus (385e–386a = 80 A 13 DK, 391b–
c = 80 A 24 DK), Euthydemos (286b-c = 80 A 19 DK), Hippias Major (282d–e =
80 A 9 DK), Meno (91d–e = 80 A 8 DK), Phaedrus (267c = 80 A 26 DK), Republic
(600c-e), Sophist (232d–233a = 80 B 8 DK), and implicit, as I have recently tried
to demonstrate⁷, in Philebos (62a-b) and Letter VII (343a).
Plato offers a complex portrait of Protagoras, which certainly does justice to
the character’s great stature. Ancient tradition underlined his special role among
the protagonists of the dialogues, even going so far as to suggest a dependence
on the part of Plato on Protagoras’ works in the Republic (80 B 5 DK) and per-
haps in the Parmenides (80 B 2 DK). In effect, in two passages of Plato’s life
(III 37 e 57), Diogenes Laërtius reports an interesting remark that goes back,
through Favorinus (23 Mensching = 60 Amato), to Aristoxenus (67 Wehrli²): al-
most the whole of the Republic, Πολιτεία … πᾶσα σχεδόν, seems to have already
been written in Protagoras’ Antilogies (80 B 5 DK), ἐν τοῖς Πρωταγόρου γε-
γράφθαι ᾿Aντιλογικοῖς. This remark can easily be inserted into a tradition,
often hostile, which attributes plagiarism to Plato of the works of previous think-
ers. Certainly, more in general, this appears to be a clear example of a tendency
on the part of ancient literary criticism, which was anxious to identify the κλοπαί
of authors from the past. In this sense, as an actual manifesto of widespread in-
terest in the issue of plagiarism, the dense fragment of the Φιλόλογος ἀκρόασις
by Porphyry (apud Eus. PE 10, 3, 1–25 = 410 F Smith) may be recalled. Right at
this point, at the conclusion of the fragment, Porphyry confronts another of Pla-
to’s debts to Protagoras: Plato appears to have drawn on, perhaps in Parmenides,
Corradi (2012, pp. 216–24).
Protagoras’ Περὶ τοῦ ὄντος, arguments against monist thinkers, πρὸς τοὺς ἓν τὸ
ὂν εἰσάγοντας (80 B 2 DK)⁸.
Certainly Aristoxenus, author of a Πλάτωνος βίος (61–68 Wehrli
), is proba-
bly not the most neutral source in regard to Plato⁹. From the fragments con-
served, a critical approach emerges towards the philosopher. His studies may
however be inserted fully within the scholarly activities of the Peripatetic,
above all in the biographical arena. An activity focused on the works of the
great authors of the past, with the aim of seeking out data useful in order to un-
derstand their personalities and reconstruct aspects of their lives. This activity
did not conform to the criteria of modern historico-philological research, but in-
clined to imaginative reconstructions, often based on the so-called Chameleon
The analysis of what, with the apology in Theaetetus (166a–168c = 80 A 21a
DK), the most important section is wherein Plato presents himself as Protagoras’
spokesman, the great speech¹¹ in Protagoras (320c–328d = 80 C 1 DK), poses in
any case a series of exegetic problems that confronts us with doubts that are not
far removed from those that in all likelihood stimulated the curiosity of the an-
cient literary critics.
1. Memory of the μῦθος
The great speech of Protagoras (320c–328d) is structured in two sections, μῦθος
and λόγος. In the first section Protagoras constructs a story on the origin of
human society. This story starts from the original unhappy condition of man-
kind, up to the rise of the πόλις, and dwells on two subsequent interventions
on the part of the divinity: that of Prometheus, who gives the gift of τέχναι to
men, and that of Zeus who gives them a gift of αἰδώς and δίκη. In the λόγος sec-
tion, Protagoras develops considerations on the educational commitment on the
Regarding the accusations of plagiarism towards Plato, see Dörrie, Baltes (1990, pp. 236–46).
Cf. now also Corradi (2013, p. 82).
Dillon (2012) offers a recent contribution on the extant fragments of Aristoxenus’ Πλάτωνος
βίος. On Aristoxenus’ biographical method, see Schorn (2012).
With regard to the so-called Chameleon method, cf. now Arrighetti (2008). A useful overview
of the scholarly activity of the Peripatetics may be found in Montanari (2012). On the importance
that biographical research assumes in that area, cf. Fortenbaugh (2007).
The label “great speech” for the μῦθος and the λόγος that the Sophist pronounces in Prota-
goras has become canonical above all starting with the introduction by Gregory Vlastos to the
translation of the dialogue by Benjamin Jowett, revised by Martin Ostwald (Vlastos 1956
, pp. 273–76).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
part of Athens towards its young, as well as reflecting on the role of the Sophists
and the function of punishment. Significantly, many of the elements developed
in the great speech, which still come across as consistent overall with what we
can reconstruct about Protagoras from the other testimonies in our possession,
present aspects that are quite obviously Platonic. Just how much then of the ex-
traordinary portrait of the Sophist that emerges is due to Plato’s literary genius?
The problem, however, may be put in diametrically opposite terms: is it possible
to think that there really was a reflective influence exerted by his character, that
is, by Protagoras on Plato?
We shall try here to put forward an answer that is at least plausible in regard
to these considerations, by means of an analysis, in light of the most recent re-
sults arising from literary criticism, of some of the crucial points of the great
speech in Protagoras. We shall then try to relate these, on the one hand, and
where possible, to the testimonies concerning Protagoras in our possession,
and on the other, to loci paralleli in Plato.
As is known, from a stylistic point of view, the μῦθος in the Protagoras pre-
sents unusual characteristics compared to the more usual style in Plato’s myths;
these confirm Philostratus’ intuition (VS I 10, 4 = 80 A 2 Diels-Kranz), who was
the first to grasp Plato’s wish to mirror Protagoras’ style in Protagoras’ speech.
Consider, for instance, the sequences already highlighted by Ludwig Friedrich
Heindorf¹² or the choice of the λέξις εἰρομένη¹³. From the point of view of the
content too, more than a few elements may in all likelihood be traced back to
Protagoras. In recent times Bernd Manuwald¹⁴ has carried out a series of in-
depth studies on the Protagoras, and in particular on Prometheus’ μῦθος: pre-
cisely in relation to the link between the μῦθος and the historical Protagoras,
he has arrived at largely convincing results. It is plausible that Protagoras had
in a lost work (which for Manuwald may well have been the Περὶ πολιτείας
[80 B 8a DK] and not, as is generally supposed, the Περὶ τῆς ἐν ἀρχῇ κατα-
Heindorf (1810, p. 505) recalls ἄοπλον … φύσιν, σμικρότητι ἤμπισχεν, πτηνὸν φυγήν (320e).
Cf. now Serrano Cantarín & Díaz de Cerio Díez (2005, pp. XLV–XLVI).
, pp. 367–74). Bertagna (2012) highlights some specifics regarding the narrative
structure of the μῦθος, which may have been conscious mirrorings of story-telling techniques
proper to the archaic epos. While Morgan (2000, pp. 132–54) attempts to trace all the characters
of Sophist epideictics in the μῦθος of Protagoras; Most (2012) shows how it already presents
nearly all the typical features of myths present in Plato’s mature work. However, insisting on
a distinction between Sophistic and Platonic aspects may not be necessary. Cf. Manuwald
(2003), who underlines the paradigmatic role that the μῦθος section of the Protagoras assumes
In particular Manuwald (1996), Manuwald (1999, pp. 168–236), Manuwald (2003) and Manu-
στάσεως [80 B 8b DK]) already developed a mythological story on the origins of
human civilization in order to illustrate the central role of πολιτικὴ τέχνη in its
evolution, the superiority of this τέχνη compared to others and the space that the
central role of πολιτικὴ τέχνη offers the Sophists’ pedagogical activity. Indeed,
some inconsistencies in the narration, in relation to subsequent developments
in the dialogue, may be explained as the fruit of a rather complex process of
adapting pre-existing material within the context of the dialogue. Manuwald in-
sists for instance on the case of ὁσιότης: in the μῦθος this virtue, however non-
explicit, clearly has origins prior to the gift of αἰδώς and δίκη by Zeus (322a); but
subsequently it is considered on the same level as σωφροσύνη and δικαιοσύνη –
terms that at the end of the μῦθος substitute the archaic and poetic αἰδώς and
δίκη – which are necessary for the support of human communities (325a)¹⁵.
Therefore, central to Protagoras’ speech is the observation that all men possess
to some extent σωφροσύνη and δικαιοσύνη, or at least that the possession of
these virtues by all the members of a human community is the necessary condi-
tion for the existence of the community itself (322c–d, 323a–c, 324d–e, 325a–c,
326e–327a). This thesis, according to Manuwald, must have been the basis of
Protagoras’ politico-anthropological manifesto, just like the thesis of the man-
measure (80 B 1 DK) represented his “erkenntnistheoretische Credo”¹⁶. It is pre-
cisely this link between the reflection on αἰδώς and δίκη and the principle of
man-measure (80 B 1 DK) that appears to be decisive for the attribution of the
theses advanced in the μῦθος to Protagoras, at least in the interpretation that
Plato himself offers of it in the celebrated apology in Theaetetus (166a–168c =
80 A 21a DK): all men have real opinions and sensations, but just as the doctor
substitutes πονηραί sensations with χρησταί sensations in the patient by means
of medication, so does the Sophist, by means of his παιδεία, manage to direct
opinions in the most useful direction. In a manner not dissimilar to the great
speech in Protagoras, the Sophist acts on men who are in themselves endowed
with αἰδώς and δίκη and therefore to some extent, at least potentially, participa-
tors in πολιτικὴ τέχνη, in order to perfect their natural talents and point them
Without falling into anachronism, Schlick (2012, pp. 40 –43) perceives in the difficulty of
conciliating the reflection on the religious phenomenon developed in the great speech with Pro-
tagoras’ agnosticism (80 B 4 DK) one of the principal arguments against attributing the doctrines
contained in it to the Sophist. In any case, as Brancacci (2013, pp. 66–67 n. 16) points out, in the
great speech religion is confined to a pre-political phase in the evolution of mankind.
Manuwald (1996, pp. 124–25).
Cf. Corradi (2013a, p. 78 n. 25).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
Important reflections on the link between the μῦθος in the Protagoras and
the historical Protagoras have also been made recently by Mauro Bonazzi
who, in Prometheus’ μῦθος, perceives the desire to tackle literary tradition on
the origins of humanity in decidedly innovative terms. This is particularly true
for Hesiod, since this wish fits into the wide range of testimonies relative to Pro-
tagoras’ critical commitment to poetry (80 A 25–30 DK)¹⁸. To return to a skilful
intuition on the part of José Solana Dueso, it may be possible to perceive in the
μῦθος in the Protagoras an exercise in ὀρθοέπεια on the part of the Sophist¹⁹.
Manuwald and Bonazzi tend to some extent to signal the specificity of the
μῦθος in the Protagoras compared to other texts on the origins and development
of civilization dating back to the V century of which we are aware²⁰, in order to
consider it a reflection on the nature of man and the opportunities of education.
But Graziano Arrighetti, precisely through a study of the link with Hesiod and the
literary tradition, has recently attempted to collocate it in the area of Plato’s re-
flection on the origins of man and the organization of communities, by placing it
in relation to Politicus and Timaeus, which definitely demonstrate a singular con-
sonance with the speech made by Protagoras in the youthful dialogue²¹. Arri-
ghetti in this case places himself on the same wavelength as Paul Friedländer,
who offers a useful outline of the links between the μῦθος in the Protagoras
and Plato’s late works²². It is undoubtedly true also for the German scholar
that, in Protagoras’ μῦθος, motifs can be heard that later became important
for Plato. In particular in the Timeaus, the function that was entrusted to Prom-
etheus and Epimetheus in the μῦθος of the Protagoras, that of forming mankind,
is entrusted to the lesser gods by the demiurge (41a–44c). Just as, in the Prota-
See above all Bonazzi (2010, pp. 84–93) and Bonazzi (2012). It is probably no coincidence
that in the dialogue (316d) Protagoras inserts Hesiod in the gallery of intellectuals who may
have carried out the activity of Sophist prior to him, despite concealing this behind other pro-
fessions. In this regard, after Brancacci (2002), cf. Boys Stones (2010, pp. 40 –45). For Koning
(2010, pp. 217–23) Protagoras’ interest in Hesiod may be traced to “rhetorical puroposes”.
Solana Dueso (2011, pp. 5–23). On ὀρθοέπεια and Protagoras’ literary reflection, cf. now also
Corradi (2012, pp. 144–75) and Rademaker (2013). Calame (2012, pp. 134–36) tackles the links
between μῦθος in the Protagoras and Prometheus Bound.
Beresford (2013), however, underlines the aspects that Protagoras’ μῦθος shares with Ionian
rationalism. On its links with Democritus’ anthropology, cf. Hourcade (2009, pp. 90 –110). De
Sanctis (2012) offers a wide-ranging overview of the theme of humanity at its origins in archaic
Arrighetti (2013). Van Riel (2012) has made a recent attempt to identify the basis for the an-
thropological doctrine that Plato was to develop in subsequent dialogues in the μῦθος of the
], pp. 176–77).
goras, mankind’s body is formed from earth and fire and whatever may be com-
bined with earth and fire, ἐκ γῆς καὶ πυρὸς μείξαντες καὶ τῶν ὅσα πυρὶ καὶ γῇ
κεράννυται (320d), in the Timeaus the body of the world, whose matter has
been borrowed in order to form mortal beings (42e-43a), is made up of fire
and earth, between which the other elements, air and water, serve as “bonds”
according to the laws of proportion (31b–32c). As has already been observed
by Wilhelm Nestle, this μηχανᾶσθαι from the perspective of the σωτηρία of living
beings that, in the μῦθος of the Protagoras, is attributed to Epimetheus (320e and
321a), in the Timaeus belongs to the demiurge and lesser gods (37e, 45d, 70c,
73c)²³. Finally, while Epimetheus exhausts the δυνάμεις to be attributed to living
beings before dedicating himself to man, the demiurge achieves the formation of
the soul of the world by consuming the mixture of which it is composed
(Pr. 321b: καταναλώσας; Ti. 36b: κατανηλώκει)²⁴.
If instead we consider the Politicus, what is immediately apparent in the cele-
brated myth narrated by the Eleatic Stranger in the dialogue (268d–274e) is that
a close link may be deduced between origin of the world and origin of the state,
much like what occurs in the μῦθος of the Protagoras²⁵. When we come to the
details, in this case too there are remarkable parallelisms between the two
texts: the primitive men in the Politicus have nothing to cover themselves with
and live naked, γυμνοὶ δὲ καὶ ἄστρωτοι (272a), just as in the Protagoras (321c)
in the beginning man was naked, barefoot, with nothing to cover him, unarmed,
γυμνός τε καὶ ἀνυπόδητος καὶ ἄστρωτος καὶ ἄοπλος – certainly curiously similar
to Eros in Diotima’s speech in the Symposium (203d: ἀνυπόδητος καὶ ἄοικος͵
χαμαιπετὴς ἀεὶ ὢν καὶ ἄστρωτος)²⁶. In both stories a phase of history is exam-
ined dealing with the evolution of mankind, in which cities do not yet exist
(Prt. 322b: πόλεις δὲ οὐκ ἦσαν; Plt. 271e: πολιτεῖαί τε οὐκ ἦσαν) and men suc-
cumb to wild beasts (Prt. 322b: ἀπώλλυντο οὖν ὑπὸ τῶν θηρίων; Plt. 274b–c:
διηρπάζοντο ὑπ̕ αὐτῶν [sc. τῶν θηρίων]). For this reason, in the Protagoras
Zeus fears that mankind will be destroyed, Ζεὺς οὖν δείσας περὶ τῷ γένει
, p. 93). With regard to the providential design aimed at the conservation of all
species put forward by Epimetheus, cf. Demont (2011). Regali (2012, pp. 121–24) carefully con-
siders the images with which Plato characterizes the creative action of the demiurge and lesser
Naturally it is impossible to cover the immense bibliography on the εἰκὼς μῦθος in the Ti-
maeus. Regarding the contentious problem of its statute, cf. at least Burnyeat (2005) and, as
the last in a series of contributions made by the scholar in this area, Brisson (2012).
Nor is it possible, with regard to the myth in the Politicus to take into consideration the im-
mense bibliography. A recent exegetic contribution has been made by Horn (2012). On the char-
acters of the reconstruction of the past that the Eleatic Stranger offers here, cf. Tulli (1994).
Cf. Serrano Cantarín & Díaz de Cerio Díez (2005 & p. 35 n. 4).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
ἡμῶν μὴ ἀπόλοιτο πᾶν (322c). Similarly, the god in the Politicus, worried that the
world will be overthrown by a storm of disorder and dissolve into the infinite sea
of inequality, κηδόμενος ἵνα μὴ χειμασθεὶς ὑπὸ ταραχῆς διαλυθεὶς εἰς τὸν τῆς
ἀνομοιότητος ἄπειρον ὄντα πόντον δύῃ, decides to invert its cycle (273d–e). Fi-
nally, in both myths the role of Prometheus is recalled, along with that of He-
phaestus and Athena for the development of the τέχναι (Prt. 321c-d: ὁ
Προμηθεὺς … κλέπτει Ἡφαίστου καὶ ᾿Aθηνᾶς τὴν ἔντεχνον σοφίαν σὺν πυρί;
Plt. 274c–d: πῦρ μὲν παρὰ Προμηθέως, τέχναι δὲ παρ̕ Ἡφαίστου καὶ τῆς
Certainly, there are illustrious precedents for Arrighetti and Friedländer
among the ancient Platonists who perceived in the μῦθος of the Protagoras gen-
uine elements of Platonic doctrine. As Harold Tarrant²⁸ recalls, in the De Fortuna
(98d), Plutarch cites as an opinion of Plato’s, κατὰ τὸν Πλάτωνα, the consider-
ations on the condition of primitive man’s disadvantage and want. And in a
much more explicit way, in the Platonic Theology (V 24, pp. 87, 15–91, 18 Saf-
frey-Westerink), Proclus considers the μῦθος in the Protagoras to be an expres-
sion of Plato’s thought. In it he finds proof for the identification of Zeus with
the demiurge of the Timaeus. According to Proclus, in the pages of the Protago-
ras, Plato traces back to Zeus the παράδειγμα of πολιτικὴ τέχνη. In the same way
it is the demiurge in the Timaeus who established the form of government per-
meating everything: the demiurge coincides therefore with Zeus²⁹.
2. From the Protagoras to the Republic: politics,
παιδεία and poetry
As far as the more strictly political aspect of the great speech is concerned, Mario
Vegetti, in returning to Aristoxenos’ malicious observations, has underlined the
link that reflections on the ideal πόλις in the Republic have with the great speech
, pp. 200 –4), despite underlining the undoubted affinities between the two
myths, identifies two basic variants: in the Politicus a divine period of government is acknowl-
edged preceding the phase in which the natural inferiority of man is manifested compared to
animals, and intervention by Zeus aimed at resolving the conflict among men by means of
the gift of πολιτικὴ τέχνη. On analogies and differences between the two myths, see now also
El Murr (2013). The δόσις of fire on the part of Prometheus is recalled, in relation to the origins
of dialectics, also in the Philebus (16c). On this, cf. Delcomminette (2006, pp. 91–96).
Tarrant (2000, p. 76).
An able presentation of the characters of Proclus’ Platonic exegesis may be found in Helmig
& Steel (2012). On Platonic tradition about the demiurge, cf. now Ferrari (2014).
in the Protagoras (320c–328c)³⁰. According to the scholar, it is possible to create
a parallel between the overcoming of the ἀδικία on the part of primitive men by
means of αἰδώς and δίκη in Prometheus’ μῦθος (322b–d) with the “genealogy of
morality” that Glaucon puts forward in Book II of the Republic: for Protagoras as
for Glaucon (358e–359a) a natural propensity to oppression is intrinsic to men³¹.
For Glaucon, men establish a mutual pact not to commit nor have to undergo in-
justice. For Protagoras, men, despite being gifted with Prometheus’ τέχναι, are
not capable of living in a community without inflicting acts of injustice on
each other, in so far as they lack πολιτικὴ τέχνη. For this reason Zeus makes
them distribute αἰδώς and δίκη, so that good order may be established in the cit-
ies, along with constraints that link men in bonds of mutual friendship, πόλεων
κόσμοι τε καὶ δεσμοὶ φιλίας συναγωγοί (322b–323a). In the interweaving of
σωφροσύνη and δικαιοσύνη, which for Protagoras guarantees all citizens the
right to participate in the political συμβουλή (323a), there may be perceived an
anticipation of the results of Book IV of the Republic: while courage and wisdom
may be found only in one part of the city, σωφροσύνη must permeate the whole
city in order that harmony be established there (431–432a) and δικαιοσύνη must
reign over it, so that every citizen may carry out their appointed task (433a–
434c)³². Furthermore, both the great speech in the Protagoras and the political
project in the Republic envisage the presence of two specialist elites in παιδεία.
For Protagoras there exists a category of men, to which belongs the Sophist,
which excels in the formation of πολιτικὴ τέχνη (328a–b). The philosophers of
the Republic are described as an elite caste of educators that aspires however
to the power to carry out a guiding role in the public παιδεία. This very reflection
on the παιδεία is in any case the aspect that more than anything else likens the
great speech in the Protagoras to the Republic. The essential function of music,
literature and gymnastics in the formation of the young, emphasized by Protago-
ras (325d–326c), is in perfect accordance with what is established in Book III of
the Republic. The connection between φύσις and παιδεία, which for Protagoras is
the pre-requisite for successful formation (323c, 327b–c), is indispensable also
according to pedagogical reflection in the Republic. Take, for instance, the con-
siderations of Book IV (431c): only in a minority of the population, which excels
Vegetti (1998, pp. 163–69) identifies the strong influence of Antiphon’s political thought in
the theses put forward by Glaucon. For Reeve (2008), instead, Glaucon develops Thrasymachus’
Brisson (2004) effectively highlights the link between the discussion on virtue in the Prota-
goras and the Republic. On the rather complex exegetic problems that the presentation of virtue
raises in Book IV of the Republic, cf. now Rowe (2013).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
in natural talents and formation, ἐν ὀλίγοις … τοῖς βέλτιστα μὲν φῦσιν, βέλτιστα
δὲ παιδευθεῖσιν, are simple and measured desires to be found. Or, the complex
pages in Book VI on the characters of natural philosophy: certainly, even the
most gifted souls, εὐφυέσταται, if they are not educated in an appropriate man-
ner, become wicked (491d–492a). Certainly, this theme in Plato is not limited only
to the Republic: in the Phaedrus (269e–270a), Socrates, not perhaps without
some irony, perceives in Pericles’ speeches the result of a perfect union of natural
talents and Anaxagoras’ παιδεία; in the Politicus (308e–309a) the Eleatic Stanger
presents these natural talents as a decisive element for obtaining a result in ed-
ucation. As far as the reflection on φύσις and παιδεία is concerned, it is however
possible to establish a link with Protagoras’ production. According to the anony-
mous writer of De Hippomacho, edited by Cramer in the Anecdota Parisiensia, in
the lost Μέγας λόγος, Protagoras had tackled the issue, maintaining that in the
didactic arena, both natural talents and practice are necessary (I 171, 31–172, 2
Cramer = 80 B 3 DK):
ἐν τῷ ἐπιγραφομένῳ Μεγάλῳ λόγῳ ὁ Πρωταγόρας εἶπε· ‘φύσεως καὶ ἀσκήσεως διδασκαλία
δεῖται’ καὶ ‘ἀπὸ νεότητος δὲ ἀρξαμένους δεῖ’³³.
As Vegetti points out, it is plausible that Protagoras be a significant presence in
the Republic. Plato, however, goes beyond this presence by means of reference to
a new order of absolute values, which precisely the central books of the Republic
contribute to establishing. This order of absolute values is based on an ontology
and epistemology that are clearly opposed to Protagoras’ relativism.
In a contribution presented on the occasion of the IX Symposium of “The
International Plato Society” in Tokyo, I attempted to develop Vegetti’s conclu-
sions concerning the link that Plato seems to have set up in the Republic with
the reflection in the Protagoras, on the educational role of literary production³⁴.
This link is generally explained in any case in a plausible way as a shared refer-
Without actually advancing the idea of a direct influence, Bonazzi (2009, pp. 461–62 n. 32)
perceives the presence of similar concepts in the Nicomachean Ethics (1103b23–25 and 1104b11–
13). On the polemical context to which his testimony refers, cf. Corradi (2012, pp. 15–31). As
Brancacci (2013, pp. 83–84) rightly observes, Protagoras maintained that a natural disposition
to acquire political virtue through education was intrinsic to man. More in general, with regard
to the particular concept of φύσις, which seems to emerge from the great speech in the Protago-
ras, cf. Beresford (2013, pp. 148–61). On the role that natural talents play in the process of παι-
δεία for Plato, in particular in the Republic, useful considerations may be found in Cleary (2007
, pp. 75–84).
ence to the educational practice of the time³⁵. However, by observing more close-
ly what is written in the Protagoras and the Republic, it is perhaps possible to
better clarify the meaning that this link assumes from Plato’s perspective.
Protagoras describes the path of the young Athenians’ παιδεία in a very de-
tailed manner (325c–326e): the youths, after having acquired language and their
first concepts of morality at home, then learn writing and music from masters
who, more than disciplines, occupy themselves with εὐκοσμία. To this end
they pass on their knowledge of the works of the great poets, ποιητῶν ἀγαθῶν
ποιήματα, since they contain a great deal of advice, νουθετήσεις, as well as
many descriptions, eulogies and lots of praise of ancient heroes, πολλαὶ δὲ διέξο-
δοι καὶ ἔπαινοι καὶ ἐγκώμια παλαιῶν ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν, so as to spur the young to
a μίμησις of the favoured models³⁶. In a similar way, the music teacher occupies
himself with σωφροσύνη, teaching the works of other melic ἀγαθοί poets to the
young, to be sung accompanied on the cithara. In this way, the rhythms and har-
monies penetrate into the soul of the young, so they may become more mild-
mannered, ἡμερώτεροι, and, by becoming more harmonious and orderly, καὶ
εὐρυθμότεροι καὶ εὐαρμοστότεροι γιγνόμενοι, trustworthy in word and action,
χρήσιμοι … εἰς τὸ λέγειν τε καὶ πράττειν. Overall, in his life man needs εὐρυθμία
and εὐαρμοστία. Along with the literary and musical παιδεία, there is gymnas-
tics. Once studies have been concluded, the πόλις continues to educate its citi-
zens to justice by means of laws and the punishment of those who infringe them.
The starting point of young people’s educational formation, as outlined by
Plato in Book II and III of the Republic, are μῦθοι, which mothers tell their chil-
dren, and these μῦθοι are certainly inspired by the literary tradition. For Plato,
only suitable μῦθοι ought to be selected, ἐγκριτέον³⁷. Therefore those offering
a negative image of the gods and heroes have to be excluded. The μίμησις
must be limited from childhood to virtuous models, ἀνδρεῖοι, σώφρονες,
ὅσιοι, ἐλεύθεροι, καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα πάντα (395c). As far as the musical aspect is
concerned, the παιδεία of the young only has to contain Doric harmony, which
is capable of arousing determination and the Phrygian one, which is capable
of inculcating non-violent behaviour (399a-c). Indeed, refined words, harmo-
niousness, elegance and rhythmic regularity contribute to the formation of
For instance, in Giuliano (2005, pp. 39–40).
Capuccino (2011, pp. 71–73) underlines the educational function that emulation has here for
Protagoras. For Protagoras as for Plato the young have a tendency to perceive the protagonists of
literary works as models to be admired and are therefore worth conforming their behaviour to.
Cf. Lear (2011, pp. 212–13).
On the role of κριτής in literary production, which the philosopher tends to assume in Plato’s
dialogues, cf. Regali (2012, pp. 53–56).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
good character, εὐλογία ἄρα καὶ εὐαρμοστία καὶ εὐσχημοσύνη καὶ εὐρυθμία εὐη-
θείᾳ ἀκολουθεῖ (400d–e): in fact rhythm and harmony descend deep into the
soul, imbuing it with beauty (401d–e)³⁸. To literary and musical παιδεία corre-
sponds an adequate physical education (411a–412a). In the Republic Plato there-
fore seems both to go into greater detail and apply discipline according to more
rigid criteria than Protagoras set out in the dialogue by the same name. The link
with Protagoras’ words however is not limited to Book III. In Book X Plato devel-
ops his own criticism of poetry from the past, basing himself on an ontological
criterion: art does not imitate being, but appearance, and for this reason it is
τρίτον … ἀπὸ τῆς ἀληθείας (602c). Poetry and in particular its greatest repre-
sentative, Homer, have to be excluded from the ideal πόλις, wherein only artistic
production capable of holding up positive models for imitation by its citizens
may be accepted, ὅσον μόνον ὕμνους θεοῖς καὶ ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς ποιήσεως
παραδεκτέον εἰς πόλιν (607a). At the end of his reflection on poetry, Plato there-
fore arrives at similar results to those of Protagoras, who placed contact with the
production of great poets at the centre of young people’s educational path, ποιη-
τῶν ἀγαθῶν ποιήματα, full of νουθετήσεις, many descriptions, eulogies and lots
of praise of ancient heroes, πολλαὶ δὲ διέξοδοι καὶ ἔπαινοι καὶ ἐγκώμια παλαιῶν
ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν, capable of spurring to imitation (325e–326a)³⁹.
As I had already pointed out in my contribution in Tokyo, in outlining the
formative path of the guardians, Plato could not but bear in mind the reflection
on literature developed by Protagoras: indeed, it is precisely in the Protagoras
that Plato demonstrates his in-depth knowledge of it. With Protagoras’ reflection
on literature, Plato could find significant points of convergence. For both of
them, poetry is the basis of the traditional παιδεία and the imitation of models
put forward by literary texts as an efficacious educational tool. Both Plato and
Protagoras, at least on the basis of the testimonies relative to its ὀρθοέπεια, un-
derline the necessity of having a critical attitude towards poetry, and an accurate
filter of texts in operation according to rigorous criteria.
Pelosi (2010, pp. 14–67) correctly interprets musical παιδεία in the Republic as a process that
aimed at the conditioning of young people’s sensibility. More generally, on the central role of
music in the pedagogical project of dialogue, cf. Schofield (2010).
For Plato’s reflection on μίμησις, Tulli (2013) reconstructs a fertile link with literary tradition.
A recent contribution on the rather complex problem of the double treatment accorded to Book
III and Book X has come from Casanova (2013). The hymns and encomia allowed in the ideal city
probably indicate the same production as Plato. Cf. Gaiser (1984, pp. 103–23).
3. Punishment τοῦ μέλλοντος χάριν
Similar results also emerge from an analysis of another renowned passage of the
great speech in the Protagoras, which has been attracting scholars’ attention for
some time now (323e–324c). In order to demonstrate that ἀρετή is held to be the
fruit of ἐπιμέλεια, ἄσκησις and διδαχή, Protagoras develops reflections on the
function of the punishment that come across as particularly innovative. Accord-
ing to Protagoras, nobody – unless he wants to commit an irrational vendetta,
ἀλογίστως, on the same level as an animal, ὥσπερ θηρίον, – punishes whoever
commits an injustice for the injustice committed. This is because it can in no way
ensure that whatever has occurred not have occurred, οὐ γὰρ ἂν τό γε πραχθὲν
ἀγένητον θείη. Punishment is meted out instead with an eye to the future, τοῦ
μέλλοντος χάριν, so that whoever has committed an injustice not repeat his
crime and other men, faced with the example afforded, not commit the same
crime, ἵνα μὴ αὖθις ἀδικήσῃ μήτε αὐτὸς οὗτος μήτε ἄλλος ὁ τοῦτον ἰδὼν κολα-
σθέντα⁴⁰. Punishment therefore has a preventive purpose, it should deter,
ἀποτροπῆς … ἕνεκα. And – Protagoras emphasises – underpinning it lies the
conviction that virtue may be acquired and taught, παρασκευαστὸν εἶναι καὶ
This theme is taken up by Plato, for example in the Gorgias (525b) wherein
Socrates first of all grasps the utility for whoever is being punished (he is im-
proved and healed of his own injustice by means of the punishment), but he
also emphasises the paradigmatic function of the punishment:
προσήκει δὲ παντὶ τῷ ἐν τιμωρίᾳ ὄντι, ὑπ̕ ἄλλου ὀρθῶς τιμωρουμένῳ, ἢ βελτίονι γίγνεσθαι
καὶ ὀνίνασθαι ἢ παραδείγματι τοῖς ἄλλοις γίγνεσθαι, ἵνα ἄλλοι ὁρῶντες πάσχοντα ἃ ἂν
πάσχῃ φοβούμενοι βελτίους γίγνωνται⁴¹.
The similarity with the extract of the Protagoras, also from a lexical point of
view, is even more marked in Book XI of the Laws (934a–b). Despite occurring
Denyer (2008, p. 112) connects the considerations developed here by Protagoras with Dio-
genes Laërtius’ observation that the Sophist was the first to distinguish the μέρη χρόνου (IX
52 = 80 A 1 DK): originally they appear to have been inserted in to the context of a reflection
on the differences between past and future. Saunders (1991, pp. 133–36) tends to play down
the originality of Protagoras’ position. Schlick (2012, pp. 30 –32) raises doubts as to its historical
consistency. Bonazzi (2010, p. 138 n. 9) collocates it however in a plausible way in the context of
the radical humanism advanced by the Sophist.
On the perspective, which is both philosophical and political, in which Plato appears to col-
locate the reflection on punishment in the myth of the Gorgias, cf. Sedley (2009).
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
in the context of a distinction between different types of guilt, the fruit of one’s
ἄνοια or others’ persuasion, which is lacking in Protagoras’ argument, the Athe-
nian perceives how the punishment is not inflicted on the basis of the crime
committed – in no case, in fact, may what has occurred, τὸ γεγονός, be
ἀγένητον – but rather with a view to the future, τοῦ δ’ εἰς τὸν αὖθις ἕνεκα
χρόνον, so that both the person being punished and those who observe the pun-
ishment may abhor the nature of the injustice, ἢ τὸ παράπαν μισῆσαι τὴν ἀδικίαν
αὐτόν τε καὶ τοὺς ἰδόντας αὐτὸν δικαιούμενον.
The repetition is striking, both in the extract from the Laws and in that of the
Protagoras, of the truism, well-known in Greek literary tradition – Simonides
(603 Page), Pindarus (O. II 15–17), Theognis (583–584), Sophocles (Ajax, 378
and the Trachiniae, 742–743), Agathon (39 F 5 Snell-Kannicht), Antiphon (87 B
58 DK) – indeed perhaps proverbial at this stage, according to which it is not
possible for what has occurred not to have occurred⁴².
As Richard Stalley has shown so persuasively, the distance between the po-
sition attributed to Protagoras and that maintained in other dialogues is not
therefore so great⁴³. In particular, the Protagoras of the Protagoras (323e–
324c), the Socrates in the Gorgias (525b) and the Athenian of the Laws (934a–
b) clearly collocate the punishment in a pedagogical context, sharing the convic-
tion that the πόλις has the task of forming its citizens and that punishment plays
a crucial role in this process.
4. An ἀγγεῖον for Protagoras’ μαθήματα
From the series of excerpts that have been considered here, a sense of continuity
clearly emerges between many points present in the great speech in the Protago-
ras and Plato’s subsequent output. In several cases it has been possible to estab-
lish a point of contact with what may be reconstructed regarding the thought and
figure of Protagoras from other available testimonies. In other cases the situation
is more doubtful. Certainly, even if one were tempted to attribute a great deal to
Plato’s creative genius, the problem would still remain of ascertaining why Plato
wished to make Protagoras a mouthpiece for doctrines and teachings that, from
what emerges from other dialogues, Plato held to be valid. For this reason I be-
lieve it is plausible to think of the presence in Plato’s output of a resumption, or
Cf. Manuwald (1999, p. 208) and Schöpsdau (2011, p. 511).
at least a re-elaboration, of Protagoras’ doctrines⁴⁴. In any case, right in the ini-
tial section of the Protagoras, Plato himself, through Socrates, clearly theorized
the possibility of acquiring μαθήματα from Protagoras when they may be judged
as valid. Sure enough, within the dense exchange on the nature of the Sophist
between Socrates and the young Hippocrates, who wishes to become a pupil
of Protagoras (311b–314c), an exchange that is frequently interpreted, and under-
standably so, as a manifesto of Socrates’ strongly critical approach towards the
Sophists’ παιδεία, Plato offers a criterion for the correct approach towards Prota-
goras’ doctrines and teachings. The Sophists are presented, in a very similar way
to that present in the Sophist (224c–d), as retail and wholesale merchants of
μαθήματα, which they praise to the skies in order to sell them, ἐπαινοῦσιν μὲν
πάντα ἃ πωλοῦσιν. Some of them may not know what, among the things they
sell, is useful or dangerous for the soul of whoever buys it, τούτων ἀγνοοῖεν
ὧν πωλοῦσιν ὅτι χρηστὸν ἢ πονηρὸν πρὸς τὴν ψυχήν. And the client will find
himself in the same condition, unless by chance he happens to be a man ἰατρι-
κός, who knows which among these doctrines is good and which bad, ἐπιστήμων
τούτων τί χρηστὸν καὶ πονηρόν. This man may acquire them safely both from
Protagoras or from anybody else, ὠνεῖσθαι μαθήματα καὶ παρὰ Πρωταγόρου
καὶ παρ’ ἄλλου ὁτουοῦν. As Michael Gagarin has already pointed out⁴⁵, this im-
plies that Protagoras’ doctrines may contain both useful and deleterious ele-
ments. So it is permissible to pick up useful contributions also from Protagoras.
But how is the man ἰατρικός to act? In other words, how, without running a risk,
is it possible to distinguish χρηστόν from πονηρόν in Protagoras’ doctrines?
The analysis of two singular images utilized by Plato in this context may per-
haps offer a key. The image of the man ἰατρικός, the doctor of the soul⁴⁶, which
will certainly be greatly developed for example in celebrated pages of the Gorgias
for the definition of rhetoric (463e–465d), may occupy a function that is similar
to the image of φάρμακον in Book X of the Republic. When the discussion of po-
For Van Riel (2012, p. 162) the Platonic character of many doctrines contained in the μῦθος
does not negate a link with ideas of the historical Protagoras. Schlick (2012) is of the opposite
opinion: Plato appears to attribute to Protagoras his own doctrine in order to better highight his
own distance from the Sophist on a methodological level. In my opinion, Friedländer (1964
], p. 177) is more plausible, who maintains: “Just as the general position of the Sophists
is not only opposed to Socrates as something to be fought and overcome, but is, at the same
time, a first approximation to the problems discussed, so the myth of the Sophist is a first
hint – though not more than that – not altogether estranged from Plato’s thoughts, but some-
thing that continues to grow within him throughout the years”.
Desclos (1992, pp. 111–18) looks at the image of Socrates the “doctor” in Protagoras. Marino
(2010, pp. 79–90) sees there the paradigm of the Hyppocratic τέχνη.
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
etry is taken up again at the beginning of the book (595a–b), Socrates underlines
the necessity of not accepting imitative poetry in the ideal city. In fact, imitative
poetry constitutes a λώβη for the διάνοια of whoever among the public is not in
possession of a φάρμακον, that is to say, does not know its nature, τὸ εἰδέναι
αὐτὰ οἷα τυγχάνει ὄντα. A φάρμακον that ought perhaps to be identified with
the discussion itself that took place in the Republic on facilitating a correct
and safe approach to the poets’ texts, if not, as Stephen Halliwell⁴⁷ has recently
maintained, with the knowledge of the true philosopher, whose paradigm has
been outlined in the central books of the Republic as the pursuit of the idea of
good. As in the case of poetry, the true philosopher may draw near to Protagoras’
knowledge without risk, managing even to gain from it elements of manifest
But it is perhaps possible to go even further. Continuing with the reading of
the Protagoras, a curious image is encountered, put forward by Socrates (313e–
314b). Socrates advises Hippocrates not to assimilate Protagoras’ teachings,
should he not be able to distinguish within them between what is advantageous
and what is damaging. Taking up the parallelism again of the buying and selling
of food, Socrates points out how, in the case of the teachings, the situation is
much riskier compared to what occurs when dealing with food, γὰρ δὴ καὶ
πολὺ μείζων κίνδυνος ἐν τῇ τῶν μαθημάτων ὠνῇ ἢ ἐν τῇ τῶν σιτίων. Whoever
buys food wholesale from a merchant or retail, may place it ἐν ἄλλοις ἀγγείοις,
in other containers, and bring it home before consuming it and ingesting it into
one’s body. In this way, a person may turn to an expert and enquire whether he
may eat it, in what quantity and how, ἔξεστιν συμβουλεύσασθαι, παρακαλέσαντα
τὸν ἐπαΐοντα, ὅτι τε ἐδεστέον ἢ ποτέον καὶ ὅτι μή, καὶ ὁπόσον καὶ ὁπότε. For this
reason, buying food like this does not constitute a great risk. On the other hand,
teachings may not be stored in another container, ἐν ἄλλῳ ἀγγείῳ, in order to be
evaluated by an expert; once they have been assimilated, they penetrate the soul
and whoever takes them on board, returns home either improved or damaged,
ἀνάγκη καταθέντα τὴν τιμὴν τὸ μάθημα ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ψυχῇ λαβόντα καὶ μαθόντα
ἀπιέναι ἢ βεβλαμμένον ἢ ὠφελημένον. Therefore, for Socrates a container does
not exist, an ἀγγεῖον capable of containing Protagoras’ μαθήματα, a space in
which they may be analysed without risk in such a way as to be able to choose
useful doctrines and reject those that are dangerous. Certainly, as Lidia
Palumbo⁴⁹ has noted, in the course of the dialogue, Hippocrates, with Socrates’
Notomi (2011) highlights the affinities that poet and Sophist present from the Platonic per-
help, may get a taste of Protagoras’ doctrines at no danger to himself. Socrates is
therefore the ἰατρικὸς περὶ τὴν ψυχήν, capable of dealing correctly with Protago-
ras’ μαθήματα. To all intents and purposes, cannot the container perhaps be
identified with the same dialogue by Plato? An ἀγγεῖον that, in the literary pre-
tence of the prologue of the Protagoras, for Socrates does not exist and cannot
yet exist: it is Plato who, precisely in Socrates’ name, has understood how it
may be created⁵⁰. Certainly, the image of the ἀγγεῖον does not always have a pos-
itive connotation in Plato. In the Gorgias (493e), for instance, the perforated con-
tainer becomes a symbol for a life given over to pleasure. In the Symposium
(175d) Socrates is ironic about a model of knowledge as if it were a decanting
from a full container – in this case a κύλιξ – to an emptier one. In the Phaedrus
(235c–d) it is Socrates himself however who becomes an ἀγγεῖον, even if of a
type of knowledge that will be seen to be spurious: after having listened to Lisia’s
speech read by Phaedrus, Socrates declares that he knows the best speeches,
whose authors, however, he does not exactly remember, perhaps Sappho,
maybe Anacreon or some other prose writer. In fact, he feels his chest is full
of λόγοι that are not the fruit of his learning, given his ignorance, but come
from some other source, which he has been filled up with through listening,
ἐξ ἀλλοτρίων ποθὲν ναμάτων διὰ τῆς ἀκοῆς πεπληρῶσθαι, like a vase, δίκην
ἀγγείου⁵¹. And in the Theaetetus in any case an ἀγγεῖον is the cage in which ἐπι-
στῆμαι (197d–e) similar to birds accumulate from the earliest age⁵².
Denyer (2008, p. 78) takes into consideration the hypothesis that a suitable container for
holding the μαθήματα may be the book, only to reject it on the basis of Socrates’ and Plato’s
well-known mistrust of writing. There is not sufficient space here to return to the vexata quaestio
concerning Plato’s judgement of the written word. Certainly, Gaiser (1984, pp. 31–54 and 103–
123) claims a statute that is anything but marginal for the dialogue. In this regard, cf. at least
Erler (2007, pp. 60 –98, 416–18 and 486–97).
Concerning the image of the perforated jar in the Gorgias, cf. Dalfen (2004, pp. 376–77). Cor-
rigan & Glazov Corrigan (2004, pp. 33–37) interpret the criticism of the transmission of knowl-
edge as a simple passage of concepts that Socrates develops in the Symposium in the context of
Plato’s polemic against the Sophists. For the passage in the Phaedrus, Yunis (2011, p. 107) recalls
Democritus (68 A 126a), according to whom hearing is like liquid filling a jar, ἀγγείου δίκην. For
a convincing analysis of this passage, see now also Capra (2014, pp. 69–71). The image of dia-
logue as a container does not appear to be an ex nihilo creation by Plato: already in the VI Ist-
mica (1–3), Pindarus conceives of his own ode as a crater of songs, κρατὴρ Μοισαίων μελέων,
while in a fragment, attributed uncertainly to the poet (354 Snell-Maehler), reference is made to
the opening, ἀνοῖξαι, of a πίθος ὕμνων. Cf. Nünlist (1998, pp. 199–205). On foodstuff metaphors,
], pp. 134–36) offers a wide-ranging panorama from ancient times to the
Latin Middle Ages.
On this famous analogy and its limits, cf. Ferrari (2011, pp. 103–4), who among other things
offers an extensive bibliography on this topic.
Doing business with Protagoras (Prot. 313e)
In the new container represented by dialogue, Protagoras’ μαθήματα may
therefore been observed close up and studied without risk in the presence of So-
crates, the doctor of the soul who, with his dialectic art, enables us to separate
the χρηστόν from the πονηρόν. This χρηστόν, as we have already seen, is a pre-
cious legacy for Plato in the mature pages of the Republic, of the Politicus and the
Timaeus, as well as the Laws, written in his in old age. This precious legacy gave
rise to fruits that have a different taste to the one, perhaps still unripe, they had
at the stall of the merchant Protagoras, because they have acquired maturity and
flavour through the heat of the sun under whose rays Plato’s art and thought
have perceived the paradigm of ἀγαθόν.
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Marcelo D. Boeri
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two
philosophical characters or what a
philosophical soul should do
Plato’s spokesmen and Plato’s voice
Plato speaks through his characters; even those characters who seem to
be far from a view that we would attribute to Socrates (Plato) can be understood
as speakers of Plato himself. When in the final section of the Gorgias the char-
acter Socrates discusses the Calliclean thesis of crude hedonism, nobody, I
think, would be seriously willing to assume that Plato endorses Callicles’ argu-
ment. But without a Callicles saying that the good can be identified with pleas-
ure without qualification, Socrates could not deploy his arguments
against that kind of hedonism. In the Philebus Plato does successfully show
that a certain sort of pleasure can and should be incorporated into the good
life, but in order to do that he must show first that the crude hedonism defended
by Philebus and Protarchus (at the beginning of the dialogue) is not feasible.
The characters who appear to endorse sometimes antithetical positions in
the dialogues (such as Protarchus and Socrates in the Philebus) may be under-
stood as the means Plato makes use of to put difficulties to himself and thus
to think that, after all, the dialogue is just a discourse (logos), a conversation
the soul has with itself, since when one thinks, one dialogues, asks himself ques-
tions and answers, affirms and denies (Theaetetus 189e-190a; Sophist 263e). To be
sure, when one debates with another, such a dialogue is not necessarily interior;
but even in this case the question-answer method describes the movement of
thought: thinking is dialoguing, conversing. It is the same procedure which al-
lows one to think through an issue without having formulated it definitively.
I intend to discuss here two of these Platonic characters, namely, Theaetetus
and Protarchus. In spite of their distinct personal characteristics they can be un-
* This is the expanded version of the lecture given at the colloquium “Plato’s Styles and
Characters” (Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil, August 20 –24, 2012). I am grateful to the organizer
of the conference, Gabriele Cornelli, for the invitation, and to Beatriz Bossi and Mauro Tulli for
their remarks. I am also grateful to Michael Erler for his written comments, and Nicholas D.
Smith for conversation on this topic. I am indebted both to Patricia S.Vulcano and Zachary Hugo
for improving my English. The final version of this piece has been written with the support of
Fondecyt project 1150067, Chile.
derstood as “philosophical characters”, which I believe to be so for the following
reasons: (i) they are willing to dialogue (and this is probably so because they
take for granted that they can be wrong and hence they should modify what
they believe). (ii) They note early on in the conversation that the dialogue per-
mits one to observe from a different perspective what they themselves thought
and, at least in some cases, they start to believe that there is reason to modify
what they think (and this is not because of shame or because of an external pres-
sure, say, but because of genuine conviction that what they believe is false); (iii)
they also understand that they should not respond to Socrates (the great ques-
tioner of Plato’s dialogues) with what he wishes to hear, but what they really be-
lieve to be true; (iv) finally, even though at the end of the conversation they are
not completely certain with regard to the correct answer to the proposed ques-
tion, they know that they have made some progress. If this is really so, there
is reason to suspect that they have acquired an awareness, both of the limits
of their own knowing and of the psychological change they have undergone
after the dialogical debate. Naturally, all the points I have just listed actually
are part of a set of common places in the dialogical practice, as we know
from the dialogues. But in the development of my presentation I hope to show
that the manner in which both Theaetetus and Protarchus can be regarded as
good examples of such common places constitutes the conditions themselves
of the philosophical dialogue.
Theaetetus and Protarchus as philosophical
When one examines the character Theaetetus in the homonymous dialogue and
the character Protarchus in the Philebus, an important point emerges with regard
to the characters Theodorus and Philebus. A salient point of convergence be-
tween Theaetetus and Protarchus (two characters who, from the viewpoint of
the characters themselves, appear to be very different) is that both end up taking
the place of their respective mentors in conversation. It is true that the way in
which Theodorus abandons the dialogue is considerably different from the man-
ner in which Philebus does. However, they give up their place in conversation to
their disciples on account of reasons that, from Plato’s viewpoint, turn out to be
Let us first examine the case of Theodorus: even though his participation in
the Theaetetus is relevant at the beginning of the dialogue, he is reluctant to ac-
tively participate in conversation and in the process of research that he suspects
Marcelo D. Boeri
such a conversation involves. First, Theodorus claims that he is unused to such
kind of conversation and that, due to his age, his is not willing to accustom him-
self (Theat. 146b); later he justifies his retreat from the discussion asserting that
he prefers to be a spectator and not to be dragged into the arena, so he does not
have to struggle with someone younger and more supple (162b6–7: μὴ ἕλκειν
πρὸς τὸ γυμνάσιον σκληρὸν ἤδη ὄντα, τῷ δὲ δὴ νεωτέρῳ τε καὶ ὑγροτέρῳ
ὄντι προσπαλαίειν; see also 165a-b). In the previous passage (162a) Theodorus
declares that he could not accept that Protagoras was refuted by what he (i.e.
Theodorus) admits or acknowledges (δι᾿ ἐμοῦ ὁμολογοῦντος); and immediately
he adds that, against his own opinion, he may not oppose Socrates. Actually,
this is Theodorus’ justification for suggesting that Socrates should take up his
dialogue with Theaetetus again, since “he was listening to Socrates very careful-
ly”. This remark produces Socrates’ immediate reaction, who complains that if
one attends a Spartan wrestling-school it would not be fair to be a spectator
as other people exercise naked without stripping and showing one’s own body
(eîdos; Theaet. 162b).¹ The meaning of this comparison is clearly that, such as
it is done in the wrestling-arena, one should exercise (or train) like the others.
So Socrates’ exhortation indeed points to the fact that Theodorus, just as Theae-
tetus, must be cooperative with the dialogue and should be an active participant
There is a general sense in which the reasons provided by Theodorus to
avoid participating in the debate seem to be reasonable; after all, he is not a pro-
fessional philosopher, and the explanations Plato puts in his mouth for aban-
doning the discussion and the cooperative research process that such a debate
presupposes appear reasonable if they are viewed from this perspective. Of
course, Theaetetus is not a professional philosopher either, although, as Socrates
has already noted, he possesses the ideal conditions to be so: in spite of the fact
that at the beginning of the conversation Theaetetus has certain doubts, he final-
ly decides to get involved in the debate. Yet, Theodorus probably also wants to
retreat from discussion due to Socrates’ intimidating style of addressing the au-
dience which can be viewed as a way of announcing that the debate will be
prickly, a situation in which Theodorus does not want to be involved. After
the argument intending to show that knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and wisdom
(σοφία) are the same thing, Socrates challenges the audience again when he ex-
plains his puzzlement (ἀπορία), since he is unable to sufficiently understand
It is true that Theodorus plays a significant role in the discussion of Protagoras’ theory
(cf. 168c-183c). But Plato always shows Theodorus to be reluctant in the dialogue, and he intends
to give a certain prominence to Theaetetus (see the final section of 183c).
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
what knowledge is. Before this statement he challenges the audience to answer
his question (146a1: τί φατέ;), but there is complete silence (146a5: τί σιγᾶτε;).
Certainly, one could think that after Socrates has said that the one who makes
a mistake (or rather who always fails) will go to sit down like a donkey, the Soc-
ratic calling to dialogue and attempt to examine such a hard subject (knowledge)
does not sound very friendly. By contrast, whoever makes it through without err-
ing will be a king and will question whatever he or she wants. It is natural that
no one should want to respond: the person who makes no assertions is the only
one who is free from error. As we know, whoever dares to answer Socrates’ ques-
tions chances being turned down and, apparently, being viewed as “the donkey
who goes to sit down”, and ridiculed. However, as is well known from the Gor-
gias onwards, Plato declares (through his spokesman Socrates) that to be refuted
should not be understood as an insult; on the contrary, refutation is what guar-
antees that one is able to check his own view and, if necessary, to correct it.² But,
of course, Socrates himself realizes he is being a little rude and immediately he
attributes that to his “love of arguments”³ and to his eagerness to make people
converse and become friends and talkative to one another.⁴
Theodorus is the one who attempts to break up this tension, although his
maneuver can be understood as an elegant strategy to swiftly retreat from de-
bate: he, Theodorus, is not accustomed to this kind of discussion and, due to
his age, he is not ready to become accustomed.⁵ By contrast, it would be fitting
for the young people around him to get involved in conversation, and if they do
so they will improve and make progress. After saying that, Theodorus straightfor-
wardly points to Theaetetus as the person Socrates should question (146b). Soc-
rates already had the opportunity to talk to the young and promising Theaetetus,
and now tries to persuade him to take the responsibility of conversation by argu-
ing that he cannot distrust Theodorus, someone from whom Theaetetus admits
having learned. And if he has recognized that he learns from him it is because he
thinks Theodorus knows something. That is to say, if Theodorus takes Theaetetus
Plato, Gorgias, 458a2-b1. Cf. also Euthydemus 295a and Sophist 230b-e. It is true that in the
Sophist 230d1–2 Plato makes emphasis on the fact that one’s soul cannot be released from
what prevents it acquiring knowledge until the one who refutes shames it by refuting it (πρὶν
ἂν ἐλέγχων τις τὸν ἐλεγχόμενον εἰς αἰσχύνην καταστήσας). But maybe this is part of the shock-
ing way with which Plato intends to move a person in order that such a person not believe that
he or she knows what actually he or she does not know. Refutation as such has a therapeutic
character insofar as the best thing to do is to rid one’s soul of ignorance, which is badness.
Theaet. 146a6: ἐγὼ ὑπὸ φιλολογίας ἀγροικίζομαι.
Cf. also Meno 75d.
A similar scene can be seen in the Laches 194a6–7 (I owe this reference to Professor Michael
Marcelo D. Boeri
to be able to converse with Socrates, it is because Theodorus believes that he can
do so. With his characteristic docility Theaetetus responds that he has to dia-
logue with Socrates since he was asked to do it, both by Theodorus and Socrates;
anyway, if he makes a mistake, Theaetetus says, they will correct him (146c). This
is a sign of trust on Theaetetus’ part, who appears to assume that, even though
he looks like a donkey, Socrates will take care of him. Probably Theaetetus
thinks so because, although he just met Socrates, he notices that Theodorus,
his mentor, trusts him. And if this is so, it must be true that, in spite of the initial
manner (a little violent and intimidating) in which Socrates calls for dialogue,
Socrates’ purpose is to create conversation, to become friendly and talkative
with the people he is conversing with.
Now if Plato really decides to leave Theodorus out of the conversation since
said character realizes that his professional knowledge does not allow him to
contribute to the debate, one should wonder why he, Theodorus, at the very be-
ginning of the dialogue, makes the flagrant mistake of stating that his opinion
has some worth even though he lacks the knowledge that would permit him
to formulate a sound view. Theodorus asserts that Theaetetus is not handsome
(καλός), but he resembles Socrates in the snubness of his nose and the bulging
of his eyes (Theaet. 143e). When the young Theaetetus appears before Theodorus
and Socrates, this one asks him to approach, so that he may examine for himself
what sort of face he has (144d). This apparently trifling episode, which gives life
to the dramatic plot in the introduction of the characters, is helpful to present for
the first time one of the central topics of the dialogue: knowledge (ἐπιστήμη). In
fact, in order to know whether or not Theodorus’ view regarding the resemblance
between Socrates and Theaetetus is well grounded one should look at Theodo-
With regard to the resemblance of the faces, one should examine whether or
not Theodorus speaks as a person who is a skilled draftsman (γραφικός). In
other words, Theodorus’ judgment is valuable if and only if it presupposes
some form of expert knowledge related to what has been said, but insofar as
he is not a skilled draftsman but a geometer, his opinion is not reliable (144e–
145a). Therefore, knowledge is an indispensable condition for one’s opinion to
have some value. At any rate, one should appeal to charity in matching Theodo-
rus’ position to our own, since in fact it is he who acknowledges in Theaetetus
the extraordinary qualities that make him the ideal interlocutor for Socrates:
Theodorus introduces Theaetetus as a person who is unusually well-endowed
by nature with the qualities of a philosopher: he is naturally good at remember-
ing, quick to learn, high-minded, graceful, and so on. In addition to that he also
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
is a person of an unbelievable gentle temper or docility.⁶ Maybe one should also
grant Theodurus the fact that he often remains with Theaetetus when Socrates
has raised a difficult problem; thus, it looks as if Theodorus’ purpose is to en-
courage Theaetetus (Theaet. 165b), even though one could interpret Theodorus’
attitude as a manner of running away and passing the problem to his disciple.⁷
However, if one is still charitable with Theodorus, one can continues to think
that his intention is to support the young Theaetetus and accompany him in
the middle of the dialectical storm. It seems to me that Theaetetus’ docility
should not be understood in the sense of someone who is willing to assent to
everything that is said; of course, it is not the case that such a situation never
occurs in the dialogue,⁸ but it would not be strange that Plato is thinking of
the remark the Visitor makes to Socrates in the Sophist:
“Well, Socrates, if the interlocutor submits to guidance easily and painlessly (ἀλύπως τε καὶ
εὐηνίως προσδιαλεγομένῳ), it’s easier in this way, to do it before someone else; but if that’s
not the case, by oneself (τὸ καθ᾿ αὑτόν)” (transl. Benardete).⁹
An interlocutor who submits to guidance easily and painlessly is not (at least not
necessarily) someone responding “yes” to anything; such a person can be some-
one who answers yes to what it is reasonable. In the Sophist, after the Visitor has
persuasively and clearly argued that the soul will have no benefit from what is
learned unless the person has eliminated the opinions that are impediments
to what is learned, and such a person is “purified, believing he knows just
what he does know and nothing else”, Theaetetus responds that this “is the
best and most moderate of states” (Sophist 230c-d). His answer is not a submis-
sive “yes”, but he is convinced that that is the case. A little earlier in the dia-
Theaet. 144a2–7: οὐδένα πω ᾐσθόμην οὕτω θαυμαστῶς εὖ πεφυκότα. τὸ γὰρ εὐμαθῆ ὄντα ὡς
ἄλλῳ χαλεπὸν πρᾷον αὖ εἶναι διαφερόντως, καὶ ἐπὶ τούτοις ἀνδρεῖον παρ᾿ ὁντινοῦν […] οἵ τε
ὀξεῖς ὥσπερ οὗτος καὶ ἀγχίνοι καὶ μνήμονες (on this passage cf. Ferrari 2011: 210, n.18). Theae-
tetus gathers several characteristics that, according to Plato, the guardian of the city should have
(see Republic 487a; 490c; 494b; 503c, where “high-mindedness” –μεγαλοπρέπεια– is added as a
distinctive quality of a philosopher). The philosopher must have a character that is both gentle
and high-spirited at the same time” (πρᾷον καὶ μεγαλόθυμον ἦθος; Rep. 375c6–7. The argument
intending to prove that these characterological features, apparently opposite, are possible starts
When at 165a-b a difficult matter is under discussion and Socrates is about to start question-
ing, he addresses Theodorus and asks him: “Shall I tell you how this might happen, or Theae-
tetus?” Theodorus responds that he should tell both of them, but the younger (i.e. Theaetetus)
should answer, because if he slips up, it would be less embarrassing.
As noted by Blondell, when he is attacked, he is a “yes-man” (2003: 278).
Marcelo D. Boeri
logue, when the Visitor argues that there are two kinds of evils (κακίαι in the
soul; 228d–e; wickedness –πονηρία– and ignorance: ἄγνοια), Theaetetus ac-
knowledges that one should admit that these two kinds of evils exist, even
though he hesitated to decide when Socrates was talking (Sophist 228e1–2:
ἠμφεγνόησα). This suggests that Theaetetus was not immediately persuaded
by Socrates, but upon reflection he became convinced that Socrates was right.
As already observed above, despite Theaetetus’ doubts and hesitations as to
whether he should get involved in the conversation, he eventually does so, un-
less Theodorus has been joking. It is true that the way in which Socrates
urges Theaetetus to engage seriously in discussion looks a little intimidating
(“Well then, it’s time, my dear Theaetetus, for you to display and for me to exam-
ine”; transl. Benardete”).¹⁰ Socrates seems to be sure that the conversation will
progress in the correct manner since he apparently trusts Theodorus’ diagnosis
with regard to Theaetetus’ philosophical qualities. As I have just pointed out,
Theaetetus is the one who doubts. This reveals the appropriate attitude that
shows clearly that he does not presuppose knowing what he does not know
(as we know, a quite different attitude is the one displayed by Protarchus at
the beginning of his conversation with Socrates, even though this does not pre-
vent him from being a reasonable interlocutor). As I have just remarked, the one
who doubts is Theaetetus, and such doubting portrays a proper attitude insofar
as it clearly shows the fact that he does not presuppose to know what he does
not know. Socrates urges Theaetetus to trust and be firm about the original
agreement.¹¹ In fact, it is Socrates himself who is responsible for giving confi-
dence to Theaetetus when he recognizes that he also learns from Theodorus
and from other people who understand questions of geometry. It is as if Socrates
were saying to Theaetetus that he, the one who will lead the discussion and who,
at least apparently, seems to possess the knowledge allowing him to ask the cor-
rect questions in order that the dialogue progresses, also learns from others or
continues learning from other people.
As is very well known, the comparison Plato makes between Socrates and
Theaetetus displays a unique detail of great intensity; of course, such a compar-
ison presupposes a careful dramatic construction: like Socrates, Theaetetus’ ex-
terior look is ugly, and resembles Socrates in the snubness of his nose and the
bulging of his eyes (even though those features are not so pronounced in him;
Theaet. 143e8–a1). But just like in Socrates such an exterior ugliness contrasts
Theaet. 145b6–7: Ὥρα τοίνυν, ὦ φίλε Θεαίτητε, σοὶ μὲν ἐπιδεικνύναι, ἐμοὶ δὲ σκοπεῖσθαι·
It may be interesting to note that Socrates has not made any (explicit) agreement with The-
aetetus, even though in this passage he refers to “what has been agreed” (145c3: τὰ ὡμολογημέ-
να) and to the “agreement” (145c5: ὁμολογία).
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
with a beautiful interior: he possesses an extraordinary character as he goes
smoothly, unfalteringly and affectively to his lessons and investigations and, de-
spite the fact that his tutors have squandered his property, he is wonderfully
open-handed about money (144b–d).¹² In addition to that, he recognizes his
own ignorance (148b; 148e) and looks interested in maintaining the coherence
of his speech (154c–e). He also shares the state of puzzlement (ἀπορία) charac-
teristic of Socrates, a state characterizing the philosophical attitude in general
(174c–d; 175b; 187d; 190e).¹³ It is pretty clear, it seems to me, that in the
Theaet. 185e4–5 Plato is playing with the aesthetic-moral ambiguity of the
word “beautiful” (καλός): in spite of his ugly look, Theaetetus is καλός, since
the one arguing-speaking “beautifully” is “beautiful and good” (ὁ γὰρ καλῶς
λέγων καλός τε καὶ ἀγαθός), that is, he is a good or distinguished person.¹⁴ Of
course, arguing “beautifully” is arguing soundly, avoiding sophistical resources,
saying what one really thinks, and admitting the consequences that follow from
what one has taken to be true. This is why the one arguing well is both a praise-
worthy and fine person (Theaet. 185e4). Interpreters have rightly suggested that
Theaetetus, a fifteen or sixteen year old young man, is presented by Plato as the
intellectual and human alter ego of Socrates.¹⁵
Unlike Theodorus (who avoids dialogue), Theaetetus is well disposed to dis-
cussion and is not afraid to make a mistake since, in the case he be wrong, he
will surely be corrected (146c5: ἄν τι καὶ ἁμάρτω, ἐπανορθώσετε). If what one
says is false and is refuted, and if one is able to understand that the refutation
is sound, one should be pleased to be refuted. And this is so because falsehood
and ignorance are evils. Perhaps one might suspect that the ignorance and stu-
pidity Plato is speaking of in these kinds of passages cannot be ignorance in the
sense of lack of certain cognitive contents. In the Republic 585b3–4, for instance,
Benardete (1984: I.159) understands differently this passage: Socrates really is ugly and his
ugliness is that of an old woman and signifies the art he practices. But as Benaderte himself re-
minds, by his same art Socrates revealed that Theaetetus was beautiful.
On aporia as the first step in philosophical approach cf. Kahn 1996: 95–100; 178–180.
See also Theaet. 142b. There is a similar scene in the Charmides; Socrates, coming back to
Athens, asks Critias if any of the young men had become distinguished for wisdom, beauty or
both (Charmides 153d). The talented and handsome young man is Charmides, and, as in the in-
troductory scene of the Theaet., he has been practicing gymnastics, and impresses (both the
youth and the elders) because of his beauty as well as his talent (see Charmides 154a-c, with
the comments by Dover 1989: 55–56). Later on Socrates clarifies that Charmides’ soul should
be good by nature and that that means being “a very distinguished person” (καλὸς καὶ ἀγαθός;
154e4). Indeed Charmides, unlike Theaetetus, also is physically beautiful. For Socrates’ erotic
disposition towards the beautiful young men, see Plato, Symposium 216d.
See Palumbo 2000: 230; Blondell 2003: 261–62; 285.
Marcelo D. Boeri
ignorance (ἄγνοια) and stupidity (ἀφροσύνη) are understood as a sort of empti-
ness of the soul’s state or condition (κενότης ἐστὶ τῆς περὶ ψυχὴν αὖ ἕξεως), in a
very similar sense to the one just indicated. I mean, even though Theaetetus is
aware that he can be mistaken, when he is asked “what is knowledge?”, and an-
swers “kinds of knowledge are what one could learn from Theodorus”
(Theaet. 146c7–8), he also depicts a proper psychological condition which can
be taken as a certain type of knowledge: the proper attitude or disposition to re-
ceive the needed objection that would permit him to correct his error. But there is
another ingredient showing Socrates that Theodorus cannot be accused of com-
mitting perjury after he had noted Theaetetus’ intellectual and human qualities:
even though Theaetetus is aware of having an expertise, he is also aware of the
limits of his own knowledge. In other words, although he is conscious that he
possesses a specific type of knowledge, he does not believe to know what he ac-
tually does not know, let alone to be able to correctly answer a difficult question
like “what is knowledge?” (148b). Theaetetus has the conviction that simply by
virtue of possessing a specific knowledge he cannot assume that he knows
other things, and this is so because each specific field of knowledge has its
own objects. This shows, once again, the philosophical and human temper of
Theaetetus, which makes him the ideal interlocutor for dialogue. Moreover,
after he has provided his initial answer to the question “what is knowledge”
and is refuted by Socrates (who in turn urges him again to endeavor to give a
new answer) Theaetetus claims:
“But know well, Socrates, it’s often that I tried to make an examination of it, in hearing the
questions that are reported as coming from you. But for all of that, I am myself incapable of
either persuading myself that I say anything adequately or hearing someone else speaking
in just the way you urge”.
And Socrates replies:
“The reason is, my dear Theaetetus, that you are suffering labor pains, on account of your
not being empty but pregnant” (Theaet. 148e; transl. Benardete).¹⁶
Socrates probably gathers that Theaetetus is “pregnant” because he recognizes
his incapability to properly respond to what was asked. In other words, Theae-
tetus acknowledges that he does not know, and such recognition is the first
step to knowledge: not believing to know what one really does not know (The-
On the analogy of the woman in labor to refer to the state in which the one who is experi-
encing a learning process see Bernadete 1984: I.99-I.103; Sedley 2004: 8–13.
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
aet. 210c), and, what maybe is more significant, the fact of being aware that pos-
sessing a knowledge does not enable one to believe that he or she knows another
thing about which he or she does not have an expert knowledge. Theaetetus’ at-
titude is decisive since, as Plato states, the worst form of ignorance is not know-
ing something and believing that one knows it.¹⁷
But what is the criterion necessary for knowing that one does not know? For,
as Plato suggests, nobody believes that what he or she believes is false.¹⁸ Obvi-
ously, I do not even plan to endeavor to respond that question, although the
problem of self-knowledge be a promising path to investigate, such as is suggest-
ed in a memorable passage of the Alcibiades I, where Plato makes emphasis
upon the relevance of distinguishing between caring for what belongs to oneself
and caring for oneself (128a5–d7; 129e–130c; 130e–132a). If “oneself” is one’s
soul, one should attempt to know one’s own soul (which means to know oneself,
not what belongs to oneself), which is the state of mind in which one is.
If what I have been arguing is sound, it would be reasonable to admit that
without a proper psychological disposition one will not even be willing to notice
the power of an argument. This appears to be explicitly suggested by Plato when
he states that those who live according to the unhappiest model (παράδειγμα),
due to their folly and extreme foolishness (ὑπὸ ἠλιθιότητός τε καὶ τῆς ἐσχάτης
ἀνοίας; Theaet. 176e5–177a1), will live with bad people and will be associated
with evils. And given that they are terrible and wicked (δεινοὶ καὶ πανοῦργοι),
they will surely take the suggestion that they should change their lifestyle as a
recommendation coming from unintelligent people, even though actually they
themselves are those who lack intelligence. It is pretty clear to me that the
foolishness (which could be associated with “ignorance” in other parts of the
dialogue; cf. Theaet. 176c) Plato is talking about here cannot be understood in
the sense of lack of certain specific cognitive contents, but as a state of mind, a
dispositional state, consisting in being unable to admit one’s own mistake and
hence believing to know what one actually does not know. Thus the ignorance
Plato speaks of is the typical attitude of a person who is unable to doubt himself,
no matter how powerful the objector’s argument might be.
This last point is useful by way of transition to the discussion of the charac-
ter Protarchus and his relation to Philebus. Maybe nobody would have any
doubts about why one could consider Theaetetus to be a “philosophical charac-
ter”, although probably one does have such doubts with regard to Protarchus.
First I would like to point out that Protarchus, unlike Theaetetus, already has
Charmides 166d; 167a. Alcibiades I 113b; 117b-118a. Theaetetus 171b4; 200a3. Sophist 228c-d.
Marcelo D. Boeri
a philosophical (and well defined) conviction; furthermore, he somehow be-
lieves himself to already be a philosopher. Perhaps this explains Protarchus’
confident attitude from the very beginning of the dialogue as an active partici-
pant in the debate. As is usual in the argumentative strategy of Socrates, one
should start by establishing certain basic agreements (ὁμολογίαι), to which the
results of the discussion will have to fit in.¹⁹ Socrates proposes to begin by the
following agreement: each one will attempt to show a state or disposition of
the soul (Philebus 11d4: ἕξιν ψυχῆς καὶ διάθεσιν) capable of providing a happy
life to every human being. Once the two conflicting views have been summarized
and clarified (Philebus 11b–c), Socrates is certain that the hedonists Philebus
and Protarchus will endorse the state and disposition of pleasure; by contrast,
Socrates will support the view of intelligence or wisdom. With regard to this as-
sertion Protarchus responds with a natural and maybe emphatic “quite so”
(11d10: Ἔστι ταῦτα). That is, from the very beginning of the dialogue Protarchus
has already assumed the thesis of pleasure as his own.
On his part, Theaetetus is a geometrician and, even though he is well dis-
posed towards the dialogue and portrays philosophical qualities, he does not
presume to be a philosopher. What I would like to note is that, even if I think
that both Theaetetus and Protarchus are two “philosophical characters”, the
manner in which Plato presents them in the respective dialogues where they
are one of the central figures is quite different. The case of Theaetetus is relative-
ly clearer, insofar as it is Plato himself the one who enhances his philosophical
qualities. Protarchus, though, does not seem very docile, especially when the de-
bate starts, but his attitude changes when he begins receiving the first of Socra-
tes’ onslaughts (particularly after the “mollusk argument”, when Protarchus
claims that the argument has left him “absolutely speechless for the moment”;
21d4–5: Εἰς ἀφασίαν παντάπασί με, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὗτος ὁ λόγος ἐμβέβληκε τὰ
νῦν). Maybe this is the moment in which he starts to discover that the certainty
he believed to have was actually quite weak, or that the fundamentals of his the-
sis were not as sure and reliable as he thought they were.
But before describing the philosophical characteristics of Protarchus I would
like to reemploy the same strategy I previously used when I attempted to de-
scribe the philosophical traits that Theaetetus possesses. In order to bring Pro-
tarchus into the scene I shall compare, just as in the previous case, his attitude
(disposed towards the dialogue, and even, one could say, his eagerness to obtain
a certain prominence in the debate) to that of his mentor Philebus, who is reluc-
On the agreement as the “basic consensus” of those who are involved in conversation cf.
Erler 1991: 423, n. 9.
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
tant to keep conversing (Philebus even looks upset with Socrates). Naturally, this
fact is not surprising at all, and one should suppose that it is part of a dramatic
strategy carefully planned by Plato. One might imagine, for example, that this is
due to the fact that Philebus has already been discussing the matters at stake
and he does not wish to tolerate Socrates’ objections, criticisms and arguments
any longer. But in this case Plato explains the reasons of this situation from the
beginning. The Philebus starts suddenly, taking again a conversation that was in
progress. This accounts for the need to summarize the opposing views which is
done both by Socrates and by Protarchus again later in the dialogue.²⁰ As is well
known, this is one of the first interesting dramatic details in the Philebus: the dia-
logue starts in medias res, without any introduction, with a conversation that fol-
lows another one on the same topic (presumably the good), which has taken
place just before and whose central difficulty has not been solved yet.²¹ Socrates
quickly attributes to Philebus the crude hedonist thesis; it is as if Plato pointed
out that there already was a conversation on the topic at issue. After Socrates
summarizes the two competing views, and asks Philebus if they have expressed
themselves thus, Philebus responds with a laconic “Yes Socrates, exactly in that
way” (Phil. 11c4). Immediately we learn that Protarchus will defend the cause of
pleasure, as long as Philebus is not willing to keep dialoguing.²² Philebus’ refus-
al to keep dialoguing shows Protarchus that he is the one who must take
the leading role in the defense of pleasure.²³ The next intervention of Philebus
is in section 12a7–8, when Socrates states that if there is a state or condition
that is superior both to the state of pleasure and that of wisdom, and if such
a superior state shows itself more akin to pleasure, the life of pleasure will over-
come that of wisdom, and that if this new state is more akin to wisdom, wisdom
will overcome pleasure. Once Protarchus has accepted this strategy, Socrates
asks Philebus what his opinion is about this matter, and Philebus categorically
Philebus 11b-c; Protarchus summarizes again the views on the good in 19c-d (cf. also the new
summary of Socrates in 60a-b).
See Bossi 2008: 224–225.
Philebus 11c7–8: “the beautiful Philebus has backed down” (or “has surrendered”: Φίληβος
γὰρ ἡμῖν ὁ καλὸς ἀπείρηκεν).
Thus it is indicated by Protarchus later when he suggests that Socrates not bother Philebus
with his questions (15c8–9); surely Protarchus remembers that Philebus had already said (12b)
that he released himself from any responsibility and that he invoked his goddess as a witness.
Marcelo D. Boeri
“I think and I will continue to think that pleasure completely wins. But you, Protarchus, you
It seems to me that this kind of recalcitrant attitude explains the fact that Plato
leaves Philebus out of the debate. As is clear, Philebus is a dramatic construction
of Plato, whose intention may be to describe a certain sort of character that is not
necessarily hard to find: the character of the one who prefers to keep dogmati-
cally his or her beliefs and views without considering them in the light of the dia-
logical discussion.²⁵ The way in which Philebus persists in his belief and his re-
fusal to allow the others to examine his view reveals an unphilosophical attitude
on Philebus’ part. By contrast, in Plato’s view the healthy philosophical attitude
and the commitment to the dialogue presupposes being able to review one’s own
beliefs and, if necessary, to change them. Philosophical beliefs are liable to be
modified by an argument; if Philebus’ attitude were correct, the object of discus-
sion would become a doctrinal object or rather a dogmatic object of investiga-
tion, which is the same thing as saying that the problem of good requires no
more research. However this approach sounds strongly anti-Platonic, for not
only has Plato pointed out to us that philosophical beliefs can be modified by
argument (logos), but also that in order to modify our beliefs by argument we
need to transform our own soul’s state. But all of this would be possible for
someone who is willing to take care of what follows (at least whenever it follows)
from the starting points of his or her own logos. However this somewhat presup-
poses one’s willingness to review one’s own beliefs: against ignorance and fool-
ishness there is not any possible argument.²⁶
Even though Philebus does not participate much in the dialogue (much less
than Theodorus in the Theaetetus, indeed), he remains attentive to the discus-
sion (“as a sleeping dog”) and eventually he adds some remarks, annoyed by
Philebus 12a7–8: μοὶ μὲν πάντως νικᾶν ἡδονὴ δοκεῖ καὶ δόξει· σὺ δέ, Πρώταρχε, αὐτὸς
Or, as Gadamer proposes to read the passage, Philebus refuses to discuss his thesis making
use of logical argumentation, a thesis that in the spirit of a dialogical treatment always presup-
poses receiving criticism and is potentially refutable (1999: 187). On the relevance of dialogical
method (understood as refutation) in Davidson, see Natali (2007: 139–40) and Davidson (2005:
That ignorance (ἄγνοια) should be understood as a state or condition is said by Plato himself
(cf. Philebus 48c2: Κακὸν μὴν ἄγνοια καὶ ἣν δὴ λέγομεν ἀβελτέραν ἕξιν). Of course, this is not
new in Plato: in the divided line διάνοια, νοῦς, νόησις and εἰκασία are states, conditions
(ἕξεις) or affective states (παθήματα; indeed of the soul). See Republic 511d-e.
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
the direction the conversation takes.²⁷ For example, in passage 17c–e, when Soc-
rates attempts to show the way in which the one-multiple distinction can be ap-
plied to determine what being an expert in a discipline (such as grammar or
music) ²⁸ is, Protarchus enthusiastically gives his assent to Socrates’ account.²⁹
Apparently, Protarchus talks to Philebus, who is on his side. Philebus responds
that Socrates has argued (spoken) well, but anyway he does not see why Socrates
is bringing up this point now. After a brief digression, Socrates tries again to an-
swer Philebus’ doubt; but the one who notes what Socrates means is Protarchus.
In fact, he claims that what Socrates is doing is asking about the kinds of pleas-
ure (19b). The interesting detail that, once again, Plato emphasizes in a fresh dra-
matic turn (which describes Protarchus’ philosophical attitude and his collabo-
ration with the dialogue) is focused on the manner in which Protarchus becomes
again the main interlocutor of Socrates and, hence, puts aside Philebus as a
valid partner for conversation. According to Protarchus, he (who had been acting
as the replacement of Philebus in the defense of pleasure) would be making a
fool of himself in asking Philebus to respond to such a difficult question (18e–
19a). Protarchus’ attitude shows again his commitment to the role he has
taken in the defense of pleasure and in the relevant function that his participa-
tion plays in order that the dialogue progress.³⁰ There is even a passage where
Philebus excludes himself from the dialogue: in 27e–28b a decisive conversation
between Socrates and Philebus takes place; Philebus accepts that both pleasure
and pain should be put among what admits “the more”, for
“pleasure would not be the whole good if it were not unlimited by nature, both in quantity
and intensity” (27e).
See Frede 1996: 218. Philebus’ sporadic interventions are for complaining that he does not
understand (18a), or in order to protest that even though his goddess (Aphrodite) cannot be iden-
tified with the good, Socrates’ god (Apollo; 22c) cannot be identified with it, either. In the same
line Philebus complains to denounce that Socrates is praising his god.
A sound spoken by a person is a single thing, and yet is also indeterminate in number. But
we are not wise because of this, but because of knowing how many species of sound there are,
and of which kind they are (this is what makes us grammarians; cf. Philebus 17b). The same
thing occurs with music: sound is a single thing, but there are kinds of sound (height and
depth), which also shows that it is multiple. But what makes us experts in music is understand-
ing (or knowing) how many intervals of sound there are with regard to what is height and depth,
how many combinations, and so forth (17c-d).
“Philebus, it seems to me that Socrates has perfectly argued what has been said now”
(17e7–8: Κάλλιστα, ὦ Φίληβε, ἔμοιγε τὰ νῦν λεγόμενα εἰρηκέναι φαίνεται Σωκράτης).
At any rate, Philebus never disappears completely from the scene; in fact, there are some
passages where Socrates talks to him directly (cf. 26b; 27e).
Marcelo D. Boeri
When Socrates asks him in which genus wisdom, knowledge and intelligence
should be put “without sacrilege”, Philebus complains that Socrates is praising
his own god. Socrates replies that Philebus is praising Aphrodite, but the ques-
tion must nonetheless be dealt with. Protarchus claims that he is right; then Phil-
ebus reminds Protarchus that he had chosen to speak on his behalf (28b6). Pro-
tarchus admits that he is puzzled and asks Socrates (not Philebus) to be his
interpreter. Both Philebus’ withdrawal from the conversation and Socrates’ un-
derstanding give a new thrust to the dialogue. I think that what I have said so
far is enough to show how and why Plato leaves Philebus out of the discussion
and to depict the philosophical character of Protarchus. Once Philebus has stat-
ed that he thinks and will continue to think that pleasure always wins and has
shown his intention to not keep dialoguing in an active way, Protarchus notes
that Philebus should no longer take it upon himself to agree or disagree with
Socrates. Interestingly Philebus freely chooses to relinquish any and all respon-
sibility. But whether or not Philebus consents, Protarchus is interested in moving
on with the discussion (Philebus 12a–b). Protarchus attitude, if compared to Phil-
ebus’, is quite different: first, because he quickly notes that if Philebus backs
down and is not willing to continue discussing, Philebus will have no authority
with regard to the fixed agreements, or as a the “official” speaker in favor of
pleasure. This is a way of saying that Protarchus is aware that a certain agree-
ment should be established as a necessary condition of the dialogue and of as-
suming the responsibility in the defense of pleasure in the contest for the good.
In fact, as is well known, in the Platonic dialogues it is usual to emphasize the
previous agreements among the speakers, agreements that will have to be kept
for the sake of coherence of argument.³¹ Second, Protarchus disposition is rele-
vant because he takes seriously the dialectical mechanism that compels one to
check one’s own beliefs; even though Protarchus is not disposed to easily aban-
don his position, he is ready to review the scope of his thesis after Socrates’ first
attempt at refutation has taken place. Moreover, Protarchus claims to return to
the question-answer method when he realizes that the matter is hard to explain
(24e) and, in spite of Socrates’ attacks, he does not lose his good disposition to-
wards the dialogue. A paradigmatic case of this is shown in section 15d–16a,
where Socrates criticizes the ambiguous use of language and the generally
ludic attitude of which young people are so fond. They have no mercy, Plato
says, on their father or mother or on any other of their audience (15e–16a). Pro-
tarchus reacts to such comment by noting that they are a crowd of young people,
See as way of example Gorgias, 461b; 468e; 482d; 487e; 495a (with the comments by Erler
1991: 431–32). Theaetetus 145c2–5; 159c14; d6; 164a5–7 et passim.
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
and stating that Socrates’ remark is a little insulting; however, Protarchus claims
to have understood Socrates’ concern and that he will endeavor to keep the dis-
cussion free of such upsets, in addition to the fact that he is willing to accompa-
ny Socrates in his path, “a gift from the gods to human beings” (16c). This good
disposition towards the dialogue once again reveals Protarchus’ philosophical
At the beginning of the debate Protarchus shows himself to be confident
with regard to his view: the good is pleasure without qualification. It appears
to me that Protarchus’ initial confidence cannot be compared to the confidence
Theaetetus starts acquiring when after a brief initial doubt he begins conversing
with Socrates and, so to speak, he relaxes himself and feels more confident. As I
indicated above, it is clear that Socrates notes Theaetetus’ doubt and encourages
him to keep moving on; besides, Theaetetus seems to trust his master and what
Theodorus believes about Socrates. But Protarchus’ confidence is different from
Theaetetus’: Protarchus is confident because he appears to be convinced that
there is no way to refute his hedonism. In 12c Socrates opens a new front for dis-
cussion in order to try to show that pleasure and the good cannot be identified
without qualification, and he observes that “he knows that pleasure is varied”
(or “diversified”; 12c4: τὴν δὲ ἡδονὴν οἶδα ὡς ἔστι ποικίλον). In fact, pleasure
takes all sorts of forms, which somehow are unlike each other.³² The argument
he provides for demonstrating this is simple but forceful: both the temperate
and the intemperate person are pleased, but it is obvious that what pleases
the one and the other are different things (12d). Naturally, Protarchus finds
this account a little outrageous, and this is so because what in his view finally
counts is that those pleasures come from opposite things. But those pleasures,
qua pleasures, are not different. By contrast, Socrates believes that, even though
from a general viewpoint the whole is a unity, from the point of view of the parts
some are as opposite as they can be: black and white are two species of color
(two “parts” of the genus color). Qua colors they are the same, since both of
them are “color”; but at the same time they are dissimilar, as they are the species
of color most opposite of each other. The same thing occurs in the case of pleas-
ure: the pleasures of the temperate and intemperate people are the same thing
qua pleasures; but from a specific viewpoint, they are as opposite as they can
be (12e–13a). Protarchus, of course, is firm in his position and believes that
this type of argument cannot damage his thesis; but if one recognizes, as Pro-
tarchus implicitly does at the beginning (and later explicitly; 13c), that given
that one is dealing with dissimilar things, calling them with a different name,
12c7–8: μορφὰς δὲ δήπου παντοίας εἴληφε καί τινα τρόπον ἀνομοίους ἀλλήλαις.
Marcelo D. Boeri
then, it is reasonable to assume that not every pleasant thing is a good, which
does not mean to say that the pleasing things are displeasing (13a–b). Regardless
of Socrates’ argument against crude hedonism, what concerns me is Protarchus’
attitude before Socrates’ objection: (i) he is not willing to abandon his position
for, as he himself puts it, the person who states that pleasure is the good could
not be disposed to admit or tolerate that someone says that some pleasures are
good and others bad (13b–c); (ii) even having clarified this point, Protarchus ad-
mits that pleasures are dissimilar from each other and that some of them are op-
posite (although he makes it clear that not qua pleasures). (iii) When Socrates
introduces the one-multiple problem (whose application is seen later; 18d ff.)
he addresses a powerful attack to the young men, who are fond of making use
of an ambiguous use of the language (15d-16a), as if one’s treatment with lan-
guage were a mere entertainment or a game.³³ Socrates’ remark can be grasped
(as in fact Protarchus grasps it) as an elegant way to say that the hedonist view is
a childish position resorting to improper uses of language. Note that it is Pro-
tarchus who asks Socrates moderate the tone of confrontation in order that
the dialogue be possible. That is, Protarchus understands Socrates’ tone as ago-
nic or polemic, i.e. as unphilosophical.³⁴ But as it can be seen in what follows in
the text, Protarchus is still well disposed to continue discussing, since he de-
clares to recognize Socrates’ concern, in addition to the fact that he has no prob-
lem in eliminating what preoccupies Socrates and that he (Protarchus), along
with the others (surely the silent audience), will accompany him as far as possi-
The mollusk argument is a fantastic piece which combines both dramatic
and philosophical ingredients; the argument identifies neither wisdom nor
those distinct intellectual abilities with the good or the good life. What the argu-
ment actually shows is that without such capacities one would not even be able
to postulate the possibility that pleasure is the good, for one would be unable to
know if he is enjoying a pleasure, or if a certain sensory state can be recognized
as pleasant or not (this makes clear the necessity of possessing at least true opin-
ion). Memory, on its part, guarantees that one can remember that in the past one
was enjoying a pleasure, and calculation guarantees that one will be able to
enjoy a pleasure in the future. These three ingredients, which are the Socratic
On the ambiguous expression τῶν λόγων … πάθος (Phil. 15d7–8) cf. Casertano 1999: 408;
Pradeau, 2002 (note ad loc.).
There is a similar scene in Theaet. 167e-168c, where Protagoras (in his defense) tells Socrates
not to confuse verbal struggle (ἀγωνιζόμενος) with a genuinely philosophical conversation (δια-
λεγόμενος), without ill will or hostility, and in a kind spirit (168b2–3: οὐ δυσμενῶς οὐδὲ μαχη-
τικῶς ἀλλ᾿ ἵλεῳ τῇ διανοίᾳ).
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
candidates to win the competition for the good, are at least a necessary condition
of pleasure and, if this is so, it cannot be true that Protarchus cannot be in need
of anything but the greatest pleasure to be happy (Phil. 21a).³⁵ As it can be seen
later (21d–e), although with less emphasis, Socrates applies the same argumen-
tative strategy to show that the good life requires pleasure. On the other hand,
there are also some dramatic ingredients that one should not overlook: as I al-
ready pointed out, at the beginning of the dialogue Protarchus’ confidence
and, in a certain way, arrogance is noteworthy. To be sure, with absolute confi-
dence he has been defending the thesis that the good is pleasure, or that the
best life style is the pleasant life. Obviously, the point is not that one cannot de-
fend hedonism as a philosophical view, but Protarchus’ initial attitude in this re-
spect depicts a certain naturalness and evidence that require examination and
justification. This is why Protarchus’ question of whether he would accept to
live his entire life enjoying the greatest pleasures turns out to be unusual, al-
though it is quite clear that the question seems definitely outrageous to Pro-
tarchus. However, Socrates’ argument persuasively shows that it is untrue, as
Protarchus had supposed, that pleasure is enough to decide whether or not he
is really living a good life.³⁶ Towards the end of the argument, both seriously
and jokingly, Socrates suggests that the one who is willing to defend Protarchus’
view will live a mollusk life or the life of those sea animals that live in shells, the
most stupid and ignorant of all, according to Plato (Timaeus 92a–b).³⁷
After this first blow Protarchus looks a little overwhelmed (“this argument
has left me absolutely speechless for the moment”), and after Socrates’ argument
he is not so confident; but the dialogue as a method of joint research to find the
truth must continue (at the beginning of the dialogue Socrates reminds Pro-
tarchus that they are not engaged in rivalry (οὐ δήπου … φιλονικοῦμεν), but
they have to be allies for what is nearest to the truth (τῷ δ’ ἀληθεστάτῳ δεῖ
που συμμαχεῖν; 14b5–7). Refutation (in case the mollusk argument can be con-
sidered as a refutation of Protarchus’ view) as a therapeutic method has started
to change Protarchus’ disposition in the right direction. This does not mean that
Protarchus should change his mind, but rather he must be able to allow the oth-
See 63d and 65c, where it is clear enough that the greatest pleasures are the sexual ones,
even though probably not the sexual pleasures without qualification, but the sexual pleasures
One might interpret the mollusk argument as an ad hominem argument, but indeed it is
helpful to show that the life of pleasure is neither a sufficient (or self-sufficient) nor a perfect
life, two necessary conditions of the happy life, as was agreed at the beginning of the debate
On the example of the mollusk, see Lefèbvre 1999.
Marcelo D. Boeri
ers (and he himself) to scrutinize his view. Clearly Socrates notes that Protarchus
is overwhelmed; this is why Socrates immediately replies: “Let us not be soft-
ened, let’s turn now to examine the life of intellect” (21d6–7). One might under-
stand this remark in two ways: Socrates shows that his own view should be scru-
tinized as well, and that it eventually can be objected (this way producing a
certain confidence in the overwhelmed Protarchus). But the phrase “Let us not
be softened” (Μήπω τοίνυν μαλθακιζώμεθα) can be a way of saying “let us not
be mollusks, let us not be the most stupid and ignorant animal living in shells”³⁸
(which does not sound very friendly, even though it can be taken to be part of the
serious game Socrates is playing).
It is true that Socrates does not devote much time to the examination of his
own thesis, even though it is clear that he appears to agree, along with Pro-
tarchus, that a lifestyle in which one possesses any kind of wisdom, intelligence,
knowledge and memory without participating in the slightest pleasure (or pain)
does not constitute a choice-worthy life (21d–e). This is what in the dialogue per-
mits to introduce a third type of life (the mixed life), which is presented as a po-
sition that overcomes both the life of pleasure and that of wisdom (22a). At this
point Socrates is willing to give up, and he admits that his model of the good life
does not lack difficulties, either (how would the life of a person who does not
feel pleasure or pain be… it would be the life of a person without feelings of
any kind).³⁹ Then he suggests the type of life which is made up of a mixture
of both lives. Protarchus’ conclusion before this new perspective leaves no
doubts that, even if he is still a little overwhelmed, he wishes to move on, con-
cluding that “of the three possible lives before us, two of them are neither ade-
quate nor worth choosing for a human being or a beast” (22a–b). It is probably
just at this point that Protarchus understands the eligibility requirement (that
Socrates early introduces in conversation; 18e), a requirement that must be sat-
isfied by anything that purports to be a suitable candidate in the contest for the
good. The argument by itself was already enough to warn a well-intentioned and
collaborative interlocutor that his view at least needed to be nuanced; but the
dramatic ingredient enhances the dramatic force of the argument, as Protarchus,
rejoicing in his hedonism, is unwilling to allow himself to be confused with a
mollusk or a sea animal living in a shell.
Once Protarchus has ruled out the life of pure intelligence or knowledge as
eligible, a life in which there is no pleasure or pain, he admits that pleasure
See Timaeus 92b-c.
Philebus 21e2: ἀλλὰ τὸ παράπαν ἀπαθὴς πάντων τῶν τοιούτων. This is a kind of life that Ar-
istotle (maybe thinking of this passage of the Philebus) does not accept either (see Aristotle, Eu-
demian Ethics 1230b13–14).
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
seems to have been beaten by Socrates’ argument. But he also makes the inter-
esting point that the life of reason cannot claim the first prize, either (22e–23a).
That is, after Socrates’ comparison of the hedonist life to the life of a mollusk,
Protarchus has taken a beating, but he is not completely overcome yet. It is
clear that the argument has shown that a life of pleasure without qualification
is not self-sufficient or perfect (two basic requirements of the good; 20d–21d),
but it has not proved that a life of pure intelligence and knowledge, deprived
of any pleasure, fulfills these requirements.
From that moment Protarchus is increasingly collaborative and active in the
dialogue, and although in some passages he seems to be a “yes-man”, he con-
tinues to make his way into a healthy dialogical attempt to find the truth.
When Socrates notes that Aphrodite realizes the excess and evil of all things
and that there was in them no limit to pleasures and indulgences, and when
the goddess established law and order as determinants of such pleasures and
indulgences, Protarchus entirely agrees that it is so (Philebus 26b–c). ⁴⁰ But
this does not mean, I submit, that Protarchus is willing to assent to all that Soc-
rates says. Much later in the dialogue (36e), after Socrates’ question, Protarchus
admits that no one –asleep or awake, in a state of madness or delirium– believes
that one is feeling pleasure when one is not, or thinks oneself distressed about
something when one is not. All of us, Protarchus adds, have supposed that it is
so (ὑπειλήφαμεν; 36e10). Then Socrates asks if such an assumption is right or
not, or if it should be examined if it is; Protarchus has no doubt that the view
should be scrutinized (Σκεπτέον, ὥς γ᾿ ἐγὼ φαίην ἄν; 36e13). The character Pro-
tarchus continues to defend his thesis that there cannot be false pleasures; how-
ever he also is willing to admit that his view should be examined.
Maybe he still remembers his experience at the beginning of the discussion,
when he stated that he would have no need of any other thing if he had pleasure.
Moreover, after Socrates provides his image of the soul as a book and explains
the role of memory as a scribe writing speeches in our souls, Protarchus says
As it is clear, at this moment Protarchus is not yet so sure about his crude hedonism, and
even though he sometimes presents objections against Socrates’ view, he is already disposed
to grant some basic points against hedonism (in 65c-d he is even more emphatic: “pleasure
is the greatest impostor of all” … “Pleasures are like children who lack the least bit of intelli-
gence”). Kraut (1992: 26) is too strict when he suggests that at the beginning Socrates wins
the discussion to a recalcitrant Protarchus who later becomes a “yes-man”, whose role is to
seek clarifications. D. Frede’s position (who thinks that Protarchus plays an active role at the
end of the discussion) is much more nuanced. There is probably a reason to believe that Pro-
tarchus is more than that: as Frede herself recognizes (1992: 442), there are passages (Philebus
36c) in which Protarchus still offers a stubborn resistance to Socrates’ claims.
Marcelo D. Boeri
that he seems that this is so because he accepts what has been said (ἀποδέχομαι
τὰ ῥηθέντα οὕτως; 39b1–2). That is to say, he accepts what Socrates says because
apparently he admits that what has been said has passed the dialogical test. At
this point of the dialogue Protarchus has already incorporated the Platonic
teaching that beliefs should be subject to the joint effort of the dialogical conver-
Epilogue: the dialogue as a cooperative work
At the outset of this paper I pointed out that the characters of Plato’s dialogues
can be understood as his spokesmen, whether or not Plato agrees with all the
views defended by his characters. He invented a way of doing philosophy in
which he himself is never entirely committed to the “I say” level. Both Theaete-
tus and Protarchus are sometimes accused of being “yes-men”. But it is arguable,
I think, that it is not necessarily something bad to be a “yes person” at a certain
point of the debate: on the one hand, there are questions whose answer is so ob-
vious that they require a “yes” as a response. On the other hand, one might re-
spond “yes” but not in order to escape from the attack of the question or to avoid
being ridiculed if one gives a wrong answer. Rather, such an answer can be the
result of the joint examination that both Theaetetus and Protarchus, understood
as philosophical characters collaborating in the investigation, conduct with Soc-
Blondell, R. The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Bossi, B. Saber gozar. Estudios sobre el placer en Platón, Madrid, Trotta, 2008.
Casertano, G. “Écrire et peindre dans l’âme. Le statut du Logos dans le Philèbe”, in Dixsaut,
M. (dir.), La fêlure du plaisir. Études sur le Philèbe de Platon. 1 Commentaires, Paris,
Vrin, 1999, 403–21.
Davidson, D. “Dialectic and Dialogue”, in Davidson, D., Truth, Language, and History, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2005, 251–259.
Dover, K. Greek Homosexuality, Cambridge-Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1989,
(First ed. 1978).
Erler, M. Il senso delle aporie nei dialoghi di Platone. Esercizi di avviamento al pensiero
filosofico, Italian trans. Milano, Vita e Pensiero, 1991.
Ferrari. F. Platone. Teeteto (Introduzione, traduzione e commento di Franco Ferrari. Testo
Greco a fronte), Milano, BUR (Classici Greci e Latini), 2011.
Theaetetus and Protarchus: two philosophical characters
Frede, D. “The Philebus: The Hedonist’s Conversion”, in Gill, C. – McCabe, M. M. (eds.), Form
and Argument in Late Plato, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, 213–48.
Gadamer, H.G., Die Idee des Guten zwischen Plato und Aristoteles, in Gadamer, H. G.,
Gesammelte Werke 7. Griechische Philosophie III, Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck),
Kahn, C. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue. The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Lefèbvre, D. “Qu’est-ce qu’une vie vivable ? La découverte de la vie mixte dans le Philèbe,
20b–22b”, in Dixsaut, M. (dir.), La Fêlure du plaisir, Études sur le Philèbe de Platon, I,
Commentaires, Paris, Vrin, 1999, 61–88.
Natali, C. “Due dissertazioni scritte in fretta. Gadamer e Davidson sul Filebo di Platone”, in
Méthexis XX, Sankt Augustin, Academia, 2007, 113–43.
Palumbo, L. “Struttura narrativa e tempo nel Teeteto”, in Casertano, G. (a cura di), La
struttura del dialogo platonico, Napoli, Loffredo, 2000, pp. 225–37.
Pradeau, J.-F. Platon. Philèbe (Introduction, traduction et notes), Paris, Flammarion, 2002.
Marcelo D. Boeri
The Role of Diotima in the Symposium:
The Dialogue and Its Double
I would like to examine what appears to be an exemplary case of the intimate
connection between philosophical content and literary form in Plato’s dialogues:
the way Socrates, in the Symposium, after having discussed for a while with his
table companion Agathon, chooses to praise Eros (201d1–212c3).¹ Unlike the for-
mer orators, the dialectician does not deliver a speech in his own name but re-
ports the theory of a priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who allegedly initiated him
to the mysteries of Eros. Moreover, instead of reporting the theory through a long
monologue, he embeds Diotima’s words into a dialogue which involves Socrates
himself, when he was younger. Why Diotima? Why a reported dialogue? Here are
the two questions I intend to address jointly.
Until now, most of the studies focused on the first question (why Diotima ?)
and proposed three major answers. The first one is that Plato introduced the
character because she was a philosopher who historically existed and taught
Socrates.² The second interpretation, which is the prevailing one, considers
that Diotima is a literary device that represents the philosopher par excellence:
as such she conveys to the audience of the banquet, and to the readers of the
book, what the philosophers, Socrates and Plato, really think deep down
about matters of love.³ On this reading, the use of a mouthpiece may be account-
ed for through different motives: (1) investing the theory with prestige and au-
thority;⁴ (2) enabling Socrates to preserve his mask of ironic ignorance and to re-
main polite as he contradicts his host Agathon;⁵ (3) showing that Plato was
emancipated from Socrates’ thought.⁶ As a priestess and a woman, Diotima
may also (4) symbolize what philosophy owes to the religious paradigm of inspi-
My thanks to Ruby Blondell, Luc Brisson, Paul Demont, Étienne Helmer, Stéphane Jettot, and
Elizabeth Rowley-Jolivet for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Taylor 1949, pp. 224–25; Wider 1986, pp. 45–8; Waithe 1987, pp. 101–9.
See McPherran 2006, p. 91, n. 43.
Kranz 1958, p. 80; Sier 1997, pp. 3 & 8; Frisbee Sheffield (2012, p. 134) considers the figure of
Diotima as Socrates’ “euporetic alter ego”.
This is the most commonly given reason. See Robin 1929, pp. XXV-XVI & LXXVI; Bury 1932, p.
XXXIX; Cornford 1950, p. 71; Wippern 1965, p. 126; Allen 1991, p. 46; Sier 1997, p. 9.
Hermann 1839, p. 523; Vlastos 1981, p. 21; Reeve 2004, p. 96, and 2006, p. 135.
ration⁷ or (5) to the feminine paradigm of pregnancy.⁸ A third strand of interpre-
tation takes in earnest the comparison Socrates draws between the priestess and
the ‘accomplished sophists’ (οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί, 208c1) and notes that her man-
ners as well as many points of her theory confirm such an identification.⁹ In this
respect, far from being the representation of the true philosopher and the faith-
ful mouthpiece of Socrates and Plato, Diotima may be used to play ironically
upon and to ridicule the pretended omniscience of the sophists, or to parody
the earlier speeches.¹⁰ Plato may also use this mask to distance himself from
some points of her theory, particularly her view of immortality (207d–209e).¹¹
The colorful sophist, finally, may be the key element of a general poetic enter-
prise, which consists in challenging Aristophanes or trying to create a new liter-
The purpose of this paper is not so much to contradict these explanations as
to suggest a new one which may help to reconcile some views that are outwardly
contradictory, in particular the views that Diotima is a philosopher and that she
is a sophist. I shall argue that with Diotima Plato acts just like his legendary fa-
ther Apollo¹³ who, according to the famous Heraclitean fragment, οὔτε λέγει
οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.¹⁴ His intention is neither to communicate directly
through her mouth and her appearance what eros and philosophy are, nor to
hide ironically or poetically what he or Socrates truly thinks. His purpose is rath-
er to show how a philosopher can communicate his philosophical knowledge
when he has to speak or write within an enunciative situation that does not al-
together suit the practice of philosophy. Thanks to Diotima, Socrates and Plato
deliver a lesson in communication besides a lecture on eros.
However, as such, Diotima is part of a larger tool of communication, that is,
the whole dialogue between her and the younger Socrates, reported by Socrates
himself. Thus, if we recall the two questions I asked initially – Why Diotima ?
Ficino 2002, pp. 127 & 150 –1; Friedländer 1964, pp. 157–9; Rosen 1968, pp. 203–20; Nuss-
baum 1979, pp. 144–5; D Frede 1993, p. 415; Fierro 2003, p. 46; Evans 2006; Horn 2012b, pp. 2
& 13, Sampson 2013, pp. 104–7.
Ast 1816, p. 312; Dover 1980, p. 145; Halperin 1985 & 1990; Lesley 1992; Brisson 1998, pp. 63–4;
Corrigan & Glazov-Corrigan 2004, pp. 114 & 116; Hobbs 2006, p. 264.
Wilamowitz 1919, p. 298; Neumann 1965, pp. 33–59; Dover 1980, p. 145; Rutherford 1995, p.
Stallbaum 1857, p. 147; Nails 2006, pp. 184–5; Wildberger 2012, p. 21.
Neumann 1965, pp. 33–5 & 41; Rowe 1999, pp. 250 –6; Erler 2003, p. 162; Corrigan & Glazov-
Corrigan 2004, pp. 142–3.
Gold 1980; Erde 1976, p. 161.
See Woodbridge 1929, p. 2; Plato was said to be born on Apollo’s birthday (Diog. Laert. 3. 2).
22 B 93 DK.
Why a reported dialogue ? –, in order to propose a new answer to the first one,
we must first and foremost answer the second one, a question that has not been
investigated enough by modern scholars.
I. The dialogue and its double
The function of the reported dialogue may appear conspicuously if we first look
at the similarities between the protagonists of this conversation¹⁵ (Diotima and
the younger Socrates) and those of the dialogue in which this conversation is em-
bedded – Socrates, who reports the conversation, and his audience. The latter are
mainly Agathon, and more generally all the earlier speakers to whom this speech
is indirectly addressed. Each character in this fiction (Diotima and the young
Socrates) appears to be a combination of Socrates and his audience at the sym-
To begin with Diotima, the very content of her theory seems be a compromise
between the point of view of the dialectician Socrates and that of his main ad-
dressee, Agathon, particularly insofar as she seems to consider that the soul is
as perishable as the body.¹⁶ Another point is her attitude to the nature of the su-
preme idea which the initiate is to behold at the end of the philosophical ascent:
the form of Beauty and not the form of Good.¹⁷ However, within the limits of this
paper I cannot discuss the content of Diotima’s speech in the depth it deserves. I
shall focus on the formal features of the discourse and study how, in the way she
delivers her theory, the priestess mediates between the purposes of the philoso-
pher and the expectations of his audience.
The ‘father of the speech’¹⁸ is not Socrates but Phaedrus who proposed
through his constant complaints to Eryximachus that Eros, as a great god,
To be precise, one should speak of conversations, since Socrates summarizes several meet-
ings with Diotima (περὶ τῶν ἐρωτικῶν λόγους ποιοῖτο, 207a5–6).
207e-208a; compare with Phaedo 72e-84b. On this question, see Hackforth 1950, pp. 43–5,
Luce 1952, pp. 137–41 and D Frede 2012, pp. 154–6.
212a; compare with Prot. 351b-357c, Rep. VI 507c-509d, Phil. 20d. On these apparent inconsis-
tencies with ‘platonism’ see Neumann 1965, pp. 33–59.
πατὴρ τοῦ λόγου, 177d5.
The Role of Diotima in the Symposium: The Dialogue and Its Double
should be the subject of a laudatory ode.¹⁹ Such an epideictic mode of expres-
sion matches the tastes and the skills of all the former speakers, particularly
of Agathon who is characterized by Socrates as a master of public discourse²⁰
and a follower of Gorgias.²¹
But delivering an encomium contradicts Socrates’ own inclinations in two
main respects: firstly a eulogy is a long speech and secondly it intends to com-
municate in a dogmatic way the ideas of the speaker to the public.²² The dialec-
tician may indulge in long speeches (μακρολογία), admittedly, as it is the case in
the Phaedrus, but he always uses this mode of expression as a second best way
designed to meet the expectations of his interlocutors.²³ When Socrates has the
choice of weapons, he prefers to use dialogue in the form of short questions and
short answers (βραχυλογία).²⁴ This is the best way to teach the truth about any-
thing since it prevents the participants from branching off and loosing sight of
the question of essence.²⁵ Moreover, genuine Socratic teaching amounts to ques-
tioning the student so that he finds a universal and transcendent truth by him-
In the Symposium, although Socrates agrees to the initiative of Eryximachus
and Phaedrus, he still exhibits his preference for brakhulogia and dialectical in-
quiry. When Agathon is about to speak, Socrates leads him into a question-and-
answer discussion, but the dialectician is soon called to order by Phaedrus who
reminds him of the rules of the game:
Phaedrus broke in and said ‘My dear Agathon, if you answer Socrates’ questions (ἐὰν ἀπο-
κρίνῃ Σωκράτει), it’ll no longer matter to him in the slightest how any of the things we’re
See 177a-d. ‘laudatory ode’ translates ὕμνους καὶ παίωνας (177a5–7), ἐγκώμιον (177b1) and
ἔπαινος (177b3, d2).
194b: Socrates congratulates him for his splendid display of eloquence in the theatre.
198c: according to Socrates, Agathon borrowed the beautiful vacuity of his eulogy from the
Of course, another non-philosophical feature of such a eulogy is that it does not primarily
intend to tell the truth, as Socrates puts it (198d-199a); see Nightingale 1993, pp. 116–17. I will
address the issue later.
See Phaedr. 236d-237a and 241e-242b: Socrates describes himself as the hostage of Phaedrus,
the young lover of rhetoric.
See Prot. 328e-329b, 334e-335c; Gorg. 449b-c, 461d-462b; Hipp. Min. 364b-c; Soph. 217c-218a.
The “What is it?” question. See Prot. 335b: Socrates describes brakhulogia as “διαλέγεσθαι ὡς
ἐγὼ δύναμαι ἕπεσθαι”.
See Meno 81a-e, 85b-86c; Theaet. 150c-d. On Socrates’ preference for brakhulogia, see Dixsaut
2001, pp. 17–21 and Longo 2007, p. 265. On the opposition between makrologia and brakhulogia,
see Dixsaut 2013, pp. 11–17. According to M Frede (1992, p. 207) this distinction is primarily one
of modes of discourse and of argument, rather than one of style.
doing here turn out – so long as he has someone to converse with (διαλέγηται), especially
someone beautiful. I myself enjoy listening to Socrates conversing (διαλεγομένου), but it’s
my business to see to our encomium to Love and get the required speech from each one of
you (ἀποδέξασθαι παρ᾽ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου ὑμῶν τὸν λόγον); so when the two of you have paid
your dues to the god, then you can have your conversation (διαλεγέσθω).’ (Symposium 194d,
trans. CJ Rowe, modified²⁷)
After Agathon’s speech, and before reporting the theory of Diotima, Socrates
asks Phaedrus for a provisory dispensation (199b) and interrogates Agathon
again (199c-201c). At the end of this question-and-answer session, that turned
out to be a refutation (ἔλεγχος), Socrates emphasizes that the universal truth
and not himself is responsible for the outcome of the cross-examination:
‘I am unable, Socrates, to argue against you (σοὶ ἀντιλέγειν),’ said Agathon; ‘let it be as you
‘No, it’s rather the truth (τῇ ἀληθείᾳ), beloved Agathon,’ Socrates said, ‘that you can’t argue
with, since there’s nothing difficult about arguing against Socrates.’ (201c)
This statement is consistent with what Socrates says to the tragic poet at the out-
set of the drinking party: contrary to what Agathon imagines, real knowledge
cannot be transferred between two minds as water flows from a cup to another:
Agathon (…) said ‘Come here, Socrates, and recline beside me (παρ᾽ ἐμὲ κατάκεισο), so that
I can also have the benefit of contact with that bit of wisdom of yours (τοῦ σοφοῦ ἁπτόμε-
νός σου ἀπολαύσω), the bit that came to you in the porch. It’s clear that you found (ηὗρες)
what you were looking for, and have it in your possession (ἔχεις); you wouldn’t have come
away before you had.’ Socrates sat himself down and said ‘It would be a good thing, Aga-
thon, if wisdom were the kind of thing that flowed (ῥεῖν) from what is fuller (ἐκ τοῦ πλη-
ρεστέρου) into what is emptier in our case (εἰς τὸ κενώτερον ἡμῶν), if only we touch each
other (ἁπτώμεθα ἀλλήλων), like the water in cups which flows from the fuller into the emp-
tier through the thread of wool.’ (175c–d)
Agathon’s prejudices are typical of a follower of the sophists, since these educa-
tors consider that their knowledge can be exchanged on the market place like
any kind of goods.²⁸
Now, when Socrates exposes the bulk of his theory through the mouth of Di-
otima, he combines his favourite mode of expression (question and answer), and
the methodological choices of his audience (continuous oration). Diotima plays
All the following texts and translations of the Symposium are from Rowe 1998, with modifi-
cations in the translation.
Cf. Prot. 313c-d and Soph. 224c-e; see Nightingale 1995, pp. 43–9; Nails 2006, p. 196; Brisson
2006, pp. 250 –1.
The Role of Diotima in the Symposium: The Dialogue and Its Double
the part of the older Socrates – she is supposed to have brought against her ig-
norant interlocutor the arguments which Socrates has just put to Agathon:
‘So it’s the account she gave that I’m going to try to describe to all of you, starting from
what has been agreed between myself and Agathon (ἐκ τῶν ὡμολογημένων ἐμοὶ καὶ ᾿Aγά-
θωνι), and doing it all myself, in whatever way I can manage it. (…) I myself was saying to
her other things of pretty much the very sort that Agathon was saying to me just now (ἐγὼ
πρὸς αὐτὴν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα ἔλεγον οἷάπερ νῦν πρὸς ἐμὲ ᾿Aγάθων), that Love was a great god,
and was of beautiful things; and she then set about examining me by means of the very
arguments I was using with Agathon (ἤλεγχε δή με τούτοις τοῖς λόγοις οἷσπερ ἐγὼ τοῦτον),
with the outcome that Love was neither beautiful – by my own account – nor good.’ (201d–
She first interrogates the young Socrates in a typically Socratic manner, that is to
say in the form of brakhulogia (201e–207c), as the older Socrates has done up to
then with Agathon.²⁹ Yet, this first section includes a myth (203b–204a) and at
the end of the conversation Diotima expounds her doctrine in a long didactic
monologue, without the aid of further questioning (207c–212a).³⁰ Then she
adopts the tone of a mystagogue or a schoolmaster who claims to reveal the
truth to an ignoramus, as if Socrates could directly seize what eros truly is
just by listening passively to her speech.³¹ Incidentally, Socrates compares her
to the sophists at the very moment when she tells him ‘εὖ ἴσθι’: ‘and I said:
“Well now, most wise (σοφωτάτη) Diotima: is what you say really true?” Like
the accomplished sophists (ὥσπερ οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί), she said “You can be
sure of that (εὖ ἴσθι), Socrates.” (208b–c)³²
To reply to an interlocutor (Agathon) he characterized as the mouthpiece of a
great sophist (Gorgias), Socrates reports the lesson of a teacher he compares to
the great sophists.³³ And if we remember in addition that mystery religion was
Rehn (1996, pp. 82–3) emphasizes this point.
FCC Sheffield (2006a, p. 45) has already noticed that Diotima’s myth is a way to compromise
with her (and Socrates’) audience.
See Symp. 204d1–2 (πειράσομαί σε διδάξαι), 206b5–6 (Οὐ μεντἂν σέ … ἐθαύμαζον ἐπὶ σοφίᾳ
καὶ ἐφοίτων παρὰ σὲ αὐτὰ ταῦτα μαθησόμενος), 207a5 (ἐδίδασκέ με), 207c6–7 (διδασκάλων
δέομαι … μοι λέγε καὶ τούτων τὴν αἰτίαν καὶ τῶν ἄλλων τῶν περὶ τὰ ἐρωτικά).
According to RG Bury (1932, note ad 208c), ‘ὥσπερ οἱ τέλεοι σοφισταί’ should be translated
as ‘in true professorial style’. Bury notices that the link between the didactic form of the speech
and the characterization of Diotima as a sophist had already been noticed by Wolf (1782), Hom-
mel (1834), Schleiermacher (1807) and Ast (1816). See also Stallbaum 1857, p. 147: ‘Ridet sophis-
tas, de quibuslibet rebus ita disputantes, ut videri vellent earum veritatem prorsus habere per-
spectam atque exploratam’ (my italics).
In fact, the didactic form, not the content, of Diotima’s speech is sophistic. As Ruby Blondell
reminded me, this didactic mode used by the sophists is not exclusively or intrinsically sophis-