Superphysics Superphysics

Protagoras and Virtue

by Plato Icon
5 minutes  • 1053 words

At length, when the truth dawned upon me, that he had really finished, not without difficulty I began to collect myself, and looking at Hippocrates, I said to him:


O son of Apollodorus, how deeply grateful I am to you for having brought me hither; I would not have missed the speech of Protagoras for a great deal. For I used to imagine that no human care could make men good; but I know better now.

Yet I have still one very small difficulty which I am sure that Protagoras will easily explain, as he has already explained so much. If a man were to go and consult Pericles or any of our great speakers about these matters, he might perhaps hear as fine a discourse; but then when one has a question to ask of any of them, like books, they can neither answer nor ask; and if any one challenges the least particular of their speech, they go ringing on in a long harangue, like brazen pots, which when they are struck continue to sound unless some one puts his hand upon them; whereas our friend Protagoras can not only make a good speech, as he has already shown, but when he is asked a question he can answer briefly;

When he asks he will wait and hear the answer; and this is a very rare gift.

You were saying that virtue can be taught;—that I will take upon your authority, and there is no one to whom I am more ready to trust. But I marvel at one thing about which I should like to have my mind set at rest. You were speaking of Zeus sending justice and reverence to men;

Several times while you were speaking, justice, and temperance, and holiness, and all these qualities, were described by you as if together they made up virtue.

Is virtue one whole, of which justice and temperance and holiness are parts? Or are all these only the names of one and the same thing?

This is easy. Those qualities are the parts of virtue, which is one.
Are they parts in the same sense in which mouth, nose, and eyes, and ears, are the parts of a face? Or are they like the parts of gold, which differ from the whole and from one another only in being larger or smaller?
They differed, Socrates, in the first way. They are related to one another as the parts of a face are related to the whole face.
Do men have some one part and some another part of virtue? Or if a man has one part, must he also have all the others?
By no means. Many men are brave and not just, or just and not wise.
You would not deny, then, that courage and wisdom are also parts of virtue?
Most undoubtedly they are. Wisdom is the noblest of the parts. They are all different from one another.
Does each of them have a distinct function like the parts of the face? For example, the eye is not like the ear. Does this comparison hold concerning the parts of virtue? Do they also differ from one another in themselves and in their functions?
Yes, they differ.
Then, no other part of virtue is like knowledge, or like justice, or like courage, or like temperance, or like holiness. Would you would agree with me that justice is of the nature of a thing, that Justice is of the nature of the just?

And suppose that he went on to say: ‘Well now, is there also such a thing as holiness?’—we should answer, ‘Yes,’ if I am not mistaken?

Yes, he said.

Which you would also acknowledge to be a thing—should we not say so?

He assented.

‘And is this a sort of thing which is of the nature of the holy, or of the nature of the unholy?’ I should be angry at his putting such a question, and should say, ‘Peace, man; nothing can be holy if holiness is not holy.’ What would you say? Would you not answer in the same way?

Certainly, he said.

And then after this suppose that he came and asked us, ‘What were you saying just now? Perhaps I may not have heard you rightly, but you seemed to me to be saying that the parts of virtue were not the same as one another.’

I should reply, ‘You certainly heard that said, but not, as you imagine, by me; for I only asked the question; Protagoras gave the answer.’ And suppose that he turned to you and said, ‘Is this true, Protagoras? and do you maintain that one part of virtue is unlike another, and is this your position?’—how would you answer him?

I could not help acknowledging the truth of what he said, Socrates.

What if he says that holiness is not of the nature of justice, nor justice of the nature of holiness, but of the nature of unholiness. Holiness is of the nature of the not just, and therefore of the unjust, and the unjust is the unholy.

I should certainly answer him on my own behalf that justice is holy, and that holiness is just; and I would say in like manner on your behalf also, if you would allow me, that justice is either the same with holiness, or very nearly the same; and above all I would assert that justice is like holiness and holiness is like justice; and I wish that you would tell me whether I may be permitted to give this answer on your behalf, and whether you would agree with me.


I cannot simply agree to the proposition that justice is holy and that holiness is just, for there appears to me to be a difference between them.

But what matter? if you please I please; and let us assume, if you will I, that justice is holy, and that holiness is just.


Pardon me. I do not want this ‘if you wish’ or ‘if you will’ sort of conclusion to be proven, but I want you and me to be proven.

I mean to say that the conclusion will be best proven if there be no ‘if.’

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