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Socrates vs Protagoras – Can virtue be taught?

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“If you are ignorant on what a sophist is, you don’t even know to whom you intend to deliver your soul”312c
Plato, Protagoras

In one of Plato’s most noted texts, Socrates meets Protagoras[1], with whom he disagrees on whether political virtue can be taught. Socrates says it cannot, and as evidence for this he points out that at the public forum anyone can take the lead, no matter whether he is a worker, an iron forger, a sailor, rich or poor. So everyone is considered to be potentially virtuous, even without having been taught a relevant lesson[2].

Even famously virtuous men of Athens, like Pericles and Themistocles, did not transmit their virtue onto their children or any other citizen. And not for lack of trying, as it’s not possible to think that while they employed teachers to help their children with horse riding, music and athletics, they did not care for the most important thing, virtue, which would actually cost them less since they would teach them themselves.

Protagoras, who holds the opposite opinion and boasts for becoming famous for just that –his abilities in teaching political virtue- replies with a myth: Epimetheus had the job of appointing powers and qualities to the mortal beings, and gave speed to some, to others physical strength, big size and wings accordingly. In this way, they were all capable of feeding themselves, escape their natural enemies and protect themselves from the forces of nature. But because Epimetheus was not wise, he forgot to save a power for the humans and spent all of them on the irrational animals, leaving men naked of hair and armor. So, Prometheus was left with correcting his brother’s mistake and stole “practical wisdom” from Athena and fire from Hephaestus, and gave them to men. But he couldn’t give them political virtue as it was in the hands of Zeus from whom he could not steal. With these gifts men managed to build cities and discover speech, to make useful objects and worship the gods. But without political virtue they had no justice and were unjust to each other, and so the cities would be destroyed. Zeus then worried for the decimation of the human species and sent Hermes to provide them with political virtue, meaning respect and justice, in order to unite the people. The command he gave him was to offer this virtue to everyone, so that all could participate in it, otherwise the cities would not be able to stand. Moreover, a law was to be set that whoever “cannot share the qualities of respect and justice”[2]322d should be killed.

This is the reason why, when someone speaks of architecture or some other craft (techne) he must be proved to be an expert, but when he speaks on matters of the city there is no need for proof. Whosever opinion is permissible “with the thought that it is becoming for all to have this virtue, or else there would be no cities”[2]323a. Besides, whenever someone claims he doesn’t know a craft like architecture and is therefore not qualified to have an opinion on it, nobody blames him, whereas when someone says that he’s not capable to have a useful opinion on matters of the city, he is berated and considered to be mad; so much that everyone would expect him even to lie that he indeed knows, even if he doesn’t know, “having in mind that there must be no one who does not import in it, or he should not belong with humans”[2]323b-c.

Raphael – Η σχολή των Αθηνών (1509-1511) – ο Σωκράτης αριστερά από τις δύο κεντρικές φιγούρες, Πλάτωνα και Αριστοτέλη, όρθιος, με πράσινο μανδύα, στραμένος αριστερά.
Raphael – The School of Athens (1509-1511) – Socrates is probably meant to be to the left of the central figures of Plato and Aristotle, standing, dressed in green, looking to the left. (photo)

All this is not to say that political virtue is intrinsic in men; besides, we certainly meet people who are not virtuous. Zeus only gave the potentiality of virtue to all, but some, as Protagoras says, “cannot” take part in it. This means that some kind of effort is required, that political virtue is conquered with “diligence”[2]323c. This leads Protagoras to believe that political virtue can be taught.

What else, he says, can we suppose when the city punishes the one who doesn’t have it? Surely the wrongdoing cannot be undone through punishment, but the wrongdoer is punished so that he doesn’t repeat the offense and so that the punishment becomes an example for the rest to avoid acting unjustly. Meaning, punishment is considered a didactic mean of obtaining virtue.

But is it so? The possibility of punishment indeed contributes to citizens acting lawfully, and a high certainty of being punished is more effective than a high extremity of the punishment’s cruelty. But this might make someone act like a virtuous man, even if he isn’t. What could one say of him whose only reason not to break the law is the fear of reprisal and nothing else? The murderer who doesn’t dare to kill merely out of fear of imprisonment can be considered reasonable or careful; but virtuous? What we are looking for (what Socrates is looking for) is not only the just behavior that will not harm the fellow-man (even though, practically, that is enough), but that quality which will deter its holder from committing injustice because he will consider his co-citizens to be his peers. It is the presence of empathy (or compassion); to understand and identify emotionally with another. It’s not enough for the virtuous man to not commit injustice, he has to not want to.

Protagoras continues in countering Socrates’ observation about the weakness of virtuous men to transmit their virtue onto their children. They all try, says Protagoras. The parents themselves and also with the help of teachers and educators, attempt to infuse virtue in their sons and daughters, and when the children cannot follow through, they advise and punish them, giving greater importance and attention to caring for their decency than the lessons of music or any other art. The same applies to the sum of men, since laws play the part of parental advice to correct their behavior.

Protagoras’ conclusion is: “Seeing then that so much care is taken in the matter of both private and public virtue, do you wonder, Socrates that virtue may be taught?[2]326e In other words, since everyone believes that virtue can be taught and since everybody acts as if it can be taught by trying to teach it, therefore it must be teachable!

This argument is rather redundant, but touches on an intuition we all share. Who would say that children are not influenced by what their parents and teachers impart to them? Surely the importance a parent will attach to which values his children will obtain does matter, and the part the environment plays is recognized and considered a given. Wouldn’t the opposite mean that is makes no difference how we treat our children?


Of course not. The opposite would actually mean, concerning how virtuous men are created, to say “I don’t know”. What can be more obvious than our ignorance concerning how virtue is inculcated, since even those who received every possible care, even in the best environment possible, might not achieve virtue? Of course we can try to raise virtuous children, but the effort not only doesn’t necessitate success, but it also doesn’t necessitate, and it doesn’t presume, the certainty of knowing the origin of virtue. To agree with Protagoras would mean this: We know that all men are potentially virtuous, since Zeus gave everyone the potentiality to obtain it (and we confirm this in the public forum). We know that some cannot share this quality, something Zeus realized and we punish by exile or death. We know that everyone seems to believe that virtue can be taught, that’s why there are teachers. But we also know that some men, all equally able to become virtuous, all growing in the same environment and all taught virtue in the same manner, become virtuous and some don’t. Therefore, since all the conditions are the same for everyone and the result differs for some, how can we reach the conclusion that we know how virtue results, not to mention how it is taught? There must certainly be another factor that escapes us.

Socrates obviously suspects this, since he certainly knows that everyone tries to teach virtue to their children and that some become virtuous and others don’t. And this is why Protagoras’ argument sounds so strange; he only says the obvious. It is clear the we cannot suppose that Socrates doesn’t know that most people consider political virtue to be teachable and that they advise their children in order to make them “decent”, nor does he ignore the usefulness of the laws in the city’s harmonious operation including the necessary punishment for those who don’t obey them. He does not deny all these –on the contrary, elsewhere he commends Athens’ laws for making her the best city of all the Greek ones and himself the best person he could be, and accepts punishment from his co-citizens when they condemn him to death. Nor does he deny the effect of the environment in the development of characteristics/qualities/virtues, since in Crito he admits that he lived the best life he could have lived thanks to the laws of the city and the Athenians. This is why we can only read his remark as being ironic, when he says that he was spellbound by the demonstration of rhetoric by Protagoras and left speechless “for a long time” until he gathered himself and replied. “Previously, I didn’t believe that there was any human care, with which the virtuous become virtuous”[2]328e, he says, and we can easily picture him with raised eyebrows.

Therefore, Socrates does not deny that everyone is capable of being virtuous, as Protagoras seems to imply he does; on the contrary. It is this fact, that everyone is capable of virtue, which leads the Athenians to listen to anyone in the public forum on matters of the city (which is Socrates’ original argument). That they not only listen to the opinions of, for example, those taught by sophists, but accept advice from a shoemaker, shows that the Athenians consider everyone to be potentially virtuous and also that they don’t believe political virtue to be more likely to bestow the learned ones; therefore it shows that they believe it is not known how virtue comes forth in some and not in others.

But beyond the potentiality, is there also the ability in everyone? Obviously not. For sure, some are virtuous and some aren’t, but how can we know which is which? And how will we ensure someone to become virtuous when even great men couldn’t teach virtue to their children?

Πρωταγόρας (πηγή)
Protagoras (photo)

Protagoras fails to answer this question, which remains unanswered until today: how will we raise our children so that they become good citizens? Parents are continuously bombarded with new studies that find a correlation between the parents’ behavior and the behavior of their children. The parents, it is said, who talk a lot to their infants improve their language skills; fair parents (who punish their children prudently and encourage their achievements) raise children with good behavior; those who show them a lot of love raise self-confident children etc. In this way, parenting becomes the seeking of the best recipe, and a particularly laborious and time-consuming process, with the goal of creating just children with a large sum of abilities that no parent would like to deprive them of. And if the children do not end up in their best version, it must be the parents’ fault.

But correlation does not imply causation. All the aforementioned studies observe a condition (how much parents speak to their children) and later another one (good language skills of the children), and hypothesize that the second follows the first. This reading of the parenting process presupposes that humans are “blank slates”, on which the parent, the teacher and the environment are called to imprint knowledge. The appropriate commandments and prohibitions will certainly lead to the desired behavior (for Protagoras this is obviously convenient since, as a sophist, he is paid for this exact service). The debate on whether humans are these empty pages which society is called to fill up, in order to produce the desired product, was not resolved by neither Protagoras nor Plato, and the myth of the child that can do anything is prevalent in today’s society, with results that can be disappointing for the parent and stressful for the child.

This reading, these studies, ignore the genetic predispositions of children (and, according to Steven Pinker, must for this reason be completely ignored[3]), that are also due to their parents, though not controlled by them. Children are not capable of everything, but have tendencies to acquire certain abilities and not others. If this is easy to realize and admit to, when referring to technical abilities (sports, arts, learning foreign languages), it is very difficult to admit concerning virtues, the political or any other, because it is unpleasant to accept. As for the conclusions of the aforementioned studies, they are debunked anyway, when including either adopted children, where we have a different environment resulting in similar observations, or twins, where we have the same environment and almost identical genetics that result in different behaviors. In these cases, when faced with this kind of opposing conclusions, the diametrically opposite findings lead some to the formulation that, concerning the correct recipe for creating virtuous people, the way parents raise their children makes all the difference, but only in some cases! There seems to be some kind of taboo about human nature. We should be able to say that not all of us are equally by nature potentially virtuous, but, on the contrary, limited by nature in a spectrum of possibilities.

Η πρώτη σελίδα του διαλόγου, σε χειρόγραφο αρχαίο κείμενο, Oxoniensis Clarkianus 39
The first page of the dialogue, in the handwritten Oxoniensis Clarkianus 39 (photo)

To use Protagoras’ myth, Zeus did not give away the potentiality (or the ability) of political virtue, but the possibility that some men will become virtuous and some won’t. But the gods don’t play with dice, so parallelizing with myths fails to satisfyingly explain the human condition. Socrates himself turns to the metaphysical to explain how virtue is obtained, using the theory of remembrance.

He continues the conversation three decades later, with Meno. In trying again to discover whether virtue can be taught, he starts by suggesting that, in order for virtue to be teachable, it must be some kind of knowledge. But how can we show something like that if we can’t even discover what virtue is? What we know about it is that it’s something good. So if we could show that all good things are parts of knowledge, then necessarily virtue would also be a part of knowledge. If, on the other hand, there are good things that are not parts of knowledge, then virtue may be one of them, maybe not.

One thing we know about virtue is that it makes us good and therefore beneficial. Things that benefit are health, strength, wealth and other things. But all these things sometimes harm us and they are only beneficial when we use them correctly. The comforts of wealth could be beneficial but could also lead to excesses through its bad use. Even virtues like courage sometimes harm us. When someone is unthinkingly daring, he is harmed; when he shows prudent courage, he is benefited. Therefore, all things (wealth, beauty, strength etc) and everything the soul has inside of it, “if guided by prudence lead to happiness, if imprudence, to the opposite”[1]88c. Therefore, virtue, which is in the soul and is beneficial, must have a relationship with prudence. Because everything belonging to the soul depends on prudence, and everything else belonging to man depends on the soul, so everything that belongs to man depends on prudence.

Since virtue is prudence, the virtuous could not be virtuous by nature, since prudence in not innate. If men were good by nature we would recognize them from a small age and guard them so that they are not corrupted until the age they could become useful citizens. Since they are not good by nature, they must become through learning, since it is certain that some men are indeed good.

If virtue can be taught, teachers and students of virtue must exist. If there aren’t, it cannot. Socrates says he has done everything to find teachers of virtue but hasn’t found anyone. Anytus[3] intervenes in the conversation and Socrates asks for his opinion. He tells him that if someone desires, for example, to become a doctor, he will address a doctor, and more so a doctor who receives payment to teach his knowledge. Were will the one who wants to be virtuous turn to? Obviously to those who receive payment to teach virtue, meaning the sophists. But even Anytus says that they corrupt whoever approaches them.

Socrates replies “what you say is strange; because those who mend old shoes and repair clothes would not be able to fool the public, not even for thirty days, if they delivered shoes and clothes in a worse condition than before”[1]91d. Socrates is once more being ironic against the sophists, who he thinks to be conmen who pretend they know things they don’t, and ask money for their teaching, the effectiveness of which he doubts. In Protagoras he likens the sophist with a “tradesman or storekeeper of the merchandise the soul feeds on”[2]313c, who deceives people by advertising what he sells praising his lessons without even himself knowing whether they offer benefit or hurt the soul. From whom could we then ask for the teaching of virtue, since there are no teachers (and therefore no students)?

Άγαλμα του Σωκράτη μπροστά από την Ακαδημία Αθηνών
Άγαλμα του Σωκράτη μπροστά από την Ακαδημία Αθηνών

The answer Socrates gives is that it was wrong of them to have agreed that a virtuous man would have to act prudently. This is because someone could be beneficial without having certain knowledge, but only a correct opinion. For example, someone who knows the right way to another city might use this certain knowledge to lead others there and benefit them. But someone might have consulted the best way from someone else, without himself having traveled it, so he only has a correct opinion. The result will be the same, since whoever follows the one or the other will reach to his destination and be benefited equally. In a similar manner, the political leaders do not owe their achievements to knowledge, nor of course to chance. Their abilities, that are correct opinions and not certain knowledge, come from divine inspiration, and whatever they say that is correct, they say without them knowing it to be so.

The difference between knowledge and opinion is the ephemeral nature of opinion. As long as opinions stay inside a man they benefit him, but soon “they run away from his soul, so that their value is not great, until someone ties them with causal reasoning”[1]98a. This reasoning is the recollection, which will transform the correct opinion to knowledge and make it permanent.

Therefore, since virtue is not teachable, nor is it innate, and since those who have the correct opinion don’t know where they got it from and cannot transmit it, and since the thing that consolidates it and makes it knowledge is only the recollection that takes place because the soul has witnessed all knowledge during the time its previous body died and before entering the new one, virtue must “come to those it comes to as a divine gift, without thought”[1]99e.[4]

We, of course, stay with the mystery of how to communicate virtue, since the strange theory of recollection can only be described as charming but rather completely useless. Even if we direct our attention to genetics for the creation of good men, it’s impossible, at least for now, to locate particular genes at work, much less to utilize them in our favor, even if that is what we want to do.


[1] Plato – Meno (or on virtue)
[2] Plato – Protagoras (or sophists)
[3] Steven Pinker – The Blank Slate (see his Ted talk)


[1] Protagoras from Abdera: According to Plato, he was the first to ask for compensation for his teachings, thus inaugurating the profession of the sophist. In his dialogue with Socrates, he is around 65 years old, and Socrates around 35.

[2] We can already discern the fact that it’s not that Socrates does not necessarily believe that virtue can be taught, but that the sophists are not capable to teach it.

[3] Anytus: Tanner and general, with rich parents and a future accuser of Socrates during his fatal trial.

[4] It has been suggested that this solution of divine inspiration being the reason behind virtue might be ironic, due to the foolishness and the hastiness of Meno. The conversation has run its course and Socrates has realized that Meno’s hotheadedness will avert him from learning anything, so he provides him with an easy answer to get rid of him.

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