Chapter 18. "The Socratic Paradox" by Plato

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from Protagoras
Reading from The Protagoras
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

Socrates, Thoemmes

About the author…

Socrates's best known student was Plato (427-347 BCE), a young aristocrat. In point of fact, Plato's given name was Aristocles, but he came to be known by the nickname "Plato" which designated his broad shoulders. Upon Socrates's execution, Plato continued the Socratic quest. After years of travel and study to Egypt and Italy, during which time purportedly he was kidnapped and held for ransom, Plato founded the Academy in 385 BC—the best-known school in the classical world. In his early writings, Plato narrates the Socratic examination of prominent persons who were presumably knowledgeable about the specific subject under question. In these early dialogues insights are gleaned about the nature of friendship, piety, virtue, knowledge, and so forth, but generally these ideas are discovered and evaluated provisionally and dialectically.

The later dialogues constitute Plato's own extensive development of metaphyical and political ideals. In Process and Reality, A. N. Whitehead noted, "The safest general characterization of the Western philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato." It should be pointed out to those who might be unaware that the most famous pupil of the Academy was Aristotle, an author whose works will figure prominantly in this text.

About the Author…

Plato in the second half of his dialogue Protagoras[1] investigates Socrates's explanation of that aspect of his philosophy often termed "the Socratic Paradox." Socrates believed that we all seek what we think is most genuinely in our own interest. (Obviously, short-term pleasure or success is often not in our best interest. The long-term effect on the soul is, however.) On the one hand, if we act with knowledge, then we will obtain what is good for our soul because "knowledge" implies certainty in results.

On the other hand, if the consequences of our action turn out not to be what is good for our soul (and hence what is genuinely not in our self-interest), then we had to have acted from ignorance because we were unable to achieve what we desired. In a sense, then, for Socrates, there is no ethical good or evil in things in the world—things are what they are. Instead, "knowledge" is considered to be materially equivalent to what is "good," "excellence," or "areté," and "ignorance" is considered to be materially equivalent to "evil" or what is "harmful to our soul."

Since we never intentionally harm ourselves, if harm happens to us, then, at some point, we had to have acted with a lack of knowledge. In this manner, Socrates concludes, what to many persons seems paradoxical, that we are "morally responsible" for obtaining all the knowledge we can. In this sense, ignorance is no excuse. In the reading selection below, Socrates and Protagoras disagree as to the heart of the Socratic Paradox: whether virtue is indeed knowledge and, conversely, whether virtue can be taught.

Ideas of Interest from Protagoras

  1. What is Socrates' argument that the virtue called "courage" implies knowledge?

  2. According to Socrates, what is the relation between pleasure and good? Does Protagoras agree with Socrates's arguments? Do you agree with Socrates on this point?

  3. Explain Socrates's substitution reductio ad absurdum to the conclusion that even if hedonism were true, that which is an evil or a bad action is not done as a result of "being overcome by pleasure."

  4. According to Socrates, why do most persons believe we do not act knowledgeably? Why do most persons believe we often act in opposition to what we know to be good for us? Could something be good for a person and not be in that person's self-interest?

  5. What do you think is Prodicus' "distinction of names"? Why do you think Socrates wants to disallow the use of his technique?

  6. How does Socrates know that they way things appear is not the way are really are?



Plato. Protagoras. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. 348d-362.