Socrates takes on Protagoras, the most famous sophist in Greece. Get into Pleasure, Evil, Knowledge and Virtue with this classic dialogue.
Persons of the Dialogue : SOCRATES, who is the narrator of the Dialogue to his Companion ;
HIPPOCRATES ; ALCIBIADES ; CRITIAS ;
PROTAGORAS, HIPPIAS, PRODICUS, Sophists ;
CALLIAS, a wealthy Athenian.
Scene : The house of Callias
Companion. Where do you come from, Socrates ? And yet I need hardly ask the question, for I know that you have been in chase of the fair Alcibiades. I saw the day before yesterday ; and he had got a beard like a man — and he is a man, as I may tell you in your ear. But I thought that he was still very charming.
Socrates. What of his beard ? Are you not of Homer’s opinion, who says youth is most charming when the beard first appears ? And that is now the charm of Alcibiades.
Com. Well, and how do matters proceed ? Have you been visiting him, and was he gracious to you ?
Soc. Yes, I thought that he was very gracious ; and especially to-day, for I have just come from him, and he has been helping me in an argument. But shall I tell you a strange thing ? I paid no attention to him, and several times I quite forgot that he was present.
Com. What is the meaning of this ? Has anything happened between you and him ? For surely you cannot have discovered a fairer love than he is ; certainly not in this city of Athens.
Soc. Yes, much fairer.
Com. What do you mean — a citizen or a foreigner ?
Soc. A foreigner.
Com. Of what country ?
Soc. Of Abdera.
Com. And is this stranger really in your opinion a fairer love than the son of Cleinias ?
Soc. And is not the wiser always the fairer, sweet friend ?
Com. But have you really met, Socrates, with some wise one ?
Soc. Say rather, with the wisest of all living men, if you are willing to accord that title to Protagoras.
Com. What ! Is Protagoras in Athens ?
Soc. Yes ; he has been here two days.
Com. And do you just come from an interview with him ?
Soc. Yes ; and I have heard and said many things.
Com. Then, if you have no engagement, suppose that you sit down tell me what passed, and my attendant here shall give up his place to you.
Soc. To be sure ; and I shall be grateful to you for listening.
Com. Thank you, too, for telling us.
Soc. That is thank you twice over. Listen then : —
Last night, or rather very early this morning, Hippocrates, the son of Apollodorus and the brother of Phason, gave a tremendous thump with his staff at my door ; some one opened to him, and he came rushing in and bawled out : Socrates, are you awake or asleep ?
I knew his voice, and said : Hippocrates, is that you ? and do you bring any news ?
Good news, he said ; nothing but good.
Delightful, I said ; but what is the news ? and why have you come hither at this unearthly hour ?
He drew nearer to me and said : Protagoras is come.
Yes, I replied ; he came two days ago : have you only just heard of his arrival ?
Yes, by the gods, he said ; but not until yesterday evening.
At the same time he felt for the truckle-bed, and sat down at my feet, and then he said : Yesterday quite late in the evening, on my return from OEnoë whither I had gone in pursuit of my runaway slave Satyrus, as I meant to have told you, if some other matter had not come in the way ; — on my return, when we had done supper and were about to retire to rest, my brother said to me : Protagoras is come. I was going to you at once, and then I thought that the night was far spent. But the moment sleep left me after my fatigue, I got up and came hither direct.
I, who knew the very courageous madness of the man, said : What is the matter ? Has Protagoras robbed you of anything ?
He replied, laughing : Yes, indeed he has, Socrates, of the wisdom which he keeps from me.
But, surely, I said, if you give him money, and make friends with him, he will make you as wise as he is himself.
Would to heaven, he replied, that this were the case ! He might take all that I have, and all that my friends have, if he pleased. But that is why I have come to you now, in order that you may speak to him on my behalf ; for I am young, and also I have never seen nor heard him ; (when he visited Athens before I was but a child) and all men praise him, Socrates ; he is reputed to be the most accomplished of speakers. There is no reason why we should not go to him at once, and then we shall find him at home. He lodges, as I hear, with Callias the son of Hipponicus : let us start.
I replied : Not yet, my good friend ; the hour is too early. But let us rise and take a turn in the court and wait about there until daybreak ; when the day breaks, then we will go. For Protagoras is generally at home, and we shall be sure to find him ; never fear.
Upon this we got up and walked about in the court, and I thought that I would make trial of the strength of his resolution. So I examined him and put questions to him. Tell me, Hippocrates, I said, as you are going to Protagoras, and will be paying your money to him, what is he to whom you are going ? and what will he make of you ? If, for example, you had thought of going to Hippocrates of Cos, the Asclepiad, and were about to give him your money, and some one had said to you : You are paying money to your namesake Hippocrates, O Hippocrates ; tell me, what is he that you give him money ? how would you have answered ?
I should say, he replied, that I gave money to him as a physician.
And what will he make of you ?
A physician, he said.
And if you were resolved to go to Polycleitus the Argive, or Pheidias the Athenian, and were intending to give them money, and some one had asked you : What are Polycleitus and Pheidias ? and why do you give them this money ? — how would you have answered ?
I should have answered, that they were statuaries.
And what will they make of you ?
A statuary, of course.
Well now, I said, you and I are going to Protagoras, and we are ready to pay him money on your behalf. If our own means are sufficient, and we can gain him with these, we shall be only too glad ; but if not, then we are to spend the money of your friends as well. Now suppose, that while we are thus enthusiastically pursuing our object some one were to say to us : Tell me, Socrates, and you Hippocrates, what is Protagoras, and why are you going to pay him money, — how should we answer ? I know that Pheidias is a sculptor, and that Homer is a poet ; but what appellation is given to Protagoras ? how is he designated ?
They call him a Sophist, Socrates, he replied.
Then we are going to pay our money to him in the character of a Sophist ?
But suppose a person were to ask this further question : And how about yourself ? What will Protagoras make of you, if you go to see him ?
He answered, with a blush upon his face (for the day was just beginning to dawn, so that I could see him) : Unless this differs in some way from the former instances, I suppose that he will make a Sophist of me.
By the gods, I said, and are you not ashamed at having to appear before the Hellenes in the character of a Sophist ?