But if there is a contradiction, can the composition be good or true ?
No, not in that case, I replied.
And is there not a contradiction ? he asked. Reflect.
Well, my friend, I have reflected.
And does not the poet proceed to say, “I do not agree with the word of Pittacus, albeit the utterance of a wise man : Hardly can a man be good” ? Now you will observe that this is said by the same poet.
I know it.
And do you think, he said, that the two sayings are consistent ?
Yes, I said, I think so (at the same time I could not help fearing that there might be something in what he said). And you think otherwise ?
Why, he said, how can he be consistent in both ? First of all, premising as his own thought, “Hardly can a man become truly good” ; and then a little further on in the poem, forgetting, and blaming Pittacus and refusing to agree with him, when he says, “Hardly can a man be good,” which is the very same thing. And yet when he blames him who says the same with himself, he blames himself ; so that he must be wrong either in his first or his second assertion.
Many of the audience cheered and applauded this. And I felt at first giddy and faint, as if I had received a blow from the hand of an expert boxer, when I heard his words and the sound of the cheering ; and to confess the truth, I wanted to get time to think what the meaning of the poet really was. So I turned to Prodicus and called him. Prodicus, I said, Simonides is a countryman of yours, and you ought to come to his aid. I must appeal to you, like the river Scamander in Homer, who, when beleaguered by Achilles, summons the Simois to aid him, saying :
Brother dear, let us both together stay the force of the hero. And I summon you, for I am afraid that Protagoras will make an end of Simonides. Now is the time to rehabilitate Simonides, by the application of your philosophy of synonyms, which enables you to distinguish “will” and “wish,” and make other charming distinctions like those which you drew just now. And I should like to know whether you would agree with me ; for I am of opinion that there is no contradiction in the words of Simonides. And first of all I wish that you would say whether, in your opinion, Prodicus, “being” is the same as “becoming.”
Not the same, certainly, replied Prodicus.
Did not Simonides first set forth, as his own view, that “Hardly can a man become truly good” ?
Quite right, said Prodicus.
And then he blames Pittacus, not, as Protagoras imagines, for repeating that which he says himself, but for saying something different from himself. Pittacus does not say as Simonides says, that hardly can a man become good, but hardly can a man be good : and our friend Prodicus would maintain that being, Protagoras, is not the same as becoming ; and if they are not the same, then Simonides is not inconsistent with himself. I dare say that Prodicus and many others would say, as Hesiod says,
On the one hand, hardly can a man become good,
For the gods have made virtue the reward of toil,
But on the other hand, when you have climbed the height,
Then, to retain virtue, however difficult the acquisition, is easy.
Prodicus heard and approved ; but Protagoras said : Your correction, Socrates, involves a greater error than is contained in the sentence which you are correcting.
Alas ! I said, Protagoras ; then I am a sorry physician, and do but aggravate a disorder which I am seeking to cure.
Such is the fact, he said.
How so ? I asked.
The poet, he replied, could never have made such a mistake as to say that virtue, which in the opinion of all men is the hardest of all things, can be easily retained.
Well, I said, and how fortunate are we in having Prodicus among us, at the right moment ; for he has a wisdom, Protagoras, which, as I imagine, is more than human and of very ancient date, and may be as old as Simonides or even older. Learned as you are in many things, you appear to know nothing of this ; but I know, for I am a disciple of his. And now, if I am not mistaken, you do not understand the word “hard” (chalepon) in the sense which Simonides intended ; and I must correct you, as Prodicus corrects me when I use the word “awful” (deinon) as a term of praise. If I say that Protagoras or any one else is an “awfully” wise man, he asks me if I am not ashamed of calling that which is good “awful” ; and then he explains to me that the term “awful” is always taken in a bad sense, and that no one speaks of being “awfully” healthy or wealthy, or “awful” peace, but of “awful” disease, “awful” war, “awful” poverty, meaning by the term “awful,” evil. And I think that Simonides and his countrymen the Ceans, when they spoke of “hard” meant “evil,” or something which you do not understand. Let us ask Prodicus, for he ought to be able to answer questions about the dialect of Simonides. What did he mean, Prodicus, by the term “hard ?”
Evil, said Prodicus.
And therefore, I said, Prodicus, he blames Pittacus for saying, “Hard is the good,” just as if that were equivalent to saying, Evil is the good.
Yes, he said, that was certainly his meaning ; and he is twitting Pittacus with ignorance of the use of terms, which in a Lesbian, who has been accustomed to speak a barbarous language, is natural.
Do you hear, Protagoras, I asked, what our friend Prodicus is saying ? And have you an answer for him ?
You are entirely mistaken, Prodicus, said Protagoras ; and I know very well that Simonides in using the word “hard” meant what all of us mean, not evil, but that which is not easy — that which takes a great deal of trouble : of this I am positive.
I said : I also incline to believe, Protagoras, that this was the meaning of Simonides, of which our friend Prodicus was very well aware, but he thought that he would make fun, and try if you could maintain your thesis ; for that Simonides could never have meant the other is clearly proved by the context, in which he says that God only has this gift. Now he cannot surely mean to say that to be good is evil, when he afterwards proceeds to say that God only has this gift, and that this is the attribute of him and of no other. For if this be his meaning, Prodicus would impute to Simonides a character of recklessness which is very unlike his countrymen. And I should like to tell you, I said, what I imagine to be the real meaning of Simonides in this poem, if you will test what, in your way of speaking, would be called my skill in poetry ; or if you would rather, I will be the listener.
To this proposal Protagoras replied : As you please ; — and Hippias, Prodicus, and the others told me by all means to do as I proposed.
Then now, I said, I will endeavour to explain to you my opinion about this poem of Simonides. There is a very ancient philosophy which is more cultivated in Crete and Lacedaemon than in any other part of Hellas, and there are more philosophers in those countries than anywhere else in the world. This, however, is a secret which the Lacedaemonians deny ; and they pretend to be ignorant, just because they do not wish to have it thought that they rule the world by wisdom, like the Sophists of whom Protagoras was speaking, and not by valour of arms ; considering that if the reason of their superiority were disclosed, all men would be practising their wisdom. And this secret of theirs has never been discovered by the imitators of Lacedaemonian fashions in other cities, who go about with their ears bruised in imitation of them, and have the caestus bound on their arms, and are always in training, and wear short cloaks ; for they imagine that these are the practices which have enabled the Lacedaemonians to conquer the other Hellenes. Now when the Lacedaemonians want to unbend and hold free conversation with their wise men, and are no longer satisfied with mere secret intercourse, they drive out all these laconizers, and any other foreigners who may happen to be in their country, and they hold a philosophical seance unknown to strangers ; and they themselves forbid their young men to go out into other cities — in this they are like the Cretans — in order that they may not unlearn the lessons which they have taught them. And in Lacedaemon and Crete not only men but also women have a pride in their high cultivation. And hereby you may know that I am right in attributing to the Lacedaemonians this excellence in philosophy and speculation : If a man converses with the most ordinary Lacedaemonian, he will find him seldom good for much in general conversation, but at any point in the discourse he will be darting out some notable saying, terse and full of meaning, with unerring aim ; and the person with whom he is talking seems to be like a child in his hands. And many of our own age and of former ages have noted that the true Lacedaemonian type of character has the love of philosophy even stronger than the love of gymnastics ; they are conscious that only a perfectly educated man is capable of uttering such expressions. Such were Thales of Miletus, and Pittacus of Mitylene, and Bias of Priene, and our own Solon, and Cleobulus the Lindian, and Myson the Chenian ; and seventh in the catalogue of wise men was the Lacedaemonian Chilo. All these were lovers and emulators and disciples of the culture of the Lacedaemonians, and any one may perceive that their wisdom was of this character ; consisting of short memorable sentences, which they severally uttered. And they met together and dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as the first-fruits of their wisdom, the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men’s mouths — ”Know thyself,” and “Nothing too much.”
Why do I say all this ? I am explaining that this Lacedaemonian brevity was the style of primitive philosophy. Now there was a saying of Pittacus which was privately circulated and received the approbation of the wise, “Hard is it to be good.” And Simonides, who was ambitious of the fame of wisdom, was aware that if he could overthrow this saying, then, as if he had won a victory over some famous athlete, he would carry off the palm among his contemporaries. And if I am not mistaken, he composed the entire poem with the secret intention of damaging Pittacus and his saying.
Let us all unite in examining his words, and see whether I am speaking the truth. Simonides must have been a lunatic, if, in the very first words of the poem, wanting to say only that to become good is hard, he inserted (men) “on the one hand” [“on the one hand to become good is hard”] ; there would be no reason for the introduction of (men), unless you suppose him to speak with a hostile reference to the words of Pittacus. Pittacus is saying “Hard is it to be good,” and he, in refutation of this thesis, rejoins that the truly hard thing, Pittacus, is to become good, not joining “truly” with “good,” but with “hard.” Not, that the hard thing is to be truly good, as though there were some truly good men, and there were others who were good but not truly good (this would be a very simple observation, and quite unworthy of Simonides) ; but you must suppose him to make a trajection of the word “truly,” construing the saying of Pittacus thus (and let us imagine Pittacus to be speaking and Simonides answering him) : “O my friends,” says Pittacus, “hard is it to be good,” and Simonides answers, “In that, Pittacus, you are mistaken ; the difficulty is not to be good, but on the one hand, to become good, four-square in hands and feet and mind, without a flaw — that is hard truly.” This way of reading the passage accounts for the insertion of (men) “on the one hand,” and for the position at the end of the clause of the word “truly,” and all that follows shows this to be the meaning. A great deal might be said in praise of the details of the poem, which is a charming piece of workmanship, and very finished, but such minutiae would be tedious. I should like, however, to point out the general intention of the poem, which is certainly designed in every part to be a refutation of the saying of Pittacus. For he speaks in what follows a little further on as if he meant to argue that although there is a difficulty in becoming good, yet this is possible for a time, and only for a time. But having become good, to remain in a good state and be good, as you, Pittacus, affirm, is not possible, and is not granted to man ; God only has this blessing ; “but man cannot help being bad when the force of circumstances overpowers him.” Now whom does the force of circumstance overpower in the command of a vessel ? — not the private individual, for he is always overpowered ; and as one who is already prostrate cannot be overthrown, and only he who is standing upright but not he who is prostrate can be laid prostrate, so the force of circumstances can only overpower him who, at some time or other, has resources, and not him who is at all times helpless. The descent of a great storm may make the pilot helpless, or the severity of the season the husbandman or the physician ; for the good may become bad, as another poet witnesses :
The good are sometimes good and sometimes bad. But the bad does not become bad ; he is always bad. So that when the force of circumstances overpowers the man of resources and skill and virtue, then he cannot help being bad. And you, Pittacus, are saying, “Hard is it to be good.” Now there is a difficulty in becoming good ; and yet this is possible : but to be good is an impossibility —
For he who does well is the good man, and he who does ill is the bad. But what sort of doing is good in letters ? and what sort of doing makes a man good in letters ? Clearly the knowing of them. And what sort of well-doing makes a man a good physician ? Clearly the knowledge of the art of healing the sick. “But he who does ill is the bad.” Now who becomes a bad physician ? Clearly he who is in the first place a physician, and in the second place a good physician ; for he may become a bad one also : but none of us unskilled individuals can by any amount of doing ill become physicians, any more than we can become carpenters or anything of that sort ; and he who by doing ill cannot become a physician at all, clearly cannot become a bad physician. In like manner the good may become deteriorated by time, or toil, or disease, or other accident (the only real doing ill is to be deprived of knowledge), but the bad man will never become bad, for he is always bad ; and if he were to become bad, he must previously have been good. Thus the words of the poem tend to show that on the one hand a man cannot be continuously good, but that he may become good and may also become bad ; and again that
They are the best for the longest time whom the gods love.
All this relates to Pittacus, as is further proved by the sequel. For he adds :
Therefore I will not throw away my span of life to no purpose in searching after the impossible, hoping in vain to find a perfectly faultless man among those who partake of the fruit of the broad-bosomed earth : if I find him, I will send you word. (this is the vehement way in which he pursues his attack upon Pittacus throughout the whole poem) :
But him who does no evil, voluntarily I praise and love ; — not even the gods war against necessity. All this has a similar drift, for Simonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised those who did no evil voluntarily, as though there were some who did evil voluntarily. For no wise man, as I believe, will allow that any human being errs voluntarily, or voluntarily does evil and dishonourable actions ; but they are very well aware that all who do evil and dishonourable things do them against their will. And Simonides never says that he praises him who does no evil voluntarily ; the word “voluntarily” applies to himself. For he was under the impression that a good man might often compel himself to love and praise another, and to be the friend and approver of another ; and that there might be an involuntary love, such as a man might feel to an unnatural father or mother, or country, or the like. Now bad men, when their parents or country have any defects, look on them with malignant joy, and find fault with them and expose and denounce them to others, under the idea that the rest of mankind will be less likely to take themselves to task and accuse them of neglect ; and they blame their defects far more than they deserve, in order that the odium which is necessarily incurred by them may be increased : but the good man dissembles his feelings, and constrains himself to praise them ; and if they have wronged him and he is angry, he pacifies his anger and is reconciled, and compels himself to love and praise his own flesh and blood. And Simonides, as is probable, considered that he himself had often had to praise and magnify a tyrant or the like, much against his will, and he also wishes to imply to Pittacus that he does not censure him because he is censorious.