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Plato v. status quo: on the motivation for Socrates digression in the Theaetetus.

In this essay, I argue that Socrates' digression in the Theaetetus, roughly found between 172c-177d, is directly motivated by the following connected moral claims: (I) that moral judgments are city-relative in the sense that what people hold collectively to be, just, for example, is meant for that particular collective only; (I*) that no city looks for an expert for assistance in improving (or overturning) its moral views, e.g., views about justice are considered simply as views about justice; and (II) that no moral concept has an essence ofits own, which entails that no moral concept is objectively true. Central to my thesis is the claim that (I), (I*), and (II) are defended by a widely held position, or what I call the 'common view', which is distinct from the highlighted Protagorean position also addressed in the dialogue. Accordingly, Socrates' digression should be considered as a dramatic rebuttal, prompted by what is depicted as a widely held position that defends (I), (I*), and (II).


Whilst the motivation for Socrates' digression has its roots in the discussion on the expanded form of the Protagorean Measure Doctrine (hereafter called [EPD]) between 166a-171c,1 I contend that the digression does not directly address [EPD]; rather, I argue that the immediate motivation for the digression occurs during the 'New Formulation' (2) between 171d-172b. The position described in said passage accords in part with [EPD] (as we shall see). However, I argue that it is nonetheless a distinct and more widely attributed position, what I call the 'common view' (hereafter called [CV]), regarding the alleged relativity of moral judgments; a position which, as Socrates himself states, 'even those who are not prepared to go all the way with Protagoras take some such view of [it]'(172b8-9). (3)

The idea that there are two distinct positions addressed between 166a-172c is not novel. Taylor (1926), Cornford (1935), Bostock (1988), and Sedley (2004) are but a few scholars who support this distinction. Yet I am of the opinion that very little has been done, even by those scholars just cited, (i) to show explicitly that there are two distinct positions to contend with and (ii) explain how exactly the two positions differ from one another. I hope to adequately satisfy (i) and (ii) through the course of this essay. To be clear, my unique contribution to the two-position reading is the following: I show that [CV] is first cited at 171d; that [CV], and only [CV], is treated by Socrates between 171d-172c; that particular moral claims attributed strictly to [CV] prompted Socrates' digression; and that it is [CV], not [EPD], which Socrates is responding to during the digression. One consequence of all this is the move to accordingly dismiss what I call the 'Protagorean reading' of the text approximately between 166a177d. I address this reading further ahead. In particular, I criticize Timothy Chappell's (2004) reading of the text in question and show how the Protagorean reading, as a whole, becomes untenable compared with my analysis of the same text.


Prior to examining [CV], we ought to run through in outline the discussion on [EPD] up to 171d. (4) A complete exposition and evaluation of Socrates' treatment of [EPD] leading up to 171d is outside the scope of this paper. (5) Notwithstanding, I do not think that my argument is jeopardized in any way by not meticulously evaluating the arguments presented in the text regarding [EPD]. This is because my overarching claim is that the specific motivation for the ensuing digression is a position that is presented as commonly held (viz., not doctrine-specific). In fact, Plato is drawing us to note the similarity between [EPD] and [CV]. However, the digression itself is primarily motivated by and accordingly addresses claims that are specifically attributed to [CV].

So let us begin by tracking the account of [EPD] up to 168b. First, notice that Protagorean relativity originally refers to sensible objects and their according sensory predicates via the perception of a given individual (e.g., x appears hot/cold, wet/dry, etc. to [alpha], some individual) [152c]; let us express this in the formula 'If x appears F to [alpha], then x is F to [alpha]'. (6) However, by 168b the formula's variables are widened to accommodate nonsensible objects (e.g., x being a law or practice [167c]), non-sensory predicates (e.g., x appearing 'just' [167c]), and collective subjects (e.g., [alpha] being a city [168b]). Protagorean relativity, once confined to how a sensible object appears via perception to a given individual has, by 168b, been expanded to cover either a given individual or a city's belief or judgment regarding some non-sensory x. (7)

There is another element attached to [EPD] that we need to cite. Through Socrates, Protagoras accepts that expertise (i.e., wisdom) exists and that said expertise is accommodated under the Protagorean doctrine (166d-167d).

'[Protagoras via Socrates:] I certainly do not deny the existence of both wisdom and wise men: far from it. But the man whom I call wise is the man who can change the appearances--the man who, in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him.' (166d6-10)

At 167b Protagoras is made to clarify (if only remotely) the now accommodated expert in his theory:

'[Protagoras via Socrates]: This, in my opinion, is what really happens: when a man's soul is in a pernicious state, he judges things akin to it, but giving him a sound state of the soul causes him to think different things, things that are good. In the latter event, the things which appear to him are what some people, who are still at a primitive state, call 'true'; my position, however, is that the one kind are better ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) than the others, but in no way truer ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).' (167b2-7)

What the individual feels or thinks (believes, judges) in the moment holds true for him; if [alpha] is in some state of mind at [T.sub.1] to feel (think, etc.) that x is F, then at [T.sub.1] 'x is F' is true for [alpha]. Now, the expert can come along at [T.sub.2] and change [alpha]'s state of mind. However, this new state of mind for [alpha] is no truer than his previous one although it is better. Obviously, this is in need of serious qualification. By 'better', does Protagoras mean what is in accordance with [alpha]'s current state of mind, [alpha] being, say, a healthy subject over a sickly one? Or does it mean that [alpha] is overall better off being in the expert-influenced state of mind over the non-expert-influenced one? Moreover, what of the exact import of the expert? Is one an expert for [alpha] if (and perhaps, only if) it appears to (it is judged by) [alpha] that he is in a better state because of the expert? Unfortunately, the passage does not explicitly answer these questions, and there is no unanimous interpretation of the passage as it stands. (8)

Notwithstanding the obscurity of Protagoras' use of 'better', what we must keep in mind is that the text between 167ab states quite explicitly that, with regards the truth, 'better' and with it 'worse' states of mind are equivalent; that no state of mind is any truer than that which precedes or follows it for any given [alpha]. This is an important point and its full import for my argument shall be revealed shortly. In the interim, let us consider our outline of [EPD] leading up to 167b finished. I would now like to jump ahead to the passage directly preceding Socrates' digression.

[EPD] or [CV]?

Recall claim (I): moral judgments are city-relative. At 172a, we are presented with what I regard as an important qualification:

'[Socrates:]...of what is {noble and base} ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), of just and unjust, of pious and the theory may be prepared to maintain that whatever view a city takes on these matters and establishes as its law or convention, is truth and fact for that city. In such matters neither any individual nor any city can claim superior wisdom.' (172a2-6)

I maintain that the main point of contention, that which prompts Socrates' digression, rests not on the meaning of 'better' according to [EPD], or who the expert is and what exactly it is that he does. Instead, the digression is responding primarily to (I), its qualification, and (II). Accordingly, let us express this qualification as (I*): no city looks for an expert for assistance in improving (or overturning) its moral views, e.g., views about justice simply as views about justice.

Now, (I) does accord with [EPD], but I argue that (I*) does not, and it is this conjunction of (I), (I*), and (II) attributed to [CV], not [EPD] that, I argue, prompts the digression. The reader could interject here and argue that 'the theory' nominated in the passage above is explicitly referring to [EPD]; that by 172a [EPD] has been expanded (or altered) to accommodate (I*). (9) However, let us retrace our footsteps and return to 167c, where [EPD] is still unquestionably being cited by Socrates:

'[Protagoras via Socrates:] Whatever in any city is regarded as just and admirable is just and admirable, in that city and for so long as that convention maintains itself; but the wise man ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) replaces each pernicious convention by a wholesome one, making this both be and seem just.' (167c5-8)

Here, [EPD] qualifies (I) thus: (I+), the 'wise man' (i.e., expert) can change the state of mind of the city concerning moral judgments in particular. However, as has just been cited above, the 'theory' in question at 172a is shown to be unequivocally denying (I+). This is immediately problematic for the reader who maintains that [EPD] is still being attributed, in particular, (I*) at 172a: [EPD] must accept either or (I*). If he accepts (I*), as the reader may be led to believe at 172a, then [EPD] has rejected between 167c-172a. Has [EPD], as has hitherto been interpreted, dismissed (I+) and adopted (I*)?

We must now look at the exchange between Socrates and Theodorus between 168e-171c. I argue that this exchange shows that (a) [EPD] has been refuted and, accordingly, that (b) [EPD] at the time of dismissal is left with (I+), not (I*). Ultimately, this shows that (c) (I*) is attributed to a newly accounted for position, which I identify as [CV]. The exchange should then be considered transitional, in so far as it displays the move away from the 'defense' of [EPD] to its dismissal and ultimately toward the account of [CV]. I shall not analyze in any serious depth either the strengths or weakness of the two connected arguments (169d-170c, 170e-171c) during the exchange between Socrates and Theodorus. (10) My immediate aim is simply to account for the transition between the defense of [EPD], and what I am arguing is the account of [CV] which prompts Socrates' digression.

With that said, let us immediately attend to (a) above: whereas Socrates earlier clearly acted as a spokesperson for Protagoras (cf. 166a), at 168e it is made obvious that he and Theodorus critically examine [EPD]; that the exchange is no longer a defense of [EPD]. As Burnyeat notes:
 '... the tone of the discussion undergoes a dramatic change [at
 this point]. Socrates is no longer the polite and helpful fellow
 defending Protagoras against some awkward questions. He makes
 Theodorus strip for action (169ac). The attack that follows leaves
 the old mathematician shocked and shaken (171cd). The proposition
 that some people are wiser or more expert than others is now
 (171d) not the centerpiece of a defence of Protagoras' relativism
 but the ignominious outcome of its self-refutation.' (11)

The refutation of [EPD]

Let us quickly turn to examine this self-refutation. Socrates starts the new examination by focusing on Protagoras' earlier concession: that there are experts, some men who are wiser than others (169d, cf. 166d). The argument runs thus:

(1) Start with homo mensura, i.e., things are for every man what they seem to him to be (170a).

(2) However, no one in the world does not believe that in some matters one is wiser than others; whilst in other matters they are wiser than he (ibid.).

(3) So (all) men do believe in the existence of both wisdom (i.e., true thinking) and ignorance (i.e., false judgment) (170b).

(4) Therefore, (all) men do not always judge what is true; judgments are both true and false (170c).

Burnyeat (1990, 28-9) is right to point out the Protagoras is caught in a dilemma here. If others believe that false judgment exists, then it does. If others are wrong in believing that false judgment exists, well, their wrongness is itself nothing less than an instance of false judgment. Protagoras is forced to say that the judgment of others is either right or wrong, and the third option that would deny that people do judge each other's wisdom or ignorance is immediately dismissed by Theodorus at 170c. Consequently, no matter what Protagoras decides, false judgment is then shown to exist, which is something that [EPD] must immediately deny.

Socrates and Theodorus now turn to the second, connected argument between 170e-171c. One immediate observation of this argument is in order. At a critical point between 171ab, the relativizing qualifier 'for [alpha]' is silently dropped. Protagoras is now made to answer what is true or false in universal terms. A general summary of what is called the self-refutation argument (12) as a whole follows:

(1) Start with the commonly held belief that false judgment exists (170e).

(2) Move to show the specific beliefthat [EPD] is false (171ab).

(3) Trap Protagoras into committing himselfto (2) (171b).

(4) Protagoras is forced to refute his own thesis (171bc).

This is a self-refutation argument in so far as Protagoras is made to acknowledge that [EPD], a thesis on beliefs, must be applied to beliefs about itself. This culminates in Protagoras having to admit that [EPD]'s thesis is false for everyone. Consequently, and thereby in support of (b) above, all of [EPD]'s claims, including (I+), are shown to be false.

Again, a close analysis of the preceding argument should not concern us here; whether or not the conclusions are logically sound does not affect the overarching argument of this essay. Certainly, we may question the supposed strict relativism of [EPD] in general. (13) We could particularly contest its depiction as a purely relativist position considering the moves made between 169d-171c that explicitly saddle it with objective claims. Yet such a matter of contention primarily concerns the logical moves taken during argumentation. For our present purposes, we should interpret that [EPD], leading up to its self-refutation, is depicted as a relativist position, which means that [EPD]'s purported far-reaching relativism (i.e., relativity extending beyond sense perception) is officially the main point of contention. It is [EPD]'s relativism in toto that Socrates is wont to dismiss prior to 171d-172b.

What does affect our argument at this point is that Socrates and Theodorus have brought Protagoras to admit that [EPD] is false. Accordingly, at 171c we are shown that the immediate analysis of [EPD] has finished and with it, consideration for (I+), which [EPD] has defended. We now move on to examine the passage between 171d-172b and with it defend (c) above.

Addressing [CV]

At this point, the reader may still contend that, albeit considerably altered, the position between 171d-172b is still Protagorean in origin; that Socrates' digression is addressing claims regarding, in particular, moral matters that are defended by Protagoras. I maintain that [CV] is not an altered form of [EPD] but a distinct position. This is not to say, however, that [CV] and [EPD] are polar-opposites. On the contrary, as I shall now show, both positions do coincide in part in that both share certain relativist tenets. Yet what I shall also show is that [CV] and [EPD] differ in a fundamental way: [CV] is portrayed as a more general and widely held mixed position (viz., one whose tenets are part relativist, part objectivist). Further, I shall point out [CV]'s position on the role of the expert regarding moral matters fundamentally questions Protagoras' own professed expertise on said matters. I shall also point out that it would be irrational of Protagoras (or any Protagorean for that matter) to defend a position that does not consider him an expert in moral matters.

Accordingly, let us now reexamine the position in question between 171d-172b.

[Socrates:] We may also suggest that the theory would stand firm most successfully in the position which we sketched out for it in our attempt to bring help to Protagoras. I mean the position that most things are for the individual what they seem to him to be; for instance, warm dry, sweet and all this type of thing. But if the theory is going to admit that there is any sphere in which one man is superior to another, it might perhaps be prepared to grant it in questions of what is good or bad for one's health. Here it might well be admitted that it is not true [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] that every creature-woman or child or even animal-is competent [to know] ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) what is good for it and to heal its own sickness; that here, if anywhere, one person is better than another. Do you agree?

[Theodorus:] Yes, that seems so to me.' (171d10-e11)

The position here accepts the following, which accords with [EPD], ([delta]): 'If x appears F to [alpha], then x is F to [alpha]', where [alpha] is an individual, x is a sensory object, and F concerns temperature, taste, and so on (171e1-3, cf. 152b). Hence, [CV] is relativist particularly with regard to sensory objects as perceived by a given perceiver. However, notice the ensuing qualification, ([sigma]): there exist men who are wiser than others because they know more than others; it is not true that for all matters all men have the same knowledge with regard to what is or is not good for themselves (171e3-6).

As we have already seen, the concession regarding the existence and role of an expert according to [EPD] up to 171c does not impinge on the relativist and epistemic tenets of [EPD]: (i) experts exist, and (ii) they are considered wiser' than others because they can make objects (be they sensory or non-sensory) appear better' for a given [alpha]. (iii) However, regardless of whether or not an expert can make the appearance of the object for [alpha] better', he cannot make the altered appearance of that object any truer for [alpha] than the previous, non-expert-influenced appearance (cf. 167b better' 168b). Now ([sigma]) above is immediately at odds with [EPD]'s (ii); for [CV] there are cases in which one is considered wise (i.e., an expert) because he objectively knows more about a given x than any other individual.

Socrates' next step between 172ab is to see how this position treats political matters. The first matter concerns moral judgments, e.g., what is noble and base' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), for the city. The second concerns 'what is or is not beneficial or profitable for the city' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As I have already pointed out, leading up to 171c [EPD] accepts an expert can change the state of mind of the city concerning moral judgments in particular. The position between 171d-172b, what I am calling [CV], explicitly does not.

'[Socrates:] ... of what is [noble and base] ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), of just and unjust, of pious and impious. here the theory may be prepared to maintain that whatever view a city takes on these matters and establishes as its law or convention, is truth and fact for that city. In such matters neither any individual nor any city can claim superior wisdom! (172a2-6)

Here, [CV] states that, with concerning moral concerns, an expanded form of ([delta]), not ([sigma]), holds. This claim on the part of [CV] we have already termed (I*): no city looks for an expert for assistance in improving (or overturning) its moral views, e.g., views about justice are simply considered views about justice.

Socrates then turns to the matter of what is beneficial or profitable. On such a matter, Socrates says that the city, as a whole, is more apt to seek (and therefore acknowledge) the superior wisdom of one expert over another; that ([sigma]), not ([delta]), holds with regarding what is beneficial or profitable.

[Socrates speaking:] here the decision of one city may be more in conformity with the truth than that of another. It would certainly not have the hardihood to affirm that when a city decides that a certain thing is to its own interest, that thing will undoubtedly turn out to be to its interest.' (172a9-b3)

In matters concerning that which is considered most beneficial or profitable for a city, that city seeks out the advice of an individual who is thought to be superior in wisdom regarding what is or is not beneficial to the city; in such instances, the city is more apt to hit closer to the truth in so far as it has steered itself in the right direction in presuming that the individual who is thought superior in wisdom therefore knows the truth of the matter. Moreover, it is not so brash as to assert that whatever it thinks beneficial for itself is unquestionably so.

Prima facie, the role of the expert in the passage above, concerning what is profitable or beneficial for the city, accords with the role of the expert for [EPD]. However, if we maintain, as I believe we should, that [EPD] is to be considered a strictly relativist position, then an immediate issue arises. For the role of the expert between 172ab accords with a position that is depicted as mixed; it is part relativist, part objectivist (cf. [[sigma]] and [ a]). The position in question objectively considers the expert wiser than others in a particular field. Moreover, it is clearly stated that via the assistance of the expert, the truth of the matter is closer at hand (cf. [a] above, 172a6-b3). As was made obvious by Protagoras himself at 167b, the influence of the expert for [EPD] does not make the altered state of mind of the city any truer than its original, pre-expert-influenced, state of mind. Hence, this account of what I am calling [CV] is shown to disagree with [EPD]'s (ii) and (iii) [cf. p. 12]; [CV] is certainly its own distinct position.

There is another way by which we can show that it is misguided to think that [CV] is simply a restricted Protagorean position. If Protagoras were to accept Socrates' suggestion' (i.e., [CV]) whilst still considering himselfto be an expert, he would have to do so on everyone else's terms, as one who knows the truth in contrast with non-experts whose views on the matter are probably false. Furthermore, in subscribing to [CV], Protagoras would have to accept that his purported rhetorical expertise in transforming the city's views on any moral matter is not ipso facto truly a valuable expertise; his rhetorical ability (i.e., wisdom) would only be considered an expertise (and he wise) when concerned with city-related matters on what is beneficial or profitable, something which seriously questions Protagoras' professed expertise on all political matters and as a teacher of virtue (cf. Protagoras, 318d-320b).

The Problem with [CV]

Let us now return directly to the text and examine the problem posed by [CV]. As I maintain, there are certain moral claims that prompt the digression, and all of them are connected to [CV]. The first half of the problem concerns [CV]'s (I) and is fairly straightforward: [CV] holds that moral judgment is city-relative; for example, that what people hold collectively to be just is considered just for such a collective. We have qualified this claim, (cf. [I*]), by pointing out that moral judgment, according to [CV], cannot be affected by any purported expert; that there is no truthversus-falsity and, therefore, no recognized expertise according to the city concerning what is just, noble, etc. per se. That just any collective can randomly claim to know, and be perceived as knowing, what is truly moral is something that Plato is unwilling to accept. (14)

Let us now address the second claim, (II):

[Socrates:]. It is in those other questions I am talking about-just and unjust, pious and impious-that men are ready to insist that no one of these things has by nature any being of its own ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); in respect of these, they say what seems to people collectively to be so is true, at the time when it seems that way and for just as long as it so seems. And even those who are not prepared to go all the way with Protagoras take some such view of wisdom.' (172b3-9, my italics)

According to [CV], no moral concept has by nature any 'being' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of its own. What is the ouaia of a moral concept? At first reading, one could say that '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' here is used in reference to Forms; that questions such as 'what is x qua x or references to the '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of x' in the Platonic corpus are, more often than not, references to the Idea, qua universal, of that which all instances of x share in (cf. Phaedo 75cd, Parmenides 129a). (15) Yet I am hesitant to accept such an answer, particularly in the context of this dialogue. For one, Socrates' initial query to Theaetetus at the start of the dialogue, to find the whole (i.e., x itself') under which the branches (particulars) are subsumed (146e), certainly gives us no immediate reason to point to an allusion to Forms. (16) Moreover, there is still an ongoing debate as to whether or not Forms qua universals are being unequivocally referred to during the heart of Socrates' digression (cf. 173e). (17)

Nevertheless, this much can be granted: the philosopher is primarily engaged in theoretical activity (cf. 173c-175c). Therefore, his subject matter is indisputably abstract; the study of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a given x concerns the study of x qua concept and is something which requires no immediate sense-based appeal. Accordingly, the very ouaia of a given x, what Socrates has taken to call the whole',ismetaphysical (i.e., itself an abstract concept). However, this alone does not force us to commit ourselves to the interpretation arguing that the allusions in the Theaetetus to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a given x unquestionably presuppose a theory of Forms; that x, whatever it is, is to be taken as the Form x. That (a) the study of the nature of the whole', as expressed by Socrates is, in essence, a metaphysical study is something one could straightforwardly accept; however, that (b) it is a study of Forms is not. As it stands, any pro-theory of Forms position here would certainly need to issue a more substantial argument in its favor in order to convince the average reader to accept (b) over (a).

Yet it should be stated that choosing either (a) or (b) does not ultimately affect (beneficially or otherwise) the overarching aim of this essay. My argument holds that during the digression, Socrates is responding directly to the position stating that x, in this case a moral concept, could not be objectively ascertained or overturned, because x is city-relative and, further, has no [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of its own. Both readings (a) and (b) would agree that the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a given x qua (moral) concept exists and can be objectively ascertained; moreover, both readings concerning the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a given moral concept are consistent with my claim that Socrates is defending the philosopher who maintains both the existence and objectivity of (moral) concepts and, therefore, contests [CV]'s (I), (I*), and (II).

Returning to 172b, the city holds that no moral concept can be objectively ascertained, for no moral concept exists as an abstract entity that can itself be deliberated upon and known. I concur with Burnyeat's appraisal of the consequence of such a claim:

'... it [would become] impossible to say that justice is in one's own best interests, that a prudent man who wants to lead a happy life will seek to acquire justice and moral virtue generally. There is no firm truth of the form "Justice is necessary for happiness" if there is no definite and stable answer to the question "What is justice?"' (18)

Obviously, such a consequence given (I), (I*), and (II) is something that Socrates (or Plato) cannot accept. Hence, the digression serves as a dramatic rebuttal (19) prompted by these contentious claims held by [CV]. Socrates is now moved to both contrast the life of the philosopher who (i) believes in the objectivity and existence of moral concepts and (ii) argues that they can be known, with that of the 'common man', the politically and rhetorically well-versed proponent of [CV] who dismisses both (i) and (ii). (20) The ensuing digression in the Theaetetus accordingly shows that the philosopher, who appears perverse in the eyes of the proponent of [CV], is the one who ought to be most highly valued for his defense of the objectivity and existence of all moral concepts and accordingly for his superior epistemic expertise.

Point of clarification

Among others, Burnyeat (1990, 33), Sedley (2004, 64-5), and Chappell (2004, 121) note the centrality of the topic regarding the alleged relativity of justice in the digression. Chappell, in particular, writes that:
 '... the "conceptual divorce" between justice and benefit that
 emerged in 171c7-172b9 is never directly criticized or disproved
 in the Theaetetus. But in its passionate denunciation of the
 society that produced the divorce, the Digression touches on many
 of the reasons why Plato thinks that divorce pernicious.' (21)

I wish to clarify my reading of the digression here. I believe that the conceptual divorce' between justice and benefit is indeed of central focus. Likewise, I believe said divorce is patently denounced during the digression. I too see Plato expressly pitting two sides against each other, contrasting their respective lives especially in relation to their relativized or non-relativized viewpoints concerning the concept of justice. However, I believe that Chappell et al. either overlook or fail to clearly cite the extended reach of this conceptual divorce'. The divorce in question, which I argue is attributed to [CV], covers all moral concepts, not just justice. Again, I have no issue here pointing out that particular attention is paid to the topic of justice during the digression. However, I wish to note that focusing on one moral concept does not imply that suddenly only this one moral concept is being considered. Going beyond Chappell et al., in this essay I have sought to flesh out this divorce and clearly identify the specific tenets ([I], [I*], and [II]) affecting all moral concepts attributed to a widely held position that stands polar opposite to the moral objectivity supported by Socrates during the digression.

Dismissing the Protagorean reading

Through the course of this essay, I have pointed out and examined two similar but distinct positions treated between 166a-172b. In doing so, I have, for the most part, indirectly criticized the competing Protagorean reading of this portion of the dialogue. What I am calling the Protagorean reading' contends that the position addressed up to 177d is strictly Protagoras' position, albeit reformulated, and that it is strictly some version of [EPD] that is addressed through to the end of the digression. (22) To conclude this essay, I would like to outright dismiss this reading. In particular, I wish to focus on Chappell's (2004) analysis of the dialogue between 171d-172c. To be clear, the aim here is to show that, especially given the preceding effort to illustrate two distinct positions addressed in this portion of the dialogue (i.e., 166-172), the Protagorean reading that covers 166a-177d is, as whole, untenable.

Chappell claims that it is hard to see a difference in doctrine between the passages [i.e., 171d-172b, 172b-172c] that Cornford distinguishes'. (23) Contra Cornford, Chappell essentially saddles [EPD] with the particular qualifications brought up between 171d-172c. He is right to point out that Cornford does not adequately expound on the purported difference. (24) Notwithstanding, I hold that between 171d-172c a similar, albeit distinct, position is cited. As I have already shown, the role of the expert in this portion of the text accords with a position that is depicted as mixed;itis part relativist, part objectivist (cf. [[delta]] and [[sigma]] above). The position in question objectively considers the expert wiser than others in a particular field. Moreover, it is clearly stated that via the assistance of the expert, the truth of the matter is closer at hand (cf. [[sigma]] above and 172a9-b3). I have further highlighted the point that the position in question dismisses outright anyone who purports to be an expert in virtuous (moral) matters. It is also at odds with the central tenets of [EPD] as explicated and critiqued by Socrates and Theodorus up to 171c. Protagoras, a proclaimed expert of virtue, could never accept Socrates' 'suggestion'. In sum, the position cited between 171d-172b stands in acute conflict with the central tenets of the Protagorean position addressed in the dialogue.

I also note that Chappell's translation of an important passage is questionable (172ab). In particular, he identifies the subjects of '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' at 172b3 as Protagoreans' without sufficient explanation. (25) Contra Chappell, I believe that the subjects of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] at 172b3 are the same as those referenced near the end of the digression (177cd), i.e., the proponents of [CV]. At that point, Socrates suggests that he and Theodorus (and Theaetetus) return to the prior remarks or points of discussion' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], my translation), viz., the remarks regarding [CV] between 171d-172c (177c1-2). That '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' refers specifically to the remarks found between 171d-172c and, as I argue, to [CV] is supported by Socrates' ensuing recapitulation (177c6-d6) of what has been stated between 171d-172c. Note especially the reference to the people [literally, speakers]' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 177c7), so it is not Protagoras per se who holds that for every individual things always are whatever they seem to him to be; and we said that they were prepared to stand upon their principle in almost every case-not least in questions of what is just and right ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 177c9)'. (26) Again, compare these remarks especially with (I*), which stands in direct conflict with [EPD]'s (I+).

Accordingly, I feel the need to correct Chappell's summary of the digression, along with the summary of the Protagorean reading of this portion of the text. Chappell writes that the digression paints a picture of what it is like to live in accordance with the two different accounts of knowledge, the Protagorean and the Platonist'. (27) Yes, two different accounts of knowledge, reflecting two distinct ways of living, face off during the digression. Yet one of them is not essentially Protagorean; instead, it is a more commonly held position or what I have identified as [CV]. Plato, then, is not limiting his critique of moral relativism in the digression to the Protagorean position as previously highlighted. His critique is, in actuality, considerably broader in the sense that he is taking on a huge swath of the polis and is butting heads with the status quo. * (28)

DOI: 10.1515/apeiron-2011-0013


Barker, A. 'The digression in the Theaetetus! in Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (1976) 457-82.

Blondell, R. The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge 2002

Bostock, D. Plato's Theaetetus. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Burnet, J. Greek Philosophy, Thales to Plato. Princeton, USA: Macmillan and Co., 1915

Burnyeat, M. 'Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Plato's Theaetetus, Philosophical Review 85 (1976) 172-95.

The Theaetetus of Plato. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1990.

Chappell, T. Reading Plato's Theaetetus. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Academia Ver lag, 2004.

Cooper, J. Plato Complete Works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc..

Cornford, F.M. Plato's Theory of Knowledge. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1935.

Duke, E. A., Hicken, W. F., Nicoll, W. S. M., Robinson, D.B., & Strachan, J. C. G.

Platonis Opera Tomus I. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kerferd, G.B. 'Plato's Account of Relativism of Protagoras,'Durham University Journal 42 (1949) 20-6.

Lee, E.N. 'Hoist with his own petard: Ironic and comic elements in Plato's critique of Protagoras (Tht. 161-171),' in Exegesis and Argument=Phronesis Supplement 1 (1973) 225-61.

Long, A. 'Refutation and Relativism in Theaetetus 161 -71, in Phronesis 49 (2004) 24-39.

Mackie, J. L. 'Self Refutation--A Formal Analysis,' in Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1964) 193-203.

McDowell, J. Plato: Theaetetus. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Neihues-Probsting H. 'Die "Episode" im Theaitetos: Verscharfung der Begriffe von Rhetorik und Philosophie,' in Archiv fur Begriffsgeschichte 26 (1982) 7-24.

Passmore, J. Philosophical Reasoning. London, UK: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961.

Sedley, D. The Midwife of Platonism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Stern, P. 'The Philosophic Important of Political Life: On the "Digression" in Plato's Theaetetus! in The American Political Science Review 96 (2002) 275-89.

Taylor, A. E. Plato-the Man and His Work, 4th edition, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1926/2001.

Waterlow, S. 'Protagoras and Inconsistency: Theaetetus 171a6-c7,' in Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie 59 (1977) 19-36.

(1) This passage is also known as the 'defense' of the Protagorean doctrine. See Burnyeat (1990) 22 ff..

(2) I adopt Myles Burnyeat's (1990) term here to refer to the position cited between 171d-172b.

(3) Unless otherwise noted in brackets, all ensuing translations of the Theaetetus are by Levett, rev. Burnyeat in Cooper (1997). Greek text is from Duke et al. (1995).

(4) I focus on the text between 152c-168e in this section of the essay. I address what follows between 168e-171c through the next two sections.

(5) See Burnyeat (1990) 19-28, for a thorough analysis of this portion of the dialogue.

(6) It has come to include feeling-based or emotive predicates (e.g., good/bad, pain, desire, fear, etc.) taken as sensory predicates (157d), cf. Burnyeat (1990) 20 and n. 28.

(7) As Burnyeat writes, 'When we speak of a law appearing just, or an opinion false, to someone, in such cases "it appears" means not "he perceives it" but "he believes it," "it seems so to him" (1990, 21).

It is beyond the scope of this essay to scrutinize in any detail the rather quick progression in the text from analyzing a straightforward sensory-based relativism to analyzing both a sensory and non-sensory based relativism.

(8) See Bostock (1998, 88-9), Sedley (2004, 54-5), Burnet (1914, 116), Taylor (1926, 322-23), Kerferd (1949), and Cornford (1935, 73-4) for various interpretations. Burnyeat (1990, 24-7) is rightly hesitant against settling on any one specific reading.

(9) This is part of the 'Protagorean reading ... I return to directly address this reading further ahead.

(10) For a good treatment of both the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments tackled in said passage see Burnyeat (1990, 27-31 and 1976, 191), Waterlow (1977, 29), Passmore (1961, 62), Mackie (1964, 193), and Long (2004). Note that some of these references give significantly different treatments of the passage.

(11) (1990) 28.

(12) Cf.Burnyeat (1990), Long (2004), and McDowell (1973). In general, most scholars agree that this argument is meant as a self-refutation of [EPD] on the part of Protagoras.

(13) Cf. the scholars mentioned at note 10 on the problem with accepting [EPD] as a doctrine strictly defending relativism.

(14) Aside from the digression in the Theaetetus, one need only look at Plato's critical view of democracy and the pitfall of ignorance regarding what is truly virtuous (moral) in the Republic and Statesman.

(15) For other examples of ouaia being unequivocally used to refer to the Form (Idea) of a given x cf., e.g., Republic V 479a and VI 507b ff., Phaedrus 247c ff., and Timaeus 27d ff.. This pro-Form reading is taken by, e.g., Cornford (1935, 85-6) and Sedley (2004, 71). Note that Cornford thinks that there is a 'clear allusion' to Forms in the digression. Meanwhile, Sedley speaks of an 'indirect allusion'.

(16) That Socrates uses the example of the definition of clay (nvpioc) to show Theaetetus exactly what he is searching for, I think, dismisses such a possibility (147a). Cf. Parmenides 130cd, where Socrates outright rejects the idea that there exists a Form clay.

(17) See Burnyeat (1990, 37-9) for a general presentation of both the pro and contra reading of Plato's Theory of Forms allusion in the passage in question.

(18) Burnyeat (1990) 33.

(19) I think it is uncontroversial that no solid nor explicit argument has been produced to overturn, what I argue, are [CV]'s central tenets during the digression.

(20) To be clear, 'common man' refers to the '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]' (173b3). Literally, Socrates is identifying a group of individuals who are sarcastically said to be 'clever and wise'. Levett and Burnyeat translate this to 'practical man ... I have no qualms with their translation. In the eyes of hoi polloi, Plato wants us to note that the proponent of [CV] is practically learned; a welcomed frequenter of the agora, an experienced orator in the courtroom, or a well-versed master of ceremonies at any symposium. Nevertheless, I stick with 'common man', for I wish to emphasize the connection between the philosopher's antitype pictured in the digression and the commonly held position, [CV], that said antitype accords with.

(21) Chappell (2004) 121.

(22) Lee (1973), Barker (1976), Niehues-Probsting (1982), Blondell (2002), Stern (2002), and Chappell (2004) are some of the scholars to whom I attribute the Protagorean reading. Again, these scholars share the general idea that the digression responds to Protagoras position, regardless of its modifications, and that it is expressly Plato versus Protagoras (or some subset of his supporters) from 166a through to the end of the digression.

(23) Chappell (2004) 120.

(24) Cornford (1935, 81-3) equates the position addressed between 171d4-172b2 with the Protagorean position that I have been calling [EPD]. He considers the position addressed between 172b2-172c2 distinct from [EPD]. As should be obvious, I do not support Cornford's saddling [EPD] with what is stated between 171d4-172b2; rather, I have sought to show that [CV] is first addressed in the text at 171d and that [CV] shares certain tenets with [EPD] whilst nevertheless being a distinct position whose further details are cited by Socrates between 172ac. Furthermore, I agree with Chappell (2004, 120) that Cornford's 'ultra-Protagorean' (Chappell's term) reading of the position between 172ac lacks qualification. However, I think it slightly confusing of Chappell that he nominates the position Cornford considers distinct from Protagoras own as 'ultra Protagorean'. Cornford explicitly states 'their view [sc. the group I identify as [CV]] is the "more important" theory, involving larger issues than the restricted position we have just ascribed to Protagoras, the consideration of which is accordingly postponed.' (1935, 82)

(25) Chappell's (2004, 119) translation of the complete sentence follows: 'But in the other cases I speak of-the just and the unjust, the reverent and blasphemous-the Protagoreans are prepared to insist that none of these things has a being of its own by nature. (172b2-b5).

Pace Chappell, in their respective translations, Levett (in Cooper 1997) and Cornford (1935) identify the subjects of eoeTiouciv as a distinct, generalised group not expressly affiliated with Protagoras.

(26) It is outside the scope of this paper to examine the dialogue post 177d.

(27) Chappell (2004) 127, author's italics, my underline.

(28) * I would like to thank Sarah Broadie, Dorothea Frede, and Alex Long for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank the reviewer acting on behalf of Apeiron for his or her helpful comments on the penultimate draft of this essay.


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Author:Labriola, Daniele
Publication:APEIRON: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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