Plato and Protagoras: “. . . of things that are, how they are . . .”

Plato How can we know what Plato really thought?

He never (almost never) spoke for himself. He wrote “dialogues” in which the only voices belong to the characters. We know what Meno, Protagoras, Theaitetos, and the others say — but what does Plato say?

One character who’s in all the dialogues is Sokrates, and we know that the historical figure Sokrates was Plato’s teacher and friend. There’s a temptation to read the speeches of Sokrates as views that Plato feels close to — so that the dialogues are supposed to be easily digestible philosophical tracts: much the same as Aristotle’s books, except made palatable and user-friendly because dramatized as arguments between characters rather than straight-out lectures.

This is regarded as literature.

But it sounds more like pamphleteering.

We constantly hear that Plato was an “artist.” Is that just an honorific title — a way of saying we think he’s an all-around great guy? Do we say it in the same spirit a college might give him an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, recognizing his theoretical contributions to justice even though no one pretends he’s equipped to practice law?

If Plato was a literary artist then why do we read him like he was Aristotle? Why don’t we read him like he was Aiskhylos? or Sophokles? or Euripides? or Homer? or O’Neill? If we interpret him like that, will we understand him wrong? If we judge him by those standards, will he fail?

We don’t suppose that the views of Blanche Dubois can be ascribed to her creator, Tennessee Williams. Or, rather, we do kind of think there’s a close relation between the two — but it has to be interpreted with literary license. More to the point, we don’t really think of Blanche as having “views” — she’s not a college professor. Tennessee Williams doesn’t espouse her doctrines: he shares, or worries that he shares, her personality.

The characters in Plato’s dialogues do present “views.” But must we assume that the purpose is to figure out which views Plato agrees with: which are “right” and which “wrong?” Or could we imagine the thinking and arguing of the characters in “Theaitetos” as just another everyday form of human activity — no different, as dramatic material, than the action in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”

We don’t believe that Iago presents Shakespeare’s philosophy. And that’s not just because Iago is evil — because we don’t think Shakespeare endorses Othello either. Still, Shakespeare is trying to say something. There’s truth in the play, deep truth — and we learn from it. It teaches us — but it’s not didactic.

Does Shakespeare applaud Romeo for killing Tybalt? — Or, does he feel he should have held his temper? Perhaps the point is that that isn’t even the question. Rather than judging Romeo, perhaps Shakespeare was more concerned with presenting and understanding the sequence of events that made Tybalt’s death (and the later deaths of Romeo and Juliet themselves) increasingly difficult to avoid.

In Plato’s dialogue “Theaitetos,” they discuss the famous saying of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” Many interpretations assume that, since Protagoras is a “sophist,” he’s a bad guy and therefore the enemy of Sokrates, who’s the good guy. Whatever Protagoras says must be wrong and Sokrates must refute him.

I’m not sure these are even the right questions to ask.

Some interpretations go on to explain that “Man is the measure of all things” must be a cynical expression of the idea that whatever anybody wants to do is acceptable and justified. Or, an action is justified by whether a man wants it: he’s the measure. Or, anything goes. What’s the diff?

I don’t agree that this is what Plato means Protagoras to say, or that even that Plato necessarily disagrees with him.

In Plato’s dialogue, their explicit talk is about understanding. Here’s the actual quotation.

Plato, Theaitetos (excerpt: 151d-152b)
(The characters are Sokrates and a teen-aged boy, Theaitetos.)

SOKRATES: . . . Starting over from basics, Theaitetos, try to tell something about understanding. Never say you are not one to do it: for, if the god wishes, you grow as a man, doing it.

THEAITETOS: Sokrates, with you encouraging like that it’d be shameful for someone not to be eager at every turn to say out loud whatever he has. Anyway, I think that one who understands perceives that which he understands, and now it seems like understanding is no different from perception.

SOKRATES: Well said, boy, and nobly! That’s what’s needed to show something of yourself. But, let’s follow up, look carefully together, whether what you’ve hit on is fruitful or empty. Perception, you say, is understanding?


SOKRATES: You’ve dared a thing about understanding that’s not shallow, but what Protagoras said too. In a somehow different way he said the same. Because he says somewhere, “Of everything needed or used, a person is the measure — of things that are, how they are; and of things that are not, how they are not.” I suppose you’re familiar with it?

THEAITETOS: Very familiar.

SOKRATES: So, isn’t he saying in a certain way that however each kind of thing appears to me, that’s how it is for me; and however to you, it’s that way afresh for you — you being a person, and me another.

THEAITETOS: He says just that.

SOKRATES: It would be like a wise man not to speak foolishly, so let’s follow close after him . . .

So, let’s follow close after.

They’re not talking about value judgments: “Something’s good as long as someone wants it.” Rather they’re talking about understanding: “How do you find out things?”

To find something out, use a person as your measuring instrument. If you want to know how warm a liquid is, then immerse a thermometer in it and read what it says — or, immerse a person in it and read what he says.

After the passage I’ve quoted, Sokrates and Theaitetos go on to discuss the obvious paradox in this doctrine: that often different people perceive the same object differently. Unless we’re prepared to say that the object itself is actually different (as Protagoras does indeed seem to say) then how can two people’s differing perceptions be of the same, single object? Indeed, why then hypothesize that either person’s perception is of the object itself? How can perception be a good source of understanding?

Still, as I look through Plato’s dialogue, I have difficulty locating an exact place where Sokrates and Theaitetos agree that they’ve refuted Protagoras’s idea. They do go on to discuss other matters — but it’s not clear to me whether those new ideas disprove Protagoras or amplify him.

We asked how perception could be a good source of understanding. But, despite the difficulty, how can understanding not involve perception?

To many people, there’s an obvious answer: “Science.” Don’t measure things using people: use thermometers.

This scientific answer isn’t very scientific. A thermometer will measure differently at different locations in the flame of a candle, or at different times at a location in a pot of water at a rolling boil. “But,” it is objected, “similarly prepared thermometers will give the same readings — at the same time in the same place.” Isn’t that a bit hypothetical? And, can’t the same thing be said of using “similar” people?

It also isn’t very imaginative about the core of the issue. We read our thermometers with our eyes: with the same system of perceptual apparatus we use to feel temperatures — or to sense anything. We simply have no way, ever, of standing completely outside our perceptions and gaining independent access to the external world.

There’s no escaping ourselves.

Whatever understanding may be — and however we get it — an unavoidable aspect of perception is the one Sokrates expresses: “however each kind of thing appears to me, that’s how it is for me; and however to you, it’s that way afresh for you.”

My encounter with any object necessarily begins as the product of two factors: the thing perceived and me perceiving it. We’re partners.

The reason this idea haunts me so is that it’s not after all just a comment about knowledge: it’s an ethic, a way to live one’s life.

If someone wants to find out anything — physical or social — then he has to be willing to immerse himself in the world, in life, and to look within himself and see how the world registers on him.

It takes courage: to surrender one’s self in every situation so that the thing he’s measuring can take him over and make his dials read usefully.

“Strength” doesn’t mean stubbornness: it means vulnerability, to allow things to happen to me as they are. It takes honesty: to report one’s own readings accurately.

Of course, perception isn’t the whole of life. The reciprocal principle is to create: to make things in the world, to change things.

But these two principles are correlative, not enemies: to perceive and to create. To see accurately is the prerequisite to building adequately. But having something to build — wanting something — is what gives perception purpose and meaning.

You have to be willing to use yourself, to put yourself on the line. We are compelled to truth — but, to meet it, we have only our individual perceptions. Is that a drawback? Or is it the essence of what we’re here for?

“Of everything needed or used, a person is the measure — of things that are, how they are; and of things that are not, how they are not.”

This reading of that passage in the dialogue “Theaitetos” — a reading that gives no final, simple, single truth — makes sense in light of its dramatic situation. Sokrates talks with the boy, Theaitetos, and elicits answers from him without ever telling him any. Perhaps Sokrates knows the answers and wants Theaitetos to find them the slow way. Or, is Sokrates preparing Theaitetos for a life in which there are no such answers but questioning is essential? Does Plato himself know the answers? Or is he preparing me for something else?

I see “Theaitetos” as a reflexive artwork, in a modern sense: exemplifying itself.

What I get from “Theaitetos” — reading it as a play, not an abstract treatise — isn’t what the dialogue tells me; it’s what it shows me.

Plato doesn’t write it; he makes me write it. “Starting over from basics . . . try to tell something . . . Never say you are not one to do it: for, if the god wishes, you grow as a man, doing it.”

This entry was posted in Ancient Greece, Being human, Ethics, Plato, The mind and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Plato and Protagoras: “. . . of things that are, how they are . . .”

  1. cameron says:

    My read is that Sokrates was testing Theaitetos and the absence of opinion means he liked the answers given. I do wonder if over analysis will lead to analysis paralysis.

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