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CAN VIRTUE BE TAUGHT? (Protagoras 320C-328D)



Ideally use C.C.W. Taylors commentary (2
nd
edn, OUP 1991).
Compare Gilbert Ryle, On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong, in his Collected
Papers 2 (Hutchinson, 1971; reprinted by Routledge), 381-90; also in A.I. Melden (ed.), Es-
says in Moral Philosophy (University of Washington Press, 1958).

There are two initial classes of divine gifts:

(a) (to non-human animals) strength, speed, wings, size, skins, nourishment, fertility
(320e-321b);

(b) (to men, in compensation for lack of (a)) fire, skill (sophia), craft or art (techn)
(321d-322a).

It seems that from (b) developed religious practices, articulate speech, houses, clothing,
tillage but not justice (so that attempts at co-operation failed).

(c) a sense of shame (aids, Taylors conscience) and justice (322c2).

From these came the principles of organization of cities and the bonds of friendship (c3).

One may wonder how house-building and agriculture could be possible, even within fami-
lies or clans, without justice. Socrates will argue in Republic I that no city, army, band of
robbers or thieves, or any other tribe could achieve any common purpose if they were
unjust to one another (351c).

For civic life, (c) must be widely shared moreover, any falling-short impairs civic order
and friendship; this is why it is incumbent (proskon) on everyone to share in that sort of
excellence (323a2-3). Admittedly, it is overstatement that else there can be no city at all
(a3) though not a careless one (for 324d8-e1 repeats it). Given that all men are taken to
share in (metechein) justice and the rest of the excellence of a citizen, it is a mad for a
man to confess to being unjust. Consistency comes with the thesis that all men must share
in justice to some extent or other, if they are count being among men (b7-c2). Not to be
among men is to be an outlaw. (Note later 325a7-b1, which recommends banishing or ex-
ecuting anyone who is incurable, perhaps on the ground that such an act merely makes it
evident what is already really the case that the individual is not a member of society.)

Unlike (a), which is a natural endowment, (b) and (c) require conscious acquisition
(epimeleia, Taylors deliberate choice) and transmission. They come about, not auto-
matically (apo tou automatou, Taylors by luck) but by teaching and application
(323c5-6). This is why failure provokes not pity, but anger, punishment, and reproof (e2-
3). Punishments goal is not to undo the crime (impossible), but to reform the criminal
and deter others (324a-c). Here, what one might think of as a demand of justice, that the
penalty of crime be visited upon the actual criminal (and not a merely supposed criminal,
or anyone else), is made instrumental though it is not made clear how this is to work. If
punishments are just penalties, which make what would otherwise be attractive options
unattractive (rather like a steep rise in prices), they wouldnt seem to be ethically educa-
tive, though they might be effective in changing behaviour. Presumably the point of the
gift of a sense of shame was to provide an inner sanction that changes our motivations.
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(The shameful agent recoils from the thought of acting badly. Though if one does behave
badly one may feel pangs of guilt, shame isnt like a liability to headaches that gives one a
reason to avoid certain things just out of prudence. Taking an anti-pang pill wouldnt be a
solution.) It is a good question whether some other endowment, which would motivate
acting justly but not from a sense of shame, might work well enough. (Some have thought
that something like enlightened self-interest might do the trick.) Quite what kind of
teaching punishment could constitute, or indicate the possibility of, is thus obscure.
(325a8 will pair teaching and punishment it isnt clear whether the latter is a variety of
the former, or a kind of analogue.)

When Protagoras turns to Socrates argument that parents would teach their children to be
good if virtue was teachable, he speaks repeatedly of teaching and learning; also posi-
tively of fostering (therapeuein, 325b6), and negatively correcting or straightening out
(euthynein, d7), as with a piece of warped wood, by threats and beatings. When children
go to school, they meet works that contain a lot of exhortation, and many passages prais-
ing and eulogizing good men of the past, so that the child will be fired with enthusiasm to
imitate them (326a1-4). Through music, their souls are drilled in modes and rhythms that
make them gentler and harmonious in action (b). Then there is talk again of correction
(euthyn, e1) in connection with punishment for breaking the law. Laws dont simply pe-
nalize harmful conduct, but provide a model or example (paradeigma, c8) of good be-
haviour. Failure in such training and education comes of a lack of natural talent; even so,
Protagoras says, the wickedest man who has been brought up in a society governed by
laws is a just man and an expert in this sphere in comparison with people without ed-
ucation, or courts, or laws, or any coercion at all to force them to be good (327c5-d3).
The implicit analogy is a comparison between someone who has learnt a language though
he has minimal talent for grammar, and a wild child (enfant sauvage) who has never learnt
a language.

Hence, If there is anyone of us who is even a little better than others at helping people to
attain to it [excellence], so much the better (328a8-b1). In fact, Protagoras claims to be
outstanding at this.

What he has failed to clarify is how virtue can be taught. Aristotle was to distinguish intel-
lectual virtues, which are inculcated by teaching, and virtues of character, which rather
come of habituation (Nicomachean Ethics II 1). Habituation here is not just acquiring hab-
its, but learning to enjoy and dislike the right things (II 3). That practical wisdom, an intel-
lectual virtue that stands out in by closely connected to virtue of character, is not just a
reasoning capacity is shown by the fact that such capacities can be forgotten, but practical
wisdom cant be (end of VI 5). If Socrates disagrees, it is because he has a distinctive,
intellectualist conception of virtue: virtue is identical to knowledge, so that knowing what
is good is sufficient for being good.

I prefer Ryle, who well denies that ethical deteriorations, though indeed possible, can be
assimilated to declines in expertness, i.e. to getting rusty (1971: 384). He compares,
Learning to enjoy, to love, or to admire is not acquiring a skill or a parcel of information.
Nonetheless it is learning (386). Ethical understanding includes an inculcated caring, a
habit of taking certain sorts of things seriously (388). Ceasing to care is not forgetting,
any more than ceasing to believe something or to mistrust someone is forgetting (ibid.).
Unlike the appreciations of the connoisseur, such a capacity is common knowledge, not
mastery of a technique; it is nothing for us to envy (ibid.).