Sunday, May 3, 2009


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Nicholas Denyer (ed.), Plato, Protagoras. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 207. ISBN 9780521549691. $35.99 (pb).
Reviewed by James H. Collins II, University of Southern California,

[Table of contents are listed at the end of the review.]

Nicholas Denyer's commentary on Plato's Protagoras is a welcome addition to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series, and an essential resource for both advanced undergraduate readers of Greek and scholars of Plato who wish to become acquainted with the dialogue's sometimes difficult arguments and Plato's dramatic artistry and dynamic vision of intellectual and philosophical life. We have not had an English commentary on the Greek text since James and Adela Marion Adam's 1893 edition, which was reprinted with few corrections in several runs from 1905 to 1971.1 This manifoldly superlative dialogue offers so much: a rich palette of analytical tools used to stirring, even if at times unbelievable, effects; the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of an extraordinary cast of famous and infamous intellectuals; a range of competing voices, discourses, and lifestyles; the exuberance of this public contest. It is a wonder then that we have not had more efforts over the last century at making the whole luxurious Greek text accessible to scholars of intellectual life and Platonic philosophy. Instructors who are looking for a longer Platonic dialogue to teach at the advanced level, particularly to students who have already read some Plato in Greek, are familiar with the usual suspects in translation, and are ready for a fuller treatment of Platonic artistry, ethical theory, and historical context, would do well to use this dialogue and this edition.

The study of the Protagoras is full of possibilities. The great range of concerns and methodologies in scholarship of the last century makes this perfectly clear. In fact, a recent survey of approaches to the Protagoras of just the last half century describes (with notable exceptions) three distinct and successive phases of scholarship: the first marked largely by a disciplinary division of labor between philosophers and classicists and their respective focuses on discrete episodes; the second, by an increasing interdisciplinarity and sensitivity to thematic, dialectical, and dramatic features that unify the dialogue; the third, by a growing interest in historical references and context.2 Denyer's commentary is admirably sensitive to all of these trends. Its interdisciplinarity could only be improved upon with reference to some of the most formative scholarship. In what follows, this review will (1) provide an overview of Denyer's introduction, (2) follow a number of these trends in scholarship as they are represented in Denyer's commentary while providing some scholarly references, (3) offer some remarks on Denyer's editorial work, and (4) present some thoughts on how this dialogue and this edition in particular might be explored in variously productive ways.

I. Introduction

Although Denyer prefaces his efforts with the suggestion that a reader need not read his Introduction before reading the text and commentary, not only is there much in the Introduction to orient the reader for a more rewarding encounter, but it is perhaps inadvisable for a young and enthusiastic scholar of Plato to approach such an odd and overwhelming spectacle as the Protagoras with little more than a familiarity with other relatively dramatically impoverished encounters with Socrates, and the faith that our hero is content merely to tell the tale to an enraptured audience. There is too much at stake in this contest for its audience to fall prey to the spectacular, to the incomparable beauty of its participants (309c), to the seductions of their wares (313c-314b). Socrates would hardly want that, and, in any event, he is too cunning a ventriloquist to be trusted, especially when it comes to playing himself.

Denyer's Introduction provides the reader with signposts for navigating this lively world of entertainment, celebrity, and entourage. We find in perhaps the richest household in Greece an extraordinary instance of those "argumentative extravaganzas" and "frivolous entertainments" in which contestants made great fortunes hawking "not merely unsettling or improbable, but downright inconsistent" conclusions while compelling stunned spectators (even young gentlemen) to abandon decent citizen teachers for expert aliens in the pursuit of skills practical in an increasingly litigious society (1-6). Denyer searches out the sophists' motives even apart from their tremendous earnings and power among the elite: "Whether as calculated self-promotion, or from simple exuberance in their own virtuosity, or sometimes even because they had managed to persuade themselves, sophists loved to argue for the unsettling and the improbable" (1). Michael Gagarin has argued similarly that these displays of intellectual virtuosity were produced primarily for entertainment and pleasure rather than persuasion or deception.3 And Denyer adds the delightful twist that, while the sophists aimed to amuse others, they may have amused and even swayed themselves too much.

But these gatherings of performers afford more than amusement and embarrassment, and we would miss a great deal in them and in this dialogue especially if we did not also expect to find earnestness and something of great philosophical value on all sides. Though Socrates charges his company to set aside the games and extraneous voices of sophistic discourse (347c-348a), he may be at his most frivolous in the Protagoras, while at the same time his adversary formulates, with some playful embellishments, one of the most serious accounts about virtue--what it is, who has it, and how one gets it. Denyer reminds his reader that, in spite of Protagoras' vacillation, the sophist's claim--that virtue is widespread and already practiced well, but without refinements which are teachable and advantageous--appears so plausible and compelling that the whole dialogue may be reduced to the examination of a man who may have hit the mark, even if in the end he appears incapable of giving a full account (4). After all, Socrates imagines the outcome of the dialogue wagging a finger at them both for having in the end swapped positions (361ac). It is not so much that Socrates aims, as Werner Jaeger put it, "to pierce through the babble of words" in the spectacle of sophistry; he is portrayed as engaged instead in a far more delicate and intimate undertaking of negotiating and building consensus among the various claims and forms of discourse that might all have some role to play in the approach to wisdom.4

After a brief look at the varying degrees to which different sources characterize Socrates as a sophist, Denyer's Introduction further prepares the reader for one of Plato's most baffling and seemingly incoherent portraits. In the Protagoras, we find a Socrates who asserts that he is not a sophist (314d7-e1) but is ready to argue the implausible--e.g., that philosophy is παλαιοτάτη τε καὶ πλείστη in Crete and Sparta (342a6-343b4)--and to engage in perverse interpretations of poetry (343c1-347a5). Protagoras himself accuses Socrates of fallacious argument (350cff.). George Grote found one argument "so futile, that if it were found in the mouth of Protagoras and not in that of Sokrates, commentators would probably have cited it as an illustration of the futilities of the Sophists."5 But we also find, Denyer adds, a Socrates who is flagrantly inconsistent, long-winded, and false in several other ways (9). Denyer suggests that Plato offers these characterizations in order to keep his audience from equating his views with those of an unlikely surrogate. Beyond the question of Plato's intent, we discover in the commentary many of Socrates' motives for engaging (and portraying himself as having engaged) in apparently unphilosophical discourse.6

II. Approaches in commentary

In order to highlight the breadth of concerns in Denyer's commentary, I will briefly draw attention to three topics that either have been addressed elsewhere in isolation by specialists or have not been addressed at all: the unity of virtues, the drama of the dialogue, and the commodification of ideas.

The problem of the unity of virtues--"whether virtue is one thing, and justice and temperance and reverence are parts of it, or whether these things... all are names for one and the same thing" (329c6-d1)--has been explored intensely by philosophers.7 Socrates drags an unwilling Protagoras to the conclusion that temperance and wisdom are one (333b5); but in the Laches, courage is found to be one part of virtue (196d-199e), and in the Meno, virtue appears to be a sort of prudence (88c-d). Rather than providing references to scholarship that has aimed to resolve inconsistencies, Denyer directs the reader to all of these passages and others in Plato as well as Xenophon's report of Socrates' own view on the matter (Mem.3.9.4-5) and Isocrates' appraisal (10.1) of, as Denyer puts it, "frivolous theses maintained by pretentious intellectuals" (329c7-d1n).

Of course, Socrates does not believe there is anything frivolous about understanding the nature of the means to a life worth living, only something irresponsible about claiming to possess and teach those means without being able to give a coherent account of them. But Denyer reminds us that not everyone shared Plato's interest in trying to resolve the problem. Protagoras may have equated justice and temperance in his Great Speech (323a) and speculated that the virtues may go by one name (324e-325a), but he is adamant in his uncontroversial view that some people are courageous but unjust, others just but not wise (329e). Denyer notes the similarities between this view and beliefs expressed by Callicles thereby situating the relatively abstract problem of unity within a larger arena of competing views on the nature and advantage of virtue. Readers may pursue the difficult and significant problem of unity but not without recognizing that few people found it practical, perhaps with good reason.

The second topic also concerns the context surrounding and shaping argumentation in the dialogue. Denyer's commentary frequently emphasizes the dramatic qualities of the dialogue which is, after all, both an agonistic performance and a protreptic reperformance. The relationship of characterization and narrative to argumentation has received growing scholarly interest.8 In support of his introductory remarks on this spectacle of sophistry, Denyer comments on numerous examples: the various sorts of versatility that sophistic performers demonstrate--Hippias' acceptance of any question (315c6n), a flattering but false attribution of the same versatility to Protagoras (329b2-3n), critical and admiring attitudes on such flexibility (335b7-c1n); the amusement but logical incoherence and incompatibility of demonstrations on poetry (347b2n); some of the accoutrements and degrees of vigor of philosophical performers (315c2-3n, 314e4n); the unique use of theatrical language (314d2n). Denyer also focuses on some of the effects of sophistic performance on an audience: e.g., Protagoras' charmed and chorus-like "mass of followers, systematically subordinated" (315b2n); indiscriminate applause (337c5-6n); erotic excitement (310d3n), bewitchment (328d2n), dizziness (339e2-3n), and forgetfulness (334d1n). Notes on Eupolis' Flatterers and Aristophanes' Clouds contribute further to the understanding that Plato's audience must have appreciated a great deal of the dialogue as dramatic (311a2n., 311a5-6n).

But Denyer goes a step beyond this dramatic context when he observes how Plato delivers the entire spectacle through the mouth of a theatrical Socrates. Grote noted that the Protagoras presents "more frequent breaks and resumptions in the conversation, than any dialogue of Plato."9 And it is in these spaces where we find Socrates urging towards and against particular paths of thought and interpretation. Denyer thus describes a mere τουτουΐ as an effort on Socrates' part to "direct his anonymous companions' attention" in the framing conversation, and on Plato's part "to mark a break in the flow of conversation narrated by a break in the flow of narrative" (335d2n). Denyer underscores this interruption of the inner conversation with a note on how Socrates again reminds his audience (and Plato, his readers) of themselves (339e4n). I believe this interruption and reminder serves to awaken the outer audience to the extent to which Socrates as narrator and actor is characterizing and parodying the earlier assemblage of characters including the audience and himself. This interruption also forces the outer spectators to recognize how unthinkingly they have surrendered themselves to spectacle. Denyer reminds his reader that there is more going on here than meets the lazy eye.

A third topic that receives attention in Denyer's commentary concerns the commodification of ideas. I mention this topic only briefly because it has not been treated elsewhere systematically though it is especially important to this dialogue and to Denyer's interdisciplinary approach. Denyer comments on the language of commerce which pops up all over the dialogue, from regular mention of Protagoras' fee and payment plan (310d7-8, 328c1-2, 349a3-4) to the unsettling juxtapositions of common commercial interests and elite pastimes (313c5-6, 347c4-5). When Socrates asks Hippocrates if a sophist is a sort of merchant or dealer (ἔμπορός τις ἢ κάπηλος) of provisions for the soul, Denyer argues, "Either form of trade is liable to elicit the disdain of a young gentleman like Hippocrates" (313c5-6n). And when Socrates compares the exegesis of Simonides to symposia of "low types from the marketplace" (τῶν φαύλων καὶ ἀγοραίων ἀνθρώπων), Denyer rightly notes Aristotle's disdain for low-born market-life at Pol.1328b39-41 (347c4-5n). But Aristotle's and Plato's anxieties about philosophical transactions are even more complicated than this. Aristotle praises the Thessalians for establishing a free agora for leisurely and virtuous activities apart from the necessary agora of business (1331a31-b13, cf. 1319a19-30). The problem is that free activities are resembling necessary commerce more and more: profligate citizens are spending their fortunes on, among other things, performances of wisdom (311a2n), and gentlemen like Hippocrates seem quite comfortable, in fact, with the idea of emptying their own pockets and the pockets of their friends (310d-e). In the pursuit of wisdom, private residence and political assembly look too much like public space. Plato and Aristotle can only imagine a world in which the exchange of ideas escapes the contaminant of commerce.

III. Editorial work

Denyer makes few changes to Burnet's text, but where he diverges typically offers the reader great insight into critical dynamics at play in the dialogue. Of special importance, I think, are his choices between variant readings of personal pronouns. In the first case, when Hippias helps set the terms of continued discussion between the previously long-winded Protagoras and the elenctic Socrates, Denyer prefers the variant ὑμῖν to ἡμῖν as evidence that Hippias considers himself "somehow above the fray" (338a4n). This variant, Denyer argues, is in keeping with the beginning of his speech (ὑμᾶς, 337c7) and DK 86 B6 in which Hippias identifies both the community of all the wise and his own mastery over that community (337c7n). On this occasion, however, ἡμῖν reminds us of how much rival sophists themselves might also be ardent spectators; in other words, when the terms have been established by his authority, Hippias is still hoping to catch a good show. In any event, Denyer does well to draw attention to the variant so that we might consider the broader question of relationships among rivals.

Another variant pronoun underscores the extent to which Socrates himself might be implicated by the scrutiny of another's argument. When Socrates, while interrogating Protagoras, establishes the allegedly popular claim that the salvation of our life depends on choosing correctly between pleasure and pain, every manuscript attests that the claim belongs to everyone including Socrates (ἐφάνη ἡμῖν, 357a7). Denyer notes, however, that one corrected manuscript intriguingly has Socrates indirectly disavow the position by attributing it to the others (ὑμῖν). Denyer wonders if the corrector might have wished to see Socrates avoid the agreements of οἱ ἄνθρωποι. In summary, he explains that "how we choose [between the pronouns] again has consequences for who is agreeing to what part of the argument" (357a7n., cf. 358a4n). This predicament of ownership of the philosophical process and conclusions among participants is, of course, a constant concern given Socratic irony and what Vlastos famously called the "double objective" of the elenchus: "to discover how every human being ought to live and to test that single human being that is doing the answering."10 Vlastos explained that, when you converse with the elenctic Socrates, "whatever decision you take will have to be yours."11 But if the elenchus is doing its job properly, your decisions should also lead to an understanding of how everyone, including Socrates, ought to live. Denyer serves his reader well, yet again, by elegantly drawing attention to one of the most pressing issues of this sort of philosophical investigation.

IV. Using this commentary

Given that this dialogue is unparalleled in these various ways that defy a simple read-through, and that this edition brings so many approaches--philosophical, dramatic, literary, historical, sociological--to bear on the text, it would seem a shame for advanced language students and scholars of Plato not to use Denyer's work as a point of departure for further work. Denyer's limited bibliography already directs his reader to rousing places: e.g., the gymnastics and metaphysics of Stoppard's Jumpers (London 1972) and the odd allotment of talents in Paul Colinvaux's Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare (Princeton 1978). And I have in this review offered scholarly citations for further reading.

But more than suggestions for reading philosophy, the Protagoras itself offers a study of style, of intellectual purpose and procedure. The interruptions in Socrates' narrative, Denyer notes, remind the outer audience and reader that Socrates is narrating and that they are spectators. Socrates would clearly prefer that everyone do something else, that everyone converse (διαλέγεσθαι), particularly, I imagine, when faced with the plausible belief that ordinary people practice virtue well and might practice it better with refinement. Martha Nussbaum argues that "philosophical books are to philosophizing as tennis manuals are to tennis" with the exception that "tennis manuals are neither coercive nor self-important."12 But the Protagoras is neither mere philosophical book nor purely intellectual drama. It is an occasion for us to stretch ourselves philosophically, to try on the arguments and strange characters for size, to experiment with purpose and procedure, and to improvise a different ending to the dialogue in which we, like Socrates and Hippocrates in Callias' doorway, converse until we can come to an agreement (314c).

Table of Contents

Abbreviations and references
1 The sophists, Protagoras and the Protagoras
2 Socrates the sophist?
3 Plato and the example of Socrates
4 Evidence for the text
πλατωνος πρωταγορας
Proper names
Greek words


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