Protagoras’ Myth and Logos

"Protagoras' Myth and Logos," ms. 1988. In The Argument of the Action, 2000.


“In general, a speaker should not promise more than he can deliver, nor should he present conclusions as the setting for his argument, but in this case, where a part of a Platonic dialogue is to be examined, it is necessary to say something about the way in which Socrates has reported his discussion with Protagoras. Socrates’ narration gives a mythical setting to a nonmythical event. Protagoras is another Orpheus who by his voice alone arranges his followers into a disciplined chorus; the house of Callias, whose butler is a very Cerberus, is itself Hades where Socrates as Odysseus sees Hippias as Heracles and Prodicus as Tantalus. Protagoras, then, who chooses to tell first a myth and then a logos, though he could have told a logos from the beginning, is set inside a myth from which we are to extract a logos. The difference between Socrates and Protagoras involves from the first the difference between the Socratic claim that the logos can never be told apart from the myth, and the Protagorean claim that it can be. For Socrates, the presentation of philosophia is always mythologia. Socrates’ myth has as its logos the proof that Protagoras is mistaken about the possibility of an immediate access ot the logos, and hence Protagoras’s myth must remain a myth and never emerge as a logos. Protagoras’s myth stands in for a logos that would embrace man in a complete cosmology. That virtue is teachable would be a strict deduction from the nature of all things. The incoherence of Protagoras’s myth and logos is a direct outcome of Protagoras’s implicit claim. The Protagoras as a whole is Socrates’ attempt to get at the essential incoherencies of Protagoras’s myth and logos and account for them. The Protagoras shows that sophistry represents in a ghostly way the city to the city in its essential incoherence. Sophistry encapsulates what it claims to have understood and mastered.