Questions in advance of our Tuesday call on Phaedrus/Protagoras


Here are some questions that may guide our discussion Tuesday night 8pm NYC time (5pm in California where I am now). I look forward to discussing the questions below (and the questions I should have asked).



– Speeches
Phaedrus’ conceit is that it’s about these two speeches that Socrates gives at the beginning of the dialogue. The interesting philosophy seems to come following the speeches in analysis of them and in analysis of truth-content, knowledge, and so on. Having said that, however, what did you think about the speeches? How are we to read these speeches as 21st century westerners?

– First speech (starting page 511)
– Second speech (starting page 522)

What can we take from these? There are some surprisingly modern notions about relationships (build not on attraction but respect?), madness (there are two forms – one form being divinely inspired…pg 542) and, of course, lots of pre-christian imagery that cleary had a big impact on the new testament (see 525 – 525 especially for notions of falling from grace, wings, etc.)

Are these speeches only here to set the context for the discussion of knowledge that comes later or is there something important in the speeches themselves?

– Knowledge and writing
John Cooper says in his intro to Phaedrus that despite Socrates’ argument that knowledge can only be in souls not in writings (and his critique of much writing) that “reading such a dialogue [as Phaedrus] may be a good way of working to attain [knowledge].” What does Phaedrus teach about knowledge? Dialectics are here defined (page 543)…what does Plato mean by dialectics?

– Criticism of writing (page 552)
Socrates outlines a criticism of writing. How serious is this criticism? Is this Plato speaking – is it a warning for his students to not invest too much in writing? Or a warning to other writers to be careful of a certain hubris? In our 21st century world where writing a book seems to be more about a certification process (especially non-fiction) than about genuine knowledge sharing, Socrates’ criticisms seem to have a lot of validity. But what are we to think about his contention that reading others’ writing simply gives the “appearance of wisdom and not its reality.”?

– Head fakes
In football a head fake is when a player moves his head in one direction as if to go there, but runs in the other “faking out the opponent.” Throughout Plato there are lots of “head fakes” –  moments where we believe the focus is in one area (speeches of love, for example) when in fact the main point seems to suddenly come from another direction. What were some of your favorite “head fakes” in Pheadrus?


I loved Phaedrus but loved Protagoras even more.

I savored each page of this dialogue.

We could certainly spend the whole call discussing this one dialogue (in fact, likely a whole week)…but given that we’ll have about 30 minutes perhaps come with some thoughts on the following:

– Virtue?
What is virtue? Do we care as much about virtue in the 21st century world as the Greeks seemed to? Perhaps one of the lessons of Protagoras is the degree to which the Greeks cared about how they conducted their public civic lives – so much so that they hotly debated virtue and whether it could be taught. What do you think? Can virtue be taught?

– Justice…courage…good life?
What is justice and its relationship to virtue? Protagoras and Socrates identify 5 separate (or not?) components of virtue. Protagoras says they are all similar except courage. What’s courage doing here at all? What’s the relationship between courage and virtue? Do you need courage to be virtuous? What do they say about that?

– Wisdom
What is wisdom and its relationship to virtue? can you be wise and lack virtue?
Warren Buffett likes to say that he looks for leaders who 1) have integrity; 2) are smart and 3)work hard. He then follows that by saying if you get #2 and #3 without #1 then you have found a dangerous leader and you get the likes of Enron. He would then argue that wisdom is possible without virtue but leads to terrible results. What do you think?

– Irrationality
Can intelligence save a person from acting irrationally? See page 782. This question is hotly debated now in a class I’m running on behavioral psychology and irrational/rational decision-making. What do you think?

– The debate itself
What is the arc of the debate between Protagoras and Socrates? What do you think about the debate about the debate format (can anyone say “presidential debates”?), the tension and eventual release of tension as both find some criticism and some praise.

In this dialogue – and long debate between Socrates and Protagoras – we see a Socrates who is not always right, who is a bit chastened, whose arrogance in some of his arguments is publicly addressed. I guess that some of the readers are finding this more engaging than some earlier dialogues where Socrates went unchallenged.

14. July 2008 by Arrian
Categories: Plato, Study Questions | Tags: | Comments Off on Questions in advance of our Tuesday call on Phaedrus/Protagoras