Cheaters win when they make the rules: sophistic ethics in Protagoras' Prometheus myth

Daniel Silvermintz


Despite Protagoras’ infamous reputation for corrupting his students, his “Great Speech” (Plato, Protagoras 320c-328d) presents one of the most important arguments in the history of ethics.1 Refuting Socrates’ contention that virtue must be unteachable since even the best of men cannot raise good children, Protagoras argues that everyone is capable of learning the difference between right and wrong.2 He supports this conviction by appealing to both traditional myth and logical reasoning. In his famous appropriation of the Prometheus myth, Protagoras establishes the divine origin of political wisdom and its possession by all humanity as a gift of the gods. He follows his retelling of the myth with a logical argument that directly addresses Socrates’ concern by demonstrating that the variability of success rates substantiates the teachability of virtue rather than undermines it. Protagoras’ vigorous defense of moral instruction is so persuasive that many classical scholars are led to question the longstanding belief that he was in any way corrupt. In spite of this, at least a few scholars have noted contradictions within Protagoras’ argument that suggest he has a more sinister agenda. There should be no surprise that the thinker most famous for practicing deceptive rhetoric has deceived us. I argue that the “Great Speech” is a masterful work of rhetoric that explicitly promotes morality while subtly promoting an immoralist understanding of ethics consistent with the view articulated by Thrasymachus and other sophists: justice is, according to the sophist, not an inherent good, but rather serves the interest of those who wield political power and stand beyond the law that they impose upon others.

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