Saturday, July 16, 2016

5 ‘Being together’ in Plato’s Protagoras (with a glance at Homer’s Odyssey and Plato’s Republic)

Socrates’ words ‘“And after him I recognized (Ton de met’ eisenoȇsa)”, as Homer says (ephȇ Homȇros), Hippias of Elis (Hippian ton Êleion)’ indicate that the scene in Callias’ house reminded him of the scene in Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus visited the realm of the dead. His whole subsequent sunousia – ‘being together’ – with the sophists and their admirers appears to have reinforced his initial impression.

If we want to understand the Protagoras, we must first read the closing passages of Book X and Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey. In Book X Circe tells Odysseus that before resuming his journey home, he and his friends ‘must first accomplish a different journey (all’ allȇn chrȇ prȏton hodon telesai), and reach the house of Hades and dreaded Persephone (kai hikesthai eis Aidao domous kai epainȇs Persephoneias), to obtain an oracle from the soul of the Theban Teiresias (psuchȇi chrȇsomenous Thȇbaiou Teiresiao), the blind seer (mantȇos alaou); although he is dead (tȏi kai tethneȏti), Persephone provided him with intellect (noon pore Persephoneia): to be the only one with his mental faculties unimpaired (oiȏi pepnusthai); the others are shadows rushing around (toi de skiai aissousi, X, 490-495).

‘Shadows rushing around’? At first glance, nothing can be more remote from the scene Socrates saw, as he watched the procession of those who followed Protagoras: ‘I was absolutely delighted by this procession (touton ton choron malista egȏge idȏn hȇsthȇn), to see how careful they were (hȏs kalȏs ȇulabounto) that nobody ever got in Protagoras’ way (mȇdepote empodȏn en tȏi prosthen einai Prȏtagorou), but whenever he and his companions turned round (all’ epeidȇ autos anastrephoi kai hoi met’ ekeinou), those followers of his turned smartly outwards in formation to left and right (eu pȏs kai en kosmȏi perieschizonto houtoi hoi epȇkooi enthen kai enthen), wheeled round and so every time formed up in perfect order behind him (kai en kuklȏi periiontes aei eis to opisthen kathistanto kallista, 315b2-8, tr. C. C. W. Taylor). And yet, it was this admirably disciplined procession that reminded Socrates of Odysseus in the realm of the dead. For it is this description that is followed with Socrates’ ‘“And after him I recognized (Ton de met’ eisenoȇsa)”, as Homer says (ephȇ Homȇros), Hippias of Elis (Hippian ton Êleion, 315b9-c1).’ Wasn’t it just that ornamental procession of Protagoras’ followers that reminded Socrates of Hades: ‘there dwell the senseless dead (entha te nekroi aphradees naiousi), the phantoms of the deceased mortals (brotȏn eidȏla kamontȏn, XI, 475-476)’?

Odysseus must offer Teiresias blood of sacrificial victims, to obtain from him the prophecy concerning his voyage home. When Teiresias told him the prophecy, he advised him: ‘whomever of the deceased dead you allow (hon tina men ken eais nekuȏn katatethnȇȏtȏn) to come near the blood [and drink it] (haimatos asson imen), he will speak to you truthfully (ho de toi nȇmertes enipsei), but whom you denied it (hȏi de k’ epiphthoneois), he would return back [without speaking to you] (ho de toi palin eisi opissȏ, 147-149.

Is it too farfetched to think that these lines reminded Socrates of the sophists? When the young Hippocrates woke up Socrates just before daybreak, anxious to learn from Protagoras his wisdom, Socrates assured him: ‘if you give him money (an autȏi didȏis argurion) and use a little persuasion (kai peithȇis ekeinon), he’ll make you wise as well (poiȇsei kai se sophon, 310d7-8).’ Instead of the blood of sacrificial victims, one must offer the sophists money, or else they would turn away without speaking.

In the 1st Book of the Republic Thrasymachus ridicules Socrates’ attempts to define justice: ‘But what (Ti oun) if I give you an answer about justice other (an egȏ deixȏ heteran apokrisin para pasas tautas peri dikaiosunȇs) and better than any of these (beltiȏ toutȏn)? What do you deserve to be done to you (ti axiois pathein)?’ – Socrates: ‘Done to me! – as becomes the ignorant (Ti allo, ȇ hoper prosȇkei paschein tȏi mȇ eidoti), I must learn from the wise (prosȇkei de pou mathein para tou eidotos) – that is what I deserve to be done to me (kai egȏ oun touto axiȏ pathein).’ – Thrasymachus: ‘What, and no payment for what you learn! A pleasant notion! (Hȇdus gar ei, alla pros tȏi mathein kai apoteison argurion, 337d1-7, tr. B. Jowett).’

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