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R C. S. SCHILLER, M.A., D.Sc. 





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' . 



IN a somewhat shorter form this Essay was read to 
the Oxford Philological Society on the 15th Novem- 
ber, 1907, and there had the benefit of valuable 
criticisms from Mr. H. P. Richards, Mr. R. R. Marett 
and others. I have in consequence been enabled to 
realize more clearly the divergences from the current 
theories as to the import of the Thecetetm to which 
my own studies had conducted me. They proved to 
be more extensive than I had suspected, and to 
involve some interesting and novel issues both of a 
literary and of a philosophic character. It seemed a 
duty, therefore, to render my conclusions accessible 
to the learned world, to which the problems of 
Platonic criticism are of perennial interest. But 
though my primary purpose is to raise a literary 
question, I have-not thought it either right or pos- 
sible to slur over the philosophic importance of my 
thesis. For the philosophical significance of the 
Thecetetus has been very strangely misconstrued. It 
contains no tenable account of knowledge. It con- 
tains no refutation of Humanism. It refutes nothing 
but an extreme, and probably exaggerated or mis- 
apprehended, form of sensationalism. Nothing of all 
this has, apparently, been perceived. Nor, again, 
has what it does contain been fully recognized. It 


:a;j 6 

: a, swiping repudiation of the senses and 
the feelings as contributories to the growth of know- 
ledge. It contains a renunciation by Platonic logic 
of the duty of explaining the individual. It is a 
glorious monument of the Weltflucht to which Pure 
Thought finds itself impelled whenever it is taken 
seriously. And its very patient and subtle researches 
into the problem of knowledge culminate in the 
frankest and sublimest confession of failure which 
adorns the annals of intellectualistic literature. 
Whether or not, therefore, it is possible to exhume 
from it the lost teachings of Protagoras, it is clear 
that in the study of Plato's great dialogues, and par- 
ticularly of the ThewMus, lies the master-key to the 
understanding of the whole intellectualistic position 
in philosophy. 

OXFORD, December, 1907. 

THE fifth century B.C. was not only politically, but also 
intellectually, tEe v "great' age of Greece. In the history of 
thought also it makes an epoch. In it philosophic man for 
the first time rouses himself from a nightmare of childish 
guessing and a stupor of helpless wonder at the vast uncom- 1 
prehended and uncontrolled panorama of external nature. | 
For the first time he consciously realizes that he is the 
Spectator of it all, that the whole world's infinite complexity 
exists in relation to him, and that he has not merely an eye 
to see but also a mind to devise and a hand to execute, if he 
but has a spirit to dare, that if he will but strive patiently 
and resolutely to co-ordinate his powers, he may aspire to 
control the flux and to divert it into channels conducive to 
the attainment of his highest ends. To the truth of which 
man caught his first glimpse then he has never since grown 
wholly blind again, though its vision has often been obscured 
by the intoxicants and opiates to the use of which his weak- 
ness and his sufferings have degraded him. 

This first outburst of Humanism, moreover, was in some 
respects the greaTest of the humanistic eras. For it was the 
freest and most spontaneous and the least hampered by man- 
made obstacles. All the later revivals of Humanism have 
been subsequent to the institution of a learned caste whose 
academic spirit is always largely occupied with ritual obser- 
vances for giving his due (and not infrequently a good deal 
more) to the Demon of Pedantry ; and so they have had to 
live and operate in and upon a more or less unfavourable 
atmosphere. They could not always succeed in developing 
their Humanism to the full. 

The Humanists of the Benaissance, for example, were 
doubtless sincere humanists in their intentions. They tried 


to set man's spirit free from the crushing armour of Scholastic 
learning, which had immobilized the medieval sage quite as 
effectively as his defensive mail had immobilized the medi- 
eval knight. But they soon fell lamentably short of their 
noble design and of the proud name they had assumed. TotaL. 
v humanity cannot be identified with any one of its functions, 
and so ' humaner letters ' are neither the ' whole duty of man " 
nor even more than comparatively humane. In Scotland 
1 humanity ' was academically reduced to Latin. Hence an 
impartial judge might soon doubt the superiority of Human- 
ism over the Scholasticism which it supplanted in this very 
> point of pedantry. Pedantry is the poverty of the soul, and 
V like poverty it is always with us, while it is only occasionally 
that the human spirit rises in revolt ag unst the dust-storms 
of finely comminuted knowledge with which it buries alive 
all originality and force. 

Unfortunately we have little direct knowledge of this 
earliest Humanism. Its heroes and martyrs, Protagoras 
and Socrates, have left us no memorial. It is true thatTEy 
the irony^ofliistory the spiritual heritage of one of them soon 
became a valuable asset, to be disputed over by the philosophic 
schools of the fourth century, and that so in the end Socrates 
has become for history what it suited the interest of the 
strongest, i.e., of the greatest writer, that he should appear. 
Plato has made our ' Socrates ' into an intellectualist like him- 
self. But this is manifestly one-sided. The teaching of the 
real Socrates must have been such as to inspire not only Plato, 
but also Xenophon, and Aristippus, and Antisthenes. He 
cannot, therefore, have been the beau Mai of intellectualistic 
idealism Plato makes him out to be. In his general attitude 
towards life he probably came far nearer to the progressive 
types of his own age than a careless reader would infer from 
Plato. For Plato has made him into a stalking horse in his 
campaign against his own professional rivals, the Sophists. 
\ The historic Socrates, however, probably got on with Sophists 
\ of his time even better than Plato admits in the Protagoras. 

This interpretation of Socrates, however, is inferential. 
For from his own mouth we have not one authentic word. ' 
Protagoras was more careful of posterity. He wrote a book, 

but owing to no fault of his, there has come down to us as 
certainly authentic nothing but two short sentences, which 
pierce through the veiling mists of tradition like the glittering 
summits of the Wetterhorn. What was the line of thought 
which led up to them, what were the reasonings by which 
they descended into the souls of men, we can only dimly 
guess. Unless indeed there is truth in the claim of Plato 
that he had conquered these virgin peaks and left us a trust- 
worthy description of this perilous ascent. 

It is this claim of Plato's that I propose to examine, and 
more specifically, the Protagoras Speech in the Thecetetus 
166-68. The conventional view of this speech, which I pro- 
pose to contest, is~ftiaTTMs~"5s N -lit LhTjlTi Cke'illic in substance) 
as in form, and that in it Plato has tried either to represents 
current developments of Protagoreanism made by his dis- \ 
ciples or to embody his own reflections on the problem of / 
putting a reasonable interpretation on an obscure dictum, < 
and that the decision between these alternatives does not 
greatly matter, because in either case the Speech is com- 
pletely refuted in the sequel. 

But three weighty reasons may be given for rejecting this 
view. (1) The somewhat tentative language Plato uses as to J 
the authenticity of the defence undertaken by his ' Socrates ' 1 
has of course to be taken quite literally on this theory. It is 
taken to mean that Plato felt really doubtful as to whether 
Protagoras would have accepted the developments attributed 
to him. But it is obviously possible, and indeed more natural, 
to understand his phrases otherwise. Why should not Plato 
really have felt doubtful about the success of an attempt to 
reproduce an authentic line of argument and have known 
that his success might be ^impugned ? (2) It is simply not 
true that the argument of the speech is refuted, either in the 
Thecetetus or anywhere else in Plato. (3)_The conventional 
view, lastly, will be found to involve itself in insoTul 
culties of a literary kind. A close examination of the argu- 
ment will show that if Plato be supposed to be the real author 
of the Speech, he has regaled us with the fancies of a man of 
straw but told us nothing about the argument of the real 

' 1 165 E, 168 C, 169 E, 171 E. 


Protagoras. Is it not curious moreover that the argument 
/ of the Speech is never really answered ? Either, therefore, 
Plato is made into a dishonest controversialist who suppresses 
his opponent's case and substitutes for it figments of his own, 
or into so incoherent a thinker that he cannot see the scope 
of an argument he has himself invented. 

The alternative theory I venture to suggest will be found 
cast ncTsucTi slur upon the moral and intellectual character 
of Plato. It credits Plato with an honest desire to state his 
opponent's case and assumes merely that he has not fully 
grasped an ^alien point of view for the appreciation of which 
his whole type of mind unfitted him, and which even so he 
has grasped much better than the generality of intellectualists 
have done down to the present day. j It proceeds therefore^ 
from two very reasonable presuppositions, (1) that Plato did 
/ know the authentic doctrine of Protagoras, an?^2) that lie 
c? diS not know it perfectly! As to the reason, we may please 
ourselves^ He may not have actually possessed the sup- 
pressed book of Protagoras on ' Truth ' and have been forced 
to rely on incomplete memories of its contents. Or again 
he may have felt that he had not completely made it 

.e reasonableness, however, of these presuppositions will 
t appear from an analysis of_the ^Protagoras ' Sj^eech^ar^d 
the reply to it as it stands in Plato. The conclusions I shall 
try to estabksh are (I) that the Speech is intended to give, 
and probably to a large extent succeeds in giving, the authentic 
argumentation by which Protagoras defended his great dis- 
covery of the relativity of the object of knowledge to the 
subject (so far as Plato understood it), because (II), if it is 
taken to be a figment of Plato's the great absurdity results, 
that Plato did not notice that he was refuting himself, and 
(III), it contains internal evidence showing that Plato never 
understood it. (IV) It yields, therefore, trustworthy evidence 
for the reconstitution of the actual doctrine of the historic 
Protagoras, and (V) ihis is confirmed by the fact that it 
actually contains the solution of the problem with which 
Plato wrestles vainly in the same dialogue, that of Truth and 




It is further clear that these positions are not unconnected. 
For if the current view that the positions taken up in the 
Speech are disposed of in the progress of the argument can 
be shown to be untenable, if it is demonstrable that the argu- 
ments of the Speech are neither refuted nor even correctly 
represented in the sequel, it becomes highly probable that 
Plato has not understood it aright, and that therefore it is 
not reallv of his own invention. 

If then the substance of the Speech is not Plato's, whose 
is it? Burely J^rotagoras's claim to it should take precedence " 
over any other. Attempts have been made to attribute its" 
arguments to Aristippus, on the ground that his is probably 
the philosophy attacked in the earlier parts of the Theatetus. 
But if our conception of the real relation of Socrates to the 
thought of his contemporaries be right, the humanistic strain 
in Aristippus may well have come down to him from his master 
Socrates, on whom the spirit of the fifth century was doubt- 
less operative, though Plato has done his utmost to erase 
all trace thereof from his picture of their common master. 
Hence an agreement between the doctrines of Protagoras 
and Aristippus is in no wise inexplicable, nor would it prove 
that the Speech belonged to the latter. 

As for the invention of imaginary Protagoreans against 
whom Plato is imagined to be so eager to contend as to ignore 
their master, that surely is too desperate an expedient to be 
sanctioned by any sane principles of historical criticism. In 
some cases, as in palliating the clearly deliberate misrepre- 
sentation of Plato by Aristotle, such an expedient may 
commend itself to the timidity of reconcilers reluctant to 
admit that one great thinker may fail to appreciate another, 
though in this case we know at least that there was a 
Platonic School on which to impose the burden Aristotle 
falsely fastens on to Plato, and though even then the hypo- 
thesis does not cover all the facts. But in general a master^ 
contends with masters and not with disciples. Moreover, 


there is no clear evidence that Protagoras had any disciples. 1 
His appears to have been one of the rare (but all the sadder) 
cases in which persecution (like that of the Japanese Chris- 
tians in the seventeenth century) really achieved its purpose. 
There is no evidence to show that Protagoras's book survived 
the Athenian persecution. The one copy which, it is reason- 
able to suppose, no persecution could extort, viz., Protagoras's 
own, must have perished with him when the ship went down 
on which he was fleeing from the pious wrath of the Athen- 
ians and the fate which subsequently befel Socrates. Hence 
it is no wonder that nobody seems to know anything about 
Protagoras's book, beyond the title and the two dicta, except 
Plato, and that all the later references to it are plainly based 
on his account. And it is remarkable that even Plato does 
not seem to have first-hand verbatim knowledge of it, though 
we shall see that he must have known a great deal more 
about it than any one has done since. 


If we are willin^ to accept the Speech as ^enuine Prota- 
goreanism, we are enabled to fill up a great and mysterious 
lacuna in our knowledge. As at present advised we know 
nothing about the context of the Homo Mensura dictum. But 
obviously it must have had one, or rather two, one psycho- 
logical, the other logic ah No man makes a great discovery 
without being led to it by a psychic process. No man venti- 
lates what may be taken as a giant paradox, without trying 
to make it plausible and palatable to his audience. Especi- 
ally if he is a professional teacher, i.e., a man who has lived 
all his life under a consciousness that his living depends on 
the approval of this same audience. 

It is utterly shallow, th^rpfpre. to regard Protagoras's 
dictum as an irresponsible freak of subjectivism. Subjec- 
tivism from its nature can never be unreflective, any more 
than pessimism. Objectivisms and optimisms always are 

1 Theodorus in the Thezetetus is represented (1) as his friend, and (2) as 
no philosopher but a mathematician. As for the Antimoerus of the 
Protagoras (315 A) we never hear of him again. 


initially unreflective, and frequently remain so to the end. 
For the necessities of life have severely schooled us to begin 
by turning outward the eye of the soul, and the last thing 
that man thinks of, the last thing he discovers, is himself. 

It is psychologically certain, therefore, that Protagoras 
must have ha'cl, "ancl must MV& Elated, interpgt"^ fp^.sfmg 
Jor^ his position. J3nt we are in the unsatisfactory position 
of knowing only his conclusion, and neither its premisses 
nor its context, and no interpretation of the Thecetetus can 
be adequate which takes no account ancl has no explanation 
of this fact. 

Can -we suppose that Plato was equally unfortunate, equally 
ignorant of the context and grounds of Protagoras's dictum ? 
Only if we suppose that he neither possessed, nor had ever 
read, Protagoras's book on ' Truth ' ; nay, that he had never 
heard it discussed by those who had read it. But this is ex- 
tremely improbable. It igjindeed just possible that Plato, 
knew no more than we do. It is quite possible that Athenian 
persecution so successfully suppressed the-book that no copy 
escaped to be perused by Plato. Indeed this is even probable, 
under the very peculiar circumstances of the catastrophe 
which ended the career of Greece's greatest Sophist. We may 
infer this also from the hesitations and apologies with which 
Plato always accompanies his account of Protagoras. _ These 
become intelligible if we suppose that he possessed no copy 
of the book himself and was not in a position to cite textu- 
a Uy. anything but the two admitted dicta. 

But it is incredible that Plato should not have been 
familiar w T ith the substance of the book. It was published, 
as the crown and outcome of the long career of the most 
popular teacher of the day, in Athens, Plato's native city, in 
411 (or 412) B.C., when Plato was already well advanced in 
his teens. If he was then already interested in philosophy, 
he must surely have read it, or at least have heard it dis- 
cussed. Even if he was not, he must have been the con- 
temporary of dozens who had read it and of hundreds who 
had heard it discussed; for in a democracy, which cannot 
act with a tyrant's promptitude, some time would elapse 
before the indignation of the orthodox could gather force 


enough to lead to its denunciation and destruction, and the 
withdrawal of Protagoras from the city. Plato, therefore, 
was in a position to ascertain the real arguments of Pro- 
tagoras with great exactitude. For it is improbable that 
they were protected from reproduction by their abstruse- 
ness. Protagoras was not a recluse like Heraclitus, but a 
popular lecturer. His arguments cannot have been too subtle 
to be committed to memory. 

But if Plato knew, not indeed textually but in substance, 
the arguments which Protagoras had advanced for his position, 
why on earth should he suppress them ? Why should he not 
reproduce in his polemic such of them at least as he thought 
he could answer ? Why be at pains to invent bogus argu- 
ments on behalf of Protagoras, when the genuine ones were 
extant, and might even be remembered by the seniors in his 
own audience? Surely it would have been neither artistic, 
nor honest, nor prudent, to attempt more than to re- word in 
a condensed form the substance of the genuine argument. 
And this is precisely what the Thecetetus indicates through- 
out. The remark in 171 E, which is the chief ground for 
attributing to Plato the complete fabrication of the Protagoras 
Speech, does not imply more than this, if it is not unfairly 


If Plato had invented the Protagoras Speech, he would 
surely have made a better job of it polemically. He would 
have taken care not to put into the mouth of his ' Protagoras ' 
anything his ' Socrates ' did not subsequently refute. If^ 
therefore, there can be found in the Speech arguments which 
tjie Theatetus does not refute, we may be sure that they were 
not of Plato's invention. And if Plato thinks he has refuted 
them and it can be shown that he is wrong, this confidence 
will be strengthened ; there will remain no reasonable doubt 
but that he has tried in his Speech to represent a real op- 
ponent's actual views, that he has failed to understand him, 
and therefore failed to dispose of him, as he supposes. 

An unprejudiced reading of the Protagoras Speech will, I 
believe, bear out all these contentions. 


The Speech falls into three parts. (1) 166 A C, (2) 166 
D 1M7 D, and (3) 167 D 168 B. (1) ' Protagoras ' begins 
with a protest against the verbalism of the 'Socratic' con- 
tentions that have preceded. The memory of a perception 
must not be lumped together with the perception. It is in 
no wise absurd that the same person should know and not 
know the same thing at least, we must add, if as in Plato's 
examples (165, etc.) the thing is taken in a different reference. 
As for the difficulty of the change in the knower which 
results from his interaction with the object, we can, if you 
insist that he cannot be identical in change, regard him as 
an. infinite plurality- 1 ' No', says Protagoras, ' face the real 
point : deny outright that we have peculiar and individual 
perceptions, which we alone experience.' 

In part (2) he expounds his true doctrine and refutes the 
misinterpretations put upon it. ' While I affirm that each */ 3 
man is the measure of what is " true " for him, I do not deny 


that one man may be 10,000 times as good as an o trie" r, in this 
very point of what appears to him and is to him "true". It^ 
is thus that the wise man is distinguished from the fool ; he 
is one who is able, when things appear to us and are bad, to 
make them appear and be good.' [I.e., who teaches us how 
to make the best of a bad job and to adjust ourselves to life.] 
1 Your own illustration of the sick man to whom what is sweet 
to the healthy seems bitter tells against you, Socrates. It is 
futile to make either of them any "wiser" than they are, or 
to declare that the sick man is uninstructed in judging as he / 
does : what he needs is to be altered ; for the contrary condi- v 
tion is the better. Thus the sophist's task is practical like the 
doctor's ; but his ministrations use words, instead of drugs, 
to produce a better state of mind. There is no question, 
therefore, of turning " false " opinions into "true"; all we 
opine is always " true " in so far as it expresses what we 
experience. Lut whereas a soul in bad condition opines 

1 Compare with this James's analysis of the knower into a succession 
of momentary I's, each inheriting and summing up his predecessor. Any 
dynamic account of knowing will tend to have recourse to such descrip- 
tions, in order to combat the useless assumption of a static knower, and 
will be similarly charged with destroying the knower's reality. 


badly, a good one produces good thoughts. Some mistakenly 
call such " better " appearances " truer," but I merely " better " 
or " worse " but not " truer ". Wise men, therefore, are they 
who, like the physicians of bodies, or the cultivators of plants, 
train men to perceive aright. And the sage or * sophist ' 
performs a similar service also for cities ; wherefore he earns 
his pay. 

' (3) We see, therefore, that in a sense, though no one can 
be said to opine falsely, some are wiser than others.' The 
;Speech concludes with a grave admonition to ' Socrates ' to 
cease from arguing disputatiously, and points out the harm 
this does by disgusting people with philosophy, and the perils 
of arguing from the current usage of words which only lead 
to puzzles. 




In its whole tone and contents this Speech seems to me 
xactly what we should expect from an attempt at authentic 
reproduction. The anti-intellectualism, the emphasis on the 
practical side, the defence of pay for intellectual work, the 
didactic tone, the high mogaLgeriousness (which Plato attests 
also in the Protagoras), the disgust with the endless and often 
aimless ' dialectics ' of the Greek boulevardier, the consciousness 
of the dangers of verbal traps, these are all characteristics 
we might expect to find in the veteran teacher whose mission 
it was to guide the education of a democratic age. 

Why then should we hesitate to attribute to him also what 
is the cardinal point of his defence, viz., the distinction between 
the formal dairn^ to Jruth which every judgment makes and its 
? ThisTpomt is made lucidly, repeatedly and emphatically, 
and iHny paraphrase has brought it out still more, the reason 
is merely that, thanks to Plato, most philosophers have 
become involved in so dense an intellectualistic bias that 
anything which runs counter to it has to be made very clear 

But the distinction is quite clearly in the Greek, 
is also quite clearly the complete answer to the attacks 
on the humanism, miscalled the ' subjectivism,' of Protagoras, 
and the solution of the problem of a common truth. It explains 


how we pass from individual claims to social values, and 
attribute To them an objective validity, ^be bricks ont of .. 
which the temple o^ Truth is built are the individual judg- " 
ments which supply the material. "Every one is continually 
making them. ^BuTofthese a large proportion are half-baked, 
or broken, or of the wrong shapes. So these have to be re- 
jected. They may still seem to their makers subjectively 

* true,' but they are objectively useless. Whoever, on the 
other hand, has the skill to devise a form of brick which is 
useful finds hosts of imitators. He becomes an architectonic 
authority, and is called in to mould or re-mould the bricks of 
others. And so dominant patterns arise which prevail and 
attain an objective validity. But this validity is the reward 
of value^ and the result of selections based on experience. 
The ' validity ' of a claim to truth is neither logically nor > 
etymologically other than its 'strength. Tnere is no need 

to presuppose any inaccessible supercelestial archetype which & 
ratifies and sanctifies by a suprasensible communion, the 
human imitations we inexplicably make. Still less do we need 
any deus ex ?nachina supernatural ly to establish by his fiat any 
initial ^commonness* of trutEQ We do not even need any 

* independent ' object magically authenticating its ' true copy ' 
in our thoughts. 1 All we^jieed is that there should hg^ 
facto differences in the value, and therefore in the subsequent 

validity, of different people's judgments. And of these we 
have, of course, abundance. 

It is noticeable, however, that Protagoras is represented as 
declining to call these superior values * truths '. They are. 
' bej.ter ' but not ' truer '. If so, he did not yet perceive that 

1 Lest I should hereabouts be unintelligently charged with denying 

* objective reality' altogether, I must append a note to this remark. 
The only sense (out of many) in which a Humanist theory of knowledge 
does away with 'independent objects' is the utterly nugatory one in 
which the 'object' is made so 'independent' as to transcend human 
cognition altogether : all the other senses of ' objectivity,' it expounds and 
explains, each in its proper place. It is most unfortunate that both 

* realists ' and ' absolute idealists' should apparently have piqued them- 
selves on, quite irrationally, affirming just this superfluous absurdity, 
and on tying all the legitimate senses of ' objectivity ' on to it. Of. my 
Studies in Humanism, pp. 439, 461-62. 

w an ^ 


a \ all 'truths ' are ' values,' and therefore ' goods,' even though 
an individual's truths are good and satisfying only to him r 
their vame is ver Y restricted, because their currency 
r sma ^- Nor a g am can ne have seen that the same ambig- 

\ uity which pervades truth-values pervades also all the rest. 
'^ ^ ,VMany things are judged 'good,' which are not really good, 
"""^just as they are judged 'true' without being really true. 
Everywhere there is needed a bridge of validation by use to 
cross the gap between claim and validity. - But it is also 
possible either that Plato has not here reproduced the full 
subtlety of Protagoras's argument, or that Protagoras was 
hindered from expressing himself fully only by the poverty 
of Greek philosophic language, not yet enriched by the 
genius of Plato. Anyhow, the difference between Protagorean 
and modern Humanism concerns only a subordinate point 
of terminology. 1 

What now, we may proceed to inquire, does Plato make of 
this important philosophic distinction he has attributed to 
Protagoras ? It is astounding to find that he makes nothing 
of it whatsoever. He treats it almost as badly as the other 
three un-Platonic points made in the Protagoras Speech, (1) 
the repudiation of intellectualism and of the doctrine that 
badness is simply ignorance (166 E 167 A), (2) the demand 
for an alteration of reality by practical action and not by dialec- 
tics (166 D and 168 A), and (3) the declaration that the State 
*", may err morally like the individual, and may need the services 
I of the moral expert (168 B). These three points the Platonic 
4 Socrates ' totally ignores in the sequel. 

The conception of truth-values he just refers to, but his 
reference to it is worse than none at all. For it only shows. 
that Plato had no conception of the meaning and scope of 
the argument he had just stated. In 169 D, he starts again 
from the bare dictum as if the Speech had done nothing to 
explain its real meaning nor given it a philosophic context. 
And the reasons ' Protagoras ' had given for the dictum are 
actually treated as concessions derogating from its validity 
and inconsistent with his original assertion ! Nothing could 

1 Cf. Studies in Humanism, p. 36. 


be more unfair and unenlightened, or even more contrary to 
the very wording of the Speech. For in the Speech ' Prota- 
goras ' emphatically puts his doctrine forward as his very own, 
and distinguishes it from the laxer use of popular language, 
(167 B 1 ). And well he might ; for it is the vindication, not 
only of his whole career as a skilled adviser and educator, 
but of the liberty which he concedes to every one to hold by 
his own experience. Such, a profound misconstruction seems, 
possible only in one who was reproducing with imperfect -V 
success an argument he did not understand. / 

There follows immediately afterwards a still more extra- 

ordinary proof of the discomfort which the Protagorean 
mode of thought had occasioned in Plato's mind. For in 
169 E, it is suggested that as Protagoras is not present to- 
confirmthe ' concessions ' made on his behalf, it will perhaps- 
be better to restrict the discussion to his own words, the ^ 
original dictum ! 

By this master-stroke of dialectical manipulation the 
whole defence of Protagoras is declared invalid and set 
aside, and we are once more reduced to the bare dictum 
and stripped of all knowledge of what it really meant in its con- 
text. This procedure is so arbitrary that even Plato's literary 
art cannot quite reconcile his readers to it. But on our 
hypothesis it is at least intelligible. On the hypothesis that 
Plato has concocted the Protagoras Speech it becomes utterly 
unthinkable. For how can one believe that, after propounding 
a defence of Protagoras which was at least novel and striking 
even if it was not completely adequate, Plato should at once 
have dropped it, merely because he suddenly felt a consci- 
entious qualm lest Protagoras himself should not have ap- 
proved of it ? Surely whether the argument of the Speech * 
was Protagoras's or Plato's, once it was stated, it should 
have been answered, and in the latter case at least it could 
have been answered : the presumption, therefore, is that Plato- 
dispensed himself from this duty because he perceived that it 
surpassed his powers. For it is worth noting that though 
the Speech is evicted, it is never refuted. Its points are 


a or] rives TO. <pavTa(rp.aTa VTTO direipias d\Tj6f) KaXoiKTiv cy o> 8f j9f X T i a> 
ra trtpa T&V er(p<0v, d\r) Q c <TTf pa de ovdev. 


almost ostentatiously ignored henceforth, but no attempt is 
made to answer any one of them, and the argument becomes 
almost farcical in its unfairness. The logical value, there- 
fore, of the ensuing argument is slight. 

For example, (1) in 170 A Socrates insists on treating the 
difference between the authority and the fool as merely one 
in knowledge, despite the protest in 167 A, against this very 
trick of intellect ualism. Protagoras having denied that 
differences in truth-value were merely intellectual, Plato 
makes a point of reaffirming his intellectualist analysis 
dogmatically and in the very same words. The protest of 
the Speech, therefore, has been wholly vain. 
f (2) So, too, were the protest against relying too much on 
popular language and the explanation of the apparently un- 
familiar assertion that all always judge ' truly '. For as 
170 C shows, Plato continues to base his objections on the 
current use of the words ' true ' and ' false '. 

(3) The argument in 170 D, which seems a clincher to Plato, 
is almost ludicrously inconclusive to one who has grasped 
the manifest meaning of the Protagoras Speech. Itjs in no 
wise absurd that an opinion (which you may roughly call 

he same ') should be ' true ' to me and ' false ' to you ; nor 
that one man should be right and 10,000 wrong. 

For $) it may well be ' true ' to a lover that his mistress 
is the most beauteous creature in the world ; but it by no 
means follows that this is ' true ' to the rest of the world, nor 
is it even desirable that it should be. If then it is true that 
there is a peculiar and personal side to every piece of know- 
ledge, he who .-has the experience alone can judge of its value./ 
He alone feels where the shoe pinches or sees the subjective 
glow which transfigures the landscape, fi) Even where we 
feel entitled to abstract sufficiently from this individuality of 
concrete experiences to speak of a 'common' situation, it 
may be perfectly legitimate for different minds to evaluate 
it differently. All views may be right from their several 
standpoints, and they generally are so more or less. , To 
deny that the ' true ' mode of attaining the Good varies 
according to the circumstances of the agent is both intoler- 
ance and ineptitude, (c) Athanasius contra mundum and the 


fact that all new truth necessarily starts in a minorit 

one, should moderate our reliance on numbers as a test of 
truth. ' Universal consensus ' is a consequence and not a 
cause of truth. 

(4) It is in vain, therefore, that Plato attempts (in 170 E 
171 C) to show that on his own principles Protagoras must 

bow to the verdict of the majority who reject his dictum. 
Plato's argument here is completely vitiated by the ' ambiguity 
of truth,' l and as it completely ignores the distinction made 
by the Protagoras Speech, it is a mere ignoratio elenchi. For 
' Protagoras ' has already explained how on his theory 
scientific authority was constituted. He could, therefore, 
reply 'My dictum may be "true" (claim) for me, even 
though it is not " true" for all the world besides. There is 
no contradiction in this, for we are different. I am Protagoras ; 
you. to put it mildly, are not ! And I may already be right, 
though no one else perceives it yet. For eventually men may 
come to see that my view is really " better ". And then the 
validity of the truth I now claim will be admitted.' 

(5) In 171 E 172 C Plato propounds a restriction of the 
dictum's "cTaTm^to matters of sense-perception, exempting 
matters of health and disease from its sway, and he identifies 
this restricted claim with the position of the Protagoras 

This passage, rj r;/iet9 vTreypatyapev ffoijOovvres IIp(oTay6pa f 
which has already been referred to (p. 14), at first sight 
seems direct evidence in favour of the view that the Speech 
is really a Platonic invention, and if this were the only or 
the best interpretation of the remark, it would be almost 
fatal to the contention of this study. But in point of fact, 
it may be shown that it is only part of Plato's misconstruction 
of the Speech, and that upon examination it tells strongly in 
favour of the view that the Speech is genuinely Protagorean 
and has been utterly misunderstood by Plato. To put the 
matter quite bluntly, it is not true that the Speech said what 
Plato's ' Socrates ' now says it said- Tile discrepancies between 
what was said and what is now alleged may doubtless look 

1 As I have shown in Studies in Humanism, pp. 146-46. 


small, but they are not insignificant ; and it is obvious that 
nothing very glaring could be expected. For if Plato had 
become aware of any considerable divergence between the 
text of the Speech and his subsequent version of it, he would 
have modified one or the other. 

(a) The assertion that the restriction now proposed is a 
concession to common-sense on the part of Protagoreanism 
is merely a repetition of the remark in 169 D. It does not 
become more plausible thereby. And it has already been 
-explained how profound a misconception of the chief distinc- 
tion made in the Speech is implied in this assertion. 

(b) Nothing is said in the Speech about a division of terri- 
tories whereby the sphere of perception would be left to the 
dictum, while that of good and evil, and of health and disease 
would be assigned to the control of authority. The conten- 

, ' tion of the Speech was that of judgments equally true one 
) might be better than another. And this was laid down uni- 
versally. Neither subjectivity nor valuation was confined to 
sense-perceptions, thus implicitly giving the lie to Plato's 
attempt to fuse the humanism of Protagoras with the sensa- 
tionalism of his day, an attempt the arbitrary nature of 
which is as good as confessed in ' Socrates's ' remark in 
152 C, that he is divulging a ' secret doctrine ' to an astonished 
world. No restriction, therefore, of the* personal implication 
in all knowing to the sphere of mere perception can for a 
moment be entertained by any' logical Protagoreanism, and 
this implication must carry the universality of valuations 
with it. If e.g., I am short-sighted and you are not, your 
visual perceptions will be * better ' than mine. But this will 
not make them ' true ' to me. The fact that you can read 
print at a distance impossible to me, does not enable me to 
do so, though the manifest superiority of your practical ad- 
justments will induce me to admit and to envy the superior- 
!ity of your perceptions. I shall continue to see a blur, where 
you see clearly, as before. It would seem, therefore, that in 
attempting to apply the distinction of the Speech, Plato has 
restricted it in a way which the Speech does not warrant and 
the facts refute. Surely a curious fact on the hypothesis that 
he was himself the author of the distinction ! 


(c) Plato's quotation of the words of the Speech is seriously 
inaccurate. He substitutes 'healthful' and * diseased,' for 
' better ' and ' worse '. But in the Speech these were merely 
illustrations of the general principle, and the distinction was 
not restricted to them. 

(d) The argument abqutjhe cities in ITfl^A B is both inac- 
curate a_nd absurd". Nothing was said in the Spee~cfr~arbout 
the ' advantageous ; ' the terms used were ' good ' and ' evil '. 
Moreover, the compromise proposed is impossible, as Plato 
must have been fully aware. You cannot allow States 
to judge as they please about the just and the moral, 
if they are to be controlled by a perception of their true 
advantage. For their ideas about justice also may chance to 
be extremely disadvantageous to them, and may therefore 
require to be altered. The * Protagoras ' of the Speech had 
talked no such nonsense: he had very sensibly and truly re- 
marked that the opinions of States about the just might have 
to be altered, just as those of the sick man about the 

la short, Plato's references do not exactly reproduce either 
the words or the sense of the ' Protagoras ' Speech, and thereby 
prove pretty conclusively that he was not the real author of its 
contentions. For those who insist' on believing that he was, 
his whole handling of the Speech must seem an unfathomable 
mystery. He first contrives this brilliant Speech, which con- 
tains a number of points, new and unheard of in all Platonic 
philosophy, together with one distinction of capital importance. 
And then he goes on as if he did not know what he had done, 
as if nothing had happened ! The main point is blankly 
ignored, the references to the Speech are all curiously vague 
and inexact, and the whole Speech is almost at once set aside 
as possibly inaccurate, on an absurd pretext that the wording 
is not by Protagoras. If this was the way in which he was 
going to treat it, why did Plato trouble to make a statement 
he could make so little of? The Thecetetus would have been 
gayer and more forceful without a long, halting and impotent 
discussion of what seems a half-understood position. Nothing 
but external compulsion would drive an expert controversi- 
alist to such shifts. But may not such compulsion have been 



forthcoming from the expectations of his older readers, who 
remembered the actual reasonings of Protagoras and required 
of Plato an attempt to meet them ? 

And the philosopher must urge this difficulty still more 
insistently than the literary critic. The The&tetus contains 
/a position of immense philosophic importance, whether it 
originated with Protagoras or with Plato. It is never dealt 
with. Why not? And is not the philosopher seriously 
concerned to estimate how much it detracts from the se- 
curity of Plato's chosen creed to have left a hostile strong- 
hold, however weakly garrisoned, untaken, nay unassailed, 
in his rear ? 

(6) When after a long digression, in the course of which 
Plato emphasizes the hopeless transcendence of the truly 
real and valuable with the utmost acerbity, the argument is- 
resumed in 177 C, Plato first, quite superfluously, proves 
what the Protagoras of the Speech had long ago pointed out,. 
viz., that cities often do not know their own advantage. 

(7) InJL78_A a fresh point is made. Can it be maintained 
that each man is the measure not only of his present per- 
ception, but also of the future ? Will that be exactly as he 
anticipates ? And doe not the knowledge of the advantage- 
ous depend mainly o^i the future ? 

The Platonic ' Socrates ' appears finally to rest his case on 

this point and on the argument in 171 C [our No. (4) ], by 

which Protagoras was alleged to refute himself. In reality, 

^however, the appeal to the future leads to a triumphant vin- 

/ dication of the Humanist interpretation. For how does the 

L.f uture decide between two rival theories of truth ? By the 

/\ value of the consequences to which they severally lead. 

< That is precisely the meaning of the pragmatic testing of 

truth by its consequences. Whether Protagoras would have 

replied in this way if the point had been brought to his notice, 

we are not, of course, in a position to say ; but enough has 

probably been said to show that if we read the The&tetus 

critically and do not credulously swallow every claim Plato 

chooses to make without verifying it, there can be no question 

of a refutation of the argument of the Protagoras Speech by 

the subsequent criticism. 



Plato himself, moreover, was a better judge of the value of 
his argument than his followers, and so was not unaware of 
the incomplete character of his dialectical victory over the 
bare dictum of Protagoras. He realizes plainly that in order 
to justify his rejection of it, it is incumbent on him to devise a 
tenable theory of Error. For even ' subjectivism ' cannot be 
refuted by more scepticism, and even a rationalistic theory 
of knowledge is bound to discover some difference between 
* truth ' and ' error'. This implication of his logical position, 
was not, of course, a thing to make too dangerously prominent, 
but it is clearly the meaning of the remark in 190 E,_that 
' if we cannot show that false opinion is possible, we shall 
be obliged to admit many absurd things '. The ' many absurd 
things ' are the Protagorean view of Truth as it has been 
interpreted by Plato. And the connexion between it and a 
failure to solve the problem of jError is this : if the possibility 
of Error cann.ot be evpla-inpri ffr*~> ^ nr> "f Q iQ Q npimrm ' : 
and if there can be no ' false opinion ' then all opinions are 
true ; but this was precisely what Protagoras had meant, ac- 
cording to Plato. Hence the Platonic inquiry is on its own 
showing in the awkward position of being bound to discover a 
tenable theory of Error in order to save itself from a relapse 
into a Protagorean ' subjectivism,' which it has itself rashly 
declared to be equivalent to an abolition of all truth. 

Nor does the fact that the Platonic interpretation of Prota- 
goras is wrong, in any way relieve the logical pressure upon 
Plato's intellectualism at this point. For as an ad hominem 
refutation, a failure to-devise a theory of Error tells against 
Plato's theory in any case. Whether or not Protagoras had 
really denied the possibility of Error, Plato's theory of know- 
ledge must irremediably collapse, if it cannot account for the 
existence of Error. And, unlike many modern intellectual- 
ists, who seem to contemplate with equanimity their total 
failure to discriminate between truth and error and to regard 
it as quite an unimportant defect in a theory of knowledge, 
Plato saw this clearly. 

Hence the zeal and perseverance with which the inquiry 


is prosecuted. Plato is battling pro aris et focis, to save 
the central fire of intellectualisin from extinction, and it is 
probably because he realized this as none of his successors 
have done after him, that he produced, his great classical dis- 
cussion of the problem, which is distinguished by ingenuity 
and ennobled, though not saved, by the frank confession of 
final failure. 

That this failure was an inevitable outcome of Plato's pre- 
suppositions is the next point for us to understand. We 
shall in understanding this understand also that no intel- 
lectualist theory of Error is possible, and consequently no 
really adequate intellectualist theory of knowledge. For a 
theory of knowledge which cannot explain Error cannot 
discriminate it from Truth, and so cannot explain that 

With the usual naive objectivism of ancient metaphy- 
^ sicians, Plato starts from the assumption that Error is some- 
/* thing objective and inherent in the object of knowledge. I.e., 
' Plato has made the usual abstraction from the human and 
personal side of knowledge and assumed that this can have 
no bearing on the theory of logic. If, therefore, this assump- 
tion is wrong, we can at once account for the failure of his 
efforts, without being driven into the scepticism, in which 
intellectualist epistemologies invariably end. 

But to be more specific, if the possibility of Error is de- 
pendent on the nature of the object, there must be an object 
of error as well as an object of knowledge, and the error 
must consist in our taking the one for the other, or getting 
the one when we want the other. To know this, however, 
we must necessarily know both. We must know, that is, the 
Jobject of error as such, and to do this would of course be not 
jerror, but truth. For we should ' apprehend it as it is '. Again, 
in so far as an object of knowledge is involved in error recog- 
nised as such, it is known truly. Error, therefore, always 
involves the contradiction that we must simultaneously both 
know and not know in the same cognitive reference. Thus 
a theory of Error is unthinkable. The same conclusion 
follows if we start from any formal view of Truth. For we 
thereby incapacitate ourselves for distinguishing between a 


truth and a claim to truth, and as the latter may be wrong, 
error becomes a kind of truth and we are, once more, unable 
to distinguish between truth and error. 

Such in essence is the impasse to which all Plato's in- 
genious speculations in the end conducted him. He could 
not find the real clue to the maze, because of his initial abstrac- 
tions. Having abstracted from the personal maker of the 
judgment, he never noticed that errors do not exist as such 
until they are found out. A false judgment is in form indis- 
tinguishable from a true one, a self-contradictory judgment 
being unmeaning as expressed. Hence in dealing with errors 
no man can ever be simultaneously in a condition of both 
knowing and not knowing. While we maintain the 'error,' 
we judge it to be 'true ' : when we have discovered it to be 
an ' error,' we no longer affirm it. As critics we can of course 
perceive errors which others judge to be true. Indeed, the 
' errors' that trouble us are generally not our own, but those 
of others, which they affirm and we deny. But when the 
traditional 'logic,' after tabooing all systematic reference to 
the psychological context of its subject-matter, proceeds to 
treat of Error in the abstract, it declines to look beyond the 
fact that ' the same ' proposition is both affirmed and denied, 
both known and not known. I.e., it has abstracted from this 
difference in the persons who affirm and reject the errone- 
ous judgment. But this difference is essential, because it 
may always affect and dissolve the unity of what has been 
called ' the same '. Hence ' logic ' has debarred itself from 
all intelligible treatment of the question. 

The second point to be grasped is that the seat of Error is 
not in any defective configuration of the ' object/ but in its 
relation to a cognitive purpose. That some errors consist in 
the affirmation of non-existent objects is not only unimpor- 
tant, but wholly irrelevant. It is irrelevant because it in- 
volves a confusion of an ontological with a logical * object '. 
' 'object' is never non-existent, even though we 
may be discussing Centaurs, Chimaeras, Absolutes, intellect- 
ualistic theories of knowledge and other ontological nonen- 
tities. But all errors denote the defeat of a cognitive purpose. 
Hence the failure of a purposive thought to attain the aim 


or * object ' which would have satisfied it, can never be treated 
in abstraction from tne personal aspecFotJoiowmg. ITcan- 
not be described per se or be represented in merely formal 
(and therefore verbal) terms. It always implies a relation to 
something beyond the two ends of the proposition. It is 
nothing intrinsic in the judgment, it is never to be judged 
as a purely intellectual thing. 

How, on the other hand, does this problem look if we 
approach it from the aspect of knowledge for the first time 
seen and emphasized by Pjotagoras? . It will be found that 
this much-maligned and little understood theory has no 
difficulty in coping with it. For it starts with human 
knowing, not with ' ideals ' of a ' perfect ' knowledge inac- 
cessible to man. Every judgment is a claim to 'truth,' i.e., 
an experiment with ' reality ' as it appears to us. But such 
experiments may fail as well as prosper. If they succeed, 
we recognize their value and hail them ' true '. If they fail,, 
wholly or in part, we condemn as ' false,' and admitting that 
we were ' wrong,' withdraw the values claimed. Gradually 
in the course of time ther; j , are thus segregated two great 
realms, of light and darkness, Truth and Error. But between 
the two will lie much disputed territory, where, either because 
our experience is not yet adequate or because our experi- 
ments have not been decisive, there is ample room for 
doubt and difference of opinion. 

But only a mind thoroughly corrupted with dialectic and 
corroded with scepticism will base on its existence a charge- 
that to recognize these facts is to abolish the conception of 
Truth. In reality we are here on the holy ground where,, 
by the continuous revision of values and the rejection of 
'errors,' Truth is made, where knowledge is alive and grow- 
ing. And the fertile soil yields the only sort of truth that 
has use or meaning for man. You cannot, it is true, raise 
on it any humanly fruitless and unprofitable crop of Platonic 
Ideas. If the seeds of such sterilities are scattered on the 
ground by breezes that issue from the bags of ^Eolus, they 
will fail to germinate in a soil so richly manured by the 
heart's-blood of human desire and the bones of the martyrs 
of human science. But our loss is nil ; for such static forms- 


would be utterly unsuited to our needs. We need plastic 
conceptions that can adjust themselves to the dynamic nature 
of reality, and, in Plato's parlance, can know the 'flux.' It 
is only in unmeaning tautologies that the ' ideas ' remain 
immobile even in the single judgment. In all real knowing 
subject and predicate always have their meaning changed by 
being combined in a judgment, alike whether this growth 
enriches only the mind of a single knower or extends to all 
those who are interested in the advancement of human 
knowledge. All .our concepts, therefore, as James says, are 
teleological weapons of the human mind. 

Plato, doubtless, would never have admitted that such mere 
instruments of human knowing were true ' Ideas '. But 
neither he nor any of his many followers has ever been able 
to devise a tenable formula to express the (unthinkable) rela- 
tion of the plastic ' Ideasjj^e-use to the immutable ' Ideas ' 
they have vainly po^tuTated. Hence though we may be glad 
that he has expressed for all time the perfect exemplar of the 
rationalistic temper, we cannot in these days imitate his 
superb fidelity to an impracticable ideal. The growth of 
Science and the application of Knowledge to Life are too 
stupendous facts to be ignored even in the seclusion of 
academic lecture-rooms. And so, though philosophers as a 
body will naturally be the last persons to admit it, it must 
eventually be recognized that Protagoras's vision of a Truth 
that did not shun commerce with man was truer than Plato's 
dream of an Eternal Order that transcends all human un- 



Since the above study was written my attention has been 
called to an article on Plato and Protagoras in the Philosophi- 
cal Review, xvi., 469, (September, 1907) by Prof. J. Watson. 
Its appearance is a welcome sign of the times in so far as 
it indicates a perception that the old controversy between 
Protagoras and Plato is by no means dead and recognizes that 
it turns on essentially the same point as the modern issue be- 
tween Humanism and Absolutism. But Prof. Watson could 
have very materially enhanced the timeliness and relevance 
of his discussion by taking more adequate cognizance of the 
Neo-Protagorean position. Even if nay Studies in Humanism 
(pp. 33-38, 145-46, and 298-347) appeared too recently to be 
used by him, he might at least have referred to a quite ex- 
plicit article which appeared in the Quarterly Review so long 
ago as January, 1906. Instead of this he confines his polemic 
to a passing remark in the Preface of my Humanism, the 
full justification of which is only forthcoming in the present 
study. It is, however, satisfactory to find that he also thinks 
that Plato meant to give the veritable views of Protagoras. 
He holds also that Plato, when writing the Thecetetus, had 
access to the treatise of Protagoras, a position which I have 
given reasons for thinking not only intrinsically improbable, 
in view of the apologetic tone of the Platonic reproductions, 
but also untenable, as ignoring the external authority of 
Diogenes Laertius, ix., 52. So despite of what I said in 
Studies in Humanism, p. 37, it now seems to me far more 
likely that Plato was relying wholly on oral tradition about a 
work that was no longer extant. The Speech Prof. Watson 
ascribes to a ' developed ' Protagoreanism fabricated by Plato 


himself, without attempting to explain why Plato should 
proceed to ' develop ' a doctrine for which he had not yet 
stated the authentic grounds, and then return to the unde- 
veloped form without refuting its ' developments '. He says 
nothing about the relevance of the discussion of Error, and 
particularly of 190 E, to the issue, and his whole exposition 
of Plato's arguments is unfortunately far too general and 
goes too little into the detail of the text to establish any of. 
his contentions. 



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