Notes on Plato – Protagoras

May 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

Is Nature or Convention the Basis of Society and the State?

In Protagoras Plato gives a description of the animal species in the natural world at once being unequal and yet equipped with the appropriate tools for survival. Epimetheus (the god) had used up all his resources on equipping the animal kingdom (non-rational creatures) and hence left human kind unprovided for. As a result human kind was given technical skill along with the use of fire. Importantly, these skills were stolen from Hephaestus and Athena by Prometheus for the benefit of human kind. These skills however did not surmount to the skill of organising and running a city. These skills Zeus presided over. Prometheus then pays the penalty for theft. An interesting implication here is that human kinds technical skill is unjust in the eyes of the gods.

After a time of developing these skills, human kind find it necessary to run cities, which involves the art of warfare, in order to protect themselves against the wilderness; that is, the far better equipped beasts. As they did not possess the art of running a city they treated themselves with injustice. Zeus feared that the race might be wiped out due to its inability to run a city and so sent Hermes to bring conscience and justice. These were to be the principles of the organisation of cities and the bonds of friendship. The question of the distribution of justice and conscience is raised. Skills and the arts are distributed unevenly. That is, one doctor is enough for numerous laymen etc. With regard to conscience and justice it is decided that they be distributed evenly to all. This is the foundation of the Athenian democratic model. When seeking knowledge about carpentry, only the advice of a few counts; those who have a skill-based knowledge of carpentry. When seeking advice on the running of the city, which must be run through justice and soundness of mind, it is right to accept advice from anyone, since it is incumbent on everyone to share in that sort of excellence.

This is an argument for the freedom of the citizenry to have a say in the running of their city. Where each individual might possess different sets of skills and exist in different social and economic classes, each individual never-the-less shares an equal claim to conscience and justice. Skills, labor and wealth are not universal, but justice and that which goes with the excellence of a citizen (this would equate to virtue) is a universal right. Plato also adds on the observation that justice is a sought after quality, whether an individual is just or not. If an individual is not just, people around him would profess him mad if he were to admit it before them. Anyone who doesn’t at least pretend to be just must be mad. Justice therefore has a social pressure applied to it. Here we also see that conscience and justice is abstract in the sense that it is handed to human kind from Zeus. It is not included in the original makeup of human character, as dictated by Epimetheus. In fact, technical skill too is an abstract addition to the human character provided by Prometheus.

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