Friday, 30 August 2019

The Lesson of Protagoras: Virtue Cannot be Taught

In the Platonic dialogue Protagoras, Socrates inquires from the respected Sophist teacher Protagoras about the best way of educating his young friend Hippocrates. He asks: Where should Hippocrates be schooled? Protagoras suggests that if Hippocrates wants to be a sculptor he should study at Phidias; if he wishes to be a physician, the Aesculapian school is an option.

Then Socrates asks, in what subject will Hippocrates become an expert if he becomes a pupil of Protagoras? To this, Protagoras answers, he will teach Hippocrates to become a better man. Socrates asks, in what way will you make him better? Protagoras says that he teaches his students virtue or moral excellence. Socrates then asks him to clarify how virtue is teachable? The rest of the Dialogue explores the nature, scope, and teachability of virtue.

The Dialogue ends without Socrates and Protagoras being able to discover the answers to the fundamental questions concerning virtue: What is virtue? Is virtue many things or one thing? Are qualities like piety, courage, temperance, and justice separate virtues or parts of virtue as a whole—this is an important question because if they are separate then it is possible for a man to be temperate while being unjust. Protagoras is unable to provide convincing answers to these questions. Socrates then asks, can virtue be taught?

In the course of the discussion between Socrates and Protagoras, it comes out that virtue cannot be taught. Virtue is linked to a man’s tastes, desires, character, and to the social environment in which he lives—a teacher may teach his pupil some of the principles of virtue, but he can't teach him how he should lead his life. The choices that a man makes will be based on his character and his situation in life. Also, there are people whose souls are corrupted—they cannot be trained into becoming morally better.

Socrates is of the view that there is no point in teaching virtue, because virtue cannot be taught. What the teachers of virtue provide is a sort of training, like the training that a carpenter gets. A virtuous person is virtuous in every context, for him the principles of virtue are universally applicable, and this is a quality that cannot be taught. We can identify the specific instances of virtue, but we can't define the universal principles of virtue, and what we can’t define, we can’t teach.

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