The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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In this paper, I adapt one of the pro-hedonist strategies to anti-hedonist ends. Just as some prohedonists insist that Plato’s arguments against hedonism elsewhere do not touch the actual theory found in the Protagoras (again, PH), I argue that the most natural reading of PH is inconsistent with views found in purportedly earlier dialogues (especially the Apology and Crito) as well as in purportedly later dialogues (such as the Gorgias, Phaedo, and Republic). In section 1, I argue that PH focuses entirely on bodily goods and bads.11 Then, in section 2, I argue that this makes the relationship between virtue and bodily goods according to PH inconsistent with the relationship between them according to the Apology and Crito. In section 3, I argue that PH is unable to explain why certain actions that Plato uses to display Socrates’ virtue—those in which he risks death for the sake of justice—are in fact just. These inconsistencies undermine pro-hedonists’ developmentalist interpretations of the fit between PH and other dialogues.12 The standard story would have to involve Plato utterly changing his mind on this topic not just once, but twice, with the Protagoras the sole outlier. However, there are other ways of understanding PH that would be consistent with these other dialogues. I explore two such proposals in section 4, and conclude that they run into serious problems, especially as interpretations of PH. So, these proposals require one to give up on the strongest initial argument for pro-hedonism: the presumption that we should take the text of the Protagoras at face value.13 Hence, pro-hedonists who want to make the Protagoras fit with other Platonic works via a developmental hypothesis must either embrace an implausible account of Plato’s intellectual development or else concede that Socrates’ views of goodness in the Protagoras cannot be easily and directly inferred from his presentation of PH.


J. Clerk Shaw presented “On Some Hedonist Interpretations of Plato’s Protagoras” to the Society at its meeting with the Central Division in Chicago in 2010. It was later incorporated into the first chapter of his book Plato’s Anti-hedonism and the Protagoras. Cambridge 2015.

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