Myth and Justice in Plato’s Protagoras and Gorgias

After a prolonged and multifarious discussion on virtue in the Gorgias, Plato has Socrates recount an eschatological myth (Socrates calls it a logos, or account) to his interlocutors. At first glance, Socrates’ telling of the myth runs counter to his condemnation of oratory; it appears to diverge from the Socratic elenchus, which crucially hinges on the active exchange of dialogue, by masking as a unidirectional narrative. Drawing upon Protagoras’ myth (muthos) propounded in Protagoras, one gleans critical differences between the two narratives—that of the philosopher seeking justice, and the sophist seeking gratitude. In light of Protagoras’ sophistic myth, one understands Socrates’ “myth”—steeped in notions of the just—as an extension of his philosophical argument. Relying on conceptions of pain and suffering and the soul-body dichotomy, Socrates’ account of the underworld proposes an active (why and how) argument about the just life that directly opposes sophistic ideas embodied by his interlocutors.

Protagoras and Gorgias deal with, among other things, the authenticity of oratory. In each dialogue, Socrates confronts the self-proclaimed teacher of rhetoric (Protagoras and Gorgias, respectively) in an effort to extract a formal definition by which one may distinguish the “craft” of oratory from other practices. Prompted by the related question, “Is virtue teachable?” Protagoras launches into a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that Zeus had Hermes impart justice and shame to all humanity in equal proportions to facilitate political and social order (320d-322d). This, claims Protagoras, is why people view civic issues as common territory—all humans, by nature, possess the faculties to participate in and advise about civic and political matters. He proceeds from the myth with lengthy arguments about why people regard virtue as teachable. It is not clear that Socrates would disagree with the message behind Protagoras’ muthos, as it renders justice a “gift from the gods which is not accompanied by understanding,” a conclusion Socrates reaches in Meno (99e). However, lacking dialectic function and an active sense of justice, Protagoras’ myth falls short of legitimate philosophy in the eyes of Socrates.

Prior to expounding his myth, Protagoras consults those present as to the best method for proceeding: with a story, or with an argument. He decides, “I think it would be more pleasant…if I told you a story” (320c). The language Plato uses here indicates a crucial aspect of the sophistic model according to Socrates, namely its dependence on gratification. Protagoras chooses the pleasant story over argument to formulate a congenial base on which to build his argument. Unfortunately for him, as Socrates points out, his speech eludes explanation of the fundamentality of virtue. It explains how virtues like justice came to be, but dodges any account of what justice is or why ought one to act justly. In this instance, the sophistic muthos is devoid of any active sense of virtue; it merely functions as a dead-end fairytale—a nice account of the genesis of virtue without moral functionality.

Protagoras’ myth embodies the flattery to which Socrates equates unjust oratory in Gorgias. Socrates explains that oratory, as flattery, “guesses at what’s pleasant with no consideration for what’s best” (464d-465a). Like pastry baking that masks as the craft of medicine for the body, oratory sans virtue masks as justice for the soul (465b). It is evident that Socrates believes his interlocutors—Protagoras, Gorgias, Polus, Callicles—lack a solid conception of the just that renders oratory a worthy skillset. He says, “I believe that I’m one of a few Athenians…to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics. This is because the speeches I make on each occasion do not aim at gratification but at what’s best. They don’t aim at what’s most pleasant” (521d-e). Protagoras’ myth and subsequent arguments are mere guesses at what is pleasant, with no attempt to impart a real sense of justice to his listeners. Indeed, the elenchus Socrates employs does not aim for what is pleasant; it aims for the truth and betterment of the interlocutors, and pain and suffering are likely byproducts in that pursuit.

Socrates prefaces his “myth”, or account, by analogizing his own theoretical court case to that of a pastry baker and a doctor. In the latter scenario, under the judgment of a “jury of children”, the pastry baker would certainly defeat the doctor, who appears only to inflict pain upon the children (521e-522a). Likewise, says Socrates, the jurors at his trial would fail to see the benefits underlying his attempts to illuminate virtue (522b-c). In other words, his elenchus, like the practice of medicine, heals the patient, but usually requires some degree of pain and suffering in the process. Many times in the Gorgias, Socrates explains that rightly suffering punishment cures the soul (e.g. 478a-479a). One might understand aporia, the state of confusion imparted by a successful elenctic episode, as a form of just suffering. The interlocutor is forced to accept she has no solid conception of the issue at hand, and only then may she begin to build a solid foundation for understanding virtue. It is evident that the just-punishing Socrates opposes the gratitude-seeking sophist. This is made even clearer as Socrates recounts his story of the underworld, while engaging notions of the just in a dialectic manner.

Socrates’ eschatological account functions as an active argument and guide for living a just life. He recounts a story in which Zeus, witnessing the false trials of damned souls, decides to make the process more just by using dead judges and dead defendants (523a-524a). This way, the body and soul are separated and judgment occurs anonymously and more accurately. The point Socrates makes by recounting this tale is that living justly affects the soul in a way that transcends the bodily appetites and desires. Oratory skills, wealth, good looks, numerous friends, etc. might help one in this life, but, as Socrates’ account holds, the afterlife concerns the purity and anonymity of the soul. Separating the body from the soul in his account, Socrates draws a line between the fleshly endeavors of the likes of Callicles and that of the justice-seeking philosopher.

Plato depicts Callicles as indignant at undergoing Socrates’ questioning, professing his disgust for philosophy and obstinately maintaining positions diametrically opposed to Socrates’ beliefs of the just life (482c-486d). Socrates recognizes his inability to influence Callicles through reasoning, saying “Do I persuade you at all, and are you changing your mind to believe that those who are orderly are happier than those who are undisciplined, or, even if I tell you many other such stories, will you change it none the more for that?” to which Callicles replies, “The latter thing you said is the truer, Socrates” (493d). Having exhausted his preferential philosophical resources, Socrates resorts to the myth as a means of getting through to Callicles. Employing the myth does not detract from the typical Socratic form; it continues the discussion about justice in an argumentative and active manner. The myth calls on Callicles and others to purge themselves of hollow oratory and excessive pleasures—to seek a just life now, for one cannot predict the moment at which their soul will be subject to judgment. Just as the unjust souls suffer a cleansing punishment in the afterlife, so does the living soul experience purification in the pursuit of justice. Socrates explains to his interlocutors, “let’s use the account that has now been disclosed to us as our guide, one that indicates to us that this way of life is the best, to practice justice and the rest of excellence both in life and in death” (527e). Socrates advances an eschatological account that functions both as an argument, or why one ought to live the just life, as well as a guide to that worthy objective.

Unlike Protagoras’ myth, Socrates’ account seeks to explain why and how one ought to live a just life. Appearing at the end of the dialogue, much philosophical blood has been shed and, as a last resort, Socrates turns to the myth to reach the careless and obstinate Callicles. Instead of pandering to the preferences of his interlocutors, Socrates attempts, once more, to illuminate their inconsistencies and the dire need to purify the soul by acting and living justly. Although it may be painful for those who neglect their souls’ wellbeing to hear Socrates’ account of judgment, for it flies in the face of their gluttonous lifestyle, the myth functions as an argument and guide for living a just life. It beckons the listener to approach carefully and meticulously matters of the soul, for the latter is of ultimate concern.


Cooper, John. Plato: Complete Works. “Protagoras”, “Gorgias”, “Meno”.

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