Socrates and the Riddle of Simonides

  Andrews, James. 2023. “Socrates and the Riddle of Simonides.” In “Γέρα: Studies in honor of Professor Menelaos Christopoulos,” ed. Athina Papachrysostomou, Andreas P. Antonopoulos, Alexandros-Fotios Mitsis, Fay Papadimitriou, and Panagiota Taktikou, special issue, Classics@ 25.

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates surprises his audience when he pivots from his demand for one-to-one, question-and-answer discussion of human excellence, to delivering a copious, prolonged lecture about a famous poem of Simonides, the central theme of which is ostensibly ἀρετή. He surprises his audience again when, upon completing his speech, he dismisses it for its misguided concerns: “I should rather (that we) leave the poets aside” (347c–348a). [1]
Socrates finds his own speech objectionable for the same substantive and procedural reasons that make all such talk objectionable: “you can’t question (poets) about what they say, but in most cases when people quote them, one says the poet means one thing and one another, and they argue over points which can’t be established with any certainty” (347e). He adds that the sophists assembled in Callias’ home, guided by the example of “finely educated symposiasts,” understand that the truth is discovered not in lectures about an orphaned poetic text, but only when they themselves test one another, one-to-one, in direct and living conversation (348a). They reject such lectures, just as καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ συμπόται καὶ πεπαιδευμένοι reject the vulgar entertainments found at the banquets of those whom we would expect to spend most of their time in the marketplace (347c: οἱ φαῦλοι καὶ ἀγοραῖοι ἄνθρωποι).
Socrates’ sudden foray into literary criticism and his equally abrupt escape from the same is puzzling, and all the more so because his exegesis is so “strained (and) anachronistic. (It) employs dubious arguments to ascribe to Simonides philosophical theses that have only the most tenuous connection to what the poem literally says.” Perhaps, then, its true purpose is simply “(to) attack sophistical interpretive practices with an attempt to outdo the sophists at their own game” (Ledbetter 2003:99). Citing this “widely shared view” of the episode, Ledbetter nonetheless insists that there are traces of a “serious intent,” which help us to see that this “caricature of sophistical methods of literary criticism and … ridicule of their faulty hermeneutical assumptions should be taken to illustrate the contrasting method and opposed assumptions of (a sincerely) Socratic interpretation.”
Ledbetter is not alone in detecting an underlying serious intention in Socrates’ exegesis. [2] Of particular interest are the studies of Most 1994 and Ford 2014. [3] These scholars agree that the serious intention in question concerns the interpretation of problematic texts, the central task of which is to discover contexts that explain them. But the search for illuminating contexts is an “ineluctably speculative” enterprise (Most 1994:132). This is especially true of oracles, maxims, laws, and riddles, that is, texts or utterances “for which a challenge to interpretation was a central component of the original intention” (127). But so too literary texts, which, as Ford observes, sometimes confront us with “memorable but not fully self-explanatory logoi of poets and sages.” When this is so, “those who like Protagoras claim to be able to control the poetic tradition … will have to make the best sense of them that they can” in light of their contexts (2014:31). But this is not at all what Protagoras does. On the contrary, the sophist “demolishes” the poet, τὸν Σιμωνίδην ἐκπέρσῃ (340a).

Protagoras’ polemic strategy is to propose … two passages for consideration without any regard to possible contexts for them: he resolutely ignores not only the poem’s external context, that is, the circumstances under which it was originally performed, but also its internal context, consisting of the other utterances within the poem surrounding the ones he cites.
Most 1994:129

Socrates, in contrast, undertakes “to heal the poem by supplying contexts (internal and external) that would explain each utterance” (Ford 2014:35). And this is remarkable:

The Protagoras … is focused (on the) question of whether citing the poets and trying to understand them can help us in ethical exploration. Socrates (here) responds to a poem by examining it to see if it is useful and likely to be true; if so, he is perfectly willing to cite the poem as a piece of wisdom.
Ford 2014:20–21

We therefore must not allow “the provocation afforded by (Socrates’) dismissive attitude to talk about poetry,” including his own discussion, to keep us from appreciating how the Protagoras “dramatizes not only the limits of criticism but also its inescapability” (Ford 2014:20–21).

I wish to pursue these ideas a bit further. For just as Socrates struggles to explain the “not fully self-explanatory logos of a poet and sage” with reference to its contexts, we must do the same with the puzzle of a “digressive” episode on poetry that “fill(s) nearly a fifth of the work (338e–347c)” (Ford 2014:20). For even if, as a matter of doctrine, Plato is prepared to “recommend a practical criticism” of “memorable but not fully self-explanatory logoi of poets and sages,” the episode is itself, in the larger context of the highly dramatized narrative of this mixed dialogue, far from a “self-explanatory logos.” How do we solve this narrative riddle? [4]
The answer is discovered when we treat Socrates’ speech as an exercise in what P. T. Struck has called the “poetics of the enigma,” which itself must be understood in light of G. Nagy’s discussion of αἶνος, the marked authoritative speech-act that “restricts and is restricted by its audience” (Nagy 1990:148). Socrates treats Simonides’ poem as riddling speech, and in so doing shows that he, Socrates, is communicating with those among the sophists who are truly σοφοί, effectively expelling any who do not really belong in their company. This ploy must itself be understood in connection with the contest that Socrates and Protagoras, the greatest of the sophists, are waging from the moment the latter has completed his Great Speech on the teachability of human excellence. But before turning to Socrates’ exercise in such an exclusionary poetics, we must briefly discuss the exegeses of Protagoras and Prodicus.

I. Sophistic criticism: Protagoras and Prodicus

The conversation over the unity of the virtues that emerged as a consequence of Protagoras’ Great Speech collapses at section 344. This is due to Socrates’ demand that Protagoras “cut (his) answers short and make them brief” (334d). When Protagoras flatly refuses, Socrates hits upon a compromise of sorts: “If Protagoras is not willing to answer, let him put the questions, and I shall answer” (338c–d). Socrates adds, in his narrative voice, that “everyone agreed” with this proposal, so that Protagoras was forced to comply.
He does so brilliantly. Seizing on the poet’s opening statement, “it is hard to become a truly good man,” Protagoras juxtaposes with it the poet’s rejection of what Pittacus famously said, “it is hard to be noble.” However, “in attacking another for saying just what he says, he is obviously attacking himself, so either the earlier or the later statement must be wrong” (339d). Protagoras brings this inconsistency to light through a series of very short disjunctive questions, in the fashion of the Socratic elenchus. [5] Thus, he asks Socrates whether or not he knows the poem in question (yes), whether he thinks it is rightly composed (yes), whether he thinks any poem can be thought rightly composed if it contradicts itself (no), whether the same man can make both the statements about virtue (yes), and finally, whether the two statements are consistent (yes, hesitatingly). Yet obviously they are not:

How anyone could be thought to be consistent in saying … that it is hard to become a truly good man, and then a little further on he forgets that and attacks Pittacus for saying just what he has said, that it is hard to be noble.

That Protagoras’ critique has the form of an elenchus is clear enough. But there is more to say about his procedure. First, it appears to be an application of the logical imperatives of formal linguistics to literary criticism—an exercise, in other words, in what Plato elsewhere identifies as Protagorean ὀρθοέπεια. [6] Second, and especially relevant to the concerns of this paper, is the manner in which Protagoras latches onto two passages, heedless of any context, whether internal or external, that might give meaning to what otherwise is quite senseless. [7]

Protagoras’ elenchus has shown Socrates not only that he was mistaken in thinking the poem rightly composed (ὀρθῶς πεποίηται) but also that he lacks the critical insight into poetry that is the sine qua non of the educated gentleman (338e–339a). Sent reeling by the argument and by the noisy applause it receives (339e: “my eyes went dim and I felt giddy, as if I had been hit by a good boxer”), Socrates turns for help to Prodicus, whose devout student he claims to be (341a). [8] It is his hope that Prodicus’ μουσική, that is, that devotion to learning and the arts “that enables (him) to distinguish wishing from desiring” and other such pairs of presumed synonyms, [9] will show that Protagoras is mistaken in thinking that Pittacus and Simonides are making the identical claim about human excellence (340a–b).
For his first semantic distinction, Socrates seizes on ἔμμεναι and γενέσθαι: these terms are not, as Protagoras has assumed, synonymous, since the one expresses “being” and the other “becoming.” Consequently, Protagoras is mistaken in thinking that Pittacus’ maxim and that of Simonides himself are identical. [10] Although Hesiod’s Works and Days (289–292) confirms Simonides’ point —what is difficult is not being good but becoming good— Protagoras will have none of it: “keep(ing) excellence once you have it (is) the most difficult thing of all, as everyone agrees” (340e).
The second Prodican argument follows from what Socrates says is Prodicus’ principle that each word has one and only one meaning. Ceans like Prodicus and Simonides understand this, whereas a native of Lesbos like Pittacus, speaking Aeolic, an alien language (341c: φωνῄ βαρβάρῳ), imagines that one can use a word in an alternative sense. Not so: χαλεπόν has only one sense, and that is bad (κακόν). [11] Lesbian Pittacus, “not knowing how to distinguish the sense of words correctly,” is saying that “it is bad to be good.” Unsurprisingly, Protagoras rejects this argument out of hand: “Simonides means what we all mean, not ‘bad’ but what is not easy, and can’t be attained without a great deal of trouble” (341c–d).
The importance of Prodicus’ mastery in the field of linguistics, τὰ ὀνόματα ὀρθῶς διαιρεῖν [12] (341c), lies in the use to which Socrates puts it: the elucidation of a poet’s meaning. That Prodicus himself approves of this practice is evident when Socrates says at 340c–d, “perhaps Prodicus and many others would say in the words of Hesiod that it is difficult to become good…”. Prodicus does not merely condone Socrates’ use of his art of diaeresis to elucidate the poet’s meaning; he applauds him for it (340d: ὁ μὲν οὖν Πρόδικος ἀκούσας ταῦτα ἐπῄνεσέ με). Prodicus praises his student for having learned how rightly to apply the master’s linguistic acumen to a poetic text. [13]
Equally interesting is the manner in which Socrates passes from his Prodican explanation of the verses criticized by Protagoras to his own much more comprehensive interpretation of the poem (342a–347a). Thus, as soon as Protagoras has dismissed the second of the arguments inspired by Prodicus, Socrates yields the point, adding that Prodicus does as well: the master of ὀρθότης τῶν ὀνομάτων and semantic diaeresis (340b, 341c, 358a) has merely been “jok(ing) and testing you to see whether you can defend your position” (341d). Socrates then explains why neither he nor Prodicus could possibly intend for the argument about χαλεπόν to be serious:

That Simonides doesn’t mean ‘bad’ by ‘hard’ is shown quite clearly by what he says immediately afterwards. He says ‘That gift would belong to a god alone.’ Now clearly he isn’t saying ‘It is bad to be noble’, and then going on to say that the gods alone would possess that gift, and to assign it to them alone.

Socrates here contextualizes the problematic verse. [14] In doing so, he anticipates the method that he uses repeatedly when he subsequently explains “what he takes to be Simonides’ intention, us(ing) as many other phrases as he can identify as relevant internal context in order to confirm, illustrate, and modify his exegesis of the two passages with which Protagoras had challenged him” (Most 1994:130).

Having won time to devise his own, independent defense of the poem, Socrates can leave behind Protagoras’ formalistic ὀρθοέπεια. He also leaves behind Prodicus’ more substantive ὀρθότης τῶν ὀνομάτων, focused as it is on the meaning of individual words. [15] Socrates thus announces a new approach, whereby he will give his own account of the poem’s overall meaning (341e: ἅ μοι δοκεῖ διανοεῖσθαι Σιμωνίδης ἐν τούτῳ τῷ ᾄσματι). Only then will Protagoras and the others have a true sample of Socrates’ own literary education (342a) and see just how “formidable (he is) on the subject of verse” (338e–339a: περὶ ἐπῶν δεινὸν εἶναι).

II. Περὶ ἐπῶν δεινός: Socrates’ command of poetry

We earlier noted Most’s observation (1994:129) that Protagoras examines the two snippets from the poem “without any regard to possible contexts for them.” Most continues:

The two sentences he quotes seem to float like monads, pure citations quite free of any determinate attachments, and to collide with one another in unmediated and windowless contradiction. It is surely not accidental that Protagoras introduces both passages with που, the vaguest of particles, in which gentlemanly contempt for pedantic niceties mixes with a genuine indifference to precision of context.
Most 1994:129, emphasis added

Socrates’ response is just this, “ (to) supply both kinds of context, external and internal —his aim, as it were, is to specify both of Protagoras’ που’s.”

The first of Socrates’ “pedantic niceties” concerns the tiny particle μέν, embedded, “right there at the beginning of the poem” (343c), in the statement “it is hard to become a good man.” If, suggests Socrates, this thought were all the poet had in mind, “it would seem quite raving (μανικόν)” to have added the particle (343c). But perhaps it is there to take issue with something external to the poem, namely, what Pittacus had to say on the same subject, human excellence. [16] “Taken like that, μέν (‘rather’) appears to have been added for some purpose” (344a: πρὸς λόγον … ἐμβεβλημένον). By appealing to an external context Socrates has made an apparently “raving” interjection fully rational and comprehensible.
Simonides, then, is actually “arguing against the saying of Pittacus” (343d), and specifically objecting to Pittacus’ opinion that it is hard to be good. Furthermore (says Socrates), “you have to take the phrase ‘in truth’ (ἀλαθέως) as transposed in the poem”: despite the conventions of Greek word order, the poet is not talking about “truly becoming good” but what is “truly difficult.” Insensitive to the pregnant use of the particle μέν and to the permissible displacement (343e: “hyperbaton”) of ἀλαθέως, Protagoras has missed the entire point of the opening verse of Simonides’ poem.
Socrates sets out to apply the same method of close examination to all the substantive elements of the poem. [17] He begins by resurrecting Prodicus’ ἔμμεναι–γενέσθαι diaeresis. Thus, he notes how Simonides “a bit later” (344b: μετὰ τοῦτο ὀλίγα διελθών) cites Pittacus’ justification for his gnomic assertion about being good: “only a god could have that prize.” Simonides agrees entirely, provided we understand that the prize in question is not (as Pittacus says) being good but being good lastingly (344b–c: γενόμενον δὲ διαμένειν ἐν ταύτῃ τῇ ἕξει καὶ εἶναι…). His point is that Pittacus has failed to see that, while being good is ἀδύνατον καὶ οὐκ ἀνθρώπειον, it is possible “to become a good man … for a time,” that is, until such time as “helpless disaster” takes him down and makes him bad (ἀμήχανος συμφορὰ καθέλῃ). A man therefore cannot help but be either bad, or end up being bad (κακὸν ἔμμεναι). [18]
These thoughts are now substantiated in the second half of this first section of the speech (343c8–344c5). Socrates offers four examples of persons of whom one could say, with Simonides, that the good man is the one who fares well for a while, the bad, the one who fares ill. In each case (the helmsman, the farmer, the practitioner of the arts of literacy, and the doctor) “goodness” is a matter of being “good at” a task. The first and last examples are the most illustrative. Thus, although the helmsman may be ever so resourceful (εὐμήχανος) in plying his trade, this does not guarantee his continued success, since “a helmsman can be struck and rendered helpless (ἀμήχανος) by a great storm.” Under such a circumstance, he is no better than “the man without knowledge of sailing.” We readily infer that knowledge is the source of his resourcefulness and the basis of his success. Similarly, the doctor, who is both good at his task and vulnerable to misfortune. Just as “the man without knowledge of sailing” is bad, so too the doctor who, susceptible to “age or toil or disease or some misfortune,” is suddenly “deprived of his knowledge” (345b). [19] This is the inevitable misfortune that sooner or later makes the good man bad. So no one is good, lastingly (ἐσθλὸν ἔμμεναι). The most we may say is that “the best, those whom the gods love, are (those who) are good for longest” (345c).
This bipartite first section of Socrates’ speech [20] has Simonides “point(ing) to (one and) the same conclusion, that it is impossible to be a good man, good all the time, that is, but it is possible to become good and for the same man to become bad….” (345b–c). So Pittacus is utterly mistaken. Still, Simonides is not “one who loves to censure” (φιλόψογος), nor (as Socrates explains in the balance of his speech: 345c–347a), does he “seek … an utterly blameless man.” Wise man that he is, Simonides knows that “all who do shameful and bad things do so other than freely.” Indeed, a shameful action will sometimes merit our indulgence. Consider the case of one who when dealing with “an unnatural father or mother, or country, or something like that,” “forc(es) himself to love and praise” the unworthy (346b), and submits to this self-imposed necessity in silence. Doing so, he shows himself an “honorable man” (καλὸς κἀγαθός). There is nothing shameful in this, since (as Simonides explains) such a one is able to discern a middle way (τὰ μέσα), where “all things are fair (and thus free of censure), which are not mingled with foul.” [21] Pittacus, however, cannot claim to be one such honorable man. For even if he has erred unknowingly, he has nonetheless fallen into an unforgivable error, making false claims about “things of the greatest importance.” “That, says Simonides, is why I blame you” (347a: διὰ ταῦτά σε ἐγὼ ψέγω). [22]
This survey of the greater portion of the speech points to Socrates’ firm belief that the meaning of a difficult poem can be brought to light through heightened scrutiny of the internal context: [23]

The song is broken down into its sentences, which in turn are divided into syntactical units (the technical term, dialabein, is used by Socrates, 346e); individual words, even descending to the particle men (343d), are isolated and examined for their meanings with reference to dialect, word order, and usage; grammatically related words that are separated in the phrasing are brought together through hyperbaton, a technical rhetorical term first found here.
Ford 2002:154

“Now this,” continues Ford, “is sophistic criticism.” Indeed; but which sophistic criticism?

III. Socrates and the Poetics of the enigma

In his study of the “birth of the symbol,” Struck distinguishes two Greek traditions of literary criticism. One is especially associated with Aristotle and is closely aligned with rhetoric. It “sees the great poet, something like the great orator, as a master craftsman who produces a finely wrought piece of work with skill and elegance” (3). In this critical tradition, “elevated clarity is the mark of greatness in poetic language” (24). In the other critical tradition, “great poetry is by definition unclear, or more precisely, … is made up of αἰνίγματα, riddles hinting at some hidden truth” (24). Readers in this tradition see their task as primarily interpretive, not analytical” (3). Struck continues:

(They) may or may not display interest … in formalist questions at all… Nor are they wedded to the idea of poetry as governed by the needs of the poet to communicate to an audience. More consistently in the allegorical commentaries, one sees a view of the individual poet (or some ur-mythmaker) in isolation, as a figure with some special insight into the underlying structures that govern the world, the hidden way of things… They spend the bulk of their critical energy (on what) they see as murky and allusive puzzles, more precisely enigmas (αἰνίγματα) or symbols (σύμβολα). [24]
Struck 2004:3, 24.

After discussing the archaic and early classical sources for this preexisting “poetics of the enigma,” Struck arrives at Plato, who on several occasions

(has) Socrates examine a nugget of wisdom, find it faulty, ironically claim that we need to read it as an enigma in order to understand its real message, and then put forward an interpretation of the saying. In all cases his irony undercuts the authority of the speakers of these maxims as well as the interpreters who look to such figures for hidden wisdom. He casts both sorts as pettifoggers. This attests … to a developed, mature tradition of such a practice among his contemporaries.
Struck 2004:49

A notable instance of Socrates adopting this approach is Plato’s Theaetetus. Confronted with Protagoras’ famous lapidary statement, πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον…, Socrates confesses himself perplexed. Nonetheless, Protagoras is “a clever person … unlikely to be talking nonsense.” Most likely, then, Protagoras “treat(ed) us, the floor-sweepings of humanity, to these riddles, but (spoke) the truth to his students in secret.” [25] So that’s it: it must be a riddle, one whose hidden wisdom Protagoras jealously guarded. All others, including Theaetetus and Socrates, are meant to be left in the dark. Socrates, however, guesses that the secret doctrine that lies behind πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον is effectively the same doctrine that can be found “in a whole succession of past sages,” among them Heraclitus, Empedocles, Epicharmus and Homer. These σοφοί “lived a long time ago, (and) used poetry to keep the secret from the majority of mankind, and stated that all things are engendered by Oceanus and Tethys —that is, by water in motion— and that nothing is at a standstill” (Theaetetus 180c–d). So “nothing is one thing just by itself, and … you can’t correctly speak of anything either as something or as qualified in some way” (152d). And likewise Protagoras the wise: his πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον disguises the secret doctrine that he openly imparted to his students but to no one else: “everything is the offspring of flux and change” (152e). According to Socrates, it is only when he and Theaetetus view Protagoras’ utterance in the context of the traditions of enigmatic poets and sages that they can penetrate the veil of the sophist’s riddle. [26]

Recall Protagoras’ agitated response to the formal inconsistency of Simonides’ simultaneous affirmation and repudiation of the “hard to be good” maxim of the human condition: “how could anyone be thought to be consistent in saying both these things?” (339d: πῶς γὰρ ἂν φαίνοιτο ὁμολογεῖν αὐτὸς ἑαυτῷ ὁ ταῦτα ἀμφότερα λέγων;). This is clearly a rhetorical question, and as such reveals that Protagoras is not at all interested in the substantive issue, as for example Socrates was when arguing at an earlier point for the identity of wisdom and good sense (333a) and asked his interlocutor, “which of our (two contradictory) theses shall we give up?” So what for Protagoras is a rhetorical question is for Socrates something quite different: a puzzle, one that challenges Protagoras’ interlocutor to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable. Here, the substantive issue is not which thesis is correct but how can the wise poet’s contradiction of his own statement be kept from rendering that statement altogether meaningless?
For an answer, Socrates the literary interpreter turns to “the poetics of the enigma,” problematizing such non-problems of the internal context as μέν, ἀλαθέως, and ἑκών and, furthermore, inventing an external context (Sparta, the seat of “the most ancient learning of Greece”) which, like the remote world of sages that Socrates invokes in the Theaetetus, shines a bright light on the dark enigma of the wise Simonides. [27]
Socrates begins by declaring Sparta (together with Crete) home to “the most ancient learning of Greece, and the most copious” (342a: φιλοσοφία γάρ ἐστι παλαιοτάτη τε καὶ πλείστη τῶν Ἑλλήνων). Spartan wisdom is on full display only at those times when the city, having expelled all foreigners, takes secret counsel with its sophists. At all other times, the Spartans keep their wisdom under wraps. Nonetheless, the most perceptive of Sparta’s admirers have long noted the short memorable sayings that a Spartan will occasionally toss into his conversation with a foreigner. These ήματα lend sudden and unexpected brilliance to an otherwise unremarkable conversation and provide the most acute observers a glimpse of Sparta’s hidden wisdom and culture. These Laconophiles understand that “the ability to utter sayings of that kind is the mark of a perfectly educated man” (343a: τελέως πεπαιδευμένου ἐστὶν ἀνθρώπου), and so they emulate it.
Pittacus of Lesbos was one such admirer of wise Laconic speech; and this led him to mimic the style. He, with six likeminded admirers, formed a panhellenic fellowship of culture and wisdom that found its home not in Sparta, where the practice of expelling foreigners continued to hold sway (342c: ξενηλασία), but at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where the god welcomed them and their precious offerings: “Γνῶθι σαυτόν,” “Μηδὲν ἄγαν,” and other such “memorable short sayings” (ήματα βραχέα ἀξιομνημόνευτα).
Anticipating his audience’s objection, “what is the point of all this?” (343b), Socrates first reminds the assembled sophists that Pittacus was one of these celebrated laconizing sages, and then adds that Simonides had discovered a way in which one of Pittacus’ famous maxims (344b: Πιττακεῖον ῆμα) [28] was open to attack. Simonides saw in this an opportunity to refute the master and thus to wrest from him his mantle of wisdom, “just as if he had defeated a famous athlete” (343c). Thus, examination of the external context confirms what examination of the internal context allows us to surmise: “the overall gist of the poem and its intention is to criticize the saying of Pittacus throughout the poem” (344b).
We may applaud Socrates’ discovery of the Seven Sages, their practice of gnomic wisdom, and their association with Apollo at Delphi, as an external context for Simonides’ presumed challenge to the wise Pittacus. Nonetheless, the preliminaries concerning Sparta’s secret society seem like a wholly unnecessary expansion of the external context. Shall we object, “what is the point of all this too?”

IV. The interpreter in victory

Socrates’ account of the contest Simonides wages with Pittacus arises in the context of an ἀγών that Socrates is himself is waging with Protagoras. This first came to the surface when Socrates demanded that Protagoras “cut (his) answers short and make them briefer” (334d). After all, says Socrates, it is Protagoras himself who boasts of his ability “(to) carry on a conversation … either by long speeches or by short question and answer” (335b: καὶ ἐν μακρολογίᾳ καὶ ἐν βραχυλογίᾳ). Protagoras fights back, saying (335a) that speaking “according to the instructions of my antagonist” (ὁ ἀντιλέγων) is no way to wage a successful “verbal contest” (ἀγῶνα λόγων).
The context external to the entire literary discussion of 339–348 amply confirms not merely that Socrates and Protagoras are locked in a contest over how to conduct their discussion [29] but also that each of the contestants aims to exclude the other from the circle of the wise and finely educated. Consider how Socrates’ dramatic encounter with the sophists began at the door of Callias’ home. This portal, like the gates of Sparta, was firmly shut against the outside world. But here the intruders dreaded by the surly doorman were sophists, who were sapping Callias’ time and attention (and his resources as well). [30] Socrates reassured him that he and Hippocrates were not sophists looking to make any kind of demand on the master. Rather, it was Protagoras whose attention they were seeking. And it is only when the doorman was reassured about this that he allowed them to enter the master’s house and the vast company of sophists.
Once past the watchful doorman, Socrates and Hippocrates find themselves in the company of what Hippias will call “the wisest of the Greeks, (who) have for that very reason come together to the very shrine of wisdom in all Greece and to this, the greatest and most magnificent house of that very city” (337d–e). [31] Though Athens is well-represented in this assembly of the wise, others come from Mende, Ceos, and Abdera, and very many from Elis. It is, then, a panhellenic gathering, but nonetheless an exclusive one—very much like the gathering of the Seven Sages in Delphi, as imagined by Socrates (343a–b) and very different from Sparta’s exclusively native council of the wise. [32]
Which of the contestants, Socrates or Protagoras, will succeed in invalidating the other’s place among this elite companionship of the wise? As we have seen, it is Protagoras who, seizing on Hippias’s comparison of Callias’ home and hospitality to the Athenian prytaneum (and so, by implication, a symposium), recommends that the two “transfer (the discussion) to the sphere of poetry” (339a). He immediately deploys his technique (ὀρθοέπεια, as we have maintained) for exposing formal inconsistencies in a poetic text, the consequences of which are no less devastating for Socrates as for the poem that he champions. Socrates’ inability to distinguish the correct and incorrect elements of a poem (συνιέναι ἅ τε ὀρθῶς πεποίηται καὶ ἃ μή) amply demonstrates that he lacks the literary brilliance that distinguishes the educated gentleman (338e–339a). Uncouth as he is, Socrates has no place in the company of those deemed the Sages of Hellas.
Socrates’ brilliant deployment of the poetics of the enigma reverses this defeat, and establishes that, as regards poetics, Protagoras has not rightfully been holding his place at the center of the circle of Hellenic sages. As for Socrates: by assuming the role of ἑρμηνευτής [33] of the enigmatic poem, he has opened the doors of Simonides’ poem and admitted Protagoras and the rest of the sophists to its secret wisdom. [34] Once that has been achieved, Socrates is done with the αἰνίγματα of poets and keen that the two of them return to such companionship as is truly characteristic of καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ συμπόται καὶ πεπαιδευμένοι. “Leav(ing) the poets aside and conduct(ing their) argument independently, (they will) test the truth of the matter and (their) own capacities” (347d, 348a).


If we follow Struck, there are at least two distinguishable strands of sophistic literary discussion. One, akin to the Aristotelian tradition of criticism, is directed at form and clarity of expression, the other, aimed at recovering hidden wisdom through recontextualization, that is, “interpretation.” [35] Socrates has countered Protagoras’ deployment of the former with an overpowering display of the latter; and in vindicating what he claims is Simonides’ effort to win a place in the inner circle of the Seven Sages, Socrates himself lays claim to Protagoras’ position in the inner circle of σοφισταί in the home of Callias. Thus, what may on the surface appear to be a parody of sophistic practice is in fact the culmination of Socrates’ contesting Protagoras’ elevated role in the circle of sophists. That this is not at all Socrates’ final aim is suggested by his taking Protagoras into that other, most privileged of all circles, “two going together,” each one “testing the other’s meddle” (348a). The sincerity of this invitation is suggested by Socrates’ declaration, at the end of the dialogue, that he “has no other object … than to try to find out the truth about excellence, and especially what it is itself” (360e). But before they ever undertake to answer this ultimate riddle, we find the two of them going out into the city, into the company of the πολλοί and ἀγοραῖοι, declaring a new enigma, akrasia is ignorance and virtue is knowledge, and promising to admit the masses as students of Protagoras’s new highly inclusive sophistic circle (351b–358a). [36] Yet even here we continue to see evidence that the two remain locked in a contest. [37] It thus seems remarkable that it is Protagoras who in the end speaks with the greatest sincerity and grace:

‘For my part, Socrates,’ said Protagoras, ‘I applaud your enthusiasm and the way you pursue your arguments… And I declare that I should not be surprised if you take your place among those gentlemen renowned for wisdom.

One day (Protagoras supposes) Socrates will surely be famous, and for the same reasons that Protagoras himself, his great predecessor in the hallowed tradition of sophistry (316d–317a), has won a place of preeminence in the circle of renown —as a teacher of virtue (319a, 328a–b) but also as a brilliant critic, and interpreter, of poetry.



PMG: Page, D. L., ed. 1962. Poetae Melici Graeci. Oxford.
Andolfi, I. 2014. “Una vetrina esegetica per tre sofisti. Il carme di Simonide nel Protagora di Platone.” Seminari Romani di Cultura Classica 3:117–149.
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Beresford, A. 2008. “Nobody’s Perfect: A New Text and Interpretation of Simonides PMG 542.” Classical Philology 103:237–256.
———. 2009. “Erasing Simonides.” Apeiron 42:185–220.
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Denyer, N. D. 2008. Plato Protagoras. Cambridge.
Fehling, D. 1965. “Zwei Unterzuchungen zur griechischen Sprachphilosophie.” Rheinisches Museum 108:212–229.
Ford, A. 2002. The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece. Princeton.
———. 2014. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (432BC).” Poetica 46:17–39.
Frede, D. 1986. “The Impossibility of Perfection: Socrates’ Criticism of Simonides’ Poem in the Protagoras.” Review of Metaphysics 39:729–753.
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———. 2010. “Ist Simonides’ Gedicht an Skopas (PMG 542) Vollständig Überliefert?” Rheinisches Museum 153:1–24.
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Most, G. W. 1986. “Sophistique et herméneutique.” In Positions de Ia Sophistique. Colloque de Cerisy, ed. B. Cassin, 233–145. Paris.
———. 1994. “Simonides’ Ode to Scopas in Contexts.” In Modern Critical Theory and Classical Literature, Mnemosyne Supplementum 130, ed. I. J. F. de Jong and J. P. Sullivan, 127–152. Leiden.
Pappas, N. 1989. “Socrates’ Charitable Treatment of Poetry.” Philosophy and Literature 13:248–261.
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Schlick, A. J. 2009. “Interpretieren nur ungebildete Symposiasten Gedichte? Zum Verhältnis von Dialektik und Hermeneutik in Platons Protagoras.” Museum Helveticum 66:193–214.
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Wolfsdorf, D. 1998. “The historical reader of Plato’s Protagoras.” Classical Quarterly 48:126–133.
Woodbury, L. 1953. “Simonides on Ἀρετή.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 84:135–163.
Woodruff, P. 2017. “Why Did Protagoras Use Poetry in Education?” In Plato’s Protagoras: Essays on the Confrontation of Philosophy and Sophistry, ed. O. Pettersson, V. Songe-Møller, 213–227. Cham, Switzerland.


[ back ] 1. Translation of passages from the Protagoras are taken from Taylor 1991, with occasional slight deviation.
[ back ] 2. Ledbetter singles out Frede 1986, Pappas 1989, and Demos 1999. We may add Gundert 1977 and many other subsequent studies, including Most 1994, Schlick 2009, and Ford 2014. As will be evident, the present paper relies a great deal on Most and Ford. For Schlick, Socrates’ speech demonstrates that διαίρεσις and συναγωγή, the two fundamental methods of dialectic, are also necessary for interpretation. See especially 213.
[ back ] 3. Both scholars proceed on the basis of the conventional reconstruction of the Simonides’ poem, as represented by PMG 542. Its chief rival is the “New Text” of Beresford 2008. Manuwald 2010, while conceding that the conventional reconstruction is somewhat problematic, argues that Beresford’s alternative reconstruction itself has its own difficulties, troubling enough to justify abiding by the received reconstruction. Ford finds Beresford’s reconstruction “very appealing (but) very hard to square with its Platonic context.” Since Most’s own study of the poem predates Beresford, he has nothing to say about it. The present paper neither concerns itself with Socrates’ speech as the principal source for the poem’s reconstruction, nor investigates what he may have omitted and to what extent he has reordered the verses.
[ back ] 4. Ford 2014:31 rightly notes that “we are in this same situation (as Socrates) with regard to the Protagoras,” that is, “confronted by (a) memorable but not fully self-explanatory logo(s).”
[ back ] 5. Cf. Woodruff 2017:226, who entertains the possibility that “Protagoras is the grandfather of what Plato has given us as Socratic questioning, the elenchus.”
[ back ] 6. Protagoras (“attento all’aspetto logico-formale”: Andolfi 2014:145), here applies formal linguistics to what Ford 2014:27 calls an “agonistic form of criticism.” For the relation of this practice to the ὀρθοέπεια ascribed to the sophist by Plato at Phaedrus 267c and Cratylus 391c and discussed by Pfeiffer 1968:37–38, 280–281, see Fehling 1965:212–217 and Rademaker 2013 (96: “the idea that Protagoras’ linguistic observations have to be read in the context of his criticism of Homeric poetry now seems to have gained wide acceptance”). But see Woodruff 2017.
[ back ] 7. For another sense in which “Protagoras was not concerned with language as a means to the discovery of latent truth,” see Classen 1976:225.
[ back ] 8. See also 315e. As Denyer 2008:153 observes, “Socrates repeats this claim to have been Prodicus’ pupil in Charmides 163d, Meno 96d, and Cratylus 384b–c.”
[ back ] 9. Socrates refers to the series of diaireseis drawn by Prodicus at 337a–c.
[ back ] 10. “The (ἔμμεναι-γενέσθαι) distinction necessarily fails, since it could only be maintained if it were terminologically consistent at least throughout the immediate internal context constituted by the rest of the poem” (Most 1984:136). Cf. Manuwald 1999:310.
[ back ] 11. This is my charitable reading of what is in fact a sketchy argument. In the case of ἔμμεναι–γενέσθαι, the task of Prodican diairesis (340b) was to draw a clear distinction of meaning between apparent synonyms. But with χαλεπόν, the concern is with a failure to distinguish the conflicting signification of a single word in divergent “languages,” Cean Ionic and “barbaric” Aeolic. And not only is the argument sketchy: in treating χαλεπός as equivalent to κακός, Prodicus “violates his principle that no two words can have an identical meaning” (Mayhew 2011:138). A further embarrassment is that the poem opens with the poet declaring, presumably on his own authority, ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι χαλεπόν. Apparently, Simonides is of the view that becoming good is bad (χαλεπόν/κακόν).
[ back ] 12. Cf. 358a (Socrates): διαίρεσις τῶν ὀνομάτων.
[ back ] 13. To judge from the text, Prodicus’ ὀρθότης τῶν ὀνομάτων, no less than Protagoras’ ὀρθοέπεια (see above), was used to illuminate poetic texts. Cf. Most 1986:239, who urges his reader not simply to assume that sophistic grammar, such as we find it in Prodicus and elsewhere, “ait été une discipline indépendante n’ayant d’autre but qu’elle-même. Ces études sur le langage semblent plutôt avoir été liées, ou même provoquées, par l’interprétation de textes poétiques spécifiques.”
[ back ] 14. Cf. Most 1994:130: “Socrates justifies his accepting Protagoras’ dismissal of his second Prodican diversion by pointing out that the immediately following line proves that Simonides could not have meant ‘bad’ by ‘hard.’ So too, throughout the rest of his own extended interpretation, Socrates will cite each verse as internal context to cast light on what precedes it and to introduce what follows it.”
[ back ] 15. As Pfeiffer 1968:40 states, Prodicus’ περὶ ὀνομάτων ὀρθότης “should not be confused with Protagoras’ purely ‘formal’ ὀρθοέπεια.”
[ back ] 16. We may wonder whether it is rather an internal context that explains the particle, for example, by construing the οὐδέ μοι ἐμμελέως that eventually follows as the counterweight to μέν (for μέν…οὐδέ, see Denniston 1954:191). Or perhaps, in consequence of the strong personal opinion of the opening verses, it functions as a μέν-solitarium. And if we follow the conventional reconstruction of the poem, which supposes a seven-line lacuna after the opening sentence, we may conjecture that an adversative δέ appeared there. Cf. Demos 2022:21.
[ back ] 17. Note the distinction drawn by Socrates between the substantive and the formal elements: “there are many things which one could say about each of the expressions in the poem to show that it is well written —it is a quite delightful, carefully composed work— but it would take a long time to go through it like that. Let’s just examine the outline of the piece as a whole and its intention” (344a–b). With εὖ πεποίηται compare Protagoras’ ὀρθῶς πεποίηται (339a): the sophist’s concern with formal questions has yielded to questions of meaning. Struck 2004:41 sees this as Socrates dismissing “the criteria and critical concerns that we recognize from Aristotle’s work.”
[ back ] 18. 344c: ἄνδρα δ’ οὐκ ἔστι μὴ οὐ κακὸν ἔμμεναι / ὃν [ἂν] ἀμήχανος συμφορὰ καθέλῃ. As Woodbury 1953:146 notes, Simonides’ use of ἔμμεναι ought to be fatal for Socrates’ interpretation.
[ back ] 19. As frequently noted, Socrates here interjects an unmistakably Socratic observation: “doing badly is nothing other than being deprived of knowledge.” Cf. 345e (cited in the next paragraph): the wise “know that all who do shameful and bad things do so other than freely.”
[ back ] 20. 343c8–344c5 and 344c6–345c4, which taken together correspond to the first two stanzas of PMG 542.
[ back ] 21. A puzzling explanation: see Taylor 1991:147.
[ back ] 22. Most 1984:145 argues that “the aptest social and generic context for Simonides’ poem is not a philosophical discussion of virtue and vice but the symposiastic exercise of praise and blame. The poem itself is best seen not as a moral treatise designed to analyze what makes a man good or bad, but rather as the theoretical reflection of a practitioner of encomiastic poetry upon his poetic practice, designed to determine what kind of patron is the proper subject for encomium.”
[ back ] 23. Heightened but not exhaustive. See above n. 17.
[ back ] 24. This receptiveness to riddling language is prominent in the Derveni author (see Laks and Most 2016:373–435). There, “the poetic text (is) a repository of great (and even sacred) hidden truths, which are conveyed in riddles through the whole poem, in a manner that resembles the semantically dense language of oracular speech, esoteric philosophy, and cult practice, and so requires an expansive interpretation to unpack the significance of each word… For the Derveni commentator —and a whole line of allegorical readers after him— the poem is a riddle to be solved. For Aristotle, it is the masterwork of a craftsman to be appreciated” (Struck 2004:38–39). For the relation of riddles (αἰνίγματα) to αἶνος, ὑπόνοια, and allegorical interpretation, see Ford 2004:72–89.
[ back ] 25. 152b–c: εἰκὸς μέντοι σοφὸν ἄνδρα μὴ ληρεῖν… καὶ τοῦτο ἡμῖν μὲν ᾐνίξατο τῷ πολλῷ συρφετῷ, τοῖς δὲ μαθηταῖς ἐν ἀπορρήτῳ τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔλεγεν. Translation of passages from the Theaetetus are taken from Waterfield 1987.
[ back ] 26. Compare Socrates’ treatment of Simonides’ statement about justice at Plato Republic 332b–c: ᾐνίξατο ἄρα, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, ὡς ἔοικεν, ὁ Σιμωνίδης ποιητικῶς τὸ δίκαιον ὃ εἴη. διενοεῖτο μὲν γάρ, ὡς φαίνεται, ὅτι τοῦτ’ εἴη δίκαιον, τὸ προσῆκον ἑκάστῳ ἀποδιδόναι, τοῦτο δὲ ὠνόμασεν ὀφειλόμενον. See Ford 2004:85, 2014:31–32, Struck 2004:47.
[ back ] 27. The next two paragraphs are adapted from Andrews 2023:313–314.
[ back ] 28. “Τhe exact terms of Pittacus’ saying were usually reported as χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά” (Most 1984:138,n.31).
[ back ] 29. Cf. Ford 2014:23–27: from its very outset, the meeting in Callias’ home “is a sustained experiment in the best way to conduct a discussion or conversation.”
[ back ] 30. It is odd, as Denyer 2008:79 observes, that “Callias uses so expensive a slave (i.e. a eunuch) for so undemanding a task as doorkeeping (Aristotle’s Oeconomica 1345a33–35: ‘it is thought that even in large households someone who is useless for other jobs can make a useful doorman’).” It may be that “simply by having a eunuch in his household, Callias gives an impression of expensive, oriental, and somewhat sinister luxury.” On the other hand, the replacement of a menial with a slave of higher status, one who presumes to steward the company his master keeps (314d: “Ugh! sophists”) will perhaps remind us of the need to steward his master’s resources as well. Regarding Callias’ huge expenditures on sophists, see Apology 20a and cf. Protagoras 315d–316a, where the room in which Callias’ father Hipponicus previously kept his wealth (ταμιεῖον) is now so empty that it reverberates with the voice of the sophist Prodicus (who is lying in bed there, luxuriantly wrapped in blankets). Cf. Wolfsdorf 1998:129, Capra 2001:54.
[ back ] 31. From the perspective of the opening scene with Hippocrates in Socrates’ much humbler home, the Protagoras is about “gaining entrée into one of the greatest gatherings of sages Athens had ever seen” (Ford 2014:18).
[ back ] 32. We may view Socrates’ account of Spartan wisdom as an external context not only of the Simonidean poem but also of the contest that he has been waging with Protagoras since 334. To see how this is so, recall Protagoras’ earlier account of the ancient tradition of sophistry (of which he is the latest practitioner: 316d–317a). Relative to this context, Socrates’ Spartan logos criticizes Protagoras chiefly for supposing that the sophists of old disguised their profession rather than the substance of their wisdom. Viewed from this context, Socrates’ Spartan excursus is an oblique and covert attack on Protagoras’ original uncontested claim about sophistry.
[ back ] 33. I use the term ἑρμηνευτής in both senses, as one who explains the incomprehensible and one without whom others cannot access a realm of greater importance. Regarding the latter, cf. Plato’s Politicus 290c, where those with expertise in divination are called ἑρμηνευταί “from gods to men.” Regarding ἑρμηνευτική (sc. τέχνη), see Most 1986:236: “(Les Grecques) avaient le mot hermeneutike, mais dans un sens très différent du nôtre; et ils avaient la pratique de l’interprétation, mais non une élaboration théorique comparable à la nôtre.”
[ back ] 34. Struck 2004:49: “the enigma is a language that hides as much as it reveals and produces always two groups, the enlightened and the unenlightened.”
[ back ] 35. Cf. Most 1994:132: “in the most general terms, interpretation is nothing other than recontextualization.”
[ back ] 36. Provided that they are willing to pay the cash (358a). Note too that there, at the conclusion of the hedonist argument, Socrates widens Protagoras’s sophistic circle to include Prodicus and Hippias.
[ back ] 37. With Andrews 2023, we note that, even after Protagoras has been compelled to admit that courage is wisdom, Socrates presses the argument beyond what is necessary, reasonably earning from Protagoras the charge that Socrates is merely out to win (360e: φιλονικεῖν). (Cf. Schlick 2009:211: “Sokrates bleibt nichts anderes übrig, als sich auf die Eristik des Protagoras einzulassen und eine Interpretation zu liefern, die allein von der Philonikie geprägt ist.”) We likewise note Socrates’ resorting to equivocation when presenting the hedonic thesis at 351b–e. And we find, in addition to this apparently eristic move, the other fallacies, in some cases plausibly eristic, that scholars have seen marring Socrates’ arguments.