Abstract

At the heart of Plato's Protagoras is a lengthy interlude in which Socrates is compelled to offer an interpretation of a poem by Simonides (334c5–49a4). Protagoras, a notable sophist, challenges Socrates to explain away an alleged inconsistency: Simonides claims that it is hard for someone to become good or virtuous but then criticizes another poet for saying what seems to be the same thing (339d1). In taking up this challenge, Socrates offers a protracted exegesis of the poem. While this so-called “poetic interlude” has long attracted the attention of commentators, I uncover new and important ways in which it is connected to broader Platonic arguments and themes. I begin by marking a threefold distinction between ignorance, competence, and expertise, which both Protagoras and Socrates seem to utilize, but which has not been noted in the literature. I argue that this distinction helps to explain why Socrates is concerned to distinguish “being” good from “becoming” good in his own exegesis of the poem. I also argue that it helps to explain the significance of the preamble Socrates offers to his own interpretation (342a6–43c7) since it reveals the kind of knowledge that he believes is required for “being” good or virtuous. The dialogue concludes with an explicit dilemma about virtue, but the resources I uncover allow for a satisfying resolution to it.

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