Plato's Anti-Hedonism and the "Protagoras"

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2015)
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Abstract

This book takes on two main tasks. The first is to argue that anti-hedonism lies at the center of Plato's critical project in both ethics and politics. Plato sees pleasure and pain as our sole sources of empirical evidence about good and bad. But as sources of evidence they are highly fallible; contrast effects with pain intensify certain pleasures, including most pleasures related to the body and social standing. This leads us to believe that the causes of such pleasures (e.g. food, drink, sex, status) are greater goods than they are, and greater goods than other, more important goods (e.g. virtue, knowledge). As a result, hedonic error produces the belief that vice, including injustice, can be prudent. Hedonic error leads to other misconceptions of virtue as well, such as that wisdom is weak and can be ruled by the passions. These cognitive distortions can only be corrected by reference to some non-hedonic standard, so hedonists reliably fall prey to them. This entire system of attitudes—hedonism and its associated misconceptions of virtue—is widely held and constitutes popular morality. Popular morality's basic source is hedonic error, but it is also transmitted and sustained in society through shame and fear of punishment. However, avoiding shame and punishment requires a sort of double-think: adherents of popular morality must accept certain views that they cannot acknowledge too clearly or too publicly. For example, they must hold that injustice can be prudent and must be willing to wrong out-groups (e.g. another city), but openly acknowledging this same view threatens in-groups (one's own city) by implying willingness to wrong some in the city to benefit a closer in-group (e.g. one's class, clique, or family). // The book's second task is to tackle a seeming outlier to Plato's anti-hedonism: the _Protagoras_, where Socrates appears to defend hedonism. I argue that the _Protagoras_ actually perfectly illustrates Plato's anti-hedonism, as explained above. Protagoras and other sophists think they shape public opinion, but in fact they have internalized popular morality through shame and fear. As a result, Protagoras accepts but refuses to openly endorse three parts of popular morality: that injustice can be prudent (333c), that pleasure is the good (351c-d), and that wisdom is weak and can be ruled by the passions (352c-d). Each time, his concealed view is (aptly!) attributed to "the many". So, when Socrates appears to endorse hedonism in the _Protagoras_, he actually introduces and develops the view as part of his examination of Protagoras' covert ethical commitments.

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Clerk Shaw
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Citations of this work

Socrates' Defensible Devices in Plato's Meno.Mason Marshall - 2019 - Theory and Research in Education 17 (2):165-180.
Aristotle and Protagoras against Socrates on Courage and Experience.Marta Jimenez - 2022 - In Claudia Marsico (ed.), Socrates and the Socratic Philosophies: Selected Papers from Socratica IV. Baden-Baden: Academia Verlag. pp. 361-376.
Plato on Well-Being.Eric Brown - 2016 - In Guy Fletcher (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Well-Being. London, UK: pp. 9-19.

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