Part 7

Protagoras and Justice

by Plato Icon

Well, I admit that justice bears a resemblance to holiness.

There is always some point of view in which everything is like every other thing; white is in a certain way like black, and hard is like soft, and the most extreme opposites have some qualities in common.

Even the parts of the face which, as we were saying before, are distinct and have different functions, are still in a certain point of view similar, and one of them is like another of them.

You may prove that they are like one another on the same principle that all things are like one another; and yet things which are like in some particular ought not to be called alike, nor things which are unlike in some particular, however slight, unlike.

Socrates (In a tone of surprise) Do you think that justice and holiness have but a small degree of likeness?
Protagoras Certainly not; any more than I agree with what I understand to be your view.

Well, you appear to have a difficulty about this. Let us take another of the examples which you mentioned instead.

Do you admit the existence of folly?

I do.


Wisdom is the very opposite of folly. When men act rightly and advantageously they seem to you to be temperate. Temperance makes them temperate.

Those who act foolishly are not temperate. If follows that to act foolishly is the opposite of acting temperately.

Foolish actions are done by folly, and temperate actions by temperance.

That is done strongly which is done by strength, and that which is weakly done, by weakness.

That which is done with swiftness is done swiftly, and that which is done with slowness, slowly.

That which is done in the same manner, is done by the same.

That which is done in an opposite manner by the opposite.

Beauty is the opposite of ugliness just as good is the opposite is the evil

The opposite of acute sound is the grave sound.

Thus, every opposite has one opposite only and no more.

We admitted that:

  • everything has one opposite and not more than one.
  • what was done in opposite ways was done by opposites.
  • Whatever was done foolishly was done in the opposite way to that which was done temperately.
  • which was done temperately was done by temperance, and that which was done foolishly by folly.
  • which is done in opposite ways is done by opposites.
  • One thing is done by temperance, and quite another thing by folly and in opposite ways and therefore by opposites

Thus, folly is the opposite of temperance.

Folly is the opposite of wisdom.

Everything has only one opposite.


Then, Protagoras, which of the two assertions shall we renounce?

  • One says that everything has but one opposite.
  • The other that wisdom is distinct from temperance, and that both of them are parts of virtue; and that they are not only distinct, but dissimilar, both in themselves and in their functions, like the parts of a face. Which of these two assertions shall we renounce?

For both of them together are certainly not in harmony; they do not accord or agree: for how can they be said to agree if everything is assumed to have only one opposite and not more than one, and yet folly, which is one, has clearly the two opposites—wisdom and temperance?

He assented, but with great reluctance.


Then temperance and wisdom are the same, as before justice and holiness appeared to us to be nearly the same.

Do you think that an unjust man can be temperate in his injustice?


I should be ashamed to acknowledge this, which nevertheless many may be found to assert.

You should argue with the many first.


Do you think like them or not?

My object is to test the validity of the argument. Yet the result may be that I who ask and you who answer may both be put on our trial.

Protagoras at first made a show of refusing, as he said that the argument was not encouraging; at length, he consented to answer.


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