but owing to no fault of his, there has come down to us as certainly authentic nothing but two short sentences, which pierce through the veiling mists of tradition like the glittering summits of the Wetterhorn. What was the line of thought which led up to them, what were the reasonings by which they descended into the souls of men, we can only dimly guess. Unless indeed there is truth in the claim of Plato that he had conquered these virgin peaks and left us a trustworthy description of this perilous ascent.
It is this claim of Plato’s that I propose to examine, and more specifically, the Protagoras Speech in the Theætetus 166-68. The conventional view of this speech, which I propose to contest, is that it is as little authentic in substance as in form, and that in it Plato has tried either to represent current developments of Protagoreanism made by his disciples or to embody his own reflections on the problem of putting a reasonable interpretation on an obscure dictum, and that the decision between these alternatives does not greatly matter, because in either case the Speech is completely refuted in the sequel.
But three weighty reasons may be given for rejecting this view. (1) The somewhat tentative language Plato uses as to the authenticity of the defence undertaken by his ‘Socrates’ has of course to be taken quite literally on this theory. It is taken to mean that Plato felt really doubtful as to whether Protagoras would have accepted the developments attributed to him. But it is obviously possible, and indeed more natural, to understand his phrases otherwise. Why should not Plato really have felt doubtful about the success of an attempt to reproduce an authentic line of argument and have known that his success might be impugned? (2) It is simply not true that the argument of the speech is refuted, either in the Theætetus or anywhere else in Plato. (3) The conventional view, lastly, will be found to involve itself in insoluble difficulties of a literary kind. A close examination of the argument will show that if Plato be supposed to be the real author of the Speech, he has regaled us with the fancies of a man of straw but told us nothing about the argument of the real
- 165 E, 168 C, 169 E, 171 E.