Plato’s Big Mistake
by Louis Markos
Plato never cared much for the sophists, viewing them as amoral peddlers of a relativistic kind of wisdom with the potential to corrupt the souls of those who hired them. It is therefore not surprising that when they appear in his dialogues, they are generally treated in a negative or at least suspect manner. In Protagoras, however, Plato treats the sophist of the title with considerable respect. He even has Socrates debate with Protagoras—on fairly equal terms!—a two-part question that Plato considered vital: what is the nature of virtue and can it be taught to others? Although the more elitist Socrates begins the dialogue by asserting that virtue cannot be taught, as the dialogue proceeds, he slowly adopts a position concerning the nature of virtue that drives him—almost against his will—toward the necessary conclusion that virtue can be taught.
In striking contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin, Plato argues in Protagoras—and elsewhere—that human evil is not the result of rebellion or disobedience. Although G. K. Chesterton was certainly right when he claimed that original sin was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” Plato seems to have overlooked this proof in favor of a different cause for vicious behavior. “For myself,” says Socrates, “I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetrates any evil or base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary” (345e). Later in the dialogue, Socrates explains more clearly what the cause is of this involuntary evil:
…when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains—that is, of good and evil—the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge….no one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better. To “act beneath yourself” is the result of pure ignorance, to “be your own master” is wisdom. (357e, 358c)Evil actions, that is to say, are caused not by sin but by ignorance. If we knew of another, better course of action, we would take it.
In Meno, a dialogue that picks up—thematically, at least—exactly where Protagoras leaves off, Socrates is even more bold in his assertions, claiming that 1) “nobody desires what is evil,” 2) “everything that the human spirit undertakes or suffers will lead to happiness when it is guided by wisdom,” and 3) “virtue is wisdom” (78a, 88c, 89a). How wonderful it would be if these assertions were true. Imagine a world in which all who truly understood virtue were thereby empowered to become virtuous. The father need only educate his children well, and he will be guaranteed virtuous progeny. If great teachers could be coaxed to visit prisons and open the eyes of all the murderers and thieves to the way of virtue, the prisons could throw open their gates and let these “reformed” inmates reenter society.
Every time I reread the Protagoras or Meno, I am surprised anew that a man of Plato’s towering intellect and searing insight into human nature could have been so mistaken about the human propensity to sin and rebellion. Luckily for the development of Europe, the dangers inherent in Plato’s big mistake were neutralized for two millennia, partially by the corrections by Aristotle and then fully by the Christian doctrine of original sin, especially as it is developed in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante.
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