The Power of Knowledge in Plato’s Protagoras

The Power of Knowledge in Plato’s Protagoras

In the Protagoras, Plato depicts Socrates as arguing that knowledge is of such power that nobody with knowledge can be forced to act against his or her better judgment. To support his argument, he responds to the objection that individuals who seem to act against their knowledge do so because they are “overcome by pleasure or pain.” In his response, Socrates claims that even if one were to base his decisions entirely on pleasure or pain, he would still choose actions that would maximize the amount of pleasure gained in the long run. As a result, someone who chooses an action that is immediately pleasurable but that has painful consequences would be doing so in the belief that the pleasure gained now will outweigh the pain suffered in the future. Accordingly, Socrates’ claim is that anyone who chooses an action whose long-term negative consequences outweigh the short-term positive consequences is doing so simply because he or she could not “measure” these consequences against each other. Although this argument does not present us with major logical difficulties, one can imagine problems when practical considerations are raised. What if, for example, someone decides on an objective level that an action will have negative long-term consequences, and yet chooses to perform that action — in constant, full awareness that the future “pain” will outweigh the soon-to-come “pleasure” —simply because he or she places greater value on short-term than long-term pleasure?

Socrates’ argument centers around his refutation of the claim that people can “knowledgeably” perform “ruinous actions” because they are “overcome by the pleasure.” Accordingly, he seeks to define these “ruinous actions” — things, such as food, drink, and sex, that overwhelm one with pleasure, clouding his or her judgment in the process. Socrates asks, “In what sense do you call these things ruinous? Is it that each of them is pleasant in itself and produces immediate pleasure, or is it that later they bring about diseases and poverty and many other things of that sort? Or even if it doesn’t bring about these things later, but gives only enjoyment, would it still be a bad thing?” (353d). Socrates and Protagoras agree that the actions are “ruinous” because they bring about things such as disease and poverty — which Socrates then places under the label of “pain.” Socrates proceeds to the opposite question, inquiring into things such as athletics and surgery — things that are considered good despite being seen as painful. He asks, “Would you call these things good for the reason that they bring about intense pain and suffering, or because they ultimately bring about health and good condition of bodies and preservation of cities and power over others and wealth?” (354b). Socrates and Protagoras agree to the latter. Socrates determines that the common person — the one claiming that one can be knowledgeable and yet be “overcome by the pleasure” — will use pleasure and pain as the sole criteria for whether an action is good or bad. As a result, for the purposes of Socrates’ argument, “pleasure” can be seen as positive consequences and “pain” as negative ones.

For the sake of livening up his argument, Socrates briefly substitutes the words “good” and “bad” for “pleasure” and “pain.” “Good actions” can be seen as ones where the pleasure / good outweigh the pain / bad — and vice-versa for “bad actions.” Socrates notes that it simply sounds absurd to say that someone will choose a painful action because he or she is overwhelmed by pleasure, as that would be akin to saying that he or she chose something bad because of being overwhelmed by the good. He notes that in such cases the good does not outweigh the bad, saying, “for if it did, the person who we say is overcome by pleasure would not have made any mistake” (355de). He adds that the good and the bad can be said to outweigh each other “Only in that one is greater and one is smaller, or more and less” (355e). He notes that this concept applies to pleasure and pain as well, saying, “But how else does pleasure outweigh pain, except in relative excess or deficiency?” (356a).

At this point, the key objection to Socrates’ argument is that the “pleasure” that overcomes a person is an immediate pleasure, and immediate pleasure is different from future pains and pleasures. Socrates, however, counters that “They are not different in any other way than by pleasure and pain, for there is no other way that they could differ” (356b). He claims that they can be weighed against each other, much like objects on a scale, and that their immediateness does not change their actual “weight” — that is, the amount of pleasure or pain they confer. According to Socrates, the idea that immediate pleasures are somehow different is merely an illusion, as he compares them to objects seen at a distance, saying “Do things of the same size appear to you larger when seen near at hand and smaller when seen from a distance or not? … And similarly for thickness and pluralities? And equal sounds seem louder when near at hand, softer when farther away?” (356cd). He notes that only an ability to objectively measure these things would inform us of their true size, thickness, or loudness. He asks, “What if our salvation in life depended on our choices of odd and even, when the greater and the lesser had to be counted correctly … whether it be near or remote? What then would save our life? Surely, nothing other than knowledge, specifically some kind of measurement” (357a). This measurement, says Socrates, is precisely what one uses to determine if pleasures and pains outweigh each other, and it is nothing other than knowledge. As a result, someone with full knowledge will know whether or not an action will produce more pleasure or pain. In other words, he will not “be overcome by the pleasure,” since, for Socrates, this process of being overcome is nothing more than ignorance of what the truly “pleasurable” option is.

From a logical point of view, Socrates’ argument seems relatively strong if one accepts all of his premises. One may object that he has not proved his initial claim that nothing can force a person with knowledge to act against his or her better judgment — after all, the argument above makes it seem that Socrates has only shown that the experience of “being overcome by the pleasure” cannot do this. Socrates, however, could counter by saying that “being overcome by the pleasure or pain” encompasses all possible situations where one may seem to be acting against his or her better knowledge. For example, someone who is physically coerced to perform an action with overall bad consequences may very well end up causing more pain than he or she has avoided by giving in to the physical coercion. Socrates would say, therefore, that this person did not properly use the power of measurement to see that it would have been better not to give in to the coercion.

As a result, one may prefer to criticize Socrates’ argument by claiming that he does not adequately support his premises. For example, he very briefly dismisses the objection that immediate pleasures and pains are very different from future ones. One can take issue with Socrates’ dismissal, saying that he essentially says nothing to support it. To counter it, one could say that many people have full knowledge, using the power of measurement, that eating hamburgers every day will cause them more pain in the future than it causes pleasure in the present. Nevertheless, many people choose to eat them regularly, being aware — even during the very weeks and months when they are choose to eat hamburgers every day — that doing so will bring more pain than pleasure. One could say that many individuals act in this manner because they value the immediate pleasure of regularly eating hamburgers far more than they value the long-term pleasure of staying in good health.

In response, Socrates could offer two arguments. The first would be that such individuals have not truly had the experience of being in bad health, and as a result they do not actually know if they “value” their immediate pleasure greater than the long-term pleasure of being in good health. The objector, however, could say that it is perfectly conceivable to think of someone who has a very clear idea of what it is like to be in bad health — for example, someone who is already suffering from health complications due to obesity — and that such a person could know that they are suffering so much from this obesity that no amount of pleasure from eating hamburgers would counter it. Nevertheless, this hypothetical person, whenever he or she chooses to eat a meal, will still choose to eat hamburgers, subjectively valuing this pleasure more than any pain that he or she would avoid. If Socrates concedes that this person does in fact have full knowledge of the pain, he can still counter that the simple act of “subjectively valuing” immediate pleasure over any possible pain — no matter how great this pain may be — shows that the person does in fact derive more pleasure from hamburgers than he or she does from good health. For Socrates, the very act of valuing the immediacy of immediate pleasure— to such an extent that this “value” overrules any pain, no matter how great — could just be another way of saying that immediacy itself is pleasurable for that person. If the person derives so much pleasure from its immediacy that this pleasure overrides even the very great pain of being in bad health, the point still stands that the person derived more pleasure from the action than pain. As a result, this person could not truly be said to have chosen a “ruinous” action out of either ignorance or knowledge; instead, he or she has, in fact, chosen a non-ruinous action — this person is, after all, deriving more pleasure than pain from it. Ironically, this person was acting in ignorance — believing that he or she was doing something painful when in fact the action was pleasurable — but that does not weaken Socrates’ claim that someone with knowledge of what is painful or pleasurable cannot be coerced into doing something painful.