Full Text:  “Plato's Protagoras:  Professional Models, Ethical Concerns,” Change:  The Magazine of Higher Learning XV.3 (April, 1983):  42-45.


It is commonly recognized that in our society most professions tend to measure quality of achievement by quantity of achievement: the number of one’s gold records or home runs, the number representing one’s class rank or grade point index, the number of stars on one’s uniform or dollars in one’s income. All these quantities act as conventional indices of professional success and, within most professions, they are fairly simple both to understand and apply. It is not commonly recognized, however, that things are different in academia. Professors, unlike business leaders or baseball players, consistently find themselves urged to live up to two, often incompatible (sometimes contradictory) professional ideals.


On the one hand professors are pushed toward the conventional ideal of quantitative achievement, which urges them to be hard-driving career managers always alert for inside tips about the stock-market commodities that guarantee academic dividends—prestige, power, and pay—in their generation. Their resumes become lists (often made to look as long as possible) of the numbers of their publications, grants, and graduate school laurels. On the other hand, professors are also pushed by the ideal of a tradition which urges them to be pure truth seekers, self contributors without whom civilization would perish. This ideal posits a 20th century secular monk who, like Thoreau, doesn’t worry about his salary as long as he can bring his gifts of imagination and reason to a rude world, and who, like Mr. Chips, sees himself as the altruistic caretaker of the souls and minds of his students. The professor, trying to mesh his Thoreau/Chips ideal with his executive/managerial ideal, hopes to publish timely articles of timeless intellectuality, and (conveniently) get hired at the best schools. He has a Janus face, looking for conventional glory and time-honored truth all at once.


While what Matthew Arnold called “the disease of modern life” is blamed by many for all of society’s ills, the soul-splitting tug-of-war between careerism and selflessness in academe does not have a peculiarly modern etiology. Although modern complications aggravate the symptoms, the same problem has been afflicting academe, like a persistent wart or a recurrent fever, from its beginnings to its present.


One of the most vivid portrayals of the problem occurs in Plato’s Protagoras, where Plato presents us with three characters—Protagoras, Socrates, and, indirectly, himself—who portray the archetypal roles for academic professionalism. Each character represents a contrasting model for how learning-as-a-profession should be conducted. We may seldom invoke the names of these role models directly as we try to solve the riddle of our divided professional aims, but we cannot help but be drawn toward one of the options each of them represents in this wonderfully rich and instructive dialogue. The dialogue portrays Protagoras as an old man who has been the most brilliant Sophist of his day. He has enjoyed a long and successful career collecting cash from wealthy families who wanted their sons to learn useful information about conventional subjects, especially the use of power and the craft of statesmanship, subjects about which Protagoras possessed an erudite and inexhaustible fund of knowledge. The dialogue occurs when Socrates comes to visit Protagoras, ostensibly to give moral support to a young friend seeking instruction, but really to try out the famous man's strength in a mental wrestling match on the question of the nature of virtue. The contest throws into relief two prominent aspects of character, or ethos, in our profession.


At one level each contestant represents what we ourselves would like to be. Protagoras is erudite, respected, and rich: the professional's professional. A worldly and profoundly cynical man, he believes in no absolute truths and no ultimate issues. The only thing that makes sense to him is his own career; it is the only activity that appears to have any concrete self-justification about it. The archetypal careerist, Protagoras serves as one of our great models. Careerism in our time is not dead and it is not merely a product of secularism, scientism, capitalism, or any other modernism. It has been a dominant strain in academic ethos from the very beginning, and produces the same traits and professional fidgets now as it did then. If Protagoras is typical, careerists in his day wore flowing robes and walked with an entourage. Today's typical careerists (differing only in style, not character) speed around like expensive sports cars at annual conferences, racing their motors and running down anyone who gets between them and the big names who have come to give the keynote speeches. They cover themselves with chrome-plated achievements, careen around corners in white-walled certification, and jut their fancy hood ornaments into a 100 mile-a-minute future that disappointingly recedes from them despite the high octane in their fuel of ambition.


Socrates, however, Protagoras's adversary, is also one of our archetypal models. Nowhere is our profession's divided loyalty to contrary ideals more clearly exhibited than here. Although Protagoras is the representative father of our careerist traditions, and although many of us worship at his ancestral shrine whether we claim his parentage or not, we proffer equal devotion to Socrates, whose uncompromising integrity has always made him a compelling figure for us. He is, as we would like to be, the disinterested seeker of truth, the founder and follower of first principles, the poor man impervious to materialism and greed, the lover of virtue rather than prestige, the oracular and enriching voice of immortal myths, the keeper of spiritual values, and the consummate teacher whose concern is for the growth of his students' souls, not the marketability of their skills. The modern Socratics, like the ancient original, are in continual rebellion against "the system." They feel that establishment interests stultify spontaneity and criticism, discourage integrity, and they see professionalism as just a euphemism for self-serving ambition. Instead of racing their motors at annual conferences, the Socratics are more likely to be tearing up their membership cards and inviting debate on why professional organizations should vote themselves out of existence. They are as combative, indignant, and disinterested as the Protagoreans are smug, complacent, and self-interested.


In academe as I know it, most professionals frequently feel confused about which of these models we should aspire to at any given time. While some of us are clearly more Socratic, and some more Protagorean, all of us, I think, tend to vacillate more frequently between these two poles than we think or would like to admit. We frequently fail to realize how often, how quickly, or how subtly we switch identities depending on our audience. With an academic dean we are likely to put on our high-powered Protagorean countenance, but with students we are likely to put on our high-minded Socratic countenance. Both ideals exert great pressure on us, and the less clearly we see the contradictory nature of their appeals, the less likely we are to catch ourselves in those moments when we flip back and forth between them.


In any event, neither Socrates nor Protagoras is a good model for today's professional. Socrates, for example, is not just a bad model for professionals; he is hopeless. As the perennial radical he both refreshes and inspires us, but embracing him as a model will only lead us to spit on the academy and take to the streets to rap about philosophy with our neighbors and passersby. In the end we would be no more successful there than Socrates was. His brilliant talk survives, after all, only because an enterprising graduate student named Plato was looking for a good dissertation topic and a career for himself. Without Plato, Socrates's brilliant talk would have evaporated into oblivion. In any event, adopting him as a model would force us to abandon the goal that brought most of us into academe in the first place: the hope of actually making a difference for the better—somewhere, somehow in the world around us. Embracing the ideal of Protagoras is even worse, however, for it means selling our souls for thirty shekels of promotion, or a pottage of tenure, or whatever the dish of the day, or the fad of the decade, happens to be. Ultimately, accepting the Protagorean example means embracing the death's head of cynicism, the sardonic mask whose grinning rictus asserts the futility of everything.


The one figure in the Protagoras who offers us a workable model for blending ethical and professional concerns is Plato, who does not speak in his own person, but whose authority and vision run the show. It is his creative piping that makes Socrates and Protagoras dance their dance. In Plato we find our model of the professional who makes a given task, such as writing the Protagoras, not merely another notch or ploy in his career plan, but a moral and humane act: sitting down with important issues, thinking about them hard enough to develop meaningful insights, and passing them on to others in a carefully structured work that, in the case of the Protagoras, turns out to have an apparently limitless instructiveness about it.


None of us has Plato's genius, of course, but the way he submerges his ego as he applies himself to issues and problems provides a good model for us all. He corrects Protagoras's careerism, while he nevertheless takes care of his career, and he complements Socrates's inquiry by preserving for us his wisdom. There is an obvious privileging here on my part. Protagoras, who happens to be more socially and professionally effective than Socrates but who lacks integrity, needs correcting, while Socrates, who possesses more integrity than Protagoras but is lacking in social and professional effectiveness, only needs complementing. If the only way to maintain integrity were to be staunchly anti-professional we would need no model beyond Socrates, who is clearly our best example of intellectual and moral integrity. For us as professionals, however, integrity is clearly a fundamental but not an exclusive concern. While we all recognize that professionalism and integrity are often at war, most of us do not believe that they are necessarily mutually exclusive. We want to preserve our integrity, but, unlike Socrates (who never wrote a word, never held a teaching position, and never stopped criticizing those who did), we also want to make a contribution that will enrich not only our own generation, but survive to enrich future generations. That is why we serve in institutions, contribute to professional societies, and write articles and books for publication. Unlike Socrates, we both formalize and preserve our conversations and inquiries. For us the question of preserving our individual integrity is complicated by the question of how to preserve our collective wisdom.


Plato is the only model in the Protagoras who shows us how to be professionally polished without indulging in narcissistic careerism, and how to maintain a grip on personal integrity without having to settle for hopeless obscurity. As a third (shadow) figure in his own dialogue he shows us how to substitute principles for Protagoras’s passionate self-interest, and how to add professionalism to Socrates's passionate idealism. By drawing his two speaking figures with such vividness, it is clear that Plato has shaped not only the character and emotion of both Protagoras and Socrates, but has managed to impart a literary agelessness to those shapes. In preserving the words of his literary creations Plato becomes an archetypal figure in his own right, the representative figure upon whose careful work the accumulated insights and wisdom of all civilization, not just the ideas of Socrates and Protagoras, depend for survival.


A fundamental issue raised by these great archetypes is how to define the ethical impact of our professional practices. Professionals do not just make up the character of their professions: their own characters are made up by their professions; by those traditions, practices, and values that define their professions. Consequently, ethical questions become unavoidable. How we decide who is virtuous, and how we assess the moral impact of our professional practices, are both valuable questions. Certainly they are asked infrequently enough to be novel. While inveighing endlessly against TV, sex magazines, and political veniality, we academics inquire only superficially, if at all, into the question of the ethical impact of our own professional conduct. Like TV and magazines, however, we and our professions are a part of culture and require the same scrutiny. This is especially true in our case, for we sometimes claim to be the caretakers of the best that culture has to offer. If this claim is not to ring false in our own ears, much less in the ears of our critics, then examine ourselves we must.


One factor we can never afford to ignore in our self-examination is the enormous power possessed by our professional models, in whose mesmerizing presence we can afford to be neither dreamy-eyed nor complacent. Complacency, the unearned belief that our professional activities come down automatically on the side of truth, goodness, and beauty, will betray us into inadvertent contradictions and hollow pieties every time. At one extreme Protagorean careerism seduces us with promises of all the perks and prestige that accompany professional success in our commercial, consumerist society. At the other extreme Socrates' selflessness continues its timeless appeal from the sidelines, promising us spiritual rewards even though penury and obscurity taste hemlock-bitter. Plato stands in the center, that area of human endeavor much-maligned by factional partisans who see every compromise as a sellout, and every qualifying phrase as a contemptible bid for popularity. In this ill-defined center, however, where the intersection of competing views and ideas renders them accessible to examination and discussion, lies the area where the professional uses his talents and makes his contributions. Plato's model is centrist. In his clear criticism of Protagorean careerism, and in his fruitful negotiation with Socratic radicalism, he shows us how to live in the center not as a neutral or barren desert, but as a fertile valley yielding crop after crop of criticism and discourse. In an age when academe seems to have lost a sure sense of its identity and function in society, it should draw strength and comfort from knowing that its best and most enduring contributions are those of criticism and discourse. These are the contributions the academy has made in the past and is still equipped to make, both now and in the future. Talking well is what we do best. We need to realize, of course, that no human activity, including talking well, provides a guarantee of virtue. We also need to understand that cultivating our best talk—vigorous criticism and open discourse—remains our surest stay against falling into, at best, self-serving blindness, or, at worst, self-defeating hypocrisy.

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