Plato’s Protagoras and Explanations of Weakness

Part of the Modern Studies in Philosophy book series


Understanding the sorts of explanations that can be offered in cases of weakness (weakness of will, weakness of character, and moral weakness) is an important aspect of the philosophical problem of akrasia.1 In a case of weakness a man does something that he knows or believes he should (ought) not do, or fails to do something that he knows or believes he should do, when the occasion and the opportunity for acting or refraining is present, and when it is in his power, in some significant sense, to act in accordance with his knowledge or belief. Because of the first of these characteristics, which are the given characteristics of cases of weakness,2 it always makes sense to raise the question why the man acted in this way—that is, contrary to his knowledge or belief. But, aside from this, it is necessary to find a correct answer to it if we wish to understand the man’s behavior and to reach a reasonable evaluative attitude toward the man. Finally, if we discover the sorts of explanations that are (and the sorts that are not) available in cases of weakness, we should be in a better position to understand the relation of knowledge of value (or value beliefs) to conduct.


Deductive Proof Psychological Hedonism Physical Coercion Psychological Ability Moral Weakness 
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  1. 1.
    For recent discussions of explanations of weakness, see R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (Oxford, 1963), pp. 67–85; and Steven Lukes’s criticism of Hare in “Moral Weakness,” Philosophical Quarterly, 15 (1965). Lukes’s criticism is perceptive, but neither he nor Hare goes much further than discussing phrases that suggest explanations, whereas what is needed most is an elucidation of the models of explanations that can be offered.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Cf., e.g., J. P. Sullivan, “The Hedonism in Plato’s Protagoras,” Phronesis, VI (1961), 18–20; A. Sesonske, “Hedonism in the Protagoras,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, I (1963);Google Scholar
  3. G. Vlastos, Plato’s Protagoras (New York, 1956);Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Plato’s Protagoras, ed. by G. Vlastos (New York, 1965), p. xxxix. The italicized words referred to are: “To pursue what one believes to be evil rather than what is good is not in human nature.” K is the proposition that knowledge is virtue.Google Scholar
  5. 16.
    Cf. also H. Sauppe and J. A. Towle, Plato’s Protagoras (Boston, 1892), p. 152.Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    Cf., e.g., Men. 77B–78B, Grg. 468C, and G. Santas, “The Socratic Paradoxes,” Philosophical Review, LXXIII (1964), 147–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 28.
    Neal E. Miller, “Comments on Theoretical Models Illustrated by the Development of a Theory of Conflict,” Journal of Personality, XX (1951–52), 82–100. This is a careful and philosophically sophisticated account of experiments in verification of a theory that could be used to explain behavior in cases of conflicting “tendencies,” “responses,” or “drives,” or “motives.” One of the hypotheses verified by the experiments is: “when two incompatible responses are in conflict, the stronger one will occur.” This article, and the related literature cited below, is worth reading by all those who talk of human beings being “overcome,” “seduced,” etc., by their passions, feelings, etc.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 29.
    Jesse E. Gordon, Personality and Behavior (New York, 1963), pp. 389–426. Gordon applies the Miller models to human behavior, but Miller’s care and clarity are nowhere to be found, and Gordon leaves us in the dark as to how strength is to be measured in the case of humans. Gordon does not display the caution and safeguards that are necessary when models, successful in the case of lower animals, are applied to humans.Google Scholar
  9. General applications of the Miller models are summarized in B. Berelson and G. A. Steiner, Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings (New York, 1964), pp. 271–76. Cf. especially C6 and C6.1.Google Scholar
  10. 34.
    “…harried along and driven out of his senses” (W. Wayte, The Protagoras of Plato [Cambridge, 1871], p. 147).Google Scholar

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© Gregory Vlastos 1971

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