Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Protagoras and Meno




Damien F. Mackey







One may perhaps discern the influence of the biblical books of Job and Daniel upon key features of two of Plato’s famous dialogues, “Protagoras” and “Meno”.







Plato and Likely Borrowings

from the Book of Job


There can be a similarity in thought between Plato and the Jewish sages, but not always a similarity in tone. Compared with the intense atmosphere of the drama of the Book of Job, for instance, Plato’s Republic, and his other dialogues, such as the Protagoras, brilliant as they are, come across sometimes as a bit like a gentlemen’s discussion over a glass of port. W. Guthrie may have captured something of this general tone in his Introduction to Plato. Protagoras and Meno (Penguin, 1968), when he wrote (p. 20):


… a feature of the conversation which cannot fail to strike a reader is its unbroken urbanity and good temper. The keynote is courtesy and forbearance, though these are not always forthcoming without a struggle. Socrates is constantly on the alert for the signs of displeasure on the part of Protagoras, and when he detects them, is careful not to press his point, and the dialogue ends with mutual expressions of esteem. ….


[End of quote]


Compare this gentlemanly tone with e.g. Job’s ‘How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me?’ (19:1-3), and Eliphaz’s accusations of the holy man: ‘Is not your wickedness great? There is no end to your iniquities [which supposed types of injustice on the part of Job Eliphaz then proceeds to itemise]’ (22:5).

In Plato’s dialogues, by contrast, we get pages and pages of the following sort of amicable discussion taken from the Republic (Bk. 2, 368-369):


[Socrates] ‘Justice can be a characteristic of an individual or of a community, can it not?’

[Adeimantus] ‘Yes’.

[Socrates] ‘And a community is larger than an individual?’

[Adeimantus] ‘It is”.

[Socrates] ‘We may therefore find that the amount of justice in the larger entity is greater, and so easier to recognize. I accordingly propose that we start our enquiry …’.

[Adeimantus] ‘That seems a good idea’, he agreed.



Though Protagoras is a famous Sophist, whose maxim “Man is the measure of all things, of those that are that they are, and of those that are not that they are not” (Plato’s Theaetetus 152), I have often quoted in a philosophical context {– and also in}:


The Futile Aspiration to Make ‘Man the Measure of All Things’



this Protagoras may actually be based upon - according to my new estimation of things - the elderly Eliphaz of the Book of Job. Whilst Eliphaz was by no means a Sophist along the Greek lines, he was, like Protagoras with Socrates, largely opposed to his opponent’s point of view. And so, whilst the God-fearing Eliphaz would never have uttered anything so radical or atheistic as “man is the measure of all things”, he was however opposed to the very Job who had, in his discussion of wisdom, spoken of God as ‘apportioning out by measure’ all the things that He had created (Job 28:12, 13, 25).

Now, whilst Protagoras would be but a pale ghost of the biblical Eliphaz, some of the original (as I suspect) lustre does still manage to shine through - as with Protagoras’s claim that knowledge or wisdom was the highest thing in life (Protagoras 352C, D) (cf. Eliphaz in Job 22:1-2). And Guthrie adds that Protagoras “would repudiate as scornfully as Socrates the almost bestial type of hedonism advocated by Callicles, who says that what nature means by fair and right is for the strong man to let his desires grow as big as possible and have the means of everlastingly satisfying them” (op. cit., p. 22).

Eliphaz was later re-invented (I think) as Protagoras the Sophist from Abdera, as a perfect foil to Socrates (with Job’s other friends also perhaps emerging in the Greek versions re-cast as Sophists). Protagoras stated that, somewhat like Eliphaz, he was old enough to be the father of any of them. “Indeed I am getting on in life now – so far as age goes I might be the father of any one of you …” (Protagoras 317 C). That Eliphaz was old is indicated by the fact that he was the first to address Job and that he also refered to men older than Job’s father (Job 15:10). Now, just as Fr. R. MacKenzie (S.J.) in his commentary on “Job”, in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, tells of Eliphaz’s esteem for, and courtesy towards, Job (31:23):


Eliphaz is presumably the oldest of the three and therefore the wisest; he is certainly the most courteous and the most eloquent. He has a genuine esteem for Job and is deeply sorry or him. He knows the advice to give him, the wisdom that lays down what he must do to receive relief from his sufferings.

[End of quote],


so does Guthrie, reciprocally (I suggest), say: “Protagoras – whom [Socrates] regards with genuine admiration and liking” (op. cit., p. 22).

But, again, just as the righteous Job had scandalised his friends by his levity, according to St. Thomas Aquinas (“Literal Exposition on Job”, 42:1-10), “And here one should consider that Elihu had sinned out of inexperience whereas Job had sinned out of levity, and so neither of them had sinned gravely”, so does Guthrie use this very same word, “levity”, in the context of an apparent flaw in the character of Socrates (ibid., p. 18):


There is one feature of the Protagoras which cannot fail to puzzle, if not exasperate, a reader: the behaviour of Socrates. At times he treats the discussion with such levity, and at other times with such unscrupulousness, that Wilamowitz felt bound to conclude that the dialogue could only have been written in his lifetime. This, he wrote, is the human being whom Plato knew; only after he had suffered a martyr’s death did the need assert itself to idealize his character.

[End of quote]


Job’s tendency towards levity had apparently survived right down into the Greek era. Admittedly, the Greek version does get much nastier in the case of Thrasymachus, and even more so with Callicles in the Gorgias, but in the Republic at least it never rises to the dramatic pitch of Job’s dialogues with his three friends. Here is that least friendly of the debaters, Thrasymachus, at his nastiest (Republic, Bk. I, 341):


[Socrates] Well, said I, ‘so you think I’m malicious, do you Thrasymachus?’

[Thrasymachus] ‘I certainly do’.

[Socrates] ‘You think my questions were deliberately framed to distort your argument?’

[Thrasymachus] ‘I know perfectly well they were. But they won’t get you anywhere; you can’t fool me, and if you don’t you won’t be able to crush me in argument’.

[Socrates] ‘My dear chap, I wouldn’t dream of trying’, I said ….


Socrates and Plato are similarly (like the Sophists) watered down entities by comparison with the Middle Eastern originals. Such is how the Hebrew Scriptures end up when filtered through the Greeks, [and, in the case of Plato, perhaps through the Babylonians before the Greeks, hence a double filtering]. Even then, it is doubtful whether the finely filtered version of Plato that we now have could have been written by pagan Greeks. At least some of it seems to belong clearly to the Christian era, e.g. “The just man … will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned … and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified” (Republic, Bk. 2, 362).

I submit that this statement would not likely have been written prior to the Gospels.



Plato and Likely Borrowings

from the Book of Daniel


The Chaldean rulers of Babylon, as they are presented in the Book of Daniel, are a most interesting psychological study. The autocratic and tyrannical Nebuchednezzar eventually goes mad (4:28-33), but later returns to his senses and is said to have exalted the Most High God (vv. 34-37). His son, Belshazzar, however, is a ne’er do well from beginning to end, whom Daniel reprimands for his stubbornness and pride.


Plato’s Meno


It seems to me that the evil Chaldean king, Belshazzar, might find an echo in the person of Meno, in Plato’s Meno. He is not a king there, but a man of some power, nonetheless, a friend of the ruling family of Thessaly, and he has connections interestingly with the king of Persia (read Media?).

Guthrie tells of Meno as follows (Introduction to Plato. Protagoras and Meno, Penguin, 1968, pp. 101-102):


… The character of Meno, as a wealthy, handsome and imperious young aristocrat, visiting Athens from his native Thessaly, is well brought out in the dialogue itself. He is a friend of Aristippus, the head of the Aleuadae who were the ruling family in Thessaly, and his own family are xenoi (hereditary guest-friends) of the Persian king, a tie which must have dated from the time of Xerxes, who made use of Thessalian hospitality on his expedition against Greece. He knows the famous Sophist and rhetorician Gorgias, who had stayed at Larissa in Thessaly as well as meeting him in Athens. From Gorgias he has acquired a taste for the intellectual questions of the day, as seen through the eyes of the Sophists, whose trick question about the impossibility of knowledge comes readily to his lips.

Xenophon tells of his career as one of the Greek mercenaries of Cyrus and gives him a bad character, describing him as greedy, power-loving, and incapable of understanding the meaning of friendship. This account is probably prejudiced by Xenophon’s admiration for the Greek leader Clearchus, a grim and hardly likeable character, whose rival and personal enemy Meno was. There were rumours that Meno entered into treacherous relations with the Great King [of Persia], but he appears to have been finally put to death by him after the failure of the expedition, though possibly later than his fellow-prisoners.

[End of quote]


‘Bad character’, ‘greedy’, ‘power-loving’ ‘unloyal friend’, ‘connected with a Persian (Median) king’, but then ‘slain and replaced by the king of the Persians (Medes)’, all of this fits King Belshazzar and his replacement by Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30-31). Belshazzar’s greed and his love of power and flattery is clearly manifest in this description of his great feast, one of the most celebrated feasts in history and in the Old Testament (Daniel 5:1-4):


King Belshazzar made a great festival for a thousand of his lords, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousand.

Under the influence of the wine, Belshazzar commanded that they bring in the vessels of gold and silver that his father Nebuchednezzar had taken out of the Temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his lords, his wives, his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the Temple, the House of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.


Obviously Meno could not match this sort of opulence and grandeur; but Socrates does say of him – and this is immediately before Socrates begins to write in the sand: “I see that you have a large number of retainers here” (Meno, 82).

We can gain some impression of King Belshazzar’s treacherous nature from Daniel’s pointed address to him (vv. 18-23):


‘O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchednezzar kingship, greatness, glory, and majesty. And because of the greatness that He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages trembled and feared before him. He killed those he wanted to kill, kept alive those he wanted to keep alive, honoured those he wanted to honour, and degraded those he wanted to degrade. But when his heart was lifted up his spirit was hardened so that he acted proudly, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and his glory was stripped from him. He was driven from human society, and his mind was made like that of an animal. His dwelling was with the wild asses, he was fed grass like an oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until he learned that the Most High God has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and sets over it whomever He will. And you, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his Temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honoured.


Daniel would on this occasion have had the full attention of the whole company since these words of his were spoken just after King Belshazzar and his court had witnessed the terrifying apparition of the ‘Writing on the Wall’ whilst in the midst of their blasphemous celebration. Here is the description of it. And does it have a resonance anywhere in Plato? (vv. 5-9):


[As they were drinking the wine and praising their gods]:

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, ‘Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom’. Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.


This fascinating life and death encounter I think may have inspired the whole drama of the (albeit pale by comparison) Meno. Instead of the miraculous ‘Writing on the Wall’ of the Chaldean king’s palace, though, we get Socrates writing in the sand. Instead of the words that name weights and measures indicating the overthrow of a great kingdom, we get a detailed lesson in geometry. Instead of the stunned and terrified Chaldean king, we get Meno, who tends to be similarly passive in the face of the Socratic lesson. Instead of the exile, Daniel, we get Meno’s slave boy seemingly providing a confirmation of the matter, under the skilful prompting of Socrates.

Daniel enters the palace’s banquetting hall preceded by his reputation, though now somewhat faded from memory (as in the case of Joseph with the Oppressor Pharaoh). And Meno is aware of the legendary reputation of Socrates. Let us compare the two accounts, taking firstly the biblical one (vv. 10-16):


The queen, when she heard the discussion of the king and his lords, came into the banquetting hall. The queen said, ‘O king, live forever! Do not let your thoughts terrify you or your face grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who is endowed with a spirit of the holy gods. In the days of your father he was found to have enlightenment, understanding, and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchednezzar, made him chief of the magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and diviners, because an excellent spirit, and understanding to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar. Now let Daniel be called, and he will give the interpretation.

Then Daniel was brought in before the king. The king said to Daniel, ‘So you are Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, whom my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard of you that a spirit of the gods is in you, and that enlightenment, understanding, and excellent wisdom are found in you. Now the wise men, the enchanters, have been brought in before me to read this writing and tell me its interpretation, but they were not able to give the interpretation of the matter. But I have heard that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Now if you are able to read the writing and tell me its interpretation, you shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom’.


Now Meno, supposedly focussing on the subject of virtue, tells of what he knows of Socrates’ enigmatic reputation, and it, too, like Daniel’s, has connection with “magic” (see quote above and 4:9), and Meno himself feels numb and weak, just like Belshazzar, so lacking in virtue (or “moral goodness” as in quote below) (Meno, 80):


Meno. Socrates, even before I met you they told me that in plain truth you are a perplexed man yourself and reduce others to perplexity. At this moment I feel that you are exercising magic and witchcraft upon me and positively laying me under your spell until I am just a mass of helplessness. If I may be flippant, I think that not only in outward appearance but in other respects as well you are exactly like the flat sting-ray that one meets in the sea. Whenever anyone comes into contact with it, it numbs him, and that is the sort of thing that you seem to be doing to me now. My mind and my lips are literally numb, and I have nothing to reply to you. Yet I have spoken about virtue hundreds of times, held forth often on the subject in front of large audiences, and very well too, or so I thought. Now I can’t even say what it is. In my opinion you are well advised not to leave Athens and live abroad. If you behave like this as a foreigner in another country, you would most likely be arrested as a wizard.

Socrates. You’re a real rascal, Meno.


On the occasion of Socrates’ writing in the sand, which I think must have originated from the ‘Writing on the Wall’ in the Book of Daniel, we have as the audience, Meno (whom I am equating with King Belshazzar), and his “large number of retainers” (Belshazzar’s large court), and the writing about to be effected due to a query from Meno. And, in a sense to interpret it, we get, not Daniel a former exiled slave, but Meno’s own slave boy, a foreigner (like Daniel) who however speaks the native language (like Daniel). The issue has become the immortality of the soul and whether it pre-exists the body, as manifest in someone’s being able to recall knowledge. Socrates will attempt to demonstrate this supposed pre-knowledge using the young slave boy – but perhaps this, too, is built upon Daniel’s God-given ability to arrive at entirely new knowledge without any human instruction (as in the case of his recalling Nebuchednezzar’s Dream).

Anyway, here is the dialogue (ibid.):


Meno. …. If in any way you can make clear to me that what you say is true, please do.

Socrates. It isn’t an easy thing, but still I should like to do what I can since you ask me. I see you have a large number of retainers here. Call one of them, anyone you like, and I will use him to demonstrate it to you.

Meno. Certainly. (To a slave-boy). Come here.

Socrates. He is a Greek and speaks our language?

Meno. Indeed yes – born and bred in the house.

Socrates. Listen carefully then, and see whether it seems to you that he is learning from me or simply being reminded.

Meno. I will.

Socrates. Now boy, you know that a square is a figure like this?

(Socrates begins to draw figures in the sand at his feet. He points to the square ABCD)

Boy. Yes.

Socrates. It has all these four sides equal?

Boy. Yes.

Socrates. And these lines which go though the middle of it are also equal? (The lines EF, GH).

Boy. Yes.



And so on.


Such apparently is how the life and death biblical account becomes gentlemanly and tamed, and indeed trivialised, in the Greek version! Daniel is not a passive slave, like the boy, supposedly recalling pre-existent knowledge, but a Jewish wise man, a sure Oracle to kings under the inspiration of the holy Spirit of God.

The ‘Writing on the Wall’ contains, like Socrates’ writing in the sand, division, and measure, but adds weighing. There is nothing Protagorean or Sophistic here. God, not man, is indeed the measure of kings and kingdoms according to the biblical account (vv. 24-28):


‘So from [God’s] presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; and Peres [the singular of Parsin], your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and the Persians’.


Russian Orthodox priest Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov has likewise, in his Internet article, “The Sovereignty of God”, made a Platonic connection with this very biblical incident (



The yearning for Goodness has been with us through the recorded history of humanity. In the words of Plato, Good, “is that which every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does all that it does …”. (Republic 505 …). Men have been striving to do what is good, and not always selfishly what is good for them. Every new philosophy tried to market itself by appealing to some universal good to be achieved. And yet the result of all our intense labors has horrified us in the twentieth century, and the twenty-first one is up to no good start. Good appears to be other than sovereign in our hearts. And if not there, can it find refuge anywhere in a godless world?

Murdoch writes that “the chief enemy of excellence in morality … is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams, which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one” …. This personal fantasy, or in patristic terms, logos fantastikon, also and perhaps most importantly, prevents one from seeing what is there inside one. And if we humble ourselves enough to see our true state, then would we not cry out with Apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24 NRSV) If Good is merely a concept, a creation of the human mind, then there can be no hope. If man is the measure of all things, then “mene, mene, tekel u-parsin” (Dan. 5:25).


One thinks that King Belshazzar, who was apparently incapable of humbling himself to recognise his true state, as Daniel had said of him, ‘You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven!’, would have been perfectly at home therefore with man, and not God, as the measure. Hence, when he was weighed, he was found wanting.

Now, could the very name Meno have arisen from the Mene, ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end’? Certainly Fr. L. Hartman (C.SS.R), commenting on “Daniel” for The Jerome Biblical Commentary (26:22), connects the Mene (or half of it) to King Belshazzar (on whom I think this Meno was based):


…. Daniel must first say what words were written on the wall; evidently no one else could even decipher the script. His interpretation involves a play on words that is possible only in a purely consonantal script, such as Hebrew or Aramaic. The three words that were written in the consonantal script would be mn’, tql, and prs, which could be read, as Daniel apparently first read them, menê’, teqal, and peres – i.e., as three monetary values, the mina (equivalent at different times to 50 or 60 shekels, and mentioned in Lk 19:12-25), the shekel (the basic unit of weight), and the half-mina. Daniel, however, “interpreted” the writing by reading the three words as verbs, mena’, “he counted”, teqal, “he weighed”, and peras, “he divided”, with God understood as the subject and Belshazzar and his kingdom understood as the object. Thus, God has “numbered” the days of Belshazzar’s reign. (Things that can be counted are few in number). God has “weighed” the king in the balance of justice and found him lacking in moral goodness. (The idea of the “scales” of justice, which goes back to an old Egyptian concept, is met with elsewhere in the OT: Jb 31:6; Ps 62:10; Prv 16:11, etc.). God has “divided” Belshazzar’s kingdom among the Medes and the Persians. For good measure, there is an additional pun on the last of the three words, prs, which is also read as pãras, “Persia”, “Persians”.

Fr. Hartman continues speculatively, and he concludes by equating King Belshazzar to the half-mina:

An older form of the conundrum may also have connected the word mãday, “Media”, “Medes”, with the root mdd, “measure”. The conundrum seems to have existed in an older form, independently of its present context. The statement that Belshazzar’s “kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians” does not fit well with the statement at the end of the story, according to which Belshazzar’s whole kingdom was handed over to the Medes, with no mention of the Persians. Ginsberg even opines that the conundrum was originally applied to the only three Babylonian kings who were known to the Jews of the Hellenistic period: the mina would stand for the great Nebuchadnezzar, the shekel for the insignificant Evil-merodach, and the half-mina for Belshazzar.


According to my revision of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, Evil-merodach was Belshazzar.







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