Monday, January 17, 2011

σωτηρία τοῦ βίου

I’ve been thinking about the description of the ‘measuring art’ at the end of Plato’s Protagoras as the ‘saviour of our life’ or perhaps the ‘preservation of our life’ (356d3: σωτηρία τοῦ βίου). Does anyone know of any specific discussion of this term? [Update: Ah! How could I have forgotten Nussbaum in FOG ch. 4? That's my next port of call.]  Anyway, this is as far as I have got on my own.

A quick glance at the use of the term sōtēria in other authors suggests that it is mainly used in cases in tragedy, for example, when a character hopes or despairs for their lot. Here sōtēria is something wished for. It is simple survival. A similar use can be found in Thucydides. A broader meaning of ‘preservation (sc. of one’s current state)’ can be found in other writers such as Aristotle.

Commentators have rightly wondered whether the measuring skill is offered to Protagoras in part because Socrates cheekily alludes to the sophist’s most famous pronouncement that ‘man is the measure’. But Socrates’ use of the term sōtēria here for his proposed art of measurement is  another allusion to another originally Protagorean idea, this time taken from earlier in the dialogue itself. As part of his great speech, Protagoras had told a story of how Epimetheus set about arranging a division of powers between the various new species of living creatures. sōtēria occurs there too.

320e3: To some animals he gave claws or horns and to others he gave some other means for their sōtēria.

321b6: Those species who were preyed upon by others he made more numerous for the sōtēria of the species

321c8ff.: As a means of sōtēria for mankind, Prometheus gave them fire and technical skill (entekhnos sophia sun puri).

Here, sōtēria seems also to mean survival or preservation. Some animals have claws in order not to starve; others are numerous so that they do not become extinct through predation. Humans were able to survive despite their lack of physical defences against predation and the elements due to their intellectual abilities.

This is interesting to me because the measuring art at the end of the Protagoras is often compared with a hedonic calculus and imagined to be a means of maximising pleasure over a life. This maximising role does not seem to me to be well captured in the term sōtēria, which would seem rather to suggest that the measuring art is there to prevent us from falling prey to our own ignorant or unthinking appraisal of goods. Socrates is perhaps, in that case, cleverly turning the possibility of akrasia or, rather, the ignorance often mistakenly taken to be akrasia, into a threat to our lives as pressing as the need to avoid hunger, cold, thirst, and the attentions of naturally much better armed creatures.


Dhananjay said...

This phrase is a highly suggestive link between the discussion of pleasure and the earlier material in the dialogue. On P.'s account, it's political skill or wisdom that makes cities and human life possible. As the counterpart to the various faculties distributed to the other creatures for their survival, the suggestion is that this skill, although not simply innate, is part of our inheritance, something we all receive in virtue of being human and living human lives (i.e., in communities that will necessarily see to our moral upbringing; one thinks of Aristotle's comment in EN II 1 about our being naturally suited to receive the virtues, which are then perfected by habit.) This is made explicit in Hermes' question to Zeus at the end of the myth - 'should I give this skill to just a few as I did with the rest or to all?' Zeus' command that it be given to all adds a quasi-nomological necessity to the possession of political virtue.

Socrates' model for a skill that will save us is, on the other hand, relentlessly theoretical and plainly beyond most people to achieve. Indeed, as the argument seeks to show, most people do not even know what they are doing when they pursue pleasure as good, and such self-awareness is no doubt essential to possession of a skill (in order, for instance, to calibrate one's scales appropriately).

James Warren said...

That's interesting. I wondered if there might be a distinction between the arts stolen from Athena and Hephaistus at 321c-322a and the art of political organisation, justice, friendship etc. sent by Hermes on Zeus' orders. Still, that too is said to be in order to protect humans from beasts (322b) and to prevent them from dying out as a species (322c). Even so, there seems to me to be a difference between some means by which survival (individual or species) is ensured and the view of the measuring art as a means to maximise the good in a life. The odd episode of akrasia doesn't seem to me to be very much like being savaged by a wolf or freezing to death.

Saibancho said...

Its a PhD from 2008 but might be interesting (probably available upon request in one form or another)

Parsons, C. E., Sketching the Soteria Tou Biou. Plato and the Art of Measurement.

from Durham University, Dept. of Classics and Ancient History

James Warren said...

Excellent -- I'll try to get hold of a copy. Thanks.

Dhananjay said...

I've recently discovered the British Library's EThOS system, which offers digitised copies of nearly all PhDs written in the UK, nearly all, it seems, gratis. "Sketching the Soteria Tou Biou" is available there, but has not been previously digitised, a process which can take 30 days.

James Warren said...

Yes. I've just ordered it.