I. Dramatic Contrasts: Education vs. "Education"
By way of makeshift summary, Protagoras begins with a warning about choosing teachers, for one chooses physical trainers with deliberation, and learning is more consequential than that, the effects of it left on the soul. Socrates goes with his young friend wanting to study under Protagoras to visit the man, and Socrates asks what a student may expect from him: the answer being, to better run affairs (of self, city) and to become better daily. Socrates wonders if it is indeed true that virtue can be taught because some parents fail to make their children better. Protagoras answers in a fable - about Epimetheus and Prometheus, ending with Zeus sending Hermes to end squabbling among men by distributing the civic art equally among men. That men believe virtue can be taught, Protagoras says, is proved by the fact that men get angry when justice is not upheld.
An ensuing discussion examines the "parts" of virtue (justice, temperance, holiness, courage), with the sophist being vague and Socrates pushing for precision (333d). He is met by Protagoras flip-flopping the argument, by maintaining an opposite opinion not necessarily relevant to the conversation (334a). Here, Socrates asks Protagoras to speak in shorter answers (since after all he claims to be an expert on form, 335b); Socrates says he is pressed for time and motions to leave but the audience does not let him.
On resuming the discussion, Protagoras begins not by giving his own thoughts on the matter but by citing a verse by Simonides, which he claims contradicts itself. This stymies Socrates, who involves an audience member in a ridiculous claim (341c) that he retracts and then faux-analyses (342b-) the poem by giving faux-arguments (that Simonides is content with what isn't evil so wouldn't have criticised the poet Pittacus' lines in his poem if what he had written wasn't such a great lie, or, the dogmatic stance that the poet meant there is a difference between being and becoming good - it seems to me this is fooling) longwindedly, with glimmers of truth (e.g. the abstract idea of that being/becoming idea when removed from the context of parody, or the concept that a good man withholds negative comment on things close to him).
This whole thing is ironic, because it is standing on the principle of education, the educated meant to know poetry, yet this knowledge is abused by the contrarian approach taken to it. Socrates then says that they should stop talking about poetry, which is like the flute girls used by common folk at wine parties to cover up for what they do not have to say: and since Socrates and Protagoras are "thorough gentlemen who have had a proper education ... men of culture" (347d-e). Socrates prevails upon Protagoras to speak for himself what he means (and this is where he ends up speaking the opposite to what he meant at the beginning). "Uncover more of your thoughts," Socrates significantly asks (352b).
The question of whether knowledge can govern a man is raised, given the problem of people who know better following their passions and doing harmful things. The problem is also raised that most people, who take the generally held view, would not be able to follow the conversation that ensues between these two interlocutors (e.g. 352b, 354e). I think the culmination is at 356d, where a distinction is drawn between measurement and appearance, which is why it is so significant that men err through a "defect of knowledge" 357b, because so much of what looks like measurement is actually appearance, appearance being acted out in this dialogue.
To end this summary, some lines from Jowett's introduction to the dialogue, which informed my understanding: In Protagoras, "There are dramatic contrasts and interests, threads of philosophy broken and resumed, satirical reflections on mankind, veils thrown over truths which are lightly suggested, and all woven together in a single design, and moving towards one end. ... The opposition between [Protagoras] and Socrates is not the opposition of good and bad, true and false, but of the old art of rhetoric and the new science of interrogation and argument; also of the irony of Socrates and the self-assertion of the Sophists. There is quite as much truth on the side of Protagoras as of Socrates; but the truth of Protagoras is based on common sense and common maxims of morality, while that of Socrates is paradoxical or transcendental, and though full of meaning and insight, hardly intelligible to the rest of mankind. ... to a great extent Protagoras has the best of the argument and represents the better mind of man. ... The force of argument, therefore, and not Socrates or Protagoras, has won the day. ... Plato means to say that virtue is not brought to a man, but must be drawn out of him; and cannot be taught by rhetorical discourses or citations from the poets."
II. An Experiment Lending Experience
So it is that this dialogue may be considered the "dialectic of experience" as opposed to knowledge because of the form in which it is presented. Any dogmatism of Protagoras (like of taking opposite stands) reaches the impasse of Socrates' imitation. Imitation is again flipped, the horizon of inquiry flashes, as Socrates proposes he and Protagoras imitate "thorough gentlemen who have a proper education", where, interestingly, Protagoras now imitates Socrates.
But it is not just a dialogue of opposites; not just about how (like Zeno's Eleatic dialectic) things change and become their opposite as one consistently thinks them through, but presents a hermeneutical experience, a happening. Problems with statements are revealed: they hide the horizon of meaning. (I cite Gadamer in this paragraph.)
While something is learned in Protagoras, it is far from dogmatic. It is forwarded that knowledge can be measurement, estimation of what is good, yet it is also forwarded that there is much appearance that leads to error. Can discernment be taught? The dialogue is not explicit so encourages interpretation, which is "necessary when the meaning of the text cannot be immediately understood where one is not prepared to trust what phenomenon is immediately present to us" to quote Gadamer. We are drawn into the dialectic, "the art of forming concepts through working out the common meaning" which is what the sum of Protagoras and Socrates (and all the other speakers in the dialogue present).
In contrast to the shallow analysis of Simonides' poem (it seemed more of a joke than serious to me, though I defer to Jowett who said it is uncertain how much of it is foolery), we are drawn into the experience of the dialogue and to "question the horizon of the question ... must go behind what is said" to arrive at meaning. The search for the meaning of a text, Gadamer writes, the hermeneutical undertaking, differs from reconstructing what an author had in mind (what Protagoras and Socrates did), which is a "limited undertaking".
It is significant that this experience of the process of the attempt to understand comes via dialogue. Gadamer writes of conversation that every conversation presupposes or creates a common language: something must be placed in the center they both share (this is taken to an extreme in Protagoras). In this way, ideas may be exchanged. Like Jowett wrote, the force of the argument, not the interlocutors, "wins the day" - this is because, to quote Gadamer, "in successful conversation they both come under the influence of the truth of the object and thus bound to one another in new community" and are transformed. A conversation is like interpretation because it is a circle closed by the dialectic of question and answer.
In this way, the four square man in Simonides' poem is met by a circle into which we are drawn. An experience of Plato's experiment. I have more to say about all this, in connection with Anne Carson's reading of the dialogue, but I am not sure if I should post more.
Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees; brush: Ewansim at DeviantART.