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Can Virtue Be Taught: Persuasive Essay

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Throughout the Socratic dialogue ‘Protagoras’, the sophist Protagoras argues that being virtuous can be taught. Protagoras argues that excellence can be taught, as it is an example of citizenship. He claims that “I am a sophist and I educate people”, most particularly how to teach students to be excellent speakers. On the other hand, Protagoras’ antagonist, Socrates, claims that virtue cannot be taught, leading both philosophers to argue whether or not virtue is either wisdom or knowledge. Socrates asks Protagoras if excellence is a single quality (of which justice, moderation, wisdom, and other virtues are part), or if it is actually many qualities. However, both parties’ arguments became inconclusive throughout their conversation, instead, both resorted to weak arguments, which was common for sophists to use (defending the indefensible). Therefore, leading to me to believe that Protagoras was wrong to think that excellence can be taught. To prove this, I shall first discuss Protagoras’ teaching method of making his students excellent speakers. Meanwhile, we shall also look at Socrates’ response to Protagoras’ supposed ‘teaching method’. After this, I shall then analyze Protagoras’ response, containing two arguments, I will then explain how these two arguments are weak especially when their main purpose is to counteract Socrates’ previous weak argument. In addition to this, I will also highlight how Protagoras shifted his argument from previously stating that everyone plays a part in political participation to everyone having the ‘capacity’ for political participation. Furthermore, I will then highlight the unity of virtues issue between both Socrates and Protagoras. Specifically analyzing Socrates’ question to Protagoras: ‘Can we be virtuous by having a virtue or by having all of them?’. Consequently, this essay will then conclude that Protagoras was wrong to say that excellence can be taught, as I agree with Socrates’ argument that excellence is a virtue by wisdom and cannot be taught. As well as Protagoras’ weak arguments in to attempt to prove that excellence can be taught.

Protagoras claims that he is ‘the wisest man alive’ and argues that he can make all of his students excellent speakers in both private and public settings. He goes on to say that he is able to do this by teaching his students ‘good judgment’. However, his antagonist, Socrates, argues that teaching students good citizenship is the same as teaching political wisdom, which is something that cannot be taught, as Socrates maintains his stance that virtue cannot be taught. Socrates gives two reasons why good citizenship cannot be taught: there are no recognized experts in politics within Athens, and good citizens don’t teach their sons to be good. Even though Socrates is using weak arguments here to strengthen his argument, both reasons do hold value. For example, during this time in Athens, the sons of the supposed ‘good’ citizens were morally corrupt, engaging in gambling, fornication, etc. In addition to this, even though Protagoras sought to teach excellence to Athenian young men, as a sophist, he was accused of disrupting the morality and religion of young men. Conservatives of the time saw sophists as corrupting the young with individualistic notions, paving the way for philosophical relativism. In my next argument, I shall look closely at Protagoras’ response, containing two arguments, I will then explain how these two arguments are weak in reinforcing the idea that excellence can be taught.

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After looking at Socrates` response to Protagoras’ claim that good citizenship can be taught, we shall now look at Protagoras’ response in an attempt to strengthen his argument, but in reality, he takes away the value of his argument even further, by changing his original stance on excellence being taught. Previously, Protagoras claimed that everyone can political participation. Whereas now he shifts his argument to say that everyone has the ‘capacity’ for political participation. By Protagoras using the word ‘capacity’, he is now arguing that everyone has the potential to be virtuous, but he previously stated that he is ‘the wisest man alive’ and can teach anyone to be virtuous. He then goes on to support his new claim that everyone has the ‘capacity to be virtuous’, by presenting two arguments to reinforce it: the myth of Prometheus and an account of daily practice in Athens. Here, Protagoras is attempting to assert the idea that if one can witness political discussion within a community, it then shows that they have the capacity for good citizenship (virtue). As without political discussion, in Protagoras’ opinion, how can we have a city? Moreover, Protagoras then introduces a third argument to strengthen his claim by stating that everyone is a teacher of excellence, to the best of his ability. Instantly, this argument conjures up a huge weakness. It leads to one begging the question: ‘How can one teach excellence if they themselves don’t acquire pure excellence?’. Even Athens society during this period argued against the sophist’s influence. They did not agree with Protagoras`s notion of excellence, as they felt the sophists’ method of winning an argument was flawed. For example, Protagoras believed that there are two contradicting arguments about everything, thus creating a neutral rhetorical claim. Defending the indefensible by using weaker arguments and winning debates, which many conservatives felt was not excellence, and instead was corrupting the youth of Athens.

In my next argument, I shall discuss in further detail why excellence cannot be taught, most specifically looking at Socrates’ claim that no one can acquire perfect virtue. I will also be analyzing the unity of virtues issue, looking at Protagoras’ reasoning of what excellence really is. As previously stated, Protagoras now claims that everyone is a teacher of excellence, to the best of his ability. But this causes major contradictions, as to teach excellence, the teacher must surely possess the virtue of excellence. But to possess the virtue of excellence, in Protagoras’ opinion, one must also possess the aspects of excellence (soundness of mind, wisdom, holiness, courage) to have pure excellence. However, this can cause major issues for one aiming to be virtuous, as it now begs the question: ‘Can we be virtuous by having virtue or do we need to possess all virtues?’. Socrates puts this question to Protagoras, and Protagoras comes up with a meaningful analogy that helps explain his viewpoint. For example, he argues that the different parts of the face (eyes, ears, mouth, nose, etc.) all unify together to create a face. Without them, we wouldn’t have a face. On the other hand, even though Protagoras gives a good example here to reinforce his point, it still does not mean that excellence can be taught. Simonides’ poem supports Socratic views regarding the acquisition and retention of virtue. Overall, it argues that it is difficult to acquire perfect virtue. Therefore, it brings us back to Protagoras’ previous claim that everybody is a teacher of excellence. One cannot teach excellence if they do not possess the virtue of excellence, which is, in Socrates’ view, very hard to achieve.

In conclusion, I maintain my stance that Protagoras was wrong in thinking that excellence can be taught, as Protagoras made a series of weak arguments that actually contradicted his claim that excellence can be taught. Most specifically, him arguing that everybody is a teacher of excellence, but how can one teach excellence if everyone only has the ‘capacity’ for political participation, thus in order to teach excellence should the teacher, themselves, acquire pure excellence. I came to this conclusion by starting with my first argument, in which I presented Socrates’ two arguments against Protagoras’ claim that the virtue of good citizenship can be taught by himself. An example of this can be seen in Socrates’ argument that good citizens do not teach their sons to be virtuous. Here, I explained the corrupt lives of the Athenian youth at that period which reinforced Socrates’ response to Protagoras. Next, in my second argument, I analyzed Protagoras’ response, containing two arguments. By doing this, I was able to highlight and explain how Protagoras had shifted his argument that he is ‘the wisest man alive’ to teach excellence to only having the ‘capacity’ to teach excellence. Finally, I then highlighted the unity of virtues issue between both Socrates and Protagoras. Specifically analyzing Socrates' question to Protagoras whether we can be virtuous by having the virtues or by having them all, adding meaning to Socrates' disagreement with Protagoras, I explained Simonides' poem and how it supports Socrates' claim.


  1. Beresford, Adam (2008). 'Nobody's Perfect: A New Text and Interpretation of Simonides Poetry. Classical Philology.
  2. Burnet, J., Plato., Protagoras. Opera, Vol. III (Oxford University Press, 1922).
  3. Silvermintz, Daniel (2016). Protagoras. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
  4. Taylor, C.C.W. and Mi-Kyoung Lee. 'The Sophists'. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
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