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Among the many interpretative challenges presented by Plato's Theaetetus is the meaning of a brief but striking image in 171d where the interlocutors are interrupted by Protagoras' popping his head up from the underworld to reproach them. The interpretation proposed below claims not only to offer a better account of the details of this passage than previous suggestions but also brings to light a neglected theme of the first half of this dialogue, its persistent and explicit concern with problems of interpreting philosophic texts. To appreciate this theme helps impose coherence on the sequence of arguments up to 171, and makes clear in addition that Theaetetus contributes to a recurrent concern in Plato's work that extends beyond the well-known end of Phaedrus: How are we to use texts to do philosophy when the author is not present to back up his quotations?
After Socrates has attacked Protagoras' "Man the Measure" dictum (B 1 DK) from a number of points of view, Theodorus objects that they are running down his friend too much. Socrates wants to make sure that he has given the sophist his due, and conjures him up to defend himself in a very peculiar epiphany:
Commentators have offered various suggestions as to why Protagoras should appear in this way, popping up only as far as his neck and then sinking down to run off. Because Protagoras had been dead at least ten years by the dramatic date of this conversation (142c), some have suggested that Plato portrays him here as a kind of stage ghost, rising up on "Charon's steps."(1) Certainly, Socrates' [Characters Omitted]and [Characters Omitted] [Characters Omitted] suggest that Protagoras somehow rises from and returns to the underworld.(2) Yet Charon's steps are first attested only in Pollux (iv.132), and it is not certain that they were ever used in Athens (Taplin, Stagecraft 447-48). Moreover, a reference to the theatre has no particular significance in context. Others would have Plato referring to the traditional story (first in Philochorus apud Diogenes Laertius 9.55) that Protagoras died by drowning; the point would be that the sophist returns to chide Socrates by sticking his head up out of the waves. Again, the joke seems gratuitous, and neither interpretation can make any sense of Protagoras' running away.
More recent commentators have sought to connect this passage with Socrates' arguments against Protagorean relativism, and in particular with his immediately preceding "very subtle" (171a6) but slippery attempt to make Protagoras' thesis refute itself. It has often been remarked (e.g., Vlastos, "Introduction" xiv n. 27) that Socrates only succeeds here by tacitly converting the thesis from a qualified form - "whatever anyone believes is true and is for that person" - to a more vulnerable version in which the qualifying phrase is omitted. From very different analyses of the philosophical argument, Edward N. Lee and Myles Burnyeat have argued that the image in 171d in a sense explains or justifies that move by symbolizing a pragmatic flaw with asserting Protagorean relativism. For Lee ("Ironic and Comic Elements"), Plato's omission of the crucial qualifier is deliberate but ironically appropriate, since Protagoras' relativism gives him no grounds to object to others' twisting his words in any way that "seems best" to them. Protagoras could meet objections to his thesis by insisting that it remains true for him, but if he does so he is condemned never to share fully in the human exchange of logos and forfeits any claim on others to treat him fairly. Lee interprets the imagery in 171d as suggesting that Protagoras is a plant: this is to be taken as Plato's subtle critique of one who would insist on remaining "rooted" or fixed in such a position; all he might add to a discussion of his views is information on how the world seems to him; but he cannot "leap out" of his world and join the exchange of other views.
Lee allowed that his suggestion of a plant was "bizarre" on its face, and Burnyeat was happy to confirm this judgment, adding that the interpretation is hard to square with Protagoras' running off at the end ("Protagoras and Self-Refutation" 193 n. 23). Indeed, nothing in Plato's language particularly evokes plants.(3) Burnyeat's own interpretation is part of a complex analysis of the argument designed to be charitable to Plato and to "mend Socrates' logic." But despite his different reconstruction of the argument, the merits of which do not concern us here (cf. Waterfield. Theaetetus 175-76, and Bostock, Plato's Theaetetus 90-91), Burnyeat ends up with an interpretation of the passage like Lee's. On his view, Protagoras might have been argued either into dropping the qualifier from his thesis or into taking refuge in the yet more qualified thesis that " It is true for Protagoras that every judgment is true for the person who holds it" ("Self-Refutation" 190). It is to forestall this latter way of escape that the image is used in 17]d: Burnyeat interprets the fact that Protagoras offers no explicit arguments in this appearance as indicating that none is possible; he runs away to signal that he "is not prepared to stay and defend it in discussion," for on Burnyeat's analysis his "only reply left amounts to a refusal to submit to dialectical discussion" (191). The image suggests that if Protagoras were to take this extreme defense, he "does not really leave the underworld. . . . His |refutation' or defense, in other words, just is a refusal to enter fully into a common world with his opponents for discussion" (193 n. 23).
These philosophical interpretations rescue Plato's image from appearing extravagant or irrelevant, but they are open to two general objections. The first is that both views assume that engaging in the exchange of speech is part of being fully human.(4) But this sounds like a humanist rather than Platonic idea; for Plato, an incapacity or distaste for dialectical argument would disqualify one from being a true philosopher, but hardly from being human. It is not to be assumed that refusing to enter into a philosophical discussion is "naturally" described as being half-dead, and a simpler explanation of this aspect of the image is available in that Protagoras was indeed dead at the time. The second general objection is that one searches in vain for parallels for Plato's defeating a person's argument only through insinuation. Of course a strong subjectivist position may be unassailable by straightforward arguments, and Plato was at times a rich and subtle caricaturist who could use a telling detail about a person to great effect. But to burden such brushstrokes with the weight of having to fill in the philosophical argument seems to abandon faith in the sufficiency of dialectical argument.
A more particular objection is that these interpretations leave unexplained certain details of the passage, especially its central and most emphatic point that Protagoras pops only up as far as his neck. Indeed, none of the interpretations previously proposed gives a convincing explanation of this detail on which Plato insists with the pleonastic [Characters Omitted].(5) This does not bring plants to mind; and even if we concede to Burnyeat that sticking one's head out of the ground is a "fair characterization" of the move to Protagoras' most qualified thesis, it is hardly a very apt one. Why, one may ask, does Protagoras not rise up to his waist, or to his ankles? Perhaps a reply might be that a head is all that is needed to allow the sophist to cast his …