|Born||c. 490 BC 
|Died||c. 420 BC|
|Main interests||language, semantics, relativism, rhetoric, agnosticism, ethics|
|Notable ideas||‘Sophist’ as teacher for hire, ‘Man is the measure of all things’|
Protagoras (//; Greek: Πρωταγόρας; c. 490 BC – c. 420 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and is numbered as one of the sophists by Plato. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato credits him with having invented the role of the professional sophist. He is also believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that “man is the measure of all things”, meaning that there is no truth but that which individuals deem to be the truth. This idea was revolutionary for the time and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside the human influence.
Protagoras was born in Abdera, Thrace, in Ancient Greece. According to Aulus Gellius, he originally made his living as a porter, but one day he was seen by the philosopher Democritus carrying a load of small pieces of wood tied with a short cord. Democritus discovered that Protagoras had tied the load himself with such perfect geometric accuracy that it revealed him to be a mathematic prodigy. He immediately took him into his own household and taught him philosophy.
In Plato’s Protagoras, before the company of Socrates, Prodicus, and Hippias, he states that he is old enough to be the father of any of them. This suggests a date of not later than 490 BC. In the Meno he is said to have died at about the age of 70 after 40 years as a practicing Sophist. His death, then, may be assumed to have occurred circa 420. He was well known in Athens and became a friend of Pericles.
Plutarch relates a story in which the two spend a whole day discussing an interesting point of legal responsibility, that probably involved a more philosophical question of causation: “In an athletic contest a man had been accidentally hit and killed with a javelin. Was his death to be attributed to the javelin itself, to the man who threw it, or to the authorities responsible for the conduct of the games?”
Protagoras was also known as a teacher who addressed subjects connected to virtue and political life. He was especially involved in the question of whether virtue could be taught, a commonplace issue of 5th century Greece related to modern readers through Plato’s dialogue. Rather than educators who offered specific, practical training in rhetoric or public speaking, Protagoras attempted to formulate a reasoned understanding, on a very general level, of a wide range of human phenomena, including language and education. In Plato’s Protagoras, he claims to teach “the proper management of one’s own affairs, how best to run one’s household, and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city by word and action”.
He also seems to have had an interest in “orthoepeia” – the correct use of words, although this topic is more strongly associated with his fellow sophist Prodicus. In his eponymous Platonic dialogue, Protagoras interprets a poem by Simonides, focusing on his use of words, their literal meaning and the author’s original intent. This type of education would have been useful for the interpretation of laws and other written documents in the Athenian courts. Diogenes Laërtius reports that Protagoras devised a taxonomy of speech acts such as assertion, question, answer, command, etc. Aristotle also says that Protagoras worked on the classification and proper use of grammatical gender.
The titles of his books such as The Technique of Eristics (Technē Eristikōn, literally “On wrestling”, with wrestling here used as a metaphor for intellectual debate) prove that Protagoras was also a teacher of rhetoric and argumentation. Diogenes Laërtius states that he was one of the first to take part in rhetorical contests in the Olympic games. Protagoras also said that on any matter there are two arguments (logoi) opposed to one another and, according to Aristotle, he was criticized for having claimed to “make the weaker logos stronger (ton hēttō logon kreittō poiein)”.
Protagoras is credited with the philosophy of relativism, which he discusses in his work Truth (also known as Refutations). Though knowledge of his work is limited, Protagoras’ relativism is based on one of his most famous statements: “Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are, of the things that are not that they are not.” By this, Protagoras meant that each individual is the measure of how things are perceived by that individual. Therefore, things are or are not true according to how the individual perceives them. For example, Person X may believe that the weather is cold, whereas Person Y may believe that the weather is hot. According to Protagoras’ philosophy, there is no definite temperature because the state of the weather is relative to who is perceiving it. Therefore, to Person X, the weather is cold, whereas to Person Y, the weather is hot. This philosophy implies that there are no absolute truths. The truth, according to Protagoras, is relative, and differs according to each individual. Because knowledge of most of his work is limited, modern applications of Protagoras’ theory of relativism tend to disagree and refer to scientific reasoning. Poster says that with a modern preference towards scientific reasoning and objective truth. For example, we would look at a thermometer to objectively see the temperature, whereas the Greek method would look at larger philosophical implications when possible.
His most famous saying is: “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”. Like many fragments of the Presocratics, this phrase has been passed down to us without any context, and its meaning is open to interpretation. However, the use of the word χρήματα (chrēmata) instead of the general word ὄντα (onta, “entities”) signifies that Protagoras was referring to things that are used by or in some way related to humans. This makes a great difference in the meaning of his aphorism. Properties, social entities, ideas, feelings, judgements, etc. are certainly χρήματα and hence originate in the human mind. However, Protagoras never suggested that man must be the measure of the motion of the stars, the growing of plants, or the activity of volcanoes. Such views (together with his views about the gods) were considered subversive by the contemporary political elites. Like many modern thinkers, Plato ascribes relativism to Protagoras and uses his predecessor’s teachings as a foil for his own commitment to objective and transcendent realities and values. Plato ascribes to Protagoras an early form of phenomenalism, in which what is or appears for a single individual is true or real for that individual. However, as it is clearly presented in the Theaetetus, Protagoras explains that some of such controversial views may result from an ill body or mind. He stresses that although all views may appear equally true, and perhaps should be equally respected, they are certainly not of equal gravity. One may be useful and advantageous to the person that has it while another may prove harmful. Hence, the sophist is there to teach the student how to discriminate between them, i.e., to teach virtue. However, both Plato and Aristotle argue with some of Protagoras’ claims regarding relativity. They argue that it provides Protagoras with too convenient of an exemption from his own theory, and that relativism is true for him yet false for those who do not believe it. Because truth is relative, they claim, then Protagoras may say that whatever further theory he proposes must be true.
Protagoras was a proponent of agnosticism. In his lost work, On the Gods, he wrote: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.”(DK80b4) According to Diogenes Laërtius, the outspoken agnostic position taken by Protagoras aroused anger, causing the Athenians to expel him from the city, and all copies of the book were collected and burned in the marketplace; this is also mentioned by Cicero. However, the Classicist John Burnet doubts this account, as both Diogenes Laërtius and Cicero wrote hundreds of years later and no such persecution of Protagoras is mentioned by contemporaries who make extensive references to this philosopher. Burnet notes that even if some copies of Protagoras’ book were burned, enough of them survived to be known and discussed in the following century.
Very few fragments from Protagoras have survived, though he is known to have written several different works: Antilogiae and Truth. The latter is cited by Plato, and was known alternatively as The Throws (a wrestling term referring to the attempt to floor an opponent). It began with the “man the measure” (ἄνθρωπος μέτρον) pronouncement. According to Diogenes Laërtius other books by Protagoras include: On the Gods, Art of Eristics, Imperative, On Ambition, On Incorrect Human Actions, On those in Hades, On Sciences, On Virtues, On the Original State of Things and Trial over a Fee.
- Guthrie, p. 262–263.
- Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, V.iii.
- Plato, Meno, 91e
- O’Sullivan, Neil. (1995) “Pericles and Protagoras”. Greece & Rome, Vol. 42 (1): 15-23
- Guthrie, p. 263.
- Plutarch, Life of Pericles
- Plato, Protagoras, (319a)
- Poster, Carol (2005) . “Protagoras”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- “The Sophists (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2012-05-01.
- Mattey, G.J. “Protagoras on Truth”. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Bostock, D (1988). Plato’s Theaetus. Oxford.
- Poster, Carol. “Protagoras”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- (80B1 DK).
- This quotation is recapitulated in Plato’s Theaetetus at 152a. Sextus Empiricus gives a direct quotation in Adv. math. 7.60: πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν. The translation “Man is the measure…” has been familiar in English since before the rise of gender-neutral language; in Greek, Protagoras makes a general statement, not about men, but about human beings (his word is anthrōpos).
- See e.g. John Wild, “On the Nature and Aims of Phenomenology,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3 (1942), p. 88: “Phenomenalism is as old as Protagoras.”
- Lee, Mi-Kyoung (2005). Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to relativism in Plato, Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926222-5.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Protagoras (c. 490 – c. 420 BCE), Accessed: October 6, 2008. “While the pious might wish to look to the gods to provide absolute moral guidance in the relativistic universe of the Sophistic Enlightenment, that certainty also was cast into doubt by philosophic and sophistic thinkers, who pointed out the absurdity and immorality of the conventional epic accounts of the gods. Protagoras’ prose treatise about the gods began “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.”
- (80B4 DK)
- Cicero, de Natura Deorum, 1.23.6
- John Burnet, “Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Plato”, 1914
- Guthrie, W. K. C., The Sophists. New York: Cambridge University Press (May 27, 1977). ISBN 0-521-09666-9.
- Protagoras of Abdera: The Man, His Measure. Brill, 2013. ISBN 978-90-04-25120-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-90-04-25124-3 (e-book)
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Protagoras|
- Protagoras entry by Carol Poster in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Protagoras, translated by Robert Drew Hicks (1925).
|Short description||pre-Socratic Greek philosopher|
|Date of birth||c. 490 BC|
|Place of birth||Abdera|
|Date of death||c. 420|
|Place of death|