Protagoras of Abdera in Thrace was born in 490 BCE and died in the year 420 BCE. Being a sophist, he likely travelled throughout Greece, and spent many years in Athens.
Before we begin, let me offer some caution to his work. Because we have very few sources on Protagoras and his historical context highly influenced his thought, I find it appropriate to pause and consider these interpretive issues.
The Lack of Protagoras Sources
As with all other Pre-Socratics, we have very few sources to work with. Our main sources derive from Plato, Diogenes Laertius, and Sextus Empericus. The latter two authors wrote several hundred years after Protagoras, so we may not be complete confident in how reliable their sources were; however, we do obtain a lot of evidence for the Pre-Socratic thinkers from Diogenes Laertius.
Historical Context and the Sophists’ Tradition
We find that, around the fifth century B.C.E., many characterized the term “sophist” with those who were renowned for their great wisdom or those who professionally tutored pupils.
The Old Sophists, comprised of Protagoras, Prodicus, Gorgias, Euthydemus, Thrasymacus, and Hippias, pushed a philosophical agenda that we now characterize as religiously agnostic, morally and epistemologically relativistic, and rhetorically skilled. These older sophists all played an important role in Plato’s Protagoras.
Later in the 4th century BCE, the sophists were more or less like our present-day lawyers. They argued very well in public, and the Greeks often hired them for legal representation.
As a result, they became instrumental in the courts. Because the Sophists may have argued for either injustice or justice to win a case, the term took on a much more negative connotation. Now we know the term “sophistry” to denote deception or a deceptive argument.
The Three Major Themes Found in Protagoras’ Works
Orthoepeia, or the study of using words correctly. Many late sources credit Protagoras as the first formal grammarian, which equated to work in what we now consider syntax. We see in Plato’s Protagoras a scene in which Protagoras interprets a poem by comparing the writer’s intentions and the literal meaning of the words, a method popularly employed in the courtroom.
Man as the measure of all things. “Of all things, the measure is man, of the things that are, and how they are, and of things that are not, and how they are not” (Protagoras, DK80b1). Allow me to elaborate on this.
Consider a group of relatives coming home to Tennessee, perhaps the greatest of the united states, where they meet up in a house at room temperature. Jane and Wendy are two of the visitors we will focus on.
Jane insists that it feels cold in the house, while Wendy insists otherwise. Wendy is visiting from Northern Canada, a very cold place indeed, and Jane has come up from an area in North Brazil that sits on the very hot, Equator. Who else can best describe his or her bodily state or perceptions that the individual who experiences them?
Protagoras insisted that we could prove neither girl wrong. While this example is a bit silly, the philosophical implications, namely that absolute Truth has succumbed to relativism, certainly made a grand impression on the Ancient Greeks. Protagoras, in short, ultimately pushed a philosophical agenda of moral and epistemological relativism.
Agnosticism: do the gods exist? Protagoras didn’t know. The Sophists in general all ridiculed the epic accounts of the Greek gods, most notably because of the immoral and questionable actions of the gods.
Protagoras, on the other hand, certainly was not immoral. In fact, Plato painted Protagoras as a generous and upright man. Protagoras only said, “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.” (Protagoras, DK 80 B4).
Influence on Western Philosophy
Although Protagoras himself did not stir up any particular movement in intellectual history, the Sophists’ work in general turned Greek philosophy from the natural sciences to human philosophy. They caused Plato to combat their relativism with his own ideas on absolute Truth, or the World of Forms. And their thoughts still speak meaningfully into recent movements in relativism and subjectivity.
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