Protagoras of Abdera was a Thracian Grammarian who became very wealthy teaching rich guys how to defend themselves in court in Ancient Greece during the Negative Fifth Century. Protagoras is commonly known as the first of the "sophists". This means that he was the first guy that figured out how to make money being a private tutor. Also, the Sophists did not found schools or communities around themselves, instead they wandered the country, teaching any who could pay their fees.

This aroused contempt in some, especially the old aristocracy. The Aristocrats' pet philosopher, Socrates, was particularly fond of insulting the Sophists for teaching for money. But it got Protagoras a nice big house. And it helped democratize the arts of speech and debate. And you (English majors, I'm looking at you) get the satisfaction of knowing that at least somewhere, at least sometime, being an grammar teacher was a really profitable enterprise.


We don't know much about Protagoras, but we do know that he was a friend of the great Athenian democrat Pericles (the FDR of Ancient Athens), and Pericles had him write the laws of the new colony of Thurii in 443. This is presented as conclusive evidence that the two were close in every biographical sketch that I have read of Protagoras. But I have no idea where Thurii is, and by now I find this funny enough that I refuse to learn.

In addition to hobnobbing with flaming democrats like Pericles, and offering to teach anyone, Protagoras has his own Platonic dialogue. The Protagoras, although written with Plato's usual casual contempt for the truth, is the only dialogue in which a Sophist is presented with any degree of grudging respect. And Protagoras provides the only defense of Democracy seen in any of Plato's writings (Protagoras, 322). Progatoras argues that while certain skills (such as leather tanning or painting easter eggs) are unevenly divided amongst men, justice and political virtue are spread among all evenly by the gods, so that cities may be sustained. This is so uncharacteristic of Plato's writings that I tend to assume Protagoras had told the same speech many times and it was common knowledge at the time Plato wrote the dialogue, so he couldn't ignore it. This tells us a bit about Protagoras's true beliefs, which is helpful, because...


"With regard to the gods, I cannot feel sure either that they are or that they are not, nor what they are like in figure; for there are many things that hinder sure knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life."

"Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that they are not that they are not."

Everything else is just supposition.

Note that this statement: "Protagoras asserted that there are two sides to every question, exactly opposite to each other" is a quote by Diogenes Laertius, written six centuries after Protagoras died, discussing his Sophist philosophy, and is not a direct quote of Protagoras.


Protagoras is often referred to as a relativist, but let's be sure what this actually means. There are several ways to unpack the statement "Man is the measure of all things", and the simplest is to simply indicate a belief in Empiricism. Coupled with his avowed Agnosticism it would make sense that Protagoras would believe that the senses are the sources of our knowledge, and he would eschew mystical explanations. Today, Protagoras would probably be called a rational skeptic AKA a scientist.

But Protagoras's skepticism runs deep, and if we are to take anything written about him seriously, we must agree that he was so skeptical that he refused to believe that we could ever really know anything. But since we need to exist and function in the world (those of us who irrationally decide against suicide, that is), we need to behave as if something is real -- the only way to do this is to pick a measure of reality and stick to it. Most people happen to choose religion or other mystical explanations (maybe they're all mystical explanations) but Protagoras chooses the individual. That makes a lot of sense to us, and it made a lot of sense to the Ancient Greeks. It did not, however, make a lot of sense to the people living in between us, which is one of the reasons Protagoras is an obscurity and Plato is known to all.


Now we come to the joining point for understanding what Protagoras must mean for us today. Nothing is certain, we are all our own judges, and yet we must live in a society. This does not lead, as critics amateurishly prescribe, to nihilism. Instead, Protagoras argues the basic fundamental reasoning behind Democracy. We can't really be sure, and none of us can know, what the real absolute truth is -- but each man can be a measure of reality. Since we are all given these understandings, the only right form of government is government by the many: Democracy.

Later Philosophers would iron out Protagoras's crude arguments. But by thinking about him this way it is not difficult to see why Pericles loved him, and why Plato respected and hated him.

Protagoras was skeptical of his own knowledge, and the knowledge of others. He loved science. He thought above all else, that language, debate, and discussion between equals was our highest calling. And he really liked money. He was the first Sophist.

References supplied upon request. But I knew most of this without looking it up.

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