Protagoras  

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"Man is the measure of all things"--Protagoras cited by Socrates in Theaetetus by Plato

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Protagoras (ca. 490– 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 or teacher of virtue. He is also believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that man is the measure of all things. This idea was very revolutionary for the time and contrasting to other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside the human influence.

Philosophy

Protagoras was also renowned 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)".

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 has 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 particularly those that relate to his aristocratic background. His major effort, through the words of Socrates, is to convince his contemporaries that ἀρετή (aretē, virtue) is a present from the gods, which one either has or has not and that no sophist can teach virtue to people that do not already possess it. 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.

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" 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.

Relativism

Protagoras also said that on any matter, there are two arguments (logoi) opposed to one another, and according to Aristotle, Protagoras was criticized for having claimed "to make the weaker argument 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). Although knowledge of his work is limited, discussion of 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 the philosophy of Protagoras, there is no absolute evaluation of the nature of a temperature because the evaluation will be 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.

As with many fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, this phrase has been passed down through the ages, without any context, and consequently, its meaning is open to interpretation. His use of the word χρήματα (chrēmata, "things used") instead of the general word ὄντα (onta, "entities") signifies, however, that Protagoras was referring to things that are used by, or in some way, related to, humans, such as properties, social entities, ideas, feelings, judgments, which originate in the human mind. Protagoras did not suggest that humans must be the measure of the motion of the stars, the growing of plants, or the activity of volcanoes.

As many modern thinkers will, 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 what John Wild categorized as phenomenalism. That being an assertion that something that is, or appears for a single individual, is true or real for that individual.

However, as described in Plato's Theaetetus, Protagoras's views allow that some views may result from an ill body or mind. He stressed that although all views may appear equally true, and perhaps, should be equally respected, they certainly are not of equal gravity. One view may be useful and advantageous to the person who has it, while the perception of another may prove harmful. Hence, Protagoras believed that the sophist was there to teach the student how to discriminate between them, i.e., to teach "virtue".

Both Plato and Aristotle argue against some of Protagoras's claims regarding relativity; however, they argue that the concept provides Protagoras with too convenient an exemption from his own theory and that relativism is true for him yet false for those who do not believe it. They claim that by asserting that truth is relative, Protagoras then could say that whatever further theory he proposed must be true.

Because knowledge of most of his work is limited or missing, modern attempts to apply the Protagoras theory of relativism tend to result in disagreement and refer to scientific reasoning. Carol Poster states that with a modern preference toward scientific reasoning and objective truth, for example, rather than considering individuals evaluating their sense of comfort, a modern philosopher would look at a modern instrument, the thermometer, objectively to see the scientific measure of the temperature, whereas the Greek method would entail looking at larger philosophical implications.

See also

atheism, Protagoras (dialogue)





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