More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:


1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must attempt to do justice to the “weaker side.” Indeed, dialectic demands that one consider the strongest possible version of the other side, even if that means producing for one’s opponent a stronger argument than he can himself muster. Often the truth lies with the weaker argument, the one that has less rhetorical support, the one with less force before a popular audience.


2. [He] began something in this manner: “Man is the measure of all things: of those things which exist as he is; and of those things which do not exist as he is not.” And he used to say that nothing else was soul except the senses, as Plato says, in the Theaetetus; and that everything was true.

COMMENT: This is the most famous of the Protagorean doctrines, that “man is the measure of all things.” The Protagoras dialogue doesn’t directly engage with this statement of radical relativism. (The Theaetetus does however.) Joe Sachs in a footnote in his translation does say that the word anthropos occurs with a relatively high frequency in the Protagoras, subliminal gestures toward the infamous Protagorean doctrine, anthropos metron panton — “man is the measure of all things.”


3. And another of his treatises he begins in this way: “Concerning the Gods, I am not able to know to a certainty whether they exist or whether they do not. For there are many things which prevent one from knowing, especially the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of the life of man.” And on account of this beginning of his treatise, he was banished by the Athenians. And they burnt his books in the market-place, calling them in by the public crier, and compelling all who possessed them to surrender them.

COMMENT: Notice the epistemological modesty. He is not arguing that there are no gods. His agnosticism does not preclude believing in them. He does question whether humanity is adequate to understand them, which ought to induce some doubt into theology. Protagoras was a cultural conservative, who would probably have encouraged the standard pieties of the culture. Perhaps his point was that humans should focus on a properly human wisdom and not presume a wisdom higher than the human. Reasonable enough, yes?


4. He was the first person who demanded payment of his pupils; fixing his charge at a hundred minae.

COMMENT: This is a common charge that Socrates often leveled against the sophists, that they charged a fee for their services. (The truly remarkable fact is that Socrates didn’t. Our world has so accommodated itself to teaching as a paid vocation, that it is at least reflecting on what Socrates objection may be.) And the fees were large — 100 minae is a *lot* of money. To attempt to put that number in perspective, let’s attempt a rough conversion into American dollars. A mina equaled about a quarter of the wages earned annually by an agricultural worker. A mina was equal to 100 drachmae, a drachma being the equivalent of a day’s wage of a skilled worker. Comparing ancient to modern values is tricky, but  $45 USD per drachma is a reasonable guess. So full tuition for one of Protagoras’ students would be:

100 minae x 100 drachmae/mina x $45 USD/drachma = $450,000

An incredible sum! (As a ground of comparison, four years’ tuition to Harvard Medical School is currently about $200,000. Protagoras made over twice that per student!) Of course we must take these numbers with a grain of salt, but the price he demanded was probably quite exorbitant. Imagine the appeal of Protagoras for him to have received such sums. What could he be selling that would be worth so much? Socrates will caution in the Protagoras that adding a mercenary element into teaching can shift the incentive from learning to money. But there are other reasons to question the matter of accepting a fee for teaching.

Any one with a lit candle can light another without losing any light. In fact lighting a second candle only increases the light in the room. The sophists turn a good that can be sharable without diminishment — the light of wisdom — and either make it scarce by keeping it from non-payers or by replacing it with something that cannot be shared, such as a techne for gaining an advantage over others. In the Republic, Socrates will discuss the incentives that compel a philosopher to teach, but the answer presented there doesn’t come to bear in the Protagoras.


5. He was also the first person who gave a precise definition of the parts of time; and who explained the value of opportunity, and who instituted contests of argument, and who armed the disputants with the weapon of sophism.

COMMENT: When words are used as weapons or implements to gain an advantage over one’s disputant, the verbal contest is called “eristic” or “polemic.” Such an exchange of words designed to achieve victory requires that someone be denied victory. As I mentioned earlier, wisdom can be fully shared; it requires no exclusion. Verbal battles with winners/losers therefore cannot be about wisdom, but must be about imposing an opinion (doxa) at the expense of another’s opinion, perhaps to satisfy the thumos, the psychological seat of competitive striving that delights in victory and receiving honor. Contrariwise, dialectic is a verbal exchange in which each participant is interested in overcoming the partiality of their own opinions by entering into a cooperative quest for truth. The goal is not victory but agreement. Disagreement is not an occasion for abusing the other, but a challenge to overcome the limited perspective that is a feature of opining as such. This difference between eristic and dialectic is a vital distinction between sophist and philosopher.


6. He it was too who first left facts out of consideration, and fastened his arguments on words; and who was the parent of the present superficial and futile kinds of discussion.

COMMENT: We get a glimpse of this in the Protagoras dialogue — the degradation of an argument into a quibble over the proper meanings or interpretation of words. “Superficial” and “futile” are apt descriptions of this sort of deviant argument. In such cases the words distract from, rather than mediating, their engendering realities.


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