Protagoras [with Biographical Introduction]

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The emergence of this new profession, which was an extension to new areas of the tradition of the itinerant rhapsode reciter of poems, especially of Homer , was a response to various social, economic, political and cultural developments of the period. The increasing wealth and intellectual sophistication of Greek cities, especially Athens, created a demand for higher education beyond the traditional basic grounding in literacy, arithmetic, music and physical training.

To some extent this involved the popularization of Ionian speculation about the physical world see Presocratic Philosophy , which was extended into areas such as history, geography and the origins of civilization. The increase in participatory democracy, especially in Athens, led to a demand for success in political and forensic oratory, and hence to the development of specialized techniques of persuasion and argument.

Finally, the period saw the flourishing of a challenging, rationalistic climate of thought on questions including those of morality, religion and political conduct, to which the sophists both responded and contributed. It is important to emphasize the individualistic character of the sophistic profession; its practitioners belonged to no organization, shared no common body of beliefs and founded no schools, either in the sense of academic institutions or in that of bodies of individuals committed to the promulgation of specific doctrines. In what follows we shall illustrate the diversity of sophistic activities, while considering the extent to which we can nevertheless identify common themes and attitudes.

A key figure in the emergence of this new type of sophist was Protagoras of Abdera, a subject city of the Athenian empire on the north coast of the Aegean. Abdera was also the birthplace of Democritus, whom some later sources represented as the teacher of Protagoras. In all probability Democritus was the younger of the two by about thirty years, and the only solid evidence of intellectual relations between them is a statement by Plutarch Against Colotes.

Protagoras Biography - Childhood, Life Achievements & Timeline

Protagoras was one of the earliest sophists; as presented in Plato's Protagoras one of our principal sources for Protagoras' life and activities as a teacher he says c that he is old enough to be the father of anyone present, who included rival sophists Hippias and Prodicus, while another Plato passage Meno 91e says that he practised as a sophist for over forty years till his death at about seventy probably about BC.

Can we form any conception of the means by which this ambitious project of education in self-improvement and good citizenship was to be put into effect? It is at least plausible that this complex of themes, including the development of civilization from primitive beginnings, the nature of social virtue and its foundation in human nature, represents some of the content of Protagoras' actual teaching; the list of titles of his works preserved by Diogenes Laertius IX. Later in the dialogue he provides a critical reading of a poem of Simonides, saying that the ability to specify the good and bad parts of a poem and to justify one's criticisms is a very important part of education e—a.

Relevantly to this, he is reported as a pioneer of some aspects of linguistic theory, and of its application to literary criticism. He wrote on correctness in language orthoepeia, Plato, Phaedrus c : he is said to have devised a taxonomy of speech acts into assertion, question, answer, command etc. Diogenes Laertius IX. It is unclear whether these topics and their application to literary criticism are seen primarily as part of an individual's cultural refinement, something valuable for its own sake, or whether the aim is to be able to incorporate exegesis and criticism of poets in forensic or political speeches, as one tactic in argument and persuasion.

In any event, we do have some evidence for Protagoras' teaching of techniques of argument. Arguments Kataballontes. So Protagoras taught argumentative strategies, but we have comparatively little evidence of what these actually were. Socrates' description of the audience's loud applause d10—e1 is one of the many indications that sophistic argumentative contests had the status of a spectator sport, even to the extent of figuring among the sideshows at the great athletic festivals; in Plato's Lesser Hippias c—a Hippias describes how he goes regularly to the Olympic Games to take part in contests of question and answer and has never yet been beaten, and similarly Protagoras says that he has had verbal contests with many people, and that he would never have become celebrated if he had allowed his opponents to dictate the rules of the contest Prot.

According to Diogenes Laertius IX. The technique of adversarial argument clearly has some connection with two specific claims for which Protagoras was famous or notorious. According to Diogenes Laertius he was the first to maintain that on any matter there are two theses, statements or perhaps arguments logoi opposed to one another IX.

The Man, His Measure

While relativism, particularly in the area of morality, is popularly seen as characteristic of sophists generally see Bett , in fact Protagoras is the only sophist to whom ancient sources ascribe relativistic views, and even in his case the evidence is ambiguous. In the Theaetetus our principal source for this aspect of Protagoras' teaching this is interpreted as a claim of the relativity of the truth of all judgments to the experience or belief of the individual making the judgment, i. On that interpretation, the way things seem to an individual is the way they are in fact for that individual.

First illustrated by Socrates, who quotes this sentence, as a claim concerning sensory appearances, e. If the wind feels cold to me, and I consequently believe that it is cold, there is no objective fact of the matter by reference to which that belief can be false; but if I believe that infanticide is wrong, whereas infanticide is sanctioned by the laws and customs of the state of which I am a citizen, then my belief is straightforwardly false, though of course it would come to be true if the state of which I am a citizen changed its laws and customs so as to condemn infanticide.

Within a single Platonic dialogue, then, Protagoras is represented as maintaining both universal subjectivism and limited social relativism, though those two versions of relativism are mutually inconsistent. And there is a further twist. In the very passage of the Theaetetus where, according to Socrates, Protagoras maintains the social relativity of moral judgments b—c , he gives a pragmatic justification of the role of the expert, both in the individual and in the social context.

In the individual case, while no appearance is truer than any other, some appearances are better than others, and it is the role of the expert for instance, the doctor to produce better appearances instead of worse as those appearances are then judged even by the patient ; while in the case of cities, some judgments of what is just etc.

He adds c7—d1 that the sophist improves those whom he educates in the same way, implying that not merely collective judgments but also individual judgments about what? This account of the role of the expert may imply that there are matters of fact of what is better and worse independent of the judgement of those whom the expert persuades. That persuasion presupposes that the question of what is in the city's long-term interest is a matter of fact, not merely a matter of how it now seems to the city.

The evidence of the Theaetetus on Protagorean relativism is therefore ambiguous, since in that dialogue he is represented as maintaining a universal subjectivism, b social relativism in morality and c objective realism on questions of advantage. The evidence of Aristotle and Democritus transmitted by Sextus indicates that he did in fact maintain a , but leaves it open whether the attribution to him of b and c is historically accurate, thereby indicating inconsistency on his part, or is due to misinterpretation, deliberate or inadvertent, on the part of Plato. The portrayal in the Protagoras shows little trace of relativism, either individual or social; instead he maintains that the essential social virtues are justice and self-restraint, and that without universal inculcation of those virtues the survival of society is impossible.

These claims are presented as universal truths; there is not the slightest suggestion that in making them Protagoras is merely expressing a preference for these virtues which happens to prevail, e. It is clearly implied by his exposition that no such city could exist. On the assumption, adopted above, that the presentation of Protagoras' social teaching in the dialogue is in essentials intended to be historically accurate, we must conclude that Protagoras recognised certain objective truths, not merely on questions of advantage, but in some fundamentals of morality, and consequently that his basic position was inconsistent.

Yet a further epistemological position is attributed to Protagoras in a papyrus fragment of the biblical commentator Didymus the Blind fourth century CE , published in In this he appears neither as a subjectivist nor as a social relativist, but as a sceptic. On this account there is an objective fact of the matter, which is undiscoverable because different individuals have different appearances of what is the case, whereas given subjectivism there is no fact of the matter over and above the individual appearances which establish how each thing is for the one being appeared to.

This might be yet another inconsistency on the part of Protagoras, but if so it is one which has no confirmation from any other source. It is more likely that what the fragment presents is a garbled instance of Protagorean subjectivism. Since the subjectivist thesis is that every belief is true for the person who has it, from the premisses that A believes that I am sitting and B does not believe that I am sitting because B has no belief one way or the other , the correct Protagorean conclusion is not that it is unclear whether I am sitting or not sitting, but that it is true for A that I am sitting and that it is neither true for B that I am sitting nor true for B that I am not sitting.

All of this leaves it unclear what we are to make of the assertion that on every matter there are two logoi opposed to one another, and the claim to make the weaker logos the stronger.

The former cannot be understood as the assertion of universal subjectivism, since it is in fact inconsistent with it. Given universal subjectivism, the claim that the wind is cold for me is not opposed to the claim that it is warm for you, since both are relatively true.

Nor, for the same reason, can it be understood as an assertion of social relativism: the assertion that for girls to exercise naked is shameful in Athens is not opposed to the claim that it is not shameful in Sparta. Perhaps we should not try to tie this claim tightly to any general metaphysical position, but interpret it more loosely as the claim that that on a great many matters there are two sides to the question.

What this might involve is perhaps indicated by the so-called Dissoi Logoi i. This text consists for the most part of a series of short discussions of pairs of standardly opposed moral properties, e. Mostly the arguments for identity depend on the relativity of the application of the property, e. Plainly, there is no inconsistency between the theses of identity and of non-identity, and it is not clear that the reader is supposed to be required to choose one rather than the other.

Similarly, the claim to make the weaker logos the stronger has nothing to do with relativism, either individual or social. Since, as we have seen, relativized beliefs are not in conflict with one another, arguments in favor of them are not in conflict either, and hence neither the beliefs themselves nor the arguments in favor of them can be weaker or stronger than one another.

Aristotle's evidence in the Rhetoric passage cited above indicates that the context of the claim is that of forensic oratory, and specifically that the arguments in question are arguments from what is likely or plausible, e. In any case of this kind, where it is assumed that the facts cannot be established with certainty, considerations of what is plausible may, given sufficient ingenuity, be adduced on either side, and similar arguments can be adduced in the context of political deliberation, where the future outcome cannot be certain and the decision has to turn on the balance of probabilities.

It is likely, then, that this slogan was a sales pitch for Protagoras as a teacher of forensic and deliberative rhetoric.

Protagoras - New World Encyclopedia

How ambitious the claim was is hard to determine. It is hard to believe that he ventured to claim always to make the prima facie weaker case carry the day which is equivalent to the claim to make every case whatever carry the day , but equally implausible that he merely claimed to make the weaker case stronger than it was before he devised arguments in its favor.

Plato's Protagoras -- Brief Introduction

Perhaps he simply claimed that he was capable, in the appropriate circumstances, of devising arguments which would turn the weaker case into the stronger one. If so, the claim was both reasonable and, despite Aristotle's strictures, not necessarily morally discreditable. Of course, a defence counsel who secured an acquittal on these grounds while knowing independently that Leon was guilty would deserve Aristotle's disapproval. To complete our account of Protagoras' views on language and reality we need to mention the thesis that it is impossible to say what is false, which occurs in three Platonic passages, Euthydemus a—c, Theaetetus d—a and Sophist e—e.

Hence, since of contradictory statements one must be false, it is not possible to contradict ouk estin antilegein Euthydemus b. In the case of the latter two the thesis connects with other more general theses about language which they are reported to have held. Thus Cratylus has attributed to him by Plato the thesis that each thing has its own proper name, which expresses, through its etymology, the nature of the things it names, and which has significance only when correctly applied, but is otherwise a mere empty sound.

Hence there can no such thing as the misapplication of a name since a misapplied name is not a name, but a mere sound , and hence no such thing as a false statement, since it is assumed every false statement involves the misapplication of some name. Similarly Antisthenes held that each thing has its own proper definition or description, which cannot be applied to anything else, from which again the impossibility of falsehood follows. In the case of Protagoras it is hard to find any such connection.


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On the most plausible construal of subjectivism no one's belief can contradict anyone else's belief, but that does not appear to rule out an individual's having inconsistent beliefs. Though Protagoras seems to have had a fairly high tolerance threshold for inconsistency, it is hard to see how one and the same person could assert both that it is impossible to contradict and that on every matter there are two opposed logoi. The wording of the attribution to Protagoras in the Euthydemus is suspiciously vague, suggesting that Plato is attributing to Socrates a vague memory of Protagorean subjectivism, rather than precise recall of any particular doctrine.

Protagoras' account of social morality in the Great Speech, according to which the universal acceptance of justice and self-restraint is necessary for the perpetuation of society, and thereby for the preservation of the human species, places Protagoras firmly on one side the conservative side, we should note of the debate about the relation between law and convention nomos on the one hand and nature or reality phusis on the other, which was central to moral and social thought in the fifth and fourth centuries.

The debate was fundamentally about the status of moral and other social norms; were such norms ever in some sense part of or grounded in the reality of things, or were they in every case mere products of human customs, conventions or beliefs?

Protagoras (c.490–c.420 BC)

The question was crucial to the perceived authority of norms; both sides agreed in seeing nature as authoritative for correct human behavior, and as the ultimate source of true value. We find examples of the critical stance both in some Platonic dialogues and in some sophistic writings. The starkest expression of the opposition between nomos and phusis is that expressed in the Gorgias by Callicles, a pupil of Gorgias though there is no suggestion in the dialogue or elsewhere that Gorgias himself held that position : Callicles holds that conventional morality is a contrivance devised by the weak and unintelligent to inhibit the strong and intelligent from doing what they are entitled by nature to do, viz.

He is thus an inverted moralist, who holds that what it is really right to do is what it is conventionally wrong to do. The sophist Thrasymachus maintains a similar position in Book I of the Republic , though without Callicles' daring inversion of values. He agrees with Callicles in praising the ruthless individual above all the tyrant who is capable of overcoming the restraints of morality, but whereas Callicles calls such self-assertion naturally just, Thrasymachus abides by conventional morality in calling it unjust.

Both agree that a successful life of ruthless self-assertion is supreme happiness, and that that is what nature prompts us to seek; both, then, accept the normative authority of nature over nomos. The difference between them is that Callicles takes the further step of identifying the authority of nature with that of real, as opposed to conventional morality, whereas for Thrasymachus there is only one kind of morality, conventional morality, which has no authority.


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  5. In Book II Glaucon presents a modified version of Thrasymachus' position; while maintaining, as Protagoras does in the Great Speech, that humans adopt moral conventions as a necessary survival strategy in a hostile world, he insists that this involves a stunting of human nature, since people are obliged for self-protection to abandon the goal of self-satisfaction to which nature, as Thrasymachus insists, prompts them.

    This assertion of egoism is supported by the thought-experiment of Gyges' ring; if, like the legendary Gyges, we had a magic ring which rendered us invisible, and hence immune from sanctions, we would all seek our own interest without restraint. We find a similar down-grading of convention in favor of nature though one lacking the immoralist conclusions in Hippias' speech in the Protagoras c—d , where he urges that intellectuals such as are gathered in the house of Callias ought not to quarrel, since, though according to artificial political conventions they are citizens of many different cities, by nature they are all akin.

    The conventions which make them treat each other as strangers distort the reality by which they are all alike; hence they should recognise that reality by treating each other as friends and members of the same family, not as strangers. The vignette gains added point from the fact that Hippias, speaking in Athens, is a citizen of Elis, a Peloponnesian state allied to Sparta in the war against Athens. Nature prompts us to do only what is advantageous to us, and if we try to act contrary to its promptings we inevitably suffer for it as a natural consequence, whereas morality typically restrains us from doing what is advantageous to ourselves and requires us to do what is disadvantageous, and if we violate the requirements of morality we come to harm only if we are found out.

    Legal remedies are insufficient to prevent the law-abiding person from harm, since they are applicable only after the harm has been done, and there is always the chance that the law-abiding person will lose his case anyway. Another part of the papyrus fragment B suggests that some legal norms are self-contradictory; it is just to bear true witness in court, and unjust to wrong someone who has not wronged you.