Protagoras: should we re-evaluate the Sophists?

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Protagoras, the chief Sophist of antiquity

I have always been fascinated by the Presocratics, the very first philosophers of the Western tradition. They were the ones that began those two great enterprises of the human intellect that we today refer to as science and philosophy. They wanted to know how the world works and what our place in it happens to be. So it has been with great interest that I read the excellent The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press). But, wait, the Sophists? As anyone who has cut his philosophical teeth on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, I don’t tend to have a good opinion of the Sophists, and I have indeed explicitly used the term as one of abuse to recount a particularly distasteful encounter I’ve had with a friend of a friend.

While Waterfield’s book in part confirms my attitude toward the Sophists, it goes a long way to correct it and make it more nuanced, particularly when it comes to one of the most famous thinkers who falls under that label: Protagoras of Abdera, the first Sophist to be discussed by Waterfield in the second section of the book.

Born in Abdera, in northern Greece, Protagoras found fame in Athens, where he became part of the inner circle of the influential statesman Pericles. He was the founder of the Sophistic movement, famous even in antiquity for the concept that man is the measure of all things, which Waterfield — correctly, in my mind — takes to be not an expression of epistemic relativism, but rather an articulation of the humanistic and democratic tendencies of the whole movement.

There is no question that Protagoras’ approach to debate was somewhat shady from an ethical perspective, though we don’t have to buy wholesale the extremely negative characterization we get of both him and the Sophists more generally from Plato. After all, being able to argue both (or more) sides of an argument is a good way to understand the various positions at play in a more objective fashion — which of course didn’t stop others from making fun of Protagoras, whether in Aristophanes’ Clouds or in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

The Sophists claimed to teach arete, i.e., excellence in general, and Protagoras in particular taught the art of political success. He actually claimed to be teaching people how to be good citizens, though as Waterfield points out, this needs to be tempered by the fact that his fees were rather exorbitant, effectively pricing out most Athenians:

There certainly are positive features in Protagoras’ program, particularly the notion that civic virtue is teachable, the rather radical idea that justice should not be retributive, and an emphasis — arguably for the first time in history — on the fact that rational discourse should play a prevalent role in the conduct of the affairs of the state. That said, the sort of society envisaged by Protagoras was democratic yet not egalitarian, since he recognized the existence of expertise in both morality and politics. This is an interesting point that is still controversial today, even though it appears to me to be obviously true.

Protagoras — and the Sophists more generally — were closely involved in a major debate of the time, pitting the value of nomos (i.e., human law or convention) versus that of physis (i.e., natural law). A classic Protagorean example is the wind: it makes no sense, for Protagoras, to say that the wind is intrinsically cold. Rather, it feels cold to certain people under certain circumstances, it is a matter of nomos, not physis.

If Protagoras was a “relativist” he was a rather sophisticated one, not prone to violate the basic laws of logic. For instance, to say that the wind is cold for me at this time and yet that it may not be cold for someone else at this same time, or for me at another time, does not violate the law of non-contradiction: “W is C for M at time t” does not contradict “W is H for M at time t+1.”

Perhaps a better way to understand Protagoras’ epistemology is that he was a moderate skeptic, withholding opinion about someone else’s thoughts and perceptions, and — more crucially — about the alleged superiority of a given moral position over another. That said, he did believe in expertise, i.e., the idea that some notions are better than others, particularly in the case of political expertise, necessary to lead a nation. His conception of political expertise, which he defined as a combination of justice and decency, was a compound of intelligence and moral rectitude. If only modern politicians displayed such a compound, even a little bit…

Even though Protagoras seemed to think that whatever laws a given polis adopts work fine for that polis, he also thought that there are criteria by which to judge laws and customs. Some laws are better than others, in terms of serving human needs, which makes him a proto-utilitarian, by modern conceptions. Rather radically, he apparently said that basic education should be available to all (well, to all male citizens, at least), and should be funded with public money, in the interest of the polis.

Protagoras’ agnosticism extended to the issue of gods as well. We have no reason to think he was an atheist, but he certainly thought that human beings are in no position to make veridical statements about the gods or their intentions:

What emerges from the above, then, is a complex figure who was both a Sophist and a philosopher (in the more strict, Platonic sense of the term), and who espoused a number of radical and yet quite sensible views on a range of issues of practical interest.

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