Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Protagoras of Abdera

Ruins of the City of Abdera
Protagoras was a Greek Sophist who came from the city of Abdera (on northern coast of the Aegean Sea) and who lived roughly between the years of 490-420 BC. I thought that I would write a short piece about his work because, even though I disagree with most of it, it is very seldom given the credit it deserves.

            Protagoras had the misfortune of not having his works preserved so all that we know about him comes from some extremely loose collections of stories collected six or seven hundred years after his death or from the writings of those who vaguely knew him but disagreed with him (Diogenes Laertius was the story collector and Plato was the opponent). So we have only hearsay and bias to work with. According to what can be gleaned from Diogenes’ “Lives of the Philosophers” and Plato’s Dialogues, Protagoras was the first Sophist.

The Acropolis in Athens
            Many Greek cities at the time were democracies (of sorts). These democracies had no parliaments. Anyone and everyone could stand up in the assemblies and shout a speech to the assembled voters. If they liked your speech they could vote on your proposal. Someone who had the confidence and delivery (and lung power) to make good speeches continually could effectively rule a city as large as Athens! So, the ability to speak well gave power and was valued above almost anything else.

            Protagoras claimed that for a large sum of money he would teach the young people to speak well. He would teach them ways of delivering a speech effectively while demolishing the arguments of their opponents. Few people believed his claims so, upon entering a city, Protagoras would stand in a public place and deliver a ridiculous speech, proving that black was white or some such, awing the locals with his verbal abilities and immediately landing contracts to be taught to speak like him. Those who claimed to teach this power of perfect speech became known as Sophists.

            Naturally, this claim annoyed a lot of people. The traditional ruling families of cities saw their ancestral positions of status threatened. Defenders of traditional morality became very worried that these thinkers, who laughed at the old ways of doing things, would corrupt the youth and lastly, those who were convinced that things like “Truth” and “Courage” had specific meanings were deeply disturbed when someone claimed sufficient verbal ability to argue both sides of an argument and win. Central to the Sophist ideal (according to their enemies) was that there was no true answer to a question but that whatever position the speaker chose could be defended to the last.

            Protagoras himself had two famous quotes, which are presented as follows taken from Diogenes Laertius’ work Lives of the Philosophers, IX 50-56:

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

“Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know either that they exist or that they do not exist; for there are many obstacles in the way of such knowledge, notably the intrinsic obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

It’s hard to know if these were actually beliefs of Protagoras or if these were the catchy sentences that he would start his show arguments with. One of the later Sophists (Gorgias of Leontini) once stated that Being is impossible, that even if something existed that we could have no Knowledge of it and that even if we could know Being, we could never communicate this knowledge to anyone. You have to suspect he was showing off, so Protagoras may have been doing the same here. We are fairly sure that he was one of the first thinkers to study the structure of language for the purposes of argument, which must have made him formidable indeed.

Renaissance painting of the death of Socrates
            In the year 399 BC an Athenian by the name of Socrates was put to death by the state on the of “corrupting the youth”, while at his trial he was allegedly accused of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger”. Socrates was put to death for doing the things that Protagoras started, but one of Socrates’ students, a young man by the name of Plato, was convinced that his teacher had not been a Sophist but had tried to find truth, real truth, not the mere conventions of Athens, by challenging the Sophists at their own game. Maybe Plato was deluded about Socrates, we’ll never know, but he wrote a series of books where Socrates is a heroic debater, struggling to understand reality and truth. His foes in these debates are sometimes the arrogant and foolish city leaders who think they know the meanings of Courage or Piety, only to be shown up by the questioning of Socrates. But the serious debates that Plato describes are against thinkers like Critias or Gorgias or the leader of the Sophists Protagoras, where Socrates argues for a system where words have a fixed relation to reality and can truly be known by people, as opposed to the shifting, fluid belief systems of the Sophists.

Bust of Plato
            Plato’s anti-Sophistic quest led him to found the first Academy where the brightest minds of his day gathered and produced such thinkers as Aristotle (who invented the disciplines of Logic and Biology and wrote on every subject then known to man). It’s hard to know what exactly Protagoras really believed; perhaps he was only trying to make money. But the unintended reaction to his ideas kick started the Greek Enlightenment, which continues to influence us today.

I will leave you with the following tale (probably a tall one) about the man. The story goes that a poor pupil came to him and told him that he was desperate to learn rhetoric but could not afford the fees. Protagoras took pity on the young Euathlus and promised to teach him on the understanding that Euathlus would repay him once he had won his first lawsuit. Euathlus proved a brilliant pupil, but upon completing the training, Euathlus not only refused to pay but refused to plead cases before the courts. Protagoras did what every good teacher should do and took him to court. He reasoned that he couldn’t lose his fee because “… if I win the case, I should get the fee because I have won it; If you win the case, I should get the fee because you have won it!”