|Ruins of the City of Abdera|
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|
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|
|Bust of Plato|
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!”