Ancient History & Civilisation

THE SOPHISTS

PROTAGORAS OF ABDERA

Protagoras was the first and greatest of the Sophists. T1 is a list of ‘firsts’ attributed to him—in the domains of rhetoric, argumentation, semantics, and thought—which make him the founder of the Sophistic movement. Since this movement was essentially concerned with human progress and skill, his famous saying, embedded in T1 and T6, that ‘Man is the measure of all things’—that experience is comprehensible to anyone, just in virtue of the fact that he is a human being—may stand as a kind of maxim for the humanistic and democratic tendencies of the movement as a whole.1

Born in Abdera in northern Greece, Protagoras acquired fame particularly in Athens, where he was part of the intellectual circle surrounding the great Athenian statesman Pericles2 and found a ready market for his skills, which were designed to help young men find fame and power in their communities (T2). Although it is undoubtedly true that the kind of rhetorical skills he introduced were morally suspect, or became used by less scrupulous speakers than himself, there is probably little truth to the story (e.g. Plutarch,Life of Nicias 23) that he was banished from Athens. Indeed, it is only later writers who tell this kind of story, while our earliest sources either do not mention it, or implicitly contradict it, as when Plato says at Meno 91e that Protagoras taught for forty years up to his death, and that his reputation remained consistently high. However, the ability to argue both sides of the case, which Protagoras taught (probably by writing and getting his pupils to write model speeches defending either side) as an objective means of evaluating complex situations was soon denigrated as the ability ‘to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger’; this converts the neutral rhetorical claim, which Protagoras may indeed have made, to be able to take the two opposing arguments which are possible about anything (T1) and convert the weaker one into a winner,3 into the morally dubious claim to make the worse or morally more unsound argument defeat the more sound one. This pejorative version of Protagoras’ claim became a kind of slogan of the opponents of the Sophists, from comedians such as Aristophanes (Clouds 112–15)4 to philosophers such as Aristotle (Rhetoric 1402a). Such responses ignore the clear value of the right to a good defence in court.

The Sophists often claimed to teach aretē, which means ‘virtue’ in general, or the ability to be good at some particular branch or branches of expertise. Though Protagoras was certainly alive to the possible moral overtones of aretē, it is likely that Plato is right inT2 in having Protagoras claim that he really taught politics, or at any rate the art of political success. At its most general, he appears to have claimed to teach people to be good citizens, but this needs to be diluted by the consideration that he priced himself out of the reach of most people, and so his aim is not as democratic as it sounds.5 He was (in fact, even if unwillingly) pandering to the political ambitions of the rich. Nevertheless, the very idea that good citizenship was something that could be taught, rather than something one inherited as a result of belonging to a family that had ruled for generations, was an important democratic innovation. A little later in Protagoras, at 323c–328c, Plato puts into Protagoras’ mouth an extended justification of the teachability of civic virtue, which may be an imitation, or perhaps a development, of what Plato found in Protagoras’ own writings. Its main features are (a) that civic virtue is teachable;6 (b) a revolutionary, non-retributive, deterrent penology; (c) an emphasis on the role of rational argument within the state which effectively, for the first time in history, gives a theoretical basis for participatory democracy. These features too should probably be added to our picture of the historical Protagoras. However, it should also be noted that while Protagoras’ ideal society may be democratic, it is not egalitarian, since he recognizes the need for experts in morality and politics.

In T6 Plato immediately follows citation of Protagoras’ most famous saying by explaining it as relativism. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this expansion, but although Plato also limits the meaning of the fragment to the equation of sense-perception with knowledge, the very broadness and vagueness of the saying militates against restricting its meaning in this or any other way. Protagoras is saying that, whatever means we use, each of us is the authority where identifying or assessing things are concerned. The aphorism occurred at the beginning of Protagoras’ modestly entitled book Truth; he began, then, by asserting a strong relativism. In cases of conflicting opinions, no one party is right while the other is wrong; both are equally ‘measures’, and both equally infallible. There is scholarly discussion about whether Protagoras might have held that the wind in itself is neither warm nor cold, or (in Heraclitean fashion) both warm and cold. In all likelihood, Protagoras would have resisted the very idea of a ‘wind-in-itself’, as opposed to a ‘wind perceived as warm’ and a ‘wind perceived as cold’. In terms of the nomosphysis debate, in which many or all the Sophists participated, and which has had a rich later history in Western thought, the wind has no physis, no real nature; there is only nomos(law, convention—here, what appears to a person or group of people). T7 also attributes this degree of scepticism to Protagoras.

For the achievement of political ambitions rhetorical skill was the key ingredient. Protagoras’ rhetorical teaching, and all its ramifications (such as the correct use of terms (Plato, Phaedrus 267c; Cratylus 391b–c) and the distinction of the genders (T14), the tenses of verbs, and four grammatical moods (T1)), could be pressed into serving the aim of making a good impression on one’s fellow citizens, though no doubt Protagoras was also interested in them for their own sake. In the direct democracy that prevailed in Athens at the time, speeches could make or break a political career, and the constitution almost guaranteed that every prominent figure was likely to find himself in court at some time or other, where again a good speech could save his life, or at least prevent the loss of property and prestige.

It is fairly easy to see the links between Protagoras’ most important philosophical positions, and these connections are drawn for us by both Plato and Aristotle in T3 to T6. If impressions are subjective and their truth cannot be denied by another person, then all impressions are equally true, the law of non-contradiction fails, and Protagoras’ famous denial of the possibility of falsehood follows. However, Protagoras himself may have jumped straight to the denial of falsehood from his relativism, without using a denial of the law of non-contradiction as an intermediary. In fact, there is nothing in his relativism which breaks the law of non-contradiction, since he is a stickler for the subjective suffixes: the law of non-contradiction states that one cannot say both ‘A is F’ and ‘A is not F’ of the same thing at the same time, but once the Protagorean suffixes are added, the law remains intact. That is, there is no contradiction between ‘A is F for person X’ and ‘A is not F for person Y, or for person X at another time.’ Notice the emphasis on suffixes inT10, which is almost certainly a Platonic imitation of Protagoras. Hence Protagoras could acknowledge the appearance of contradiction in speech (and this is presumably how he recognized that there were two opposing or contrasting sides to any case), but claim that such contradictions were merely verbal, while nothing in reality would contradict anything else (because there is no such thing as ‘external reality’, only our subjective impressions).

Aristotle’s response to all this is to claim that it destroys all sensible discourse; Plato’s ad hominem response is to ask how Protagoras dared to set himself up as a teacher, if all his pupils already had a grasp on the truth (T5, T8). In T11 he frames the beginning of a reply to this charge and attributes it to Protagoras, but it is very clear that he is here developing Protagoras’ stated ideas, rather than paraphrasing anything he found in Protagoras’ Truth. The starkest way to express the difference is that T11 commits Protagoras to a denial that all statements are equally true, since by T11 it is possible for someone to be mistaken about where their true advantage lies. Nevertheless, it is tempting to think that, if pushed, Protagoras would have taken the line Plato offers him (especially since it fits in with the claim to make a weaker argument stronger), that though all impressions are equally incorrigible and true, some are better (in a prudential sense—better for one) than others, and so teachers still have a role to play.

But if there is a straightforward connection between Protagoras’ relativism and his denial of the possibility of falsehood, where did his relativism spring from in the first place? Perhaps it was just an axiom for him, but it is possible that reflection on the fact that, as his rhetorical teaching demonstrated, there are (at least) two sides to every question, led him to a relativist position. Thus, to paraphrase his famous dictum, the individual member of the Athenian Assembly is the one who is the measure of the rights and wrongs of the case being argued by an orator. Protagoras was, above all, a moderate sceptic; he withheld belief about the falsity of another person’s thoughts and impressions; he denied the existence of a ‘wind-in-itself’ with objective properties, as distinct from the wind I feel and the wind you feel (this is somewhat clearer in T9 than in T8; see also T7); he withheld assenting to the moral superiority of one side of the case over another; he remained somewhat agnostic about the existence of the gods. But if it is right to portray him as a moderate sceptic, this casts doubt upon the correctness of Plato’s extension of his views in T11, since Protagoras there is made to express definite views about what is better and worse (and see also T12, where Plato portrays Protagoras as a utilitarian democrat). It is not impossible that Protagoras’ scepticism was so moderate that he failed to apply it in certain areas, but we would have a more consistent thinker if we took these Platonic passages with a pinch of salt in terms of their historical veracity. We would then be left with a degree of consistency based on scepticism, but even here there are anomalies: the denial of the possibility of falsehood is actually quite an extreme position, whereas Protagoras’ claim to teach political virtue, if ‘political virtue’ was not an entirely cynical paraphrase for ‘whatever enables you to gain power in your particular society’, does not suggest such an extreme position. After all, we can see why relativism might have become a suspect doctrine: it could be taken to mean that if a man believes it is right for him to kill his father, then, for him, it is right to do so. However, it is unlikely that Protagoras himself would have agreed with this: see T11 on substituting better for worse ideas; and as a utilitarian democrat he would have upheld the greatest good of the greatest number, which means that people cannot just go around killing and stealing if they feel so inclined. So, in Protagoras’ case, the idea that nothing is false must be modified: though nothing is false, some beliefs are better than others, and in the political sphere that means they are more conducive to utilitarian harmony. The noble purpose of the education Protagoras offered was presumably to bring about such an improved state of affairs.

T12 is another Platonic imitation of Protagoras, but there is no reason to doubt its essential veracity. The passage is central to two interlocking Sophistic or fifth-century concerns: a discussion of the origins of human beings, their societies, and their institutions; and the debate over the relative values of law or convention (nomos) and nature (physis). In T12 Protagoras shows himself to be a champion of nomos over physis. In our primitive, natural state, we are relatively unprotected, and we therefore need society for our own protection.7 But society is impossible without political expertise, which is glossed as ‘justice and decency’—that is, the ability to respect and deal fairly with others, and to restrain one’s own appetites in view of the demands of others.8 Law is essential for the survival of the species, and so every human has (though no doubt in varying degrees) justice and decency. But the identification of political expertise simply as ‘justice and decency’ is puzzling, because surely more is required, and in particular Protagoras seems to ignore any intellectual or planning ability. But perhaps Protagoras assumes that humankind already possesses this (after all, mankind is contrasted right from the start with ‘irrational animals’), so that only ‘justice and decency’ are required for people to put their intelligence to use in a social context. If so, then Protagoras’ conception of political expertise, which he claims to teach, is a compound of intellectual and moral excellence. One puzzle arising out of T12 is that it leaves us with a gap in Protagorean thinking: we have already seen that he supported democracy, but on the strict terms of the story told here, any political constitution would do as well as any other to restrain anarchy and provide protection. Moreover, in T11 Plato has Protagoras say that whatever seems fine to a community is fine for it, for as long as that rule is in force. In other words, whatever nomos a state establishes is good for it, for as long as that nomos is in force. There is no objective standard of justice, but it is relative to each community. Perhaps we can bridge this apparent gap in Protagoras’ thinking by a slight development of the idea in T11 that a wise healer or politician substitutes better or more beneficial conditions or notions for worse ones. In that case, Protagoras might have made a distinction between constitutions on the basis of whether their laws are beneficial to the majority of the citizens, and clearly a democracy has the best laws by this criterion. If this is right, Protagoras is, again, a proto-utilitarian.

Protagoras was famous even in antiquity for his agnosticism about the existence of the gods (see his fragment 4, embedded in T1).9 The classification of him later in antiquity (e.g. T13) as an atheist, however, is surely wrong: he does not seem to be denying the existence of the gods, but only our ability to gain certain knowledge of them, which may even be understood as quite a pious statement. There is such a gulf set between gods and men that we cannot know about them (compare Xenophanes). And certainly Plato apparently felt no qualms about having Protagoras, in the dialogue Protagoras at 323e–324a and 324e, praise piety as one of the important virtues. It is just possible, however, that if we had more of the context of this aphoristic saying, we would have to qualify our judgement of Protagoras’ agnosticism. He might be saying, ‘I cannot know what the gods are like, but I can say something about the origins of their worship.’ This would fit in with Protagoras’ general interest in origins, and would somewhat lessen the agnostic force of the bare saying. However, it is noteworthy that at Theaetetus 162d–e Plato has Protagoras express agnosticism.

T15–16 are somewhat less than startling evidence of a general interest in education, while T17, if it can be trusted,10 with its suggestion that the basics of education should be available to all (that is, all young males, presumably) and paid for by the state, is truly remarkable. Finally, T18 and T19 look like the remnants of a typically Protagorean sceptical attack on geometry. In the real world a stick does not touch a hoop only at a point, so where is the evidence for what the mathematicians are talking about?

Protagoras was a Sophist, but he was also a philosopher. All the strands of his thought are interlinked, and based on moderate scepticism. If we cannot be certain about the truth of a matter, then we are justified in arguing either side of the case, we are justified in agnosticism, and we are even justified in denying the possibility of falsehood. It seems likely to me that if more of Protagoras’ written work had survived we would be able to classify him more securely as a coherent and innovative thinker.

T1 (DK 80A1,B1, B4) Protagoras was the first to claim that there are two contradictory arguments about everything,* and he used them to develop the consequences of contradictory premisses, being the first to use this argumentative technique. He began one of his books as follows: ‘Man is the measure of all things—of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.’* He used to say that the mind was nothing but the senses, as Plato says in Theaetetus, and that everything is true. He began another of his books as follows: ‘Where the gods are concerned, I am not in a position to ascertain that they exist, or that they do not exist. * There are many impediments to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.’ … He was the first to charge a fee of 100 minas, and the first to distinguish the tenses of verbs. He explained the potency of seizing the opportune moment,* he instituted debating competitions, and he introduced disputants to the tricks of their trade. Since he ignored meaning and focused in his talks on mere words, he was the forefather of the tribe of eristic speakers who are so common nowadays … He was also the first to develop the kind of argument known as ‘Socratic’.* And, as Plato says in Euthydemus, he was the first to make use, in his talks, of the argument of Antisthenes which tries to prove that contradiction is impossible. He was also the inventor of methods of attacking any given position, as Artemidorus the dialectician reports in his Against Chrysippus … He was the first to distinguish the following four kinds of speech: wishing, asking, answering, commanding. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 9.51–3 Long)

T2 (DK 80A5) [Socrates is talking to Protagoras] ‘Hippocrates here is an Athenian citizen; his father is Apollodorus. He comes from an important and prosperous family, and is generally held to be the equal of any of his contemporaries in terms of his natural endowments. I think he wants to acquire a name for himself in his community, and he thinks that this is most likely to happen to him if he associates with you … He says, therefore, that he would like to hear what will be the outcome for him if he associates with you.’

Protagoras’ response was as follows: ‘Young man, what will happen to you, if you associate with me, is that on the first day of that association you will go home better, and the same thing will happen again the next day, and each day thereafter you will make progress towards a better state.’ …

[Socrates spends some time trying to find out what Protagoras means by ‘better’—better at what?] Protagoras listened to what I said and then replied, ‘These are good questions, Socrates, and I enjoy answering those who ask good questions. If Hippocrates comes to me, he won’t experience what he would if he went to any of the other Sophists. I mean, the others all treat young men in a disgraceful fashion. They take people who have shunned the arts and crafts,* turn them around again against their will, and get them involved in arts and crafts, by teaching them mathematics and astronomy, geometry and music’—here he glanced at Hippias—‘whereas if he comes to me he will learn exactly what he came to learn. What I teach is the art of making good decisions, both in one’s domestic affairs, so that one can manage his estate and household in the best possible way, and in the affairs of the community, so that he can maximize his potential to conduct political business and address political issues.’

‘I just want to check that I’ve understood what you’re saying,’ I said. ‘You seem to me to be talking about political expertise, and to be promising to make men good citizens of their community.’

‘Yes, Socrates,’ he said. ‘That is exactly the profession I make.’ (Plato, Protagoras 316b8–319a7 Burnet)

T3 (DK 80A19) Then again, if contradictories are all simultaneously true of the same object, the obvious consequence is that everything will be one. The same thing will be a ship and a wall and a person, if it is possible to either affirm or deny any attribute of anything, as those who argue as Protagoras did are bound to. After all, if a person is taken not to be a ship, then obviously he is not a ship; but if the contradictory is true, it follows that he also is a ship. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1007b18–25 Ross)

T4 (DK 80A19) Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things, by which he meant that any impression a person receives is also securely true. From this it follows that the same thing both is and is not the case, and is bad and good and all other contradictories, because it often happens that something can appear beautiful to one lot of people and the opposite to another lot, but on Protagoras’ view it is what appears to anyone that is the measure. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1062b13–19 Ross)

T5 (DK 80A19) [Socrates speaking] Ctesippus made no reply, but I was astonished at the argument [that it is impossible to contradict another person], and I said: ‘What do you mean, Dionysodorus? I’ll have you know that I’ve heard this argument plenty of times from plenty of people, but it always surprises me. Protagoras’ followers were particularly keen on it, and there were others even before them.* But what strikes me is its amazing capacity for destroying not only other arguments but itself as well … If neither speaking falsehood nor thinking falsehood nor ignorance are possible, then surely it is impossible, in any action, to make a mistake, because the agent cannot go wrong in what he does? … If action, speech, and thought are not wrong, then who on earth have you come to teach?’ (Plato, Euthydemus 286b7–287a9 Burnet)

T6 (DK 80B1) Socrates. Whether or not you are aware of it, this statement of yours about knowledge [defining it as perception] is a substantial one; it’s what Protagoras used to say as well, though he used different words to say the same thing. I mean, he says somewhere that ‘Man is the measure of all things—of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not.’ No doubt you’ve read this?

Theaetetus. Yes, often.

Socrates. And doesn’t he mean by this that ‘Each and every event is for me as it appears to me, and is for you as it appears to you’—you and I being ‘man’?

Theaetetus. That’s what he says.

Socrates. Now, he’s a clever person, and unlikely to be talking nonsense, so let’s follow in his footsteps. Isn’t it possible that, when the same wind is blowing, one of us might feel chilly, while the other doesn’t? Or one might feel slightly chilly, the other really rather cold?

Theaetetus. Certainly.

Socrates. So when that happens, are we to describe the wind per se as cold or not cold? Or should we follow Protagoras and say that it is cold for the one who feels cold, but not for the one who doesn’t?

Theaetetus. That seems reasonable.

Socrates. And that is how the wind appears to each of us?

Theaetetus. Yes.

Socrates. Now, the phrase ‘it appears to me’ is the same as ‘I perceive’, isn’t it? Theaetetus. It is.

Socrates. So appearance is the same as being perceived, in the case of warmth and so on. I mean, as each person perceives events to be, so they also are, I suppose, for each person.

Theaetetus. That sounds reasonable.

Socrates. Perception, then, is always of something that is, and it is infallible, which suggests that it is knowledge.

(Plato, Theaetetus 151e8–152c6 Duke et al.)

T7 Protagoras says that the being of things that are consists in their being perceived. He says: ‘If you are here with me, it is obvious that I am sitting, but this is not obvious to someone who is not here. Whether or not I am sitting is not clear.’ And they say that everything that exists consists in being perceived. I see the moon, for example, while someone else does not see it; whether or not the moon exists is not clear. When I am healthy the apprehension of honey that arises is that it is sweet, but someone else who has a fever apprehends it as bitter; whether it is sweet or bitter is therefore not clear. In this way they intend to assert the lack of objective apprehension.* (A fragment of Didymus the Blind, Commentary on the Psalms; text first published by M. Gronewald inZeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 2 (1968), 1–2)

T8 [Socrates speaking] I’m perfectly happy with the general theory, that what appears to each person is for that person, but the beginning of the argument puzzles me. Why didn’t he start Truth off by saying, ‘A pig is the measure of all things’, or ‘a baboon’, or any sentient creature, however outlandish? That would have been a magnificently haughty beginning, showing that although we regard his wisdom as remarkable and almost divine, yet he is in fact no better off intellectually than a tadpole, let alone another human being. What else can we think, Theodorus? If a person’s impressions, gained by perception, are true for that person; if no one else is a better judge of another person’s experiences, in the sense of deciding authoritatively which are true and which false; if, in other words, as we have repeatedly said, each person alone makes up his mind about his own impressions, and all of them are correct and true; if all this is so, my friend, how on earth are we to distinguish Protagoras, whose cleverness was such that he thought he was justified in teaching others for vast fees, and ourselves, who are less gifted and had to go and be his students, when each of us is the measure of his own cleverness?* (Plato, Theaetetus 161 c2–e3 Duke et al.)

T9 (DK 80A13) [Socrates speaking] I think we should try to see, Hermogenes, whether you also think the same way about existing things. That is, does their being exist only in private for each person, as Protagoras used to assert with his saying that ‘Man is the measure of all things’? Is it the case, then, that as things appear to me to be, so they are for me, and as they appear to you, so they are for you? Or do you think that things have some stable being in themselves? (Plato, Cratylus 385e4–386a4 Duke et al.)

T10 (DK 80A22) [Protagoras speaking] I know of plenty of things which are harmful to people (they may be foods or drinks or drugs, or whatever), and others which are beneficial; and I know of things which are neither harmful nor beneficial to people, but which are to horses—or are only to cattle, or only to dogs. And then there are things which are neither harmful nor beneficial for any of these creatures, but are for trees; and things which are good for the roots of trees, but bad for their shoots, such as manure, which is good for all plants when it is applied to their roots, but deadly if put on their shoots and young branches. Or then there’s olive oil, which is completely pernicious for all plants and ruins the hair of all non-human creatures, but is good for human hair and for the rest of their body too. Goodness is so diverse and varied that even in our case one and the same thing may be good for the outside of a human body, but awful for the inside. (Plato, Protagoras 334a3–c2 Burnet)

T11 (DK 80A21a) [Socrates is speaking for Protagoras] I claim that the truth is as I have written: each of us is the measure of the things that are and are not. However, there is a great deal of inequality among people, precisely because there is so much variety in the things that are and appear to different people. In other words, so far from denying the existence of expertise and clever people, I actually define wisdom as the ability to make good things appear and be for someone instead of bad things.

… I will try to make my meaning even clearer to you. Remember, for instance, what was said earlier, that food appears and is unpleasant for someone who is ill, but appears and is the opposite for someone who is well. Now, there’s no call for the unfeasible idea that either of these two people is wiser: that is, we shouldn’t classify the sick person as ignorant because he thinks as he does, nor the healthy person as clever because he thinks differently. What we’re after is a change from one state to the other, because one state isbetter than the other.

It’s the same in education too: what we’re after is change from one state to the better one. The only difference is that a doctor uses medicines to bring about the change, while a Sophist uses words. But it is never the case that a change is effected from earlier false belief to later true belief: it is impossible to believe something which is not the case—one can only believe what one is experiencing, and this is always true. What is possible, however, in my opinion, is that someone who is in an unsound mental state and whose beliefs are cognate with it can be made to think differently. Now, these different impressions are naïvely called ‘true’, but what I am saying is that although they are better than the others, they are not more true at all.

I certainly do not equate wise people with frogs, my dear Socrates. On the contrary, I claim that each sphere of operation has its wise practitioners: there are doctors for bodies, farmers for plants (for I maintain that farmers can replace unsound perceptions in sickly plants with sound, healthy perceptions and affections); and I claim that politicians who are wise and good at their job substitute sound for unsound ethical notions in their communities. It is true that whatever seems ethically fine to each community also is ethical for it, for as long as that rule is in force, but a wise person changes each unsound notion they have, and makes sound notions be and appear for them. By the same token, a Sophist, since he is capable of guiding his pupils in the same way, is wise and deserves to be paid a lot by his pupils. (Plato, Theaetetus 166c9–167d2 Duke et al.)

T12 (DK 80C1) [Protagoras speaking] Once upon a time there were gods, but no mortal creatures. When the appointed time came for mortal creatures to be born, the gods moulded them inside the earth and made them out of a mixture of earth and fire, and out of all the stuffs that are compounded from earth and fire. When they were ready to bring them up into the light of day, they gave Prometheus and Epimetheus* the job of equipping them and distributing the appropriate abilities to each species. Epimetheus begged Prometheus to let him make the distribution by himself and said, ‘After I’ve done the distributing, you can inspect them.’ He got his way, and proceeded with the distribution. Some creatures he gave strength without speed, while he equipped weaker creatures with speed; to some he gave weaponry, while for others—those he gave an unarmed nature—he devised some alternative means of protection. If he made creatures small, he gave them winged flight or a home underground; if he made them big, their size itself was their protection. And all the other abilities he distributed on the same principle, balancing one against another, and taking pains to avoid the extinction of any species.* Once he had supplied them with means of escaping mutual destruction, he dressed them, as a way for them to remain comfortable whatever weather Zeus might send, in thick pelts and tough hides, which would not only be adequate protection against the cold of winter and effective against the heat of summer, but would also serve at the same time as innate and home-grown bedding for them when they went to sleep. And some he shod with hoofs, others with hard, bloodless claws. Then he went on to assign different creatures different things to eat. To some he assigned the grass that springs from the ground, to others the fruits of trees, and to others roots. There were those which he allowed to be nourished by eating other creatures, but he made them less prolific, while he made the species on which they preyed prolific, as a means of ensuring their survival.

Now, Epimetheus was not the most intelligent of beings, and he failed to notice that he had used up all the abilities on the irrational creatures. Eventually he found that he had left only the human species unequipped, and he didn’t know what to do with it. While he was trying to think what to do, Prometheus arrived to inspect the distribution, and he saw that although all the other creatures were properly catered for in all respects, man was naked, unshod, uncovered, and unarmed. But the appointed day had arrived when man was supposed to emerge from the earth into the daylight. So, since he didn’t know of any other way to find a means of protection for the human species, Prometheus stole from Hephaestus and Athena technical skill along with fire (for fire was essential to enable such skill to be acquired by anyone, or to be any use) and made these his gift to man. This is how man came by the skills required for the maintenance of life, but he did not yet have political expertise. This was in Zeus’ domain, and Prometheus ran out of time before he could penetrate Zeus’ palace, the acropolis; besides, Zeus’ guards were terrifying. But he did break into the building where Athena and Hephaestus practised their arts together, stole Hephaestus’ skill at working with fire and Athena’s expertise too, and gave them to man.* As a result, man was well supplied with the necessities of life, but we hear that Prometheus was later punished for his theft.*

The consequences of man’s acquisition of a portion of divinity were, first, that humans were the only creatures to worship the gods and to set about establishing altars and images of the gods, and, second, that they soon used their skills to articulate speech and language, and discovered how to make houses, clothes, footwear, and blankets, and how to get food from the earth. Thus equipped, at first men lived all over the place, and there were no communities. And so they began to be killed by wild beasts, because they were weaker than them in all respects. Their creative skills were enough to support them where nourishment was concerned, but they lacked the ability to fight the wild beasts, because warfare is an aspect of political expertise, which they did not yet possess. They therefore tried to protect themselves by gathering together and forming communities, but once they had done so they began to wrong one another, because they did not yet possess political expertise; and so they scattered again and were killed by the wild beasts again.

Zeus was worried that our species might be completely annihilated, so he gave Hermes the job of taking humankind decency and justice, to bring order to their communities and to bind men together in friendship.* Hermes asked Zeus on what principle he should give men justice and decency: ‘In distributing them, should I follow the way in which the skills have been distributed?’ he asked. ‘The principle there is that one person with skill as a healer suffices for many laymen, and the same goes for all the other arts and crafts. So am I to assign justice and decency in the same way, or shall I distribute them to all men?’ ‘To all,’ Zeus replied. ‘Let all partake of them. For communities would never be formed if only a few had justice and decency, as they do the other skills. And make it a law, sanctioned by me, that they are to put to death anyone who is incapable of decency and justice, on the grounds that he is a plague on the community.’ (Plato, Protagoras 320c8–322d5 Burnet)

T13 (DK 80A23) Protagoras of Abdera held a view that was identical in meaning to that of Diagoras,* but he did not express himself in identical words, in order to avoid the excessive recklessness of the view. So he said that he did not know whether there were gods—but this is the same as saying that he knew there were no gods. For if in contrast to his first statement he had said, ‘I certainly do not know that they do not exist’ …* (Diogenes of Oenoanda, fr. 11 Chilton, col. 2)

T14 (DK 80A27) The fourth aspect of speaking proper Greek is to follow Protagoras’ distinction of the genders of words as masculine, feminine, and neuter. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1407b6–8 Ross)

T15 (DK 80B3) Teaching requires natural endowments and training; one should begin to learn when one is young. (Anonymous, On Hippomachus B3 (Bohler, Sophistae Anonymi Protreptici, p. 46.3))

T16 (DK 80B10) Protagoras said that skill was nothing without practice, and practice nothing without skill. (John of Stobi, Anthology 3.29.80 Wachsmuth/Hense)

T17 That is why he used this piece of legislation to improve the condition of illiterate people, on the grounds that they lack one of life’s great goods, and thought literacy should be a matter for public concern and expense. (Diodorus of Sicily, Universal History12.13.3.3–6 Vogel)

T18 (DK 80B7) No perceptible object is geometrically straight or curved; after all, a circle does not touch a ruler at a point, as Protagoras used to say in arguing against the geometers. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 998a1–4 Ross)

T19 As Protagoras says of mathematics, the subject-matter is unknowable, and the terminology distasteful. (a fragment from Philodemus of Gadara, On Poetry; PHerc. 1676, col. 1.12–13)

A. W. H. Adkins, ‘Image, Democracy and Sophists: Protagoras 316b—328d’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 93 (1973), 3–12.

M. F. Burnyeat, ‘Protagoras and Self-refutation in Plato’s Theaetetus\Philosophical Review, 85 (1976), 172–95; repr. in S. Everson (ed.), Companions to Ancient Thought, vol. i: Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 39–59.

—— ‘Conflicting Appearances’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 65 (1979), 69–111

T. D. J. Chappell, ‘Does Protagoras Refute Himself?’, Classical Quarterly, 45 (1995), 333–8.

C. W. Chilton, ‘An Epicurean View of Protagoras’, Phronesis, 7 (1962), 105–9.

A. T. Cole, ‘The Apology of Protagoras’, Yale Classical Studies 19 (1966), 103–18.

—— ‘The Relativism of Protagoras’, Yale Classical Studies, 22 (1972), 19–45.

E. K. Emilsson, ‘Plato’s Self-refutation Argument in Theaetetus 171ac Revisited’, Phronesis, 39 (1994), 136–49.

G. Fine, ‘Protagorean Relativisms’, Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 10 (1994), 211–43.

—— ‘Relativism and Self-refutation: Plato, Protagoras, and Burnyeat’, in J. Gentzler (ed.), Method in Ancient Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 137–63.

D. K. Glidden, ‘Protagorean Relativism and Physis’, Phronesis, 20 (1975), 209–27.

G. B. Kerferd, ‘Plato’s Account of the Relativism of Protagoras’, Durham University Journal, 42 (1949/50), 20–6.

—— ‘Protagoras’ Doctrine of Justice and Virtue in the Protagoras of Plato’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 73 (1953), 42–5.

R. J. Ketchum, ‘Plato’s “Refutation” of Protagorean Relativism: Theaetetus 170–171’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 10 (1992), 73–106.

D. Loenen, Protagoras and the Greek Community (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandische Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1941).

K. Marc-Wogau, ‘On Protagoras’ Homomensura-thesis in Plato’s Theaetetus’ in id., Philosophical Essays (Lund: Gleerup, 1967), 3–20.

D. Payne, ‘Rhetoric, Reality, and Knowledge: A Re-examination of Protagoras’ Concept of Rhetoric’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 16 (1986), 187–97.

H. D. Rankin, ‘Ouk Estin Antilegein’, in [27], 25–37.

T. J. Saunders, ‘Protagoras and Plato on Punishment’, in [27], 129–41.

E. Schiappa, Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

G. Vlastos, ‘Protagoras’, in M. Ostwald and B. Jowett, Plato: Protagoras (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), pp. vii–xxiv.

P. Woodruff, ‘Protagoras on the Unseen: The Evidence of Didymus’, in [23], 80–7.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!