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Protagoras, the Sophist

Protagoras, it seems, believed there were two sides to many questions and he believed in dialogue brought people closer to the Truth. The philosopher Plato was to object. Plato would write dialogue between Protagoas and one of Protagoras's contemporaries in Athens: Socrates. And Plato, it seems, saw Protagoras's point of view as denying reality outside our heads and as relativistic. Plato was absolutistic, an essentialist, believing there was one truth, an essence we knew or didn't know, an essence that we should grasp whole rather than interpret. (It's my view that Plato, like the rest of us, had to interpret and that his interpretation of Protagoras was flawed. For an extended discussion see The First Philosophers, an Oxford publication, pp 205-221.)

Protagoras taught rhetoric: the forceful presentation of a point of view. He taught grammar, math, physics , literary analysis and political philosophy. Rather than a silly relativist, he held to a variety of positions that made him historically progressive. He spoke of peoples from different areas of the world as sharing a common humanity (at the time of Christopher Columbus, Europeans were still wondering whether peoples abroad were human). Protagoras believed in democracy, for people. In the place of the rule of gods, he advocated laws made by and for people – democracy. He said that people became good citizens not by obedience to authority but by learning what is just and right. Protagoras was a proponent of agnosticism. He is described in The First Philosophers as denying "our ability to to gain certain knowledge" of the gods. Holding to his view concerning limited knowledge, he didn't claim that the knew there were no gods and was ahead of those who described him as an atheist.

During the Great Peloponnesian War, Athenian city officials restricted what could be taught, and has been described as defying the repression. At the home of the famous poet and playwright Eurpides he read aloud from his book and claimed that gods were the figments of people's imagination. The Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, " According to ancient tradition, he was accused of impiety, his books were publicly burned, and he was exiled from Athens." In The First Philosophers it is claimed that,

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 oft this kind of story, while our earlier sources either do not mention it, or implicitly contradicted it.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.