• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On Protagoras

June 2019


Protagoras was a figure, a self-reputed member of a now ill-respected class known to antiquity as the sophistai, or, “the teachers of wisdom”. Yet in spite of all of our current wisdom, of which we're perhaps mistakenly excessively proud, he persists as a man about whom sadly little is known. Much of his life, much more of his system of thought have been successful in their evasion of history. And neither pedagogy nor psychology, two fields with at least one eye forever turned to the past, have been any luckier in their conjoined pursuit of him. Yet perhaps because of his obscurity, a darkness that forever tempts one to illuminate his depths and to seek into his life, he’s become a man upon whom my attention has turned.

He was, in his time, a thinker whom the classification of thought places before the emergence of the man whose name would come to delineate antiquity and modernity—the thoughts of old and those of new. The latter thinker to whom I make reference is, of course, none other than the venerable Socrates—gadfly of Greece and conversationalist par excellence. As I make reference to him, he serves as the very point of reference for the rest of us and for all of time. As if an earlier Mohammed or Jesus the Nazarene, he was a third messiah around whom philosophic calendars were to be based, and he set himself up as the standard for the proportioning of time. All that existed before the man at whose coattails the precocious Plato scribbled with furious and solicitous haste was to be rendered desperately Pre-Socratic. It was the age of Thales, that of Pythagoras, and that of a couple happy Dao-endowed Asian cogitators sitting cross-legged in the East. At the risk of offending the deceased, all that preceded Socrates was clever but constrained. The study of nature was all that was known and thought was rooted in the earth. His school, informal and controversial though it may have been, marked the flowering of that excited plant. In his succession was an ethical exuberance, a metaphysical foray into the new world of the ripened mind.


Having been ascribed to the school of the Pre-Socratics, one would imagine Protagoras immeasurably old. On the contrary, he was far from an elderly ghost haunting the minds of a juvenescent Greece. His was no hoary philosophy, and he was no specter. Thus, though technically not a misnomer, the title of Pre-Socratic—when applied to him—tends to be somewhat misleading. Certainly, he wasn’t so elderly as to precede by an order of centuries the historical Socrates—the wisest man ever to have trodden the Athenian streets. In fact, he and Socrates must be seen as contemporaries of a sort, not unlike Beethoven and Liszt.

Though the one was aged as the other flirted philosophically out of the emergence from his youth, they lived contemporaneous lives, if not equally well-documented ones (not everyone can be so lucky as to avail himself of a Platonic, personal scribe). Odd though it is to conceive of Socrates—bearded, aged, and intoxicated by the hemlock heroically held in his grasp—as a man burgeoning from the delicacies and the follies of youth, he was exactly that, as were we all not so long ago.


In Protagoras’s eponymous dialogue, written by the hand of Plato though spoken through the voice of his putative professor, Socrates is in supreme form. There is no sense of the timorous upstart or the cautious novitiate in the face of the well-worn veteran against whom he stands. Opposing him, the thinker for whom this wonky and wordy tract is named, is described as being the eldest of the gathered bunch—of which Socrates is the implicit intellectual leader. Born in Abdera, a city located in what was the northeast section of the empire of Greece, Protagoras added to his accumulation of years an endless number of steps. He was an itinerant teacher, a sort of proto-peripatetic before Aristotle made popular that philosophical term. Ambulatory as only an ancient could be, Protagoras walked all the way from modern Thrace (the supposed place of his birth) to the mainland of Greece, stopping along the way at every accessible city with a combined sense of cupidity and inquiry with a desire to teach. He was, as Plato makes certain to point out, a quite highly accomplished sophist—a man whose occupation was wisdom, whose commerce was discourse, and whose trade was talk.


Yet the field of sophistry (in which Protagoras labored) and that of philosophy (in which Socrates leisured) were to be differentiated. The former was wisdom, or at least the appearance thereof. But it wasn’t exactly a wholesome nor a salubrious wisdom for the sake of wisdom alone. Rather, it was a highly-studied wisdom for the purposes of remuneration and the payment of a fee. Philosophy, on the other hand, was an activity of love. For better or worse, it was an infatuation from which one couldn’t be cleaved once enticed by its allure.


Etymologically, the word sophistry—derived from the Greek sophos which means “wisdom”—assumed an omission of loving when it came to learning. That distinction could be misleading, and there’s no reason to think that Protagoras wasn’t as commensurately passionate in his endeavors as he was smart. No imprecation could be so baseless, no scurrility so damning as to assume him a thinker concerned only with the coin and not with the thought. He was, after all and as far as history can tell, an advisor in good standing to that greatest of statesman—the inimitable Pericles (the archon one might add, under whom Socrates served as a humble infantryman at the outset of the Peloponnesian War. It appears our beloved gadfly was also a gladiator when his city entangled itself in that bloody, decades-long civil war). Undoubtedly, the appointment spoke well of his genius—a finely-tuned brilliance at whose edge Socrates could sharpen his own.


And it’s a good thing he could, for their dialogue moves unhesitatingly from a pointed inquiry to a verbal joust. The question at hand, from which a Platonic digression always is to be expected, was whether or not virtue was capable of being taught. Was that highest of aims educable, or was it ingrained? Ultimately, after countless repartees and argumentative thrusts, the answer to this question remains inconclusive. Pedants and pedagogues will quibble, each claiming a resolution to this ancient question. Alas, we know not if virtue can be taught, but we join Protagoras in hoping that it might. For him, his income was in some way dependent on its being so. If there is no lesson to export, no curriculum to which one ought to adhere, of what use is the teacher by whom these matters are possessed? For us moderns, we like to think ourselves a mere Amazon “Alexa” inquisition or self-help book away from being improved, but we gravely diminish the role of the teacher by being so reliant upon our own devices.


The question, then, on the educability of virtue is frustratingly moot. We impugn these intrepid thinkers not. Their inability to achieve an answer is no cause for our distaste. Rather, we give to them our deepest sympathies, having come up with no better answer to this issue ourselves.


Beneath this most practical of all questions (that is, as earlier stated, whether or not virtue can be taught and, if so, by whom?) lies a philosophical distinction of which we, as devoted members of the thinking world, have been admirably quick to take note. It is the penetrating divergence between feelings and facts. The former is a product of subjectivism—the theory that all a man feels to be true is indubitably just that. “Man”, as the greatest expositor of that belief tersely pointed out, “is the measure of all things”. This is the apothegm of Protagoras by which the genteel sophist (if nothing else is remembered of him) is known. Contrary to the associated Pre-Socratics with whom he ran, Protagoras was more interested in thoughts than in things. He was more psychologist than naturalist, more Durkheim than Darwin.

Everything—be it virtue, beauty, justice, goodness, you name it—was subjectively to be discerned and every man in retention of his own understanding of the truth. Objectivity was an apparition. A perhaps radical sense of relativism had found its champion and individualism its voice (a voice, one might add, that’s become increasingly resonant in our Post-Modern age—an age in which the bewildering line “my truth” is commonly bandied about).


But a voice is only championed if it can withstand the raillery an adversary. It mustn’t buckle when the imprecations of an opponent flow its way. And, expectedly, flow they will. There was no more redoubtable an opponent, irrespective of his youth and the gentle curiosity of his mind, than that found in the person of Plato’s Socrates. In opposition to Protagoras’ idea that the capricious self is the only enduring source of truth, Socrates believed in a philosophy of greater solidity. There was, in Socrates’ as well as in Plato’s mind, an ultimate and essential Truth—one in whose image all lesser facsimiles were to be formed. If, as Protagoras had convinced us, we were to accept the premise that man is the measure of all things, by what measure—we curiously ask of the Thracian traveler—would he himself be gauged? Mustn’t there be a universal ideal, a Form of man by which man is ultimately measured? There is an ideal under whose recognition we live—to whose perfection we strive. We form not our own measurements, but that Ideal to which we look up keenly measures us.


Between Protagoras and Plato, relativism and idealism, the battle for the truth of life continues. According to the solipsistic century in which we presently live, the former thinker seems to have gained the advantage. Finding acceptable no truth but our own, each of us has become the bluntest of measuring sticks. Nothing is unknown to us as we appreciate every angle—no matter how acute the lines or obtuse our thought. Nevertheless, the Socratic idea persists and demands that it be heard. It does so every Sunday, that alleged day of respite during whose morning hours we hear it said of us and of our closest friends that we were made in the likeness of a loving God. He is the measure by whose dimensions or dictates we’re crafted.


Ultimately, there’s room both for sophist and philosopher in this quest for the measurement and understanding of man. All hands are needed on his tumultuous deck. And if it be our endeavor to take up the task with the commitment it deserves and the earnestness of which we have no lack, we’ll have to use every available instrument and every man—whether wisdom is for him a labor of income or one of love. We thus seek to know Protagoras so we might better know ourselves. We likewise hope to understand Socrates, though we frankly expect never to understand ourselves.

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