Protagoras- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (10)

This is the final chapter in the section on philosophers preceding Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Tomorrow we will begin with Socrates. In it is discussed Protagoras and the Sophists. The Sophists were a group of philosophers who taught their ideas and knowledge to people for a price. Protagoras was himself a Sophist. He was very popular for his wisdom and skill of acute logical thinking.

He was born 500 BCE in Abdera, the hometown of Democritus. He travelled widely teaching and learning. He visited Athens twice, the second time was not long before the end of the reign of Pericles. In 444 – 443 BCE, he visited Thurii and wrote the laws for the city.

Because the Sophists charged for their time, high education was the privilege of the wealthy. This was a time where the high-class citizens would educate themselves at length, muse upon life, and travel widely. Travel had softened their prejudices, making them a more liberal upper-class than before.

The wealthy were resented by the poor on two grounds. Firstly, they were jealous of them. It didn’t seem right that some people lived their lives as slaves whilst other people could travel, drink and eat well, and pay for better education. The second objection was that great wealth was inherently immoral to their cultural and political system. It was questioned whether wealth and democracy were ethically compatible. In a democracy, people who could afford better education could make better informed decisions for example, and the poor resented the fact that they were restricted from voting in as informed a manner as they would have wished.

Many educated people and rulers were distrusted for their power, wealth, and their new and controversial ideas (as we have seen previously) and were persecuted by the masses. The legal system was very conscious of trying to be as objective and impartial as possible. In Athens, judges were drawn by lot for each case, or for a short number of cases. Like a jury today, judges would be selected from all walks of life, and there would be more than one, often hundreds.

The accused was not defended by a barrister as is done today, they had to represent themselves. Many people standing in court would pay a sophist to help them write a defence speech, and Protagoras was possibly the most successful and famous of defence-speech writers.

Educators and philosophers traditionally set up their own schools. Each school would teach the beliefs of the founder, and there would by a mystical religious doctrine to follow. This cones from the remaining influence of the Orphic tradition. The sophists refused to set up schools, and were even critical of such a position.  They said that rather than sell ideas, they were more interested in teaching people how to think and debate usefully.

The Sophists followed arguments from the beginning without thinking about the conclusion of the argument. They were interested in truth to the point that they wouldn’t care whether a conclusion contradicted with their views or not. They accused most other thinkers of starting with a conclusion and working back. This was indeed a crime of many subsequent thinkers.

Protagoras was famous for asserting that ‘man is the measure of all things’. What he meant by this was that there could be no objective truths. What is true to me is true to me, and what is true to you is true to you, but we couldn’t arrive at perfect objective truth and should therefore privilege the fact that we have truths which are relevant to each of us individually. This led him to conclude that pigs had as much right to their opinions as we do to ours. He asserted that some opinions could be better than other opinions, but not that they could be truer.

Religiously speaking, Protagoras was an agnostic. He stated that the study of religion was hindered by the fact that the divine is technically obscure, and that life is so short. It was difficult or impossible to assert truths in religion. He still believed that we should worship Gods, however. He may have asserted this ‘just in case’ the Gods were real, or he may have believed that religious belief encouraged us to live better lives.

Protagoras also publicly accused many law makers of being immoral. In the first book of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus asserted that genuine justice was found in favouring the strongest, most powerful and wealthiest in society. Protagoras criticised many such views, many of the Sophists became publicly vocal about the political and cultural states of affairs.

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To read the other articles in the series, click HERE

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