Protagoras was an ancient Greek philosopher born in the city of Abdera in 490 BC. He was the first person to refer to himself as a sophist. Sophists were traveling educators who taught rhetoric (public speaking) and other topics of higher learning to the young men living in the cities they visited for a fee. Protagoras specialized in teaching rhetoric, recognizing the value of public speaking in a city such as Athens. He lived in a time when Athens was thriving with intellectual thought, and he would become the leader of the Sophistic movement. He believed that there are two sides to every argument and that he could “make the weaker argument stronger.” He was agnostic, believing that human beings are unable to know whether or not the Gods exist, and is famous for saying that “Man is the measure of all things.” Protagoras would be featured as a character in Plato’s dialogues Protagoras and Theaetus.
Protagoras taught as a sophist in Athens. He believed he was able to teach the young men of the city arete (virtue) so that they would be successful in life, and that public speaking in particular was the way to gain success. He focused on public speaking because of two aspects of Athens as a city. First, there were many lawsuits that took place in Athens and there were no lawyers. Therefore, in order to prosecute someone or defend yourself a person needed to do it for themselves, and this required being a persuasive speaker. Second, Athens practiced a form of democracy where political decisions were made based on conclusions reached in the Assembly. The Assembly was a place where all free men could come and give their opinion. In this way, being a good public speaker allowed one to be politically influential.
Before Protagoras, the ancient Greek youth were educated up until the age of 14. They were home schooled and the curriculum was limited to mathematics, gymnastics, playing music, reading, writing and learning the traditional Greek poetry of Homer and Hesiod. By teaching those who could afford it things like rhetoric and grammar, Protagoras gave an advantage to those youth who could afford it, and became wealthy in the process. He was also befriended by Pericles, the greatest statesman of the time, who asked him to draft a constitution for the city of Thurri in Southern Italy (that was under the leadership of Athens at the time).
Protagoras is known for two works Truth (also called Throws, a wrestling term meaning to throw an opponent) and On the Gods. In Truth, Protagoras states that “Man is the measure of all things” and that “there are two sides to every argument.” He believed that everyone has their own subjective opinion of that which is objectively true. What is important is therefore the ability to convince others to embrace your opinion as their own. This is why he taught public speaking (rhetoric) as a learnable skill (techne). By teaching others to be better public speakers, and therefore to be more successful in life, he believed he was helping these young men who were his pupils develop virtue (arete). This notion of arete differed from the traditional Greek understanding, such as is found in Homer’s poem the Iliad, where virtue is identified with things like bravery and success in battle.
In On the Gods, Protagoras would break with the traditional Greek mythological understanding of the world as being controlled by the whims of the Olympic Gods. Instead, he stated the agnostic position that “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.” In both his understanding of the world as well as the importance of being persuasive in one’s arguments, Protagoras emphasized a philosophy where everything is relative, that is focused on human interactions.
Although Protagoras himself was considered to have good morals, sophists became known for being deceptive and emphasizing winning at all costs instead of genuinely caring about the truth by other philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle saw the sophists as individuals who were more than happy to teach things that sounded nice but weren’t true for money. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is always winning in his conversations against the sophists and Plato’s Theory of Forms was an attempt to anchor morality in something real. Nevertheless, Protagoras along with the other sophists would bring the question of what is the right way to live (ethics), how should a city be ruled (politics), and how can humans as subjective beings know anything (epistemology) to the center of philosophical thought.