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Protagoras and Socrates



Protagoras is wrongly considered to be the Greek father of our ethical relativism because he said, "Man is the measure of all things, those that are, that they are, those that are not, that they are not." He did not mean that subjective individuals are Mayins or creators of the objective universe who bestow different lives on objects. He was speaking not of individuals, but of the species, i.e., Man, humankind. He was not speaking of how things appear subjectively to individuals as if that were what things really were, for he posited a That, an objective reality for us all. Plato puts the doctrine of relativity in Protagoras' mouth, yet he has Protagoras declare, in an imagined great speech, that justice is the first virtue that Athenian society cannot not do without hence injustice warrants exile or the death penalty since its absence is the death of society. So much for ethical relativity. Justice is not merely, To each his own as is fitting to his conditioned self. A world without justice or contrary to justice, a world that rewards evil and punishes good, is definitely absurd. There are some goods and evils upon which everyone will agree as to their goodness or badness. "The Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to excellence in carpentry or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations....

But when they meet to deliberate about political excellence or virtue, which proceed only by way of justice and self-control, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise.... They say that all men ought to profess justice whether they are just or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is that a man must have some degree of justice, and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in human society.... They do not conceive this virtue to be given by nature, or to grow spontaneously, but to be a thing which is taught, and which comes to a man by taking pains. No one would instruct, no one would rebuke or be angry with those whose calamities they suppose to be due to nature or chance; they do not try to punish or to prevent them from being what they are; they but do pity them. Who, for example, is so foolish as to chastise or instruct the ugly, the diminutive, or the feeble?" Only twenty lines written by Protagoras are extant. He was not a relativist. He was an agnostic empiricist who knew and admired Pericles, and wrote a constitution. And he was a grammarian who expounded on Correct Speech during troubled times. He believed correct speech had healing power. He was concerned with tenses, moods, and word endings; for example, with the fact that the word for helmet was feminine instead of masculine. At one point Plato ridiculed Protagoras pedantry and his obsession with systematic thinking. Ironically, Plato gave him a bad name by attaching his name to the secret doctrine of subjective relativity. Plato must have known that Protagoras the grammarian meant Man or humankind, and not individual men, when he said. "Man is the measure of all things, those which are, that they are, those which are not, that they are not." He must have known that Protagoras recognized the objective existence of things, or that they really are, not merely 'how' they might be differently conceived by individuals. Protagoras concern with correct language and objective verification gives the lie to the unprincipled subjectivity put in his mouth by Plato for the sake of argument. # #

Noble M. Notas is the nom de plume employed by David Arthur Walters for his academic notes