Protagoras bust
Protagoras bust

Protagoras of Abdera (Ancient Greek Πρωταγόρας; Abdera, c. 485 BC – c. 411 BC) was a Greek sophist. Admired expert in rhetoric who toured the Greek world charging high fees for his knowledge about the correct use of words or orthoepy. He is credited by Plato as the inventor of the role of the professional sophist or teacher of "virtue" (understood not as "goodness" but as knowledge and ability to succeed in the world).

Protagoras was a traveling thinker, celebrated and needed wherever he went. He lived for long periods in Athens, where he was an acquaintance of Socrates and a friend of Pericles, who commissioned him to draft the constitution for the new colony of Turios, which he drafted around 444 or 443 BC. C. and where, for the first time in history, public and compulsory education was established. He also traveled to Sicily and other cities in Asia Minor acting as a teacher of rhetoric and conduct , and received considerable amounts of money in return, like the rest of the sophists. The teaching that he came to exercise in the area of ​​Greek influence lasted forty years, according to Plato.

Plato dedicated one of his dialogues to him, the Protagoras , which even today can be read as a lively, lively and colorful painting, albeit with little historical rigor, about the different types of sophists who lived in the mansion of Callias – a rich Athenian, a kind of of patrons with commercial, political, artistic and military interests. Along with Gorgias, they were the only sophists considered philosophers by Plato and Aristotle. Socrates held them in high esteem for their rhetorical qualities and the depth of their predicates, despite the use they could make of them.

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According to most ancient authors, Protagoras was originally from the city of Abdera, a statement only disputed by the Athenian playwright Eupolis, who considered him a native of Teos, in Asia Minor. Also, with some consensus, the 84th Olympiad was indicated (years 444 to 441 BC) as his acmé or time of plenitude, data from which, modernly, the date of his birth is usually set around the year 485 BC. C.​

He was considered a disciple of Democritus, although Philostratus says that he would also have been related to magicians from Persia at the time of King Xerxes' expedition against Greece. It was said that in his youth he had worked as a porter, inventing a cushion called tyle that facilitated the transport of the load. According to Diogenes Laertius, Democritus was so impressed with the ingenuity that the young Protagoras displayed in his invention that he decided to adopt him as his disciple .

Protagoras was counted among the creators of the art of rhetoric, and is noted as the first to introduce eristic reasoning .

He was also credited with initiating the practice of receiving teaching fees, which were particularly high. According to Plato, Protagoras would have earned more money in his educational trade than all that "Phidias and ten other sculptors" had collected. Plato also refers to the criteria used by the sophist to receive payment of fees; makes Protagoras say: "When [a disciple] has learned with me, if he wants, he gives me the money that I stipulate, and if not, he appears in a temple, and, after swearing that he believes that the teachings are worth so much, he is there. deposit. "

An anecdote about a fee agreement between Protagoras and a disciple of his, named Evatlo, was famous in antiquity. They had agreed to pay only in the event that the apprentice managed to win a lawsuit using his acquired rhetorical skills. Evatlo, as he did not win any case, refused to pay. Protagoras then took him to court, telling him: "If I win, you must give me the fees for having won; if you win, because the condition has been met, you should also pay me." This is known as Protagoras' paradox.

He appears to have led a wandering life, teaching for forty years in various Greek cities. He is known to have visited Athens on at least two occasions, and Plato places him, in his old age, living in Sicily .

His relationship with the Athenians had two moments; one in which he was well received and maintained close relations with the circles of power in the city, followed by another of repudiation and condemnation.

The first of the periods is marked by his friendship with Pericles, with whom, it is conjectured, he shared philosophical and political ideals. The long debates that both used to have were famous. On a certain occasion, according to Plutarch, they argued for a whole day about the death of the athlete Epitimio de Farsalia; They wondered who was to blame for his death, the javelin that injured him, the one who threw it, or the organizers of the contest .

Under the protection of Pericles, Protagoras had great prestige among the Athenians, which was reflected in the fact that he was commissioned to draft a constitution for the new colony of Turios, in the year 443 BC. C.; text that established, for the first time, public and compulsory education.

Protagoras' philosophy fit well with the ideas of the ruling circle led by Pericles, within which the agnosticism of the sophist did not generate rejection; but once Pericles was dead, the new leaders of the city abandoned their tolerant attitude.

Diogenes Laertius affirms that the problems began for the sophist when he read, at the home of Euripides (or Megaclides), his book On the Gods , in which he confessed that he did not know the existence or non-existence of divine beings. As a result, he was accused of impiety by Pitydorus, son of one of the Four Hundred (according to Aristotle, the accuser was Evatlo, a disciple of the sophist ). Philostratus points out that it is not clear whether or not there was a process leading to his conviction, which some say was banishment and others, death, but in any case, his works were ordered to be burned.E. Derenne places such events around 416 BC. C., on the eve of the Athenian fleet marching on an expedition against Syracuse, while W. Dilthey frames them during the government of the Four Hundred, in 411 BC. C.

Either to escape the death penalty, or in compliance with the banishment order, Protagoras sailed for Sicily. Halfway through the voyage the ship capsized and the sophist drowned.Most sources state that he was 90 years old, although there are some that refer to his age as 70 .

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No complete work written by Protagoras has come down to us, but valuable fragments and testimonies are preserved in Plato's dialogues ( Protagoras , Cratylus , Euthydemus , Hippias Mayor -of doubtful authenticity-, Meno , Phaedrus , The Republic , Theaetetus and Sophist ), as well as in texts by other authors such as Aristotle (especially in Metaphysics IV) and Sextus Empírico. There are also summaries of his work and thought in ancient historians such as Philostratus of Athens and Diogenes Laertius (IX.50-56). Diogenes Laertius cites the following list of his "preserved" works:His surviving books are: 

The Art of Eristics , 

On Struggle , 

On Mathematics , 

On the State , 

On Ambition , 

On Virtues , 

On the State of Things in the Beginning , 

On Hades , 

On the evil deeds of men , 

The mandatory speech , 

The dispute over fees , two books of 

Antilogies . These are his books .Diogenes Laertius, 

Lives, opinions and sentences of the most illustrious philosophers

The list does not include three titles known from other sources: On the truth (also called Refutations or On convincing speeches ), On the gods and On Being . Bodrero explains the omission by noticing the phrase "The books that are preserved from him are the following" and pointing out that the texts not included in the enumeration already constituted lost works in the time of Diogenes Laertius. Untersteiner, for his part, conjectures that the titles named in the list would be nothing more than chapters of the Antilogies . According to Untersteiner, Protagoras would have written only two works: On the truthand the Antilogies . The latter, which consisted of two books, would have been divided into four sections subdivided, in turn, into the titles indicated by Diogenes Laertius. The scheme proposed by Untersteiner is as follows:

about the godsAbout the gods ; about hades
about beingAbout Being ; The art of eristics ; The Fee Dispute
about the stateAbout the State ; On ambition ; On the virtues ; On the state of things in the beginning ; On the Evil Deeds of Men , The Prescriptive Speech
about the artsAbout the fight ; about math

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One of the main concerns of Protagoras was the correctness of language expression and its meaning. This led him to carry out the first historical analyzes of language in the Greek world. He distinguished four different types of speech acts (requests, commands, questions and answers) and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) .

Man as the measure of all things

The most famous philosophical principle of Protagoras alludes to the status of man in the face of the world around him. It is usually designated by the expression Homo mensura ("Man is the measure"), an abbreviated formula of the phrase Homo omnium rerum mensura est ("Man is the measure of all things"), which translates the original sentence into Latin. Greek. The latter, according to Diogenes Laertius, would have been the following:πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἔστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν δὲ μὲν οντῶν ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὠς οὐκ ἔστινMan is the measure of all things, of those that are inasmuch as they are, of those that are not insofar as they are not.

The phrase appeared, according to Sextus Empiricus, in the lost work of Protagoras The Demolishing Speeches , and has come down to us through the transcription of various ancient authors. Apart from Diogenes Laertius, it is cited by Plato, Aristotle, Sextus Empiricus, and Hermias.


The sentence accuses various interpretations, as a result of the difficulty involved in determining the meaning and scope of its three fundamental expressions, namely: a) Man (ἄνθρωπος); b) The measure (μέτρον); c) Things (χρηματὰ).a) It is disputed whether the expression "man" (ἄνθρωπος) refers to man in an individual sense or in a collective sense. Namely:1) The interpretation in the individual sense indicates that the man referred to in Protagoras's phrase is each concrete man, each individual, in such a way that there would be as many different measures for things as there are individual men. Plato adheres to such a reading, who, through Socrates, points out in the Theaetetus :Isn't it true that [Protagoras] says something like this: As things seem to me, so they are for me, as they seem to you, so they are for you. Well, you are a man and so am I.2) Interpretation in a collective sense, in turn, has two different approaches: one that understands that the expression refers to each human social group; another, who considers it in a generic sense, that is, referring to the human race:a) The first approach, which we can call sociological, has been defended by Eugène Dupréel, and implies proposing that Protagoras' phrase alludes to a certain form of cultural relativism, where each society, each polis , would act as a measure of things.There are authors (such as Untersteiner and Schiappa) who, adhering to the sociological thesis, consider that it is not incompatible with the individual meaning of the term, since Protagoras would have contemplated both visions when formulating his sentence.b) The second approach, which we can call generic, was formulated by Goethe and especially defended by Theodor Gomperz, and implies understanding the existence of a single common measure for all individual men; the same way, shared by the human race, to appraise the totality of things.

Sometimes this saying is interpreted as simple anthropocentrism, as relativism of the truth of things, as each man is the norm of what is true for himself, and that all truth is relative to the individual who holds it and who does not could have validity beyond it. He, with his famous phrase, was referring to the human being and not to each individual, that is why he had a reputation as a moderate, he was not a radical. Heidegger proposes a more penetrating interpretation of it in his Introduction to Philosophy course (Ed. Cátedra, Madrid, 1999, pp. 166 ss. Trad. by Manuel Jiménez Redondo).

The theory of contrary judgments

Mastery of this technique would offer the possessor -the dialectician- the disposition, through his art, to make the weakest argument stronger . However, it is important to point out that Protagoras did not contemplate the use of this technique in a merely instrumental way, for mere opportunistic desire, but rather supported it in a complex discourse in which virtue was debated.

Skepticism and agnosticism

Protagoras also made a proposition of agnosticism. Reportedly, in Protagoras's lost work On the Gods , he wrote: "As regards the gods, I have no way of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what kind they may be, owing to the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life" .

According to Diogenes Laertius, the open and agnostic position taken by Protagoras aroused anger, causing the Athenians to expel him from the city, and all copies of his book were collected and burned in the market. Cicero also mentions the deliberate destruction of his works. However, the philosopher John Burnet doubts this account, since both Diogenes Laertius and Cicero wrote hundreds of years later and since contemporaries who make extensive references to this philosopher do not mention any persecution. of Protagoras. Burnet notes that even if a few copies of the Protagoras books were burned, enough of them survived to be known and discussed in the following century.

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