There are two stories about Protagoras. In the hostile account of his life written by Diogenes Laertius, it is said that he was a porter, a relatively humble position, and that he invented a porter’s pad for carrying things. But in Philostratas’s Lives of the Sophists he is given a much grander birth, being the son of a wealthy citizen of Abdera who “amassed wealth beyond most men in Thrace”, and who entertained King Xerxes in his house. Philostratus claims that this Persian connection effected Protagoras’s thinking, since he became versed, to an extent, in the doctrines of the Persian magi. Whereas Diogenes Laertius (writing with all the snobbery of the ancient world at his back) attributes Protagorus’s education to Democritus, who was impressed by Protagoras’s invention of the porter’s pad. Somehow, this story rings with the implication of slander – it gives Protagoras’s cunning all too menial a cast. And yet Diogenes also casually attributes the invention of philosophy by dialogue, or the Socratic method, to Protagoras – a rather big invention, the invention of a form, which Diogenes, in his usual way, mentions and goes on. The biographies of the Philosophers tumble and jumble off the page like some inventory landslide, leaving us frustrated, howling outside of the sacked walls for more.
One thing that is agreed between Philostratus and Diogenes is that Protagorus, like Socrates, was accused in Athens of disbelief in the Gods. In Philostratus, his person was condemned, and he fled from place to place like a philosophical Flying Dutchman, seeking refuge, until he drowned in a shipwreck. Diogenes L, however, maintains merely that his book, On the Gods, was burned in Athens. He read this book, supposedly, at Euripides house. The scandalous import of the book comes out in Diogenes quotation: “As to the Gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.”
This quotation, of course, doesn’t tell us much about the argument that Protagoras develops about the gods; for after all, the argument might show that most probably, they exist, and that their existence is bound up in our not knowing. Or otherwise. Protagoras’s life – which is a bit undecidable itself – might have provided a good context in which to ponder undecidablity and the shortness of human life. Surely some echo of Protagoras’s phrase is contained in the story, in Acts, that Paul discovered an altar in Athens inscribed, to the unknown God.
I have always found Protagoras a sympathetic figure, whether or not he came from the working class. He has been demonized for millenia as the “founder” of relativism. One of Protagoras’s book, lost like all of them, has the nice, Nietzschian title of “Truth, or The Overthrower” - (Kataballontes Logoi). What we have from Protagoras (as though proving the shortness of man’s life has an imminent effect on what he can know) is fragments, the most famous of which, pondered wonderfully in the Theaetetus, is: ‘Of all things, the measure is man, of things which are, that they are, of things which are not, that they are not.’ What this means is elusive, of course. It is not that man is the inventor of all things – nor does it say that things do not exist outside of man. These are, of course, possible interpretations. But it puts man in the position of “measurer”, and in one sense that goes well with the Pythagorian viewpoint according to which number is at the ontological base of things. Yet in another sense, it displaces number with the measurer – begging the question of whether measure itself “depends” on man.
Myself, I think the measure fragment links up to what DL claims about Protagoras’s invention of the socratic dialogue for doing philosophy. DL writes that Protagoras was the first to say “that on everything (pragmatos) there are two accounts (logous) opposed each other.” This would seem to make “man” the measurer a more suspect unity; for if pragmatos is the kind of thing that is subject to exponential account making, it might be more reasonably said that of all things, the measureless is man. Plato of course saw this, but he nevertheless decided that “man” meant an aggregate of individuals, each person, instead of something like Dasein, or the collectivity of the human, divided within itself. If we are seeking the geneology of what Bakhtin calls “broadness” – the way many views, acts, desires and beliefs can be attributed to persons, without there being a core coherence – then we would have to start, I think, with Protagoras.
There is a story about Protagoras that is recounted in Plutarch’s life of Pericles that exemplifies this theme. Pericles bratty son published a “Daddy Dearest” book trying to mock Pericles for, among other things, hanging with the sophists. “For instance, a certain athlete had hit Epitimus the Pharsalian with a javelin, accidentally, and killed him, and Pericles, Xanthippus said, squandered an entire day discussing with Protagoras whether it was the javelin, or rather the one who hurled it, or the judges of the contests, that "in the strictest sense" ought to be held responsible for the disaster.” This was an entire waste of time for the son, Xanthippus; but it is a moment of radical recognition that stands out in legal history, with the sense that liability can be mediate as well as immediate. But what we see, in this discussion with Pericles, is an effect of there being two sides to each question, and two sides after that – two sides, indeed, to whether the right question is being asked.
The interesting question to ask of those who oppose relativism relates to this issue of measure and measurelessness, and it is the question of the disposability of form, whether it can be discarded once we get to substance, or whether it is, indeed, so tied to substance that our abstraction of one from the other is a distortion. To put it another way, by rejecting Protagoras, which happens in the Theaetetus, is Plato actually rejecting the socratic method? Is he rejecting Socrates? For if Socrates is taking up Protagoras’s technique, it would seem, from Plato’s non-relativist view, that Socrates made a mistake, gave too much to the enemy. For Protagoras’s invention would seem designed never to get us closer to what we want - the list of imperatives in the realms of knowledge, ontology, ethics and aesthetics that can tell us what is true and what is false, what is knowledge and what isn’t, what exists and what doesn’t, what is right and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t.
With Protagoras, don’t we begin, in earnest, the battle between the dialogue and the list?