I have always been fascinated by the Presocratics, the very first philosophers of the Western tradition. They were the ones that began those two great enterprises of the human intellect that we today refer to as science and philosophy. They wanted to know how the world works and what our place in it happens to be. So it has been with great interest that I read the excellent The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press). But, wait, the Sophists? As anyone who has cut his philosophical teeth on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, I don’t tend to have a good opinion of the Sophists, and I have indeed explicitly used the term as one of abuse to recount a particularly distasteful encounter I’ve had with a friend of a friend.
While Waterfield’s book in part confirms my attitude toward the Sophists, it goes a long way to correct it and make it more nuanced, particularly when it comes to one of the most famous thinkers who falls under that label: Protagoras of Abdera, the first Sophist to be discussed by Waterfield in the second section of the book.
Born in Abdera, in northern Greece, Protagoras found fame in Athens, where he became part of the inner circle of the influential statesman Pericles. He was the founder of the Sophistic movement, famous even in antiquity for the concept that man is the measure of all things, which Waterfield — correctly, in my mind — takes to be not an expression of epistemic relativism, but rather an articulation of the humanistic and democratic tendencies of the whole movement.
Man is the measure of all things — of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, IX.51–3)
There is no question that Protagoras’ approach to debate was somewhat shady from an ethical perspective, though we don’t have to buy wholesale the extremely negative characterization we get of both him and the Sophists more generally from Plato. After all, being able to argue both (or more) sides of an argument is a good way to understand the various positions at play in a more objective fashion — which of…