Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism: Plato’s Subtlest Enemy

Protagoras was an important Greek thinker of the fifth century BC, the most famous of the so called Sophists, though most of what we know of him and his thought comes to us mainly through the dialogues of his strenuous opponent Plato. In his book Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism: Plato’s Subtlest Enemy, Ugo Zilioli offers a sustained and philosophically sophisticated examination of what is, in philosophical terms, the most interesting feature of Protagoras’ thought for modern readers: his role as the first Western thinker to argue for relativism.

 ‘To defend relativism is about as thankless a task as philosophy ever confronted: informed readers typically take it to be a complete waste of time and even a mark of professional incompetence. But then, if you see its genuinely deep challenge, its defense counts as an exceptional kind of courage and amplitude of mind that very little else in philosophy ever equals. Zilioli embodies a candor and honesty and a scholar’s thoroughness and scruple that are simply a pleasure to trust in the unraveling of the full import of Plato’s treatment of Protagoras’s argument in the Theaetetus and Protagoras. I think it’s the straightforward clarity and passion of Zilioli’s effort that makes it so memorable. Beyond that, it seems to me to have simply outflanked Protagoras’s strongest detractors.’   Joseph Margolis, Temple University, USA

Here is an extract from Ugo Zilioli’s introduction to the book (you can read the full introduction online):

“This book aims primarily to reconstruct the philosophy of the sophist Protagoras through a reading of some dialogues of Plato, more precisely of some sections of the Theaetetus and Protagoras. It is a book that intends to define, understand and assess critically the philosophical positions that Plato attributes to Protagoras in his (Plato’s) dialogues in the light of the philosophical dichotomy between relativism and objectivism. The reasons for writing such a book are two. One reason is relevant for the history of ancient thought. To use F.M. Cornford’s term, Protagoras was Plato’s ‘archenemy’: I believe that the sophist and his relativism were for Plato (and his objectivism) the ‘subtlest’ enemy (at least as far as some central epistemological and ethical issues were concerned and, to some extent, educational and methodological issues too). The second reason has to do with current philosophical debates. The dispute between Protagoras and Plato initiated, I claim, the contrast between relativism and objectivism in philosophy. Such a contrast, which has thus characterized Western philosophy from its very birth, has pervaded a great part of Anglo-American philosophy in the last forty years, especially in the USA, and has become one of the most fundamental issues of debate in philosophical speculation.

This study has also a secondary aim, no less interesting, at least for someone curious about the figure of the historical Protagoras, though this is much harder to identify. In reconstructing the philosophy of Protagoras in the context, mostly, of Plato’s Theaetetus and Protagoras, I shall try to comprehend whether there is some historical plausibility in Plato’s picture of Protagoras. I shall explain better what I mean by ‘historical plausibility’. The attempt to find a historical plausibility in Plato’s reconstruction of Protagoras’ doctrines is in a way hopeless, given the tiny proportion of Protagoras’ writings still available. Diogenes Laertius tells us that Protagoras wrote twelve books or treatises, whose titles are the following: The Art of Controversy, On Wrestling, On Mathematics, On the State, On Ambition, On Virtues, On the Original State of Things, On What is in Hades, On The Misdeeds of Men, Instruction Book, Law-suit about a Fee, Opposing Arguments (in two books). He wrote even more than Diogenes reports, and his unlisted writings were the most influential: the two famous treatises On the Gods (whose opening sentence about the impossibility of knowing the existence of the gods seems to have caused Protagoras to be exiled and his books burnt) and Truth or The Overthrowers, which began with Protagoras’ maxim that Man is the Measure, do not appear in Diogenes’ list. Further and important omissions are Protagoras’ On Being, a work in which he seems to have proposed some arguments for refuting Parmenides’ doctrine that Being is one, and his Great Speech, of which we now know nothing (the same title is used, in modern scholarship, for the first section of Plato’s Protagoras, namely Prt. 320c–328d). But, of this great amount of written material, only a very limited number of short fragments is available to us.

It is obviously difficult to form a coherent and accurate picture of Protagoras’ doctrine or to say anything plausible about the historical Protagoras by relying on these few available testimonies. So, I will not claim that I am able to do that. What I think can be done is to explain some arguments that Plato attributes to Protagoras in his dialogues (or, more importantly, some other arguments that can be attributed to Protagoras on the basis of what Plato himself says, mainly in the Theaetetus) in the light of Protagoras’ extant fragments. This will help to make the general approach that I will use in the course of the book more comprehensible for the reader. In the attempt to reconstruct Protagoras’ philosophy in the context of Plato’s dialogues, close analysis of the arguments that Plato’s Socrates ascribes to Protagoras will be attempted and a careful scrutiny of such arguments will be provided. But, since Protagoras is, on my account, Plato’s philosophical enemy, and since Plato opposes Protagoras’ philosophical ideas, from the positions that he attributes to Protagoras in his dialogues he tends to draw some philosophical consequences that need not be drawn. Plato wants to show Protagoras’ positions untenable because, on Plato’s account, they eventually lead to absurdities or falsities. But, on the basis of what Plato himself says, one might identify philosophical consequences, alternative to those drawn by Plato, and less straightforwardly untenable. Let us call such alternatives (to Plato’s) arguments ‘anti-Platonic’, in so far as they provide philosophical positions that Plato would never have held. So, as far as Protagoras’ doctrines are concerned, in my analysis of the Theaetetus and Protagoras, genuinely Platonic arguments will alternate with other philosophical arguments, quite independent of Plato’s own arguments; as well as a reconstruction of some Platonic arguments, this book will provide a critique of such arguments.

What I want to ask is whether the defence that a modern reader might present of Protagoras’ positions might also have been the kind of defence that the historical Protagoras could have offered. In order to answer this question, I will make comparisons between the arguments that I will provide to defend Protagoras from Plato’s attacks on the one hand, and, on the other, Protagoras’ extant fragments, with the hope of finding some points of contact between the former and the latter. In attempting to do so, I will make some limited recourse to some sources other than Plato, for instance Sextus Empiricus or Aristotle, to corroborate the plausibility of such consonance.

This is what I have in mind when I speak of the historical plausibility of the picture of Protagoras’ doctrine within the framework of Plato’s dialogues. As can be seen, it is a very weak sense of historical plausibility, but it is nonetheless one that has its own merits and will hopefully become clearer once I introduce the third and last scholarly aim of this study. If reconstructing Protagoras’ doctrines in Plato’s dialogues is the more important target of this book, and providing a kind of weak historical plausibility for such a reconstruction is a less important, and derivative, objective, the third target that I aim to reach by writing this book is the following important one. What I aim to understand is the extent to which Protagoras’ doctrines, as depicted in Plato’s Theaetetus and Protagoras, can be seen as a form of philosophical relativism. To quote Matthen’s eloquent expression, I wish to ‘treat Protagoreanism sub specie aeternitatis’. Some scholars regard Protagoras as the first relativist in the history of western thought, but it is not at all clear what this means. What kind of relativist was Protagoras? After all, what is relativism? Protagoras is usually taken as holding a form of perceptual relativism that quite naively leads to a rather weak, and self-refuting, form of cognitive relativism. This claim usually originates from references to Plato’s Theaetetus, in particular to the self-refutation section that has attracted so much attention. But Plato’s treatment of Protagoras’ alleged relativistic positions in the Theaetetus is much more detailed than that, indeed much more wide-ranging and, I suggest, much more respectful. The form of relativism that Plato ascribes to Protagoras in the Theaetetus is, I claim, complex and it involves both a form of perceptual relativism (of a very sophisticated kind, with subtle ontological consequences) and of ethical relativism. The comprehension of Protagoras’ doctrines will become even clearer if one reads the Theaetetus in conjunction with the Protagoras. But this, to my knowledge, has never been fully attempted. My claim is that, if Protagoras is a relativist, he is one of a more serious kind than generally thought of.”

More information about Protagoras and the Challenge of Relativism: Plato’s Subtlest Enemy

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