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Protagoras

480-411 BC

Protagoras was born at Abdera around 480 BC (The exact date is unknown). Because none of his works survive, much of what we know about him we know from the works of other philosophers.  Aristotle claims that Protagoras was once a poor porter who was discovered by Democriticus, who taught him philosophy. Protagoras became a Sophist; in fact, he was the first to call himself a Sophist.  This meant that he taught for pay. Protagoras was known for his high fees and was often paid more than some of sculptors. He later went to Athens where he became friends with Pericles. In 445 BC, Pericles hired Protagoras to make a code of laws for the Athenian colony of Thurii. In 415 BC Protagoras was forced to flee from Athens because of his teachings. A few years later, in about 411 BC, he was on a voyage to Sicily where he drowned.

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Protagoras wrote a large number of works. Unfortunately most of his works were destroyed, and only fragments survived. Because Plato, Aristotle, and Sextus Empiricus made reference to him, we can piece together some understanding of his thought.. Protagoras' most famous work was called Truth (Alethia), which was refuted by Plato, and On the Gods (Peritheon). According to what might very well be a legend, the latter work was the reason he was forced to flee from Athens. In it he wrote that human beings were not capable of knowing whether gods existed or not. Because of this belief, he was accused of impiety by Pythodorus and was banished from Athens, and his books were burned. His most famous quote was: “Of all things man is the measure, of the things that are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”   This statement can be interpreted in a number of ways.  Some look upon this as a statement of relativism.  Other argue that by this Protagoras meant that man [and he did mean 'men.'] were the standard that determined the meaning of  such concepts such as truth, beauty and goodness.  A corollary to this was that, if human beings determine what is true, beautiful and good, then the gods do not.


Bibliography:

The Ecole Glossary.  "Protagoras." http://cedar.evansville.edu/%7Eecoleweb/glossary/protagoras.htm. [Link dead Feb. 2003]

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Protagoras (480-411 BCE)." http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/p/protagoras.htm

Funk & Wagnalls. "Protagoras." www.funkandwagnalls.com .

"Protagoras: 'Fragments.'" http://campus.northpark.edu/history/Classes/Sources/Protagoras.html  


Edited by: Roger Molina
Researched by: Vinesh Gajjar
Written by: Herman Tkach

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