Protagoras Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Protagoras} Protagoras was among the first of the Greek Sophists, itinerant teachers who professed to be able to teach virtue for a fee. His ideas on learning, morality, and the history of human society have influenced the system of education since the fifth century b.c.e.

Early Life

Most of what is known of Protagoras (proh-TAG-oh-ruhs) comes from select writings of Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, and certain later authors. Protagoras was born about 485 b.c.e. in Abdera, a coastal town of Thrace to the east of Macedonia. The town was remarkable for producing several famous philosophers, including Democritus, and as the third richest city in the Delian League, a fifth century alliance established to expel the Persians from Greece.

Protagoras’s father, Maeandrius (or by some accounts, Artemon), was said to have been one of the most affluent citizens of Abdera and was thus able to obtain a good education for his son. When Xerxes I, king of the Persians, stopped in the town with his army prior to invading Greece, Maeandrius supposedly gained permission for his son to be educated by the magi who were part of Xerxes’ retinue. The magi were supposed to have been the source of Protagoras’s well-known agnosticism. No trace of their influence, however, can be seen in his work, so the story is largely discounted.

A story arose that Protagoras invented the shoulder pad that porters used, because he himself had been a porter in his youth. A longer version of the tale claims that his fellow citizen, the philosopher Democritus, saw him working at a menial task and was so impressed by his methodical arrangement of firewood that he first made the boy his secretary, then trained him in philosophy and rhetoric. Because Democritus was actually younger than Protagoras, this story must also be rejected. However, he may have been a “hearer” of Democritus, as some accounts claim.

The numerous stories from ancient times that have largely been discounted by later generations prove that nothing certain can be said about Protagoras’s early life. It is stated authoritatively, however, that at the age of thirty Protagoras began his career as a Sophist, traveling up and down the peninsula of Greece and into Sicily and southern Italy, giving lessons to wealthy young men for a fee.

Life’s Work

Prior to the mid-400’s b.c.e. no schools or professional teachers existed, yet the city-states experienced an increasing need for well-educated, informed leaders. The older Sophists, Protagoras, Prodicus, Hippias, and Gorgias, filled this need by teaching upper-class young men how to acquire political and personal success. They held similar views on education and had similar aversions to the objective scientific doctrines of their day. They claimed superiority in wisdom, the ability to teach that wisdom, and the right to charge a fee for their lessons. In this atmosphere Protagoras gained fame by lecturing and by writing books.

Many disapproved of the Sophists’ methods, especially Socrates and Plato. Socrates argued that wisdom was a quality that could not be taught. Plato, who disparaged the rhetorical tricks used specifically by Protagoras, brought ill repute to all the Sophists. A generation later, Aristotle branded their teaching as the furthering of the appearance of wisdom without the reality, and the Sophists as men who made money on this pretense.

Still, Protagoras was clearly more than a specious philosopher. Plato consistently portrayed him as witty, intellectual, moral, and sincere in his praise of Socrates—and thought Protagoras’s ideas important enough to refute in several dialogues. Aristotle’s extensive refutation of Protagoras’s beliefs attests the fact that he, too, took Protagoras seriously.

Protagoras’s instruction was practical. He emphasized skill in persuasive speaking and effective debating. He taught his students the importance of words by the study of grammar, diction, and poetic analysis. He may have been the first to emphasize the importance of proper timing. Armed with these skills, Protagoras believed, his students would excel as civic leaders and political advisers. The Athenian orator Isocrates and Protagoras’s fellow Sophist Prodicus were two of his most famous students. He also influenced Aristophanes and Euripides.

On his journeys, Protagoras no doubt stayed with influential families and read his speeches to select audiences. His most famous visits were to Athens, which he first saw in 444 b.c.e., when the Athenian ruler Pericles asked him to write the constitution for the new Panhellenic colony of Thurii in southern Italy. This assignment probably required him to live in Italy for some years. He spent enough time in Sicily to have won fame as a teacher. He returned to Athens about 432, when he engaged in the debate with Socrates described in Plato’s dialogue Prōtagoras (399-390 b.c.e.; Protagoras, 1804). He may have visited the city once more in 422 or 421.

Protagoras’s high fee of one hundred...

(The entire section is 2105 words.)