Man is the measure [metron] of all things, of those which are, that they are, of those which are not, that they are not.
[Socrates stating the doctrine of Protagoras of Abdera in Plato's 'Theaetetus']
I The Idea Meme
If today the subject is vanishing, aphorisms take upon themselves the duty to consider the evanescent as essential.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
[Eliot, The Wasteland]
Much of the works of the Pre-Platonics has come down to us like shards of a shattered vase, which fragments have been gradually winnowed by time and chance.
Now they glitter over philosophy's landscape and are in many ways superior to the towering skyscraping systems which form its mainstream skyline.
Such splintered maxims were described by Socrates as "dark sayings, thrown out".
The Sophist Protagoras' [c.490-420BC] main treatise 'Truth' was known alternatively as Καταβαλλοντες ['the wrestling throw'] suggesting that Sophistic philosophy had its origins in the Agon, or contest, where a hold - sure to beat an opponent - is sublimated into a verbal 'knock-down argument'.
The few extant fragments of Protagoras' treatise emphasise the enduring quality of aphoristic form. A long work of complex reasoning can be lost and forgotten, but a single burnished saying has immense survival value if it can be spread like a spore via the work of subsequent carrier authors, ready to pullulate once more in the minds of succeeding generations.
II On the Aphorism
An aphorism that has been honestly struck cannot be deciphered simply by reading it off: this only is the beginning of the work of interpretation proper, which requires a whole science of hermeneutics.
The truly profound aphorism is tested and 'proven' by Time. The aphorists who had an eye for posterity eschewed the transient and gave utterance only to that which transcended their own place and time. They condensed the thought into the word before carving it deep into the immortal stone.
There are two types of aphorism: the lapidary as described by Nietzsche above, and those emitted like sparks from the fiery intellect.
The latter can betray a philosopher who has a mordant scepticism toward eternal verities and who thinks that all things, the philosopher himself included, are in a state of perpetual Becoming.
The spontaneous and unsystematic aphorist often possesses the promise of paradox. Protagoras stated with more than a hint of ambiguity that;
"There are two opposing arguments [Logoi] concerning everything."
This affront to the law of non-contradiction is the sine qua non of the Sophistic and Nietzschean philosopher.
III A Godless Man?
Socrates and Plato were shocked by the Sophists because they had no religious aims.
The atheistic tone of the introductory lines of Protagoras' treatise, 'man is the measure of all things' [Παντων μετρον ανθρωπος], was highlighted by Plato in his late work, 'The Laws';
"Now it is God who is, for you and me, of a truth, the 'measure of all things', much more truly than, as they say, 'man'."
Nietzsche's Saint in the Forest held a similar view;
Now I love God not man. Man is too defective a thing for me."
This was, though, the same Saint who had not yet heard from Zarathustra that 'God is dead!' Protagoras appears to be an agnostic in comparison to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, particularly when we consider the former's statement;
"Concerning the Gods, I am unable to know either that they are or that they are not, or what their appearance is like."
But we should note the similar construction to the second clause of Protagoras' dictum; 'On the things that are [in this case the gods], that they are; the things that are not, that they are not.' Protagoras doesn't perceive that the gods 'are' himself, although he may well conclude that 'they are' according to another man's differing perspective. This was not so much agnosticism as a sceptical relativism.
But this is almost typical of the ancient Greeks. As Foucault says;
"The Greeks didn't worry about the after-life, or whether Gods exist or not. That was not really a great problem for them. The problem was: which 'techne' do I have to use in order to live as well as I ought to live?"
This in nuce was the aim of Sophism.
IV The Rank-Ordering of Man
One Law for the Lion and Ox is oppression.
We needn't rush into a thorough-going scepticism if we accept - as no doubt the ancients did - that some men are superior 'instruments' to other men.
The Sophists thought that man had progressed to civilisation from a savage pre-history;
"The first men lived like animals - at length their hardships impressed on them the necessity of combining for survival, and with the need for rational communication they gradually learned to turn their inarticulate cries into speech. A holder of the progress theory was Protagoras, the first and greatest of the Sophists." [Guthrie]
Human progress, although deriving from a common ground, was far from uniform. In Plato's Cratylus, Socrates, when adopting an extreme relativist interpretation of 'man is the measure', objects to its implications on the basis that it destroys the natural hierarchy between men;
"The assertion of Protagoras can hardly be correct, for if what appears to each man is true to him, one man cannot in reality be wiser than another."
In other words, the unwise cannot have a true perception of reality, and Protagoras should have said that 'the wise man alone is the measure of all things'.
Another disturbing Sophistic notion for Plato was the belief that excellence [Arete] could be taught.
How then do we understand the word 'man' [ανθρωπος] as it appears in the saying of Protagoras: does it refer to man as an individual, or else does it refer to man in the universal sense?
Universal man, as understood by the Post-Enlightenment Zeitgeist is anachronistic to 5th century BC Greece, where Greek was separated from Greek, and there was a gulf between any educated Greek and a 'barbarian' [a non-Greek speaker and therefore 'babbler'].
We may go even further with Foucault and say that the Greek idea of man was entirely 'masculinist';
"The Greek ethics were linked to a purely virile society with slaves, in which women were underdogs whose pleasure had no importance, whose sexual life had to be only orientated toward and determined by their status as wives. There was a dissymmetry, an exclusion of the Other, an obsession with penetration, and a threat of being dispossessed of one's own energy."
But the terror of destruction is only one side of the chthonic power;- food and hence life grows from the depths of the Earth.
Our term 'humanity' bears only a superficial resemblance to the Latin humanitas. The 'humanity' of Rome, like the Greek, was actually divisive, rather than all-embracing. This is how it was possible for spectators at the Roman gladiatorial games to feel no pity for the victims who were considered to be lower grades of humanity. To a Roman any such sympathy for a criminal condemned to certain death by combat was irrational.
The Latin root 'homo', meaning man, is related to 'humus', soil, and derivable from the Greek chthonos : earthly, native; indigene; of the underworld. This indicates that not only was the Classical concept of man exclusive, but that it was also built upon a dark substratum of fear.
The Greek word for man, anthropos, has a specialised peculiarly Hellenic twist to it. Even in modern Greek the term means not just man, but civilised man. Muller says that "the etymology which the ancients gave the word, deriving from 'ο ανωαθρων', 'he who looks upwards'," is fitting for the man who has studied the Kosmos, mastered the Logos, and would say along with the fiercely aristocratic Heraclitus that, "one man is worth ten thousand if he be noble."
The man in Protagoras' statement therefore can't be the bland 'human being' of modern terminology. It cannot be insignificant that the Hellenes chose to refer to their conception of man as 'the exalted', preferring this to the usual Indo-European variations of the root 'man' used, necessarily, in our translations.
VI Measure and Metre
Most of the expressions we use are metaphorical: they contain the philosophy of our ancestors.
It is said that in Greece the ancient poets were the first philosophers and educators. It follows then that many of the Pre-Platonics wrote their philosophy in verse, and that the Sophists initiated the study of literary criticism and philology. In this company we should not take any of our words for granted, not even this word 'man', As Muller wrote, "our poets make poems out of words, but every word, if carefully examined, will turn out to be itself a petrified poem, a reward of a deed done or of a thought thought by those to whom we owe the whole of our intellectual inheritance."
When we close in on the word 'man' we see that it, and its derivative Mnâ- occur in Greek in such words as μενος, mind, and
The Indo-European 'man' was a thinker, raising himself above the non-cognitive, just as the Greek raised himself above the barbarian.
The act of thinking involved the act of memory [Mnâ-]. Aristotle divided animals into two classes, "those whose sensations remain, μονη, and those whose sensations do not remain. Those who do not remain possess no knowledge, γνῶσις, beyond sensation, while those whose sensations do remain are again divided into two classes according as they are able or not to gather the permanent sensations which remain, λογος."
The root sense of 'man' then, is to remain or retain, and is closely connected with memory, Sanskrit Manas, μενος, Mens, mind. Not surprisingly, to the Greek, 'memory' was the Mother of the Muses Nine.
As we examine the word 'man' we notice a circular and almost tautological tincture to 'man is the measure' at this level. To measure, 'metron', 'mens', is from the same root as 'man'.
The ability to hold onto experience enables one to then esteem and quantify that which is retained; such is the task of reasoning which is the very definition of what it is to be a man.
We can now imagine our exalted Greek scrying the heavens for "the moon which seemed to measure the sky, and in doing so helped man to measure the time of each lunation, of each moon or month man and moon were working together, measuring together, and as a man helped to measure a field or to measure a beam might be called a measurer, say Ma-s, from Ma, to measure, to make; thus the moon also was called Mas, the measure, which is its actual name in Sanskrit, closely connected with Greek μεις, Latin mensis, English 'moon'." [Muller]
VII Vitruvian Man
Man is the metre of all things, the hand is the instrument of instruments, and the mind the form of forms.
What was the glory of the Renaissance? The attempt to transvalue Christian values: to make the opposite values, the noble values, triumph.
[Nietzsche, A 61]
The men of the European Renaissance took Protagoras' saying to mean that man is the standard of perfection for all things. Relativism and scepticism were used only selectively to dissolve the dogmas of Medieval religion.
Vasari's life of 'Leonardo da Vinci' stated that "Leonardo was of so heretical a cast of mind, that he conformed to no religion whatever, according it perchance much better to be a philosopher than Christian."
Leonardo's illustration [1511, above] for a manual by the Roman architect Vitruvius [a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus] provides a visual equivalent in Renaissance terms for Protagoras' aphorism. Richter, an editor of Leonardo's notebooks describes how the proportions of the human body are here related to the most perfect geometric figures and may be said to be integrated into the spherical cosmos.
But the concept of Virtù was not all pervasive as Sir Francis Bacon recognised;
"It is a false assertion that the sense of Man is the Measure of Things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well as the sense of the mind are according to the Measure of the Universe."
Bacon then presages the modern anti-humanist view which sees man as insignificant and contingent - Sartre's 'man is a useless passion' - in a Universe that will eventually be seen as meaningless.
VIII Blood Brothers
Power lovers tend to adopt the maxim of Protagoras.
When combined with the afore-mentioned hieratic view of man, 'man is the measure' has totalitarian implications. As Joad says;
"A familiar development of Protagoras' maxim is that the 'great and powerful man' is the measure of all things ... that the great man is exempt from the dictates of morality which are only a rationalisation of the timidities of the herd."
Drawing this implication, the 'might is right' doctrine is given a classic expression in Plato's dialogue named after the Sophist Gorgias, where Callicles espoused it with evident relish;
"In my view nature herself makes it plain that it is right for the better to have advantage over the worse, the more able over the less. And both among all animals - and in entire states and races of mankind it is plain that this is the case - that Right is recognised to be the sovereignty and advantage of the stronger over the weaker."
According to Guthrie, Nietzsche was 'blood brother to Callices', and this is not so far off the mark, particularly as Nietzsche gave his heartiest consent to the Sophists. The following passage is important to the discussion as it declares that 'real' Hellenic culture ended with the eclipse of Pre-Platonic philosophy by Platonism;
"The Greek culture of the Sophists had developed out of all the Greek instincts; it belongs to the culture of the Periclean age as necessarily as Plato does not: it has its predecessors in Heraclitus, in Democritus, in the scientific types of the old philosophy; it finds expression in, for example, the high culture of Thucydides. And - it has ultimately shown itself to be right . Every advance in epistemological and moral knowledge has reinstated the Sophists - our contemporary way of thinking is to great extent Heraclitean, Democritean and Protagorean. It suffices to say it is Protagorean, because he represents a synthesis of Heraclitus and Democritus." [WP 428]
Expect poison from standing waters.
The fact that Protagoras is not just a footnote to Plato testifies to the irreducibility of the idea meme. History tells us that the platonic philosophy emerged victoriously from antiquity, while Sophism - like the word itself - fell into disrepute. The term which was once used to describe the 'Seven Wise [i.e. Sophoi] Men - of which Thales was one, and was consciously adopted by Protagoras, had been turned on its head to mean at best a quibbling pedant, and at worst an unscrupulously deceitful liar.
To Plato, Protagoras' perceived value-relativism undermined his sense of Absolute Truth. Plato was therefore engaged in a philosophical agon to refute the Sophists. Protagoras was known as the first 'professional' philosopher, an 'intellectual technician, a good orator, a good persuader'. Says Guthrie;
"One subject at least the Sophists all practised and taught in common was rhetoric, or the art of 'Logos'. In Athens in the mid-fifth century, to be an effective speaker was the key to power. 'The word is a mighty despot', as Gorgias said in one of his surviving declamations."
To take money for their teachings, as the Sophists did, seemed to the purists of Plato circle as unphilosophical and ignoble. But then Plato was an aristocrat who did not need to charge for his teachings. Not only that, but the methods employed by Plato's teacher, Socrates, of question-and-answer or dialectic, was of little use to the Sophists who - as Plato said in the Phaedrus - "held the probable in more honour than the true." Plato also sharply criticised their eristic [i.e. arguing for the sake of it] tendencies, as well as their indulgence in what he coined as 'misology' and 'antilogic'.
With hindsight we can say that Plato was always going to win, especially when 'put to the people', who - en masse - prefer the comfort of Absolute Values to the uncertainty of mere possibilities. "Society", said Emerson, "is servile from want of will, and therefore the world wants saviours and religions." And this is apposite if Nietzsche was right to describe Christianity - as he did - as 'Platonism for the people'.
But the Protagorean position will continually resurface throughout history.
X Human Truth
The Sophists were not ideologically unified, but were a diverse collection of peripatetic philosopher-educators who were always viewed as outsiders in the Greek world. And yet they provided a humanist schooling far superior to any seen in the region hitherto. A well-rounded curriculum was offered to the fee-payer who could hope to emerge as a man of consequence in the intellectual and political milieu.
Protagoras can be described as an anti-metaphysician and his epistemological stance was one of common-sense empiricism. The existence of 'other-worlds', perceived by Pure Reason, but uncorroborated by the senses, were not - to him - worth dwelling on. He was part of the reaction against Eleaticism; to this end he is said to have written a polemical work, 'Against those who posit the Unity of Being.' It was the perfection of the Parmenidean One which having rendered plurality and movement untenable, then resurfaced in Plato's 'Theory of Forms'.
The Sophists like the Ionian natural scientists trusted the senses but preferred to innovate in studies like anthropology. It was due to the Sophists as much as to Socrates that philosophy came down to earth. Importantly they came to ask what in human culture was the result of convention [nomos], and what the result of nature [phusis];
"Protagoras did not believe that laws were the work of nature and gods but that they were formulated as the result of a consensus of opinion between the citizens who hence forth considered themselves bound by them." [Guthrie]
To the Sophists the philosopher was a 'physician of the soul', for just as a physician could cure the sick in body, a good rhetorician could supposedly heal the sick pysche of a listener. Even though Plato's pupil Aristotle also inherited his enmity towards Sophism - the charge of making the weaker argument the stronger was levelled against them by Aristotle - he actually adopted many of their strategies for his own philosophy.
XI Theaetetus and the Protagorean Doctrine
Assuming that it is not precisely man who is the 'measure of things'.
Having gone a way to establishing the very substantial grounds for disagreement between Plato and Protagoras, it must be said that the full and seemingly objective account Plato gives of the Sophistic philosophy in his Theaetetus is remarkably balanced. This dialogue has a disciple of the then recently deceased Protagoras called Theaetetus in discussion with Socrates and others. Theaetetus' grip of the Protagorean doctrine is none too sure and Socrates of course obliges to play devil's advocate. For clarity I will identify his exposition directly with Protagoras.
Thankfully, Plato never succumbs to the temptation to distort an antagonist's views. Rather he has Socrates give an astonishing recital of Protagoras' philosophy which demonstrates a Sophist-like ability to embrace both sides of an argument.
Intriguingly, Socrates claims that Protagoras' "remarkable doctrine" has both an esoteric and an exoteric dimension, the latter being only for the 'common herd'.
He focuses on 'man is the measure', interpreting it as a piece of solipsistic relativism; i.e., "any given thing is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you - you and I being men".
Further he "declares that nothing is one thing just by itself; it cannot be called by some definite name, nor can it be said that it is of any definite sort."
This denies the possibility of atomism, of course. Also, all things are said to contain their antithesis;
"If you can call a thing 'large', it will be found to be also small, if 'heavy', to be also light, and so on."
And "there is no single thing that is, in and by itself."
Things do not have any definite place, nor do the qualities of the things. A colour is not in one's eyes, nor is it in the thing itself;
"What you call white colour has no being as a distinct thing outside your eyes nor yet inside them, nor must you assign it any fixed place and abide there, instead of arising in a process of becoming."
The colour then "is a thing that has arisen out of the meeting of our eyes with the appropriate motion."
The thing, its qualities and the percipient, are all mixed together and always in a state of flux. We (mis)use language to disguise this reality; we isolate objects, posit stability, talk of the sameness of things when even we ourselves, "never remain in the same condition."
This is a very different sensibility to Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, being more akin in visual terms to the art of Cubism, such as the Braque portrait above. The factitious nature of Renaissance perspective becomes apparent. The miracle is that we are able to believe to believe in a stable non-chaotic universe. No doubt, as Nietzsche contends, man's very survival as a species has depended to a large extent on this 'falsification of reality'.
Socrates says that "a whole series of philosophers agree", and draws a lineage from "Protagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles", to the poets, the founder of Comedy Epicharmus, and Homer, and asks "who could challenge so great an array, with Homer for its captain?"
Ouspensky ventured that "Western thought, in creating the theory of evolution, has overlooked the destructive processes." Protagoras, however, was careful not to make this mistake, opposing 'Perishing' to Becoming. Just as the latter is produced by movement, perishing is produced by what is, relatively speaking, rest.
Echoing Heraclitus he refers to "the hot of fire, which generates and controls all other things, and is itself generated by movement and friction - both forms of change." Socrates then goes on, in true Presocratic fashion to stack up a series of examples to reinforce his thesis;
"The healthy condition of the body is undermined by inactivity and indolence", the intellect [or soul] needs to be exercised or else "by inactivity, dullness and neglect, it learns nothing and forgets what it has learned."
"Stillness causes corruption and decay, when motion would keep things fresh."
The argument is extended to the Cosmos;
"So long as the Heavens and the Sun continue to move around, all things in Heaven and Earth are kept going, whereas if they were bound down and brought to a stand, all things would be destroyed, and the World, as they say, turned upside down."
Protagoras does have an arche of sorts, which is movement itself;
"the first principle is that the Universe really is motion and nothing else."
And not surprisingly, 'Being' in the Parmenidean sense is to be "ruled out altogether."
Socrates summarises the doctrine into three statements;
1) Man is the measure,
2) All things move like flowing streams, and
3) Perception is knowledge.
The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule.
One cannot ignore the irony with which Socrates delivers Protagoras' philosophy in the Theaeteus, hoping to demonstrate that it has a core of self-refutation. At one point he mocks;
"I am surprised that Protagoras did not begin his 'Truth' with the words, 'The measure of all things is the pig', or the baboon, or some sentient creature still more uncouth. There would have been something magnificent in so disdainful an opening, telling us that all the time, while we were admiring him for a wisdom more than mortal, he was in fact no wiser than a tadpole, to say nothing of any other human being."
Here Socrates brings out what he sees as the absurdity of the view that every (subjective) experience is tantamount to being an objective truth. But Protagoras explicitly argues against the concept of an objective world per se. There can, for him, be no 'raw data' because there can be nothing in and by itself; all things are intertwined and interdependent: there is no separate 'object' nor a separate 'subject'.
Now Socrates, faced with only a partial success, makes a direct attack, charging the Sophist with self-contradiction, because if everybody's opinion is true, Protagoras must acknowledge the truth of his opponent's belief about his own belief, where they think he is wrong. Therefore he must agree that his own view is both true and false at the same time, which is self-contradictory.
Socrates is thus able to pin Protagoras down and force him to accept an objective scale of values. In some frustration, he is portrayed as if he would have responded to the Socratic dialectic with aristocratic disdain, calling it an "appeal to the vulgar."
Protagoras has fallen for the trap and has to admit the objective values of good and bad. Some men are wiser than others he says, "and as for wisdom and the wiseman, I am very far from saying that they do not exist."
To consolidate his position, Socrates makes an appeal to his concept of the expert: we go to an expert in a particular field when we want advice in that area. We do not go to a plumber for advice on public speaking, for example. Again, the Sophist would have to agree that there is an objective scale of expertise;
"Protagoras must admit that one man is wiser than another and that the wiser man is the measure."
As for the notion that the Self is constantly in flux from moment to moment and therefore does not provide an absolute standard of judgment, Socrates counters that the reality of the individual and uninterrupted personal identity and memory refutes this. If Protagoras was right then each man would be in the grip of a confused amnesia.
Yet, despite all this, can Socrates really convince the Protagorean that there is a realm of Absolute Truth of which the phenomenal world is but a pale and disfigured shadow?
Education is not implanted in the Soul unless one reaches a greater depth.
One could argue that here the onus falls on the Platonist to prove the existence of the Absolute. Just as the language that doesn't change soon becomes dead, so life itself in such a condition rapidly degenerates.
Relativism represents a living network of meaning which is constantly shifting and evolving. But because the relativist necessarily relates, he cannot do away completely with the little 'local' truths of meaning and value.
Hence the contradictory nature of the doctrine, and the impossibility of the absolute rejection of values;
"Nihilism, the belief in unbelief, always reveals a need for belief, support and buttress."
Is not the need for consistency a particularly conservative, Platonic imperative? One could reply with Whitman, "do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself - I am large I contain multitudes." And with Nietzsche again, "one is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions." Socrates successfully led Protagoras into self-contradiction, but in so doing, has he really refuted 'man is the measure'? - I think not, but the argument rages on like an ever-living fire.
And what of Truth? Has the word not been press-ganged into service by Platonism? A thousand years ago the word meant 'to promise, faith, fidelity, loyalty, trust ... belief' - belief, i.e. that which one holds dear [Old English lief, leof; love].
Are our cherished truths ultimately, as Nietzsche has it, our unrefutable errors? As for the laws of Physics, their truth is - as the scientists admit - only provisional.
Of course, these provisional truths are often seen as dialectical points on the journey to a grand Truth. Protagoras' attitude to Platonic Truth is similar to his attitude to the gods - a studied indifference. If there is a truth of some kind, then it is to be judged only by its efficacy; whether it is 'good to believe' or 'bad to believe'.
XIV The Indestructible
Behind every question there is always another question ad infinitum; my subtextual question here has been:
How is it that Protagoras' statement which so fascinated Plato continues to fascinate?
A question that is answered in part by the very asking of the question itself. To go back to Plato's treatment of Protagoras, we can say that given his circumstances and prejudices, Plato ennobled himself by giving his opponent a fair hearing. Perhaps he did so because the Sophists were, like himself, anti-atomists. It is rather disturbing to hear from Diogenes Laertius that Plato wanted to burn the works of the atomist Democritus. As Milton said, "he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself."
It was the burning of Helvétius' De l 'esprit (On Mind) in 1759 that moved Voltaire to state the Free Spirit's favourite maxim; "I might disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is a natural statement from one who believes there to be two sides to every argument; so Pascal: "a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once."
'Man is the measure' proves that you cannot kill ideas - rather they may hibernate in the forest of human culture patiently awaiting their rebirth. Protagoras' time has come and that is why we are closer to him today than we are to Plato.
Aristotle,The History of Animals, 350 B.C
Da Vinci, L. Notebooks, ed. Richter, 1883
Dillon and Gergel, The Greek Sophists, Penguin 2003
Foucault, M. The Foucault Reader, Rabinow
Guthrie, The Sophists, Cambridge 1971
Muller, M. Biographies of Words, Longman 1898
Nietzsche, F. Thus Spake Zarathustra, [TSZ]
Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil, [BGE]
Nietzsche, F. The Will to Power, [WP]
Nietzsche, F. The Antichrist, [A]
Plato, Theaetetus http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/p71th/
Max Müller works on-line:
On Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle