Man Measure All Things Essay Examples

For other uses, see Protagoras (disambiguation).


Democritus(center) and Protagoras (right)
17th-century painting by Salvator Rosa
in Hermitage Museum

Bornc. 490 BC[1]
Diedc. 420 BC
EraPre-Socratic philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy

Main interests

language, semantics, relativism, rhetoric, agnosticism, ethics

Notable ideas

'Sophist' as teacher for hire, 'Man is the measure of all things'

Protagoras (; Greek: Πρωταγόρας; c. 490 – c. 420 BC)[1] was a pre-SocraticGreekphilosopher and is numbered as one of the sophists by Plato. In his dialogue, Protagoras, Plato credits him with having invented the role of the professional sophist.

He also is believed to have created a major controversy during ancient times through his statement that, "Man is the measure of all things", interpreted by Plato to mean that there is no absolute truth, but that which individuals deem to be the truth. Although there is reason to question the extent of the interpretation of his arguments that has followed, that concept of individual relativity was revolutionary for the time, and contrasted with other philosophical doctrines that claimed the universe was based on something objective, outside human influence or perceptions.


Protagoras was born in Abdera, Thrace, opposite the island of Thasos (today part of the Xanthi regional unit). According to Aulus Gellius, he originally made his living as a porter, but one day he was seen by the philosopher Democritus carrying a load of small pieces of wood he had tied with a short cord. Democritus realized that Protagoras had tied the load together with such perfect geometric accuracy that he must be a mathematical prodigy. Democritus promptly took him into his own household and taught him philosophy.[2] Protagoras became well known in Athens and even became a friend of Pericles.[3]

The dates of his lifetime are not recorded, but extrapolated from writings that have survived the ages. In Protagoras Plato wrote that, before a gathering of Socrates, Prodicus, and Hippias, Protagoras stated that he was old enough to be the father of any of them. This suggests a birth date of not later than 490 BC. In the Meno he is said to have died at approximately the age of 70, after 40 years as a practicing Sophist.[4] His death, then, may be presumed to have occurred circa 420 BC, but is not known for certain, since assumptions about it are based on an apparently fake story about his trial for impiety in Athens.[5]

Plutarch wrote that Pericles and Protagoras spent a whole day discussing an interesting point of legal responsibility, that probably involved a more philosophical question of causation:[6] "In an athletic contest a man had been accidentally hit and killed with a javelin. Was his death to be attributed to the javelin, to the man who threw it, or to the authorities responsible for the conduct of the games?"[7]


Even though he was mentored by Democritus, Protagoras did not share his enthusiasm for the pursuit of mathematics. "For perceptible lines are not the kind of things the geometer talks about, since no perceptible thing is straight or curved in that way, nor is a circle tangent to a ruler at a point, but the way Protagoras used to say in refuting the geometers" (Aristotles, Metaphysics 997b34-998a4). Protagoras was skeptical about the application of theoretical mathematics to the natural world; he did not believe they were really worth studying at all. According to Philodemus, Protagoras said that "The subject matter is unknowable and the terminology distasteful". Nonetheless, mathematics was considered to be by some a very viable form of art, and Protagoras says on the arts, "art (tekhnê) without practice and practice without art are nothing" (Stobaeus, Selections 3.29.80).

Protagoras also was known as a teacher who addressed subjects connected to virtue and political life. He especially was involved in the question of whether virtue could be taught, a commonplace issue of fifth century BC Greece, that has been related to modern readers through Plato's dialogue. Rather than educators who offered specific, practical training in rhetoric or public speaking, Protagoras attempted to formulate a reasoned understanding, on a very general level, of a wide range of human phenomena, including language and education. In Plato's Protagoras, he claims to teach "the proper management of one's own affairs, how best to run one's household, and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city by word and action".[8]

He also seems to have had an interest in "orthoepeia"—the correct use of words—although this topic is more strongly associated with his fellow sophist Prodicus. In his eponymous Platonic dialogue, Protagoras interprets a poem by Simonides, focusing on the use of words, their literal meaning, and the author's original intent. This type of education would have been useful for the interpretation of laws and other written documents in the Athenian courts.[9]Diogenes Laërtius reports that Protagoras devised a taxonomy of speech acts such as assertion, question, answer, command, etc. Aristotle also says that Protagoras worked on the classification and proper use of grammatical gender.[10]

The titles of his books, such as Technique of Eristics (Technē Eristikōn, literally "Practice of Wranglings"—with wrestling used as a metaphor for intellectual debate), prove that Protagoras also was a teacher of rhetoric and argumentation. Diogenes Laërtius states that he was one of the first to take part in rhetorical contests in the Olympic games.[10]


Protagoras also said that on any matter, there are two arguments (logoi) opposed to one another, and according to Aristotle, Protagoras was criticized for having claimed "to make the weaker argument stronger (ton hēttō logon kreittō poiein)".[10]

Protagoras is credited with the philosophy of relativism, which he discusses in his work, Truth (also known as Refutations).[9][11] Although knowledge of his work is limited, discussion of Protagoras' relativism is based on one of his most famous statements: "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not."[12][13] By this, Protagoras meant that each individual is the measure of how things are perceived by that individual. Therefore, things are, or are not, true according to how the individual perceives them. For example, Person X may believe that the weather is cold, whereas Person Y may believe that the weather is hot. According to the philosophy of Protagoras, there is no absolute evaluation of the nature of a temperature because the evaluation will be relative to who is perceiving it. Therefore, to Person X, the weather is cold, whereas to Person Y, the weather is hot. This philosophy implies that there are no absolute "truths". The truth, according to Protagoras, is relative, and differs according to each individual.[9]

As with many fragments of the pre-Socratic philosophers, this phrase has been passed down through the ages, without any context, and consequently, its meaning is open to interpretation. His use of the word χρήματα (chrēmata, "things used") instead of the general word ὄντα (onta, "entities") signifies, however, that Protagoras was referring to things that are used by, or in some way, related to, humans, such as properties, social entities, ideas, feelings, judgments, which originate in the human mind. Protagoras did not suggest that humans must be the measure of the motion of the stars, the growing of plants, or the activity of volcanoes.

As many modern thinkers will, Plato ascribes relativism to Protagoras and uses his predecessor's teachings as a foil for his own commitment to objective and transcendent realities and values. Plato ascribes to Protagoras an early form of what John Wild categorized as phenomenalism.[14] That being an assertion that something that is, or appears for a single individual, is true or real for that individual.

However, as described in Plato's Theaetetus, Protagoras's views allow that some views may result from an ill body or mind. He stressed that although all views may appear equally true, and perhaps, should be equally respected, they certainly are not of equal gravity. One view may be useful and advantageous to the person who has it, while the perception of another may prove harmful. Hence, Protagoras believed that the sophist was there to teach the student how to discriminate between them, i.e., to teach "virtue".

Both Plato and Aristotle argue against some of Protagoras's claims regarding relativity; however, they argue that the concept provides Protagoras with too convenient an exemption from his own theory and that relativism is true for him yet false for those who do not believe it. They claim that by asserting that truth is relative, Protagoras then could say that whatever further theory he proposed must be true.[15]

Because knowledge of most of his work is limited or missing, modern attempts to apply the Protagoras theory of relativism tend to result in disagreement and refer to scientific reasoning. Carol Poster states that with a modern preference toward scientific reasoning and objective truth, for example, rather than considering individuals evaluating their sense of comfort, a modern philosopher would look at a modern instrument, the thermometer, objectively to see the scientific measure of the temperature, whereas the Greek method would entail looking at larger philosophical implications.[16]


Protagoras also was a proponent of agnosticism. Reportedly, in his lost work, On the Gods, he wrote: "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life."[17][18] According to Diogenes Laërtius, the outspoken, agnostic position taken by Protagoras aroused anger, causing the Athenians to expel him from the city, and all copies of his book were collected and burned in the marketplace. The deliberate destruction of his works also is mentioned by Cicero.[19]

The classicist John Burnet doubts this account, however, as both Diogenes Laërtius and Cicero wrote hundreds of years later and as no such persecution of Protagoras is mentioned by contemporaries who make extensive references to this philosopher.[20] Burnet notes that even if some copies of the Protagoras books were burned, enough of them survived to be known and discussed in the following century. A claim has been made that Protagoras is better classified as an atheist, since he held that if something is not able to be known it does not exist.[21]

Spectrum of topics[edit]

Nonetheless, very few fragments from Protagoras have survived, although he is known to have written several different works: Antilogiae and Truth. The latter is cited by Plato, and was known alternatively as, The Throws (a wrestling term referring to the attempt to floor an opponent). It began with the "Man is the measure" (ἄνθρωπος μέτρον) pronouncement. According to Diogenes Laërtius other books by Protagoras include: On the Gods, Art of Eristics, Imperative, On Ambition, On Incorrect Human Actions, On those in Hades, On Sciences, On Virtues, On the Original State of Things and Trial over a Fee.[10]

See also[edit]



  • Guthrie, W. K. C., The Sophists. New York: Cambridge University Press (May 27, 1977). ISBN 0-521-09666-9.
  • Lee, Mi-Kyoung (2005). "Epistemology after Protagoras: responses to relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus". ISBN 978-0-19-926222-9. Retrieved September 22, 2016. 
  • van Ophuijsen, J.M., van Raalte, M., Stork, P., Protagoras of Abdera: The Man, His Measure. Brill, 2013. ISBN 978-90-04-25120-5 (hardback); ISBN 978-90-04-25124-3 (e-book)
  • Bartlett, R., "Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates". Univ. of Chicago, 2016. ISBN 978-0-226-39428-2 (hardback)

External links[edit]

  1. ^ abGuthrie, p. 262–263.
  2. ^Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 5.3.
  3. ^O'Sullivan, Neil. (1995) "Pericles and Protagoras". Greece & Rome, Vol. 42 (1): 15–23
  4. ^Plato, Meno, 91e
  5. ^Filonik, Jakub (2013). "Athenian impiety trials: a reappraisal". Dike (16): 36–39. doi:10.13130/1128-8221/4290. 
  6. ^Guthrie, p. 263.
  7. ^Plutarch, Life of Pericles
  8. ^Plato, Protagoras, (319a)
  9. ^ abcPoster, Carol (2005) [2002]. "Protagoras". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  10. ^ abcd"The Sophists (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2012-05-01. 
  11. ^Mattey, G.J. "Protagoras on Truth". Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  12. ^Bostock, D (1988). Plato's Theaetetus. Oxford. 
  13. ^This quotation is restated in Plato's Theaetetus at 152a. Sextus Empiricus gives a direct quotation in Adv. math. 7.60: πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν. The translation, "Man is the measure ..." has been familiar in English since before the rise of gender-neutral language. In traditional English usage, man referred to hominids. Similarly, in Ancient Greek, Protagoras used the Greek word anthrōpos (human being, person), making a general statement about human beings.
  14. ^John Wild, "On the Nature and Aims of Phenomenology," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 3 (1942), p. 88: "Phenomenalism is as old as Protagoras."
  15. ^Lee, Mi-Kyoung (2005). Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to relativism in Plato, Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926222-5. 
  16. ^Poster, Carol. "Protagoras". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 28 February 2014. 
  17. ^DK 80B4.
  18. ^The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Protagoras (c. 490 - c. 420 BCE), Accessed: October 6, 2008. "While the pious might wish to look to the gods to provide absolute moral guidance in the relativistic universe of the Sophistic Enlightenment, that certainty also was cast into doubt by philosophic and sophistic thinkers, who pointed out the absurdity and immorality of the conventional epic accounts of the gods. Protagoras' prose treatise about the gods began "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life".
  19. ^Cicero, de Natura Deorum, 1.23.6
  20. ^John Burnet, "Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Plato", 1914
  21. ^Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, pp. 88–89

The distinguished political philosopher Leo Strauss was supposed to have said that the only two things in life really worth talking about are God and politics. That’s because at a most fundamental level they are inextricably intertwined. A skewed notion of the very nature of God and whether man acknowledges him—or tries to substitute himself for God—is at the crux of the turmoil, fanaticism, and destructiveness of the politics of our day and of much of the last hundred years.

This is seen well in two books of the last decade. Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind (2010) finds the roots of what it calls “the modern Islamist crisis” that has turned the Middle East upside down and spawned the international terrorist threat in crucial developments in Islamic thought and theology of a thousand years ago. Within Sunni Islam, the earlier influences of Aristotelian—or any—philosophy were dispelled and a notion of God as pure and absolute will became permanently entrenched. This meant that no act by its nature is good or evil. Something is good or evil only because God—Allah—decreed it to be so, and He could easily decree just the opposite. This means that there is no genuine morality, no freedom of conscience, no role for reason, and no free will for men. At bottom, this is pure moral relativism. Nothing is intrinsically right or wrong; God can go either way. As Reilly puts it, this makes God a Nietzschean, a “legal positivist,” and a Thrasymachean (“might makes right’). The ruling morality comes forth only from revelation, as explicated by Islam’s legal schools and clerical figures—backed up by supportive political powers. Moral and theological positions cannot be sustained by reason—that isn’t possible—but only, in the end, by force. To be sure, Reilly says this perspective is not intrinsic to Islam, but controls Sunni thought.

It’s not hard to see what this perspective leads to: the unquestioned following of brutal charismatic fanatics like Osama bin Laden, the kidnapping and enslaving of schoolgirls and chaining of pregnant women to prison floors for presumed “apostasy,” terrorist movements that have no compunction about killing innocent people, and totalist states. Representative government, in fact, has been a rarity in the Islamic world (Reilly tells us that it’s seen as a challenge to Allah’s sovereignty). After all, the proper relationship between God and Caesar cannot prevail when man has the wrong conception of God. While everything is done in the name of God, men—especially those who get enough power—effectively “become” God.

My colleague Prof. Benjamin Wiker, in his 2008 book 10 Books that Screwed Up the World (And 5 Others That Didn’t Help), shows the widespread deleterious influence of the writings of leading modern Western thinkers, most of whom are categorized as political philosophers. What he identifies as the common theme running through the likes of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, J.S. Mill, Lenin, and Hitler (in Mein Kampf) is that there is no morality above man, because there is no God ruling over men. When God is abandoned, it is inevitable that morality is abandoned. So often, we encounter someone who will say that men can be moral and not be believers. Some will even make the claim that the great Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle illustrate this—ignoring the facts that Socrates said he was directed by God, Plato’s “Good” animating all of existence was stumbling in the direction of God, Aristotle’s proving of the existence of God by natural reasoning, and that piety was a great virtue for these and other great ancient philosophers. In fact, relatively few men can be moral without religious belief, and the ones that are tend to have glaring gaps. The more traditional the religion, the sounder its moral code.

The implication for politics of putting man in place of God, Wiker tells us, was the rise of modern ideologies (like communism, fascism, and Nazism)—which were, in essence, substitute human-fashioned religions—and the aggressive, brutal, and totalist states that came with them. The results, then, were the same as with Islamism. The only difference is that here men outright rejected God. Man becomes God in all but name.

Then, we have today’s leftism. What stands behind it, also, are the political thinkers in Wiker’s book. In spite of the defeat of communism a generation ago, most of today’s left embraces consciously or not a vulgarized version of Marxism. Nevertheless, its inordinate regulation of the business community instead of outright government ownership, eagerness to use Corporate America to promote its cultural agenda, and readiness to tolerate such things as the shameless pressure tactics—a kind of interest-group thuggery—of what Bill Maher (hardly a conservative) called the “gay mafia” also shows a dimension of fascism. Its extreme individualism and nearly maniacal moral nihilism ring of Rousseau and Nietzsche. Its long-time obsession with overturning traditional culture bears the imprint of the other writers—who might be called cultural radicals—that Wiker profiles: Charles Darwin, Margaret Sanger, Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and Betty Friedan. If they—and contemporary leftism—don’t provide the well-developed theoretical schemes that the architects of modern political ideologies did, the practical effects of their assault on culture have been as pronounced as the latter’s were on politics. As with modern political ideologies and the predominant strain of Islamic thought that Reilly discusses, man is the measure of all things.

As time has gone on, the opponents of traditional—that is, sound—culture have continually used the state, and even international political institutions, to further their agendas.

Even if today’s leftists are not all the thoroughgoing atheists that Communists and Nazis were and are—although contemporary leftists have become increasingly, and more openly and aggressively, secularistic—practically speaking, man has become God for them. Along with that, they too have become increasingly intolerant and repressive (consider, for example, the HHS mandate, the silencing of moral opposition to the homosexualist agenda, and the suppression of dissenting views on university campuses) and insistent on more and more centralized state power to put their objectives into practice. The outline of, once again, the totalist state comes more sharply into view.

The bottom line for the sad, chaotic, and ultimately disastrous political developments accompanying the rise of Islamism, modern political ideologies, and contemporary leftism, again, has been the fact that, one way or the other, man has tried to make himself God. To paraphrase Irving Babbitt and others, as the notion of God goes, so goes philosophy, and society and culture, and politics, and economics—the religious outlook is at the core of all other perspectives.

I recall a political philosophy professor in my undergraduate days mentioning a famous passage in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. When Prometheus thunders, “I hate all the gods,” Hermes responds, “Your words declare you stricken with no slight madness.” The professor used the passage to illustrate the problem caused by modern political thought: when man pushes aside the transcendent, his hubris takes over and calamity follows.

Editor’s note: Above is a monument composed of victims of the communist Khmer Rouge regime that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s.

Tagged asAbuse of Power, Atheism, Benjamin Wiker, Islam, Robert R. Reilly, totalitarianism

By Stephen M. Krason

Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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