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The Radical Roots of Ancient Conservatism

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Sophist, rhetorician and fifth-century Greek philosopher Protagoras of Abdera was not afraid to write books deemed dangerous enough for burning. Orton Academy Head of Research Dr. Jane Orton explores the conservatism, religious agnosticism and moral relativism of Socrates’ respected adversary.

Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. was an exciting place for philosophers. The development of mathematics and, to a lesser extent, the natural sciences had contributed to a collective optimism in the intellectual climate: there was a growing faith that the universe was rational and knowable. Sophists – travelling intellectuals who educated the elites in the art of winning an argument – were in high demand, due to the establishment of democracy. Protagoras of Abdera was perhaps the most famous Sophist of them all.

At the same time, existing norms in the religious and moral spheres were being questioned, with Protagoras himself challenging commonly held beliefs. His statement that he could not know whether the gods exist led to the public burning of his books. Unlike the radical proposals of Plato’s Republic, however, or the extreme political realism of the later Sophists, Protagoras’ political theory is surprisingly moderate. How did a revolutionary thinker endorse such a conservative philosophy?

Man is the Measure of All Things

Even set against the backdrop of rationalisation and critique of conventional religion, Protagoras’ epistemology is quite radical. He turns the emerging epistemological optimism on its head by reasoning that absolute knowledge is impossible, famously claiming that “man is the measure of all things.”

This is a statement of Protagoras’ relativism: there is no objective truth that can be known, so whatever someone judges to be true is true. This is not only controversial, but some have pointed out that it is also self-refuting, as Socrates argues: “when he concedes that statements contrary to his own are true, then even Protagoras himself will concede that no dog and no ordinary person is a measure of anything at all.”

However, Protagoras taps into the common human realisation that people experience the world very differently. When the same wind blows on two people, one may feel cold but not the other. As a result, he points out, “it is cold for the one who feels cold, but not for the one who doesn’t.”

In fact, Protagoras is concerned with being internally consistent, which he makes clear when discussing a poem with Socrates. The poem claims that it both is, and is not, a difficult thing to be good, so Protagoras points out: “Either his first or his second statement is wrong.”

Making the Weaker Argument the Stronger

Protagoras’ rejection of absolute truth is the basis for his methodology. This allows him the freedom to engage in the kind of metaphysical inquiry that need not begin from an absolutely true premise. For example, when Socrates wishes Protagoras to assent to the claim that justice is holy and holiness just, he replies: “I don’t think it is quite so simple, Socrates. I can’t really admit that justice is holy and holiness just; I think there is some difference there. However…what does it matter? If you like, let us assume that justice is holy and holiness just.”

This is frustrating for Socrates, who does believe in the existence of absolute truth. Socrates thinks that all meaningful inquiry should surround ‘what is’ rather than ‘what if’, and is reluctant to proceed with an argument unless his partner wholeheartedly agrees with the steps he makes. For Protagoras, on the other hand, all truth is relative to its framework, so as long as the steps in the argument are consistent, it does not matter whether the premises are grounded in actual fact.

This epistemological relativism explains Protagoras’ engagement in rhetoric. He suggests that there are always two opposing arguments for each claim, and that he can teach the ability to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” Such a skill was in high demand in democratic Athens, where rich young men would pay good money to learn how to win over a crowd – whether or not their argument had the greater claim to truth.

The Constitution at Thurii

Protagoras’ willingness to work with ideas to which he does not personally subscribe informs his political views. His conviction is that the purpose of politics is to build institutions upon existing traditions, not to indiscriminately adhere to an abstract ideal. This is a distinctly conservative approach, a moderate political theory built upon the basis of Protagoras’ radical epistemological and moral relativism.

This is evident in the story of Protagoras’ drawing up of the Constitution at Thurii, a city founded by the Athenians and their allies at a spring called Thuria, near Sybaris. It is the Athenian statesman Pericles who sends a delegation to Thurii, and he asks Protagoras to draw up the constitution for the colony. Historians believe that this constitution was democratic – a conservative move in itself, given the political climate of the time.

Like many colonies, Thurii was founded according to the consultation of an oracle. The original constitution of the city reflects the mystical nature of the city’s founding, at least insofar as the naming of the streets is concerned. Thurii’s mystical reputation is also evident in wider fifth century culture. Recall that Protagoras denies the possibility of absolute knowledge of the existence of the gods. It is significant, then, that the original Protagorean constitution includes established religious customs.

Protagoras’ relativism leads him to assert that what a community believes is ethical is ethical for that community. This allows him to draw up the constitution along distinctly religious lines, even though his own position is agnostic. Protagoras’ political approach is to begin with the established norms and institutions and act with moderation. This is a policy of reform rather than revolution - a typically conservative approach.

Find Out More

To find out more about Protagoras, Socrates and their contemporaries, take a look at our course on Ancient Philosophy, or see ancient philosophical debates in action in our Platonic Dialogue Studies course. To discover more about political philosophy, read about our History of Political Philosophy or Political Ideologies courses. Finally, listen to lectures about the history and philosophy of the Ancient World on our Research Page.

These are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!

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