Protagoras (490-420 BC) has once said that: “Man is the measure of all things” (Ánthrōpos métron). This was to be found in Plato’s theaetetus 152a.
There are three common interpretations to this statement; The first has been brought forward by Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AC). He was saying that this sentence invented by Protagoras revealed a complete relativism. What is true for a man is wrong for another. Thus, universal truth does not exist. All is subject to the unique vision of the individual observed. Of course, Plato (428-348 BC) was deeply opposed to such relativism and believed in Universals. The conception he had of ideas (eídō), literaly translated in Greek as “I see” was that ideas were objective, waiting to be grasped. It shall come as no surprise then that for Plato, Ideas are something that offers themselves to our eyes, all beings can seize them if they look properly. This principle will be so important for Plato that it will be something he will even inject in the metaphysical question of the being (Ontology) but this is not the primary subject of this article.
Secondly, there is the rational perspective which was thought to be more in line with what Protagoras, as a sophist, really meant. To put it simply, men, with the use of reason, shapes a world of reason and truth is held by men themselves. We have to remember that for the most part, Sophists were men of laws and were very serious when it came to the edification of democracy. They were also first class philosophers and teachers of many things but primarily, rhetoric and speechcraft which they considered the necessary ingredient to alter the minds of others. Nietzsche would have probably considered that, from a sophist perspective, the art of speechcraft was one of the many vessels of the will to power but this assertion is theoretical from my part.
“For many conservative Athenians Protagoras’ teachings held dangerous social consequences as the oratorical skills he taught could potentially promote what some Athenians considered injustice or immorality. The consequences of the skepticism in Sophistic enlightenment appeared far from benign. Furthermore, Protagoras’ techniques were adopted by various wily characters the following generation giving sophistry the bad name it still has for clever (but deceptive) verbal trickery.” -Unknown
To conclude, perspective shapes opinions which in turn, will have certain consequences in the various spheres of an individual activities. Hence why, Protagoras sentence has such a rational echo. Our laws and ethics are the reflexion of the way we see the world.
Thirdly, there is the phenomenology interpretation to which Husserl has said; “all consciousness is consciousness of something”. This principle is what we call “Intentionality”. Without intentions and a consciousness to impregnate the world, there is no signification, no measures anymore. This, in itself, is rather straightforward and self explanatory.
For my part, I do believe that Protagoras was inclined to a certain relativism after all, even though his sentence could be two-fold and contradict itself. Here is another quotes from him that encourages, at the very least, a levelled relativism; in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Book IX, Sec. 51, he states that; “There are two sides to every question”. Some see in him a dedicated agnostic while others go so far as to call him the father of relativism. I am going to stretch the rope even more by stating that Protagoras and sophists in general probably planted the seeds of Conceptualism (Εννοιοκρατία) and even maybe Nominalism (νομιναλισμό). A remarkable feat indeed considering the importance the Gods held at the time and how they crawled in every aspects of Greek societies.
Now, allow me to express what I pondered on this very subject, with the most sincere humility. It is my opinion that, Heraclitus (535-475 BC), even though he preceded Protagoras, was a good distance ahead in his reasoning for he, understood the underlying foundation of all things which is; Movement. We know from the meager collection of fragments we recovered that Heraclitus not only attributed movement to external Physis (φύσις) or nature but also to the internal one which would be the microcosmic, molecular changes that happens relentlessly in beings. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Ποταμοῖσι δὶς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης· ἕτερα γὰρ καὶ ἕτερα ἐπιρρέει ὕδατα.) This was to be found in; Plato, Crat. 402 A. Thus, there is a constant movement that human perception is unable to grasp which in turn, limits their understanding of the world. With the modern explosion of science, we can only marvel at how much Heraclitus was right. All things are animated, none are seized of immobility. Layers and layers of life, engaging in complex behaviors. If we take a Spinozist standpoint and make use of logic; Then why would the mind and concepts be any different? To oppose Plato and his absolutes; why would it be impossible for ideas and perceptions be in constant changes, reogarnization, alteration, symbiosis and then assimilation, just like our cellular activity? Are we not the spectators of all these small changes that in the end, engender a new physical form, philosophical stance, political implication, values, desires (…)
This leads me to the point that I, ironically or not, have come to accept in my philosophical journey; The opinion of the brilliant analytic philosopher, Nelson Goodman (1906-1998). I shall talk in great length about Goodman and his work in future articles and how he gave a new meaning to relativism, perception and the way we, human beings, bound ourselves to certain categories to explain φύσις, έννοια and ἠθικός but also the experience that is life itself. For now, here is a quote I hold a passion for;
“Shouldn’t we now return to sanity from all this mad proliferation of worlds? Shouldn’t we stop speaking of right versions as if each were, or had, its own world, and recognize all as versions of one and the same neutral and underlying world? The world thus regained, as remarked earlier, is a world without kinds or order or motion or rest or pattem-a world not worth fighting for or against. We might, though, take the real world to be that of some one of the alternative right versions (or groups of them bound together by some principle of reducibility or translatability) and regard all others as versions of that same world differing from the standard version in accountable ways. The physicist takes his world as the real one, attributing the deletions, additions, irregularities, emphases of other versions to the imperfections of perception, to the urgencies of practice, or to poetic license. The phenomenalist regards the perceptual world as fundamental. and the excisions, abstractions, simplifications, and distortions of other versions as resulting from scientific or practical or artistic concerns. For the man in the street, most versions from science, art, and perception depart in some ways from the familiar serviceable world he has jerry-built from fragments of scientific and artistic tradition and from his own struggle for survival. This world, indeed, is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit. Ironically, then, our passion for one world is satisfied, at different times and for different purposes, in many different ways. Not only motion, derivation, weighting, order, but even reality is relative.” -Nelson Goodman
So it is that maybe man is the measure of all things and all things are falsely measured by a juvenile and ever-moving perception. Theoretically…
-Beldam, 128 yf