BMCR 2016.08.24

Protagoras. Ancients in action

, Protagoras. Ancients in action. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. xiii, 93. ISBN 9781472510921. $25.95 (pb).


Protagoras, coming from a humble background, was a pupil of Democritus; he became the first democratic philosopher and a teacher of rhetoric. At the same time he promoted a secret doctrine on the basis of the stronger ruling over the weaker; thus he turned into an inspiration for policies of Pericles, both good and bad. This (somewhat simplified) is the portrait of Protagoras that Daniel Silvermintz paints in this study. The book consists of three chapters (each further divided into subsections): 1. “From Humble Beginning to Celebrated Teacher” (pp. 1–20), 2. “Protagoras and Pericles” (pp. 21–46), 3. “Protagoras’ Secret Teaching” (pp. 47–75).

In ch. 1, Silvermintz mainly presents anecdotal material, which is often entertaining to read, but only provides questionable information on the historical Protagoras. This is particularly true for Silvermintz’ discussion of Protagoras’ education (pp. 4–8), a section entitled “Education under Democritus”, which ends with the rather implausible conclusion that “Democritus provides the philosophic grounding for Protagoras’ defence of immorality” (p. 8). Silvermintz himself gives ca. 490–420 BC as the dates for Protagoras (p. vii) and 460–370 BC as those for Democritus (p. 3) (in line with the generally assumed chronological relation between the two men), apparently without regarding this as a problem for the assumed teacher-pupil relationship. After completing his education, Protagoras was, according to Silvermintz, a “[c]elebrated teacher of rhetoric” (pp. 8–15),1 though rhetoric in the strict sense is not actually discussed by Silvermintz in this context. (The τέχνη ἐριστικῶν attributed to Protagoras in DK 80 B6 is mentioned only elsewhere in the book: p. 35.) Silvermintz refers to various general comments on education attributed to Protagoras and to his practice of asking for payment for his teaching (described critically in the ancient sources), as well as to “various techniques of deception” (p. 11). In this context the homo-mensura statement (DK 80 B1) is interpreted by Silvermintz to say that Protagoras takes people’s willingness to pay for lessons by him “as validation of his wisdom”: for “[t]he human being is the measure of all chremata (valuable things)” (so Silvermintz’ translation; quotations on pp. 12-13).

Ch. 2 is meant to cover Protagoras’ “political thought” and his influence on Pericles. For Protagoras’ “political thought” Silvermintz mainly relies on Protagoras’ ‘Great Speech’ in Plato’s Protagoras (320c–328d), which he (like others) assumes to represent the views of the historical Protagoras accurately, as well as on passages from the Theaetetus. Here it would have been nice if the approach had been based on a more critical examination of the sources. While some ideas in the Protagoras, especially the format of the ‘myth’ (320c–322d), can plausibly be referred back to the historical Protagoras,2 it is equally clear that not everything Plato has put into Protagoras’ mouth can be attributed to the historical figure. It would never have been possible for the historical Protagoras in the same speech to presuppose that the sons of Pericles who died in 429 BC were still alive (328cd), and to mention the play Agrioi by Pherecrates, which was first performed in 420 BC (327d; cf. Pherecrates test. i Kassel-Austin) — an anachronism typical of Plato. When Silvermintz says that “Protagoras was the first philosopher to explain the rationale of having a government ruled by its people” (p. 21), it would have been helpful not only to have a summary of what Protagoras (according to Plato) says about this topic (e.g. p. 25), but also a critical discussion of whether Protagoras follows up this claim with an argument. What emerges from Plato’s text is only that Protagoras argues that fundamental ethical qualities (that prevent people from hurting others and that must exist independently of the constitutional shape of a state) are essential (and can also be taught); but they do not lead to competence in making decisions, as stated by Protagoras (322d–323a).3 If what Plato has Protagoras say in the Theaetetus (167c) goes back to the historical Protagoras, namely that what appears just and praiseworthy to each city has these qualities as long as that city regards these matters in that way, this applies to each constitutional form: it will therefore be doubtful whether one can conclude from Plato’s text that “democracy emerges as the best regime” in Protagoras’ view (p. 29). For in the dialogue named after him Plato only has Protagoras explain to Socrates why the Athenians in particular allow everyone to contribute to political discussions, without commenting on the quality of this form of government.

Silvermintz’ study includes a detailed discussion of Pericles (pp. 30–46), since he regards Pericles as influenced by Protagoras, both positively and negatively.4 Obviously, the ancient sources mention connections between Pericles and Protagoras; but not even Plutarch, on whose biography of Pericles Silvermintz’ discussion is largely based (p. 80 n. 11), presents Protagoras as one of the ‘teachers’ of Pericles (cf. Per. 4). Plutarch mentions Protagoras only once, in a passage from which Silvermintz concludes that Protagoras “spent an entire day training Pericles in the art of sophistic rhetoric” (pp. 22; 34). But what was discussed at the meeting according to this passage ( Per. 36.5 [“36.3” in Silvermintz]) was the question of responsibility with respect to a fatal sports accident.5 Moreover, if Pericles is believed to have said about the fallen that they were immortal like the gods—for human beings did not see the gods either, but inferred from the reverence paid to them that they were immortal ( Per. 8.9)—the existence of gods is assumed, so that this remark cannot be used as evidence for the influence on Pericles of Protagoras’ agnostic statement about the gods (DK 80 B4), as Silvermintz believes (pp. 33-4). It is also methodologically problematic that Silvermintz speaks of the “Protagorean roots of Athenian democracy” on the basis of a (certainly fictitious) discussion between Alcibiades and Pericles about the laws in Xenophon, Mem. 1.2.41–6 (abbreviated to the single paragraph § 42 [§ 41 in Silvermintz]: p. 41). In this passage, Pericles makes a trivial statement that describes facts about Athenian democracy, namely that what the assembled citizens have checked and laid down in writing is law. The discussion as a whole, however, reveals that, irrespective of constitution, everything that the ruling power in a state prescribes has legal force, even in a tyranny, while everything that some people force others to do without convincing them is to be seen as force and not as law, even in a democracy. Tracing Pericles’ power-politics back to Protagorean ideas is equally questionable (pp. 42–5). The well-known suggestion that there is a parallel between Pericles and Oedipus is hardly given new support by comments such as: “Just as Protagoras renounced the gods and the ancestral tradition, Oedipus murders both the king of Thebes and his father with a single blow” (p. 45).

In ch. 3, Silvermintz starts from Socrates’ ironic question whether Protagoras has explained the truth of the homo-mensura statement to his pupils in secret (Plat. Tht. 152c). Silvermintz misunderstands this as a statement (“asserts”, p. 49) and, after Silvermintz has assumed a ‘secret doctrine’ also for Plato,6 he explores a secret doctrine of Protagoras. According to Silvermintz there is “a salutary public teaching that promoted traditional morality and a corrosive private teaching that he revealed to his paying students” (p. 47); the latter “provides a philosophic justification for the rule of the strong over the weak” (p. 75): Protagoras would thus be a second Callicles or Thrasymachus. Silvermintz aims to infer this secret doctrine from Protagoras’ ‘Great Speech’ in Plato’s dialogue. If Silvermintz were right, his theory would have to imply the following assumptions (which he does not spell out): insofar as Plato reproduces Protagoras’ doctrine in that speech (written many years after Protagoras’ death), 7 Plato was not able to refer to Protagoras’ oral and private teaching. On the contrary, he could only have relied on publicly available writings of Protagoras, which would have to have contained this ‘secret doctrine’. Of course, this may not have been immediately obvious to everyone and only discernible, if at all, as a second meaning. Therefore, when composing Protagoras’ speech, Plato must be thought to have included all elements essential to the ‘secret doctrine’, without apparently noticing that he did and what kind of doctrine he was conveying. For, since this ‘secret doctrine’ completely contradicts views expressed by the Platonic Socrates elsewhere (cf. Gorgias, Politeia), Plato would not have had his Socrates pass over this point in silence and only address the central element of Protagoras’ unclear concept of ἀρετή ( Prot. 328e ff.)—on the basis of which Protagoras’ defence of democracy ultimately fails (something which seems to have escaped Silvermintz). These general considerations already make Silvermintz’ theory improbable, particularly since he has to eliminate Protagoras’ explicit commitment to being a sophist and to open discussion (316c ff.) with an argument irrelevant in this framework ( Prot. 323a–c; no reference in Silvermintz), since it stems from a specific context (p. 64).

Thus it is not easy to comprehend how a secret moral doctrine can follow from Protagoras’ ‘Great Speech’. Instead, it seems to be a construct by Silvermintz, apparently arrived at on the basis that “the restrictions regulating justice and holiness are merely arbitrary” (p. 73).8 Silvermintz comes to this conclusion, not via the ‘Great Speech’, but via the divergent nomoi in existence among different peoples according to the Dissoi Logoi (90 DK, c. 2.9 ff.). But what can be demonstrated as a view of Protagoras is only that, within a political community, certain rules for living together must apply ( Prot. 322c2-3; 323a2–4; c4; 324d8; 325a1 ff.). From the homo-mensura statement (which is not even alluded to in the ‘Great Speech’) one might infer at most that in Protagoras’ view the same matters are not regarded as just in all states (cf. Tht. 167c), but not that what applies in one state does not necessarily apply to all. Silvermintz’ comment, based on the homo-mensura statement, that “the individual is the only valid arbiter of truth”, cannot therefore be used as the basis for a conclusion in line with Protagoras’ views: “[W]hy should the individual not transgress the law when he knows he can reap greater rewards by acting unjustly?” (p. 73). The moral condemnation of Protagoras, implied in the final sentence of Silvermintz’ study because of the “unethical implications of this first principle” (p. 75), therefore does not have a basis in fact. If one expected a detailed analysis of the difficult homo-mensura statement and its position within the history of philosophy in a study on Protagoras, one would be disappointed.

Because of the uncritical use of sources and the frequently problematic argumentative structure, the portrayal of Protagoras painted by Silvermintz is unconvincing to this reviewer. The study is indeed an “accessible introductory survey”, as the advertisement states, but in many respects the picture that emerges does not agree with what can be securely inferred from the few surviving testimonies about Protagoras.


1. With regard to Callias, “[o]ne of Protagoras’ most famous patrons in Athens”, he notes that there was such a close relationship between him and Protagoras that “Protagoras appointed Callias guardian of his children upon his passing” (p. 17)—an odd misreading of Plat. Tht. 164e–165a.

2. See B. Manuwald, “Protagoras’ Myth in Plato’s Protagoras : Fiction or Testimony?” in J. M. van Ophuijsen et al. (eds.), Protagoras of Abdera: The Man, His measure (Leiden / Boston, 2013), 163–77 (with references to earlier studies of the author).

3. See B. Manuwald, “Bürger als politische Akteure. Überlegungen zur allgemeinen Politikkompetenz bei Platon und Aristoteles”, Hyperboreus 20 (2014), 225-43, at 227–32. On the reasons for failure see below.

4. Silvermintz’ extensive discussion of Pericles, including historical issues, can only be reviewed here with respect to Protagoras’ influence insofar as it is explicitly stated.

5. The fact that the issue can also be exploited rhetorically (Antiphon, Tetralogia 2, to which Silvermintz [p. 35] refers as “Antiphon, Speeches 3.2.7”) is a separate matter.

6. On the refutation of such ideas see T. A. Szlezák, Reading Plato (London / New York, 1999), 85-6.

7. On the point that it cannot be attributed to the historical Protagoras in its entirety see above.

8. In the context of this review it is impossible to discuss all questionable aspects of Silvermintz’ interpretation of Protagoras’ ‘Great Speech’. To mention just one further example: according to Silvermintz the myth reveals Protagoras’ “sacrilegious and immoral views”, for instance in the “natural ecosystem” created by Epimetheus (p. 67). But how can a situation be regarded as a sacrilege when someone ordered by the gods ( Prot. 320d4–6) distributes δυνάμεις and thus creates a meaningful system according to the principle that the different species will be able to survive (320d8–321b6)?