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Greek Philosopher: Protagoras

Updated on April 2, 2009


The most famous Greek philosopher before Socrates, who was a younger contemporary.

Protagoras sought to teach men virtue in their daily lives, and summed up the basis of his own philosophy in the maxin 'Man is the measure of all things'. He lived at the beginning of the 4th century BC incurred much hostility by denying the story of the "Gods".

480 - 411 BC

Greek philosopher, born in Abdera, Thace. About 445 BC he went to Athens, where he became a friend of the statesman Pericles and won great fame as a teacher and philosopher.

Protagoras was the first thinker to call himself a sophist and to teach for pay, receiving large sums from his pupils. He gave instruction in grammar, rhetoric, and the interpretation of poetry.

His chief works, of which only a few fragments have survived, were entitled Truth and On the Gods. The basis of his speculation was the doctrine that nothing is absolutely good or bad, true or false, and that each individual is therefore his own final authority; this belief is summed up in his saying: "Man is the measure of all things".

Charged with impiety, Protagoras fled into exile; though he drowned on his way to Sicily.

Two celebrated dialogues, the Theaetetus and the Protagoras, by the philosopher Plato, are devoted to the refutation of his doctrines.


Originally a name applied by the ancient Greeks to learned men, such as the Seven Wise Men of Greece. Sophist meant: expert, master, craftsman, man of wisdom. In the 5th century BC the name applied to teachers who journeyed and provided instruction in several higher branches of learning for a fee in their travels.

Individuals sharing a broad philosophic outlook rather than a school, the Sophists popularized the ideas of various early philosophers; but based on their understanding of this proper philosophic thought, most of them concluded that truth and morality were essentially matters of opinion. Thus, in their own teaching, they tended to emphasize forms of persuasive expression, such as the art of rhetoric, which provided pupils with skills useful for achieving success in life, particularly public life.

Sophists were quite popular for a time, especially in Athens, however their skeptical views on absolute truth and morality eventually provoked sharp criticism. The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle each challenged the philosophic basis of the Sophists' teaching. Plato and Aristotle further condemned them for taking money.

Later, they were accused by the state of lacking morality. As a result, the word "sophist" acquired a derogatory meaning as in the modern terms "sophistry" (subtle and deceptive or false argumentation or reasoning).

The Sophists were of minor importance in the development of Western philosophic thought. They were, however, the first to systematize education. Leading 5th-century Sophists included Protagoras, Gorgias, Hippias of Elis and Prodicus of Ceos.


  • Library of Essential Knowledge, Volume 2, Readers Digest, 1980
  • Pears Cyclopaedia, Twenty-Ninth Edition, 1926
  • New Encyclopedia, Volume 19, 1971, Funk & Wagnalls


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      D. Socrates Carlon 

      8 years ago

      I highly agree with Protagoras’ principle that life is a state of perpetual change and fire or war being the originator of this change. Not the ordinary fire or war that we know about. I think the philosopher was talking about conflict, disappointment, deception etc. This view is a perfect reality of the world in which we live today.


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