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Topic #A11

Protagoras

 

3 October 2001

Scribes: Muhammad Athar Lila and Panteha Yektaeian

 

These minutes were spoken on 5 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes

 

 

Professor Hutchinson began Wednesday’s class by pointing out that with Protagoras, we arrive at a new stage in the course.  Unlike the other philosophers we have studied, Protagoras’ work can all be found in one voluminous book [Plato, Complete Works, ed. Cooper/Hutchinson (Hackett)].  For the first time, in the Complete Works, we find the source text and fragment texts to be one and the same.

 

Professor Hutchinson then embarked on a discussion of the Toronto School of Philosophy, asking the class if anyone had ever been to it or had any inside information about it.  He related this topic to Socrates’ discussion with Hippocritus at the beginning of our reading, a discussion in which Socrates asked why Hippocritus wanted to go see Protagoras when he did not know what Protagoras was going to teach.  Professor used this discussion to show that before we pursue anyone or anything famed for their knowledge (let alone ingest any knowledge from them) we have to ask ourselves what this knowledge really is and whether or not we would really be learning anything worthwhile.  He then asked somewhat rhetorically “Who has actually been to the School of Philosophy?”  When no one replied in the affirmative, he pointed out that someone must have been there, otherwise they would not have a sparkling fountain and pond outside.

 

We then began our discussion of Protagoras, with Professor arguing that Protagoras was the 1st professional educator in Ancient Philosophy.  He pointed out that although there was a transfer of knowledge in all societies, and that teaching was common in ancient Greece, this had been limited to studies such as physical education, simple arithmetic, trades, medicine, and arts and crafts.  Protagoras, however, seems to have been the first person to have made a living by teaching tertiary, or post secondary, education.  Again, while others may have had students, Protagoras differed because he made this teaching a way of life, and it made him staggeringly wealthy: both were known as being clever businessmen who became wealthy by virtue of their public performances.

 

Protagoras travelled around to various places, and like Zeno, delivered “talks” or “display performances” – which the Professor loosely termed “infomercials.”  These infomercials often impressed the audience and convinced people to shell out 100 minas to become one of his students.  Professor then contrasted Protagoras’ wealth with Socrates’ austerity.  The 100 minas that Protagoras charged per student was more than three times the net wealth that Socrates had at the time of his death (According to Plato’s Apology).  Protagoras personally collected the money from his students (or as Professor pointed out, the parents of the students) but offered a money back guarantee.  This statement of guarantee was the only way to deliver Protagoras’ new service to the Greek people at such a costly price.  

 

Like others before and after him, Protagoras’ enemies turned against him.  According to a famous anecdote whose authenticity is suspect, a student of his once took him to court, claiming that he had not learned anything from Protagoras and demanded his money back.  The case was a no-lose scenario for Protagoras:  If he argued successfully, he would have retained the student’s money.  If the student argued successfully, it would have proven that the student did in fact learn something from Protagoras.

 

From what we know of Protagoras, his educational content was fairly abstract and general.  He focused heavily on the language arts, rendering him the first professional professor of the humanities.  T17 on Page 219 provides some crucial evidence that he did not attach much importance to mathematics:

 

That is why he used this piece of legislation to improve the condition of illiterate people, on the grounds that they lack one of life’s great goods, and thought literacy should be a matter for public concern and expense. [Diodorus of Sicily, Universal History, 12.13.3.3-6 Vogel]

 

To which the Professor said “Amen,” pointing out that literacy was one of life’s greatest goods, and that Protagoras’ goals were not inconsistent with charging money since there was no existing system of public education to begin with.

 

         The Professor then quoted T14, which deals with gender vocabulary, and quoted from the bottom of T1 on Page 211:

 

He was also the first to develop the kind of argument known as Socratic.  And, as Platro says in Euthydemus, he was the first to make use, in his talks, of the argument of Antisthenes which tries to prove that contradiction is impossible.  He was also the inventor or methods of attacking any given position, as Artemidorus the dialectician reports in his Against Chrysippus… He was the first to distinguish the following four kinds of speech:  wishing, asking, answering, commanding. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, as found in Waterfield, Robin.  The First Philosophers.  Pp. 211-12]

 

Protagoras’ referring to “four types of speech” clearly shows that he was a theoretical grammarian.  His goal was to teach and enhance his students’ ability to be convincing.  This ability was important for two main reasons.  First, it was an important for gaining commercial influence, since selling merchandise requires advertising, Public Relations, communication directors, etc.  Commercial success invariably lends itself to those who have the ability to convince.  Secondly, the ability to convince is important in the political sphere.  In those days, as in ours, common problems were discussed either in small or large group settings.  Certain Greek cities made political decisions via a council of the whole, where all citizens belonged to the supreme body of the state.  Such was the case in Athens.  Other cities operated via elected or non-elected aristocracies, but in all cases, the ability to convince was extremely important, and led to direct power and influence.  This is exactly what Protagoras did.  He travelled throughout Greece giving people exercises in persuasion, teaching them language, and showing them how to formulate arguments and persuade others to accept their views.

 

Professor pointed out that Protagoras was teaching skills that we, as humanities students in Toronto, believe in.  He said that the literary arts are very powerful, and that we convince parents of humanities students that the humanities will enhance their kids’ abilities at winning arguments.

 

Professor Hutchinson then suggested that Plato was a hostile commentator to Protagoras since he used the derogatory term “sophist” to describe him.  Despite this hostility, Protagoras wound up being the founder of modern humanities academia.  The Professor asked the class if anyone knew why “this (by that he meant the University of Toronto) is called an academic institution?  A student replied by saying that Plato’s first school was called the “Academy.”  Prof. Hutchinson clarified that the Academy had existed before Plato by a different name, but that Plato purchased it, added non-humanities subjects to the curriculum (such as mathematics and sciences), and converted it into a residential centre of learning.  Since the Academy served as a model, in many ways, of the modern university system, we can say that the current university system is really a fusion of two 4th and 5th century traditions:  The Protogarasian, which focused on rhetoric and humanities, and the Platonic, which emphasizes pure study (e.g. mathematics, sciences, etc.).  The Professor pointed out that the practise of paying professors can be attributed solely to the Protagorean tradition, since neither Plato nor Socrates charged any money to teach.  The Professor then quoted a passage from Xenophon (1.6) in which Socrates was ridiculed for not charging his students money.  Socrates wisely answered his ridiculer by saying that (to paraphrase for the sake of decency) there is also a name given to people who sleep in others’ beds and charge money for it.

 

A student then asked whether Plato’s Academy was a commune?  The Professor responded in the negative, saying that “the Academy was not a collective property endeavour.”  He then paced along the aisle as he read the following from Protagoras 315 A-B on page 752 of Plato, Complete Works, ed. Cooper/Hutchinson (Hackett).  This passage, although likely a fictional dialogue shows that Protagoras was first called a sophist in the house of Callias.  It also explains how he had groupies who followed him around, one presumes, just like Mick Jagger. 

 

Professor Hutchinson then discussed the strange relationship between Protagoras and Socrates.  In the “Big Book,” one finds Socrates and Protagoras often trading verbal jabs, particularly on the issue of whether virtue could be taught.  Often times Socrates’ would lose the argument.  However in the end, since there is no authoritative interpretation of the text, the Professor preferred to consider the text as a sympathetic portrayal of Socrates.  The book clearly shows, however, that through socialization everyone has a minimum level of virtue, but that through education, people can be gain higher degrees of it.

 

The Professor asked: “Why was Protagoras called a Sophist?”  He answered by saying that some people seem to carry a natural authority, or an “aura” if you will.  He presented Pierre Trudeau as a person who had such an aura.  The Professor recalled meeting with Pierre Trudeau in 1977, and remembered feeling as though he could feel the weight and presence of Trudeau’s words.  The Professor then asked where this kind of power comes from.  Is it innate or can it be acquired through education?  He suggested that most people would probably agree that it is a little bit of both.

 

He then defined the Greek word Sophist as meaning “Expertiser” or “Expert-Maker.”  Sophist comes from the same root as Sophomore, which is a combination of “Sophis” meaning bright, and “Moros” meaning stupid.  Sophisticated also has the same root, and “philosophia” which is the love of wisdom, has the same root as well.

 

A student asked whether the word “moron” was from the same root as “moros.”  To this, the Professor replied that when we call people morons, we are, in a way, using Ancient Greek.