The Sophist Legacy Of Protagoras Has A Mean Streak Thanks To Political Correctness At All Costs – Especially The Truth

By Gary L. Morella


What we're seeing today is the eclipse of reason done in the name of reason, courtesy of the modern Sophists that populate the "politically-correct-villes" surfacing on the planet.  I'm reminded of Protagoras, one of the original "I'm OK, you're OKers."  His argument was that anyone's opinion was equally valid, presumably to include that of someone who would disagree with him. 


The resulting nonsense that something "is true" and "is not true" at the same time in the same place escaped him, i.e., he had no problem violating a fundamental philosophical principle.   That "nonsense" did not escape Plato in his Dialogues nor Aristotle in his Metaphysics, Rhetoric, and Sophistical Refutations, both of whom saw Sophists for what they are. 

The fourth century BC if often referred to as “the golden age of ancient philosophy.”  This is the century of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Plato and Aristotle shared a concern with a kind of false philosophizing exemplified by those they call Sophists with Sophistry being the “dark twin of philosophy.” The Sophist pretended to see the truth, using modes of argumentation not to arrive at knowledge of the way things are but rather for argument’s sake, i.e., as a skill that could be put to a practical purpose, gaining power over others.  Aristotle in Book IV of the Metaphysics held this view of Sophists.

…Sophists assume the same guise as the philosopher, for Sophistic is philosophy which exists only in semblance…Sophistic is what appears to be philosophy but is not.

For both Plato and Aristotle, the first and preeminent Sophist was Protagoras.

One of Plato's dialogues takes its title from this man, and his teaching shows up in other dialogues, for example, the Theaetetus. Plato summarizes Protagoras' doctrine in this way: What seems to be so to me is true for me and what seems to be so to you is true for you. In short, all thinking is relativized to a particular thinker. If Protagoras were right, then it would make no sense to claim to know how things truly are, that is, independently of the way they seem to me. The adoption of this view would be the death of philosophy understood as the search for the truth about things.

We might ask, “Why did Plato and Aristotle devote so much time to a view they found disruptive?” They could have easily left the Sophist to practice his craft and teach it to others while they went on about the business of seeking the truth. But Plato and Aristotle realized a seminal truth. Unless it could be shown that the assumption of Protagoras was not right, that it was incoherent, Sophistry would be equated with philosophy. If the philosopher did not refute Protagoras, his own activity would be seen as being diminished - nothing more than an idiosyncrasy. Thus, the very nature and future of philosophy depended on confronting the Sophist and refuting him.

Plato did this succinctly in the Theaetetus. Simply put, if the dictum of Protagoras is practically applied to the doctrine of Protagoras, it loses any significance. If Protagoras holds that what seems to be true for him is true, and similarly, what seems to be true for anyone else, is true, Protagoras must allow for a rather embarrassing position, i.e., that someone to whom Protagoras' dictum seems false is as right as Protagoras claims that he is. Hence, Protagoras’ dictum becomes both true and false, which is nonsensical.

In the Theaetetus Socrates attacks the dictum of Protagoras that all thinking is relative to a particular thinker in a dialog dealing with sense perception being real in the context of man being the measure of all things.  The problem is one of dreams, which pose a threat to the infallibility of sensation or perception and awareness, since in dreams, one is aware of things which are said to be not as they appeared.  This difficulty is handed by a thorough-going relativism: dreams are real only to the dreamer in the same manner that food which tastes bad to someone who is sick is bad, no matter that it tastes delicious to someone who is healthy.  Thus, things are as they seem to be only insofar as we are careful to let the one sensing them be the judge of what they are. 

We pick up the dialog with Socrates offering an observation on the consequences of relativistic thinking.  His main point is that, if the individual is the only judge of what he perceives, Protagoras might just as well say that the baboon is the measure of all things since the baboon too has sensations of which he is the only adequate judge.

In general, I am delighted with his (Protagoras) statement that what seems to anyone also is, but I am surprised that he did not begin his Truth with the words, The measure of all things is the pig, or the baboon, or some sentient creature still more uncouth.  There would have been something magnificent in so disdainful an opening, telling us that all the time, while we were admiring him for a wisdom more than mortal, he was in fact no wiser than a tadpole, to say nothing of any other human being. If what every man believes as a result of perception is indeed to be true for him; if, just as no one is to be a better judge of what another experiences, so no one is better entitled to consider whether what another thinks is true or false, and, as we have said more than once, every man is to have his own beliefs for himself alone and they are all right and true – then, my friend, where is the wisdom of Protagoras, to justify his setting up to teach others and to be handsomely paid for it, and where is our comparative ignorance or the need for us to go and sit at his feet, when each of us is himself the measure of his own wisdom?   

Aristotle in Book IV of the Metaphysics said the following in reference to the dictum of Protagoras.

Again, if all contradictories are true of the same subject at the same time, evidently all things will be one.  For the same thing will be a trireme, a wall, and a man, if it is equally possible to affirm and to deny anything of anything, - and this premise must be accepted by those who share the views of Protagoras.  For if anyone thinks that the man is not a trireme, evidently he is not a trireme; so that he also is a trireme, if, as they say, the contradictory is true…For if it is true that a thing is man and not-man, evidently also it will be neither man nor not-man.  For to the two assertions there answer two negations.  And if the former is treated as a single proposition compounded out of two, the latter is a single proposition opposite to the former…Further, it follows that all would be right and all would be in error, and our opponent confesses himself to be in error. – And at the same time our discussion with him is evidently about nothing at all; for he says nothing.  For he says neither “yes” no “no”, but both “yes” and “no”; and again he denies both of these and says “neither yes nor no”; for otherwise there would already be something definite. – Again, if when the assertion is true, the negation is false, and when this is true, the affirmation is false, it will not be possible to assert and deny the same thing truly at the same time. 

But if all are alike both right and wrong, one who believes this can neither speak nor say anything intelligible; for he says at the same time both “yes” and “no”.  And if he makes no judgment but thinks and does not think, indifferently, what difference will there be between him and the plants?

For on the one hand, if all opinions and appearances are true, all statements must be at the same time true and false.  For many men hold beliefs in which they conflict with one another, and all think those mistaken who have not the same opinions as themselves; so that the same thing must be and not be.  And on the other hand, if this is so, all opinions must be true: for those who are mistaken and those who are right are opposed to one another in their opinions; if, then, reality is such as the view in question supposes, all will be right in their beliefs.

But the same method of discussion must not be used with all opponents; for some need persuasion, and others compulsion.  Those who have been driven to this position by difficulties in their thinking can easily be cured of their ignorance; for it is not their expressed argument but their thought that one has to meet.  But those who argue for the sake of argument can be convinced only by emending the argument expressed in words.

Aristotle continues his critique in Book XI of the Metaphysics recognizing a source of Protagoras’ dictum.

The saying of Protagoras is like the views we have mentioned; he said that man is the measure of all things, meaning simply that that which seems to each man assuredly is.  If this is so, it follows that the same thing both is and is not, and is bad and good, and that the contents of all other opposite statements are true, because often a particular thing appears beautiful to some and ugly to others, and that which appears to each man is the measure.  This difficulty may be solved by considering the source of the opinion.  It seems to have arisen in some cases from the doctrine of the natural philosophers, and in others from the fact that all men have not the same views about the same things, but a particular thing appears pleasant to some and the contrary of pleasant to others.

That nothing comes to be out of that which is not, but everything out of that which is, is a doctrine common to nearly all the natural philosophers.  Since, then, a thing can become not-white, having been perfectly white and in no respect not-white, that which becomes white must come from that which is not-white; so that a thing must come to be out of that which is not (so they argue), unless the same thing was at the beginning both not-white and white.  But it is not hard to solve this difficulty; for we have said in the Physics I 8 in what sense things that come to be come to be from that which is not, and in what sense from that which is.

The punch line for Aristotle follows.

But to lend oneself equally to the opinions and the fancies of disputing parties is foolish; for clearly one of them must be mistaken. 

Aristotle’s strongest disdain for Sophistry is found in Book II of his Rhetoric where he comments on the legacy of Protagoras. 

This sort of argument illustrates what is meant by making the worse argument seem the better.  Hence people were right in objecting to the training Protagoras undertook to give them.  It was a fraud; the probability it handled was not genuine but spurious, and has a place in no art except Rhetoric and Eristic.

Commenting on the language of dialog, Aristotle made these observations in Book III of the Rhetoric.

Language is composed of nouns and verbs.  Nouns are of the various kinds considered in the treatise on poetry.  Strange words, compound words, and invented words must be used sparingly and on few occasions. The reason for this restriction has been already indicated: they depart from what is suitable, in the direction of excess.  In the language of prose, besides the regular and proper terms for things, metaphorical terms only can be used with advantage.  This we gather from the fact that these two classes of terms, the proper or regular and the metaphorical – these and not others – are used by everybody in conversation.  We can now see that a good writer can produce a style that is distinguished without being obtrusive, and is at the same time clear, thus satisfying our definition of good oratorical prose.  Words of ambiguous meaning are chiefly useful to enable the Sophist to mislead his hearers.

Aristotle in his Sophistical Refutations summarizes what the “art” of the Sophist is.

For the art of the Sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the Sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom; for them, then, it is clearly necessary to seem to accomplish the task of a wise man rather than to accomplish it.  

Plato and Aristotle did not mince words when it came to dealing with someone who would poison the very wells of discourse and knowledge, the correct procedure being to show that such a position is incoherent, i.e., if it is true it is false. Therefore, it is not a possible option to doing philosophy. Sophistry is anti-philosophy because it is anti-reason and it is anti-reason because it is nonsense.

People need to be continually reminded, especially our youth, what Sophistry is, in particular, its current manifestation in the bastardization of reason as a function of the worship of the god of political correctness.  Recall that said bastardization was never a concern of the Sophists. They're more interested in debating points as opposed to finding the Truth that is a Somebody, not a something.  That is why their intellectual plasticity must be exposed for all to see, else more Clintons will appear on the horizon, eagerly waiting to take advantage of the stupidity of the masses.


It should come as no surprise to Christians that faith enables reason, and reason reinforces faith.  Faith and reason are married, not divorced as the modern Sophists contend.  The God Who gave us faith also gave us reason.  Since God is All-Good, He cannot contradict Himself.  Therefore, faith and reason are incapable of contradicting each other. 


We will now look at some examples of modern Sophists.


The modern Sophists are no longer interested in winning arguments for arguments sake.  No, contemporary Sophistry has developed a decidedly mean streak where winning specious arguments requires intimidation in the form of the demonization of all in opposition with a call for the full force of law to mute any criticism in forcing acceptance of the Sophists’ agenda.  Witness the hysterical Alan Dershowitz’s rants against the Boy Scouts in a public debate with Alan Keyes at Franklin & Marshall University. 


Dershowitz actually had the brashness to encourage his college audience not to support the Boy Scouts of America because they had the courage to stand up for what's right, justly discriminating between right and wrong, in not allowing those celebrating sexual perversion as a civil right to be members.  It never ceases to amaze me that a man who doesn't know what ‘right’ is (Dershowitz) seems to know exactly what's ‘right’ for you and me, and will bring the full force of law down upon our heads to enforce it.


As evidenced by Dershowitz’s performance at Franklin & Marshall, nowhere is this demonization of the opposition more evident than in the presentation of the inclination of sexually perverse lifestyles, in particular homosexuality, as being equal to heterosexuality with the resulting call for a redefinition of the traditional family to now include five genders, male, female, lesbian, homosexual, and transsexual, to replace the first two of Genesis.


A primary tool of the modern Sophists is the manipulation of words so that their commonly understood meanings are skewed beyond recognition.  “Family” now becomes a “union” of same-sex individuals with no regard whatsoever for the biological plumbing problems involved.  Thus, a primary reason for marriage, the procreation of the species – necessary to the survival of the human race is trashed for “childless pleasure only” purposes where the sex act itself is perverted to unnatural forms.  A characteristic of these Sophistic families is that no consideration whatsoever is given to the consequences of violating the Natural Law.  Homosexual behavior itself has been politicized by referring to it as “gay”, a bastardization of what was formerly an adjective that described a condition indicative of being “happily excited, merry, or something brilliant in color, but now carries the lurid connotations of licentiousness related to homosexuality.  And those who oppose this revisionist definition of “gay” have another word invented by the Sophists expressly for them – “homophobia”, which denotes a supposed condition of being afraid of homosexuals, which is an absurdity in the Christian sense since loving the sinner while hating the sin is the Gospel message. It is to be noted, however, that mankind must have a fear of sin if civilization is to survive, else anarchy reigns supreme.  It is also noteworthy to observe that “just” discrimination, as opposed to “invidious” discrimination is an absolute requirement for civilization’s survival, which is something that the “homophobic” labelers conveniently ignore in their efforts to brand as hate mongers and bigots all who dare oppose their agenda – the enforced acceptance of grave mortal sin as an acceptable lifestyle.  Thus, we have just witnessed more word obfuscation by the modern Sophists in the blurring of the distinction between two very different forms of discrimination, the former, “just”, being a common sense necessity for any responsible human being, especially parents in the upbringing of their children, the latter, “invidious”, being something to be abhorred.   When all of the above lies are continuously repeated, society begins to become anesthetized as to what the truth is, giving credence to the old axiom, “If you tell a lie loudly and often enough, it will eventually be believed” even to the point of redefining the verb “is”, a word whose clear, concise definition in any dictionary is unmistakable, by a former shameless president of the United States in order to make the country more comfortable with his vices.    


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what I consider to be the preeminent example of modern Sophistry carried to the extreme – The Planned Parenthood vs. Casey Supreme Court decision where a supposedly “Catholic” justice authored the opinion that every man is free to create his own universe of beliefs in the name of unlimited freedom for the autonomous unencumbered self, recognizing their absolute truth, regardless of the inevitable collision of these individual universes leading ultimately to anarchy because of the ridiculous premise upon which they were founded – the aforementioned dictum of Protagoras.