You are on page 1of 32

The Sophists and Relativism

Author(s): Richard Bett


Source: Phronesis, Vol. 34, No. 2 (1989), pp. 139-169
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182328 .
Accessed: 04/08/2011 18:49
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

BRILL is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Phronesis.

http://www.jstor.org

The Sophistsand Relativism


RICHARD BETI'

It is frequentlyalleged that the Sophistswere relativists.Claims to this


effect can be foundin generalhistoriesof philosophy,in historiesof Greek
philosophy, in studies of the Sophists, in studies of relativism,and elsewhere. Sometimesit is moralor ethicalrelativismspecificallythat is ascribed to them, at othertimesa broaderrelativismconcerningknowledge,truth
or realityin general;but thatthe Sophistswere some speciesof relativistsis
somethingof a commonplace.'In fact, I am not awarethat it has ever been
explicitlycontestedin print.
My contention, however, is that this view of the Sophists is largely
erroneous.There is but one Sophist,Protagoras,whomwe have reasonto
regardas a relativistin any deep or interestingsense. It is not entirelyclear
whethereven he deservesthislabel. But if he does, it is solely on the basisof
his famousdoctrinethat "Manis the measureof all things"(DK 80B1) - a
doctrine which he is never said to have shared with any of the other
Sophists. The tendency to describethe Sophistsas a group as relativists
derives, I think, from at least two sources;first, from a tendencyto regard
Protagorasas representativeof, and indeed authoritativefor, the whole
movement, and second, from a too hasty examination of the relation
between the Sophistsand Plato. On the firstpoint, it is no doubt true that
I

Attributionsof relativismto the Sophistsas a groupinclude FrankThilly, A Historyof


Philosophy (3rd ed., revised by Ledger Wood. New York, 1957), p. 58; Samuel Stumpf,
Socrates to Sartre:A History of Philosophy (4th ed. New York, 1988), p. 31; Eduard
Zeller, Outlinesof the Historyof GreekPhilosophy (13th ed., revised by WilliamNestle,
translated by L.R. Palmer. London, 1931), p. 93; W.K.C. Guthrie, History of Greek
Philosophy, Vol. III (Cambridge, 1969), pp. 47, 50-1; G.B. Kerferd, The Sophistic
Movement (Cambridge, 1981), ch. 9; Jack W. Meiland and Michael Krausz, eds.,
Relativism:Cognitiveand Moral (Notre Dame, 1982), p. 6. For attributionsof ethical
relativismspecifically, see also James L. Jarrett, ed., The Educational Theoriesof the
Sophists (New York, 1969), p. 15; H.D. Rankin, Plato and the Individual (New York,
1964), p. 106; Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981), pp. 130-1. Of
course, this list makes no pretence to completeness.

Phronesis1989. Vol. XXXIV12(AcceptedOctober1988)

139

Protagoras,given his statureand his historicalposition, influencedother


Sophistsin manyways. But thisdoes not, of course,implythatthe Sophists
in generalimitatedhimor agreedwithhimin everyrespect.Whetheror not
other Sophistssubscribedto some formof relativism- even assuming,for
the moment,thatProtagorasdid so - hasto be determinedby lookingatthe
evidenceconcerningthem,not him;and, as I shallargue,the evidencedoes
not supportany such conclusion.As for the Sophistsand Plato, it is clear
that Platowas opposedto muchof whatthe Sophistsstood for, andthathis
mature philosophy includes a view of truth, includingmoral truth, as
robustlyobjective, rather than relative. One may be tempted to think,
therefore, that objectivism versus relativismmust have been the issue
aroundwhichthe disputebetweenthemrevolved.However,thiswouldbe
a needless, as well as a groundless,hypothesis.Thereis plentyfor Platoto
have objected to in the Sophists'attitudesand activities,quite apartfrom
any supposed relativismon their part; as I shall suggest in closing, his
antipathyto themcanbe uncontroversially
accountedforon groundswhich
have nothingto do with relativism.
Clearly,the plausibilityof my claimdependsin parton what relativism
itself is taken to be. The term "relativism"is often used very loosely; and
the resultingconfusionis only increasedwhen"relativist"is employed,as it
frequentlyis, as a term of philosophicalabuse.2This unclarityis very
probablya furtherfactorresponsiblefor the genericlabelingof the Sophists
as relativists;certainly,those who perpetuatethis view of the Sophistsdo
not usuallyexplainwhatthey mean by the term. In any case, it is essential
that I spend a little time explaining exactly what I mean by the term
"relativism",when I deny that the Sophistsin general adhered to relativism. There is, I shall concede, a weak sense of "relativism"in which
manyof the Sophistsmayplausiblybe viewedas ethicalrelativists.However, I shall be concernedto distinguishthis fromrelativismin the deep and
interestingsense- the sense in which,as I said, it is onlyProtagoraswho has
any seriousclaimto be regardedas a relativist.
of the deep formof
My argumentwillbegin, then, witha characterization
relativism.I shall not, at this point, refer directlyto the Sophists;I shall
simplydefine relativism,usingcontemporaryterminology,as preciselyas I
can. This approachmay perhapsseem perverseor incongruousin a paper
purportingto deal withancientthinkers.But the term"relativism"is, after
all, a modernphilosophicalcoinage3;andit wasnot coined, as faras I know,
2 The confusion over the use of the term, and its pejorative connotations, are well
discussed by MarkB. Okrent, "Relativism,Context and Truth",in Is RelativismDefensible?, The Monist 67, no. 3 (1984), pp. 341-58.

140

with Greek philosophyspecificallyin mind. While the applicabilityof the


term to ancientthinkersis a matterfor historicalscholarship- to whichwe
will shift as soon as the firstsectionis over- an acceptabledefinitionof the
term cannot but be a reflectionof its usage in modernphilosophy.4
Followingthese preliminaries,I shall briefly examine the weak, uninteresting"relativism"whichmanySophists(and manyother thinkers)do
admittedlydisplay. I shall then tackle my centralquestion;are there any
grounds,otherthanProtagoras'"Manthe Measure"doctrine,for ascribing
relativism,in the deep sense, to anyof the Sophists?Finally,I shallquickly
touch on, but not resolve, the questionwhethereven the "Manthe Measure"doctrineis a formof relativism.I assumethroughoutthatthe Sophists
deserve to be treatedas being of philosophicalinterest- whateverelse we
maywishto call them besidesphilosophers.I hope it is no longernecessary
to justifyor apologisefor this.

Relativism, in what I am calling the deep and interestingsense, may be


stated in the broadestterms as follows. It is the thesis that statementsin a
certaindomain can be deemed corrector incorrectonly relativeto some
framework.Every partof this definitioncalls for furtherexplanation.
One canbe a relativistaboutvariousdifferenttypesof subject-matter.As
I noted earlier, the Sophistsare sometimes said to have been relativists
about ethics in particular.One could also be a relativistabout aesthetic
judgements, about judgementsin the social sciences, and so on. Then
3In fact, it is little more than a centuryold; the earliest usages attested by the OED are

1863 for "relativist"and 1885 for "relativism".


I admit that those who describethe Sophistsas relativistsmay not all intend the term in
precisely the same sense as I shall propose. This is a difficult matter to judge since, as I
observed, explicit definitions of the term, and even perspicuityin its use, are rare in this
context. However, I would defend my definition on the grounds that it would be
thoroughly orthodox among people who do define the term really carefully- namely,
those contemporaryphilosophers whose subject-matteris relativismitself (on this, see
further note 9). My impression, in any case, is that interpreters of the Sophists do
generallyhave in minda definitionakin to mine (at least as one among others); this seems
to me most clearlytrue of the passages (cited in note 1 above) from Stumpf, Guthrie and
Meiland/Krausz.If there are some who do not, then my thesis is not, of course, the direct
negation of theirs. But negating someone else's thesis is not the only way of supplanting
it; and my hope is that, whether or not writers on the Sophists mean the same by
"relativism"as I do, my position will be judged superiorto theirs by the uncontroversial
standardsof clarity, precision in the use of terms, and cogency in the treatment of the
ancient evidence.

141

again, more global types of relativismare possible, accordingto which


claimsto know things, about any subjectwhatever,or claimsconcerning
the existenceof something,canbe deemedcorrector incorrectonly relative
to some framework;the above two positionsmightbe labeled "cognitive
relativism"and "ontologicalrelativism"respectively.Finally,one couldbe
a relativistabouttruthin general,in whichcase, presumably,any sentence
with a truth-valuewould fall withinthe scope of the thesis. Some of these
formsof relativismwouldnaturallybe combinedwithothers;but I shallnot
considerthe possible relationsamongthe differenttypes. In any case, the
relativistmustbe preparedto specifywhichcategoriesof statementshis or
her version of relativismapplies to; and this is the point of the phrase
"statementsin a certaindomain",in the definitionabove.
Standardly,for a statementto be "correct"is for it to be true, and for a
statementto be "incorrect"is for it to be false. However, one mighthold
thatsentencesconcerninga certainsubject-matterdo not admitof truthor
falsehood,yet insistthat they can be judgedas warranted,or assertible(or
theirconverses),in some othersense;valuejudgements,in particular,have
often been viewed in this way. The terms "correct"and "incorrect"are
intended to encompassthese non-standardnotions, as well as truth and
falsehood; a statementis "correct"if it measuresup to the demandsfor
assertibility,whateverthey are, that are appropriateto statementswithin
the subject-matterin question.
Next, we have the phrase"someframework".The word"framework"is
intended loosely. What the relativisthas in mind is some kind of basic
commitments,on the part of some group or individual,concerningthe
subject-matterin question. Other terms besides "framework"have been
used to describe such commitments - "belief system", "conceptual
scheme", "background"and "perspective"are commonexamples- and
the differenttermscarrydifferentimplicationsas to the characterof what
they referto. Givenour primaryconcernwiththe Sophists,we cannottake
up any of the deep and difficultissues in this area. In addition, various
differentviewsarepossibleconcerningwhoseframeworkis the appropriate
one againstwhichto assessanygivenstatement.On one commonview, the
relevantframeworkis the one prevalentin the speaker'sculture;alternatively, and more radically,it mightbe taken to be a frameworkspecificto
the individualspeaker.Thislattertypeof view is often calledSubjectivism,
in one of the many senses of that word; but it may also be regardedas a
limitingcase of relativism.Besides these, there are forms of ethical relativism,at least, whichtake as criterialthe frameworkembracednot by the
speaker, but by the agent referredto in the sentence.5Again, we cannot
142

considerthese permutationsin any detail. The essential point is that, for


any form of relativism,there must be some framework,shared or not,
relativeto whichthe correctnessof statementsin some domainis held to be
alone open to assessment.
This leads us to the final, crucialquestion;what is meant by the phrase
"only relative to"? To say that a statement can be deemed correct or
incorrectonly relativeto a frameworkmeanstwo things.First,it meansthat
the correctnessof the statementis a matterof the consistencybetween the
statementand the framework;andsecond, it meansthat there is nofurther
sense, aside from this issue of consistency,in whichthe statementcan be
assessedfor correctness.If, in discussingthe habitsof some remotetribe, I
say "this tribe's cannibalismis an abomination",and there is a moral
relativistin earshotwho takesthe moralframeworkof the speaker'sculture
to be the standardfor assessment,then that relativistwill judge my statementcorrect,becauseconsistentwithmy moralframework;however,if the
same statementis made by a memberof the tribe itself, the same moral
relativistwill judge it incorrect,becauseinconsistentwith the tribe'smoral
framework.6Thereis nothingabsurdor contradictoryhere- anymorethan
it is absurdor contradictoryto thinkthat"I amhot"mightbe trueas spoken
by A and false as spoken by B; indeed, one might say that the effect of
relativismis precisely to assimilatea certain class of statements to the
categoryof indexicalsentences.7The same kind of accountwill apply to
statements such as "There is no such thing as Phlogiston", if one is a
relativistaboutscience, or statementssuchas "Wenow knowthatthe earth
is not flat", if one is a cognitiverelativist.In each case, the relativistwill
5 For a version of this type of relativism, see Gilbert Harman, "Moral Relativism
Defended", Philosophical Review 84 (1975), pp. 3-22. It is this type, which takes the
agents'frameworkas criterial,that seems to lie behind the popularview that one cannot,
or must not, criticize the ideas or behavior of people from other cultures.
6 If "correctness"is taken to be somethingother than truth(whichwe earlier admittedas
a possibility), an analogous non-standard concept of consistency would have to be
developed. I assume that this difficulty is not insuperable. In addition, the notion of
"consistencywith a framework"seems to presupposethat "frameworks"have a specifiable propositionalcontent - somethingwhich mightwell be denied by some, especially by
those of a Wittgensteinianpersuasion. But neither of these difficulties will affect our
examination of the Sophists.
7 Some versions of relativismdraw an even closer analogy with indexicals, by claiming
that an implicitreferenceto some specific set of standardsis partof the semantic content
of the statements in question. See, in particular, the version developed by Gilbert
Harman,op.cit. But PhilipE. Devine, "Relativism",Is RelativismDefensible?, pp. 40518, argues that relativism need not claim anything of the kind; and in fact, many
treatments of relativismdo not even address these semantic issues.

143

specifywhose frameworkis the appropriateone againstwhichto assessthe


statement,and will judge the statementcorrectif it is consistentwith that
framework.
My second point about the phrase "only relativeto" was that the relativist refuses to allow that correctnessor incorrectness,for the sentences
fallingwithinthe scope of the relativism,can be construedin anyotherway
thanthe one just described.For a statementin thiscategoryto be correctis
for it to be consistentwiththe framework,whicheverit is, thatis takento be
relevantin the given case; and beyondthis, there is no sense in whichone
can talkof suchstatementsbeingcorrector incorrect.In particular,thereis
no independentperspective, external to all the various frameworksembraced by culturesor individuals,from which the statementscan be assessed; nor, therefore, is there any way of assessing these frameworks
themselves.Or rather,the only possibleperspectivefrom whichto assess
one frameworkis the perspectiveof anotherframework.Thus,fromwithin
my framework,I can bemoanyour framework,and vice versa.But this is
mere name-calling;there is no neutralperspectivefrom which the two
frameworkscan be compared,and their relativemeritsdetermined.
Relativism,then, is in one sense a denialof objectivity,for the domainto
whichit applies.It denies that any kindof "God's-eyeview"is availablein
this domain;and it denies thatjudgementsin this domaincan be corrector
incorrect in an absolute, unqualifiedsense.8 Instead, they can only be
corrector incorrectin relationto some frameworkor other. On the other
hand, the relativistmay well maintainthat this kindof correctnessis quite
robustenoughfor all our needs - thoughothersmay disagree.
This interpretationof relativismis, I believe, fairly cautious and uncontentious.9It is also deliberatelybroad;a greatmanydifferentpositions
8 There is another sense, though, in which at least some relativistscan perfectly well

admitobjectivity. The judgementthata certainstatementis correct, or incorrect,relative


to a certainframework(that is, is or is not consistentwith that framework)may itself be
objectively true- providedthat the relativismis not abouttruthitself. Indeed, it mightbe
arguedthat the relativistmustunderstandconsistencyon objectivistlines; for, it mightbe
said, if consistency is itself a relative matter, this will place the relativistin dangerof an
infinite regress. If so, then an entirely global relativismabout truthwould be untenable.
By contrast, there is no difficultyin "local" relativismsadmittingobjectivityin domains
other than the ones to which they themselves apply.
I Characterizationsof relativismwhich I take to be consistentin essentialswith my own
(even if they are stated in somewhat different terminology) are those of R.B. Brandt,
"Relativism Refuted?", pp. 297-307, and C. Behan McCullagh,"The Intelligibilityof
Cognitive Relativism", pp. 327-40 in Is Relativism Defensible?; the Introduction to
Relativism: Cognitive and Moral; and, from Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes, eds.,
Rationalityand Relativism(Cambridge, Mass., 1982), Barry Barnes and David Bloor,

144

would qualifyas formsof relativismundermy rubric.Finally,while much


morecouldbe saidby wayof clarification(andwouldbe demanded,in a full
treatmentof the subject), I have tried to present the doctrine as neither
senselessnorself-refuting- as it is often claimedto be. If anyof these things
were not so, the interest of my thesis would, of course, be considerably
lessened. But now that they have been as far as possible established,we
may leave aside manyof the niceties of the previousdiscussion.The vital
points, for our purposes,are the ones havingto do with the phrase"only
relativeto". Our question now is whether any of the Sophistswere relativistsin the sense we have outlined.

II
My firststep, in answeringthat question,is to observethat the view I have
called"relativism"is quitedifferentfroma view, also called"relativism"by
some, whichis with good reasonascribedto at least some of the Sophists.
The view I havein mindhasto do specificallywithevaluativeconcepts,and
may be stated in outline as follows. What is good, or just, or virtuous,or
desirable,depends on the circumstances;there is no one set of things, or
actions,whichare good, just, virtuousor desirablein all circumstancesfor
all people. The same action (for example, helpinga friend)may be just in
one situationandunjustin another;whatis desirablefor a sickpersonto eat
may be undesirablefor healthypeople to eat; and so on.
There is evidencethat an emphasison this kindof relativitywas routine
among the Sophists.Protagoras,questionedby Socratesas to whetherhe
equates"good"with "beneficialto humans",is madeby Platoto replywith
a lengthyharangueon the variabilityof whatis good or beneficial,depending on who one is talkingabout (Protagoras334a3-c6).It is clear from the
context that this is intendedas a parodyof Sophisticthinking(as well as of
Sophisticrhetoricaldisplay);and I see no difficultyin ascribingthese kinds
of ideas to the historicalProtagoras.But even if this would be to take the
less thansympatheticPlatotoo muchon trust,it can hardlybe doubtedthat
the speechis at least meantas an allusionto ideas generallycurrentamong
the Sophists.
"Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge", pp. 21-47, W.NewtonSmith, "Relativismand the Problemof Interpretation",pp. 106-22, and Ernest Gellner,
"Relativism and Universals", pp. 181-200. One well-known characterizationof relativism which is harder to relate to mine is that of Bernard Williams, "The Truth in
Relativism", Proceedingsof the AristotelianSociety 75 (1974-5), pp. 215-28.

145

It appears,too, from a referencein Aristotle (Politics1260a26ff.),that


Gorgiasheld a similarview aboutthe variabilityof virtue. Differentkinds
of activityconstitutevirtue for differentkinds of people - men, women,
children, slaves and so on. Virtue is not any one thing, the same for
everyone;what is virtuousfor any given persondependson that person's
station in life. (Incidentally,the view receivesAristotle'sown approval.)
And Plato puts the same view in the mouth of Meno, an enthusiastic
admirerof Gorgias(Meno71e1-72a5),in answerto Socrates'requestfor a
definitionof virtue.
Anotherbountifulsourcefor suchargumentsis the treatiseknownas the
Dissoi Logoi (DK 90). The first three chaptersof this deal with good and
bad, decent (kalos) and indecent (aischros),and just and unjust respectively. In eachcase, the firstpartconsistsof argumentsto the effect thatthe
seeminglyopposed membersof these pairsare "the same";and the arguments pursue in relentless detail the theme we have been considering.10
What is bad for one person (say, the wearingout of one's shoes) will be
good for another(in this case, the cobbler)(1,5); whatis indecentin some
places(womenbathing,for example,in publicplaces)is decentin others(in
this case, at home) (2,3).11Again, the piece does not allow us to attribute
these ideas to any specificSophist;but it does showus thatsuchideaswere
commonplaceamongthe Sophistsin general.12
Now, these argumentsadmittedlyhave to do with a kind of relativity;
they assert that one cannot say what is good, just or virtuous without
qualification,butonly in relationto specificcircumstances.However,thisis
10 There is one section (2,9-20) whichdoes not appearto conformto this pattern.On this,
see note 14 below.
'" The same style of argument is even extended to the concepts of truth and falsity,
madnessand sanity, wisdom and ignorance,whatis and what is not (chs. 4 & 5). Here the
reasoning becomes even more blatantlytrivial than in the ethical cases; e.g., truth and
falsehood are said to be "the same"on the groundsthatthe same statementmay be either
true or false, depending on the circumstances- that is, depending on whether or not
things actuallyare as the statement says they are (4,2). If this is relativism, "relativism"
about truth is true by definition.
12 Despite our ignorance of the author's identity, the connection between the Dissoi
Logoi and Sophisticthinkingseems clear from two points;first, the apparentfunctionof
the work as a piece of rhetoricalpedagogy, and second, the date of around 400 B.C.,
establishedby an allusion to the PeloponnesianWar as "most recent" (1,8). This dating
has been disputed by Kerferd(The SophisticMovement,p. 54), on the groundsthat the
author merely means that the Peloponnesian War is the most recent of the wars he is
going to mention. I agree that this is what the wordsliterallymean. However, it seems to
me that it would be strange to make a point of saying "I begin with the most recent",
unless the war was in fact shortly before the date of composition.

146

only superficiallysimilarto the view outlinedin the previoussection, and


only superficiallyrelativistic.The relativismwe looked at earlierdeniedthe
possibilityof objectivejudgements- thatis, judgementswhose correctness
wasindependentof the frameworkof anyparticulargroupor individual- in
the domain to which it applied. The present view, by contrast, is quite
compatiblewith objectivity;whatit deniesis not the possibilityof objective
judgements,but the possibilityof broad and invariableuniversalrules of
- which is by no means the same thing. For, firstly, it does not
conduct"3
deny that there might be some objectively correct general definitionof
goodness, justice, or whateverthe evaluativeconcept under scrutiny.It
might be, for example, that justice could be defined quite generally as
"Givingpeople their due" (as Polemarchustried to define it at the beginning of the Republic).There is no conflictbetween sayingthis, and saying
thatthe specificactionswhichjustice, as thusdefined,demandsvarywidely
from situation to situation, and are not formulablein any simple rules.
(Meno appearsto take his view aboutthe variabilityof virtueas conflicting
with the Socraticsearchfor a unitarydefinitionof virtue;he is reluctantto
admitthat virtuehas any unitarycharacter(73a4-5).But there need be no
conflict, if the definitionis on a sufficientlygeneral level.) Secondly, the
view we are examiningdoes not deny thatwhatever,in some specificset of
circumstances,turnsout to be good, or just, is so objectivelyspeaking.For
instance, there is no difficultyin sayingthat some things, such as bedrest
and medicines,are, as an objectivematter,good for the sickbut, also as an
objective matter,not good for the healthy. None of the passageswe have
looked at suggest that what counts as good or just depends on one's
evaluativeframework;rather,they are suggestingthat what is, as a matter
of fact, good or just dependson who or what one is dealingwith.
Even when an authorexplicitlycites differencesin ethical practicebetween differentcommunities,it may be that no more than this superficial
kind of relativityis at issue. Consider the beginning of Thrasymachus'
speech in Book I of the Republic(338c-339a).Thrasymachus'claimhere is
that the specific requirementsof justice vary from society to society, but
that these superficialvariationsare due to differences (themselves the
result of differingpoliticalsystems)in what is in the interestof the ruling
party.In a deepersense, then, the natureof justiceis the sameeverywhere.
This is not to say that it denies what, in modem moralphilosophy, has been called the
"universalizability"of moral judgements (for discussion of this concept, see especially
R.M. Hare, Freedomand Reason (Oxford, 1963), chs. 2 and 3). That is, it does not deny
that what is good in one set of circumstances is also good in all relevantly similar
circumstances;it merely insists that the circumstancesmay often be relevantlydissimilar.
13

147

Justice is alwayswhateveris in the interestsof the rulingparty;what, in


particular,this turns out to be depends on the politicalcircumstancesin
whichthe rulingpartyfindsitself. Thereis no hintthatwhatis in the rulers'
appears
interestsmightitselfbe relativeto someframework;Thrasymachus
of
admit
interests
about
people's
that
questions
throughoutto be confident
definite,objectiveanswers.By the sametoken, questionsaboutjusticewill
admit of definite, objective answers- even though the answerswill be
differentfrom communityto community.What is just in a democracyis
differentfromwhatis just in an oligarchy,becausethe rulers,andhencethe
rulers' interests, are different in the two cases; but given that people's
interests, in any particular set of circumstances, can be specified objective-

can also be specified


andjustice-in-an-oligarchy
ly, justice-in-a-democracy
objectively.As in the caseswe examinedabove, whatis responsiblefor the
variationis not relativityto differentethicalframeworks,but only differences in circumstances.There are not,)inThrasymachus'view, competing
basic principlesof justice, between which no neutraljudgementcan be
made;rather,thereare differentpowerrelationsin differentcommunities,
which give rise to local differencesin what specifictypes of behaviorare
(really,objectively)just. At least as portrayedby Plato, then (andnone of
the other evidence about him suggestsotherwise),Thrasymachusis not a
relativistin the deep sense. His other centralassertion- thatjustice,being
merelythe interestof the stronger,hasno genuineclaimon our allegiancedoes not affect this verdictin any way.14
In summary,we have good reasonto ascribeto some of the Sophistsan
interest in one kind of relativityabout value; but this is not of any great
philosophicalsignificance,and does not warrantour calling them relativists, if relativismincludesa denial of the possibilityof objectivejudgements in some domain.I cannot, of course, forbidpeople fromcallingthe
14 Preciselythe same pattem is apparentin Dissoi Logoi 2,9-20. Here the authorcites a
numberof variationsin whatis considereddecent in differentcommunities(2,9-17). This
sounds like the makingsof a more serious formof relativismabout decency; and indeed,
one might well think this was a case which cried out for an analysis in terms of brute
differencesof attitudein differentcommunities.But even in this case, the authorresorts,
much less plausibly, to an analysisin termsof differencesin circumstances.Variationsin
what passes for decent behavior, he says, are due to variationsin kairos, "opportunity";
"to put it generally, everything is decent when it is opportune, and indecent when it is
inopportune" (2,20). Thus, what is "opportune" for one communitywill not be "opportune" for another, because of the different circumstancesin which the two communities find themselves; and concomitantwith these variationswill be variationsin what
constitutesdecent behavior.This is the same kindof variability,compatiblewith objectivity, which we saw in Thrasymachus'view, and throughoutthis section.

148

kindsof observationswe have looked at in this section"relativism"as well.


But there are two strongreasonsnot to do so. First, this would resultin a
seriousambiguityin the term;for, as we have seen, the views examinedin
this section are far from equivalentto relativismin the sense examined
earlier. Second, views of this kind are widespreadamong thinkers who
would not normally be considered relativists.'5Aristotle, for example,
would qualifyas an ethicalrelativistin this superficialsense, and so would
any act-utilitarian.Both Aristotle and the act-utilitarianwill hold that the
rightthingto do mustbe determinedin the individualcase, and cannotbe
specifiedin advanceby exceptionlessgeneralrules.16But both may nevertheless insistthatthereis a single, non-relativedeterminantof whatis right;
what is right is determined,in Aristotle's case, by the judgementof the
phronimos- the personwho sees the worldaright,ethicallyspeaking- and
in the act-utilitarian'scase, by whichaction, amongthose possible for the
agent, promotes the greatest utility. Neither is remotely committed to
holdingthatthe verysameindividualactioncouldbe judgedboth rightand
wrong(relativeto differentsets of standards),therebeingno neutralwayof
determiningwhichjudgementis correct.17One couldeven includeSocrates
on the list of superficial"relativists"- whichsurelyconstitutessomething
close to a reductioof this use of the term. Socrates'interlocutors,in Plato's
earlydialogues,will frequentlyoffer initialdefinitionsof virtuesin behavioralterms- Lachessays that courageis facingthe enemy and not running
away(Laches190e4-6),Charmidessays thats6phrosuneis a kind of quietness (Charmides159b5-6),and so on - and Socrateswill typicallyobject
thatthe kindof behaviordescribedwouldbe virtuousonly in some circumstances, not in all.'8
For these reasons,it seems preferableto restrictthe term"relativism"to
the more excitingand controversialview describedin section I. In termsof
this nomenclature,therefore,neitherThrasymachusnor the authorof the
Dissoi Logoi is a relativist. We have not yet finished with Gorgias or
" Indeed, on some of the topics we have looked at (such as the question of what is good
for the sick and for the healthy), it would be insane not to adopt a measureof this kind of
"relativism".
16 For Aristotle see, e.g., NE 1094bl4-16, 1109b14-23;comparealso Aristotle's endorsement of Gorgias in the Politics passage cited above.
17 At least, the utilitarianis not committedto this view qua utilitarian.A utilitariancould
also be a relativist;but if so, it would be for reasons that were independent of utilitarianism. (Aristotle, of course, holds no such view.)
18 For discussionof this point, see Terence Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory(Oxford, 1977),
pp. 42-47.

149

Protagoras;but so far, we have no groundsfor regardingeitherof them as


relativists.

IlI
What, then, of relativismin the deep sense? I now come to the heartof my
argument.In thissectionI shallconsiderthe claimof Gorgiasto be calleda
relativistin thissense;in the followingtwo sections,I shalllook at a number
of points relatingto the Sophistsin general.
Gorgiasis often associatedwith relativism;usuallythis is becausesome
form of relativismis taken to be a corollaryof the ideas expressedin his
treatise Peri Tou Me Ontos *19As far as I can see, this has absolutelyno
basis. I say this not becauseI take the stillwidespreadview thatthe treatise
is no more than a joke, affordingno evidencefor Gorgias'actualviews thoughif this were so, it would, of course, undermineany attemptto foist
relativismon him; my reason is simplythat the text itself, taken entirely
seriously,has nothingwhateverto do withrelativism.As is well known,the
treatise, as reportedboth by Sextus Empiricus(M. VII.65-86)and in the
third section of the pseudo-AristotelianDe Melisso XenophaneGorgia,
first,thatnothingis, second, thateven
containedthree mainconclusions;20
andthird,thateven if anythingcan
about,
known
be
it
cannot
if anythingis,
be knownabout,it cannotbe communicatedto someoneelse. Of these, the
second andthe thirdare formsnot of relativism,but of whatwouldnow be
The argumentsfor both trade,in a mannerreminiscent
called scepticism.21
of epistemologicalscepticismsince Descartes,on the idea of an unbridgeable gap between thought, and speech, on the one hand, and that which
thoughtand speech purportto be about, on the other. What these argumentsare supposedto show is not that knowledge,or successfulreference,
is possibleonly withinsome framework,sharedor otherwise.The point is
19 Writers who draw this connection include Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy,
Vol. III, pp. 272-3, and JamesN. Jordan, WesternPhilosophy (New York, 1987), p. 55.
' The differences between the two reports, while far from negligible, need not concern
us here. For a very full accountof these differences(together with an argumentfor their
essential compatibility), see G. B. Kerferd, "Gorgiason Nature or that which is not",
Phronesis 1 (1955), pp. 3-25.
21 This is not, of course, the same as scepticism in the ancient sense, the hallmarkof
which is the refusalto assertanythingin one's own person;in the ancientsceptic'sterms,
Gorgias "dogmatises"as much as anyone. Modern epistemologicalscepticism, by contrast, consists in a denial of the possibilityof knowledge or certainty,and it is this which
Gorgias' conclusions resemble.

150

much simpler; there can be no such thing as knowledge, or successful


reference. Knowledge and reference are not relativized, but absolutely
denied.
Nor does the first conclusion, that "Nothing is", involve any kind of
relativity.It is not suggestedthat"whatis" is relativeto a scheme, to a set of
perceptions,or anythingof the kind;again,there is simplyno suchthingas
"whatis". It makesno difference,for the presentpoint, whetherthe claim
is understood(as traditionally)to be that nothingexists, or (as has found
favor in recent years) that nothing is, any more than it is not, the bearer of

any predicate.22Either way, and whateverdetailed interpretationof the


very difficultargumentone adopts, a relativizingmove is nowherein sight.
Again, the position is sceptical (in the modern sense) rather than relativistic, in that it negates a very basic, pre-reflectiveassumption- the
assumptionthat things"are".
All of this seems so plain that one may well wonderwhy anyone would
ever have seen Peri TouMe Ontosas implyingrelativism.One reasonmay
simply be the careless, yet unfortunatelyall too common, conflation of
relativismand scepticism;but I think there is anotherfactor responsible.
ConsiderwhatGorgias'three conclusionsimplyaboutthe statusof human
discourse.It follows from these three conclusionsthat no statementwill
have any more claimto correctnessthan any other;hence debate will be a
free-for-all,in that no one assertioncan be judgedsuperior,on groundsof
truth, to the rest. Now, this may well sound like an extreme form of
relativism.However,if we examinemoreclosely whyit is thatno statement
willbe anymorecorrectthananyother, it becomesclearthatwe aredealing
with a different view. All statements are on a par, as far as truth is
concerned,not becauseall statementsare true relativeto some framework
or other, and frameworkscannotbe neutrallyrankedfor correctness,but
becauseall statementsarefalse. They are all "equallytrue"in the sense that
none of them is the slightestbit true. All of them purportto be about onta,
"thingswhichare"' (this is so whicheverinterpretationof estione adopts);
' For the traditional reading, see, e.g., Guthrie, op.cit., pp. 192-200; for the other
interpretation,see Kerferd, "Gorgiason Nature or that which is not", and TheSophistic
Movement, pp. 93-100. As the latter passage amply documents, this second interpretation is associated with a much broader shift in the understandingof "being" in early
Greek philosophy.
3 It might be objected that this is not the case with avowedly fictional sentences.
However, it is doubtfulwhether Gorgias, or anyone else at the time, had a clear concept
of fictional discourse. Apparently he referred to tragedy as a "deception" (apaten,
DK 82B23); for a useful discussion of the significance of this, see W.J. Verdenius,
"Gorgias' Doctrine of Deception", in G.B. Kerferd (ed.), The Sophists and Their

151

but there are no onta, and even if there were, and they could be known
about, discourseabout them would be impossible.Speech, therefore, is
merespeech, havingno connectionwithanythingbeyonditself;thusspeech
as such is deceptive. On this nihilisticand extraordinaryview, truth becomes not relativebut non-existent.
CouldGorgiasseriouslyhave acceptedthese arguments,and this consequenceof them?Thisis a difficultmatterto judge. It mayseem thatno one
could accept them, and that the "parody"interpretationof Peri Tou Me
Ontosmustbe correct.But one has to be careful,whendealingwithGreek
philosophy, about claimingthat some doctrineis "too bizarreto be believed". Gorgias'position, after all, is scarcelyany more of an affrontto
common sense than those of the Eleatics (with which, on any interpretation, it obviouslyhas muchin common);one mightalso mentionXeniades
of Corinthwho, accordingto Sextus(M. VII.53) actuallydid maintainthat
"every impressionand opinion is false". Gorgias'pupil Isocrates, too,
apparentlytakes him at his word; in two passages he reports Gorgias'
assertionthat "Nothingis", and comparesthis, in a matter-of-facttone,
with the views of certain other thinkers (Helen 3 and Antidosis 268).
Isocrates'own point, on both occasions, is that such speculationsare a
pointlesswaste of time; but the implicationis that the people concerned,
includingGorgias,thoughtotherwise.As for Gorgias'otherwritings,there
are some echoes of the position sketched here, but also some apparent
conflictswithit. However,sincemostof the survivingmaterialcomes from
rhetoricalset-pieces,one couldhardlyexpectto be ableto leanveryheavily
on it as evidence for its author'sphilosophicalviews.24
Legacy, Hermes, Einzelschriften44, 1981, pp. 116-28. In any case, fictional sentences
are not, presumably, candidates for regular truth; so the central point, that Gorgias'
argumentsimply that no statements are true, still remains.
' The Helen speech remarkson the impossibilityof knowledge, and on the deceptiveness of speech itself (DK 82B11, paras. 11 & 10-14respectively);the Palamedesrefersto
the inabilityof wordsto convey the truthplainlyto theiraudience(DK 82B1la, para.35).
x6Xovroe boxriv, r6 bi boxeCv do0evig
See also DK 82B26, t6 Xv rtvat &(pavig
ji^ rvx6v roe revat. (It is unclear, however, whether >& riX6v should be rendered
"since it does not attain" or "if it does not attain". Either way, the fragmentrefers to a
gulf between seeming and being; but on the latter reading, the gulf would not be
explicitlystated to be unbridgeable.)But againstthese passagesmustbe set other partsof
the Helen and the Palamedes,whichdo seem to presupposethe possibilityof discovering,
and speaking, the truth; see Bli, para.1, and Blla, paras. 4,24,33,34. Kerferd, The
Sophistic Movement, pp. 81-2, attempts to reconcile both strands of thought in "a
common conceptual model". But I am not sure either that I understandthe composite
position he sketches, or that this position coheres with all the relevant texts.

152

In sum, there seems to me no strongreasonto doubt that Peri Tou Me


Ontoswas intendedto expressa seriousposition.To return,though,to my
mainpoint, thatpositionwasnot, nordid it imply,anyformof relativism.It
will indeed follow fromthis positionthat, as the Helen asserts(DK 82B11,
paras. 11 & 13), people'sopinionsarechangeableandinsecure;for none of
them will be anchored,as it were, to anythingoutside themselves.This in
turnwillplacethe orator,especiallyone who, like Gorgiashimself,possesses a rhetoricaltechne,in a very powerfulposition;with his skills, he willbe
able to inducein his audiencewhateveropinionshe wants. However,none
of this suggeststhat the correctnessof opinionsis relativeto some framework;to repeat, the malleabilityof opinionsderivesfrom the fact that all
opinionsare (equally)false, not fromthe fact that they are all true relative
to some frameworkor other.?5

IV
Gorgiaswas not, of course, alone in developinga techniqueof persuasive
speech- even thoughhis particulartheoryof persuasivelanguagemayhave
been idiosyncratic,and more fully workedout than most. The teachingof
rhetoric,and an interestin methodsfor effectivepublicspeaking,were the
mainthingsthe Sophistshadin common;it is thissharedinterest,above all,
which justifies their being groupedtogether, despite considerabledifferences in what else they taughtor thought, as membersof a single "movement". Now, it is sometimesalleged that this very activity, teachingand
theorisingabout the art of persuasivespeaking,is an indicationthat the
Sophists, as a group, were relativists.' For, it is argued, if one devotes a
greatdeal of one's energyto the questionof how best to persuadepeople of
whateverposition one wishes - or, as it was often expressed, how to be
equallypersuasiveon either side of a case - one can hardlyfail to driftinto
the view that truthis merelyrelativeto the speaker(or, perhaps,relativeto
the bewitched listener), that the truth about any given subject simplyis
whateverpositionis mostpersuasivelypresentedat the time. But thislineof
I

On the connections between Gorgias' philosophical position and his theory and
practice of rhetoric, see Verdenius, op.cit.
' See, e.g., the passages from Thilly and (especially) Guthrie cited in note 1; also Carl
Joachim Classen, "The Study of LanguageAmong Socrates' Contemporaries",in Carl
Joachim Classen (ed.), Sophistik (Wege der Forschung187: Darmstadt, 1976), p. 228,
where relativismabout valuesis held to be a necessarycondition of developing a flexible
method of persuasion.

153

thinkingis very shakyindeed. It is true that a rhetoricianmightalso be a


relativist;but the teachingof rhetoricby no meanscommitsone, or even
necessarilyencouragesone, to relativism.Firstof all, one could very well
teach the art of persuasivespeech without holdingany theory about the
nature of truth. But even if one did hold some such theory, there is no
reason why that theory should be relativism.One could certainlyunderstand a lifelong teacher of rhetoric ranking persuasion as more important

than truth, as truthis traditionallyconceived.A dispassionateconcernfor


whatis really,objectivelythe case aboutsome issueis not easilycompatible
witha concernfor beingable to argueequallypersuasivelyon anyside of it;
one couldhardly,at anyrate, act uponbothconcernsat the sametime. But
it by no means follows that a teacherof rhetoricwould have to deny that
there is any such thingas the objective truth, and hold, instead, that the
truth just is whatever one may be persuaded of. Cigarette advertisers
presumablyrank persuadingpeople to buy cigarettesas more important
thanthe truthaboutcigarettes;it does not follow that cigaretteadvertisers
are relativists.There is no conflict whateverin holding a standard,objectivistconceptionof truth,but in havinga less thanconsuminginterestin
the truth, as thus conceived;to believe that truthis objectiveis not necessarily to believe that truth is of overridingimportance.The tendency to
equatethe two seemsto be strongamongphilosophers.But it is a misguided
tendency,nonetheless. One may hold the two beliefs together, but one is
not requiredto do so. The Sophists'enthusiasmabout rhetoricis by itself,
then, no evidenceof relativismon theirpart;if anyof themwererelativists,
this has to be determinedon other grounds.Withthis issue in mind, let us
now consider some other aspects of the Sophists' concentration on
language.
I begin with that interest in linguisticprecision which was variously
knownas orthoepeia,"correctdiction",and orthotesonomat6n,"correctness of names".27Socratestells us in Plato's Cratylusthat the Sophistsin
general were experts on orthotesonomat6n (391b9-c4);but it was two
Sophists,ProtagorasandProdicus,who wereespeciallyassociatedwiththis
subject-8Of these, Protagorasappearsto havebeen particularlyinterested
" There is some question whether these two termswere interchangeable.For discussion
of this issue, see Guthrie, op.cit., pp. 204-6.
1 I assume that the orthotesgrammaton,in which Hippiasis said to have been interested
at Hippiss Minor 368d4-5, was something quite different. I also leave out of account
Democritus, who is said to have written a work nQ'4 'O 'LQoV 6LAoOErEsLTxaQl
y)Awatwv (DK 68B20a); my reason is simplythat he does not count as a Sophist, as the
term is usually understood.

154

in the mechanicsof language- in distinctionsamonggrammaticalgenders,


and amongwhatwouldnow be calledspeech-acts.29
On the topicof gender,
moreover, he seems to have been interestedin more thanmere descriptive
classification;a passagefromAristotle(Soph. El. 173bl7-25)suggeststhat
he wanted to alter the existing grammaticalgenders of words. The well
knownsatiricalpassagein Aristophanes'Clouds(658ff.) is also evidenceof
this kindof activityduringthe period,thoughProtagorasis not specifically
namedthere. Prodicus,on the other hand, appearsto have been especially
interested in the precise definitionsof words, and particularlyin precise
distinctionsof meaning between nearlysynonymouswords; reports, and
parodies,of this are plentifulin Plato and elsewhere.'
It may be wondered why I have introducedthis topic. What possible
connection could there be between such researchesand Sophistic relativism?My answeris thatthe studyof "correctnessof names"seemsto have
carriedwith it an interestin the relationbetweenwordsandthe world, and
that the prevalentviews aboutthis relation,as far as we can uncoverthem,
bear significantlyon the questionwhetherthe Sophistswere relativists.Of
course, an interestin the detailsof languageneed not by itself indicateany
kindof metaphysicaltheory,relativisticor not. Thesestudiesmaywell have
been pursuedfor theirvalue as partof a rhetoricaltechnique;to the extent
that this was so, they wouldnot suggestany particularphilosophicalviews.
Even the readiness to reform language need not have been based on
anythingmore thana desireto makelanguageitself, for whateverpurpose,
neater than one found it.3"On the other hand, Plato's Cratylus,the only
extended treatmentof "correctnessof names" which survives from the
period, suggestsoverwhelminglythat more than merely linguisticconsiderationswere involved.
The debate in thatdialoguecentersaroundthe questionwhetherthere is
a natural"correctnessof names";and the dialogueopens with a statement
of two opposingpositions.Cratylus,who answersin the affirmative,holds
that, for each segmentof reality,there is some one correctterm, uniquely
appropriateto whatit refersto; Hermogenes,on the otherhand, holdsthat
there is no more to "correctness"thanconvention,or an agreementto use
2 On grammatical gender, see Aristotle, Rhetoric 1407b6; on distinctions among
speech-acts, Diogenes Laertius IX.53-4.
`' E.g., Cratylus384b, Protagoras358a, and the passages collected in DK 84A13-19.
31 More would presumablybe at stake if the motivationfor reformwas to bringgrammatical gender into line with naturalgender. The Clouds passage suggests that this was at
least one motivation; again, though, we do not know who (if anyone in particular)is
being satirised.

155

wordsin a certainway. This latterview, as quicklybecomesclear, is taken


to entailthatanyuse of wordsis as good as anyother- thatanyindividualis
at libertyto use wordsin anywaywhatever(384d-385a);to say thatcorrect
usageis "merelya matterof convention"is, then, apparentlytantamountto
saying that there is no genuine distinctionbetween "correct"and "incorrect"usage. Now, Hermogeneswas the brotherof Callias(391cl), the
manrenownedaboveall othersfor his patronageof the Sophists;one might
well expect, then, that Hermogenes'positionwouldreflecta positionheld
by one or more of the Sophists. On the other hand, since Hermogenes'
positionin effectdismissesthe wholenotionof "correct"versus"incorrect"
usage as a fiction, it is hard to see how a serious student of orthotes
onomaton could adopt it; for clearly, the study of orthotes onomat6n
dependson the assumptionthat there is some distinctionbetween correct
andincorrectusage.It is Cratylus'view32which,of the two, seems byfarthe
more congenialto such study.
But now, if the studyof orthotesonomatonpresupposesa view akin to
Cratylus',those Sophistswho studiedthe subjectwere not relativists;quite
the reverse.To insistthat certainformsof wordsare "naturallycorrect"is
to implythat the worldis of a determinatecharacter,and that there is just
one objectivelyrightwayof describinganyparticularportionof it; thisis as
far from relativismas one could conceive. However, if I were simply to
conclude,at this point, that the studyof orthotesonomatonwas inherently
anti-relativistic,there would certainlybe objections. It would be replied,
first, that I am puttingfar too muchcredencein Plato'sway of framingthe
issue; the two positionspresentedin the Cratylusneed not have been the
only optionsthoughtto be availableat the time. Second, it mightbe said
thatHermogenes'view, even if it is inimicalto the detailedstudyof orthotes
onomat6n,is at least a view about the topic; and, as I suggested,it could
easilyreflecta view held by actualSophists.So even if we do acceptPlato's
presentationof the alternatives,we have evidence of a radicalSophistic
relativism,emergingfromreflectionsaboutlanguage.Let me take up these
two objections, beginningwith the second.
Supposethat a view resemblingHermogenes'was indeedheld by one or
more of the Sophists.Is Hermogenes'view actuallya form of relativism?
The answer, perhapssurprisingly,is that it is not. Hermogenesexplicitly
denies allegiance to Protagoras'"Man the Measure" doctrine (386a57,391cS-7) - a doctrine which, as I have admitted, may be a form of
32 I am referringto the Cratylusof the dialogue; the question of the historicalCratylus'
views need not concern us here.

156

relativism;instead, he readilyagreeswith Socratesthat thingshave "some


firm essence of their own" (airat ai'rrdvoi'raav Exovtd -Ttva ,fatL6v
O=Ta n Q6y,guaa, 386e1-2 - cf.a3-4). His view appears, then, to be this.

Reality is fixed and determinate,but each determinatereal entity can just


as well receive one name as another;no name is any more "fitting"to its
object than any other. Socratesarguesthat if one repudiatesProtagoreanism, one is committedto Cratylus'view about language(386a-391a).But
this is not Hermogenes'originalview, and he is reluctant(390e5-391a3)to
accept Socrates'argument;he wantsto combinea view of realityas determinatewith a view of languageas arbitrary.Now, thiscompositeview is not
relativism.It is true that, accordingto thisview, a sentencesuchas "the cat
is on the mat" may be either true or false, dependingon whether"cat"is
used in the normalway, or to refer(forexample)to whatwe usuallyreferto
by "dog";it will also followthat"thecat is on the mat"willbe just as trueas
"le chat est surle tapis".But these banalitiesdo not amountto a relativism
abouttruthor reality.In Hermogenes'picture,languageis not thoughtof as
in any way shapingthe realityit describes.Contraryto relativism,the true
facts aboutthe world,in thispicture,areobjectiveandindependentof us; it
is merely that these true facts are equally expressiblein any number of
different,but mutuallytranslatable,notations.To develop anyseriouskind
of relativismout of reflectionon language,one wouldneed somethinglike
the notionof a conceptualscheme,embodiedin a languageandimposedon
the worldthroughthe use of that language;nothinglike that is hinted at by
Hermogenes,or by any other source of the period. This is not surprising;
such a notion would requirea degree of sophisticationand self-consciousness inconceivablein the fifthcentury,when reflectionaboutlanguagehad
only just begun. As manyhave noted, and as the term orthotesonomaton
itselfsuggests,the whole of language,in thisperiod,wasgenerallyregarded
on the modelof propernames;wordswere thoughtof as labelsfor thingsin
the world.Thistype of view is presupposedas late as Plato'sTheaetetus,and
is responsiblefor the inconclusivenessin one partof thatdialogue;33
it is not
until the Sophistthat we see a clear advancebeyond it, in the distinction
between onomata and rhemata(261e-262e). But the view that words are
merelylabelsfor thingsin the worldpresupposesthatthingsin the worldare
the way they are priorto, and independentof, the act of labeling.
It turns out, then, that both of the opposingpositions presented in the
Cratylusimply an anti-relativistmetaphysics.But what of the other ob3 In the "dream theory" (201d-202d). On this, and the ensuing criticism (202d-206c),
see the commentaryof John McDowell (Oxford, 1973), pp. 231-50.

157

jection raised earlier - that the Cratylusprovides an artificiallynarrow


conceptionof the alternatives?Might there not have been a third view,
whichheld languageto be conventional,but whichstill insistedon a valid
distinctionbetweencorrectandincorrectusage?Certainly,this is possible.
The idea thatlanguageis a humancreationis commonto Protagoras'myth
in Plato'sProtagoras(322a6)andto the anthropologicalaccountin DiodorusSiculus(1.7ff.), whichis generallythoughtto derivefroma fifth-century
source (traditionally,though not definitely, Democritus);but, to judge
fromwhatwe saw earlier,Protagoras,at any rate, would not have agreed
that any usage is as good as any other. However, these ideas no more
suggest relativismthan do either of the positions in the Cratylus.The
Protagoras passage merely says that primitive humanity "articulated
. . 6LiQ6QWaaTo), whichdoes not
speechandnames"(qpwvivxa v6&6ga-ra.
suggestanyparticularviewaboutthe relationof languageto the world.And
the Diodoruspassageseems to suggestthe same naive, non-relativistview
of the relationas we just mentioned;creatinga languageis a matterof fixing
whichseries of soundswill serve as the name, or "token"(sumbolon),for
whichobject in the world(I.8,3). The namesmaybe quite arbitrary,as the
authorobserves (kb tuxE,I.8,4); but the objects are simply"out there"
waitingto be named, and unaffectedby the processof naming.
The upshot is this. The Sophists' researchesinto the "correctnessof
names", and various associatedideas about the nature of language, tell
against,ratherthanin favorof, aninterpretationof themas relativistsabout
truth,or aboutthe natureof the world. It is, of course,possiblethat if the
evidence about this matter were less fragmentary,it would support a
differentverdict.But suchspeculationsare necessarilyidle; any discussion
of the Sophistsis boundto be subjectto the qualification"as far as we can
tell". I now wantto glanceat one more topic fromthe realmof language.
Two relatedtheses are said to have been held by numerousSophists;first,
that contradictionis impossible,and second, thatfalse statementis impossible. Whilethe ancientsourcesdo not alwaysmentionthem together,the
connectionbetween the two is evident. Briefly, and in modem terminology, contradictorypropositions,by definition,haveopposingtruth-values;
if there is no such thing as falsehood, there is no possibilityof statements
being opposed to one anotherin truth-value,and hence no possibilityof
contradiction.' We are told that one or other of these theses was held by
I
Conversely, if there can be no contradiction, there can be no opposition in truthvalues, and hence only one possible truth-value. This does not, however, entail the
impossibility of falsehood without the additional assumption that there are some true
statements. Presumablymost people would allow this - but not everyone, as we saw

158

Protagorasand his associates,by Prodicus,by Antisthenes, and by others


not named.35
These positionshave sometimesbeen linkedwith relativism;36and it is
truethatthey wouldbe plausiblecorollariesof a positionwhichmakestruth
relative to the frameworkof each individualspeaker. For, if every statement is "truefor" the personwho deliversit, then two people who deliver
whatwe wouldnormallythinkof as opposingstatements(say, "Astrologyis
uttermumbo-jumbo"and"Astrologyis not uttermumbo-jumbo")are not
reallycontradictingeach other;insteadof one statementbeingtrueandthe
other false, each is true, but relativeto the frameworksof differentindividuals.37 On the other hand, while these doctrines are certainly, on the face of

it, compatiblewith relativism,there is good reason to suppose that they


were not, at the time, generallyassociatedwith relativism.
Admittedly, Protagorasis spoken of as one of the proponentsof these
views; and Protagoras,as I have said throughout,is by far the best candidate for relativismamong the Sophists. So it may be that, in Protagoras'
case, they were a by-productof relativism-' However, the view that falses Plato, Euthydemus286c2 tells us that, in addition to many others, includingthose of a
prior era, "those around Protagoras"(which presumablyis meant to include Protagoras
himself) argued that contradiction is impossible; the argument itself is given 285d7286b6. An argument against the possibility of falsehood occurs immediately before
(283e-285a); it is quite possible that touton ton logon at 286cl, referringto the argument
current in Protagoras'circle, is meant to include this as well. Protagorasis also twice
mentioned by Aristotle in the course of his argumentagainst those who deny the law of
non-contradiction(Metaphysics1007b22, 1009a6). Aristotle does not spell out the precise nature of the Protagoreanposition being criticised;but it clearly included a denial of
contradiction in the normal sense. (On this, see further note 38.) Prodicus is cited as
holding that ouk estinantilegeinin a Greek commentaryon Ecclesiastes,discoveredon a
papyrus in 1941; for text and discussion, see Gerhard Binder and Leo Liesenborghs,
"Eine Zuweisung der Sentenz ouk estin antilegein an Prodikos von Keos", Museum
Helveticum 23 (1966), pp. 37-43, reprinted with additions in Classen (ed.), Sophistik,
pp. 452-62. Aristotle ascribes both views together to Antisthenes at Metaphysics
1024b32-35.Finally, Cratylus429d2-3 says that "plenty of people" have argued against
falsehood.
3' By Kerferd, TheSophisticMovement,pp. 72-3, 88-92, and H.D. Rankin, "Ouk Estin
Antilgein", in The Sophist and TheirLegacy, pp. 25-37.
' This does not, however, eliminate falsehood and contradictionentirely; it does not
rule out self-contradiction,and it allows that statements such as "what you just said is
false" are true. But we need not pursue these complications.
38 It appearsto be on the basis of his "Manthe Measure"doctrinethat Aristotle (see note
35) construes Protagoras as hostile to the idea of contradiction;it is presumablythis
which he has in mind when he alludes, in the course of his counter-argument, to
Protagoras' assertion that TeA8oxoOva n&ivta nv &XiOf xa'LA qKuvquw
eva

159

hood is impossibleis also discussedin the Cratylus(429b-430a);and here,


strikingly,it is Cratyluswho is representedas its advocate- whose position
on language and its relation to the world is, as we noted, stronglyantirelativist.It appears,then, thatPlato, at least, didnot regardthese viewsas
havingany specialconnectionwith relativism.And indeed, if we examine
the survivingargumentsofferedfor them, theirmainsourcebecomesclear
enough, and it has nothing to do with relativism.39
The impossibilityof
falsehoodand of contradictionare just two of the manypuzzlesgenerated
by that same naive view of language, as consistingwholly of "names",
which we mentioned above.' If all languagedoes is name items in the
world,then for anyparticularpiece of language,therearejusttwo possibilities;eitherit correctlynamesthe itemor itemsit is supposedto be referring
to, or it does not. If it does, then it hitsits target,as it were, andis true.41If,
however, it does not, then it must either have hit a differenttarget by
mistake,or else hit no targetat all;in otherwords,eitherit is actuallyabout
somethingother thanit is supposedto be about, or else it is aboutnothing,
and so mere meaninglessnoise.42On this picture,there is clearlyno room
(1009a8-9). However, as I said at the beginning, it is not certainwhether even the "Man
the Measure"doctrineis a formof relativism;more on this in section VI. Nor is it clear, in
any case, that the "Manthe Measure"doctrinewas the only basis for Protagoras'denial
of contradiction;see furthernote 39.
On the question of how to reconcile Protagoras' denial of contradiction with his
well-known claim that "on every subject there are two logoi opposed to one another"
(DL IX.51), see Kerferd, op.cit., pp. 90-2.
3 Arguments either for the impossibilityof falsehood, or for the impossibilityof contradiction,or both, occur in the passage on Prodicusfrom the Ecclesiastescommentary,
in the Euthydemus(see note 35 for referencesto these), and in the Cratyluspassagejust
referred to. All three of them show a very strong family resemblance; and in what
follows, I am speaking of all three collectively. Recall that it is to Protagorasthat the
argumentin the Euthydemusis ascribed;this raisessome doubtas to whetherProtagoras'
adoption of these views was simply a consequence of the "Man the Measure"doctrine
(see note 38).
? Another puzzlefromthe same sourcewas the notion that only identicalpredication(or
perhaps even no predicationat all) was possible.
41 Note that, on this view, truth is not a propertyonly of sentences; individualwords can
be "true"as well (this consequenceis quite explicitin the Cratylus).The "dreamtheory"
in the Theaetetus(see note 33) attempts to break away from this, when it draws a
distinction between individual names and sentences, and between naming and describing;but because Plato persistsin regardingsentences as no more than concatenations
of names, he is unable to keep the distinctionin focus.
42 The first possibility is suggested by the passage from the Ecclesiastescommentaryon
Prodicus,the second by the argumentsin the Euthydemus;both possibilitiesare raisedin
Cratvlus429b-430a.

160

for two statementswhichareopposedto one another,one beingcorrectand


the other not, yet both of them about the same item in the world.
It is in terms of this picture that the impossibilityof falsehood and of
contradictionare generallytreated; such views are a consequence not of
relativism,but of a view of languagewhichhas not yet made a distinction
between subjectand predicate.43In fact, as I suggestedearlier,this view of
language- as made up of nothingbut names- impliesan objectivistpicture
of the world(whetherthe "names"used to labelthe independentlyexisting
thingsin the worldare regardedas naturalor as conventional).One should
note, finally,thateven Plato,whomno one wouldaccuseof relativism,fails
when, in the Theaetetus(187c-200d), he tackles in his own person the
subject of false belief; despite repeated attempts,he cannot explain how
false belief is possible. Moreover, his problemsstem primarilyfrom an
over-simplifiedconception of thinking- a conception having significant
parallels,I believe, with the over-simplified"naming"view of language."
In this period, then, one did not need to hold avant-gardemetaphysical
views, in orderto experiencepuzzlementaboutfalsehood;these difficulties
were simplya productof meageranalyticalresources.Once again, it is the
Sophist,whichdoes draw(moreor less) the distinctionbetweensubjectand
predicate,that marksthe majorbreakthroughin this area.

Let us shiftnow to the Sophists'ethicalandpoliticalviews. In this area, the


featureof theirthoughtwhichis most often takento be conduciveto, if not
actuallyequivalentto, relativismis the sharpdistinctionmanyof themdrew
Another factor contributing to these difficulties (reinforced by, and in turn reinforcing, the "naming"view of language)are the slipperyphraseslegein ta onta and legein
ta me onta. As is well known, ta onta, "the thingswhich are", may be used to refer both to
real entitiesand to that which is the case; no clear distinctionis drawnbetween these two
ideas. As a result (together with some flexibilityin the word legein), legeinta onta may be
understood both as "speakingof what is real" and as "speakingthe truth";hence legein
ta me onta may be understood either as "speakingof what is not real" or as "sayingwhat
is not true". In the absence of a clear distinctionbetween these two phrases, it is natural
that falsehood would be assimilated with a failure to refer to anything. (The same
assimilation is apparent in the tendency to equate to me on, "that which is not", with
meden, "nothing";the locus classicusfor this is Parmenides(DK 28) B2.7-8 and B6. 1-2.)
44 I cannot elaborate on these parallels. But if, as I suggested, a version of the "naming"
view of language also makes an appearance in the Theaetetus, they would not be
surprising.
4

161

between physis and nomos.45 A great deal has been written about this

distinction,and aboutthe meaningsof the individualterms. To the extent


thattranslationis necessary,I shallrenderphysisby "nature"andnomosby
"norm";`6but we need not concern ourselves furtherwith philological
details. For our purposes,the crucialpoint is this. To distinguishsharply
betweenphysis and nomos is, among other things, to recognize that the
existingnormsof one's society(legal, ethical,religiousor whatever47)
have
no absolutestatus, but are in some sense a humanconstruct.' (The distinction, therefore, is a naturalpartnerof the numerousaccountsof the
origin of humansociety producedin this period.) Now, this recognition
does not by itselfconstitutemoralrelativism;it is quitecompatiblewiththe
view thatthereis an absolutemoralorder,butone whichexisting,humanly
constructed,norms partiallyor wholly fail to reflect. However, it is also
easy to imagine a form of relativismwhich does build upon the physisnomos distinction,along the followinglines. "It makes no sense to talk of
thingsbeingrightor wrongphysei. Rather,thereare merelyvarioussets of
nomoi in variousdifferentcommunities;and rightnessand wrongness,in
any given community, is relative to the nomoi prevalent in that
community."
Did any of the Sophistshold views resemblingthe one just outlined?
There is no reasonto thinkso. The ways in whichthe Sophistsbuildupon
the physis-nomosdistinctionare of broadlytwo kinds. On the one hand,
severalof theminsistedthatthere wassome kindof "natural"rightness,or
justice, and criticizedexistingnormsfor divergingfromit. Withinthis first
broad category, some took naturaljustice to consist in the unrestrained
pursuitof self-interest,on whichnomoi place unnaturalcurbs;otherstook
naturaljustice to involve such things as equality between Greeks and
barbarians,the free and the enslaved, or people of high and low birth.
These views are not mutuallyexclusive;the largepapyrusfragmentfrom
Antiphon'swork Truth(DK 87B44) seems to containversionsof both.49
" Connections between this distinction and ethical relativismare affirmedby Guthrie,
op.cit., p. 59, and by Meilandand Krauszin their Introductionto Relativism:Cognitive
and Moral, p. 6.
4 Following Kerferd, op.cit., p. 112, who stresses the prescriptivecharacterof the term
nomos.

Including, perhaps, linguistic norms; but we have already said enough about the
Sophists' ideas on language.
4 The Greeks tended to thinkof nomoi as havingbeen devised by some singleindividual,
a nomothetes;but this does not affect the present discussion.
4 On the consistency of the two in Antiphon, see David J. Furley, "Antiphon's Case
Against Justice", TheSophistsand TheirLegacy, pp. 81-91. (This had often been seen as
4'

162

Besides him, Calliclesin Plato'sGorgiasis the clearestspecimenof the first


idea; and Plato makes Hippias an exponent of the second at Protagoras
337c7-d3.But echoes of one or the other line of thought are apparentin
Aristophanes' Clouds, in Thucydides,and elsewhere;51evidently, both
acquiredsome considerablecurrency.Equallyclearly,though,they arenot
versions of relativism.To downgradeexistingnormsby comparisonwith
some supposednaturalstandardof right- whateverthat naturalstandard
might be - is preciselyto rejectrelativismabout values; it is to set up an
objective, neutralcriterionby whichexistingnormscan all be weighedon a
commonscale.
Other Sophists developed the physis-nomosdistinctionin a different
direction,arguingthat, even thoughnomoi are indeed a humanconstruct,
they are vitallyimportantfor the survivalof humansociety, andfor human
well-being.The most famousexampleof this line of thoughtoccursin the
myth which Plato, presumablywith some historicaljustification,puts in
Protagoras'mouth, and which we have alreadyhad occasion to mention
(Protagoras322a-323c,324d-325b,327c-d). Another, ratherless striking
instanceis the "AnonymusIamblichi",one partof whose essay deals with
the necessityof nomoi for communalstability,whichin turnis a necessary
condition for the living of a worthwhilehuman life (DK 89.6-7).51This
second outgrowthof the physis-nomosdistinctionis not, like the first, in
direct opposition with relativism;but neither does it have any essential
connectionwith relativism.Ethicalrelativismis an answerto the question
"Whatis it that, at bottom, makessome types of behaviorrightand other
types wrong?" In emphasizingthe crucial importanceof nomoi, these
thinkersarenot addressingthatquestion.Theyarenot hereconcernedwith
whetherthe nomoi whichcertifysome actionsas rightandothersas wrong
have themselvesany objectivebasis,or are insteadthe end-pointof ethical
problematic- but quite needlessly, as Furley demonstrates.)
s' In the Clouds, see especially the debate between the Just and Unjust Logoi (8891114); in Thucydides, especially the Mitylenean debate (III.38-48) and the Melian
Dialogue (V.85-111). Note also Euripides, frr. 433, 920 Nauck. Thrasymachusis often
added to the list of the supportersof physis, even though he does not express his position
specifically in terms of the physis-nomos distinction; on Thrasymachus'relation with
Antiphon and Callicles, see Furley, op.cit. But we have alreadyseen that Thrasymachus
is not a relativist, except in the trivial sense.
"' Plato's Critois sometimes taken as a furtherexample. But the Critodoes not, in fact,
portray nomoi as the product of a human agreement; what is said to derive from an
agreement is, rather, the individual'sobligationto obey the nomoi of the communityin
which he or she elects to live. This point is well discussed by Charles H. Kahn, "The
Origins of Social ContractTheory", The Sophistsand TheirLegacy, pp. 92-108.

163

justification,not open to furtherassessment;they are not interestedin the


statusof nomoi, but in the reasonsfor caringaboutthem.Compatiblywith
insistingthatnomoimustat all costsbe upheld,one mightverywell (though
one need not) also hold thatnomoi, thougha humanconstruct,are beholdand thatsome nomoi are, in
en to some externalcriterionof correctness,52
some neutralsense, better thanothers. As we said, the fact that particular
sets of nomoi were createdby particularcommunitiesdoes not implythat
there can be no objectiverankingof differentsets of nomoi; and the claim
that we cannot do withoutnomoi does not implythat nomoi are immune
from criticism.The position representedin Protagoras'speech, and expressedby the Anonymus,says nothing,one way or the other, about the
existenceof objective,or natural,standardsof rightness;it is a contribution
to a quite different debate. (It is misleading, therefore, to divide the
Sophistsinto two opposing groups, "the supportersof nomos" and "the
supportersof physis".For the two sets of ideaswe have been lookingat do
not representconflictingpositionson the same subject.)
So neither of the Sophists' major developmentsof the physis-nomos
distinctionare evidencefor ethicalrelativism.In the Theaetetus,Protagoras
is representedas holdingthatwhateveris consideredjust in any particular
communityis just for thatcommunity(172a-b);butthisis a consequenceof
his "Manthe Measure"doctrine,not of his viewsaboutphysisandnomos.
We have still seen nothing, aside from the "Manthe Measure"doctrine,
whichsuggestsrelativismamongthe Sophists.
One furtherrelatedpointcan be brieflydealtwith. Some of the Sophists
seem to have offered naturalisticexplanationsfor the originsof religion.
Prodicusis saidto have held thatprimitivehumansreveredas divinitiesthe
variouspartsof the naturalworldthatgavethemsustenance- crops,rivers,
the sun and so on - and also, accordingto some reports,the people who
madediscoveriesbeneficialto humanlife.53And the celebratedfragmentof
the satyr-playSisyphus (the authorshipof which is debatable) portrays
belief in the gods as the productof a cleverpolitician'sswindle,designedto
induce law-abidingbehavior when the authoritieswere not watching.54
52 The Anonymus Iamblichi actually says at one point (DK 89.6,1) that nomos and
justice are "secured by physis". But the train of thought is hardlypellucid.
" For reportson Prodicus'views about religion, see the passagescollected in DK 84B5,
and the larger collection in M. Untersteiner, I Sofisti, Testimonianzee Frammenti,
fasc.II, (2nd ed. Florence, 1961), pp. 194-6.
5 The Sisyphuswas traditionallythought to be by Critias,on the informationof Sextus;
but recentlyopinion has shifted somewhat in favor of Euripideshavingbeen the author,
as reportedby Aetius (both passagesin DK 88B25). For the reasonsfavoringEuripides,
see especially A. Dihle, "Das Satyrspiel 'Sisyphus'", Hermes 105 (1977), pp. 28-42.

164

Both views were routinelylabeled "atheism"in the ancient world; and


despite the somewhatindiscriminateuse of this termby the conventionally
pious (both ancient and modern), the label would appear to be fully
justified. Both accountsexplainaway religiousbelief as the productof an
error - a deliberatelyinduced error in the latter case, an error born of
confused gratitudein the former. But if so, relativismis once againquite
absent.To explainawaya beliefis to showthatit is false (whilealsoshowing
how it couldeasilyhavebeen thoughtto be true)- not to showthatit is true,
but only relativeto some framework."
Obviously,I have not discussedeveryaspectof Sophisticthinking.What
I have done, I hope, is examinethose aspectsof Sophisticthinkingwhich
might, with some semblance of plausibility,be thought to support an
attributionof some formof relativism,' andshownthatthey do not support
Either way, the play affords evidence of a view about the origin of religion which was
held, or at least contemplated, during the period.
" Two texts, both commonlycited in this kindof context, may seem to be troublesometo
my position. First, Euripides, Hecuba 800-1 says that "It is by nomos that we believe in
the Gods, and distinguish justice and injustice in our lives". Second, Plato, Laws
889e3-890a2ascribesto certainunnamedthinkersthe view that the Gods, and justice, do
not existphysei, but only by nomos, and that they varydependingon the differentnomoi
that hold sway at different times and places. Both seem to express some form of
relativismconcerningboth religion and ethics; and both may well be thoughtto allude to
Sophisticideas. However, in the Euripidespassage, either "nomos"refers (as some have
thought) to a Law inherentin the universe- in whichcase relativismwould not be at issue
- or the train of thought in the passage is confused. For immediately before (798-800),
Hecuba says that we humansare weak, but that the Gods are strong, and that nomos has
power over the gods; if "nomos" refers to humanly constructed norms, the passage is
saying, very oddly, that these norms are superior, by two removes, to the beings who
constructedthem. As for the Plato passage, it is againvery hard, on closer inspection, to
extract any coherent thesis. For the view that Gods exist only by nomos appearsto be
equated with the view that "thereare no Gods such as nomos prescribesthat one must
believe in" (890a6-7); and the view that justice exists only by nomos appears to be
equated with the view that the justestcourse (89Oa4),also called the kataphysin orthon
bion (a8), consists in gainingpower by force. I doubt, therefore, that either passage can
be taken as evidence for any particularphilosophicalposition. Euripidesis indulging,as
often, in some modish intellectual gymnastics. And Plato is treating us to an indiscriminate tirade against those thinkers (Sophists no doubt included) who, on whatever
grounds, might seem to be subverting religious belief; the details of the views he is
attacking are not of any great interest to him.
' Two points I have not considered are the obscure fragment DK 87B1, from Antiphon's Truth,and the portrayalof Prodicusin the pseudo-PlatonicEryxias(397c-399a).
But neither, on examination, affords any evidence of relativism; in saying this, I am
following the argumentsof J.S. Morrison,"The Truthof Antiphon", Phronesis8 (1963),
pp. 3549, and G.B. Kerferd, "The 'Relativism' of Prodicus", Bulletin of the John

165

anythingof the kind. The one Sophistover whomwe have left a questionmarkis Protagoras.It is time to say a word about Protagoras'"Man the
Measure"doctrine,before bringingthe paperto a close.

VI
We have alreadyhad reasonto referseveraltimes to Protagoras'assertion
that"Manis the measureof all things,of the thingsthatare, that[or"how"]
they are, of the thingsthat are not, that [or "how"]they are not", whichis
quotedin Plato'sTheaetetus(152a2-4),in Sextus(PH 1.216andM. VII.60)
and in Diogenes Laertius(IX.51). Plato and Sextusboth offer interpretations of Protagoras'doctrine,and it is these, ratherthanthe exactwording
of the fragmentitself, whichbearon the questionwhetheror not Protagoras
was a relativist.57
Accordingto both interpretations,Protagorasheld that,
wheneversomeone perceivesthat somethingis the case, that thing is the
case for, or in relationto, the personwhose perceptionit is (Tht. 152b,M.
VII.60). Both agree, also, in extendingthe scope of the doctrinebeyond
sense-perceptionin a narrowsense (even though,in the Theaetetus,it is first
introducedas a corollaryof the thesis that "knowledgeis perception");
accordingto Sextus' interpretation,it covers all opinions (VII.60), and
accordingto Plato, it at least covers all mattersexcept those havingto do
with what is healthyor beneficial(171e, 172a5-b2).58
Now, it mightseem
obvious,at this point, that Protagorasis beinginterpretedas a relativist;to
say thatperceptionsandopinionsare "truefor"the personwho has themis
surely to put forwarda radicalrelativismabout truth. But unfortunately,
Sextus' interpretationcontains a further component which changes the
RylandsLibrary37 (1954), pp. 249-56.
s7 It has long been a subject of controversy how Protagoras' words are best to be
translated;in particular,argumenthas centered aroundthe wordsanthropos,chrematon
and (especially) hos. Succinct discussions of these issues occur in Laszlo Versenyi,
"Protagoras' Man-Measure Fragment", American Journal of Philology 83 (1962),
pp. 178-84, and Guthrie, op.cit., pp. 188-92. But the precise manner in which these
questions are resolved will not affect whetherProtagoraswas a relativist;they will only
affect whatkind of relativisthe was, if he was one at all. Whetheror not he was any sort of
relativist depends on how we are to understand the metaphor of human beings as a
"measure"of things; but that takes us far beyond questions of translation.
5 Whether this exception was made by Protagoras himself, or whether Socrates is
charitablyalteringthe original position on Protagoras'behalf, so as to render it (as he
sees it) more defensible, is a matter of some dispute. McDowell, op.cit., ad loc., holds
the latter view; Kerferd, TheSophisticMovement,pp. 104-6, holds the former.

166

picture.Accordingto Sextus(PH 1.217-19),Protagorasheld thatthingsare


really, in themselves, all the variousways they are perceived as being by
differentpeople. Different aspectsof realitymake themselvesmanifestto
different people, depending on the people's conditions (depending on
whetherthey areyoungor old, healthyor sick, andso on); andin thissense,
any givenperceptionis trueonly "inrelationto" (pros)the personwho is in
the appropriatecondition to apprehendthat particularaspect of reality.
Nonetheless, all perceptionsare true in an objectivesense, in that every
perceptiondoes, indeed, apprehendsome aspect of an objectiverealitydespite the fact that, as we would normallysay, some perceptionscontradict others. And this makesProtagorasnot a relativistbut, as E.R. Dodds
long ago pointed out, "an extreme realist".59The everydaylaw of noncontradictionwill indeed be suspended;but this is not because of a relativismabouttruth(whichin anycase, as we sawat the beginning,couldvery
well uphold the law of non-contradiction),but because of a metaphysical
theorywhichmakesrealityitself inherentlycontradictory.Sextusdoes say
'W s6gtL stvau tiiv
that, accordingto this doctrine, truth is relative (trv
that whichof the
sense
in
the
only
relative
M.
But
it
is
VII.60).
&XAXiELav,
many(objective)truthsaboutrealityit is open to one to apprehenddepends
on one's physicalor mental state. Whatis trueis not itself, on this view, a
relativematter.
The reallydifficultquestionis whetherPlato'sinterpretationagreeswith
this non-relativisticinterpretationoffered by Sextus, or whether Plato
actually does portrayProtagorasas a relativist.This is a much disputed
matter, which I cannot hope to resolve at this point.' (There is also the
questionwhether,if Plato'sinterpretationdoes differ,it shouldnecessarily
be preferredto Sextus';but few, I take it, would doubtthat the answerto
this latterquestionis "yes".)Partof the troubleis that it is not alwaysclear
when Platois summarizingviewsthatwere actuallypropoundedby ProtagI

"The SophisticMovement and the Failureof Greek Liberalism",in Dodds' collection


The Ancient Conceptof Progress (Oxford, 1973); the quoted phrase appears on p. 95.
' Dodds, loc.cit., assertswithout argumentthat Plato, as well as Sextus, makes Protagoras an "extreme realist". Kerferd, op.cit., ch.9, argues for the same interpretation as
Dodds, calling it the "objectivist"interpretation,but calls Protagoras'position "relativism" nonetheless. Myles Burnyeat, "Protagorasand Self-Refutation in Later Greek
Philosophy", and "Protagorasand Self-Refutationin Plato'sTheaetetus", Philosophical
Review 85 (1976), pp. 44-69 and 172-95 respectively, distinguishes relativism from the
position Sextus attributes to Protagoras, and argues that Plato, contrary to Sextus,
interprets Protagoras (correctly) as a relativist. (Burnyeat (p. 46) sees the mistaken
interpretation as beginning with Aristotle, in his discussion of the law of non-contradiction- see notes 35 and 38 above.)

167

oras, andwhen he is showingus what, in his view, Protagorasis committed


to (but did not say), or what, in his view, would be helpfulto Protagoras'
argument(but was not used by Protagorashimself). Another problemis
that the Theaetetusis not, in any case, primarilyan analysisof Protagoras'
position,but a searchfor a definitionof knowledge.Protagoras'doctrineis
said to be equivalentto the claimthat "knowledgeis perception"(151e2152a4,160dS-e2);butthatit is equivalentis presumablyPlato'sjudgement.
Sufficeit to say that a respectablecase can be madefor the conclusionthat
Plato interpretsProtagorasas a relativist, in the deep sense we have
throughoutbeen interestedin6'- but that this conclusionis by no means
beyondquestion.62
If that is indeed Plato's interpretation,Plato's Theaetetusbecomes the
one piece of evidence for relativism,in the deep sense, amongany of the
Sophists. As we have seen, none of the other evidence concerningthe
Sophists,individuallyor collectively,supportsthe attributionof relativism
to them, in more than a trivialsense. In fact, since it is the Sophistswho,
more than any other Greek thinkers,have been taken to be relativists,a
broaderconclusionis suggested;relativism,in the deep sense, is largely
foreignto Greekphilosophyas a whole. MylesBurnyeathasarguedcogently that no Greek philosopherheld a position recognizablyakin to Idealism.63The case of relativism,I wouldclaim,is not verydifferent.However,
I cannotpursuethis line of thoughtany further.
Instead, let me close on the followingpoint. If the Sophists,with the
possible exception of Protagoras,were not relativists,what was it about
themthatso enragedPlato?To thisquestionthereis no shortageof replies.
We have seen thatsome of themprofessedvariouskindsof scepticism;that
some of them recommended,as naturallyright, the calculatedpursuitof
narrowself-interest;and that, as a group, they placed great value on the
61
It is a peripheralquestion whether, if the "Manthe Measure"doctrinedoes express a
form of relativism, this is consistent with certain of Protagoras' other stances - in
particular,his religious agnosticism(DL IX.51), and his apparentreadiness to correct
existing linguisticusage.
' Additional grounds for doubt are suggested in Jorgen Mejer, "The Alleged New
Fragmentof Protagoras",Hermnes100 (1972), pp. 175-8. The "new fragment",from a
xa0 Mvog -t4 b8i&J6vrLob
aoL naQ6vrtL
commentaryon the Psalms, reads paivotau si
As
Mejer argues, this seems to
E;
o-6
&66-Xov
X6O1ULaL
xa0ftevog
A x6071tal.
qpaivop,aL
express a kind of agnosticism about the nature of the "real world" independent of
sensation;and he offers an interpretationof the "Manthe Measure"fragmentconsonant
with this. If Mejer is right, Protagorasis not a relativist, but some variety of sceptic.
' "Idealismand Greek Philosophy:WhatDescartes Saw and Berkeley Missed", Philosophical Review 91 (1982), pp. 341.

168

ability to speak persuasivelyfor either side of a case. All of these things


Plato'smaturephilosophyis concerned,in one way or another,to combat.
That he found the Sophists disturbingand subversiveis, then, easy to
understand,withoutalso supposingthat they adheredto relativism.Since
we do not needto ascriberelativismto the Sophists,in orderto makesense
of Plato, we shouldnot do so. We maywishto see the Sophistsas unitedby
some othertype of philosophicaloutlook - empiricism,for example, in a
suitablybroadsense of the term; and this may, in turn, affect our understandingof Plato'sreactionto them. Certainly,I do not write off as futile
any searchfor intellectualcommongroundamongthem. But these speculationswould have to be developed in anotherpaper.64
The Universityof Texasat Arlington

4 I would like to thank Mark McPherranfor helpful comments on a previous version of


this paper.

169