In ancient times, people believed the government to be part of the natural order of things. Gods ruled nature, and kings were gods or at least god-like. They enjoyed the mandate of heaven. To suggest a change in the government would have seemed no less bizarre — and dangerous — than to propose a rejection of the laws of gravity.
The overthrow of this fallacy ranks among the most fertile achievements in the history of human thought. It was done by the classical Greeks, a restless and brilliant people. Different nations, they observed, followed different customs and morals, as well as different forms of government.
Nature appeared universal and immutable: fire in Babylon was exactly like fire in Athens. But man-made arrangements were curiously mutable, even arbitrary, because they were based on agreement: on convention. Babylonian ways differed from those of Athens. Customs, morals, and governments could all be changed.
The world was torn in two, with repercussions that continue to this day. One result was an increase in the human potential for freedom. If the ruler isn’t really a god and the government isn’t an act of nature, then the citizen can make reasonable demands, and reasonably expect that they be met. The Greeks, who brought government from heaven to earth, first developed political democracy. This is no coincidence.
But the gulf between the human and the natural deeply troubled the most influential thinkers in Athens — men like Socrates and Plato, who embraced aristocratic principles and loathed democracy in any case. They felt the foundations of community life had turned to quicksand.
Conventional morality and politics depended entirely on the support of public opinion, and public opinion, in Athens, changed with the wind. For Socrates, conventional morality was “vulgar” — the morality of the mob. Democratic politicians he described as “panderers.” In the trial and execution of Socrates, Plato found irrefutable evidence that he had been right.
Shallow minds — like the loudmouth Thrasymachus portrayed in the Republic — mocked Athenian laws as a ploy by the weak to defeat the strong. If one steps beyond convention, said Thrasymachus, one will see that in nature the strong always prey on the weak. The laws of nature justified, indeed rewarded, predatory behavior.
For Socrates, such talk was not only immoral, but false. He felt certain that morality (“the good”) and politics (“justice”) were objective entities in the world, like the sun and the moon, and could be found by the use of reason. His own failed attempts to find them had the virtue of honesty: Socrates’ claim to wisdom was that he knew how little he knew.
Plato, his disciple, was a man of more radical temper. To give the good and the just objective reality, he denied the reality of the world. Plato proposed a substitute world of perfect forms, which only very smart men, such as himself, could perceive.
One would think these strange ideas would be laughed off by other thinkers. Quite the opposite was the case: faith in the magical power of reason, and in objectively “true” morality and politics, has been the mainstream position of Western philosophy down to our day.
The devotion to reason has been reinforced by the triumphs of modern science. The belief in an objective morality and politics was equally reinforced by the habits of Christian thought, in which the kingdom of God filled in for Plato’s kingdom of forms. From the Republic to John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971) — passing through the City of God and Das Kapital — the vast majority of Western thinkers have described, variously, the objective aspect of the good and the just, and mocked merely human habits and opinions. In Plato’s parable of the cave, the blinding darkness is convention.
In a sense, rationalist thinking returned us to the moral landscape of the god-kings. Only one legitimate form of government could exist; only one right solution could be found to every problem faced by the community. All else was error.
This is the world of the philosophical guardians, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Walter Lippmann’s technocratic elite: god-like groups, brilliant enough to perceive the truth. Only they could rule. The consequences to traditional morality and democratic politics have been disastrous.
Enter our hero, the sophist Protagoras. The sophists were wandering teachers — Protagoras was in fact the great teacher of his time. That he charged a fee outraged the aristocratic feelings of Socrates, his younger contemporary. It probably didn’t help that Protagoras befriended and tutored the sons of Pericles, the Athenian leader whose funeral oration remains among the most lucid defenses of the democratic system.
Like few philosophers before or since, Protagoras accepted the alienation of the human race from nature, and grasped its implications. His thought is captured in the oracular judgment: “Man is the measure of all things — of all things that are, that they are, and of all things that are not, that they are not.” What did this mean? Since only fragments of Protagoras’ writings remain, it’s hard to say for certain. Still, I think the gist of his ideas can be retrieved.
Protagoras put forward two propositions. First, morality, government, all social arrangements, derived their authority from public opinion across time. There could be no appeal to magic powers — god-kings, reason, or nature. On the plane of humanity, even God had to work through men. If this sounds radical, it isn’t. Common sense tells us that morality evolves with human understanding, as it did in the Bible, from “an eye for an eye” to the Prophets and the Sermon on the Mound.
Second, if man is indeed the measure, then convention is the only platform from which we can discern good and evil, just and unjust. The laws and customs of the city are the standard. Nothing else exists.
It is both incoherent and reckless to expose morality as fraudulent because it is conventional, then attack it because it legitimizes the oppression of some group over another. Of that strange tribe of academic writers we loosely label “postmodernists,” Protagoras would ask, “From what standard, other than traditional morality’s, can you criticize oppression? If, as you say, all morality is up for grabs, isn’t a moralistic pose when it comes to race or gender rather irrational? And if traditional morality gives you the only shield against oppression, why would you seek to abolish it?”
Richard Taylor, in his wonderful Good and Evil, best sums up the consequences of Protagorean ideal:
The practical consequences of Protagoras’ philosophy are therefore extremely conservative. The revolutionary can draw no inspiration from his teaching, but only a dampening discouragement, for a revolutionary must above all be a believer in true morality and in the injustice of the existing order. The effect of this teaching on all other believers in a true justice or true morality must be much the same, whether they be Stoics, Platonists, Kantians, Christians, or whatever.
An additional consequence can be gleaned from the Platonic dialogue that bears Protagoras’ name. The question of whether goodness, or virtue, can be taught greatly agitated Socrates — but he was looking for an objectively true virtue, so he never found a convincing answer. Virtue, he concluded, was extremely hard to teach, and could be understood only by an intellectual elite.
Protagoras disagreed. Since he maintained that virtue was conventional, everyone could both teach and learn it: nursemaids, parents, school teachers, poets and playwrights, citizens of all conditions and kinds. A carpenter, for example, might have a better grasp of morality than a college professor. This kind of virtue was democratic to the core. It forms the moral foundation on which political democracy, Greek and American alike, has been justified.