Scott Consigny on Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric.

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Scott Consigny on Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric

Edward Schiappa's cogent and eloquent book fully deserves the praise it has received. As Donovan Ochs observes in his 1991 review of the book (RSQ 21: 3942), Schiappa, presents a clear account of Protagoras' philosophy and supports his reading with a detailed analysis of each of Protagoras' five extant fragments. But even though Schiappa's reading is compelling, we need not necessarily be persuaded by it; for as Protagoras himself remarks, it is always possible to articulate two opposed accounts about everything, and to make the ostensibly weaker account stronger. In this review I will undertake a "Protagorean" project, articulating and defending an account of Protagoras' philosophy that is opposed to Schiappa's account. To this end I will briefly sketch Schiappa's account, which I label an "enlightenment" reading of Protagoras, and I will then sketch an opposed, "rhetoricist" reading of the Sophist.

Schiappa begins his study by acknowledging his debt to George Grote and Eric Havelock. Schiappa concurs with Grote's assessment of the Sophists as "a positive force" in the fifth-century Greek enlightenment (12); and he accepts Havelock's notion that the transition from orality to literacy in Greek society led to a progression "from a mythic-poetic to a more literate, humanistic-rationalistic culture" (21). Drawing on these two scholars, Schiappa depicts Protagoras as a pivotal figure of the fifth century enlightenment helping to transform Greece from an irrational, mythical and theocentric culture into a rational and humanistic culture. Schiappa then proceeds to examine Protagoras' contribution to this intellectual progress, namely his advocacy and analysis of logos, or "rationality" as the proper means of inquiry. In a detailed analysis of Protagoras' five extant fragments, Schiappa argues that Protagoras provides the groundwork for the subsequent development of rational inquiry by delineating the assumptions or principles, the proper procedure or method, and the kind of results or explanations that may be attained through rational inquiry.

Concerning Protagoras' conception of the starting points or principles of inquiry, Schiappa argues that in his remark that "humanity is the measure of all things," Protagoras sharply differentiates his anthropocentric logos from the theocentric mythos of the poets who claim to be inspired by the gods. Schiappa also construes Protagoras' remark that he is unable to know whether or not the gods exist as further underscoring the Sophist's rejection of theocentricity. These remarks are fundamental to Protagoras' project, for in them he suggests that valid inquiry must be initiated by humans themselves, without information supplied by the gods.

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