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Protagoras on Democracy - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 307
Democracy/Protagoras/Keyt/Miller: [a] hotly debated issue concerning the Great Speech is whether it is a defence of democracy. ((s) For the Great Speech see >Protagoras/Plato). The Great Speech does contain a defence of the democratic practice of the Athenian assembly of allowing every citizen a voice about issues of justice and temperance (Prot. 322d—323a). This has led one scholar to claim that Protagoras 'has produced for the first time in human history a theoretical basis
for participatory democracy' (Kerferd, 1981(1): 144) and another to say that Protagoras is 'the first
democratic political theorist in the history of the world' (Farrar, 1988(2): 77).
Relativism: furthermore, there does seem to be a natural alliance between Protagorean relativism and democracy if the locus of relativism is the individual (Taylor, 1976(3): 83—4). By such relativism whatever seems good to citizen A is good for A, and whatever seems good to citizen B is good
for B (Tht. 166c—d). But A and B cannot be friends if they thwart each other's good. Thus, if there are to be the bonds of friendship, without which a polis cannot exist, A must take account of what seems good to B, and B of what seems good to A, and in general each citizen must take account of what seems good to every other citizen. Otherwise stasis results. But this 'live and let live' philosophy is one of the defining features of democracy.
Vs: On the other hand, when the locus of relativity is shifted from the
Gaus I 308
individual to the polis, Protagorean relativism does not seem to favour democracy over any other form of government: if oligarchy or monarchy seems just to the citizens of a polis, oligarchy or monarchy is just for them. (Rosen, 1994(4), is a useful survey of the extensive literature on both sides of this issue.) >Relativism/Protagoras.


1. Kerferd, G. B. (1981) The Sophistic Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Farrar, Cynthia (1988) The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Taylor, C. C. W. (1976) Plato Protagoras. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4. Rosen, F. (1994) 'Did Protagoras justify democracy?' Polis, 13: 12-30.

Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Protagoras
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-05-12
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