"Man is the measure of all things."
Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.
This guy was living back in the 5th century BCE (pre-Socrates), so we don't know a ton about him. Some evidence suggests that he was exiled from Athens and his works were burned because of his agnostic beliefs…but that's about all we know. Still, a few of his phrases have been passed down and cited by some Big Deal philosophers like Plato.
So what does it mean to be the measure of things? Well, ultimately it's a statement of relativity or subjectivity. Protagoras seems to be saying that each person has his or her own individual truths. Like, to one person, ice cream may taste good, and to another, it might taste bad.
Actually, scratch that. To one person, ice cream could taste good, and to another, it could taste amazing. It's all relative.
Seems sensical enough, but it works in opposition to what later Greek philosophers like Plato were all about: objectivity. See, Protagoras' own perspective on truth made his statement a weird combination of always true and always not true: "man being the measure of all things is true for me…but it might not be true for you."
People weren't cool with this.
But come on: are philosophers ever cool with anything?
Where you've heard it
You may not have heard this one before, but you've certainly heard "it's all relative."
If you were to drop this quote at a dinner party, would you get an in-unison "awww" or would everyone roll their eyes and never invite you back? Here it is, on a scale of 1-10.
Quoting obscure Ancient Greek philosophers on the subjectivity of truth? If that doesn't sound pretentious to you, then it's not pretentious…to you.
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Central to this article is a basic philosophical concept of the nature of man’ knowledge which exists amongst Protagorians of the sophist era, who postulates that ‘man is the measure of all things’ Our daily experience of human nature however, continues to give us reasons to unlearn much of what has turned out to be prejudices and errors in our conception of man. Consequently, The question “What is Man?” still perplexes us, and the answers we provide to this question often reveal how distorted our vision of history and thought have become over the years. Philosophers and Psychologists who have approached the problem in terms of already accepted views and theories of the nature of man’ knowledge continues to run in to more difficulties. In addition, the absence of direct elaboration to the proposition has given rise to endless controversies about its meaning. This paper shall, via the reconstructive methods of critical analysis in philosophy, examine Protagoras’ postulate of man’s knowledge of man against the Socratic philosophy of what the knowledge of man really is. The study reveals that there is yet a lot to be understood about Man. The reality of the absurdity of knowing and not knowing at the same time is however, identified as one factor that militates against man’s quest towards attaining true knowledge. The paper submits that Protagoras’ maxim about man is simply an opinion which acknowledges the truth of its denial. It follows that you can never know anything the truth of which you fail to attain.
Key Words: Man, Measure, Protagoras, Socratic, Sophist