The Philosophers (Part 8): Protagoras

There is something called “dominant thought.” It is a thought or philosophy that shapes the outlook, conduct and culture of society. It is pushed by certain people and sold to society. When enough people have bought into it political and legal protection is procured for it. It’s then fostered on the rest of society under pain of punishment. This is cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony is domination or rule maintained through ideological or cultural means. By means of it the values, norms, ideas, expectations, worldview and behaviour of society is determined. Now, the idea being pushed need not be sensible. Some ideas are indeed riddled with severe contradictions, yet they’re still pushed, sometimes to logical conclusion. Absurdity then reshapes sociology and even politics. It’s how aberrance becomes normative. Here’s the thing though: each generation thinks it’s adopting a new progressive idea. Our generation is not immune to this delusion. We don’t seem to realise even something as basic as our democracy is recycled material. The idea came from Ancient Greece. One of the great “new” ideas is relativism.

Relativism says there’s no universal truth, that views are relative to differences of perception. Relativism says each point of view has its own truth, that everything is subjective, including ethics; that there’s no universal good or bad, right or wrong, truth or falsity – that what’s moral or true depends on culture, situation or some other “frame of reference.” That sounds like novel stuff, until you dig into history. Then you see the idea of relativism is at least 2,500 years old. The guy who originated the concept was a philosopher named Protagoras (c. 490 – 420 BC). He was a Sophist. Sophists were Greek philosophers who were more concerned about man himself, how he should behave, rather than in big philosophical questions about the universe. The term “Sophist” came from the Greek word, “sophos” or “sophia,” meaning “wise” or “wisdom.” It’s how we got the word “sophisticated.” If your friend’s name is Sophia that’s how the name came about. The Sophists were itinerant intellectuals. They taught courses in “excellence” or “virtue,” speculated about culture, the nature of language, and employed rhetoric to persuade or convince others. But they didn’t come cheap. Our friend Protagoras particularly charged high fees. He was notorious for it. And he had good clientele. One of those was Pericles.

Pericles was a prominent Athenian statesman. In 444 BC he hired Protagoras as consultant to draft the constitution of a new Athenian colony, Thurii. Under Pericles Athens entered a “golden age” of scholarship and culture. This attracted people from all parts of Greece especially those who could interpret the law. Athens was a litigious society with a well established legal system. Anyone taken to court was required to plead his own case. There were no advocates.

A class of consultants soon emerged. Protagoras was one. He taught law and rhetoric to anyone who could afford him. He taught people how to prove a point and win a case. From his practice emerged his philosophy, unfortunately. As a legal consultant his focus was “how to make the worse case the better.” Belief is subjective. The man holding a view or opinion is the measure of its worth. “Man is the measure of all things.” Protagoras was only interested in practical questions. He was less concerned with ethics. It’s all about persuasiveness. He’s actually no different from any modern lawyer in his approach to cases. His philosophical extrapolations however posed ethical and religious challenges. If man is the measure of all things then everything is subjective and relative. There can be no absolute definition of truth, justice or virtue.

To Protagoras nothing is inherently good or bad. The determination of whether something is ethical or right is determined by individuals or society. Man is thus placed centre stage, not God or gods. This is called anthropocentrism. He was a champion of agnosticism. He famously said, “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exit, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.” Protagoras is thus hailed as an early “humanist” and “free thinker.”

But if everything is relative how do we place this statement made by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life”? John 14:6. It’s anti relativism. Is truth objective or subjective? Before we examine the audacious claim by Jesus let’s do some thought experiment. It will help us with our analysis.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “rose coloured spectacles.” Some people are said to view life through rose coloured spectacles. It’s an idiomatic expression for optimistic perception, thinking of things better than they actually are. But suppose we take that expression literally, that there are indeed people who wear rose coloured spectacles, as well as other colours. Now imagine that I erect a big yellow pillar in the centre of a park and I then invite two people to view the pillar. Imagine that one observer is in rose coloured spectacles and the other is in blue tinted spectacles. Let’s imagine these people cannot see the world otherwise, that they always see the world through rose coloured spectacles and blue coloured spectacles. Clearly the two will not see the world the same. The first person will see an orange pillar while the other person will see a green pillar. Yellow and red produce orange, yellow and blue produce green. If you ask the first person what the colour of the pillar is, he’d say orange. If you ask the second person he will say it’s a green pillar. Is the pillar yellow, orange or green? To the rose colour spectacled individual the pillar is orange. This would seem to confirm the viewpoint of Protagoras. Same with the blue colour spectacled individual. He’ll say the pillar is green. But is the pillar orange or green? The answer is no. The pillar is yellow. The pillar is not altered by perception. It remains yellow. It’s just PERCEIVED as orange and green.

Therefore truth is not subjective it is the PERCEPTION of truth that is subjective. Perception may vary from individual to individual but truth is constant. Indeed without objective truth there can be no subjective perception of truth. There must be a yellow pillar before perception of orange or green pillar. We can even say the presence of subjective perception is the proof of existence of objective reality. If there is no yellow pillar there can be no perception of orange or green pillar.

The major flaw in Protagoras’ philosophy therefore is the mistaking of PERCEPTION of truth for truth. And since different perceptions of a reality is indicative of the existence of an objective reality we can say subjectivity points to the existence of objective reality, not the absence of objective reality.

In the light of this we can now examine the audacious claim by Jesus. He said he’s the way, the truth and the life. As far as we know no man in history has made such claim. It is definitive and unequivocal. Jesus didn’t say he is A way. He said he is THE way. He didn’t say he is A truth, he said he is THE truth; and he didn’t say he is A life, he said he’s THE life. “The” is a definite article. He uniquely specified himself. Here’s the full statement from the Amplified Bible. It shows us the implication: “I am the only Way to God and the real Truth and the real Life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” John 14:6 AMP. It means there are many seeming ways, many seeming truths and many seeming sources of life. From our argument these similitudes only reinforce the claim of Jesus. Without an original there can be no copy.

But in that statement Jesus also alludes to the question of Trinity. The full picture came out at his baptism as he stood in the water, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and God the Father spoke from heaven. Matthew 3:16-17. Jesus self-identified as a member of the Trinity. Not only did he self-identify as a member of the Trinity he also self-identified with God the Father: “If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now you do know him and have seen him.” Paul would reference this when he wrote: “We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen.” Colossians 1:15 MSG. In other words Jesus is the image of the invisible God. “The Son is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendour, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” Hebrews 1:3 TPT.

The challenge many people have is that they don’t know how to get past Jesus to see the Christ. They can’t get past the humanity called Jesus. It’s why they see him as a mere teacher of morals, a holy man, a preacher or prophet. They cannot see the Christ for the Jesus. Jesus is the humanity, Christ is the divinity. Jesus Christ is a hypostatic union of humanity and divinity – 100% man, 100% God. “Although He existed in the form and unchanging essence of God as One with Him, possessing the fullness of all the divine attributes—the entire nature of deity, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped or asserted as if He did not already possess it, or was afraid of losing it; but emptied Himself without renouncing or diminishing His deity, but only temporarily giving up the outward expression of divine equality and His rightful dignity by assuming the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. He became completely human but was without sin, being fully God and fully man.” Philippians 2:6-7 AMP. Paul had the same challenge. He couldn’t accept Jesus is the Christ. But he self-corrected: “So then, from now on, we have a new perspective that refuses to evaluate people merely by their outward appearances. For that’s how we once viewed the Anointed One, but no longer do we see him with limited human insight.” 2 Corinthians 5:16 TPT. In Paul’s words those who can’t see Jesus as God have “limited insight.”

But why did God come as a man? Because he needed blood. If he was going to be our sacrifice for sin he had to have blood. God has no blood. He is spirit. Blood is spiritual currency. With his blood Jesus facilitated a foreign exchange transaction: “He (God) made Christ who knew no sin to judicially be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we would become the righteousness of God – that is, we would be made acceptable to Him and placed in a right relationship with Him by His gracious loving kindness.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 AMP.

And that, literally is the end of the story. C’est fini. Full stop.

If you want to do foreign exchange transaction please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”

© Leke Alder |

Jesus is the humanity, Christ is the divinity. Jesus Christ is a hypostatic union of humanity and divinity – 100% man, 100% God. Click To Tweet Truth is not subjective it is the PERCEPTION of truth that is subjective. Perception may vary from individual to individual but truth is constant. Click To Tweet Jesus didn’t say he is A way. He said he is THE way. He didn’t say he is A truth, he said he is THE truth; and he didn’t say he is A life, he said he’s THE life. “The” is a definite article. He uniquely specified himself. Click To Tweet