Shame, justice, democracy

Contrary to the urban myth that Greek students are no longer taught Ancient Greek at school, they are both taught and tested on it. This does not mean to say, of course, that the subject is taught in a way that whets their appetite for a deeper, more enduring relationship with the essence of the classical world. But this is a different matter – a debate on the pros and cons of expanding Ancient Greek classes requires unbiased interlocutors.

Students taking national university entrance exams were yesterday tested on “Protagoras,” a dialogue by Plato. The work, among other things, confirms that the people of Crete were right to complain that the Athenians used the Muses – the personification of knowledge and the arts – to discredit other people as inferior and uncivilized. Like the Abderites, for example, in Thrace whose name became synonymous for foolishness. And, yet, Protagoras was also from Abdera. And he was so strong in his opposition to Socratic philosophy and Platonic politics, that Plato went on to name his dialogue after him (despite the fact that Socrates remains the work’s main character).

Furthermore, “Protagoras” brings to mind one of the nastiest incidents in Athenian democracy: Protagoras, a friend of Pericles and Euripides, who was strongly influenced by the Abderite’s critical rationalism, was accused of insulting the gods. He paid a hefty price for daring to publicly declare his agnosticism. He was forced to flee the city and his books were put to the torch. Only a very few lines survive. Also saved, however, was what Plato had to say about him in “Protagoras” as well as in his other dialogue, “Theaetetus,” on the nature of knowledge. Here, he discusses Protagoras’s emblematic phrase that “man is the measure of all things.”

The extract from “Protagoras” on which pupils were examined yesterday was a quote from the Abderite’s address to the rest of the group. In his bid to show that virtue is something that can be taught and that education can make us better citizens the sophist recounts a myth: When gods created living things, they assigned Epimetheus the task of ascribing assets – strength, speed, thick hair and so on. However, Epimetheus forgot to give any of these gifts to mankind. Thankfully, his twin brother Prometheus gave man fire, which he stole from the gods. Zeus, seeing that men were exterminated by wild animals and because they lacked the art of politics, ordered Hermes to bring people shame and justice so that they would develop ties of solidarity. Protagoras said that these were to be distributed to all humans, unlike other “arts” like medicine. For it would be impossible to form cities if people had no sense of shame, morality or fairness. All people share in the virtue, all people have a say on politics. In other words, they all have a share in responsibility. It’s about democracy, or what you might today call “participatory democracy” – and at a very challenging time for it.

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