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The Perceived Dangers of Relativism

Two related views taught by sophists aroused special controversy: the idea that human institutions and values were only matters of convention, custom, or law (nomos) and not products of nature (physis), and the idea that, since truth was relative, speakers should be able to argue either side of a question with equal persuasiveness1. Since the first idea implied that traditional human institutions were arbitrary rather than grounded in immutable nature and the second made rhetoric into an amoral skill, the combination of the two seemed very dangerous to a society so devoted to the spoken word because it threatened the shared public values of the polis with unpredictable changes. Protagoras himself insisted that his doctrines were not hostile to democracy, especially because he argued that every person had an innate capability for “excellence” and that human survival depended on the rule of law based on a sense of justice. Members of the community, he argued, should be persuaded to obey the laws not because they were based on absolute truth, which did not exist, but because it was expedient for people to live by them. A thief who claimed, for instance, that in his opinion a law against stealing was not appropriate, would have to be persuaded that the law forbidding theft was to his advantage, both to protect his own property and to allow the community to function in which he, like all human beings, had to live in order to survive.

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