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Rhetoric, Philosophy, and the Public Intellectual
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Rhetoric, Philosophy, and the Public Intellectual

When we went in we found Protagoras walking in the portico flanked by two groups. . . . Following behind and trying to listen to what was being said were a group of what seemed to be mostly foreigners, men whom Protagoras collects from various cities he travels through. He enchants them with his voice like Orpheus, and they follow the sound of his voice in a trance. . . . When he turned around with his flanking groups, the audience to the rear would split into two in a very orderly way and then circle around to either side and form up again behind him. It was quite lovely.

—Plato (1997a, 315a–b)

Of all of the dramatic portrayals in Plato's dialogues, the majestic figure cut by Protagoras of Abdera in the Protagoras stands out as the most impressive. Not only does he possess the intellectual acuity to argue Socrates to a standstill, but he also has the rhetorical ability to transform a group of strangers into an ordered community through only the sound of his voice. In this way, Protagoras seems to embody both the wisdom of a philosopher and the charisma of a rhetorician. Historical treatments add weight to his characterization. First, Protagoras was the founder and chief spokesperson for the sophistic movement, which dramatically altered the educational system of his age by offering training in public speaking and civic arts to the "average citizen" rather than only to an elite class of aristocrats (Havelock 1964, 230). Second, Protagoras was a wide-ranging thinker whose writing and teaching extended humanistic ideals to the fields of "ethics, politics, theology, education, cultural history, literary criticism, linguistic studies, and rhetoric" (Sprague 1972, 3). Third, he was a close friend of Pericles and his "theory and practice of a political rhetoric was valued highly in Periclean Athens" and led to his being given the responsibility of writing the laws for the new pan-Hellenic colony of Thurii (Jarratt 1998, 26). Thus, even if we take Plato's characterizations to be exercises in hyperbole, there seems to be an element of truth in Socrates's remark that Protagoras was considered "the wisest man alive" during his time (Plato 1997a, 309d). [End Page 127]

However, despite these accomplishments, Protagoras is generally not considered a candidate for the title of "public intellectual." The reasoning for his exclusion is based on the prevailing notion that "idea of the public intellectual is a product of the Enlightenment" (Rahe 2003, 27) and is thus a "distinctly modern idea" (Pangle 2003, 15). Hence, it is "because of this essential, if often unarticulated, connection to the modern movements of progress and enlightenment that it feels not only wrong but anachronistic to apply the term 'intellectual' to Plato or the Sophists" (Melzer 2003, 7). According to this view, the Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the "public intellectual" because of its revolutionary belief that through the dissemination of the fruits of philosophy and science, one could "enlighten" the state of public opinion and thereby replace a traditional with a rational society. Public intellectuals were those who acted on this faith by situating themselves "midway between the great minds and the people—so as to serve the function of transmitting and popularizing philosophic knowledge" (7). By contrast, the opinion of antiquity was summed up in Plato's belief that "it is impossible that a multitude be philosophic" (quoted in Rahe 2003, 27). Protagoras, being a part of antiquity, is thus placed in a historical category that makes him ineligible to be a public intellectual, despite the fact that sophistical thought "is considered by some crucial in the epistemic shift called the Greek enlightenment" (Jarratt 1998, xviii).

Clearly, modern assumptions about what it means to be a public intellectual are largely derived from modern Enlightenment beliefs that society can progress through the spread of rational knowledge. Only on the basis of Enlightenment ideas could a so-called public intellectual persist in the "the inspiriting belief that his own thoughts and insights . . . once 'published' in the modern sense" will inspire a "transformation of consciousness by the dispelling of prejudice and the spread of theoretical truth" (Melzer 2003, 8). However, the...