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An Aristocracy of Virtue: The Protagorean Background to the Periclean Funeral Speech in Thucydides

Tipton, Joseph (2013) An Aristocracy of Virtue: The Protagorean Background to the Periclean Funeral Speech in Thucydides. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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In this dissertation I argue that the theory of relativism developed by the sophist Protagoras of Abdera served as a rationalization for democracy that was incorporated into the Athenian political culture as an integral part of its basic worldview. Using Plato’s Protagoras and Theaetetus, as well as the fragments of Protagoras, I first offer a comprehensive reconstruction of the sophist’s political thought. Since the human individual is an autarkic and autonomous entity whose perceptions and judgments of reality are veridical and incorrigible, the only form of government that allows him to live in community with others without violating his basic identity is democracy.

After discussing Protagoras’ political theory, I analyze the evidence concerning his life and friendship with Pericles and conclude that Protagoras was in a position that enabled him to exert an influence on the Athenian democracy. I then examine the funeral speech composed for Pericles by Thucydides in his History and argue that the description Pericles gives of the Athenian political system recalls in both concept and language not only Protagoras’ political thinking, but his relativist philosophy as well. Turning then to Protagoras’ rhetorical program, summed up in the claim “to make the weaker logos the stronger,” I examine it as an integral supplement to his political theory and conclude that it was a mechanism for securing genuine consensus in the citizen-body. I then examine the rhetorical aspect of Pericles’ funeral speech and find that it enacts this Protagorean rhetorical program in an effort to create greater unanimity in the Athenian state after the first year of war.

Finally, in order to account for this Protagorean dimension in Thucydides’ characterization of Pericles, I analyze Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens shortly after the war began and attempt to show that it contains conceptual and verbal allusions to both Pericles’ speech and Protagoras’ thought. On the basis of these allusions I suggest that Thucydides incorporated this Protagorean dimension in his portrait of Pericles in order to point to the sophist’s relativism as a crucial step in the eventual espousal of Realist politics by the Athenian state.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairAvery, Harryavery@pitt.eduAVERY
Committee MemberPossanza, Markpossanza@pitt.eduPOSSANZA
Committee MemberJones, Nicholasnfjones@pitt.eduNFJONES
Committee MemberAllen, Jamesjvallen@pitt.eduJVALLEN
Date: 30 September 2013
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 29 May 2013
Approval Date: 30 September 2013
Submission Date: 14 June 2013
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Number of Pages: 360
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Classics
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Classical Studies, Athenian Democracy, Greek History, Relativism, Ancient Political Science, Sophists
Date Deposited: 30 Sep 2013 20:51
Last Modified: 30 Sep 2018 05:15


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