Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Lauren J. Apfel, The Advent of Pluralism: Diversity and Conflict in the Age of Sophocles. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 380. ISBN 9780199600625. $135.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Penn State University (

Version at BMCR home site


Protagoras, Herodotus, and Sophocles were pluralists, Lauren Apfel contends in The Advent of Pluralism, particularly when seen against the monisms of Plato, Thucydides, and Homer. By "pluralist" Apfel means someone who holds that the world does not guarantee a single right answer to every question. When trying to find out what is true, what best explains what happens, and what is right to do, there may be several options none of which may be demonstrated to be worse than another. Monists, on the other hand, take there to be one actual nature of reality, a unique and delineable causal chain leading up to every event, and a superior course of action for every moral choice.

Apfel wants to show that pluralism is not just the modern movement championed by Isaiah Berlin. She does this by arguing that in the classical period an important contingent of thinkers rejected 'all is one' for 'all is many.' She means precisely 'all is many,' not simply 'all depends' (a relativist view), 'all is whatever you want' (a subjectivist view), or 'we can establish no all' (the skeptical view). The details of the book, therefore, give Apfel's reasons for distinguishing the views of Protagoras, Herodotus, and Sophocles not just from monist worldviews but also from other anti-monist viewpoints.

The book engages in rich textual exploration and scholarly engagement, and identifies a significant trend of epistemological modesty in the fifth century. Its weakness is perhaps accepting too much as evidence for its thesis, especially in the sections about philosophy and historiography. All the same, Apfel's book has done a great service in showing that "while we may never be certain there existed in antiquity a systematic or deliberate temper of pluralism, we should not underestimate the possibility."


After an Introduction about pluralism modern and ancient, Apfel turns to Protagoras (44-112). The book's first Section submits to inquiry the tangle of Protagorean testimony: the homo mensura; the record of a published Alêtheia; the thesis that there are opposing logoi on every issue; and the supposed claim that 'it is impossible to contradict.' To this she adds discussion of the Platonic material: the concept of the 'most correct argument' and the expert in the Theaetetus, and the Protagoras's paean to human community and norms of justice and shame, the sophistic education of a democratic citizenry, and the multiplicity of virtue.

Apfel argues that Protagoras believes both that there are multiple incommensurable truths values, and that sometimes one truth or one value may be shown to be better than others. The first belief is compatible with many forms of anti-monism; the second part, which requires some standards or objectivity, limits the form of Protagoras' anti-monism to pluralism.

In the first part of her discussion of Protagoras, Apfel starts with the "man is the measure of truth" doctrine, and writes that, "To Protagoras' mind, because men are plural, truth must be plural as well" (50). Protagoras' view is not the fairly trivial one that perspectives differ, but that individuals are in some respect independent truth-makers. (Apfel works through the scholarship on the metaphysical meaning of this later, at 59-65.) She then discusses Protagoras' commitment to antilogy, the position that on "any given subject, I can make two contrary though equally compelling arguments." She says this means that "I can contend both X and not-X and claim that each of these arguments is right or valid or even true in the sense that it is persuasive and accepted by the speaker (or hearer)" (53). She concludes that Protagoras is pluralist with respect to argumentative truth.

Without further argument, however, this conclusion does not seem to follow. Consider just the second piece of evidence. The rhetorical scenario into which antilogy enters must assume one course of events or one preferred policy; otherwise, the sharpness of pleading—'vote with me! not with him!'—would make little sense. On the surface, then, Protagoras would be making an interesting claim about our networks of beliefs (the material of persuasion speeches), what goes into our accepting certain arguments as more likely than others: in general, a claim about language (a point Gorgias might make). Apfel's citations of Protagoras' 'making the weaker argument stronger' position and championing of eikos argumentation only reinforce the feeling that we are dealing not with an ontological matter ('there are multiple realities') but with a linguistic one ('language and belief do not always track the world').1

Of course, not everybody accepts the existence of absolute antilogy; those following Aristotle's Rhetoric may think that the true argument can win out. Apfel does not aim to vindicate Protagoras' pluralism, especially not against a contemporary monist. She implicitly immunizes herself from having to show that the view she imputes to Protagoras makes sense or can defend itself against counter-examples. But then it is hard to understand what Protagoras is getting at when arguing for pluralism, and whether we can take those views seriously. It is easy enough to appreciate the idea of pluralism in the case of dramatic tragedy, where extreme situations may reveal the conflict among our deepest commitments. But Socrates' striking reduction to absurdity of Protagoras' dual commitment to the 'man is the measure' doctrine and to his position as expert (in the Theaetetus) strikes some readers as so compelling as to baffle them about what Protagoras could really have meant.

The latter part of the Protagoras section reads Plato's Protagoras. Apfel finds evidence for Protagoras' commitment to cultural pluralism in the Great Speech, his rejection of Socrates' unity-of-virtue thesis, and his take on Simonides' poem. I will address these three sources in turn. (i) The Great Speech, about the origins of civilization, democracy, and education, shows Protagoras' appreciation that cities are governed by a large number of individual men, each with an (equally valid?) opinion about policy, unique in their professional specializations and ideas of the good life, and bound by conventions particular to their city. The Speech even hints that the content of dikê and aidôs could differ between states. (ii) Protagoras' resistance to the Socratic unity-of-virtue thesis is "the most explicit source for Protagorean pluralism we have" (93): to the belief in plural, non-entailing, objective values. This material is indeed much more persuasive than the theory-of-speech material. (iii) The Simonides poem episode shows Protagoras' commitment to the correctness of words. A pluralist to distinguish herself from a relativist has to think that even among insoluble disputes there exist cases of obvious better and worse.


The Section on Herodotus (114-206) begins with a ten-page description of Berlin's argument against "methodological monism" and "a science of humanity." The anti-pluralist approach "take[s] for granted that there is one truth or group of true laws to be discovered about cultures… [and] that the world is a single harmonious entity which embraces this truth or these laws absolutely" (122). Though Apfel points to history's wish to be like physics and its consequent monistic tendencies, she does not present much of the argument for it, and thus what pluralism is up against.

The first part of Apfel's argument about Herodotus' pluralism (125-135) gives the historian's milieu and argues that he would have been influenced by sophists, his travel among many and contrasting cultures, and his connections with Protagoras, Herodotus, and their ilk.

The second part is an explicit contrast with Thucydides' largely "scientific" method. Thucydides seeks a "singular" truth (143); he examines and clarifies his data to avoid "multiplicity and conflicting information" (144); he aims to make predictions on the basis of "a fairly static 'human nature'" (146); he uses "phusis as an explanatory principle" (149); he accepts that civilization constantly advances (152); he lacks "interest in ethnography and cultural description" and "par[es] down the [explanatory] variables" (154); imitating the diagnosis of doctors, he tells the reader the "truest cause" of events (156); and he projects a tone of "certainty" and "offers the reader no alternative to his own view in his actual narrative" (158).

Herodotus in Apfel's presentation differs in almost every respect. This ethnographer, a sort of comprehensive chronicler, is oriented toward the variety of techniques someone writing "'deep' or 'thick' history" requires. He wants to understand the people who took part in the great battles throughout Persia and Greece, not just those reasons contributing immediately to war.

Apfel's main argument for Herodotean pluralism is that Herodotus purposely presents incompatible versions of stories. He does not know and he cannot decide what has in fact happened or why whatever happened has happened. She provides dozens of instances in support of this claim. She is not, however, completely convincing that she has revealed Herodotean pluralism. She seems instead to have revealed both the historian's professional modesty and his understanding that identifying what really happened is not the most important thing for him to do. Apfel does not show that the presentation of multiple possible causal chains implies anything about Herodotus' view about causal chains themselves, which she implies they do, saying that his modesty is "a more flexible reflection of a polymorphous reality," "the sometimes plural nature of reality itself" (169, 179). Epicureans often gave multiple explanations for physical phenomena to which they did not have direct access; but they did not infer from that explanatory multiplicity that these incommensurable explanations were simultaneously true, only that the only thing that matters is that they have much better explanations for phenomena than superstitious people do. Herodotus' humility or reporterly openness may be a historiographical virtue, but does not seem directly a matter of his metaphysical or metaethical convictions. A better question than "Is Herodotus more pluralistic than Thucydides" might be "Why does Thucydides want to rule out possibilities where Herodotus does not?" Finding an answer would seem to require a closer look at what each author wants from the publication of their work and the kinds of discriminating evidence each accepts.

The section on moral dilemmas (179-186) more carefully argues that Herodotus depicts choices which their agents cannot decide by appeal to some trumping criterion, and is therefore open to the possibility of moral pluralism.

The last part of this section shows Herodotus' sympathy toward and understanding of cultural pluralism (191-206).


The book's third section, on Sophocles (208-348), is the most interesting and the most successful. This is in part because Apfel does not argue that Sophocles has any metaphysical or methodological views. She can stick to focusing on the "fragility of goodness" view about tragedy. Tragedy shows us good human lives negotiating multiple incommensurable values and the extreme situations that prevent them from succeeding. But the chapter is really about Sophocles' analysis of the hero. The orienting questions are: "How do Sophoclean heroes make moral decisions?" and "What is the larger import for Sophoclean tragedy of the inclusion of such a decision-making style?"

The section begins with Homer, who Apfel calls a "weak pluralist." Homer's characters face actual conflicts but still have the heroic code, oriented toward honor, to which to appeal for determinate arbitration. Sophocles, Apfel argues, makes his characters even more extreme, even more monistically committed to the heroic code. These characters then show the costs of that monism: usually, death; sometimes, as with Electra and Philoctetes, a very uncertain future. Apfel is careful not to argue that Sophocles thereby argues against monistic heroism—maybe glory has more value than life, for some people—but that the playwright at least shows the consequences of such monistic heroism.

The section has one misstep. Apfel claims that "disagreement about the plays' meaning is a reflection of the plurality of moral meanings the plays embody" (260), that the failure of interpretative resolution among interpreters can be explained by Sophocles' decision not to write ethical resolution into his plays. Her argument is overturned by her very ability to give convincing readings of such unresolved, pluralistic plays.

The book has a fine bibliography and subject index, but no conclusion or index locorum.

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