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Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Sophistry and Political Philosophy

Published in Books

Is man the measure of all things? This question has been at the forefront of philosophy ever since Protagoras proclaimed that man is the measure of all things. Sometime before he died in 420 BCE Protagoras locked horns with Socrates in a debate captured for us by Plato. It is a close reading of these works of Plato that is the subject of this book by Robert Bartlett, the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College.


A dramatic artistic impression of Protagoras, by the 17th century painter Jusepe de Ribera, graces the cover of this exploration of Plato's two texts, the Protagoras and the Theaetetus. Despite his own vast learning and study, Bartlett admits more than once that the meaning embedded in Plato's works is far from transparent. For example, on pg. 78, he writes “It is difficult to know what to make of these challenging exchanges.”


He is referring to a discussion between Protagoras and Socrates on the subject of wisdom, courage and boldness. It occurs in Plato's text Protagoras. Socrates attempts to show it is the wisest who are boldest, and, being boldest, most courageous. So, Socrates concludes, “according to this argument, the wisdom [in question] would be courage.”


Bartlett's comment on this point of the argument is illuminating. “Showing much boldness or at least confidence himself, Protagoras calmly declines to be force-fed this highly compressed argument: Socrates' recollection isn't a noble one.” As the argument progresses, Protagoras insists that “courage and wisdom are not the same thing.” Bartlett poses a pregnant question: “Is it really possible for Protagoras still to maintain that one can be both 'very courageous' and 'very ignorant'?”


During the argument Protagoras charges Socrates with committing a logical fallacy, one that Socrates never rebuts. Discerning meaning in what did not happen (a rebuttal) is the author's gift to the reader. He opens our eyes to what this means. Socrates' “silence has the effect of bolstering Protagoras' confidence or boldness: we see before our eyes the marriage of boldness and (what is taken to be) wisdom issuing in the courage to stand one's ground or to fight back, at least in argument.”


Bartlett is equally insightful in his analysis of the Theaetetus. Protagoras states “For the sort of things that seem to each city to be just and noble, these things are in fact for it, for so long as it recognizes them.” Bartlett regards this “as frank a statement as one could wish for of the 'moral relativism' of Protagoras”, who goes on in Plato's text to draw a distinction between the point of view of “the wise” and that of “the cities.” The wise are extramoral or amoral, while cities exhibit morality through-and-through.


The existence of this chasm,” writes Bartlett, “must be an important part of the 'education' for which the capable sophist is responsible.” As the first man to declare himself to be a sophist, “Protagoras thus defends the idea of wisdom in general and his own superior wisdom in particular.” Whether or not Socrates really defeats Protagoras at his own game is a question I will leave to the studious reader of this entrancing book. But Bartlett, in conclusion, contends that “Socrates did not succumb to the chaos-inducing motion that can go together with the thought that a human being is the measure” of all things.


This books is, as the author states, about “the battle between political philosophy and sophistry at its peak.” With extraordinary erudition, Bartlett has made this a crucial text in both disciplines.



Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates (248 pages) is $40 by University of Chicago Press.

The Measure of Courage: The Immigrant

Published in Theatre

The Immigrant was first performed in 1985 and has become a staple of theatre companies ever since. I first reviewed the play in 2012, when it was performed in Ft. Lauderdale. Don Toner, who is directing the play at the Austin Playhouse for the second time, told me that the actors who portrayed the Jewish couple in his first production here in Austin 28 years ago coached the actors in this play with the dialect and songs.


Imagine a man with business sense, a woman with a big heart, and a young Russian Jew with drive and a dream. The result of this unlikely synergy in a small Texas town a century ago is The Immigrant. Set in Hamilton (pop. 1200), 120 miles north of Austin, the performance takes place on a minimalist stage set against an ever-changing backdrop of period photos of the real-life characters that inspired the play. It all serves to enhance the often dramatic and sometimes comical plot.


In the lead role of Haskell Harelik is Joseph Garlock as a young immigrant from Russia (circa 1906). In Hamilton he encounters the husband and wife team of Milton and Ima Perry, played by Huck Huckaby and Cyndi Williams. Part way through the play they are joined by Haskell's wife, portrayed by Estrella Saldana. This tight group make the text sparkle: a superb individual and quartet performance.


The play is a study in courage at many levels. As Ima says to Haskell, “travelling thousands of miles, putting on a new language, and eating my cooking: if that's not courage I don't know what is!”


Toner says thatWith all the anti-immigrant rhetoric spewing out of the White House these days, it is good to be reminded that this country was built by immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Their diversity, hard work, and love of country are truly what makes us great.”


But as some members of the audience said, the immigrants of a century ago were committed to integrating, and often anxious to slough off the language and customs of their heritage to become Americans. This is not always the case with 21st century immigrants to the U.S., and the same can be said for immigrants to Canada and European countries. Whatever the case, this play takes the blinkers off to let anyone who sees it regard immigration in a different way, and that power will endure as long as immigration (forced or otherwise) continues to shape the nations of Earth.


The Immigrant will be at the Austin Playhouse until Jan. 28, 2018.


Lead photo: Huck Huckaby and Joseph Garlock


second photo: Cyndi Williams and Huck Huckaby


Follow this link to read my review of this play from 2012:




Christmas at LBJ's White House

Published in Celebrity

President Johnson and his family did not usually celebrate Christmas at the White House, but his wife Lady Bird persuaded him to do so in 1967. The charm of that event is currently on view in two display cases at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.

The Johnson family Christmas stockingsTwo Christmas stockings, a gift from a friend and first used in '67, show memorable moments from their lives. The President's stocking shows a little boy under the sign Johnson City, signifying he was born there. Air Force One, and a map of Texas, also adorn the stocking. A smaller map of the state appears on his wife's stocking, emblazoned with the place Karnack, where she was born. She is also depicted as First Lady in a yellow gown.

Lady Bird's gold brocade outfit from 1967The actual gold brocade outfit she wore in the lead photo with this story, as she looks at her grandson Patrick, is also on display. Several of the ornaments from the White House tree are also being shown, along with a photo of their dog Yuki sitting under the White House Christmas tree.

While much scholarly work goes on here, and most of the exhibits focus on the serious issues of his presidency, this little glimpse into a happy day of a turbulent period is most welcome at this time of year.

The LBJ Library and Museum is open daily throughout the year. Visit their website:


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