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Sophistry and Political Philosophy

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Protagoras by the artist Ribera in 1637 Protagoras by the artist Ribera in 1637

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.

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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