JMC fellow Ariel Helfer wrote a review of Robert Bartlett‘s book, Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras’ Challenge to Socrates on Law and Liberty’s website. Bartlett, also a JMC fellow, published his book in 2016. In it, he carefully exposes Protagoras’ philosophical commitments and Plato’s response to them.
Socrates on Courage, Self-Sacrifice, and the Divine
One can hardly throw a stone into the field of Platonic scholarship without striking some controversy or other. Perhaps the safest thing we can say is that Plato presents his Socrates as the paragon of the philosophic life, the examined life, the antithesis of which he famously rejects as unlivable. But what counts as an “examined life?”
In his defense against the capital charges for which he was tried and executed by the Athenians, Plato’s Socrates leaves little doubt that his own way of life was without precedent or parallel. He denies both that he pursued the impious study of natural science (seeking knowledge of natural causes and necessities that would contradict the city’s official religious doctrines) and that he made his living as did the sophists, who were notorious for corrupting young men by debunking the political community’s demands for virtuous devotion. But in his last conversation, on the day of his death, Plato’s Socrates gives the lie to his courtroom testimony by describing his youthful passion for the scientific investigation of nature. What then of his denial of having been a sophist? How would we justly characterize the difference between Socratic philosophy and the art of sophistry?
This is perhaps the most important question that Robert C. Bartlett helps us to answer in Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras’ Challenge to Socrates. By means of an elegantly expressed and utterly meticulous line-by-line interpretation of Plato’s Protagoras and the first half of his Theaetetus, Bartlett brings to life Plato’s juxtaposition of the great philosopher Socrates and the great sophist Protagoras, who was arguably the Platonic Socrates’ most impressive conversational opponent. By illuminating this juxtaposition as he does, neither exaggerating nor minimizing the distance separating sophistry from philosophy, the Behrakis Professor in Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College provides invaluable assistance to the student or scholar who seeks a greater understanding of the questions and insights at the center of the Socratic life. What’s more, he does it with style and wit as well as thoroughness and precision, coolly untangling the maddeningly circuitous dialectic on one page and revealing Socrates’ wry, ironic humor on the next.
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