Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.53

Robert C. Bartlett, Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates.   Chicago; London:  University of Chicago Press, 2016.  Pp. v, 248.  ISBN 9780226394282.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by John Bloxham, The Open University (

This is a work about the relationship between the ideas of Socrates and those of Protagoras, written as an exegesis of the whole of Plato’s Protagoras and that part of his Theaetetus which deals with Protagoras (142a to 183c7). Bartlett provides loose commentaries on both dialogues, focusing on themes, dramatic framing and untangling the narratives through the careful examination of seemingly small details. He reads the dialogues in the manner of Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and he shares the strengths and some of the weaknesses of that approach. Strauss argued that ancient thinkers concealed their true beliefs behind a mask: both to protect society from philosophy’s harmful scepticism and to protect philosophers from society’s consequent retaliation. References to concealment abound in the Protagoras, which makes it an excellent object for this approach. For Bartlett, both Socrates and Protagoras are esoteric speakers. Bartlett shows little concern with the dialogues as literature, but language is carefully studied for clues pointing towards hidden philosophic meaning. He often argues from omission, first constructing what he believes should be the speaker’s argument in support of their stated position. Failure to make the expected argument is then construed as evidence that they secretly believe something else. However, while some readers might already be put off by the mention of Strauss, Bartlett has a comparatively mild case of Straussianism and those aspects of Straussian writing most annoying to non-Straussians (for example, the heavy emphasis on seemingly insignificant details without telling the reader why they are supposed to matter) are relatively rare. For the most part, Bartlett offers clear reasoning for his focus on particular episodes and his interpretations are seamlessly woven into his larger narrative.

Bartlett closely echoes Strauss in his justification for tackling the Protagoras. Strauss often wrote about the ‘crisis of our time’ or the ‘crisis in political philosophy’, which he ascribed to the modern dominance of relativistic thought. For Bartlett too, today’s post-modernists and historians of political philosophy share a belief that the ideas they study cannot be true, dooming any genuine attempt to engage with the ideas as things of value in their own right. According to Bartlett, modern relativism owes much to the ancient relativism of the sophists: by understanding ancient sophistry we can consider whether political philosophy is really possible (3). Since only six dialogues show Socrates debating with sophists, and Plato portrays Protagoras as the best of the sophists, it becomes crucial that we understand the nature of Protagorean thought.

The Protagoras begins with the question of whether virtue can be taught, which leads to a debate over whether virtue is one thing or many. Socrates holds that all virtue is knowledge; however, when Protagoras contends that courage is an exception to this rule, Socrates disagrees and the dialogue ends in aporia. Bartlett divides the Protagoras into three uneven sections: Socrates’ opening conversation with the unnamed comrade, the recounted conversation with Hippocrates, and the much longer discussion with Protagoras. He argues that the Protagoras is part of Plato’s defence against the charge that Socrates corrupted the minds of the young. By recounting an example of Socrates putting off a potential student from studying with Protagoras, Plato revealed the goodness of Socrates (11-12). Bartlett’s Protagoras holds that the true virtue he teaches, self-interest, is at odds with the conventional virtues to which society habituates us (75). Protagoras claims to make his students ‘noble and good’ but in fact he only teaches them how to gain the most advantage for themselves (76). It is in our interests for the community to be governed by rules like justice and piety, but it is also in our interest to ignore those rules ourselves if we can get away with it (97-8). The result for Bartlett is that Protagoras only teaches students how to exploit politics for their own gain (208). But this is ‘politically irresponsible’ because his teaching for politicians undermines the community’s values (211). Despite the dialogue’s ostensible concern with justice, Protagoras turns out to be a relativist in this regard (46). Socrates puts Protagoras in a difficult position with his questions about the possibility of combining vices with virtues (for example, being moderate but unjust). Protagoras becomes hostile because he cannot publicly state that he believes that injustice is sometimes beneficial; at the same time, if he denies this belief he might put off potential students who are attracted to him by exactly this sort of teaching (50).

Bartlett’s perceptive analysis of the courage discussion illuminates the inconsistency in Protagoras’ beliefs. Protagoras’ view of courage is that there is an innate boldness which people share to different degrees and which cannot be taught. However, it can be developed through training individuals to recognise the bleakness of existence and yet still make the best of it (80). Socrates applies Protagoras’ hedonistic outlook to the issue of courage, stripping it of its noble character and demonstrating the ignoble nature of Protagoras’ teachings (98). Reducing virtue to knowledge takes the selfless nobility out of virtue, but Protagoras is unwilling to let this be the case for courage (104). Protagoras wants courage to be noble because he recognises his own courage in pursuing knowledge despite the nihilistic conclusions to which that pursuit will eventually lead him. He does not recognise the contradiction because he does not closely examine his own motivations (221). Another of Bartlett’s insights concerns Protagoras’ and Socrates’ debate over the poet Simonides (54-70). After much close analysis, Bartlett makes a convincing argument that Protagoras used this example as a subtle dig at Socrates for behaving badly. From Protagoras’ perspective, both Protagoras and Socrates believed that virtue was relative and that injustice was sometimes wise. Just as Simonides had criticised Pittacus despite apparently being in agreement with him, Socrates was being hypocritical in trying to trip up Protagoras. Consequently, in defending Simonides, Socrates was both defending his own position and reinforcing the attack on Protagoras.

In the Theaetetus, Socrates is ostensibly helping Theaetetus to define knowledge, beginning with Protagoras’ theory that knowledge is a form of perception. Protagoras initially teaches that we know nothing about the inherent nature of things, only those aspects of them that we perceive. As perceptions differ from person to person, whatever a person perceives must be true for that person. However, Protagoras’ supposed private teaching goes further. In this version, our perceptions are the result of constant motion. Nothing ever simply ‘exists’ because everything is always becoming something else. Bartlett avers that the Theaetetus shares a concern with the Protagoras with respect to the charges brought against Socrates at his trial. The Theaetetus is designed to show Socrates preventing the young Theaetetus from becoming seduced by Protagorean relativism (180).

Bartlett suggests throughout that there are clues that the work is really concerned with religion and politics, rather than in simply finding a definition of knowledge. Any claim to knowledge must defend itself from the rival claim of the political community (115). Even Socrates’ assertion that he lacks knowledge is, according to Bartlett, a rejection of ‘the core of what the city says all decent citizens must know and hence accept’ (116). However, although Protagoras’ relativism is a response to the claims of prophets to have divine knowledge (202), Protagoras undermines all claims to knowledge in refuting theirs (203). Bartlett’s Socrates seeks in the Theaetetus to discover if a more reasoned rejection of religion is possible (223). He claims enigmatically that Socrates ‘somehow’ rejects relativism, and likewise the existence of divinity ‘must remain an open question’. This leaves the reader with the suspicion that Bartlett’s Socrates is equally relativistic and atheistic – only more ‘responsible’ because he prudently hides this perspective. For Bartlett, all the supposed ‘pointers’ to the gods show that the underlying concern in the Theaetetus is not knowledge per se, but the challenge which religion poses to philosophy (221). Whereas Protagoras denies religion’s claim to knowledge by denying knowledge itself, Socrates does not so quickly dismiss either the possibility of knowledge or the claims of religion.

Bartlett’s position that both dialogues are highly esoteric works sometimes causes him to make odd observations. For example, he notes that it is easier to enter the home of Socrates than that of Callias and thereby insinuates that Callias might have something to hide (18). But perhaps the difficulty simply lay in the fact that Callias was a much wealthier and more important public figure than Socrates? A similarly thin claim is developed from the description of Protagoras being followed by a few close comrades and then by an outer circle of listeners. For Bartlett, this is an indication that ‘Protagoras may speak differently to different audiences’ (18). More plausibly, Bartlett notes that Protagoras’ discussion of earlier sophists hiding their profession shows that Protagoras was familiar with the practice of cloaking wisdom from certain audiences; however, Bartlett views Protagoras’ own avowed openness as simply another precaution. Likewise, Bartlett remarks that the unnamed comrade in the framing section of the Protagoras is not a philosopher and the episode is addressed to him, suggesting that Socrates has adapted the discussion with Protagoras to fit the limits of this audience. In other words, an obstacle has been placed in the way of the reader’s understanding. As these examples indicate, Bartlett’s Socrates and his Protagoras had more in common with each other than with ordinary people in their understanding of virtue (111). Socrates compares learning to the soul’s nourishment, but he does not relate the usefulness of learning to its truthfulness or falseness. For Bartlett, this is an indication that Socrates believes some truths can be harmful and some false beliefs can be beneficial. He rightly acknowledges that this will be difficult for a modern to take seriously, because we tend to believe that ‘there is a perfect harmony between the truth in its entirety and the requirements of a healthy political order’ (14-15).

The work provides a careful and sensitive reading of the two dialogues; however, there are many unanswered and seemingly inconsequential questions, whilst the sometimes longwinded paraphrasing can grow tiresome. And he occasionally slips into anachronism, for example in using Aristotle (88, 94) to fill in gaps in his argument. Even Bartlett’s milder-than-usual Straussianism leads him to focus on hidden number patterns and the order of incidents which will strike some readers as bizarre. For example, he notes that Hippocrates swears an oath ‘for the fourth but not the last time’ (16); he observes that the Protagoras and Theaetetus are connected because ‘each begins with a performed section of twenty-one exchanges’; he adds extra emphasis to Socrates’ and Theaetetus’ mentioning the gods because it was in ‘the second and therefore central (161c2-162d2) of the three official criticisms of Protagoras’ (171); and he remarks that Socrates replaces a slave to recount the Protagoras but that a slave recites an account from Socrates in the Theaetetus (110). On this last point, Bartlett suggests that Socrates was in some way slavish; but even if this is not simply coincidence, how many readers have noticed the apparent connection?

One of the work’s main weaknesses is where it is at its least Straussian. In dealing only with that part of the Theaetetus dealing with Protagoras, it leaves out the wider context of the dialogue and plays down its central concerns. In doing so, Bartlett portrays a coherent and well-developed Protagorean philosophy; however, this reader finds the scanty evidence for this unconvincing. Nevertheless, whilst it is clear that details are sometimes stretched to fit conclusions, the reader is not left hanging and the choice of whether to accept or reject Bartlett’s position is clear. He is also very good at bringing the reader’s attention to subtle contradictions informed by close attention to the dialogues’ framing discussions. Whether or not one fully agrees with Bartlett, his highly sceptical, questioning approach often leads to novel insights and fresh perspectives. This book would also make an excellent text for undergraduates, both for its provocative commentary on the dialogues and as a lucid, readable example of the Straussian approach.

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