Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates

University of Chicago Press
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One of the central challenges to contemporary political philosophy is the apparent impossibility of arriving at any commonly agreed upon “truths.” As Nietzsche observed in his Will to Power, the currents of relativism that have come to characterize modern thought can be said to have been born with ancient sophistry. If we seek to understand the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary radical relativism, we must therefore look first to the sophists of antiquity—the most famous and challenging of whom is Protagoras.

With Sophistry and Political Philosophy, Robert C. Bartlett provides the first close reading of Plato’s two-part presentation of Protagoras. In the “Protagoras,” Plato sets out the sophist’s moral and political teachings, while the “Theaetetus,” offers a distillation of his theoretical and epistemological arguments. Taken together, the two dialogues demonstrate that Protagoras is attracted to one aspect of conventional morality—the nobility of courage, which in turn is connected to piety. This insight leads Bartlett to a consideration of the similarities and differences in the relationship of political philosophy and sophistry to pious faith. Bartlett’s superb exegesis offers a significant tool for understanding the history of philosophy, but, in tracing Socrates’s response to Protagoras’ teachings, Bartlett also builds toward a richer understanding of both ancient sophistry and what Socrates meant by “political philosophy.”
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About the author

Robert C. Bartlett is the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College. He is the author or editor or seven books, including The Idea of Enlightenment, Plato’s “Protagoras” and “Meno,” and Xenophon’s The Shorter Socratic Writings, and cotranslator of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Sep 12, 2016
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Pages
272
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ISBN
9780226394312
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Language
English
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Genres
Philosophy / General
Philosophy / History & Surveys / Ancient & Classical
Philosophy / Political
Political Science / History & Theory
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This content is DRM protected.
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Faced with the difficult task of discerning Plato’s true ideas from the contradictory voices he used to express them, scholars have never fully made sense of the many incompatibilities within and between the dialogues. In the magisterial Plato’s Philosophers, Catherine Zuckert explains for the first time how these prose dramas cohere to reveal a comprehensive Platonic understanding of philosophy.

To expose this coherence, Zuckert examines the dialogues not in their supposed order of composition but according to the dramatic order in which Plato indicates they took place. This unconventional arrangement lays bare a narrative of the rise, development, and limitations of Socratic philosophy. In the drama’s earliest dialogues, for example, non-Socratic philosophers introduce the political and philosophical problems to which Socrates tries to respond. A second dramatic group shows how Socrates develops his distinctive philosophical style. And, finally, the later dialogues feature interlocutors who reveal his philosophy’s limitations. Despite these limitations, Zuckert concludes, Plato made Socrates the dialogues’ central figure because Socrates raises the fundamental human question: what is the best way to live?

Plato’s dramatization of Socratic imperfections suggests, moreover, that he recognized the apparently unbridgeable gap between our understandings of human life and the nonhuman world. At a time when this gap continues to raise questions—about the division between sciences and the humanities and the potentially dehumanizing effects of scientific progress—Zuckert’s brilliant interpretation of the entire Platonic corpus offers genuinely new insights into worlds past and present.

The Statesman is a difficult and puzzling Platonic dialogue. In A Stranger's Knowledge Marquez argues that Plato abandons here the classic idea, prominent in the Republic, that the philosopher, qua philosopher, is qualified to rule. Instead, the dialogue presents the statesman as different from the philosopher, the possessor of a specialist expertise that cannot be reduced to philosophy. The expertise is of how to make a city resilient against internal and external conflict in light of the imperfect sociality of human beings and the poverty of their reason. This expertise, however, cannot be produced on demand: one cannot train statesmen like one might train carpenters. Worse, it cannot be made acceptable to the citizens, or operate in ways that are not deeply destructive to the city's stability. Even as the political community requires his knowledge for its preservation, the genuine statesman must remain a stranger to the city.Marquez shows how this impasse is the key to understanding the ambiguous reevaluation of the rule of law that is the most striking feature of the political philosophy of the Statesman. The law appears here as a mere approximation of the expertise of the inevitably absent statesman, dim images and static snapshots of the clear and dynamic expertise required to steer the ship of state across the storms of the political world. Yet such laws, even when they are not created by genuine statesmen, can often provide the city with a limited form of cognitive capital that enables it to preserve itself in the long run, so long as citizens, and especially leaders, retain a &quote;philosophical&quote; attitude towards them. It is only when rulers know that they do not know better than the laws what is just or good (and yet want to know what is just and good) that the city can be preserved. The dialogue is thus, in a sense, the vindication of the philosopher-king in the absence of genuine political knowledge.
The overall aim of the volume is to explore the relation of Socratic philosophizing, as Plato represents it, to those activities to which it is typically opposed. The essays address a range of figures who appear in the dialogues as distinct “others” against whom Socrates is contrasted—most obviously, the figure of the sophist, but also the tragic hero, the rhetorician, the tyrant, and the poet. Each of the individual essays shows, in a different way, that the harder one tries to disentangle Socrates’ own activity from that of its apparent opposite, the more entangled they become. Yet, it is only by taking this entanglement seriously, and exploring it fully, that the distinctive character of Socratic philosophy emerges. As a whole, the collection sheds new light on the artful ways in which Plato not only represents philosophy in relation to what it is not, but also makes it “strange” to itself. It shows how concerns that seem to be raised about the activity of philosophical questioning (from the point of view of the political community, for example) can be seen, upon closer examination, to emerge from within that very enterprise. Each of the essays then goes on to consider how Socratic philosophizing can be defined, and its virtues defended, against an attack that comes as much from within as from without. The volume includes chapters by distinguished contributors such as Catherine Zuckert, Ronna Burger, Michael Davis, Jacob Howland, and others, the majority of which were written especially for this volume. Together, they address an important theme in Plato’s dialogues that is touched upon in the literature but has never been the subject of a book-length study that traces its development across a wide range of dialogues.

One virtue of the collection is that it brings together a number of prominent scholars from both political science and philosophy whose work intersects in important and revealing ways. A related virtue is that it treats more familiar dialogues (Republic, Sophist, Apology, Phaedrus) alongside some works that are less well known (Theages, Major Hippias, Minor Hippias, Charmides, and Lovers). While the volume is specialized in its topic and approach, the overarching question—about the potentially troubling implications of Socratic philosophy, and the Platonic response—should be of interest to a broad range of scholars in philosophy, political science, and classics.
Nearly two thousand years after it was written, Meditations remains profoundly relevant for anyone seeking to lead a meaningful life.

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