book cover imageSophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras’ Challenge to Socrates
by Robert C. Bartlett.
University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $40.

Reviewed by Ryan Shinkel

One should be silent where one cannot speak, philosophy says, yet sophistry somehow keeps talking. Ancient philosophers respect limits to finding authoritative definitions to the nature of things, but ancient sophists go ahead because names vary as conventions. While one finds reverent silence, the other teaches for cash and power. Socrates ends like he begins, as perplexed, while Protagoras gives speeches. However, these spirits, Robert Bartlett writes, are kindred: sophistry attended the ancient birth and modern senescence of political philosophy. In Plato’s dialogues, veteran Protagoras encounters young Socrates. But unlike prior sophists, Protagoras openly charges to teach rich sons rhetoric. And unlike prior philosophers, Socrates’ examinations “turned” from nature to human nature. And as Protagoras was catalyst to Socrates’ dialectic, sophistry was midwife to philosophy’s becoming.

Ancient sophistry’s purported obituary was written by its enemy, philosophy, but Plato’s report of its death was an exaggeration. Sophistry has arisen again in a more modern form. Academically, histories of political thought and identity narratives supplant the practices of political philosophy, Bartlett observes. Both chronicling past claims and forwarding political agendas ignore truth. Some return to basics, then, by understanding ancient sophistry, may enable modern souls to “turn” towards political philosophy. Bartlett is experienced for this venture: a chaired Boston College professor of political science, a specialist in Hellenic thought, as well as a co-translator of Aristotle’s Ethics. In this commentary, he admirably shows the game Socrates and Protagoras play by imagining a world without natural justice, but he understates the lessons for us moderns today, stuck with sophistry new and improved.

“Our contemporary way of thinking,” writes Bartlett, citing Nietzsche, is “Heraclitean, Democritean, and Protagorean”—as “Protagoras represented a synthesis of Heraclitus and Democritus” in divining that “reasons for morality are necessarily sophistical.” Heraclitus famously says, “one never steps into the same river twice.” Democritus posits that “The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space; everything else is merely thought to exist.” In their combined vision of unstable materialism, speech loses reason. Sophists emulate this pre-Socratic denial of perennial and intelligible reality in their instruction of the few to flatter the many. Man becomes the measure, not the measurer, of everything. Yet, Protagoras indirectly aides Socrates, as they converse directly in Protagoras and indirectly in Theaetetus. Protagoras’ skepticism of natural justice is a challenge Socrates invites but rebuffs.

In Protagoras, Socrates joins a party hosting Protagoras and some of the usual suspects in Plato. Sophists since Homer disguised their teachings, Protagoras proclaims,but he teaches explicitly. Tempted, Socrates asks, what subject is taught? Political virtue, Protagoras answers. They then debate what constitutes virtue, specifically courage, the first political virtue. Protagoras gives a myth of human origins: our politics extends not from ethics, but from noble lies resolving a Hobbesian dilemma underneath a sky of godly indifference. Men live against men without divine beneficence. Socrates shows what thus entails from this vision.

From debates on definitions to sayings of poets, through questions of goodness and nobility, Socrates makes Protagoras’ skepticism conflict with his person. Objecting to all virtues being united by wisdom, Protagoras separates courage from justice, and justice from wisdom. But Socrates reveals the consequence: courage loses noble self-sacrifice, since, in Protagoras’ system, soldiers only follow individual self-interest. At this vision, Protagoras shudders, for he secretly admires the beauty of the brave. By Socrates holding an ironic mirror to Protagoras, his myth contradicts his intuitions. This political terrain has metaphysical subterranean: below knowledge of virtue lies the nature of knowledge and knowledge of nature. Metaphysical skeptics cannot intellectually affirm human goodness. Plato thus shows Socrates returning to explore the philosophical foundations of Protagoras in Theaetetus.

When Socrates asks what knowledge is, Theaetetus answers “perception.” Old Socrates, in his last year, shall soon unjustly die. Protagoras, now dead, subsists as an imaginary interlocutor in Socrates’ discussion with his mathematician host, Theodorus, and the soldier, Theaetetus. Socrates concludes from being’s instability (Heraclitus), atomism (Democritus), and knowledge-as-perception (Theaetetus), with Protagoras’ dictum: “man is the measure of all things.” These premises of Heraclitus, Democritus, and Theaetetus underlie Protagoras’ public and private teachings.

Protagoras, Socrates relays, publicly taught that external objects are accessed insofar as perceived, but privately taught all knowledge is individual perception of matter-in-motion. Truth becomes personal preference. Socrates’ response is twofold: because lower beasts also perceive objects, privileging man-as-measure is unwarranted; and further, such subjectivism prohibits shared inquiry. While Protagoras ironically demands justice for a better defense of his argument, the final objection is that his doctrine could not be true for anyone, including for his own book entitled Truth. Eventually Socrates dismisses the imaginary Protagoras to explore the war between the camps of Heraclitus and Parmenides, the lives of philosophers versus practical men, followed by more hypotheses on definitions of knowledge. Bartlett, however, largely focuses on the early sections with Protagoras.

The public relativism of Protagoras’ dictum relates to men-as-particular-beings, Bartlett suggests, while the private relativism relates to man-as-man. “Protagoras’ assertion,” he writes, citing Hegel, means “all is self-seeking, all self-interest, the subject with his interests forms the central point; and if man has a rational side, reason is still something subjective, it is ‘he.’” This Protagorean “enlightenment” publicly means all moral and political life is collective self-interest, and privately that claims to right are, per Nietzsche, “necessarily sophistical.” Notably, modern sophistry slightly alters these teachings.

For ancient relativists, Bartlett comments, morality as custom and justice varies, while goodness remains constant, if ungraspable. Today, morality as rights is absolute but the good life varies, as all ways of life look equal to us. While ancient pagans distinguished law (nomos) from nature (physis), biblical medievals andearly moderns thought natural law and the law of nature denotate rights and duties. Now, modern sophistry swaps law and nature, but perceivers have hope. Socrates tied courage to wisdom. Isn’t it virtuous, Bartlett asks, to see the world as-it-is, come what may? When circumstances and appetites alter, human understanding needs steadiness. Intellectual courage becomes necessary for wisdom to become possible. Here, Bartlett implies ancient sophistry was midwife for a philosophical birth: skepticism of moral convention enables the study of natural justice. In Socrates’ laboratory, the soul questions conventional definitions, enters into perplexity (aporia), and then studies our place in nature. After finding inherited answers inadequate, we resist sophistry by courageously measuring nature. “Discovery of nature”—Bartlett quotes Leo Strauss—“is the work of philosophy.”

Bartlett’s overture to his textual commentary begins with crescendos—modern sophistry has supplanted political philosophy—but ends with whispers on how to ameliorate modern sophistry. Readers remain insufficiently enlightened on that note. Supposedly, political philosophy declined because moderns became Protagorean. Beyond pure self-interest, claims to the good life are subjective. What then? Bartlett seems to suggest intellectual heroism and contemplating nature are sufficient for political philosophy to overcome relativism after we disbelieve modern lies. However, since both of Socrates’ responses to Protagoras are incomplete, Bartlett makes several brief gestures to Meno.

In that dialogue, Socrates notes how Greece ignored for decades Protagoras’ morally corrupting young men—a charge later repeated against Socrates. He also rejects skepticism as cowardly: inquirers become “better men, braver and less idle,” Socrates wagers that in believing “one must search for the things one does not know.” Thus far, courage preconditions political philosophy. But how is virtue taught? We learn by “recollection,” Socrates answers, citing doctrines he heard from priests and poets. This “myth” is suggestive. For Bartlett, countering Protagoras means wagering that being is amenable to reason. But his Socrates does not intimate whether intellectual courage is sufficient to intimate the good. Here, two approaches diverge.

One thus may take ironically or seriously Socrates’ digression to Theodorus: just and pious men escape evils on earth by becoming like God and following one pattern of reality, which is divine and supremelyhappy, rather than another pattern, being without God and supremely unhappy (176a–177c).

The first approach believes Socrates was truly guilty in denying Athenian gods and divinity as such. Thus, when Strauss emphasizes the need to conceptually restore “nature,” he also liberates Plato from Nietzsche’s charge of being “a metaphysician.” This approach, Thomas Pangle notes, “is extremely skeptical” of Socrates’ many explicit teachings, such as of the Good in The Republic. Here, Socrates is close kin to Protagoras. The question of knowledge is a quest for sufficient knowledge, Bartlett emphasizes, to live freely from claims of the “seers.”

Both sophistry and philosophy arrive at the ends of language—what “courage” and “knowledge” signify. Their speech (logos) becomes story (mythos) in creating worlds. Against ancient sophistry, Socrates made philosophy the study of human things by seeking a nature of things. Sophistry is rhetoric when our names for things decay, as philosophy asks what those names mean. Yet to grasp their meanings, Socrates often lapses into ironic perplexity and waxes into fables. Here, to surpass sophistry, philosophy takes more than courage.

In the second approach, Socrates is rewriting myths to point to a more metaphysical reality that liberates the soul. In Phaedo, Socrates says philosophy is practicing death and dying—which his martyrdom embodies. His turn from natural philosophy was partly towards divinity. Lecturing on Plato’s Cave, Simone Weil notes that those unable “to understand the unchanging patterns of things” suffer not from “lack of intelligence” but “moral stamina.” Heroic intellectual virtue is necessary, yet, she says, “Plato’s wisdom” is “the turning of the soul towards grace.” Philosophy as a figurative death means souls turn from inherited mortal patterns of life to divine ones, as one commentator describes. Being born again means learning how to die. Thus, as regimes change like cave shadows, courage is necessary for cave dwellers to see beyond the shadows, but one still waits to be freed by other beings to see the sunlight. Bartlett emphasizes the turn Socrates makes, but maybe there is more to this natural turn.

Another difficulty concerns modern sophistry: its fangs are sharper than what a turning to ancient thought conceived naturalistically might ably handle. The ancients knew about misleading speech: Virgil, with his imperial imagination, calls “Rumor” a winged-beast with as many eyes, ears, and tongues as feathers. Yet his Aeneas and Dido face actual rulers and ancestral gods, not public opinion, which is the political bent of modern sophistry. “‘They Say,’ is the monarch of this country,” James Fenimore Cooper declares. “No one asks ‘who says it,’ so long as it is believed that ‘they say it.’” This form of democratic modern sophistry the ancients might not have fully appreciated. From Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of public opinion among equals that replaces “the authority of names” to George Orwell’s critique of political language, a long tradition of critics note how thought leaders and propagandists alter meanings to flatter what theysay the many want to hear. Modern sophistry has deep roots.

Now speech restriction and language degeneration converge in new authoritative names. With reason did comedian George Carlin complain that political correctness looks like “tolerance” but is “fascism pretending to be manners,” for this political edifice, like its ancient predecessor, has theoretical roots. In the “contemporary proliferation of bullshit,” philosopher Harry Frankfurt notes, “skepticism” of “any reliable access to an objective reality” leads one to “reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.” A few persons have the moral stamina to see beyond the shadows of mannered fascism enabled by philosophical skepticism. But to restore the practice of political philosophy means dealing with modern sophistry, and that effort takes more than recovering nature in the Straussian fashion. But rectifying names is a longstanding problem.

Like Socrates, one man of the Axial age died an apparent failure as a philosopher aiding princes. But his followers collected his encounters into writings that aided future civilization. Out of reverence, Confucius took nature seriously by keeping silent on divinity and afterlife. “Whereupon a gentleman is incompetent, thereupon he should remain silent,” he says. Like Socratic aporia, his silence affirms the natura rerum. Words appear inadequate as conventional categories, yet degenerating names shows disconnect to reality. Politics needs metaphysics, for “rectifying names,” he says, preconditions political governance: without names matching realities, language becomes objectless, action impossible, and political management pointless. Language attunes to nature. When villager wiseguys of dishonorable behavior took titles without right, Confucius decried these sophists as “false gentlemen.” Notably, “gentleman” (junzi) also translates as “exemplary person.” Confucius injected new meaning into words: junzi no longer meant power gained by acquisition but virtue gained by wisdom. He innovated. Rectifying names means looking to the permanent things in new ways.

Sophistry enabled political philosophy with a dialectic to answer doubts sophists posed. But in his reply to the challenge of sophistry, Socrates points upward. Philosophy begins close to sophistry, but ends perhaps closer to an inspired, more chastened, poetry. Though politically quietist, Protagoras eroded political order because his refusal to speak on piety meant impiety. Socrates was likewise charged. Who really deserved it, Bartlett shows, although more is left unsaid.  

Ryan Shinkel is a historical researcher for American Bible Society and a graduate student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.