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Sophistry and Political Philosophy

Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates

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.”

Author Information

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.


“For generations to come, this study—on account of the graceful lucidity of its prose and the penetrating depth of its interpretative analysis—will be the essential guide to Plato’s rich and dramatic confrontation with the challenge of Protagoras.”
— Thomas L. Pangle, University of Texas at Austin

“This book is a careful, insightful, analysis of Plato’s Protagoras, and of the examination of Protagoras’ teaching in Plato’s Theaetetus. Through his discussions, Bartlett provides us with a very thoughtful exploration of the important and enduring problem of the relation between philosophy and sophistry.”
— Mark Blitz, Claremont McKenna College

"Near the beginning of Sophistry and Political Philosophy, the author cites Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that our 'contemporary way of thinking' is 'Protagorean.' If so, then understanding sophistry in general and its inventor, Protagoras, in particular is a key to understanding ourselves. . . . Robert Bartlett is an ideal guide for such an exploration."
— Claremont Review of Books

Audience: Professional and scholarly;