Boston College home page | office of public affairs | BCinfo | bc Media | event calendar | directories | search BC

"My main concern is the classic question of Socrates: ‘What is the good life for human beings?’” -- Robert Bartlett (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Modern World, Ancient Questions

BC's first Behrakis Professor sees value in study of classical political philosophy
Bookmark and Share

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor
Published: Dec. 2, 2010
It might be easy for someone with a suspicious mind to wonder if Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies Robert Bartlett has something other than academics on his mind.

After all, he did title his introduction to political theory course “How to Rule the World.”

And he does have a portrait of Napoleon up on his office wall.

But no, Bartlett laughs, he has no ambition whatsoever for global domination. What he finds fascinating, though, are the questions about political philosophy embodied in a figure like Napoleon — questions that have been explored as far back as Ancient Greece, by the likes of Xenophon, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all of whom have been subjects of Bartlett’s writing. 

“My main concern is the classic question of Socrates: ‘What is the good life for human beings?’” says Bartlett. “There is a political aspect to that question, in that modern liberal democracy governments pride themselves on securing maximum freedoms for citizens. But it falls to us to decide what to do with this freedom, because the government won’t ask that question. If we don’t, then we don’t fulfill the promise of freedom.

“I’ve found in teaching that when you focus on the question this way, it becomes more relevant for students.”

As Boston College’s inaugural Behrakis Professor, Bartlett feels he is in the best possible place to pursue this facet of political philosophy, and to share his enthusiasm for the discipline with BC undergraduates and graduate students. The Behrakis Professorship was established through a gift by Boston College Trustee Drake Behrakis ’86, a Carroll School of Management alumnus who is president of Lexington-based Marwick Associates.

“Intellectually, there’s not a better place than Boston College for the history of political philosophy,” says Bartlett, who prior to his arrival at BC this year taught at Emory College for 11 years, the past two as the Arthur M. Blank/National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor. “Having earned my master’s and doctoral degrees here [in 1991 and 1992, respectively], I was certainly well-acquainted with the strength of BC’s curriculum and teaching.

“The Political Science Department is remarkable in its stress on political thought and theory, which melds very well in other aspects of political science. There’s a collegial sense of shared questions, and I’m confident this will lead to some interesting collaborations — on, for example, the ‘just war’ theory — in the years ahead.”

And in case anyone might wonder about the portrait of Napoleon in his office (also adorned with images of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln), Bartlett says the French dictator’s prominence in political history is as a transformative figure, not an admirable one.

“He’s on my wall because he changed the world,” says Bartlett. “Napoleon’s initial rise to power sparked such hopes, and those hopes were dashed as he devolved into a tyrant. But he also sparked a whole literary subgenre — in his way, he was a rock star of the era.” 

A native of Alberta, Canada, Bartlett earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto before attending BC, where he found a mentor in Theology Professor Fr. Ernest Fortin, AA — “the most learned man I ever met,” says Bartlett of Fr. Fortin, who died in 2002. His affiliation with Emory began in 1994 with a two-year stint as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Classics and Political Science, and he joined the political science faculty in 1999.

Bartlett has authored articles in such publications as the American Journal of Political Science and American Political Science Review. His books include The Idea of Enlightenment: A Post-mortem Study and translations of Plato’s Protagoras and Meno. His forthcoming works include a new translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and a book on Plato and relativism.  

Such achievements make Bartlett a perfect fit for the professorship, says Drake Behrakis, who recalls appreciatively the liberal arts education he received at BC.

“I always felt Boston College had a solid foundation in the areas of Greek/Hellenic and classical studies,” he says. “These components are found in philosophy, theology and political science, which continue to be disciplines of great relevance. I see the Behrakis Professorship as helping to pull these disciplines together and sparking interaction between the departments. 

“Robert Bartlett has a strong background as teacher and scholar, and I am confident he’ll contribute to BC’s academic excellence,” says Behrakis. 

Professor Susan Shell, chairwoman of the Political Science Department, says. “Bob’s interpretations of Greek works sparkle with lucidity and telling insight, and he has a terrific ability to bring the lessons of the past to bear upon contemporary concerns. 

“Bob, who has published more articles in highly ranked political science journals than any other scholar in his field, will be a major research asset and also make a substantial contribution to graduate and undergraduate teaching. He is the living proof that commitments to research and teaching are, or can be, mutually reinforcing.”

The Behrakis Professorship is expected to hold its first public event in March.