How Philosophy Became Socratic: A Study of Plato's "Protagoras," "Charmides," and "Republic"


Plato’s dialogues show Socrates at different ages, beginning when he was about nineteen and already deeply immersed in philosophy and ending with his execution five decades later. By presenting his model philosopher across a fifty-year span of his life, Plato leads his readers to wonder: does that time period correspond to the development of Socrates’ thought? In this magisterial investigation of the evolution of Socrates’ philosophy, Laurence Lampert answers in the affirmative....

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Plato’s dialogues show Socrates at different ages, beginning when he was about nineteen and already deeply immersed in philosophy and ending with his execution five decades later. By presenting his model philosopher across a fifty-year span of his life, Plato leads his readers to wonder: does that time period correspond to the development of Socrates’ thought? In this magisterial investigation of the evolution of Socrates’ philosophy, Laurence Lampert answers in the affirmative.

The chronological route that Plato maps for us, Lampert argues, reveals the enduring record of philosophy as it gradually took the form that came to dominate the life of the mind in the West. The reader accompanies Socrates as he breaks with the century-old tradition of philosophy, turns to his own path, gradually enters into a deeper understanding of nature and human nature, and discovers the successful way to transmit his wisdom to the wider world. Focusing on the final and most prominent step in that process and offering detailed textual analysis of Plato’s Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic, How Philosophy Became Socratic charts Socrates’ gradual discovery of a proper politics to shelter and advance philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews


"Lampert presents a Nietzschean reading of Plato in which a close relationship exists between a philosopher and his social experiences. As such, he offers an imaginative and completely plausible interpretation of three dialogues of Plato, which focuses on the 'dramatic dates' of the works."
Leon H. Craig
“This is an extraordinary piece of scholarship: in the scale of its interpretive thesis, in the depth and detail of its textual analysis, and in the extent of the author’s familiarity with relevant secondary material. Lampert’s transdialogical approach allows him to explain otherwise puzzling details and features of these dialogues and establishes a special relationship among them, while at the same time the very coherence of the resulting interpretations of each dialogue offers further validation of his interpretive principle—a kind of virtuous circle. Lampert opens up a whole new dimension of interpretive possibilities to ponder—and argue about—in considering any of Plato’s dialogues, not merely those which Lampert addresses. The payoff in attending to Lampert’s superb, challenging analysis, which builds item by item, is ample.”
Peter Ahrensdorf
“Laurence Lampert is a truly distinguished scholar whose many books have deepened our understanding of the history of philosophy immeasurably. This new book offers an extraordinarily rich, illuminating, thought-provoking, and original account of Protagoras, Charmides, and the Republic in particular and of Socrates’ thought as a whole. Even—and especially—when one disagrees with this stimulating and daring work, one learns a great deal from it. It is a remarkably ambitious book, one that attempts to put forth an interpretation of Plato’s entire corpus and its role in Western civilization.”
Bryn Mawr Classical Review
“A fascinating book, consistently stimulating, full of insights. . . His approach enables Lampert to make some very intriguing suggestions. . . . I have learned a great deal from reading Lampert’s work, and others should find it equally rewarding.”
Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews - Zina Giannopoulou
“This is a stimulating and thought-provoking book. Even if one disagrees with the author’s interpretative stance or philosophical positions, one cannot but be impressed by the freshness of his thinking. Scattered throughout are suggestions and thoughts that make the reader ponder matters anew.”
Polis - William Altman
“teems with valuable observations about Plato’s dialogues.”
"Lampert presents a Nietzschean reading of Plato in which a close relationship exists between a philosopher and his social experiences. As such, he offers an imaginative and completely plausible interpretation of three dialogues of Plato, which focuses on the 'dramatic dates' of the works."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226470962
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2010
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurence Lampert is emeritus professor of philosophy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of four other books, including Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, also published by the University of Chicago Press, and Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche.

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How Philosophy Became Socratic

A Study of Plato's Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47096-2

Chapter One

Protagoras: Socrates and the Greek Enlightenment

Prologue: Great Protagoras

Historical research plus an act of imagination is now necessary for Plato's Protagoras to have its proper shock: Protagoras, widely held by his contemporaries to be the wisest man in Greece, honored and trusted enough to have been invited by Pericles himself to draft the laws of the pan-Hellenic colony of Thurii, old enough now to be father of anyone present at Plato's Protagoras, appealing enough to be the main attraction to ambitious young Athenians drawn that day to the house of the richest man in Athens to hear him—that fabled man is defeated in argument by a relatively young Athenian and defeated so soundly that he is reduced at the end to proclaiming his victor his proper successor.

The unrivaled success of Plato's dialogues has transformed Protagoras's word of praise, sophist, into a term of abuse and made Socrates philosophy's hero—now everyone expects Protagoras to lose and Socrates to win. And the loss of Protagoras's books, the reduction of his life's work to a few sentences, makes him defenseless before Plato's presentation of Socrates and allows every reader to feel superior to Protagoras in every respect: in moral decency, for Protagoras is now thought morally disreputable even though "virtually everything known of Protagoras suggests that ethically he was a conservative and a traditionalist"; in intellectual acuity, for Protagoras is now imagined to be an intellectual lightweight even though he was the chief founder of the Greek enlightenment, lionized in his own time and long after honored with statues placing him alongside Plato, Heraclitus, and Thales; in the power to attract ambitious young men, even though Protagoras itself opens with a young man wanting to use Socrates for nothing more than to introduce him to Protagoras.

Protagoras is the chief founder of the Greek enlightenment, though its roots lie in the investigation of nature that began in Ionian Greece almost a century before Protagoras opened his public career around 460. Although he had precursors, Protagoras was the first to systematically apply the principles of rational or scientific investigation to the natural phenomena of human nature and human culture. He wrote the books that first interpreted humans as that part of nature naturally inclined to develop unnatural or supernatural misunderstandings of nature. Those books spread enlightenment to a wider public beginning to become literate. He was the first to openly call himself a sophist and to travel to the leading cities of greater Greece, setting a pattern for spreading the enlightenment to young men wealthy and ambitious enough to pay for his mentoring. His success generated younger rivals who strove to outdo his books and lectures by producing their own, creating thereby the larger movement of enlightenment out of what started with one man from Abdera.

Plato indicated the singular importance of Protagoras by his chronological ordering of the dialogues. He put Socrates' debate with Protagoras first, at the very opening of his public career, and he put it last as well: Theaetetus has a frame set in 369 to introduce the reading of a written dialogue dictated by a Socrates now long dead. Within that dialogue Socrates calls Protagoras back from the dead to defend his views better than his followers can. Socrates debates Protagoras from the beginning of his career to its end; and in written form the debate is perpetual, stretching out into the future as Socratics debate Protagoreans.

Only after recovering the greatness of this historic figure in the rational approach to human nature can Plato's Protagoras have its proper shock: Socrates is greater still. But in what does Socrates' superior greatness consist? The following account of Protagoras pursues that question.

The dramatic date of Protagoras places it before the war between Athens and Sparta broke out in 431. For reasons that the details of the dialogue make plausible, that date is uncontroversially set around 433. Thucydides shows that by 433 attentive Athenians could know that war was inevitable, for the Corcyraean ambassadors say so explicitly. Plato set Protagoras in prewar Athens with Socrates about thirty-six and Protagoras in his midsixties. Hippocrates is about seventeen, as is Callias; Alcibiades is not yet twenty, and Critias somewhat older at twenty-seven; Prodicus and Hippias are both about Socrates' age.

1. First Words

"From where, Socrates, are you appearing?" The Platonic corpus opens with the appropriate question. It is put by a nameless Athenian, a "comrade," like a shipmate or messmate—not friend. The nameless questioner leaps to the answer he believes he already knows: "Or isn't it plain that it's from the hunt for the vernal beauty of Alcibiades?" This question and this answer, both made so prominent as the chronologically first question and answer put to Plato's Socrates, appear as the question and answer Athenians in general would naturally have in 433 about their odd countryman and the attentions he so evidently and for such a long time paid to their most spectacular offspring. They are, in a way, also the last question and answer Athenians had about Socrates, the fatal question and answer about Socrates' corruption of Alcibiades and other young Athenians, which they acted on by indicting, convicting, and executing him some thirty-four years later.

But the question itself, allowed to stand alone, freed from the rush to the common answer and instead put slowly as a true interrogative asked by those made friends of Socrates by Plato's dialogues—that question is the essential question: from where did Socrates, that singularity in the history of Greek philosophy, appear? Out of what did he arise, or what was the occasion of his arising and growing into himself? The question asks, further, how did Socrates, having become himself, appear or let himself be seen? Posed this way, the question that opens Protagoras and the whole Platonic corpus does not lead immediately to his hunt for Alcibiades. Its first word—From where? (Pothen) —leads backward to the Socrates who has already become himself before the Platonic dialogues begin: by posing that question on behalf of their devoted readers, Plato's dialogues open on a question to which the dialogues themselves will offer a different answer from that of his Athenian contemporary, one that readers can recover only retrospectively, by looking backward through the dialogues themselves into what they offer about Socrates' true origins as a philosopher.

As for the second part of the question—from where are you appearing?—Protagoras, both in its frame and in its core conversation, urges a different answer on the questioner from the one he so automatically supplied. Socrates actively diverts his questioner's attention away from his pursuit of Alcibiades to fix it on a different pursuit, a contest he ignited between himself and Protagoras, who the questioner thinks is the wisest man of their time. Socrates makes that contest originate in his concern about the education of another young Athenian, Hippocrates, whom Socrates introduces uninvited into his narration of the conversation from which he is appearing. He makes it appear that he is appearing from a contest that serves a civic purpose: sheltering young Athenians from the whole set of suspected corrupters, foreign sophists eager to attract Athenian young. When Socrates first appears, Protagoras suggests, he looks to his appearance.

Before Socrates says a word, his questioner adds the accusation of his second question; while playful enough and merely a question, it carries an undercurrent of menace as a harbinger of the accusation for which Socrates will be executed: "And he certainly did appear to me still a beautiful man when I saw him the day before yesterday, but a man for all that, Socrates, strictly between ourselves, and already sprouting a beard." Having sprouted a beard, Alcibiades is beyond the age during which Athenian custom permitted older males decently to pursue adolescent males: Socrates' pursuit of Alcibiades borders on the criminal or at least the disreputable.

Socrates' very first words are also a question that leads to a further question. "What of that?" he asks first, a response of mild defiance that puts a question to Athenian custom. But if this question too is allowed to stand alone, it too seems definitive, wholly appropriate as Socrates' first words. Here is the interrogating attitude with which Socrates approached everything he encountered; here is the refusal to take as settled even the settled things of customary practice and conviction. His next question implies that he follows a higher authority than Athenian custom: "Are you not then a praiser of Homer who said that youth has the highest grace in him with the first down upon his lip, which Alcibiades has now?" This judgment by Homer appears in each of his poems and each time describes Hermes in disguise coming to the aid of an older man undertaking a harrowing task, Priam in the Iliad (24.348) and Odysseus in the Odyssey (10.279). It is Hermes in the Odyssey, Hermes with Odysseus that adds startling gravity to Socrates' first words. For the event in the Odyssey to which Socrates refers in his first speech in the Platonic corpus provides an uncanny portrait of just who Socrates himself is at this point and what his purpose is. Hermes with the first down upon his lip appears to Odysseus just after Odysseus made his decision to come to the aid of his men, a decision that followed the disaster with the Laestrygonians in which he lost eleven of his twelve ships and their crews because of what must be judged his "criminal negligence." Circe's drug has transformed half of Odysseus's remaining men into swine with human minds, and Odysseus is on his way to help them somehow when Hermes appears suddenly and gives him the one gift that will enable him to resist Circe's enchantment. It is perhaps the single most important moment in Odysseus's odyssey to wisdom when, resolved to help his men, he is favored by Hermes who shows him the nature (physis, appearing only here in the Homeric corpus) of a plant "black in its root and its flower like milk; the gods call it moly, but it is hard for mortal men to dig up, but the gods can do everything." Armed now with what is hard to dig up, a knowledge of nature, immunized, that is, against the enchantment before which his men have no defense, Odysseus succeeds in delivering them from Circe's drug. Who is Socrates at the opening of the Platonic corpus? He is a praiser of Homer who is like Homer's Odysseus in having been favored with a knowledge of nature. And what is Socrates doing at the opening of the Platonic corpus? He is resolutely turning to an act of rescue that he alone, because of his knowledge of nature, can perform.

Can all that actually be intended by Plato in a citation from Homer? Plato never let off combing and curling his dialogues, paying special attention to their openings, and this is the chronological opening of his whole corpus. When the first words of other dialogues are studied, their art of allusion helps confirm the importance of this allusion—as does Plato's treatment of Homer in the three dialogues studied in this book: Plato comes to light as "a praiser of Homer" like no other. While it need not be fully credited at the beginning, there it stands, glorious, in Socrates' first speech in the Platonic corpus, a claim to the most supreme achievements of knowledge and rescue attained by Homer's Odysseus. A more awesome opening to the Platonic corpus is scarcely imaginable. From where, Socrates, are you appearing? From an understanding of nature on the way to delivering my people from enchantment.

2. The Frame Conversation (309a–310a)

The frame conversation opens Protagoras with a brief performed dialogue that sets the conditions under which the long core conversation—a narrated dialogue—is spoken and establishes to whom it is spoken: the nameless questioner and others not identified in any way. After both the questioner and Socrates have made their initial speeches, the questioner responds to Socrates' invocation of Homer's authority by yielding entirely: having just referred to Alcibiades twice as a man (anêr), he now calls him a youth (neanias, 309b). Still, he speaks like an inquisitor, insistently putting three questions to Socrates: "How are things now? Are you in fact just appearing from him? And how is the youth disposed toward you?" Socrates answers all three questions but puts his answer to the central question last: "Well disposed, it seemed to me, and not least on this very day, for he spoke up a lot as my ally, coming to my aid, and in fact I only just left him" (309b). It is that last fact that Socrates addresses, beginning to cast doubt on his questioner's insinuation that he's coming from a hunt for Alcibiades. He wants to tell him "something rather strange": even though Alcibiades was present, "I not only paid him no attention, several times I quite forgot about him." His questioner can hardly believe it but assumes that if Socrates forgot about beautiful Alcibiades, it could only be because of the presence of someone more beautiful. Through his insistent questions he learns that there is someone, some foreigner from Abdera, more beautiful even than Kleinias's son because "how could the greatest wisdom not appear more beautiful?" (309c). Baffl ed by Socrates' drawn-out withholding of the name of the competing beauty, the questioner asks: "So it's having just met someone wise that you're present with us then, Socrates?" Socrates employs the superlative, "the wisest of any now living, it may be," but he adds a conditional: "if, that is, it seems to you that the wisest is—Protagoras." Having finally heard the beauty's name, the questioner asks: "What are you saying? Protagoras has come to town?"

The questioner learns only now that Protagoras is in town, Protagoras, the most famous wise man in the Greek world, a former resident of Athens, visiting now after many years' absence and staying at the home of the richest man in town along with other famous, younger wise men. The questioner has betrayed a truth about himself: he cannot belong to the intellectual circles of Athens and so not to Socrates' circle. Not only does Socrates know how long Protagoras has been in Athens, he knows where he's staying, who's with him (314b–c), and that he spends most of his time there (311a). Two salient features of the anonymous audience to whom Socrates narrates the core conversation of Protagoras thus come to light: limited interest in intellectual matters coupled with considerable interest in Socrates' love affairs.

Plato's indications about Socrates' audience take on their appropriate weight only as Socrates' narration advances, for both Protagoras and Socrates state that there is a problematic relation between the wise and the public to which the wisest have devoted considerable thought. That relation becomes one of the great themes of the chronologically first dialogue, and it focuses on the calculations the wise must make in allowing their wisdom to become public—the exotericism of the wise, their studied, cosmetic appearance. But then the whole of Socrates' narration falls under a very precise suspicion: Is Socrates' narration itself an example of how he thinks the wise should make their private words and deeds public? After Socrates' indications about esotericism become visible, the only reasonable answer is Yes. Plato opens his corpus fittingly: a narration presenting itself as an open report to the public on private events that happened behind locked doors has its own ways of locking up its private contents.


Excerpted from How Philosophy Became Socratic by LAURENCE LAMPERT Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Philosophy in a Time of Splendor: Socrates in Periclean Athens before the War, c. 433

CHAPTER 1. Protagoras: Socrates and the Greek Enlightenment
Prologue: Great Protagoras
1. First Words
2. The Frame Conversation
3. Socrates with a Young Athenian
4. Socrates in Hades
5. Protagoras Introduces Himself
6. Socrates’ Challenge and Invitation: Can the Political Art Be Taught?
7. Protagoras’s Display Speech: Why the Political Art Is Teachable
8. Socrates’ Display Speech, Part I: The Wise Must Teach That Virtue Is Unitary
9. Socrates Stages a Crisis
10. Socrates’ Display Speech, Part II: A Wiser Stance toward the Wise
11. Alcibiades Presides
12. Socrates’ Display Speech, Part III: A Wiser Stance toward the Many
13. The Final Tribunal: Courage and Wisdom
14. Socrates the Victor
15. Last Words
16. Socrates’ Politics for Philosophy in 433
Note on the Dramatic Date of Protagoras and Alcibiades I

Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Socrates’ Return to War-Ravaged, Plague-Ravaged Athens, Late Spring 429

CHAPTER 2. Charmides: Socrates’ Philosophy and Its Transmission
Prologue: The Return of Socrates
1. First Words
2. Socrates’ Intentions
3. The Spectacle of Charmides’ Entrance
4. Critias Scripts a Play but Socrates Takes It Over
5. Stripping Charmides’ Soul
6. What Critias Took from Socrates and What That Riddler Had in Mind
7. Should Each of the Beings Become Clearly Apparent Just As It Is?
8. The Final Definition of Sôphrosunê, Socrates’ Definition
9. The Possibility of Socrates’ Sôphrosunê
10. The Benefit of Socrates’ Sôphrosunê
11. Socrates Judges the Inquiry
12. Last Words
13. Who Might the Auditor of Plato’s Charmides Be?
Note on the Dramatic Date of Charmides
CHAPTER 3. The Republic: The Birth of Platonism
Prologue: Socrates’ Great Politics
One: The World to Which Socrates Goes Down
1. First Words
2. The Compelled and the Voluntary
3. Learning from Cephalus
4. Polemarchus and Socratic Justice
5. Gentling Thrasymachus
6. The State of the Young in Athens
Two: Socrates’ New Beginning
7. New Gods
8. New Philosophers
9. New Justice in a New Soul
10. Compulsion and Another Beginning
11. The Center of the Republic: The Philosopher Ruler
12. Glaucon, Ally of the Philosopher’s Rule
13. Platonism: Philosophy’s Political Defense and Introduction to Philosophy
14. Public Speakers for Philosophy
15. Images of the Greatest Study: Sun, Line, Cave
Three: The Last Act of the Returned Odysseus
16. Love and Reverence for Homer
17. Homer’s Deed
18. Homer’s Children
19. Rewards and Prizes for Socrates’ Children
20. Replacing Homer’s Hades
21. Last Words

Note on the Dramatic Date of the Republic
Works Cited

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