Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Laurence Lampert, How Philosophy Became Socratic: A Study of Plato's Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. vii, 441. ISBN 9780226470962. $55.00.

Reviewed by Peter C. Meilaender, Houghton College (

Version at BMCR home site


Laurence Lampert's ambitious new book on Plato—the first volume in a projected two-part study—operates on a number of different levels. At least four of these deserve specific mention. First, the book provides detailed exegeses of the three dialogues mentioned in its subtitle, the Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic. Second, it argues for a particular approach to Plato's dialogues in general, suggesting that they be read in order of their internal chronology, that is, in light of the indications Plato gives about when the conversations they protray occurred. Read in this fashion, the dialogues collectively show the development of Socrates and his thought. Third, at a more general interpretive level, Lampert follows a deeply Straussian approach, with the distinction between Socrates' exoteric and esoteric teachings central to his overall interpretation. And fourth, he offers this reading of Plato as part of "the new history of philosophy made possible by Friedrich Nietzsche" (13, 413). (For comments on the important influence of both Strauss and Nietzsche, see pp. 11-16, 413-417.)

These multiple argumentative strands present challenges to a reviewer, since it is hardly possible to do them all justice in a limited space. Ignoring any of them risks distorting Lampert's account, however, because he interweaves them all in his readings of Plato. Nevertheless, I think they are to some extent separable, and some seem to me more compelling than others.

Lampert's claim that we should read the dialogues in light of their internal chronology, as portraying the development of Socrates across time—the second strand listed above—is a promising way of approaching Plato (more so than standard attempts to distinguish between "early," "middle," and "late" dialogues). This interpretive approach accounts for the book's most appealing quality: Lampert makes reading Plato genuinely exciting, generating a kind of drama and suspense about the encounter with Socrates that is entirely appropriate to works that are themselves akin to drama. On this approach, the dialogues acquire an overall narrative unity, and as Lampert tells the story, it almost has the feel of a good mystery novel. Even seasoned readers of Plato will experience some thrill of excitement at this depiction of Socrates the man.

One could adopt this approach to reading Plato without embracing Lampert's specific interpretations, to say nothing of his Straussianism or Nietzscheanism. To explore this possibility further, a reader might consult alongside Lampert the recent work by Catherine Zuckert, Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Like Lampert (though at greater length), Zuckert argues that we should read the dialogues in light of their internal chronology. Her Socrates, however, is not the ironic Nietzschean that Lampert presents. Zuckert's book unfortunately appeared too late for Lampert to engage with it here (but see his brief, critical comment at p. 15, fn. 22). One hopes he will address it in the promised sequel. A comparison of the two works indicates one difficulty for this interpretive approach, since they do not always agree about the dating of specific dialogues, notably the Republic.

The Nietzschean strand of Lampert's argument is also separable; one can adopt his readings of Plato without insisting that they be understood as part of a broader "Nietzschean history of philosophy." Still, the shadow of Nietzsche colors Lampert's reading in three important ways. First, he associates esotericism not simply with Strauss but also with Nietzsche. Second, he claims that eros lies at the heart of Socratic philosophizing (296, 331-2)—a claim to be fleshed out in the projected second volume—and he associates this view also with Nietzsche. (See especially the last sentence of the introduction, p. 16, where Lampert refers to the "Platonic/Nietzschean...insight into the way of all beings as eros or will to power," as if eros and will to power were synonyms.) Third, and most significant, Lampert's Socrates is, like Nietzsche, a destroyer of old gods and legislator of a new morality. While on the surface offering a myth of immortality and of gods who reward justice and punish injustice, he esoterically teaches that the gods are creations of wise men who rule succeeding generations by manipulating religious sanctions. There is thus a persistent strand of irreligiosity throughout Lampert's interpretation. For those (like myself) who regard Socrates' piety as less ironic, this will raise questions.

The first and most fundamental strand of Lampert's argument—his close reading of the three dialogues—is best summarized by relating the story it tells about Socrates. The Protagoras offers our first look at Socrates. He steps out onto the public stage in order to debate the famous sophist, in Athens seeking customers among the young men of the city, among whom are two of Socrates' own most (in)famous associates, Alcibiades and Critias. The debate with Protagoras accomplishes several goals. Socrates' defense of the unity of the virtues, including piety, lets him appear before the assembled Athenians as the defender of morality against the foreign sophist widely suspected of atheism. At the same time, his arguments contain an esoteric teaching aimed primarily at Protagoras himself: the search for understanding that unites both Socrates and Protagoras is best served if philosophers appear to the many as defenders of traditional piety instead of its underminers. Finally, by clearly demonstrating his superiority in argument, Socrates successfully offers himself, not Protagoras, as the one from whom men like Alcibiades or Critias should seek instruction.

Not long afterwards, Socrates leaves to join the army at its siege of, and eventually defeat at, Potidaea. After an absence of roughly two years, he returns to Athens, seeking to discover the current condition of philosophy in the city. The Charmides shows him doing this. Of special importance is the challenging debate about self-knowledge that Socrates conducts with his former student, Critias. Lampert argues that their conversation is so hard to follow because they are running through a sequence of arguments familiar to them, but not necessarily to their listeners, from their pre-Potidaean conversations. Critias is thus reporting back to Socrates his developed understanding of what he had previously learned from his teacher. In doing so, he reveals that he has misunderstood Socrates' teaching on self-knowledge by exaggerating the extent and certainty of human knowing, mistakenly supposing himself to possess a "science of sciences" that would entitle him to rule over all other arts by exercising political power. Critias thus reveals his desire to be the tyrant he will eventually become. Through this conversation, Socrates learns a pair of sobering lessons. Critias has been drawn toward a life of tyranny as a consequence of what he has (mis)learned from Socrates. And Socrates, therefore, must be even more cautious in his public presentation of philosophy, learning to practice an even deeper form of esotericism than he displayed with Protagoras.

We witness this deeper esotericism in the Republic. At the core of Lampert's exegesis is Socrates' realization that his "experience with Critias—his failure—confirmed the necessity of dealing differently with Athenian youth: it's not philosophy they need to be invited to but morality" (277, emphasis in original). Thus in talking to Glaucon and Adeimantus, young men who have come to doubt traditional religion but who desperately want to believe that justice is good, Socrates praises justice and the gods, ultimately teaching that we inhabit an orderly and meaningful cosmos. Rather than tempt these young men with the impious truth that the gods are creations of wise men who rule us, Socrates himself comes to rule them as a philosopher-king by creating gods that confirm their desire for justice. At the same time, through his portrayal of the philosopher, he persuades Glaucon and Adeimantus to welcome philosophy into their city. The truly philosophic listener, however—like Thrasymachus, whom Socrates "gentles" and befriends early in the dialogue and who then hears the rest of the conversation, learning a more effective form of philosophic rule than he had previously practiced—can understand what Socrates is really up to and look for hints of his actual views.

The great drama of Lampert's account is thus the transformation from the pre- to the post-Potidaean Socrates. And as this summary no doubt makes clear, what I began by labeling the first and third strands of his argument—his particular interpretations of these three dialogues, and his Straussian methodology—cannot really be separated, whatever one might say of the other strands. For the development of Socrates that Lampert describes in the successive dialogues is precisely a move toward a more far-reaching esotericism. Many readers' reactions to the book will probably turn on just this issue. Those with an allergy to Straussianism will, frankly, find it infuriating. I do not share that particular allergy, but I nevertheless found the relentless emphasis on esotericism, in particular its focus on Socrates' superficially pious impiety, somewhat wearisome. This approach also produces some conclusions that many will find implausible. The most important of these is that the body of doctrines we know as "Platonism"—those ideas that are central to the Republic, such as the tripartite soul, or the theory of the forms—emerge simply as Socrates' esoteric teaching. As Lampert puts it, the Republic "marks a historic moment in the history of the West: it is Socrates' first-ever argument for what came to be called 'Platonism,' the philosophy that came to rule the West" (329-30). Yet on this reading "Platonism"—the scare quotes are critical—represents the thought neither of Plato nor of Socrates. Rather, it is a set of ideas designed to reconcile the many non-philosophers to both philosophy and justice. (See especially pp. 329-337.)

At the same time, I want to close by emphasizing that this is a fascinating book, consistently stimulating, full of insights. And those insights are due to the extremely careful textual approach that Lampert has learned from Strauss. His approach enables Lampert to make some very intriguing suggestions. For example, he suggests that when the Protagoras ends with a plural verb—"we departed"—the person in whose company Socrates left may well have been Alcibiades. Thus when the dialogue opens, Socrates may actually be coming from Alcibiades, where perhaps they had the conversation we know as the Alcibiades I. Similarly, Lampert speculates that the unidentified auditor of the Charmides is in fact Plato himself.

In the same fashion, Lampert's attentiveness to detail prompts frequent interesting observations. For example, in the Charmides, when Critias breaks into the dialogue in irritation at his ward's teasing use of his own definition of moderation, Lampert notes that "Critias's anger is the third revelatory irruption of passion that displays the presence of the involuntary and the manner in which each handles it. Socrates is inflamed by eros but controls it, displaying it only to his auditor. Charmides blushes with shame, displaying what he wanted to hide. Critias is taken over by anger and attacks his ward for failing to recite his poem well" (179). This is a minor instance, deliberately chosen because it is typical of Lampert's ability to notice features of the dialogue that might easily have passed unnoticed. A much more significant example of the same ability is Lampert's careful tracking of references to Homer's Odyssey throughout the Charmides and Republic. The accumulation of these references helps him build a powerful case that Plato presents Socrates returning from Potidaea as a new Odysseus, returning now to Athens to establish the rule of philosophy.

By writing such an ambitious book, the argument of which interweaves multiple strands, Lampert has probably guaranteed that every reader will find something to criticize. All the same, this is a very fine book. Despite my reservations about his portrayal of an esoteric, Nietzschean Socrates, I have learned a great deal from reading Lampert's work, and others should find it equally rewarding.

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