A Sophist ‘in disguise’: Damon of Oa in early Plato

Tosca A.C. Lynch
Feb 29, 2020 · 11 min read
Athenian potsherd (Ostrakon) identifying Damon — his ostracism took place ca. 442–440 BC

This post presents a fresh examination of the surprising content of much neglected Platonic passages that feature Damon of Oa—a famous musical theorist who was exiled from Athens allegedly because of his close relationship with the prominent and influential statesman Pericles. The interpretation presented in this post contrasts sharply with the mainstream scholarly representation of Damon as a conservative musicologist with some vague ‘Pythagoreanising’ leaning, who allegedly personified in Plato’s view the ‘ideal’ authority with regard to musical matters.

This representation does not stand up to a close reading of the Platonic texts if all the extant evidence is taken into account, and not filtered through preconceptions based on the supposedly ‘real’ meaning of the famous passages on music in Republic 3–4.

In contrast, an unbiased view of the Platonic passages mentioning Damon shows that he is consistently characterised as a ‘sophistic’ type of intellectual: an attractive companion for young men, capable of teaching them very useful linguistic and musical skills. But this intellectual and educational work led him to achieve also true expertise in the classification of musical means and their psychagogic effects. And yet Damon’s ‘scientific’ approach to the question did not aim at determining a stable hierarchy of ethical value—which is why Plato could not merely take his results as a ready-made solution for the music-related educational needs of the ideal city of the Republic.

This post therefore looks at the surprising content of much neglected early Platonic testimonies on Damon, setting the scene for the famous passages of Republic 3–4 (discussed in the upcoming post Damon of Oa in Plato’s Republic: A sophist unmasked?)

Roman mosaic showing masks and lyre. Rome, Vatican Museums.

A famous passage of Plutarch’s Pericles distinctively depicts Damon of Oa as a ‘first-rate sophist (ἄκρος ὢν σοφιστής)’, who

ὁ δὲ Δάμων ἔοικεν ἄκρος ὢν σοφιστὴς καταδύεσθαι μὲν εἰς τὸ τῆς μουσικῆς ὄνομα πρὸς τοὺς πολλοὺς ἐπικρυπτόμενος τὴν δεινότητα, τῷ δὲ Περικλεῖ συνῆν καθάπερ ἀθλητῇ τῶν πολιτικῶν ἀλείπτης καὶ διδάσκαλος

But Damon’s attempt to ‘employ the lyre as a veil’ (Plut. Per. 4.3–4) was extremely unsuccessful, as he was ostracised and became the object of the satirical verve of comic poets: a double rejection, physical and cultural, seems to be the ultimate destiny for this important member of Pericles’ circle.

Plutarch’s testimony, however, stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream scholarly representation of Damon: a conservative musicologist with some vague ‘Pythagoreanising’ leaning who, in Plato’s view, personified the ‘ideal’ authority with regard to musical matters.

But what if Plutarch’s testimony presents a historically legitimate alternative? And what if the image of Damon that is generally attributed to Plato should not be taken to be so ‘pure’ and historically reliable, as many scholars seem to believe?

To answer these questions, we must look at what Plato actually wrote about Damon, since many reconstructions of Plato’s views on this historical character seem to be based on fairly imaginative or partial readings of the musical passages in Books 3 and 4 of the Republic.

Damon in the First Alcibiades

Damon is mentioned explicitly nine times in Plato’s dialogues: in addition to the well-known passages of Republic 3 and 4, four references appear in the Laches, one in the First Alcibiades and one in the opening section of the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus.

Let us start from the First Alcibiades—a text that has often been overlooked in previous scholarship but provides a fresh starting point to reconstruct Damon’s intellectual profile. Crucially, the perspective opened by this apparently ‘minor’ passage allows us to bypass the risk of interpreting all other references to Damon on the basis of what is taken to be the ‘real’ meaning of the ‘Damonian’ passages of the Republic. The Republic indeed offers key pieces of information about Damon and his work, but they must be carefully contextualised within Plato’s own agenda in order to be understood correctly: for these reasons, they will be examined in subsequent sections.

First of all, then, we must look at the context of the relevant passage of the First Alcibiades, 118c. Socrates is speaking to a young Alcibiades —a well-born youth who was to become a key Athenian statesman and general, or according to some ‘the Donald Trump of Ancient Greece’.

So-called “Alcibiades”, ideal portrait. Roman copy after a Greek original of the Late Classical period; Capitoline Museums, Rome — public domain image

Socrates has just forced him to admit a critical fault in his own intellectual abilities: he has not yet mastered the type of self-knowledge that, in Socrates’ view, represents the necessary prerequisite for someone who desires to engage actively in politics. This kind of knowledge will be later defined as ‘taking care’ (ἐπιμέλεσθαι/ἐπιμελεῖσθαι) of one’s own soul (Alc. 1 133d-134a), that is to say knowing how to govern one’s own thoughts and emotions before moving on to take the lead in public and political affairs.

Portrait of Socrates—Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. Louvre museum—public domain image.

Immediately after exposing Alcibiades’ ignorance, Socrates adds that this lack of knowledge is common to almost all contemporary politicians, admitting only the possible exception of Pericles — the illustrious statesman and Alcibiades’ own guardian (Alc. 1 118c).

Alcibiades, hurt in his pride by this unfavourable comparison with his relative and guardian, replies bluntly as follows:

Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from ca. 430 BC — public domain image

(Alc. 1 118c4–7)

Λέγεταί γέ τοι, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὐκ ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου σοφὸς γεγονέναι, ἀλλὰ πολλοῖς καὶ σοφοῖς συγγεγονέναι, καὶ Πυθοκλείδῃ καὶ Ἀναξαγόρᾳ· καὶ νῦν ἔτι τηλικοῦτος ὢν Δάμωνι σύνεστιν αὐτοῦ τούτου ἕνεκα.

In just a few lines, Alcibiades offers a revealing outline of the characters that populated the intellectual environment of Pericles’ youth and maturity: Anaxagoras, Pythocleides and Damon, all generically included in the category of ‘wise men’ (σοφοί).

Strikingly enough, in such a short description Damon is not explicitly linked with musical elements—i.e. what is generally regarded as the most important aspect of his work. In contrast, the value of his presence and company is identified with his ability to make Pericles a ‘wise man’ (σοφός), just as Pythocleides and Anaxagoras allegedly used to do when he was younger.

Damon’s wisdom in the eyes of generals: the Laches

Bearing in mind the apparently simple, yet rarely emphasised testimony of the Alcibiades, let us move on to the Laches — a dialogue that evokes several times Damon’s multifaceted figure. In itself, such an abundance of references to Damon is pretty unsurprising in a dialogue such as the Laches. In this dialogue, two old aristocrats, Lysimachus and Melesias, consult two generals, Laches himself and Nicias, to find out what kind of education would be most beneficial for their sons, Aristides and Thucydides.

In contrast with the unusual characterisation of the First Alcibiades, Damon is now presented in a more predictable way— that is to say, primarily as a teacher of music. However, as Nicias subsequently observes, Damon is not just a music teacher :

Καὶ γὰρ αὐτῷ μοι ἔναγχος ἄνδρα προυξένησε τῷ ὑεῖ διδάσκαλον μουσικῆς, Ἀγαθοκλέους μαθητὴν Δάμωνα, ἀνδρῶν χαριέστατον οὐ μόνον τὴν μουσικήν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τἆλλα ὁπόσου βούλει ἄξιον συνδιατρίβειν τηλικούτοις νεανίσκοις.

First, we are told here that it was Socrates who recommended and introduced Damon to Nicias as a teacher of music for his son. Once more, an apparently minor observation is very precious for us: the fact that Socrates and Damon knew each other, and that Socrates appreciated Damon’s skills to the extent of recommending him as a teacher, is presented as a fairly unproblematic detail of the historical context of the dialogue — a characterisation that would not make much sense had it not been a well-known piece of information.

Secondly, Damon is characterised as being ‘the most accomplished and graceful of all’ (χαριέστατος)—a very rare adjective in the superlative form in Plato’s prose—not only with regard to music but also for some other ‘mysterious’ kind of expertise, which made him a generally valuable companion for ambitious young men looking for advanced education. Damon’s special skills are evoked again later in the dialogue—for instance when Laches, making fun of Nicias’ inability to define the essence of courage, ironically refers to the big hopes he had in him and in ‘the wisdom he acquired from Damon (τῇ παρὰ τοῦ Δάμωνος σοφίᾳ, Lach. 199e13–200a3)’. Once more this passage refers to some kind of enigmatic knowledge that Damon transmitted to his associates and pupils, but without specific indications about its nature: what kind of wisdom (sophia) did he teach?

Fortunately, this question is addressed in the immediately preceding passage. Laches attempts again to make fun of Nicias for his subtle conceptual distinctions, in this case concerning the differences between the notions of fearlessness and courage (Lach. 197b-c). But the exact words that Laches employs to describe Nicias’ ability are illuminating: he labels his expertise in playing on subtle, abstract nuances as being able to ‘embellish himself in speech’ (ἑαυτόν κοσμεῖν τῷ λογῷ, Lach. 197c2–3)—an expression that perhaps evokes Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen.

But this is not the only reason to think of Damon’s sophia as a type of ‘sophistic’ wisdom; Socrates himself makes this association explicit in his following statement, as he tells Laches off for his negative attitude towards Nicias:

For it seems to me that you have not realised that he [scil. Nicias] received such wisdom from our friend Damon, and Damon spends lots of time with Prodicus, who is regarded as the best of the sophists in telling apart these kinds of names.
(Lach. 197d1–6)

καὶ γάρ μοι δοκεῖς οὐδὲ ᾐσθῆσθαι ὅτι ταύτην τὴν σοφίαν παρὰ Δάμωνος τοῦ ἡμετέρου ἑταίρου παρείληφεν, ὁ δὲ Δάμων τῷ Προδίκῳ πολλὰ πλησιάζει, ὃς δὴ δοκεῖ τῶν σοφιστῶν κάλλιστα τὰ τοιαῦτα ὀνόματα διαιρεῖν.

Damon’s wisdom is finally given some content: it is clearly akin to Prodicus’ investigations into the correctness of names (ὀνομάτων ὀρθότης) and into the related question of establishing accurate terminological distinctions, or ‘dividing them well’ (ὀρθῶς διαιρεῖν)— both well-known sophistic preoccupations.

As Plato tells us in the Cratylus, a dialogue entirely devoted to these questions, sophists of the calibre of Protagoras and Prodicus were famous experts in this ‘skill’ (τέχνη) and expensive teachers of this art. But in apparent contrast with Plato’s generally critical attitude towards the so-called ‘sophists’, here Socrates depicts Damon as ‘friend of ours’ (ὁ ἡμέτερος ἑταῖρος): why does Plato choose such a loaded expression?

If, on the one hand, this remark could be simply taken as an ironic note warning the reader not to take the content of Socrates’ words at face value, it does not seem plausible to reduce it to this role only, given that Socrates’ characterisation of Damon’s expertise does not seem completely or obviously negative.

Furthermore, the expression ‘our companion’ (ὁ ἡμέτερος ἑταῖρος) is quite rare in Plato’s works and is always used by Socrates to designate a character that somehow manages to make a positive contribution to the development of the dialogue. So why does Damon belong to the category of ‘friends’, or even to that of ‘companions’? And why does Socrates distinguish between sophistic ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ to begin with?

Sophistic ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’: the case of Prodicus, Damon’s friend

In my view, it is possible to answer these questions by focusing on the quality of the philosophical results achieved respectively by the two ‘categories’ of sophists mentioned in Plato. For Plato’s Socrates seems to accept as ‘friends’ those intellectuals who, although aiming at different ends, actually managed to provide some sort of valuable or sound contribution to intellectual research. Even though many sophists exploited these theoretical achievements to increase their own prestige and power, Plato seems to think that the quality of the achievements themselves, independently of their actual use, should be recognised and praised nonetheless.

This attitude is displayed again in Plato’s characterisation of another ‘good’ sophist, Prodicus — precisely the man who is presented as Damon’s regular associate in the Laches. Mentioned over forty times in the dialogues, Prodicus is often praised for his interventions. His character generally appears to be valuable for the development of philosophical discussions, both in person and from afar. And yet, Plato seems to feel the need to highlight the potential danger of his philosophical approach, if taken entirely seriously, and accompanies these flattering remarks with a light touch of irony.

This ambiguity in Plato’s attitude towards Prodicus is demonstrated clearly in a passage from the Protagoras, 339e-342a. Here Socrates calls upon Prodicus and asks for his help in interpreting the real meaning of Simonides’ poem; in doing so, he describes his linguistic σοφία as ‘divine’ (θεία) and goes so far as presenting himself a disciple of his — a declaration that is repeated also in other dialogues but is never uttered in relation to any other sophist.

This surprising statement is soon clarified by Socrates, as he highlights one aspect of Prodicus’ sophia which is strikingly similar to his own method of inquiry: Prodicus knows how to ‘play’ (παίζειν) with his interlocutors on the subtle differences between near-synonyms, sometimes concealing what his real opinion is on some specific matter. This happens for instance in the present passage of the Protagoras, where Prodicus plays with words in order to ‘test’ (ἀποπειρᾶσθαι) other people’s ability to support their own statements (τῷ λόγῳ βοηθεῖν)— a technique that certainly strikes us as ‘Socratic’.

So while the definition of Prodicus’ wisdom as ‘divine’ is clearly excessive, it still represented a ‘first step’ for Socrates — a kind of linguistic exercise that helped him acquire the dialectical skills that he was to employ in an ethically ‘correct’ way in his quest for virtue.

Hence, the fact that the expression ‘our companion (ὁ ἡμέτερος ἑταῖρος) which characterised Damon in the Laches is the same that Plato’s Socrates uses in connection with Prodicus in the Hippias Major (282c1–6) seems far from accidental: both Damon and Prodicus are ‘dangerously’ skilled sophists who, nonetheless, deserve to be openly praised and called ‘companions’ for the useful, if collateral, achievements of their theoretical research.

As we shall see in the following post, it is precisely the musical content of these achievements that will make Damon such an important figure in Plato’s Republic.

For full references and bibliography, see


© Tosca A.C. Lynch

Mixed Musings: Ancient Music, Philosophy & Modern Wisdom

Research insights and new evidence about the ancient Art of…

Tosca A.C. Lynch

Written by

Ancient Greek Music @UniofOxford & V Prof @uniVerona; Applied Rhetoric expert—Christian—soprano—keen to learn from everyone—lover of beauty and truths

Mixed Musings: Ancient Music, Philosophy & Modern Wisdom

Research insights and new evidence about the ancient Art of the Muses (music, poetry, drama&dance), ethics and our modern quest for meaning. Brought to you by the Arion Society

Tosca A.C. Lynch

Written by

Ancient Greek Music @UniofOxford & V Prof @uniVerona; Applied Rhetoric expert—Christian—soprano—keen to learn from everyone—lover of beauty and truths

Mixed Musings: Ancient Music, Philosophy & Modern Wisdom

Research insights and new evidence about the ancient Art of the Muses (music, poetry, drama&dance), ethics and our modern quest for meaning. Brought to you by the Arion Society

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