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  • Tosca Lynch

Damon of Oa in Plato’s Republic 3: a true technical expert

Our previous post, A #Sophist ‘in disguise’: Damon of Oa in early Plato, explored how #Damon of Oa is consistently characterised as a ‘sophistic’ kind of intellectual in the early Platonic dialogues, an expert capable of teaching useful linguistic and musical skills to young and ambitious Athenians.

And yet, this famous musical theorist was eventually exiled from Athens— allegedly because of his close relationship with the prominent and influential statesman Pericles: as the comic poet Plato puts it, he was 'the Cheiron who raised up Pericles’ (Plut. Per. 4 =fr. 207 K–A).
But Damon also achieved true expertise in the classification of musical means and their psychological impact. As far as we can tell, his efforts were ‘scientific’ in nature, so to speak: in other words, he did not aim at establishing a stable hierarchy of ethical value among the different emotional effects produced by different rhythms, and possibly various modes too — which is why #Plato could not merely take his results as a ready-made solution for the musical needs related to the educational programme of the ideal city of the Republic.

So what role does Damon and his teaching play in the famous musical discussion of the Republic?

Damon's Role in Republic 3

Damon is first mentioned in a passage that directly deal with the theoretical results that qualify him as a ‘good’ sophist — namely his work on the classification of the ethos of musical rhythms and metres; but the ethical implications of his technical discoveries remain sketchy.
Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the technical aspects of the musical education that will be imparted to the future Guardians of the ideal constitution: the ‘beautiful city’ (Kallipolis). Socrates’ analysis focuses mostly on the ethical role that different modes (ἁρμονίαι) and rhythms will play in the educational system of the ideal constitution, by representing particular types of behaviour and emotions by musical means.

Socrates and Glaucon apply the same criteria they previously followed in order to select the appropriate themes to be treated in poetic ‘stories’ (μῦθοι). So Socrates starts by listing the types of behaviour that will not be appropriate for the future Guardians of the city: indulging in dirges and laments as well as drunkenness, softness and laziness. Then he calls upon Glaucon, who is ‘well-trained in music’ (μουσικός, 3.399e1), and asks him to identify the musical modes (ἁρμονίαι) which are especially suitable to represent these ethical dispositions, so that the musical ‘idioms’ associated with such undesirable attitudes may be excluded from the musical repertoire available to children in Kallipolis (cf. Lynch 2016, 2020).

Socrates then moves on to identifying the ‘positive’ ethical characteristics that must be expressed by the musical modes allowed in the ideal city, in order to stimulate the young citizens to imitate them: this form of repeated ‘imitation’ (mimēsis) will help them interiorise these dispositions, shaping their souls in accordance with them, due to the quasi-magical and pre-rational moulding effect that music exerts on young and malleable people.
Bust of Socrates. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC/ Quintili Villa, Rome. Public Domain Picture @ WikiCommons
Bust of Socrates. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC/ Quintili Villa, Rome. Public Domain Picture @ WikiCommons
In order to characterise these ‘positive’ models, Socrates presents two separate, but complementary, categories of attitudes and actions to be represented in music: the first will feature the actions and words of a person who, when at war or in otherwise painful circumstances, faces these situations bravely and with self-control; the second represents the actions of a person who, in peaceful times, is capable of entertaining significant and pleasant relationships with other citizens and with the gods in prayer; s/he will also have a well-balanced relationship with him/herself, calm and self-controlled.
Hence the first musical #mode (#harmonia) will give musical expression to ‘courage’ (ἀνδρεία, literally ‘manliness’), the second to ‘temperance’ (σωφροσύνη, literally ‘being of sound mind’). Glaucon readily identifies these kinds of ethical excellence with the Dorian and Phrygian modes (Lynch 2016).
Socrates then asks Glaucon to make the same type of ‘ethical’ distinction with regard to #rhythms. Surprisingly, the young man declares himself unable to undertake this task appropriately.
Glaucon mentions an elementary, empirical division of rhythms into three categories, on the basis of the ratio established between the internal components of different rhythmical feet, but claims to be unable to tell Socrates ‘what sorts of life each of them represents' (ποῖα δ’ ὁποίου βίου μιμήματα, λέγειν οὐκ ἔχω).

This is why Socrates calls on Damon’s expertise to disentangle this question, and provides us with a revealing, if playful, description of his technical expertise:
But we shall discuss these questions with Damon too—I said—namely, which steps (baseis) are appropriate for servility, violent insolence, mad- ness and other bad dispositions, and which rhythms should be retained for the opposite reasons. I believe to have vaguely heard of some sort of rhythm ‘in armour’ (enhoplion) that he calls composite (syntheton), dactyl and indeed even heroic! He arranges it neatly (diakosmountos) in a way that I don’t quite understand by making the ‘up’ and the ‘down’ equal; and when the up and down turned into short and long, I believe he also called it iamb, and some other one trochee, and attached ‘lengths’ and ‘shortnesses’ to them. Furthermore, he praised and blamed the motions (agōgas) of the foot no less than the rhythms themselves... or perhaps some combination of both: I can’t really tell. But as I said, let these questions be postponed and struck up as a prelude for Damon; for a long discussion would be necessary to go through these points in detail. (Resp. 3.400b-c)
Ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μέν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, καὶ μετὰ Δάμωνος βουλευσόμεθα, τίνες τε ἀνελευθερίας καὶ ὕβρεως ἢ μανίας καὶ ἄλλης κακίας πρέπουσαι βάσεις, καὶ τίνας τοῖς ἐναντίοις λειπτέον ῥυθμούς· οἶμαι δέ με ἀκηκοέναι οὐ σαφῶς ἐνόπλιόν τέ τινα ὀνομάζοντος αὐτοῦ σύνθετον καὶ δάκτυλον καὶ ἡρῷόν γε, οὐκ οἶδα ὅπως διακοσμοῦντος καὶ ἴσον ἄνω καὶ κάτω τιθέντος, εἰς βραχύ τε καὶ μακρὸν γιγνόμενον, καί, ὡς ἐγὼ οἶμαι, ἴαμβον καί τιν᾽ ἄλλον τροχαῖον ὠνόμαζε, μήκη δὲ καὶ βραχύτητας προσῆπτε. καὶ τούτων τισὶν οἶμαι τὰς ἀγωγὰς τοῦ ποδὸς αὐτὸν οὐχ ἧττον ψέγειν τε καὶ ἐπαινεῖν ἢ τοὺς ῥυθμοὺς αὐτούς — ἤτοι συναμφότερόν τι· οὐ γὰρ ἔχω λέγειν — ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μέν, ὥσπερ εἶπον, εἰς Δάμωνα ἀναβεβλήσθω· διελέσθαι γὰρ οὐ σμικροῦ λόγου.
Damon will eventually provide the technical content that was missing from Glaucon and Socrates’ analysis of rhythms: he will be able to clarify the exact correspondences between specific ethical dispositions (such as servility, violence, madness, as well as their opposites) and the rhythms that can adequately represent them in musical contexts.

It is important to note that Damon, so far as Plato’s text indicates, is not going to be responsible for the selection of what rhythms are to be performed in Kallipolis or not.

This task had already been undertaken by Socrates and Glaucon, on the basis of the future educational needs of the citizens, even though they couldn’t offer a technical discussion of what rhythms would correspond to different ethical categories.

Therefore, there is no reason to attribute to Damon the specific ethical preferences, translated into musical language, that are outlined in Republic 3: this is a question that belongs explicitly to Plato’s ethico-political project. Damon is rather consulted here as a technical ‘expert’, who can identify the emotional and psychological reactions which are triggered in the souls of the listeners by means of well-defined musical elements, focusing on the psychological and moving effects of this art and not on the ethical appropriateness of being exposed to different styles.

Damon seems to embody the musical version of the model of technical competence that is described, with regard to rhetoric, in the following passage of the Phaedrus:
Until a man knows the truth of each thing he talks or writes about, and becomes able to define each element by itself and, once he has defined them, knows how to divide them by classes until it is impossible to establish another division; and until he can understand in the same way the nature of the soul, finding out what class of speech fits harmoniously with each kind of nature, so that he can compose his speech and fashion it accordingly, offering complex, artful and elaborate pieces to a complex soul, and simple discourses to a simple soul — only at this stage he will be an expert in this technical art (τέχνη), with regard to what can possibly be handled in the nature of speeches: either to teach or to persuade someone of something, as our whole preceding discourse indicated. (Phaedr. 277b-c)
Πρὶν ἄν τις τό τε ἀληθὲς ἑκάστων εἰδῇ πέρι ὧν λέγει ἢ γράφει, κατ᾽ αὐτό τε πᾶν ὁρίζεσθαι δυνατὸς γένηται, ὁρισάμενός τε πάλιν κατ᾽ εἴδη μέχρι τοῦ ἀτμήτου τέμνειν ἐπιστηθῇ, περί τε ψυχῆς φύσεως διιδὼν κατὰ ταὐτά, τὸ προσαρμόττον ἑκάστῃ φύσει εἶδος ἀνευρίσκων, οὕτω τιθῇ καὶ διακοσμῇ τὸν λόγον, ποικίλῃ μὲν ποικίλους ψυχῇ καὶ παναρμονίους διδοὺς λόγους, ἁπλοῦς δὲ ἁπλῇ, οὐ πρότερον δυνατὸν τέχνῃ ἔσεσθαι καθ᾽ ὅσον πέφυκε μεταχειρισθῆναι τὸ λόγων γένος, οὔτε τι πρὸς τὸ διδάξαι οὔτε τι πρὸς τὸ πεῖσαι, ὡς ὁ ἔμπροσθεν πᾶς μεμήνυκεν ἡμῖν λόγος.
This definition of the holder of a true technical art, or expertise (τέχνη) resembles very closely the representation of Damon provided in Republic 3: not only is he capable of telling Socrates which rhythms can elicit specific emotions, but he also seems to have classified and named these rhythms (composite enhoplios, dactyl, heroic, iamb, etc.), in the light of their technical structure (short and long syllables, ups and downs, etc.).

This passage of the Phaedrus also includes a peculiar expression which resembles one that appeared in the Laches and attracted our attention in the previous post: the real ‘technical expert’ (τεχνικός) is described as the one who is able to ‘compose his speech and fashion it’ (τιθέναι καὶ διακοσμεῖν) to make it suitable for different types of listeners — a strategy that certainly is analogous to the one that Laches criticised in the speech of Damon’s associate Nicias.

But there is one significant difference between them: the ‘true’ technician of the Phaedrus fashion his discourse with a view to the needs of his listeners and not to make himself appear subtler or more intelligent (ἑαυτὸν κοσμεῖν τῷ λογῷ, Lach. 197c2–3), as Nicias does by means of his ‘Damonian’ rhetorical skills.

Some other aspects of Republic 3.400b-c underline Damon’s closeness to the intellectual style of the sophists. First, Socrates emphasises that Damon explicitly praised and blamed different types of rhythms, but he fails to remember exactly what his praise and blame involved. This passage has often been used in order to argue that Damon had precise ethical preferences with regard to rhythms and that his conservative aim was to restore the strict musical models of the ‘good old days’. But this seems to be a very simplistic and unsatisfactory way to interpret this allusive remark: if this were the case, why would Socrates have ‘forgotten’ the useful ethical details provided by Damon?

This striking omission can be explained in a much more direct and useful way. This passage suggests that Socrates’ knowledge of Damon’s research does not result from a direct conversation with him; his account of Damon’s theories rahter seems to derive from listening to one of his epideictic speeches, rhetorical exercises which consisted exactly in discourses of praise or blame.

This impression is further confirmed by Socrates’ account of Damon’s examination of rhythms. He says that Damon played in his discourse with a series of terms — enhoplios (ἐνόπλιόν τέ τινα), ‘finger’ (δάκτυλον) and ‘heroic’ (καὶ ἡρῷόν γε) — which refer to rhythms that are very similar to each other (Lynch 2022). This strategy, which ultimately creates a lot of confusion in the listeners by comparing and contrasting very similar concepts, seems to be akin to the famous sophistic manipulation of near-synonyms, and could be exploited very effectively in the context of a ‘demonstrative’ speech.

So this is why, in this passage of the #Republic, Socrates does not relate in detail the content of Damon’s speeches: in the form he must have heard them, their content would not be useful to improve the ethico-aesthetic analysis of Book 3, given that in these speeches the orator exploited specific materials — in this case, rhythmical ones — in order to impress his audience.

On the contrary, a direct conversation with Damon about the technical elements of his research — in particular on the relationship between rhythms and ethical excellence/vices — could provide Socrates and Glaucon with important elements that they could use in developing a detailed outline of the educational process of the ideal city. And this is exactly what Socrates proposes here, a direct consultation with Damon.

This interpretation seems even more natural if we remember that, as we have seen in our previous post, Damon was presented in the Laches (180d) as a good acquaintance of Socrates, who went so far as to recommend him to Nicias as a teacher of music.

Clearly, Plato’s Socrates shows to appreciate the skills taught by Damon, despite the pretty confused manner in which the content of his knowledge is referred to in the Republic; but it would have been really odd if Plato portrayed Socrates giving a detailed account of Damon’s musical theories: his lack of musical talent was renowned and was even mocked in a very successful comedy, Ameipsias’ Connus.
Herm représenting Plato. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the last quarter of the 4th century. Museo Pio-Clementino, Sala delle Muse. Public Domain Image
Herm représenting Plato. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the last quarter of the 4th century. Museo Pio-Clementino, Sala delle Muse. Public Domain Image
In conclusion, in Book 3 Damon seems to deserve Plato’s respect for his truly ‘technical’ expertise, which can be usefully employed in discussions about musical (and particularly rhythmical) ethics.

But he cannot have his complete admiration, because he did not take the additional step of assessing the true ethical value of the contents he could handle so skilfully. In contrast, he exploited his knowledge in order to achieve what, in Platonic terms, cannot be defined as ethically ‘good’ objectives: increasing his personal prestige by means of persuasive speech.
Oxyrhynchus Papyri, P.Oxy. LII 3679, containing fragments of Plato’s Republic 5. 472 E-473 D. Public Domain Image — from the Oxford Papyrology Collection
Oxyrhynchus Papyri, P.Oxy. LII 3679, containing fragments of Plato’s Republic 5. 472 E-473 D. Public Domain Image — from the Oxford Papyrology Collection
But this is not Damon’s last appearance in the Republic. As we shall see in a subsequent post, he is evoked again in Republic 4, as an authority on another thorny question: the relationship between musical style and modes (tropoi) and the most fundamental laws of the city.


For full references and bibliography, see my academic article (2013).


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