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It is true that “the works of the pre-Socratics, as they are called, are quite literally fragments,” but that does not mean that “no one who speculated about the cosmos has been fortunate enough to have his conclusions survive.” In fact, we know a great deal about the thought and “conclusions” of, for example, an Empedocles or Xenophanes, both from their own poems and synopses in later compilations.

Mr. Johnson ends at the heart of Socratic achievement, his radical invention of an ethical philosophy that dealt with everyday human moral dilemmas - what even in antiquity was considered calling philosophy down from the clouds of earlier abstract cosmology and natural science: “For Socrates saw and practiced philosophy not as an academic but human activity. It was about real men and women facing actual ethical choices between right and wrong, good and evil.”

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author most recently of “The End of Sparta” (Bloomsbury, 2011).