Cover image for An Image of the Soul in Speech: Plato and the Problem of Socrates By David N. McNeill

An Image of the Soul in Speech

Plato and the Problem of Socrates

David N. McNeill


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03585-7

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360 pages
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Literature and Philosophy

An Image of the Soul in Speech

Plato and the Problem of Socrates

David N. McNeill

“This is a book whose subtext seems to be: Plato is good to think with. It is a self-standing work of philosophy as much as it is a hermeneutic enterprise. McNeill’s exploration of the model of human self-understanding and political engagement presented in Plato’s dialogues is sophisticated, committed, insightful, and wholly original.”


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In this book, David McNeill illuminates Plato’s distinctive approach to philosophy by examining how his literary portrayal of Socrates manifests an essential interdependence between philosophic and ethical inquiry. In particular, McNeill demonstrates how Socrates’s confrontation with profound ethical questions about his public philosophic activity is the key to understanding the distinctively mimetic, dialogic, and reflexive character of Socratic philosophy.

Taking a cue from Nietzsche’s account of “the problem of Socrates,” McNeill shows how the questions Nietzsche raises are questions that, in Plato's depiction, Socrates was aware of and responded to. McNeill also shows how the Republic provides a view of Socratic moral psychology that resembles Nietzsche’s account of human psychology: it deals with the internalized ethical narratives and justificatory schemes through which human beings orient themselves to their world. McNeill argues that this moral psychology not only determines Socrates’s explicit account of different character types and political regimes but also crucially informs his dialectical engagements with his various interlocutors in the dialogues.

In addition to contributing a unique perspective to current debates about Socrates’s philosophic methods and the significance of the literary character of Plato’s dialogues, the book offers a far-reaching interpretation of Plato’s presentation of the theoretical and practical activities of the fifth-century Sophists. And in showing how Plato responds to “modern” theoretical challenges, McNeill provides new evidence to question standard views of the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of the self, society, and nature.

“This is a book whose subtext seems to be: Plato is good to think with. It is a self-standing work of philosophy as much as it is a hermeneutic enterprise. McNeill’s exploration of the model of human self-understanding and political engagement presented in Plato’s dialogues is sophisticated, committed, insightful, and wholly original.”
“In extending and deepening our understanding of Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ subtle sense of human motivation, thought and action, this book makes a valuable contribution to the large body of scholarship on the figure of Socrates.”

David N. McNeill is Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex in England.


1. Introduction: Plato’s Socrates on the “Problem of Socrates”

2. Republic Book 1: Philosophy and Cultural Decadence

3. Polemarchus, Politics, and Action

4. Thrasymachus, Rhetoric, and the Art of Rule

5. Gorgias and the Divine Work of Persuasion

6. Protagoras, Antinaturalism, and the Political Art

7. Tyrannical Eros and the Philosophic Orientation of the Republic

8. Imitation and Experience

9. Poetry, Psychology, and τò θυμoειδες

10. Psychology and Ontology

Conclusion: An Image of the Soul in Speech




Plato’s Socrates on the “Problem of Socrates”

I in no way have the leisure for these things; the reason, my friend, is this. I am not yet able, in accordance with the inscription at Delphi, to “know myself.” It thus appears ridiculous to me to consider other things while ignorant of this. Therefore taking leave of these things, I accept what is customarily believed about them and, as I was just saying, I consider not these things but myself, whether I happen to be a wild beast more complex and puffed up than Typhon, or am I a tamer, simpler animal partaking in some divine and gentle portion by nature.

—Plato, Phaedrus 230a4–7

Socrates explains in Plato’s Phaedrus why he doesn’t distrust the myth of Boreas’s abduction of Orithuia from the banks of the Areopagus, as do the wise. The reason, he suggests, is that before he could take on the burden of inquiring into the legitimacy of the traditional stories of the gods and heroes, he would have to have completed another task that he considers prior, an inquiry into himself which leaves him no leisure for other inquiries. He says that he wants to know what sort of creature he is, whether he is a many-coiled and arrogant beast or a living being which partakes of something simple and divine. Until he knows the answer to this question, he says, it seems ridiculous to him to inquire into anything else. Socrates says, moreover, that if he were to distrust the myths, if he had time for such inquiries, he would not be a1topoj, strange or out of place. We have reason to suspect, however, that if Socrates were not a1topoj he would not be Socrates.

Socrates’ concern with self-knowledge is more than obvious; it is proverbial. This does not mean, however, that it is obvious in what sense Socrates is concerned with self-knowledge. The above passage from the Phaedrus can be interpreted as indicating two different questions about the self or soul that Socrates is said to address in Plato’s dialogues. One way of interpreting Socrates’ question is to take it as an instance of his familiar inquiry into definitions; in this case he would be asking what sort of thing is the human soul as such, and the two alternatives he canvasses as possible answers to the question allude to the two disparate conceptions of the soul Socrates presents in the dialogues: the tripartite division of the soul of the Republic and the Phaedrus on the one hand, and the simple and immortal soul of the Phaedo on the other. Another way of interpreting Socrates’ question, however, is to take it as referring to a personal, ethical inquiry into himself as an individual. On this reading Socrates is asking not “What sort of thing is a human being?” but rather “What sort of thing am I?” And, if we don’t simply discount what he says here as ironic, one of the possible answers he confronts is “Something monstrous.”

I believe that we have paid insufficient attention to the presence in Plato’s dialogues of this latter ethical question concerning Socrates the individual, and, for that very reason, we have obscured aspects of Socrates’ answer, as presented in the dialogues, to the former question regarding the nature of the human soul. Moreover, I contend that if we are to understand Plato’s portrait of Socrates, we must come to see that these two types of inquiry—one apparently narrowly personal, practical, and ethical; the other apparently broadly universal, theoretical, and ontological—are for Socrates ultimately inseparable.

This book is an attempt to understand Plato’s account of Socrates’ characteristic philosophical and pedagogical activity—the pragma Socrates calls into question and so ambiguously defends in Plato’s Apology—by focusing on two aspects of that account. The first is Socrates’ confrontation with his own problematic ethical status; the second is the central place in Socrates’ philosophic practice of a complex moral psychology, a psychology that differs greatly from the one commonly attributed to him. Contrary to what may still be called a standard account of Socratic “intellectualist” moral psychology, Socrates’ philosophic practice as made manifest in Plato’s dialogues is decisively informed by an account of human motivation and action that is acutely sensitive to the role of the imagination in human ethical life, to the psychic structure of the emotions, and to the historical and cultural context of an individual’s ethical commitments. This moral psychology not only guides Socrates’ dialectical engagements with his various interlocutors in the dialogues, it also crucially informs his understanding of his own hypothetical method of inquiry. Thus, one of my aims is to offer a defense of Socrates’ philosophic practice, and Plato’s presentation of that practice, against a tradition of criticism going back to Aristotle that attributes to Socrates an illegitimately abstract intellectualist understanding of human psychology. However, this initial defense will involve confronting deeper questions about Socrates’ methods, his motivations, and his influence on his contemporaries.

Of course, as the Apology makes clear, ethical questions about Socrates’ public philosophic practice predate any written justification of that practice and provide, to a great degree, the context for all of Plato’s works. Socrates’ defense involves, in the first instance, his confrontation with his cultural shadow—a “certain Socrates” who contemplates things in the heavens, investigates things under the earth, and makes the weaker argument the stronger. This popular identification of Socrates as a Sophist and natural philosopher is the charge of Socrates’ “first accusers,” and it provides the basis, according to Socrates, for the later charges of impiety and corruption that Meletus brings (Ap. 18a–19d). In the following chapters I will show how Socrates’ recognition of and implicit response to such challenges, particularly those involving the identification of Socratic philosophy with sophistry, crucially inform his rhetorical, pedagogical, and dialectical activity as made manifest in the dialogues. I will argue that Socrates’ turn away from a direct inquiry into natural beings involves not only a turn to a self-critical examination of our concepts and methods of reasoning but also, necessarily, an ethical and psychological investigation into an individual human inquirer. No less than his examination of his interlocutors, Socrates’ inquiry into himself is, in the first instance, an investigation of a particular soul and a concrete human life. In his own case the life he examines is as controversial, enigmatic, and influential as any in the Western tradition.

In both my initial defense and subsequent reframing of the inquiry into Plato’s account of Socrates’ activity, I will also draw on a rich tradition of later philosophic engagements with the figure of Socrates. This tradition has been the subject of a number of recent studies whose primary focus has been what we can learn about later philosophers by their interpretation, appropriation, or critique of Socrates as an exemplar of the philosophic life. My interest, however, is in the illumination these later accounts—especially those implicitly or explicitly critical of Socrates—can provide for our reading of Plato. I believe that the philosopher who follows Aristotle’s lead and criticizes—even attacks—Plato’s Socrates is often more likely to honor not only the spirit, but even the letter, of Plato’s dialogues than authors who seek to defend one or another hypothesized stage of Plato’s philosophic development. Profound philosophic criticism of apparent deficiencies in Socrates’ arguments is a most important first step in revealing more or less subterranean currents in Plato’s dialogues, and the philosopher who exposes and explores tensions in the surface of a Socratic conversation can be our best guide toward uncovering deeper levels of analysis guiding that conversation. As the title of this volume suggests, my interpretation has been guided in key respects by the most famous and most penetrating critic of Socrates in the Western tradition, Friedrich Nietzsche. Employing aspects of Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates, I will show that Plato presents in the dialogues his own version of what Nietzsche calls in the second section of Twilight of the Idols “the problem of Socrates.” Despite the well-documented complexity of Nietzsche’s intimate engagement with Socrates and Plato throughout his written work, we can provisionally articulate the “problem” Socrates represents for Nietzsche in terms of two questions: (1) Is Socratic dialectic an expression of a thwarted desire for political mastery, a decadent manifestation of what Nietzsche calls the “will to power”? and (2) Can human ethical life sustain the kind of self-conscious reflection that seems to be the salient characteristic of Socratic philosophy? Or, to put this second question another way, is the human being who lives the examined life really living? These questions, I will argue, are not foreign to Plato’s dialogues—far from being problems that Nietzsche or later commentators impose on the dialogues from without, they are already engaged at the deepest levels within the dialogues themselves.

Despite my invocation of Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates, however, it is Plato’s, not Nietzsche’s, account of the “problem of Socrates” that is my concern. Indeed, what I want to show is how a number of profound questions about and challenges to Plato’s account of Socratic philosophy that we associate with modern criticisms of “Platonism” arise from within the context of the dialogues themselves. Thus, in the course of my interpretation of the dialogues I will seek to establish three interpretive strands that bring Plato’s presentation of Socrates into contact with recognizably Nietzschean concerns. First, I will show that the image book 1 of the Republic presents of the historical context of Socrates’ dialogic activity corresponds in important respects to Nietzsche’s account of Socrates’ age, and, moreover, to Nietzsche’s account of his own transitional historical epoch. Second, I will show the presence in Plato’s dialogues of a theory of human creative and interpretive activity that corresponds in significant ways to Nietzsche’s thoughts about the “will to power.” In the dialogues this view is primarily attributed to the Sophists, and, as such, appears as a theoretic orientation opposed to Socratic philosophy. However, I will also argue that Plato’s presentation of Socrates’ dialectical method gives a pride of place to a kind of persuasive “poetic” activity that renders problematic this putative opposition. Third, I will show how Socrates’ inquiries into the relation between the city and the soul in the Republic present a view of what we can provisionally call Socratic “political psychology.” This political psychology resembles Nietzsche’s “physio-psychology” at least to this degree: it focuses on the different internalized ethical narratives and justificatory schemes which inform human souls, and indicates how these different internalized narratives mediate human beings’ perception of their world. This line of inquiry will culminate with a focus on the problematic role of the “spirited” or thumoeidic aspect of the soul in Socrates’ account. I will argue that Socrates’ discussion of to thumoeides in the Republic engages a similar complex of concepts and questions to the one that Nietzsche explores under the rubric of the will—questions about the relation between conation and cognition; questions about the relation between aggressive drives and moral impulses; questions about representation, interpretation, and the creation of value. It is in this context that we can adequately confront the possibility of something like the “will to power” animating Socrates’ philosophic, rhetorical, and pedagogical activity; it is also in this context, I believe, that we can articulate a conception of Plato’s thought which can engage with and, to a significant degree, respond to Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean critiques of “Platonism.”

In proceeding in this way, I may seem to invite the charge of anachronism in my reading of Plato. The force of such claims will be counterbalanced to some degree by the crucial role played in my interpretation by the historical context of Plato’s writing. However, I do not deny that I attribute to Plato an awareness of theoretical possibilities in philosophy and psychology, ethics and politics that are considered characteristically—even paradigmatically—modern. If my arguments are persuasive, they will provide evidence to challenge our current understanding of the opposition between ancient and modern accounts of the self, society, and nature.

1.1 Socrates and the Dialogue Form

There is a growing consensus on the need to take into account some aspects of the dramatic structure of Plato’s dialogues when offering an interpretation of them. However, this consensus by no means extends to any general agreement about what it means to take account of the dramatic structure of Plato’s dialogues. Therefore, despite my sense that the only genuinely persuasive argument for a particular way of reading the dialogues is given through a persuasive interpretation of the dialogues themselves, a brief word seems called for. In the following chapters I will offer a number of (more or less) novel suggestions for how one might view the relation between drama and argument in Plato’s dialogues. I suspect that each of Plato’s dialogues has something particular to teach us about how to read Plato’s dialogues. What this means concretely is that I believe an interpretation of a Platonic dialogue should, ideally, orient itself with respect both to the unity of the individual dialogue and to the multiplicity of Plato’s dialogues; that is, an interpretation of a passage in the Republic should take account not only the context provided by the Republic as a whole but also the place of the Republic among Plato’s dialogues. While this interpretive ideal will only be dimly approximated in the following chapters, it will, as an ideal, play a crucial role in my interpretation. I will argue, for example, that the representation of eros in the Republic should be understood in its relation to and difference from the representation of eros in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and that a recognition of the differences in the representation of eros in these three dialogues will help us to better understand the particular character of each of these dialogues individually. I will also argue that Socrates’ confrontation with Thrasymachus in book 1 of the Republic can be read in conjunction with his confrontations with Gorgias and Protagoras in the dialogues bearing their names, and that these three confrontations between Socrates and a Sophist form something of an ascending series. By comparing Protagoras’s characterization of the activity of the Sophist and Gorgias’s characterizations of the activity of the rhetorician with Thrasymachus’s account of justice as “the advantage of the stronger,” I will show how each of these Sophists, with different degrees of skill, different levels of political prudence, and, apparently, greater and lesser self-knowledge, is endorsing the view that what constitutes human excellence is the ability of an individual to impose his interpretation of the world upon others. Again, locating Thrasymachus’s account with respect to Gorgias’s and Protagoras’s will show us something about the Republic. In this way my interpretation of the Republic will, at times, move freely between Plato’s dialogues, but in each instance the move will be motivated by a desire to locate the Republic with respect to Plato’s intention as disclosed throughout the dialogues.

In addition to this effort to locate the Republic with respect to other dialogues, my interpretation differs from most in a manner worth noting at the outset. As I have indicated, I will argue that “problem of Socrates” is presented in the dialogues as a problem with which Socrates himself was deeply engaged. It is in this respect that my interpretation, despite my appropriation of certain aspects of Nietzsche’s account of Socrates, is most clearly informed by interpretive assumptions foreign to that account. In contradistinction to Nietzsche’s description of Socrates as the “cleverest of all self-deceivers,” I contend that Plato depicts Socrates as the most self-conscious of characters, and this contention decisively informs the interpretation I will offer of Socrates’ pedagogical activity as it is represented in the dialogues. In particular, I will argue that a central part of Plato’s literary presentation of Socrates is his portrayal of Socrates as the self-conscious, even literary, author of (a) the dialogues of which he is the narrator, such as the Republic and the Protagoras, and (b) various aspects of those dialogues of which he is not the principal narrator. The fact of Socrates’ narration of various dialogues has generally played a relatively minor role in interpretations of those dialogues. In the Republic, for example, the fact of Socrates’ narration of the dialogue has, for the most part, only been considered in the context of interpretations of the critique of mimesis. However, in my interpretation this fact—the fact that our access to the events of the Republic is always mediated by Socrates’ narration of those events—will be made to bear a great deal of interpretive weight. Simply put, I will consider the Republic a Socratic fiction embedded in a Platonic fiction. In my interpretation of the dramatic significance of key events in the dialogue, I will first consider the “intention” of Plato’s Socrates as narrator before I look to Plato’s intention as author. This point calls for some clarification. The Socrates that I am putting forth as an author here is, nonetheless, Plato’s Socrates and not the historic Socrates per se. My interest is in understanding Plato’s portrayal of Socrates as an exemplary manifestation of a kind of philosophic life, and I am suggesting that a crucial aspect of Plato’s portrayal of the character Socrates is his portrayal of that character as an author.

Both the character of Socrates’ authorship and Plato’s intention in portraying this aspect of Socrates’ pragma in various dialogic contexts resists any easy generalization. Socratic authorship in the dialogues ranges from Socrates’ implausible attribution of certain remarks to Clinias in the Euthydemus (290b2ff.) to his account of his conversation with Diotima in the Symposium, from the various images, metaphors, and analogies Socrates constantly employs in argument to the myths describing the soul’s journeys before and after its sojourn in this world. One aspect of Socratic authorship, however, remains consistent across the dialogues, and provides a crucial insight into Socrates’ conception of philosophy. This is Socrates’ tendency to enact a dialogue within a dialogue. Consider the following characteristic move of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. In the course of a conversation with an interlocutor, often at a key juncture in the argument, Socrates attributes some position to himself, to his interlocutor, or to himself and his interlocutor together. Then, rather than asking a direct question, Socrates conjures up a hypothetical figure to question the person to whom the aforementioned position has been attributed. That is, instead of asking his interlocutor “What about x?” or even “What would you say to the question ‘What about x?’” Socrates asks something along the lines of “What if someone were to approach you (us) and ask ‘what about x?’ What would you (we) say to such a person?” Some variety of this maneuver is to be found in every dialogue in which Socrates is the principal speaker, and the hypothetical interlocutors Socrates invokes range from relatively familiar-seeming figures such as the “expert in refutation” of Theaetetus 200b–c, the citizens of Athens of Meno 71a, or the “common many” of Protagoras 353aff. to “interlocutors” as unusual as the laws of Athens (Cri. 50aff.), the art of rhetoric and the arguments opposed to that art (Phdr. 260d–e), and the pleasures (Phlb. 63bff.). Plato’s Socrates does not only engage in dialogue with his interlocutors; by invoking these imaginary interlocutors, he ceaselessly gestures toward the “dialogic” character of human thought. To put this point in another way, if we are to maintain that Plato’s Socrates seeks to educate his interlocutors in dialogue with them, we should also maintain that he seeks to educate at least some of his interlocutors or auditors about the complex interrelations between character and argument, imagination and thinking, that are disclosed in Socratic conversations.

In this context, I will argue that book 1 of the Republic is, among other things, an extended lesson in the art of “Socratic dialogue,” and in so arguing I will show how we might begin to make good on two claims Socrates makes at the beginning of book 2: that the arguments in book 1 are a “prelude” (to_ prooi/mion, 357a2) to the rest of the Republic, and that Socrates had already shown in what he said to Thrasymachus that justice was better (a!meinon) than injustice, but that Glaucon and Adeimantus did not accept (or understand) the demonstration he gave them (ou)k a)pede/casqe/, 368b4–5). The only other occurrence of prooimion in the Republic is in Socrates’ account of the studies prescribed for the guardians who are to become philosopher-rulers. There Socrates calls the study of number, geometry, stereometry, astronomy, and harmony the “prelude” to the “song” of dialectics, and he claims that the principal difference between the mathematical arts and dialectic is that the mathematical arts pursue their inquiries and demonstrations on the basis of hypotheses of which the mathematical arts can give no account. Only with the study of dialectic is one able to give and receive an account of these hypotheses. On analogy with this division between the demonstrations offered by the mathematical arts and dialectic, I believe that the “prelude” of book 1 is best understood as a dramatic, dialogic demonstration of the superiority of justice to injustice, which demonstration takes as given certain cultural and historical suppositions or “hypotheses,” while the majority of the remaining books are devoted to an inquiry into and at least a partial account of those hypotheses. The suppositions in this case are certain “givens” of the fifth-century Athenian ethos, aspects of the ethical and cultural environment in which Socrates pursued his philosophic mission and which decisively informed Socrates’ dialogic practice. Thus, book 1 provides an imaginative re-creation of one possible response to a question that will dominate the rest of the Republic: what is the relation between the philosopher and the political community? The drama enacted in book 1 supplies one possible image of (according to a later image) the philosopher’s descent into the cave, and his contestation with habitual cave dwellers over the shadows of what is just.

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