- Plato and the Body: Reconsidering Socratic Asceticism by Coleen P. Zoller
According to a widespread understanding among historians of philosophy, there is within the dialogues of Plato an underlying metaphysical dualism, one that devalues the body and the natural world, promoting, ultimately, an unattractive and repressive asceticism. An obvious support for this “standard” reading is provided by the Phaedo, wherein the soul is depicted as a prisoner in a cage (82e3); but, as many readers would eagerly point out, most of Plato’s dialogues offer robust metaphors, images, or arguments that continuously suggest that acolytes should denounce the body in favor of the soul.
Indeed, it is against this background that Zoller’s book should be commended as an impressive endeavor to show just how much Plato’s Socrates was deeply committed to the beauty of nature and the value of embodiment. Beginning with a distinction between reading Plato either as an “austere dualist” who despises the body, or as a “normative dualist” who simply prioritizes the soul over the body, Zoller carefully moves through the dialogues to evidence Plato’s alignment with the latter form of dualism. She shows how Socrates employed certain argumentative strategies to assist interlocutors and readers in prioritizing the goods of the soul. In other words, Zoller expertly contends that, while ranking the intelligible over the sensible, soul before flesh, Plato does this without excising the world and the body of value. Rather, disparaging remarks about the body are protreptic devices for those who love or care only for the body and its pleasures, that is, those who fail to see the importance or even reality of the soul.
In this endeavor, Zoller continuously references passages in which Socrates or the ideal philosopher is described as one who, even though not enslaved to the desires of the body, still cares for and loves the body, training the body to experience pleasure and the good in its full propriety. While proficiently showing the value of erotic ascent in the Phaedrus and the Symposium alongside the importance of psychic health in the Republic and the Gorgias, Zoller outlines how these activities are embodied practices. She even proposes that “sexual experiences can facilitate wisdom” and that there is no justice wherein physical needs are not met (90). After careful analysis of the relationship between psychic harmony and civic harmony in the Republic, Zoller ultimately concludes that the true philosophers must [End Page 550] “prevent or eradicate poverty in their communities in addition to educating citizens about the importance of caring for their souls” (167). As for the more explicitly life-denying texts like the Phaedo, Zoller first offers new translations and interpretations of passages often used to shroud Socrates’s arguments in the blanket of austere dualism, and further contends that the Phaedo, far from advocating a denial of the body, is designed to “jolt the body-loving reader into consideration of the value of the soul” (43). Finally, Zoller does not ignore the contemporary or political implications of her thesis. In her Introduction, she discusses how Western civilization has benefited from promoting an austere dualist interpretation of Plato insofar as it provides justification for the oppression and marginalization of women and persons of color.
Despite the remarkable qualities of this book, I have a point of criticism. Zoller repeatedly attempts to identify the origin of the austere dualist interpretation in the Neoplatonic tradition (4–6, 8, 23, 57, 66, 135, and 170). In this, she makes sweeping claims about the Neoplatonic view of matter and the body, lumping over four centuries of philosophers under Plotinus’s banner. Offering an abbreviated and generalized reading of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic tradition, Zoller fails to problematize the “standard” reception of Neoplatonism in the same way that she has adroitly problematized the “standard” Plato. Thus, she unduly repeats the practice of those very same scholars/historians who characterized Plato as an austere dualist. Indeed, I would be remiss if I did not...