- Plato and the Body: Reconsidering Socratic Asceticism by Coleen P Zoller
In this clearly written and well-researched book, Zoller challenges “austere dualism,” which she regards as a major misinterpretation of Plato’s philosophy. For austere dualists, Plato regards the human as a duality of soul and body, and requires that the body’s appetites be suppressed in the interests of cultivating the soul. As opposed to this, Zoller proposes “normative dualism,” in which the soul is still prioritized over the body but the body nonetheless plays an important, though subordinate, role in the philosopher’s life. Moderation, not repression, is what philosophy requires of its adepts.
Given Plato’s pervasive influence on subsequent philosophy and on Christianity, Zoller argues, the effects of austere dualism have been profound and pervasive—above all, in the denigration of women. Zoller also sees troubling ecological and racial implications in the austere dualist approach to Plato.
After an introductory chapter (“Interpreting Asceticism in Plato”), Zoller goes on to show that the normative dualism she advocates does a better job of explicating the dialogues than does ascetic dualism. In chapter 2, she focuses on the Phaedo—the dialogue that might above all [End Page 619] seem to encourage an ascetic dualist reading. She argues, however, that as Socrates prepares to die he advocates not repressing the appetites but moderating them. When Socrates says that the soul of philosopher atimazei the body, this means that the philosopher does not “disdain” the body (as Grube translates) but merely “esteems it lightly”: that is, the body and the evidence of the senses count less with the true philosopher than what the soul understands.
Zoller argues that the senses do in fact play a role in cognition, and that Socrates teaches this in the Phaedo. In favor of her normative dualist approach, she points out, for example, that Socrates himself, even as presented in the Phaedo, is hardly an example of an “ascetic” philosopher. “Ultimately,” she writes, “Socrates’s concern is not literally for the separation of the soul from the body, but for philosophical reasoning to be distinguished from total dependence on the senses.” Keeping away from bodily passions is, properly understood, only “to eschew the perspective that is unduly concerned with physical pleasures”—not to refrain from all sensual gratification.
In chapter 3, Zoller turns to two of the erotic dialogues—the Symposium and Phaedrus. These dialogues plainly tell against the austere interpretation of Plato, but Plato might seem to suggest that a committed philosopher will avoid orgasm. Socrates, for example, does not have sex with Alcibiades. Zoller argues, however, that Alcibiades was not a fit philosophical friend to Socrates, and that this—rather than any prohibition of sexual pleasure as such—is the reason why Socrates and Alcibiades never become lovers. In accordance with her normative dualism, Zoller argues that a good Platonist might well enjoy orgasm with a suitable partner, although it would be important to keep the body’s pleasures securely within the control of reason.
In chapter 4, the longest in the book, Zoller turns to two political dialogues—the Republic and the Gorgias—and explores the frequent analogy between physical health and justice. She denies that contemplation is the only relevant philosophical activity and argues that love for the idea of the good should inspire the true philosopher to undertake the rigors of governance, as a way to imitate the vision of the good. Zoller argues, too, that the philosopher/ruler will not neglect the physical well-being of citizens and, in particular, will strive to relieve poverty. Chapter 5 briefly looks at some later dialogues in order to sketch the continuity of themes—above all, the importance of normative duality, throughout Plato’s philosophical career. A brief epilogue recapitulates the argument.
There is much to admire in Zoller’s book, and I am in general agreement with her main thesis that Plato by and large does not call for the repression of the appetites but counsels, rather, incorporating them in a larger, “constitutional...