Friday, May 6, 2011


David N. McNeill, An Image of the Soul in Speech: Plato and the Problem of Socrates. Literature and Philosophy. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. ix, 345. ISBN 9780271035857. $65.00.

Reviewed by Dirk t. D. Held, Connecticut College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The subtitle of David McNeill's book, "Plato and the problem of Socrates," is borrowed from a chapter heading of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. This is not coincidental, as McNeill contends that Plato has his own version of the problem of Socrates. The book is not however a study of Plato and Nietzsche but a study of Plato and Socrates with animadversions to Nietzsche. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche depicts Socrates as the embodiment of decadence and decline, and repeats his judgment in Birth of Tragedy that Socrates is a monstrosity. For him, Socratic dialectic as a tool for ethical reflection is a form of plebeian ressentiment, even a form of will to power. Socrates' exhortation on behalf of the examined life enfeebles the vigor and vibrancy of human nature. McNeill believes that in the deepest levels of his dialogues Plato engages with questions similar to those that brought Nietzsche to his sweeping conclusions.

Some parallels do convince. Both Plato and Nietzsche according to McNeill write as cultural critics, and both respond to the challenge of living in an age in which culturally vital myths are dying or dead. Old Athens was dying, as Nietzsche writes in Twilight of the Idols. McNeill puts aside the prevalent intellectualist reading of Socratic elenchus in the aporetic works and argues that Plato presents a Socrates for whom imagination is the foundation of an ethical life, and who addresses the soul's imaginative capacities, which are the foundation of ethical motivation. More controversially, McNeill reads into Socrates' account of the thumoeidic part of the soul the same array of concerns explored by Nietzsche through his notion of the will.

The book's strength lies in the author's sensitivity to the relationship between argument and drama in Plato's works. McNeill describes Republic I as a lesson in the art of Socratic dialogue and devotes a separate chapter to each of Socrates' three interlocutors, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. Cephalus is the embodiment of cultural decadence (underscored by the chapter's Nietzschean epigraph regarding Athenian degeneration). McNeill says Cephalus represents the shadow of the dead Homeric gods, and that he is a metaphor for expiring age: that of his own body and that of myth and religion. Plato thus opens the Republic with Socrates confronting decadence and disintegration. Socrates is credited (in my opinion, anachronistically) with self-consciousness as are his three interlocutors. In his representation of Socrates' reflections on Athenian culture, McNeill seems to make him kin to modernity's masters of suspicion (to borrow Ricouer's phrase).

The waning Athenian religious tradition shapes Polemarchus' vision of 'the political.' Polemarchus summarizes the relationship between philosopher and political community as if he were an ancient forerunner of Carl Schmitt when he concludes that 'good' and 'bad' are exhausted by the categories 'friend' and 'enemy.' Polemarchus believes a human being is defined through his participation in 'the political' and he envisions ethical life exclusively in terms of the political community. I agree with McNeill that Polemarchus' move from the necessity of political participation for ethical action to its sufficiency for such action is unfounded. Socrates does not make this error.

Socrates is credited with an ethical psychology focused on the good for the individual in contrast to Polemarchus' determination that activity in the city is the sole criterion of ethical value. We are told by McNeill that Polemarchus does not believe in a fundamental distinction between man and citizen, but Socrates does. This differentiation flirts with anachronism. Distinct identities for man and citizen emerge in the Enlightenment, as when Rousseau proclaims in Émile that we must choose between creating a man or a citizen on the grounds that you can't create both at the same time. Socrates' search for the individual's good is simultaneously a search for how to behave in a specific social role, inseparable in Athenian society from a political role. For Socrates, self-knowledge is knowing what he should do in relation to others in the polis.1 Socrates sees no distinction between living well and living justly (Crito 48b). What I should do and what is good for me are not separable from a political context. This holds even for the Republic's central books where the nature and duties of the philosopher-rulers are set out. Socrates promotes rational eudaimonism, and serving justice benefits both the agent's happiness and the city's well-being. Notwithstanding disagreement with part of his argument, I concur with McNeill that Socrates realizes Polemarchus' view of the political restricts him from comprehending human agency. Polemarchus' assumptions are too narrow for him to see other possible ends for human action, let alone to defend justice as something of intrinsic value.

Socrates' encounter with Thrasymachus displaces the aporia typical of other dialogues, which gives Thrasymachus the opportunity to display his fierce indignation towards the Athenian polity. McNeill observes that with his inconsistent perspectives on the world, Thrasymachus' rhetoric cannot overcome the incoherence of his views on justice. One view relies on a technical conception of reason, the other on a politicized conception of desire: legalism versus immoralism. Thrasymachus believes that adhering to the highest degree of injustice makes a man happiest since the just man merely serves another's good, never his own. Since the soul by its nature loves wisdom, McNeill is right that Thrasymachus fails to recognize that the actions he admires belong to a soul in pursuit of desires that are not truly its own but are allotrios "belonging to another." It is unexpected to see McNeill characterize this failing of Thrasymachus with the Kantian concept of heteronomy, yet it is appropriate in that happiness for Thrasymachus is determined not by his own good but by the transgression of another's good. McNeill says Thrasymachus' psychology of transgression is a representation of Nietzschean ressentiment. The conclusion of the chapter is that for Thrasymachus declarations of moral value will never be eliminated, but they are either false or lacking in truth value.

Separate chapters follow on Gorgias and Protagoras. Gorgias is depicted as a teacher of rhetorical persuasion whose target is the mob on whose behalf he claims the power of deciding what is just. Protagoras appeals to an aristocratic elite as well as to potential disciples and initiates. McNeill contends that despite Protagoras' association with conventionalism, he values human nature as the artifact of poetic activity (comparable to the Dionysian artists of Birth of Tragedy). Human beings are raw material upon which the artist of culture works. Protagoras' teachings are divided into exoteric and esoteric. The former appears to support democracy while his esoteric teaching promises power to the few. Following Nietzsche, McNeill suggests that Socratic irony equals Socratic dissembling, and that Socrates' treatment of Protagoras unmasks his own fluctuation between esoteric and exoteric. McNeill concludes that Socrates' encounters with the Sophists expose a radical Sophistic theory of human creative activity which stresses the alienation of humans from nature. This imposes on humans the need to represent the world, and among the Sophists Protagoras in particular caters to this need by providing interpretations.

Socrates competes with his Sophistic interlocutors, and though he denies that he is a teacher, McNeill adduces Xenophon's claim that Socrates had the effect on his followers of inspiring them to imitate his nobility and goodness. Socrates' poetic character further comes to life in fashioning myths of the afterlife and creating the imagistic language of sun, line, and cave to introduce the metaphysics of the Republic's middle books. McNeill says that Socrates' image making leads to the Platonic version of Nietzsche's problem of Socrates. Internalized narratives form human perceptions of the world. Nietzsche posits will, Socrates the thumos, as the fulcrum on which appetites (drives) and morality are balanced.

In Book 1 of the Republic Socrates was placed in an historical period when moral and political values were thought determined by individuals and communities. The dying religious tradition led to what McNeill calls the hypothesis of doxastic immanence, which is to say that the ethical and political world is the product of human creative activity. Plato demonstrates elsewhere the limitations of this understanding and its inability to comprehend the radical divide between human discursive activity and the intelligible realm. The limitations came to light in Socrates' exploration of eros and madness in the Phaedrus and Symposium, where Socrates evokes the possibility of transcendence. In the Republic, the cave and sun metaphors manifest the separation of the visible and intelligible realms, yet, McNeill remarks, Plato omitted any role for madness and eros in the guardian's education. In short, wonder (thauma), said at Theaetetus 155d to be the beginning of philosophy, is excluded. Mortals lack access to unequivocal and non-perspectival originals with which we could measure the truth of our perceptions. Socrates' attack on mimetic poetry emphasizes the limitations of doxastic immanence in representing reality. At best it prompts philosophical reflection on our experience. Since we lack a science of measurement, the mimetic poet necessarily addresses the non-rational part of the soul. Still McNeill claims that Socrates' critique of poetry is ironic and off the mark, and is meant to alert us to the role mimesis plays in philosophical contemplation. Indeed, we are to understand the entire Republic as an act of Socratic self-imitation. He was narrating, after all, the previous day's conversation in the Piraeus.

The human soul relies on images. Dianoia uses them and investigates them through reliance on hypotheses. Noeisis in contrast reasons about forms, and uses forms alone, not anything perceptible. McNeill however rejects out of hand the possibility of the soul grasping any principle free from hypotheses and images. Even as the soul approaches the good, it cannot evade aporia. It would have been apt to cite Xenophanes at this point, inasmuch as philosopher-rulers have not escaped the conundrum he set down that no mortal can have certain knowledge and even if a man should happen to say the truth there is no way he could himself know it was so (Diels-Kranz 21B34). Mimetic poetry in McNeill's analysis exposes the contradictory perceptions of human agents. Being mimetic works themselves, Platonic dialogues display incoherent or incomplete orientations to the good in the souls of Socrates' interlocutors.

McNeill stands apart from other readers of Plato in his contention that the thumoeidic element of the soul is key to the Republic's central problematic, and he maintains that Socrates' description of it has close parallels to Nietzsche's account of the will. In Od. 20 McNeill says the thumos enables self-conscious reflection on psychic motivation. For Socrates, the thumos elevates to prominence the question of the soul's unity or disunity, and it is said to provide the key for human mimetic self-formation. Socrates associates the emotional content found in mimetic poetry with to thumoeides.

Apart from the rulers, character development in the citizenry is the result of internalizing kinds of lives. Thus only the image of reason is authoritative for the non-ruling masses. In Socrates' city-in-speech that image is the internalized representation of the philosopher-ruler. This is deemed a self-deceptive and self-justifying vision of the world, and is compared to Nietzsche's claim that the thinking of all great philosophers is but "a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary…memoir" (BGE 6).

This is not always an easy book to read. The argumentation is complex and at times overly ambitious. Few will likely accept without qualification everything the author asserts, but that is quite appropriate for a work of bold philosophical scholarship. Readers will have to judge for themselves the degree to which the Nietzschean parallels illuminate Plato. All told, David McNeill has produced a stimulating work worthy of study and debate. All readers will learn from it as they assess what to accept and what not to accept.


1.   See Julia Annas, "Self-Knowledge in Early Plato", in Platonic Investigations, edit. D. O'Meara, Washington 1985.

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